|Birth place||Northern Ireland|
|Date of death||13 October 1911|
|Death place||Darjeeling, India|
|Father||Samuel Richmond Noble|
|Date of birth||28 October 1867|
Sister Nivedita was one of the greatest political and philosophical thinkers of the 19th century, who despite her foreign birth proudly identified herself as an Indian nationalist. She was a scholar, philosopher, pedagogue, social worker, artist and feminist, all the same time. In her short life, she managed to influence a whole generation of individuals who went on to define India's fortunes in the twentieth century.
Born as Margaret Elizabeth Noble in an Irish household, her grandfather happened to be an Irish revolutionary himself. Her childhood was fraught with difficulties, as she lost her father Samuel Richmond Noble at the age of ten. Soon after passing out of school, she got employed as a teacher at the tender age of 17. Noble confronted the contradictions of Western ideals as a teacher in Keswick, Ireland. Later, she shifted to Wimbledon, which was a significant stint in her career, crystallising in her mind a lot of ideas that would define her life ahead.
Her thoughts on education were based on the ideals espoused by pedagogues like Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and Friedrich Frobel. Noble's tryst with teaching stimulated in her mind certain religious questions. She had been born in a family of priests, and so was a devout Christian from the very outset. However, she didn’t confine herself to Christian ideals, and cast her net wide to understand the religions of the Eastern world as well. She began researching extensively on philosophy, religion, ethics and spiritual, and her works were published extensively in periodicals and journals.
Meeting Swami Vivekananda
The turning point in her life was her encountering Swami Vivekananda in London in November 1895. He was apparently addressing a group of aristocrats, and Noble was absolutely mesmerized by his exposition on Vedanta. She began meeting Vivekananda regularly, and always returned enlightened with the Swami’s depth of thought. Vivekananda too developed a liking for Noble, given her appetite for knowledge and spiritual bent of mind. Her understanding of Hindu religion and philosophy had enhanced for certain, and she decided to devote her life to this cause.
Vivekananda guided her for two years, and then famously said the following to Noble, ‘‘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 especially. 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”[ref]
Shifting to India and becoming 'Nivedita'
Thus, in January 1898, Noble left for India leaving behind her family and country. She spent two months in the Dakshineshwar temple, where Vivekananda acquainted her with Indian society and culture, lessons that would prove invaluable in the years to come. She got to meet Sri Sri Ma Sarada Devi, and sought her blessings. In March, 1898, Vivekananda initiated her into the vow of Brahmacharya, and gave her that name that has immortalised her in the minds of millions- ‘Nivedita’ (Dedicated to God). Along with her, two other Western disciples too received the blessings of Vivekananda: Sara Bull and Josephine MacLeod. The three of them became inseparable friends almost a decade.
Nivedita immediately got herself involved in social activities, as she opened a school for girls in Bagbazaar, Calcutta. In 1899, a plague epidemic ravaged Bengal, and once again, Nivedita was in the forefront of relief operations.
Sister Nivedita's contributions and influence
Swami Vivekananda passed away in 1902, and that undoubtedly left a void in Nivedita's life. She immersed herself in greater stead towards the national cause. She travelled far and wide to spread the message of unity and inform people about the magnificence of the Indian civilisation. She vehemently opposed the partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon in 1905, and adviced many nationalist groups who launched protests against the same. In the process, she was forced to sever her ties with the Ramakrishna Mission.
Scholarly partnership with a Japanese
Her relations with Japanese scholar Kakuzo Okakura have drawn a lot of scholarly attention, as it highlights the way different causes united under one common goal. Okukura had been the counselor for the Japanese mission at Chicago, during the famous World Parliament of Religions. He was a reputed writer and Nivedita accompanied him on a visit to the Ramakrishna monastery in the Himalayas. She helped him translate his Japan Art Institute lectures into English, and later also assisted in publishing the book, ‘Ideas of the East: The Spirit of Japanese Art’.[ref]
Support to Jagdish Chandra Bose
Sister Nivedita’s activities influenced a whole generation of influential individuals coming from various fields. She, for instance, was a huge pillar of support for scientist Jagdish Chandra Bose, who had gained a stellar reputation for his original research. While his research-work was stupendous, funding was a huge issue, as an imperial Britain was unwilling to acknowledge the contributions of an India. Nivedita helped him financially and also propagated his works through newspapers and periodicals. When he fell ill, she nursed him like a mother. This reflected Nivedita’s belief in science and rationality, in an age where scientific research was largely ignored.
Designing the first national flag
Bhagini Nivedita’s most enduring contributions were in the realm of literature and aesthetics. She continued her literary endeavours after shifting to India, writing books like ‘Kali the mother’, ‘The Web of Indian life’, ‘The Master as I saw him’ and ‘Cradle tales of Hinduism’. She also was deeply interested in art, and argued for the need of an ‘indigenous’ style of painting that reflected Indian thought. Her ideas are best illustrated in a national flag conceived by her in 1905. This was stitched by workers in her girl’s school in Calcutta, and basically had 108 jyotis (oil lamps) around a border, with a vajra (Indra’s weapon) occupying centre-space and the word ‘Vande Mataram’ inscribed across the flag in Bengali. This was the first national flag conceived for India, and was closely followed by the Calcutta flag designed by Sachindra Prasad Bose and Sukumar Mitra. [ref]
Nivedita was a source of inspiration for painters like Abanindranath Tagore and later, Nandalal Bose. Her conception of art was rooted in national ideals, and though not every Indian painter subscribed to it in totality, Nivedita did remain a figure of importance for artists and litterateurs across the country.
Nivedita passed away in Darjeeling in 1911, at the age of 44.
Soon after her death, the illustrious Rabindranath Tagore wrote a glowing tribute for her, that encapsulates the legacy Bhagini Nivedita has left behind:
"Sister Nivedita had won her access to the inmost heart of our society by her supreme gift of sympathy. She did not come to us with the impertinent curiosity of a visitor nor did she elevate herself on a special high perch with the idea that a bird's eye view is truer than the human view because of its supreme aloofness. She lived our life and came to know us by becoming one of ourselves. She became so intimately familiar with our people that she had the rare opportunity of observing us unawares. Her love for India was genuine and it was no outburst of temporary emotion. Her affection embraed one and all. She denied everything to herself for the benefit of the people among whom she lived and worked. She gave her all to India and therein lies her true dignity."[ref]