13th October 1911: Sister Nivedita, social worker, passed away

A writer, social worker and disciple of Swami Vivekananda, Margaret Elizabeth Noble was renamed Sister Nivedita by her guru in 1898. Besides working for social causes, she dedicated her years in India to promoting Swami Vivekananda’s thoughts and the cause of Indian nationalism.

Like Swami Vivekananda who passed away when he was only 39 years old, Sister Nivedita died on 13 October 1911, at the young age of 43. Her epitaph—“Here reposes Sister Nivedita, who gave her all to India”—sums up her dedication to her adopted land and the high regard she was held in by those who knew her well.

Margaret was born on 28 October 1867 in the Irish town of Dungannon to Mary Isabel and Samuel Richmond Noble, who was a priest. After Samuel’s death in 1877, Margaret was raised by her maternal grandfather, Hamilton, an important leader of the Irish freedom movement. After finishing school and college, Margaret became a teacher. She also read extensively, and was particularly attracted to religious literature from all over the world. Soon she started contributing articles for publication. She was supposed to marry a young Welsh man but he died after their engagement. 

One day in November 1895, the Indian religious and nationalist leader Swami Vivekananda, who was on a lecture tour of England, was explaining the philosophy of Vedanta to a family in a rich London home. Margaret had been invited for this talk.

She later recalled this first encounter with Swami Vivekananda in a book she wrote in 1910, in these memorable words: “[H]e was seated, facing a half-circle of listeners, with the fire on the hearth behind him, and as he answered question after question, breaking now and then into the chanting of some Sanskrit text in illustration of his reply, the scene must have appeared to him, while twilight passed into darkness, only as a curious variant upon the Indian garden, or on the group of hearers gathered at sundown round the Sadhu who sits beside the well, or under the tree outside the village-bounds.”

Thereafter she attended several lectures of Swami Vivekananda.

In a letter to Margaret, Swami Vivekananda urged her to come to India and work to improve women’s lives. “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,” he wrote. Margaret heeded the Swami’s call, leaving behind her life in England, and set sail for India, reaching Calcutta on 28 January 1898.

As she got to know Swami Vivekananda better, his personality created an even deeper impression on her. She later wrote, “Amongst brilliant conversationalists, the Swami was peculiar in one respect. He was never known to show the slightest impatience at interruption. He was by no means indifferent as to the minds he was addressing.”

A couple of months after she arrived in India, Margaret was initiated into a vow of celibacy by Swami Vivekananda and named Nivedita, which means 'dedicated soul'. Later that year, she started a girls’ school in Calcutta and began taking active interest in educating girls, a cause she would remain committed to for the rest of her life. She actively took part in plague relief work during an outbreak of the epidemic in 1899, and put up appeals for help in newspapers.

She travelled with Swami Vivekananda and some of his other western disciples to several parts of India, including Kashmir and the Himalayan region. Between 1900 and 1902 she travelled to the United States and Britain, giving lectures on Hinduism and Indian nationalism.

After 1900 Swami Vivekananda’s health started to deteriorate but he continued with his tours. By 1902, however, it was clear to his disciples that the end was near. Sister Nivedita later recalled, “There was nothing sad or grave about the Swami, during these days. In the midst of anxiety about over-fatiguing him, in spite of conversation deliberately kept as light as possible […], one was conscious [all] the while of a luminous presence, of which his bodily form seemed only as a shadow, or symbol.”

After Swami Vivekananda’s death, Sister Nivedita gave several lectures in India, speaking about Indian culture and the importance of working selflessly for the motherland. She became a staunch critic of the British government and a passionate voice in favour of Indian nationalism and self-respect. “The whole history of the world shows that the Indian intellect is second to none . . . Are the countrymen of Bhaskaracharya and Shankaracharya inferior to the countrymen of Newton and Darwin? We trust not,” she wrote in an editorial in Karma Yogin, Sri Aurobindo’s nationalist newspaper.

She promoted Indian arts and craft at her school and elsewhere, even as resistance to Western imported goods was growing. For Sister Nivedita, the goddess Kali became both a symbol of Indian nationalism and women’s empowerment. She gave tacit support to the militant activities of revolutionary groups opposed to the Bengal Partition of 1905. Despite flailing health, she undertook relief work during the Bengal famine of 1906.

Some feminist scholars have criticised her ‘romanticised’ view of Hinduism, but there is little doubt that Sister Nivedita was deeply committed to the Indian cause. A remarkable Irish woman who started off as a simple disciple of a charismatic religious teacher and followed him to India, Sister Nivedita had by the end of her life transformed into an important critic of the British Raj.

Also on this day:

1911 — Ashok Kumar, Indian film actor, was born  

1912 — Mathai Manjooran, Indian independence activist and MP from Kerala, was born

1929 —  Shivinder Singh Sidhu, Governor of Manipur, Meghalaya and Goa, was born

1936 — Chitti Babu, renowned Veena player, was born 

1987 —  Kishore Kumar, legendary film actor and playback singer, passed away

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