by Prem Tilak Mallik
Editor‘s Note: Margaret Elizabeth Noble was born on October 28, 1867, in Dungannon, Tyrone County, Ireland. After spending much of her early childhood in Ireland, she attended college in Halifax, England, and eventually met Swami Vivekananda in London in 1895. In honor of her 150th birth anniversary celebration beginning Fall 2016, we offered this series on her contributions to India, adapted from an article by Prem Tilak Mallik, who observes: “Swami Vivekananda reckoned that she was Britain’s ‘gift to India’ and made her one of his foremost disciples, naming her Nivedita, meaning ‘one dedicated to God.’ And to the Holy Mother she became the ever beloved Khooki, meaning ‘beautiful, lovable, young girl.
Part One appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Sri Sarada Society Notes.
Her destiny was to serve the people of India: as a teacher to little children and their mothers to start with, and later playing a leading role in India’s freedom struggle and in the furtherance of science in India. Her service to the poorest of the poor in sickness, famine, and flood is legendary.
When the Call Comes…
From her grandfather, Margaret Noble inherited measureless courage, boundless patriotism; from her father, tremendous compassion for the poor; and from her mother, great beauty, tenderness, abiding truth, sympathy, and unbridled kindness. She often went with her grandfather and her father to the homes of the poor, rendering service. Thus, even from her earliest years, service became a force of habit with her.
One day a certain friend of her father, a preacher, visited the family after serving in India as a missionary. He felt drawn to this cute little girl. When he said good-bye, he told his little friend, “India, my little one, is seeking her destiny. She called me once.” Hearing this, Margaret’s heart was filled with inexpressible joy.
Her father had a meager income as a clergyman. Yet out of his slender means he gave his utmost to the less fortunate. Death claimed him at the age of thirty-four, ending his life of selfless service. At the last moment he called his devoted wife and whispered, “When the call comes from Heaven, let Margaret go. The little one will reveal her talents and do great things.”
This was indeed prophetic. From the very beginning, she was a very zealous child, always full of spirit. At the early age of eight, she had already had the realization that religion is not about having belief in the doctrines, but rather about searching for the divine light that would bring enlightenment.
London, 1895: Margaret Noble comes across Vivekananda. The rest is history. His principles and teachings had such an imprint on her mind and heart that they brought forth a major change in the way she saw and lived her life. Vivekananda, of course, had assessed her innate fire and passion as well as her ability to transform the society of India.
When she arrived in India, women’s education barely existed. In 1898, amidst this backdrop Margaret, now having been given the name Nivedita by Swamiji, established a school in Calcutta for girls who were deprived of even basic education. Her aim was to bring about an improvement in the lives of Indian women, especially those of the lower castes and lacking social standing. We are given insight into Nivedita’s child-like simplicity from Saralabala Sarkar’s account of Holy Mother’s coming to visit the school. Saralabala, a teacher at the school and a famous writer of that era, tells of Nivedita’s anticipation of and unbound joy on the occasion.
Nivedita’s selfless service to humanity is awe inspiring, especially her dedicated vigil and service when the plague became endemic in the slums of Calcutta. As an intellectual and educator, she was probably beyond compare. Not surprisingly, she had excellent rapport with many intellectuals of the Bengali community—notably, the scientist J.C. Bose; Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore; and Aurobindo Ghose, one of the major contributors towards early nationalism. Perhaps what is not so widely known in the West is that during the later years of her short 43-year life she was vigorously engaged in activities that promoted the cause of India’s independence, and that her inspiring writ- ings expressed the pan-Indian nationalist views that proved to be a motivating force for people from all walks of life.
Nivedita launched an all out effort to secure India’s higher education system against the obstreperous British establishment. Her ammunition: missionary zeal to establish higher education though real universities set to infuse and encourage the learning, scientific temperament, and research that would inspire reverence and impart self-reliance. Actually, she took up the baton where Vivekananda had left it. Swamiji had inspired India’s noted industrialist Jamshetji Tata to invest in India’s future, stressing that establishing a training and research center in steel science in India would be of great benefit to the country, in keeping with India’s rich tradition of learning. Jamshetji also envisioned Swamiji’s dream of an International University, or of redeveloping the existing universities on the model of a post-graduate university like those in the United States.
Part Two appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Sri Sarada Society Notes.
The reader may recall that Swamiji had inspired India’s noted industrialist Jamsetji Tata to invest in India’s future, stressing that the establishment of a training and research center in steel science would give rise to his vision of revitalizing India’s universities. Regrettably, Jamsetji’s proposal was met with utmost indifference on the part of the British government, as British industry continued utilizing Indian resources wantonly. On Swamiji’s return to India from the U.S., Jamsetji sent a soul-searching letter for an intensified campaign. “I am of the opinion that if such a crusade in favour of asceticism of this kind were undertaken by a competent leader, it would greatly help asceticism, science and the good name of our common country; and I know not who would make a more fitting general of such a campaign than Vivekananda.” Soon Nivedita would step up in the forefront of that effort.
The first day of the actual reckoning came on December 31, 1898, when members of the Provisional Committee met with Lord Curzon, British India’s Viceroy-designate, to discuss the project. Curzon turned it down with disdain and sarcastic comments. With prospects getting bleaker by the day, Jamsetji sent his sister and a trusted associate to seek Vivekananda’s counsel. This is where Sister Nivedita, along with Miss Josephine MacLeod and Mrs. Ole Bull, American supporters of Vivekananda, were roped into the effort. Strategy in place, Vivekananda had the magazine, Prabuddha Bharata, issue a public exhortation: “We are not aware if any project at once so opportune and so far reaching in its beneficent effects was ever mooted in India as that of the Post-Graduate Research University of Mr. Tata.”
Enter Sir William Ramsay, who replaced Curzon. Alas, he too shot down the proposal. Jamsetji became so frustrated that he was about to give up the project. But Vivekananda and his lieutenants now applied ‘Plan B.’ Sister Nivedita and Mrs. Bull met with George Birdwood of the Education Ministry in England. He was just as caustic, informing them: “We govern India primarily for our good—with an amiable attempt to make that good more or less consistent with the wealth and happiness of India but not as humbugs would make the world believe, for the good of the governed.”
When Birdwood insisted that the existing universities were already struggling, Nivedita sharply reminded him: “But all the universities in fact are completely in government control.” Birdwood claimed that “in 50 years, Indians have not been able to excel in any field of literature, science and philosophy,” to which Nivedita retorted: “For the first time in its history, The Royal Society offers the whole of its programme from opening till the Xmas holiday, to be filled by the Hindu Professor (J.C.Bose) of Physics.” Although derailed, Birdwood would not budge from his stated position.
Neither would Nivedita give up her fight, eventually proving that the pen is mightier than the sword. She wrote impassioned letters to influential people the world over, including the philosopher William James, well known edu- cationists, sociologists, geographers, philanthropists, biologists, and the pioneering town planner Patrick Geddes—all with a view to garnering moral support for preserving the “Indianness of this University Project.” The pressure exerted on the British Government eventually brought forth the desired result, though with a grudging acquiescence, in 1909, establishing the foundation of what is today the prestigious Indian Institute of Science.
Heeding An Unfolding Call
Initially, Nivedita was optimistic about British rule in India. Subsequently she saw through the brutal side of the British Raj and realized that for India to prosper, it was imperative for India to gain independence. Therefore, she devoted herself wholeheartedly to the cause of opposing the British rule.
After Swamiji’s demise she publicly dissociated herself from the newly formed Ramakrishna Mission, being acutely aware of the inconvenience her political activities caused the Order. However, she maintained a cordial relationship with all the brother disciples of Swami Vivekananda, with Swami Saradananda helping her in her charitable and educational activities—apparently all with the blessings of Holy Mother. Equally noteworthy, working on her own, she kept in direct contact with young revolutionaries of Bengal. She also exposed Lord Curzon after his speech in the Calcutta University in 1905 by making it public that, in his book Problems of the Far East, Curzon had proudly described how he had given false statements about his age and marriage to the president of the Korean Foreign Office to win his favor. This revelation, published in prominent Indian newspapers, caused a furor, forcing Curzon to apologize. In this same year, Curzon initiated the partition of Bengal, a major turning point in the Indian independence movement. Nivedita played a lead role in planning strategy as well as providing financial and logistical support, while leveraging her contacts to get information from government agencies to forewarn the revolutionaries.
It may not be widely known, even in India, that the famous Tamil poet Subramanya Bharathi was swayed by Nivedita, after meeting her only briefly, in 1906, to work throughout his life for the freedom of women in the country. Nivedita’s intense respect for India is reflected in what she wrote in the editorial of Karma Yogin, the nationalist newspaper of Aurobindo:
The whole history of the world shows that the Indian intellect is second to none. This must be proved by the perfor-mance of a task beyond the power of others, the seizing of the first place in the intellectual advance of the world. Is there any inherent weakness that wo-uld make it impossible for us to do this? Are the countrymen of Bhaskarya and Shankaracharya inferior to the countrymen of Newton and Darwin? We trust not. It is for us, by the power of our thought, to break down the iron walls of opposition that confront us, and to seize and enjoy the intellectual sovereignty of the world.
Swami Vivekananda’s reckoning that Sister Nivedita was Britain’s “gift to India” is reflected in her epitaph: “Herereposes Sister Nivedita who gave her all to India.” This poem, “Benediction,” penned by Swamiji to Sister Nivedita amply attests to how he revered her:
The mother’s heart, the hero’s will,
The sweetness of the southern breeze,
The sacred charm and strength that dwell
On Aryan altars, flaming, free;
All these be yours and many more
No ancient soul could dream before–
Be thou to India’s future son
The mistress, servant, friend in one.