The life and works of Margaret Elizabeth Noble (Sister Nivedita, ‘The Dedicated One’) has been chronicled well. She was one who renounced her motherland and all the mores that she was accustomed to, for the only cause of ‘India’. Her greatness manifested in myriad dimensions. Her dedication, her spirituality and her renunciation are well-discussed. However, it is her multifaceted character as well as her intense love for India, which springs to life through the compilation of some 886 letters, which had been published by Advaita Ashrama, the publication wing of the Ramakrishna Math. The letters also hold a mirror to India, of those times, through the eyes of Nivedita. The present ‘Advaita Ashrama’ edition, with 85 newly discovered letters is published nearly 35 years after the first publication of her letters in two volumes – thanks to Professor Shankari Prasad Basu, a renowned scholar and researcher on Swami Vivekananda. The letters were written to eminent people (within India and abroad) by Sister Nivedita, between 1897 and 1911.
Nivedita wrote the letters almost like a diary to her family, friends and acquaintances across the globe. The recipients include eminent thinkers, philosophers, noble laureates, newspaper editors, poets (like Rabindranath Tagore) and scientists. The common thread is her overwhelming love for India, the land that she adopted as her own. They reveal for the first time about some unknown incidents during the British Raj, like a private visit to Nivedita by Lady Minto, the then Vicerine, who also went to Dakshineswar temple. Letters were also written to poets, thespians to famous designer Lalique to William John Warner (better known as Cherio). The maximum number of Sister Nivedita’s letters were written to Josephine Mcleod and Mrs Ole Bull (American friends of Swami Vivekananda) who helped and supported Sister Nivedita right from her arrival in India.
Margaret Elizabeth Noble was only 10 when she lost her father. But within those ten years she must have imbibed a lot of the values that her clergyman father had held. These acted as her lodestar and finally Nivedita left her home and country in 1898, following the footsteps of Swami Vivekananda. She and her siblings were brought up by her grandfather Hamilton, one of the pioneers of Irish Freedom Struggle – that also left some influences on her as we can gauge from her increasing involvement in India’s freedom struggle, which led to her severance of her ties, with Ramakrishna Math and Mission after the demise of Swami Vivekananda.
Education for girls : Teaching was very close to Nivedita’s heart and she broke new ground in this respect, before she set sail. It is said that what attracted Nivedita to Vivekananda (who held the sessions in London in 1895-1896) was not only his talk on Vedanta but also his talk about the education of girls in India. Nivedita was moved enough to leave her home for India to serve the girl children there. Nivedita’s admiration for Swami Vivekananda led to an all-embracing love for India, which was then under British rule. The whites here were dismissive of her, the erudite Indians accepted Nivedita but Sister Nivedita had to face the rigidities of the orthodox Hindu society. However in her letters to Sara Bull, Nivedita wrote how Sarada Devi, the wife of Ramakrishna Paramhansa accepted her, calling “amar meye” (my daughter) and even by sharing food with her. “This gave me all the dignity and made my future works possible in a way nothing else could have done possibly”, she later wrote in a letter. Nivedita’s Irish background saw her steadily getting drawn into the burgeoning freedom movement, even as her love for the country and its people began to manifest through her letters. If one goes through ‘The Statesman’ between 1904 and 1906, which were the watershed years in the Swadeshi Movement, the paper’s sympathetic stance towards India and its nationalistic struggle is revealed. There was an unknown force at work – the letters written by Sister Nivedita to Samuel Ratcliffe, the editor of the paper. For sometime, Nivedita herself edited a paper on Indian nationalism after Aurobindo Ghosh left for Pondicherry.
Nivedita declared in a letter to Ms Macleod: “The British Empire is rotten to the core, without direction and is tyrannical and mean...” She also guided and mentored the Neo-India art movement of her times, especially what later came to be known as the Bengal school whose exponents include Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and Asit Kumar Haldar.
Nivedita, who spent 13 years in India till her death opened a school in 1898 going from door to door, pleading with parents to send their girls to her school. She joined Swami Vivekananda, when Swamiji tended to the plague-stricken people in erstwhile Calcutta.
Interest in Nivedita’s inner thoughts was first kindled through the Bengali translation of her biography (in French by Lizelle Ramond around 1960); the actual discovery of the large cache of letters, written by Nivedita, set the stage for the publication of these volumes. The letters were in the custody of Srimat Anirvan, a Vedic Pundit and yogi.
On a Sunday afternoon, in a house in South Calcutta, the treasure trove was handed over to Professor Basu with only one condition : ‘That he would use them to work on Nivedita’. The aged sadhu had received these from Lizelle Reymond and he had been guarding them for a decade, waiting for the right person to hand them over. He found one in Professor Basu. The number of letters swelled as Professor Basu kept adding to his collection from many sources.
The Project of Belur Math : The Belur Math project also had the blessings of Swami Abhayananda, better known as Bharat Maharaj. He was the only man living, who knew Nivedita personally giving his thoughts on what she was like and what she thought. Deciphering the hand-written letters, was a stupenduous task. Before his death, the Maharaj passed on the original letters alongwith some more unpublished ones to the Belur Math. Among her last letters were those, Nivedita wrote to Francis Legget, the sister of Josephine Macleod - was about the planning for the establishment Vivekananda temple at Belur, where Swami Vivekananda was cremated. Nivedita breathed her last on a wintry dawn in October at Darjeeling, in the company of her friends Jagadish Chandra Bose and his wife Abala Bose. Gonen Maharaj of Ramakrishna Mission lit the pyre and Nivedita was cremated as per the Hindu-rites. Later an epitaph was erected at that spot which read, “Here reposes Sister Nivedita of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, who gave her all to India”.
1897-1911 : The intervening years of growing turbulence in Indian History are the backdrop of nearly 900 letters, written by Sister Nivedita to her family, friends and acquaintances all over the world. They include princess, politicians, businessmen, editors of newspapers, poets, artists, scientists and other men of eminence. These letters were painstakingly researched by Proffessor Shankari Prasad Basu, a noted scholar and writer of the contemporary period. Professor Shankari Prasad Basu researched with those letters over a period of two decades from Indian, American and European sources. The letters remained unknown till Professor Basu published them in 1982, throwing fresh light on the history of an important age. For eager and inquisitive minds, Nivedita’s letters are invaluable source on many counts – those letters reveal various unknown and starting facts about India during the time of Curzon, Minto and Hardinge; drawing us to India of Vivekananda, Rabindranath and Aurobindo, allowing us to visualise the real picture of India, groaning under the imperialistic rule and yet rising to a great purpose.
Most of the collected letters written by Sister Nivedita were addressed to Sara Bull. Some of these are not published in the two volumes of Sister Nivedita’s letters brought out by Sankari Prasad Basu. Of the others, only some portions are found in the second volume of the book, written by Sankari Prasad Basu and it is not mentioned to whom these letters were written.