Swami Vivekananda and Sister Nivedita
“There is no measure of our indebtedness to Nivedita”
NIVEDITA was the favourite disciple of the Shiva-eyed Vivekananda. Sri Krishna had his favourite disciple in Arjuna; Buddha in Ananda; Sri Ramakrishna in Vivekananda; Vivekananda in Margaret Noble, Nivedita. They were, as it were, one-in-two, two-in-one. Their descent on earth was for a special purpose. Well may we apply to Margaret Noble those lines from Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri:
All in her pointed to a nobler kind…
A wide self-giving was her native act…
The two names are unprecedented, they justify their significance. Combined with such grace and purity is each that one would take the name as the form, and the form as the name. The name attracted me to the person. The root of the attraction was Sri Aurobindo. He had said to us, “Nivedita’s Kali the Mother is a wonderful book. And her The Master as I Saw Him, well, I have never read so good a book on Vivekananda.” My Guru had aroused my curiosity. But I am not ashamed to confess that because my modern mind even then had nothing like a deep impress of spirituality, none of its profound notes could strike any chord in my heart. By Guru’s Grace, it has now become possible. And along with it I have been deeply moved not so much by the magnitude of Vivekananda’s knowledge, or by the sharpness of Nivedita’s intellect, as by the intensity of their closeness. The Master’s pure unbounded love and grace, the disciple’s humility, love and devotion — all this I have been able to sense from my own small but similar experience. This is the best profit I have derived from these books.
In the far-off subject country, Ireland, was this spark born, and Vivekananda brought her as his disciple to another subject country, India! At a single yogic glance Vivekananda knew who this spark was, what was her destined place and what her future. Just as for the great work of kindling a fire in the heart of India Sri Ramakrishna had prepared Vivekananda, so to the same end did Vivekananda prepare his disciple Nivedita. And this preparation seemed the end of his earthly work.
In the spiritual history of India the relationship between Guru and disciple is great and pure. Above all worldly relations is this affinity of souls. It passes from life to life. Death is not its term. According to Hindu Shastras, the Guru represents God. It is Divine Providence that determines the mutual choice of Guru and disciple. One who chooses the Infinite has already been chosen by the Infinite.’ The Guru’s command is to the disciple the Vedic injunction. ‘The Guru,’ says Vivekananda, ‘is above one’s parents, he is spiritual teacher and sovereign lord in one… He perceives the hidden vibrations in the depths of the disciple’s heart.’ The Guru bears the responsibility for the disciple, his life and death, his earthly and spiritual well-being, virtue and vice, yogaksema. His effort for the disciple is beyond compare.
Yet how the disciple harbours in his mind a heap of doubt and distrust and feelings of wounded self-conceit against the Guru! Misunderstandings know no end, nor revolts. But the Guru, unshaken in love and grace, saves the disciple from all danger, forgives all his wrongs. When necessary, he becomes severe, but that severity is motherly. The disciple forsakes the Guru but the Guru never abandons the disciple.
We need not go far to prove the truth of the Guru-sisya affinity. If the relationship between the Mother-and-Sri Aurobindo and their disciples is not yet widely known, we have not forgotten Sri Ramakrishna-Vivekananda. In the Vivekananda Nivedita relationship we hear this eternal note. Vivekananda writes to Nivedita: ‘I will stand by you unto death, whether you work for India or not, whether you give up Vedanta or remain in it. The tusks of the elephant come out, but never go back’. Once Sri Aurobindo wrote to me: ‘I will never forsake you.’ Every sadhak knows what hope and confidence such assurance gives him on his long journey to the unknown.
Margaret’s soul was in quest of the Eternal Truth. Her keen intelligence was wavering amid hope, doubt and agony. Yet she found no clue to the path. At that critical moment of her agitated consciousness she met Swamiji in London, heard him uttering in a profound and high-pitched voice the message of the Gita and the Upanishads. The truth revealed itself to her, ‘Here is my Guru’. Her feelings could be expressed in Sri Aurobindo’s words:
…. Who then art thou in human guise?
Thy voice carries the sound of Infinity,
Knowledge is with thee, Truth speaks through thy words,
The light of things beyond shines in thine eyes.
Margaret wrote to a friend: ‘… Suppose he (Swamiji) had not come! If he had meditated on the Himalayan peaks! … I, for one, had never been here…’
On the other hand, Swamiji with his yogic insight saw in Nivedita the only woman fit for his work in India. When she expressed to him the desire to dedicate herself to his work, he calmly said, ‘Yes, your place is in India, but the time is not yet. Prepare yourself meanwhile.’ After returning to India, he wrote, ‘Let me tell you frankly that I am now convinced that you have a great future in the work for India. What was wanted was not a man but a woman, a real lioness to work for Indians, women specially. India cannot yet produce great women, she must borrow them from other nations. Your education, sincerity, purity, immense love, determination and above all, the Celtic blood, make you just the woman wanted.’
Many are India’s gains from Europe. One of the greatest seems to be this jewel of a woman. In the spiritual India of today women of lofty souls are wanting. That poignant note of Vivekananda’s regret still resounds in our ears with the same force. To waken the power of womanhood in the land of Sita and Savitri, he had to appear at the door of Europe. In the sadhana of Sri Aurobindo too, we see the Mother-Force hailing from Europe. The Sister-Force brought in by Vivekananda has broken and remade our past and present, and the current of it is still flowing like the River Falgu. The Mother-Force accompanying Sri Aurobindo has been giving, from beyond the human gaze, a massive and magnificent shape to our present and future. In Sri Aurobindo’s words, the work started at Dakshineswar is not yet finished.
Cutting off all worldly ties, Margaret came to India full of enthusiasm and hope that she would be in the presence of her Guru and be able to apply herself whole-heartedly to his work. Days roll on, months pass. The Guru speaks of many things but nothing at all of the work to be done. When she is impatient in the extreme, he, pointing to the banks of the Ganges, says, ‘Live in the sun…. Look at what is going on round you… Don’t make any plans.’ An inner conflict arises in the disciple. The western rajasic urge to activity is confounded by the calm serenity of the eastern Guru. Not impatience but intensity of aspiration, as if all eternity were before you — this fundamental principle of spirituality is alien to the western way of life. The inner intention of the Guru was, first of all, gradually to put upon this excellent adhar the true Indian stamp. The history of how the Guru eliminated from his disciple of brilliant genius and independent spirit all her foreignness and infused into her veins and cells the flame-blood of his own soul, is both thrilling and an indication of the infinite compassion and yoga-shakti of the Guru and of the humility and devotion of his disciple. I shall attempt an account of the little I have been able to understand of this fine mystic story.
True, Margaret had accepted Swamiji as her Guru and service of India as her life’s mission. But there were in her nature some strong obstacles due to her western education and trend of mind. In the words of the poet of Savitri:
Her spirit bowed; her will obeyed the law
Of its own nature binding even on Gods.
It was the Guru who had to remove these obstacles. First, the great attraction she felt for Swamiji was in yogic terms mixed with rajas. That attraction, even though based on the soul, seemed limited to a person. In Yajnavalkya’s words, wife, wealth, honour are dear only for the sake of the Self. This spiritual attitude was still non est in the disciple. The source of her love for India was Swamiji, her service of India was Swamiji’s service. It was far from the Guru’s intention that all her personality should grow centred upon him. He wanted that the disciple should break out of the narrow bonds of the person and attain to the infinite and unmanifest vasts of consciousness. In other words, the Guru put her slowly on the path of sadhana. In a certain context, the Guru said, ‘You have to take your stand on your own feet and not be under the wing of… or anybody else.’ Again, ‘Madness of love and yet in it no bondage… I must not give anyone the whole of mine in return, for that day the work would be ruined… A leader must be impersonal, hard as steel, soft as a flower.’
The Guru’s second effort was to train the disciple as an out-and-out Indian woman, free from all deep-seated impressions of her western education and up-bringing, so that she might love a foreign land like her own. She had seen and understood India from outside; the illiteracy, poverty and the thousand and one other privations had grieved her. But her western temperament and genius and proneness to activity had followed the external way. Quite different was to be the Guru’s way. His initiation would be to help her dive deep into her heart, find her soul, acquire spiritual strength and then get down to the field of work: then the work would be perfect obedience to the Guru. From this obedience and humility would spring forth full freedom of the disciple in her work. Vivekananda warned his brother sadhaks: ‘Never restrict her liberty. What do you know about what I have given her?’
The Guru directed her to live whole-heartedly like a Hindu woman, in dress and food and drink, avoid contact with men, keep under control all impetuous western impulses, and remain calm and tranquil in meditation and concentration. Otherwise how could she undertake the education of women? She would have to put on a sari, sleep on the floor, eat with her fingers, observe various other customs big or small; then she would be able to get into the core of these customs. Before her was the shining example of Sri Ramakrishna himself. Did he not observe even the externals of every religion in order to experience it through identity in every detail? In all these unaccustomed forms of askesis, what hardship, what physical and mental strain had she to pass through! Over and above this, the severe, appearance of the Guru seemed to make life even more severe. No breach of rules would escape a scolding. Where was that calm, serene, graceful Swamiji of London? And how different was this Guru, all absorbed in tapasya! But by strong will, unshakable fidelity and devotion the disciple, passed through the ordeal. Never even once did she question the necessity of all this.
Every sadhak knows the importance of such severe discipline in the first stages of sadhana. Sri Ramakrishna would say that in the first stage the young plant has to be fenced round. In our sadhana in Pondicherry too we had to go through severe discipline at the beginning. It is said that before she took charge of the Ashram, the Mother also had lived for long years the Indian way of life, and secluded life to boot. About two months after her arrival in India, the Guru gave Margaret the preliminary initiation and the name Nivedita. A wonderful coincidence is that at the moment of her birth Nivedita’s mother had dedicated her to God. Nivedita now offered herself at the feet of the Guru. The Guru, looking across the Ganges, said to Nivedita: “That is where I should like to have a convent for women.”
Swamiji’s second task was to acquaint her with the outer world. He had noticed her extraordinary gift of oratory. When she appeared in the Albert Hall, her tall, slim, beautiful figure exercising this power gripped the cultured audience assembled there. Unexpectedly, Vivekananda’s voice rang out: “Sister Nivedita is another gift of England to India.” Hereafter we see her speaking at Kalighat, in her cordial association with the Brahmo Samaj, in her writings to the Press. Nivedita’s reputation spread everywhere. But all this praise did not in the least disturb her equanimity.
It was abnormally hot in Calcutta. An outbreak of plague was feared. With Nivedita and other foreign disciples Swamiji started for the Himalayas. His special purpose was to efface from Nivedita’s nature whatever defects and preconceptions were still there. The natural scenery of the Himalays, their silence, sublimity and vastness, the wonderful self-absorption in them, above all, close companionship with the Guru gave unending joy to Nivedita’s heart. On arrival at Almora amid these excellent surroundings, Nivedita felt a deep gloom overtake her. All beauty of universal nature seemed to have vanished. She felt desolate, helpless. After four days of unbearable mental agony, she came to feel as if the Guru had abandoned her and gone far away without any reason. He did not speak much to her or reply to her questions. He took no interest in her work, or in the meticulous service she gave him. She found no difference between his relation with herself and his relation with her friends. Yet she failed to see any reasonable cause of such indifference. As a result of this unexpected treatment from the Guru, her attachment to him diminished no doubt, but only to give place to a vast, dry emptiness. When her mental anguish was at its peak, the Guru said at the intervention of another woman: “You are right, I am going away into the forest to be alone, and when I come back I shall bring peace.” Nivedita realised that it was her attachment to the Guru that caused her suffering. When the Guru returned, her wounded amour propre and her misunderstanding came to an end. She got back her soul’s peace. She wrote to a friend of hers, “I am learning a great deal… that there is a certain definite quality which may be called spirituality; that it is worth having; that the soul may long for God as the heart longs for human love.” Nivedita’s true education had begun.
It was to help her pass this ordeal that the Guru selected that particular time and place. He now realised that ‘the time has come when she must stand alone’. That was why he had assumed the mask of severity. He had the firm conviction that as the spiritual surroundings of the Himalayas had given him peace in his earlier years, so would they give the same inner treasure to his disciple.
In this way the Guru purifies his disciples and takes them onward, sometimes by hard measures, sometimes by the touch of tenderness. Once Sri Aurobindo wrote to me on this, and I may summarise him thus: ‘If I can be patient with you and your despairs, why can’t you be patient with the forces? Let me give you a concrete instance. X held out to us several threats: revolt, suicide, going back home, and so on. The more X threatened us, the harder I hit X. Our relations with X were not at all as they are with you — of good humour. As a result X stopped weeping. Now X writes of being filled with a vast peace, love and joy.’
Nivedita’s ordeal is not over, rather the reverse, indeed it is only the beginning. Mental purification is no easy job. The Guru now travels on to Amarnath with the disciple. The Vedantin sannyasi, the barefooted, shaven-headed, turbaned pilgrim, staff in hand, chanting ‘Salutation to Shiva’, ‘namah sivaya, namah sivaya’, walks on, the disciple behind. Despite all fatigue, the Guru is all joy. But the disciple is silent and exhausted. The significance of Amarnath is unintelligible to her. Entering the dark cave, the Guru bowed down at the foot of the snow-covered Shiva-image three times and made his only offering — Nivedita. But Nivedita showed no sign of change. Rather was she very much disappointed that she had no experience at all. The Guru also did not share even a particle of his ineffable bliss with her. Agonised, she wondered why she had been taken over rugged mountain paths, hard to trudge along, to a dark cave, all for nothing. She did not even spare the Guru hard words. With tears in his eyes the Guru replied, ‘Margaret, I have not the power to give you what you want. You do not now understand. But you have made the pilgrimage and it will go on working… Call upon Mother Kali! She will come because you belong to her…’ With these words the Guru again retired for a time. During his absence Nivedita took to meditating on Kali. This time too she realised her mistake and wrote to a friend that by hammering her and by burning up the baser elements in her, the Guru was drawing her to himself and to God. Her meditation on Kali made a clean sweep of all her pain and despair, being seemed filled with joy by a touch of Kali’s omnipresence. When the Guru returned, the disciple laid her head at the feet of the Guru and said, ‘Now I know my Divine Mother”.
During this tour, Vivekananda read regularly with his devotees various religious scriptures, books of philosophy, etc. His secret purpose was to liberate Nivedita from her innate national prejudices and to make her literally as good as her name. His ‘third eye’ was always fixed on the disciple. Like a skilled and experienced teacher the Guru would discuss things with the disciple in order to be able to root out of her subconscient all her settled conceptions. One day he spoke out to her in a rude tone, ‘Why do you insist on comparing this country with yours, what is suitable here with what is done there? Really, patriotism like yours is a sin.’
The day next to her initiation the Guru asked her in a seemingly casual manner, ‘Nivedita, to what great fatherland do you now belong?’ Taken aback, the disciple said, ‘But, Swamiji, I am British.’ The Guru kept silent.
Nivedita loved India but her love was a mixture of the Christian sentiments of charity and mercy. The Guru scolded her, ‘What is charity? Is it anything more than a mask of vanity? You wish to serve India with charity? Not charity, what is wanted is love; love that embraces all, high and low. You may have to suffer humiliation from the Hindu society on account of your alien blood. Still you have to bear in mind that you are at heart a Hindu. I have loved the West with all my heart but with no trace of pity in it.’
Long years after, Nivedita wrote: ‘My education is still continuing. My vision is growing clearer. By Guru’s Grace I am getting Light. The preconceptions which blocked my way like a lion are vanishing in the light of awakened intelligence. The wonder is that the Guru only illumines and does not impose his views. This is the fundamental principle of his teaching.’
The other aim of the Guru was to bring about a change in the political mentality of Nivedita. India was a permanent part of the British Empire. ‘This diverse and peculiar country can be a united nation only by the presence of a third power. British rule has done and will do India immense good. Every nation demands freedom… India from England, naturally, but it will take the country centuries to be fit for it.’ Such were the ideas with which Nivedita’s career started in India. The dream of her life was to unite India and England by ties of love. On hearing this, the Guru said, ‘Work; seek; perhaps you will find a way. I too held your opinion two years ago.’ During these two years much water had flowed down the Ganges. We know how quickly Nivedita’s dream vanished into thin air. The Guru had not much to do for this to happen. The more familiar she grew with the British community in India, the more the true form of their lust for imperial glory revealed itself. The first blow to her dream came from the refusal of the Government to grant some land to Vivekananda to establish a Sanskrit college of the Maharaja of Kashmir. Then, who could fail to mark Englishmen’s arrogance in dealing with Indians, their maltreatment of men in mills and workshops, of passers-by, of passengers on train or steamer? How could a woman like Nivedita, independent-minded, educated, self-respecting, put up with all that, in particular when even her Guru was not spared that insolence?
But all this was external training which does not touch the root without which no development is lasting. That changed, the outer change becomes automatic. Hence the Guru’s final injunction: the inner and outer life must be in every way like that of a brahmin brahmacharini. And the result of that should be offered at the feet of God. Above all, her past, even its memory, had to be wiped out completely.
The pilgrimage over, Nivedita alone returned to Calcutta. She had received the Guru’s instructions into the depths of her heart. Her stay with Saradamani in Calcutta, following her ideal, would serve Vivekananda’s purpose. Inspired by Saradamani’s saintliness, purity and sweetness and her spiritual power, Nivedita returned to her own home.
There the Guru, for the first time, subjected her to a period of austere discipline. He asked her to live like a Hindu widow, following all the disciplines. He said: ‘Now you must give up all visiting, and live in strict seclusion. Control every restlessness of mind, every expression of your face. Realise yourself without a trace of emotion.’
A school was opened for the girls of the locality. After a long time Nivedita got something to do which was after her heart. We are not unaware of how much opposition from orthodox Hindus she had to overcome. The Guru told her at this time: ‘Never complain of not having enough time for prayer and meditation. Your mission and achievement lie in your work. That is the goal to which I am leading you. Follow me. March with me. My mission is not Ramakrishna’s, nor Vedanta’s but simply to bring manhood to this people. The manhood of Europe was kept up by the women who hated unmanliness. When will Bengali girls play their part and drown in merciless ridicule every display of feebleness on the part of men?’
A terrible plague epidemic broke out in the locality. Nivedita’s fearless, indefatigable, self-forgetful service, the Guru’s command and encouragement her only protection — all this is history.
Hearing of Nivedita’s austere tapasya, a female devotee of Swamiji became displeased with him. The Guru calmly replied: ‘Don’t pity her. She is now above everything dedicated to India. I have devoted more time to her than to anyone else.’
Now, Nivedita turned to writing in her spare time. Her articles appeared in the Statesman and other papers. Especially her description of the plague epidemic created a stir among our countrymen and slowly secured for her a place among the educated. In this connection she came into contact with the Brahmo Samaj. The Guru encouraged her to get into that organisation. She became intimate with the Tagores. Rabindranath came over to her place and discussed poetry with her. One day during such a discussion she had a call from Belur. Full of joy, the disciple at once told the Poet that Swamiji had sent her blessings and that she would be going to him. He perhaps thought within himself, ‘Nivedita has found her chosen god.’ But her friendship with the Brahmo Samaj did not last long. Nevertheless, Nivedita won a few friends in Suren Tagore, Jagadish Bose, Abanindranath. Suren Tagore became her collaborator in her Swadeshi work. And Nivedita’s help in the achievements of Bose and Abanindranath is well known.
Nivedita had calls from many quarters to speak at public meetings. The power of her askesis, so long pent up but now released, seemed to rush out in a flood. Now the Guru put her to a severe test. ‘You have to speak on Mother Kali,’ was his command. The Albert Hall was packed full of an educated Brahmo and Hindu audience. The disciple was calm, indrawn. The end of the speech was followed by profuse applause. The Guru was proud of the praise given to his disciple. Then came an unexpected invitation from the priests of the Kali temple at Kalighat. Vivekananda was to be the President. But he told Nivedita beforehand that he would not attend the meeting. His command was for the disciple to go alone. Everyone would sit down on the ground bare-footed. The Guru blessed the disciple before she left for the meeting — ‘Bear in mind that you are always a servant of Kali.’ Nivedita reached Kalighat walking all the way bare-footed. Needless to say that all were fascinated by her speech. Nivedita too felt that she was fortunate in getting Kali’s Grace.
In this way, by ceaseless care, affection and control, the Guru was preparing her within herself and the external world for her future work.
Swamiji was unwell. Illness and pressure of work had weakened his body. And on top of that, he was short of money. The thought of sending Nivedita back home was not out of calculation. At this time came an invitation from an American lady who was a devotee. The Guru set out with Nivedita for Europe, perhaps he would get some financial help and also a little rest! The Guru said to the disciple: ‘Don’t forget that you are a daughter of Kali. I see also your past and — future…. But for the moment, continue to be docile and obedient.’ Before starting, Nivedita sat down at Panchavati, Dakshineshwar, and prayed: ‘O Mother, give him a little ease and rest… and give me the pain you would have given him… I worship, I love him… Yes, for the personal part of him… I will live and work until I drop.’
Thanks to the sea breeze, signs of quick improvement in Swamiji’s health were visible. The disciple was of good cheer. She felt blessed by the close companionship of the Guru. Sitting by his side in constant silence, walking with him on the deck, rendering him service, collecting jewels from the bottomless sea of his vast knowledge — how many could have such good fortune? Above all, the silent, spiritual influence of his presence — a thing beyond mind and speech. The Guru too poured into his disciple all his attention to probe whatever flaw there might be at the bottom of her mind, whatever subtle attachment there might be to work, whatever fleeting desire there might be in her mind and vital nature. This was her golden opportunity of liberating herself from their grip. Her repeated question to the Guru was: ‘How to be without ‘scar of imperfection?’ How to be intact and whole? How may a higher peace descend?’ The Guru had the same answer: ‘Struggle to realise yourself without a trace of emotion. This is the great secret. Besides, no imitation, no anxiety, no restlessness, be poised in your own power, and liberation will follow. Renounce everything.’ In this context we recall Sri Aurobindo’s words: ‘Equilibrium is necessary — an equilibrium that no earthquake, however terrific, can shake even by a hair’s breadth….’ During these six weeks, the Guru’s unfathomable store of varied knowledge seemed to have passed into the disciple. Philosophy, history, religion, culture, guruvad (the need for a Guru), askesis, education, manliness, sadhana (spiritual discipline) — no subject was left out of discussion. But over and above all, like the rumbling of the sea, a sonorous voice rang out: ‘Abhi’, ‘Be fearless’, ‘The one Upanishadic mantra I have always and everywhere uttered,’ said the Guru, ‘is strength. Nayamatma balahinena labhyah, the Self is not the for the weakling to win. My own ideal is that warrior saint who at the moment of his murder during the sepoy revolt was heard to say, “Thou also art That.”’ The close companionship of the Guru during those six weeks remained like a brilliant star in the serene firmament of the disciple.
The steamer reached London. A few days later, Swamiji alone set out for America. Nivedita arrived there afterwards; Guru and sisya met again. There the disciple had a hard task to do: to raise funds by making speeches. In western circles, a good deal of curiosity had been aroused; they were curious to know what impressions the western woman had about India. The Guru was keenly observing the psychological movements of the disciple. On board the steamer he had asked, ‘Do you think you can raise funds?’ Her bold answer had been: ‘I don’t think… I know’. That moment had arrived.
For about a month, at intervals between various kinds of work, the Guru was giving Nivedita instructions on many subjects. One day he said: ‘You see, there is one thing called love and there is another thing called union. And union is greater than love… That which we love is not yet ourself…. This is the difference between bhakti and jnana.’ On one side, Nivedita was drawing strength from the Guru’s words; on the other, an unknown fear was surging in her, as if without the Guru she was helpless. But as a consequence of the Guru’s closeness, her love for him was deepening and growing purer. It had keenness, but not attachment any more. She said, ‘Now he is the whole living….; instead of growing less, I have grown infinitely more personal in my love. I am not sure but his least whim is worth the while….”
In the midst of his various activities and experiences of American life, Swamiji’s health was breaking down. He seemed to be hearing his country’s call. He put an abrupt question to his disciple: ‘How long will you stay here? When will you begin your true work?’ The disciple was taken aback. In a calm voice she said, ‘Swamiji, it was at your command that I came here. I am quite ready to leave.’
The Guru would go to Chicago. Luggage was being packed up. Suddenly he entered Mrs Bull’s room with Nivedita and shut the door behind him. The women-disciples were bewildered. His face was peaceful and luminous. Stretching out his hands he said, ‘My children, I have come, I have come.’ Then wrapping a shawl round the waist of Mrs Bull, he called her sannyasini. The next moment, placing his hands on the heads of both Nivedita and Mrs Bull, he said, ‘I give you all the power given me by my Guru… I am going away to be at peace… It is like a release’ Nivedita bowed down at the Guru’s feet. A vast all-engrossing power descended into her; her body, her reason, her intellect and external consciousness, all vanished. The Guru’s hand on her head was warm, heavy and full of tremendous power. ‘She felt the high Transcendent’s sun-like hands.’ She felt that she was truly a brahmacharini. The Guru had told her that she should remain a brahmacharini all her life.
This reminds us of Sri Ramakrishna. He too had said to his chief disciple: ‘Today I give you all I am. I have become a fakir.’
Nivedita was overwhelmed with joy. But she was distressed too. The fears that passed through her mind were: ‘Sri Ramakrishna by making over to his disciple his power in this way retained his life for only a year and a half. Does my Guru too mean the same thing? I know how he has been suffering. If that is his will, I’ll not stand in his way, for our petty satisfaction. But let it be our prayer to God that we may offer at his feet some money as the fruit of our effort,’ and she communicated them to her friend.
Nivedita’s being was now absorbed in the Guru. Her only dream was to serve him, to help him in his work. But the door of America’s wealth did not open easily. Now and then despondency overwhelmed her. Then she recalled the Guru’s enlivening words: ‘Rely on your own strength. Remember, whoever has anything original to say commands a hearing from the world.’ Unshakable was the Guru’s faith in the disciple. Gradually obstacles gave way and Nivedita’s fame spread from town to town. Money came pouring in. The Guru personally attended only one of her lectures: it was a simple, beautiful, luminous address. A Hindu of Hindus, Nivedita was the voice of India’s soul. The Guru’s eyes glistened with tears of joy.
The work over, Nivedita met her Guru in France. Her joy was all the greater that she would meet Jagadish Bose there. At the Science Congress there, Bose was to read a paper. On the other hand, Swamiji was preparing to return home. And Nivedita was busy with Bose. One thing the Swamiji did in Paris cut Nivedita to the quick. She misunderstood the Guru and their difference of opinion badly affected their personal relations. One might say that it was the last revolt of the subconscient. Vivekananda was to hear Emma Calve, the opera singer whom he had met before in the role of Carmen, at a Paris theatre. The disciple raised a vehement opposition; her puritan mind spoke out in a heated tone: ‘Swamiji, this cannot be. People will be shocked and make a strong agitation if they see you at the Opera comique.’ Swamiji was most surprised, but a gentle smile was his only response. A few days later, when Calvé called on Swamiji, he expressed his eagerness to hear in her wonderful voice the French national anthem, La Marseillaise. The disciple objected again: ‘La Marseillaise! But, Swamiji, that is a battle song. The booming of guns, shouts of soldiers…’
‘I want that very thing,’ insisted the Guru. ‘Don’t you see what heroism, what love of country, what inspiring spirit of self-giving are there in this song? In it you feel an expression of courage, a call to love and sacrifice for your country, don’t you? … It is a hymn I shall teach the monks of our Math.’ The ‘childish’ ways of the Guru in Paris appeared unbecoming of him to Nivedita. Meeting between them became painful; the Guru too adopted an attitude of indifference to all her work. He said ‘I am free now, born free. Nothing that I do is of any importance. I have become a child again.’
The dissension took a deadly turn over some trivial matters. Like Guru, like disciple. At last the Guru was obliged to say, ‘You are obstinate and headstrong, all that I have been myself. But your actions still bear the imprint of your will. Let the Divine Mother take care of you. Go and live in solitude, since you still differentiate evil from good. Deep down within yourself the mould of every form must finally be broken, so that your spirituality can overflow.’
This stern rebuke opened the disciple’s eyes. She realised where her subtle attachment to the Guru and her preconceptions were still nestling. In her work she had sought her own satisfaction rather than God’s. Under the mask of satisfying the Guru she had satisfied herself, and expected praise and appreciation from him. In a word, her ego had grown tremendously. As a consequence she had dared to sit in judgement on the Guru. So he ruthlessly rejected her success in America and her work in Paris. In another context the Guru wrote, ‘Your letter indicates that I am jealous of your new friends. You must know once and for all I was born without jealousy, without avarice, without the desire to rule, whatever other vices I was born with… have your own choice, your own work.’
One question: How could a disciple like Nivedita, so wholly devoted to the Guru, judge him, doubt his affection? First, the Guru had given her much free scope for development even while preparing her just as his own Guru had done in his case. Sri Aurobindo holds that man cannot make spiritual progress without freedom, so he was dead-opposed to some political views and forms of government. Secondly, however deep might be Nivedita’s love and devotion, her consciousness had not attained identity with the Guru’s, she had not, to use Sri Aurobindo’s terms, unity of consciousness, what Vivekananda called knowledge, the knowledge by which one’s consciousness merges in another’s. For this reason, Nivedita’s consciousness was still limited by ideas of good and evil, right and wrong. Despite a lot of change in her, one must say that in the background of her nature there was some remnant of innate sanskaras. Hence Sri Aurobindo’s insistence on change of nature.
On the other hand, the Guru’s dealings too may seem unreasonable to our modern mind. But I have not the impertinence to judge a Yogi. The disciple had spotted her own defects. It is not a bit surprising that the Guru too should have done the same. Moreover, I believe that Vivekananda had foreseen that his work was coming to its end. That hint he had given. Now it was for the disciple to purify herself perfectly.
Be that as it may, this letter put Nivedita to no end of shame. She was burning in the fire of repentance. But from this holocaust she emerged, like the Phoenix, into a new birth. Her sincerity saved her.
Before returning to India, the Guru blessed the disciple and said, ‘When a great leader has prepared his workers, he must go to another place, for he cannot make them free in his own presence. I am nothing more for you. I have handed over to you the power that I possessed… Go forth into the world, and there, if I made you, be destroyed. If the Divine Mother made you, live.’
This was the disciple’s last act of disobedience. Henceforth thanks to the mantric power, she was like a charmed snake. Her love was tested gold.
Nivedita was now alone in Europe. Jagadish Bose was also in London: he would read his paper at the Royal Society. Nivedita’s help came to him like a blessing of God. Her earnestness, enthusiasm and care with regard to his work and to his physical illness are known to all. She also made friends with Romesh Dutt. She began gradually to understand political trends, especially the attitude of the British Government towards India. Religion and women’s education were not her only activities but politics would be her main object — she returned to India with this conviction when she got the news of her Guru’s serious illness.
The Guru was very glad to have her beside him. His yogic insight could see the light of her soul reflected in her ways. The Guru lovingly seated her on his right.
At that time the Indian National Congress was in session in Calcutta. One by one the chief leaders called on Swamiji in sickbed. He held lengthy discussions with them on politics and society. A miniature Congress seemed to form around Swamiji. By his side was Nivedita, listening to the discussion. From time to time the Guru asked her views too. In this way he introduced the disciple to the country’s leaders as if he were initiating her into her political work.
The last day, Nivedita had gone to Belur. Swamiji personally served her food and himself washed her hands. Surprised, she looked at the Guru’s eyes. Full of infinite love was the Guru’s look. Her mind grasped the situation, her heart would not. She returned to Calcutta in deep peace and silence. All day long she felt the Guru’s presence. In the sky and in their air, in trees and creepers, in sound and silence, she felt the Guru’s presence pervading everything. Overwhelmed with joy overpowered by tears — that was Nivedita at the moment.
Two days later came the tragic news. Nivedita came to Belur, calm and collected. ‘Immobile in herself she gathered force.’ She sat down laying the Guru’s head on her lap. Her last prayer was, ‘Lord, Thy will be done!” During the cremation a piece of the half-burnt ochre robe of the Guru came flying and dropped on the lap of the disciple.
Nivedita was now alone. Before her lay a vast field of work. The Guru had departed, leaving her in charge of his incomplete task of immense dimensions. But with what delicate care, what softness and severity, openly and behind the scenes, from far and near he had trained her! At times the Guru was severe and indifferent, at others like the dearest friend and father. In this way, through a painful process of building up, pulling down and rebuilding, like a great sculptor’s work, the Guru had reared this modern, independent-minded disciple. Rare in spiritual history is such a phenomenon.
No doubt the disciple was alone, but not helpless. Her being and thought were permeated by the Guru’s power and subtle closeness. She had his instruction that the service of the masses was her work and sadhana, not only the welfare of Indian women. In that connection she by and by entered the political field and joined the independence movement. She started travelling all over India on a twofold labour: openly, making speeches and writing articles to propagate national ideas and aspirations; secretly, cooperating with revolutionary parties. She was compelled to sever her connection with the Mission. India’s nationalism and independence were her only sadhana. Nevinson has said, ‘She was drunk with India.’ Swami Brahmananda said: ‘Next to Vivekananda nobody else ever loved India so much.’ ‘I see Nivedita as the Mother of the masses,’ said Rabindranath. In various ways and forms she awakened our dormant spirit. Vivekananda knew and said that Nivedita would awaken nationalism among the Hindus and had directed her to dedicate herself to that end. He had warned her brother sadhaks not to interfere with her freedom.
We see her sometimes among the old moderates, sometimes as a fiery spokesman of Nationalists, or as a sister of the youth, as a powerful writer in the columns of the nationalist Press, as preaching Swadeshi, as a worker of the Dawn Society, as a mother or a sister at the door of the flood-ravaged or famine-stricken. There seemed to be no end to her support to the researches of the Indian scientist, no end to her sympathetic help in the great struggle and suffering of the Indian artist, or to her inspiration to the beginnings of every cultural movement. A host in herself was she. I wonder at her inexhaustible vital energy, the self-forgetful wideness of her personality and ask myself: ‘Is all this not an expression of a spiritual power won during her apprenticeship and kept in check for so long? And how could there be so much diversity in one?’
I am most amazed when I see her as a leader of a secret society. Was it her inherited spirit of revolt, so long dormant, now flaming forth? To push forward the work of the Samiti, she travelled in the north, south, east and west of India and united in a common bond Bengalis, Punjabis, Rajputs, Maharattas. She came to Baroda to initiate the Maharaja. At that time Sri Aurobindo was at Baroda, and was connected with secret societies. In silence he was preparing for the service of his motherland and had organised secret societies in various places, in particular in Bengal. He came to the station to receive Nivedita. That was their first meeting. Yet both had known of each other. Since he had read her book. Kali the Mother, he had been her admirer. Nivedita had read Sri Aurobindo’s articles in the Indu Prakash and was sure that he would be the nation’s future leader. On meeting him, she asked, ‘Mr. Ghosh, are you a worshipper of Kali? (That is to say, are you a revolutionary?)’ When he took her to the Gaekwad, she asked him straight away to join the revolution. Sri Aurobindo has told us that it was not Nivedita’s nature to hide anything and that she openly preached revolution.
Liselle Raymond writes in her book that at this meeting Nivedita asked Sri Aurobindo to go to Bengal. ‘It is not time yet. I am preparing the field,’ he replied. Hearing of his plans and methods, Nivedita said, ‘Please count me as one of your group. I am always ready.’
After this Nivedita joined Sri Aurobindo openly in the political movement, and secretly in revolutionary activities. Though they actually met rather rarely, I think that due to the similarity of their ideals the inner bond between them was close and unbroken. It may also be supposed that Nivedita felt in Sri Aurobindo’s character, culture and ideals some touch of Vivekananda. Sri Aurobindo has unreservedly affirmed Ramakrishna-Vivekananda’s influence on him. When Sri Aurobindo says, ‘Nationalism is dharma, we are, each one of us, instruments of God; our life’s aim is to serve the motherland at the sacrifice of our personal interests’, one may feel in this spiritual nationalism an ideal after Vivekananda’s heart. No wonder therefore that Nivedita should have been his collaborator in every way. But what mighty form the movement in which they worked together took is another story.
The high regard Sri Aurobindo had for Nivedita can be known from a little of our conversation with him. We asked, ‘Nivedita is said to have been a sort of a revolutionary. Wasn’t she one?’ In a tone of surprise, Sri Aurobindo said:
‘A sort of revolutionary? What do you mean? She was a revolutionary leader. She visited many places, sought opportune moments for meeting people and openly discussed revolution. No secrecy, no concealment, a nature free and frank — that was she. When she spoke of revolution, it was her soul that spoke out. Whatever the truth about her yoga, revolutionary work seemed to be her swadharma. Her book, Kali the Mother, tremendously inspiring, but totally suggestive of revolution without the faintest trace of non-violence…
‘She preached revolution to the Thakurs of Rajputana. No doubt the wind of revolution was then blowing everywhere in the country. I myself mixed with many of the Thakurs. They cherished a revolutionary mentality without the knowledge of the rulers.
‘Nivedita had a sense of beauty also. On our way back from the railway station, when she saw the Baroda dharmashala she said. “How beautiful!” Next moment, seeing the College building, she remarked: “How ugly!” My friend afterwards remarked, “Probably, she has a crack in her head.”
It is surprising that even some great men could not understand Nivedita. They did not hesitate to call her volatile.
Sri Aurobindo’s opinion of Nivedita is evident from a single remark of his. One day we commented about a revolutionary leader. ‘He was fire!’ The Guru heard and kept silent. Then when Nivedita was mentioned he said, ‘That was fire, if you like!’ This fire — in Vivekananda’s words, the lioness — was the real self of Nivedita; ‘virgin formidable in beauty.’ Wherever she had been, in Indian or European gatherings, everywhere people were struck by her looks, her splendid genius eclipsed every other genius, her unadorned beauty born of purity threw into the shade the richly dressed and bejewelled beauties in Government House durbars.
In another aspect, how gentle she was, softer than the grass under the feet! Infusing fire into the Indian leaders and the youths she said, ‘England yields nothing without bombs! Where are the heroes produced by your generation… as they would fight in your place.’ Again, what anguish she felt when the wives and children of the imprisoned revolutionaries were starving! Deep was her concern. She would give away the last penny she had. Needless to say that her daring love of India did not escape the lynx-eyed Government. But she cared nothing for it. Nivedita, the spiritual daughter of Vivekananda, the initiate of the Adwaita sadhana, Nivedita, Sri Aurobindo’s collaborator, could she ever dread fetters or death?
On one side, Sri Aurobindo’s fire-breathing writings in Yugantar and Bande Mataram; on the other, Nivedita’s flaming speeches and writings — a royal combination of these two forces stirred up the benumbed spirit of Bengal as well as that of the rest of India. From their joint revolutionary movement many an intimate friend stood aloof. But country came first; Nivedita’s revolutionary flag kept flying aloft, steady and unshaken. She was sending young men to Jagadish Bose and Prafulla Roy to learn bomb making, to countries abroad to collect arms and ammunition.
The repressive policy of the Government took a deadly turn. Sri Aurobindo was in jail. Getting scent of the Government’s plan to re-arrest Sri Aurobindo after his acquittal, she requested him to go elsewhere and conduct the movement from there. In the meantime, Sri Aurobindo left Bengal at God’s command, making over charge of the Karmayogin to Nivedita. Again she had to take over someone else’ unfinished task.
It is surprising and sad to think that as a consequence of the Government’s repressive policy and Sri Aurobindo’s leaving the country the independence movements faded out in a short time and the last ray of the revolution went out with the last breath of Jatin Mukherjee. The reason was not so much the repressive policy. The deep cause was that, as Sri Aurobindo said, ‘the Force had withdrawn.’
An incredible change in Nivedita was seen; she was now no longer that flaming fire of enthusiasm. But no despair, no weakness, nothing of the kind. There descended into her an immutable, impersonal sense of liberation, just what we saw in Vivekananda during his last days. She must have received, as Sri Aurobindo himself had done, a hint from God that her part in the work was done as He himself had assumed charge of India’s independence. That was why Nivedita slowly withdrew into herself, gently returned into the temple of her soul, imperceptively passed into the being of Shiva.
We asked Sri Aurobindo how Nivedita took up the cause of India’s independence as the mission of her life, setting aside her spiritual pursuit. ‘By the Guru’s command’, said he. ‘Vivekananda had assigned that work to her.’ ‘Do you know anything about her spiritual realisation?’ To this second question he replied, ‘No, we had no such talk between ourselves. But it was evident from her eyes that she had a natural capacity for samadhi.”
Nivedita seems to be almost forgotten in India. But India is a spiritual land. However old and worn-out Hinduism may be even now in her dilapidated temples one can see God. The wheels are revolving fast. We look forward to the day when from her spiritual summit India will, in a trumpet tone, proclaim: ‘Vedaham mahantam adityavarnapurusam’ (I have known the Great Being of the Sun-coloured splendour!’) when India will again take her place as the Guru of the world. That day will see the realisation of Vivekananda’s vision. That day we shall remember again Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Nivedita. The spiritual force in Nivedita, transmitted to her by her Guru, awakened India’s dormant Kundalini Shakti; restored her natural art to its own glory; installed the Indian scientist in his place in the world, built the Narisiksha mandir (a school for women); threw open to Indian journalism a new horizon; brought to the view of the elite of the country and the world India’s civilisation, culture and religion. Above all, the contribution of this radiant vibhuti to India’s struggle for independence, even though forgotten by us, will remain inscribed in golden letters in the sanctuary of India’s soul. No shade of self-interest, no desire for name and fame, only a vastness of the soul and an abundance of its outpourings — that was Nivedita.
Before the eyes of my imagination arose Abanindranath’s painting of Mother India. On her bosom was Nivedita, standing upright: above her head was Vivekananda and above his head, Sri Ramakrishna, both of them lost in meditation. On both sides of Nivedita were the scientist Jagadish Bose, the artist Abanindranath, the journalists, Ramananda and Motilal, the political leaders Tilak, Gokhale and others. In front stood the revolutionary youth-force.
The curtain went up for a moment. The Mother showed a figure in meditation, eyes closed, wonderfully calm and beautiful — Nivedita! Sri Aurobindo’s tribute comes to mind: ‘There is no measure of our indebtedness to Nivedita.’
(Mother India, October 1967)