Sister Nivedita’s gifts

Sister Nivedita’s far reaching contributions to India’s revival came in fields as diverse as politics, spirituality, science and art.

Sister Nivedita’s gifts

India, the jewel in the British imperial crown, fascinated many foreigners in the twentieth century so much so that they left their native land and settled in India; the most notable among the foreign women in this category are Annie Besant, Mother Teresa, Mirra Alfassa (The Mother), Madeleine Slade (Miraben), and Margaret Elizabeth Noble (Sister Nivedita).  In the case of Sister Nivedita, her diverse contributions deserve a special mention in modern Indian history.  The commemoration of her 150th birth anniversary (1867-1911) provides an opportune occasion to revisit and appreciate her most significant contributions to India.

Rabindranath Tagore, who coined the moniker ‘Lokmata’ for Nivedita, spoke of her “unobstructed and undiminished energy and effulgence”.  This “undiminished energy” employed for multifarious activities, but all in the service of India, is the most remarkable feature of Nivedita’s biography post 1898, the year she arrived in India.  Mother India became her “Ishta”.  In fact, she was one of the first persons in modern Indian history to straighten India’s spine, so to speak, by eloquently articulating India’s inherent unity that finds expression in its art, science, culture, history, religion, etc.  So ardent was her zeal for India that once, in 1903, when she was lecturing in Midnapore, some boys in the audience, probably cognizant of her Anglo-Irish ancestry, welcomed her with shouts of “Hip, hip, hooray!” But Nivedita cut them short and admonished them, saying, “Have you become so hybrid that you express your approval in foreign slogans?  Repeat after me, ‘Vahe Guru ji ki fateh! Victory to the Guru’”.

Let us revisit her four most important contributions:

The Master As I Saw Him – Nivedita’s first-hand account of her spiritual guru, Swami Vivekananda

Margaret Noble first met Swami Vivekananda (SV) in London in November 1895 at Lady Isabel Margesson’s residence.  Over the course of subsequent lectures of SV, many questions asked of him in public and through mail, and one-to-one meetings, Margaret Noble decided to dedicate herself to the service of India and landed in Calcutta (Kolkata) on January 28, 1898.    Twelve years later (in 1910) and eight years after SV had left this physical world, Sister Nivedita published “The Master As I Saw Him” – a treasure for Vivekananda followers as it contains so many fascinating experiences that she was a participant in or witness to.  Nivedita’s pen not just recounts these experiences but also enables us to have a rare glimpse of Swamiji’s mind at pivotal moments.  We will briefly revisit just two incidents here, as recorded by Sister Nivedita.

August 2, 1898 – Amarnath yAtrA

..He [Swami] came at last, and with a word, sent me on, he was going to bathe.  Half an hour later he entered the cave.  With a smile he knelt, first at one end of the semi-circle, then at the other. ….A few minutes passed, and then he turned to leave the cave.

To him, the heavens had opened.  He had touched the feet of Shiva.  He had to hold himself tight, he said afterwards, lest he ‘should swoon away.’ 

“I have enjoyed it so much!” he said half an hour afterwards, as he sat on a rock above the stream-side, eating lunch with the kind Naked Swami and myself. “I thought the ice-lingam was Shiva Himself.”

…He always said that the grace of Amarnath had been granted to him there, not to die till he himself should give consent.

SV scholars are unanimous that this boon of ichchamrityu was a turning point in his life.  Thanks to Sister Nivedita, we have such a direct-source narration of this event. 

[Swami Vivekananda]

Sister Nivedita’s recollection of her last meeting with Swamiji is both poignant and inspiring, and is an eloquent testimonial of the depths of Swamiji’s heart.

July 2, 1902, Belur Math

On Wednesday of the same week, the day being Ekadasi, and himself keeping the fast in all strictness, he insisted on serving the morning meal to the same disciple (Sister Nivedita). Each dish as it was offered – boiled seeds of the jack-fruit, boiled potatoes, plain rice, and ice-cold milk – formed the subject of playful chat; and finally, to end the meal, he himself poured the water over the hands, and dried them with a towel.

“It is I who should do these things for you Swamiji! Not you, for me!” was the protest naturally offered. But his answer was startling in its solemnity – “Jesus washed the feet of His disciples!”

Something checked the answer “But that was the last time!” as it rose to the lips, and the words remained unuttered.  This was well.  For here also, the last time had come.

Two days later (July 4, 1902), in Sister Nivedita’s words, “The moment was come that had been foretold by his Master from the beginning. Half an hour went by, and then, on the wings of that meditation, his spirit soared whence there could be no return, and the body was left, like a folded vesture, on the earth.”

[Sister Nivedita with Sarada Devi]

The cause of Indian Nationalism

Although Margaret Noble decided to settle in India to work for upliftment of Indian women, this idea was soon subsumed at the altar of India’s freedom from colonial rule.  She did start a school for girls and women in the Baghbazar area of Calcutta, but also plunged headlong into the nationalist movement, creating the unfortunate situation of having to sever all connections with the Ramakrishna Mission (founded by Swamiji with his strict insistence on being completely detached from any political activity) soon after Swamiji’s passing away.  Though unfortunate, this dissociation was inevitable and tactically the right choice: SV is considered by many to be the patron saint of Indian nationalism. Nevertheless, the Ramakrishna Mission could not entangle itself with the politics of this movement, for it would dilute the spiritual goal of the organization and allow the colonial authorities to subject the mission to heightened surveillance. The formal severance freed Sister Nivedita to espouse a full-throated support for India’s independence.  She was the preeminent thinker who introduced the transition from a passive resistance to an aggressive nationalism[1].  This took many forms: writings, public speeches, strategy sessions with political leaders, articulation of symbolic representation of India’s will (she designed a flag for India in 1904 that had a Vajra and Vande MAtaram emblazoned on it), and fund-raising.  This came at a steep price for her personally; she was under surveillance of the colonial government and her mail was intercepted but these did not dampen her will at all.

Sister Nivedita’s association with Sri Aurobindo played a pivotal role in crystallizing India’s struggle for freedom in the first decade of the twentieth century.  She first met Aurobindo on October 20, 1902, in Baroda.  Aurobindo had not yet become the radical political activist, but they both discussed the political situation in the country.  Nivedita’s involvement with the secret Anushilan Samity (whose leadership included Aurobindo and his brother Barin) continued to grow.  When Aurobindo came under intense British scrutiny, she urged him to leave British India and work from outside.  Aurobindo trusted Nivedita so much that when he received the Adesh to go to Chandernagore (though only 50 kms from Calcutta, it was then a French enclave and thus outside British jurisdiction), he entrusted the editorship of his publication, Karmayogin, to her.

Many activists of India’s freedom struggle have credited Nivedita as a central source of inspiration for their political activism.

Revival of Indian Art

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the prevailing view in the West was that Indian art was a derivative of Hellenic influence, and thus not original in nature.  Nivedita, in concert with E. B. Havell and Ananda Coomaraswamy, systematically disabused the Western connoisseurs of this prejudiced misconception, and led the movement to restore Indian art to its rightful position in art history of the world.

Another notable contribution of Nivedita was to convince officials of the Art schools in India of the need for revival of Indian Arts.  Art schools at that time only taught European art and ideals.  By the force of her personality and the strength of her arguments, Nivedita convinced Abanindranath Tagore, Vice Principal of the Calcutta Art School, to focus on renaissance of Indian Arts.  She once said,

“Art must be reborn.  Not the miserable travesty of would-be Europeanism that we at present know. There is no voice like that of art, to reach the people. . And art will be reborn, for she has found a new subject-India herself.” (Atmaprana, 1961).

Nivedita’s involvement with Indian art penetrated deep down to the level of personal interaction with the painters. Once Nandalal Bose, a student of Abanindranath at the Art School of Calcutta, showed Nivedita his painting of ‘Jagai and Madhai[2]’.  She appreciated the painting but pointing to the common hookah attached to their girdles she remarked, “In Jagai’s days, smoking of tobacco was not introduced. When painting a picture, you should read from books about the manners and customs of the time.” (Atmaprana, 1961).

Science in India

Although Nivedita had no formal training in science, she developed a keen interest almost immediately after arriving in India in the research conducted then by Jagadish Chandra Bose.  Sir J. C. Bose had already gained national and international fame with his publications and demonstrations in microwave research, but by 1898, his focus had shifted to fatigue response of various metals and plant cells. More importantly, he firmly believed that consciousness was the underlying principle in the continuity of response in the living and non-living. This viewpoint was considered as quixotic then as it is now.  But Nivedita perspicaciously saw the link between Vedanta and Bose’s views and encouraged him with all the resources at her command to pursue this track. In fact, she insisted to Bose that he should write down all the ideas that came up in his mind.  When J. C. Bose replied that the ideas passed like a flash and eluded him, she responded, “But I am here.  My pen is an obedient servant; it will serve you well.  It is yours.” (Reymond, 1985).

Nivedita’s role was much greater than her pen being an obedient servant. When the British scientist Patrick Geddes became one of the main organizers of the Paris Exposition in 1900 and hired her as his secretary, Nivedita arranged for J. C. Bose to present his lecture not on microwave research (for which he was famous) but on the controversial topic of continuity of response in the living and non-living. After returning to India, J. C. Bose and Nivedita met twice every week to discuss and finalize two manuscripts, “Responses in the Living and Non-Living” (1902) and “Plant response as a means of physiological investigation” (1906).  It is unfortunate that Nivedita’s name does not appear in either publication.  But some of her short articles (e.g., “Mr. Tata’s Scheme, 1899; and The Hindu Mind in Modern Science, 1902) bear ample testimony to her lucid style and her rare ability to communicate science ideas with the common public.

Nivedita was visiting the hill station of Darjeeling with J. C. Bose and his wife Abala Bose in October 1911.  They had planned to visit the temple of Sandakhpu in Sikkim, but Nivedita was diagnosed with the then-incurable disease of malignant dysentery.  Her last words to Abala Bose were, “The boat is sinking, but I shall see the sun rise.” She breathed her last on the dawn of October 13, 1911. The cenotaph of Sister Nivedita in the lap of the Himalayas aptly reads, “Here lies in peace Sister Nivedita who has given her everything to India”.

Banner Image: L: A painting of Margaret Noble. R: India’s first national flag that she designed.


The Complete Works of Sister Nivedita.  Published by: Ramakrishna Sarada Mission Sister Nivedita Girls’ School.  First edition, 1967.

Reymond, Lizelle. 1985. The Dedicated – A Biography of Nivedita.  Samata Books, Corrected edition, 1985.

Atmaprana, Pravrajika. 1961.  Sister Nivedita of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda.  Sister Nivedita Girls’ School.
References / Footnotes

[1] Aggressive Nationalism is also the title of an article that Sister Nivedita wrote that was later published as a book

[2] Two thugs associated with the life of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (16th century)

About Author: Sukalyan Sengupta

Sukalyan Sengupta is an Environmental Engineer by training and is currently a Professor of Environmental Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He is also the Director of its Center for Indic Studies. He has a keen interest in applying the principles of SanAtana Dharma to contemporary problems and challenges, be they in science (e.g., the role of consciousness in any experience), philosophy, education, or nation-building.

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