Swami Vivekananda’s second visit to London between April and December 1896 was of crucial importance not only to the renewal of his efforts at the heart of the Empire but also in further cementing and deepening his ties—as Master with one of his chief disciples—Margaret Noble.
In her seminal review of the Master’s life, Margaret as Sister Nivedita later described this phase simply and yet with rare depth, insight and emotion. She grasped and expressed in a condensed, power-packed format the essence of these last months before Swamiji’s tumultuous return to the Indian shores. In the West, she wrote, ‘the Swami had revealed himself to us as a religious teacher only. Even now, it needs but a moment’s thought and again one sees him in the old lecture-room, on the seat slightly raised above his class, and so enthroned, in a Buddha-like calm, once more in a modern world is heard through his lips, the voice of the far past.”
During these months, the West, as Margaret saw it, perceived ‘the Swami not only as a great patriot’, though that too flashed across at times, but more as an apostle of Hinduism. And core of the Master’s teaching, as witnessed and internalised by her during this period were, ‘renunciation, the thirst after freedom, the breaking of bondage, the fire of purity, the joy of the witness, (and ) the mergence of the personal in the impersonal…’ Margaret’s tapasya on all these fronts and heights was to begin, in effect, simultaneously from this period onwards. It is thus that it requires more than a passing glance.
Swamiji’s work in London appeared to have suffered after he left for India in December 1896. The absence to even a ‘minimal organisation’to support the herculean efforts of ‘Kali’ Swami Abhedananda (1866-1939) there compounded the problems and pitted the nascent movement against great odds. This is not to say that Swamiji had not anticipated such an eventuality, writing from London to the ardent Alasinga Perumal (1863-1909) in October 1896, he observed that ‘as soon as I leave, most of this fabric will tumble.
The letter also contained the man-making, nation-building formula, strength, manhood, Kshatra-Virya + Brahma Teja was what was needed for a grand and lasting awakening. A nation in the throes of self-forgetfulness, a youth superficially looking outward for self-fulfilment needed this divine formula of regeneration then as now. Coming back to the work in London, it enabled Swamiji—as the indefatigable chronicler of his Western initiative Marie Louise Burke (1911-2004), was to write—to mine ‘three jewels, there “lion-souls”who were to play decisive parts in ‘his world mission’ and among them, perhaps the most notable’was Margaret Noble, later Sister Nivedita, (The other two were Captain James Sevier and Mrs. Sevier, both self-abnegating founding pillars of the Advaita Ashrama in the Himalayan heights).
To be fair, the London work was not all that nugatory and did leave a lasting impression and effect. Its ripples were felt and witnessed by none less than Bipin Chandra Pal (1858-1932) one of the principal trend-setter of the nationalist politics in the Swadeshi era, when he visited London in the late 1890s. Writing in 1899, Pal noticed the marked influence that Swami Vivekananda exerted everywhere (in England). In many parts of England, wrote Pal, Í have met with men who deeply regard and venerate Vivekananda… Vivekananda has opened the eyes of a great many her and broadened their hearts (and ) owing to his teaching, most people here now believe firmly that wonderful spiritual truths lie hidden in the ancient Hindu scriptures. The other effect that struck Pal in England owing to the spread of Vivekananda’s doctrines was the secession of many hundreds of people from Christianity and the growth of reverence and eagerness among the educated to listen to ‘any religious or spiritual truths, if they belong to India. In spite of a mountain of difficulties an attitudinal shift in seed form towards India, her knowledge and her people had been generated through Swamiji’s efforts in London.
Margaret’s awakening had begun in right earnest, the god within had begun stirring so to say. She could already witness her Master grappling with the ignorance he pronounced to be the root of misery and in this effort his compassion, seemed to her to be as vast, as profound and as long-enduring as that of the Avalokiteswara, reaching out beyond boundaries, races and continents. Ín his class, in his teachings’, wrote Margaret referring to ‘The Message of the Guru, ‘his one longing seemed to be for the salvation of men from ignorance. Such love, such pity, those who heard him never saw elsewhere. To him, his disciples were his disciples. There was neither Indian nor European there.’
This was the phase (April-December1896) then that spiritually established the Master-Disciple relationship, and a look at its deeper dimensions as described and realised by Sister Nivedita herself is called for, perhaps in order to understand the underlying truths of her role in her Master’s work for India.