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From Sister Nivedita, with love

The life and works of Margaret Elizabeth Noble, known better as Sister Nivedita (the Dedicated One) has been chronicled well. She was one who renounced her motherland, and all the mores that she was accustomed to, for the cause of India. Her greatness manifested in myriad dimensions. Her dedication, her spirituality and her renunciation are well discussed.

However, it is her multifaceted character and intense love for India which springs to life through this compilation of some 886 letters which have been published recently by Advaita Ashrama, the publication wing of the Ramakrishna Math. The letters also hold a mirror to the India of those times through the eyes of Nivedita.

From Sister Nivedita, with love

The present Advaita Ashrama edition — with 85 newly discovered letters — is published nearly 35 years after the first publication of her letters in two volumes, thanks to Prof. Sankari Prasad Basu, a renowned scholar and researcher of Vivekananda. The letters are written to eminent people within India and abroad, between 1897 and 1911.

Nivedita wrote the letters almost like a diary to her family, friends and acquaintances across the globe. The recipients include eminent thinkers, philosophers, Nobel laureates, newspaper editors, poets (like Rabindranath Tagore) and scientists. The common thread is her overwhelming love for the land that she adopted as her own. They reveal for the first time some unknown incidents during the British Raj, like a private visit to Nivedita by Lady Minto then the vicerine, who also went to Dakshineswar temple. Letters were also written to poets, thespians, to famous designer Lalique, to William John Warner (better known as Cheiro), who many think predicted to Nivedita her death. The maximum number of letters were written to Josephine Mcleod and Mrs Ole Bull, American friends of Swami Vivekananda, who helped and supported Sister Nivedita right from her arrival in India.

From Sister Nivedita, with love

Margaret Noble was only 10 when she lost her father. But within those tender years she must have imbibed a lot of the values that her clergyman father had held. These acted as her lode star, as she left her home and her country in 1898, following in the footsteps of Swami Vivekananda. She and her siblings were brought up by her grandfather Hamilton, one of the pioneers of the Irish Freedom struggle. That also left some influence on her, as we can gauge from her increasing involvement in India’s freedom struggle, which led to her severance of her ties with the Ramakrishna Math and Mission after Swami Vivekananda’s passing away.

Education for girls

Teaching was very close to Nivedita’s heart and she broke new ground in this respect, before she set sail. It is said that what attracted Nivedita to Vivekananda (who held sessions in London in 1895-96 ) was not only his talk on Vedanta but also his talk on girls’ education in India. She was moved enough to leave her home for India to serve the girl children there.

From Sister Nivedita, with love

Her admiration for Vivekananda led to an all-embracing love for India which was then under the British rule. The whites here were dismissive of her, the erudite Indians accepted her but she had to face the rigidities of the orthodox Hindu society. However, in her letter to Sara Bull, she writes how Sarada Devi, the wife of Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, would accept her — calling her amar meye (my daughter) — and even sharing food with her, Mrs. Bull and Miss Macleod. “This gave us all the dignity and made my future work possible in a way nothing else possibly could have done,” she later wrote in a letter. Her Irish background saw her steadily getting drawn into the burgeoning freedom movement even as her love for the country and its peoples began to manifest through her letters. If one goes through The Statesman between 1904 and 1906 which were watershed years in the Swadeshi Movement, the paper’s sympathetic stance towards India and its nationalistic struggle is revealed. There was an unknown force at work here — the letters written by Sister Nivedita to Samuel Ratcliffe, the editor of the paper. For some time, she herself edited a nationalist paper after Aurobindo Ghosh left for Pondicherry.

From Sister Nivedita, with love

Nivedita declared in a letter to Ms Macleod: “The British Empire is rotten to the core, without direction, and is tyrannical and mean...” She also guided and mentored the Neo India art movement of her times especially what later came to be known as the Bengal school whose exponents include Abananindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and Asit Kumar Haldar.

Nivedita, who spent 13 years in India till her death, opened a school in 1898 going from door to door pleading with parents to send their girls to her school. She joined Swami Vivekananda, when he tended to the plague stricken people in erstwhile Calcutta.

Interest in Nivedita’s inner thoughts was first kindled through the Bengali translation of her biography (in French by Lizelle Remond around 1960); the actual discovery of a large cache of letters written by Nivedita set the stage for the publication of these volumes. The letters were in the custody of Srimat Anirvan, a Vedic pundit and yogi.

On a Sunday afternoon, in a house in South Kolkata, the treasure trove was handed over to Prof. Basu with only one condition: that he would use them to work on Nivedita. The aged sadhu had received these from Lizelle Reymond and he had been guarding them for a decade, waiting for the right person to hand them over. He found one in Professor Basu. The number of letters swelled as Basu kept adding to his collection from many sources.

Belur Math

The project also had the blessings of Swami Abayananda of Belur Math, better known as Bharat Maharaj. He was the only man living, who knew Nivedita personally giving his thoughts on what she was like and what she thought. Deciphering the handwritten letters was a stupendous task. Before his death the Maharaj passed on the original letters along with some more unpublished ones to the Belur Math.

Among her last letters were those Nivedita wrote to Francis Legget, the sister of Josephine Macleod, on a bas-relief that was planned for the Vivekananda temple at Belur (where he was cremated). She breathed her last on a wintry dawn in October, in Darjeeling, in the company of her friends Jagadish Chandra and his wife Abala Bose, Bo to Nivedita.

Gonen Maharaj of the Ramakrishna Mission lit the pyre and she was cremated according to Hindu rites. Later an epitaph was erected at that spot which read, “Here reposes Sister Nivedita of Ramakrishna Vivekananda, who gave her all to India.”

From Sister Nivedita, with love


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Printable version | Jun 9, 2021 12:16:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/sister-nivedita-many-untold-stories/article20010448.ece

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