We all know how an Irish woman named Margret Noble became Sister Nivedita due to Vivekananda’s influence. Most Indians are aware of how she worked tirelessly in India as a social and political activist. When she first came, she said, “It is the dream of my life to make England and India love each other”; but she soon realised that the British Empire would only keep India subjugated. So she chose to become fully Indian. Many are proud that a white woman came to consider colonised India as her motherland. But few understand that she was a nationalist in the truest sense of the term. She was a revolutionary leader, educationist, nurse, empowerer of women, patron of arts and sciences — the dimensions of her work are too numerous to be enumerated. But what binds all these dimensions together is that she was building up the Indian Nation. That Nation already existed, but after centuries of subjugation and the transformation in the very ethos wrought by the British, it was like a falcon with its pinion tied who had forgotten how to be free and soar to heavens. She knew that mere political freedom is not enough to bring about social transformation at the deepest level. So she constantly tried to inspire nationalism among Indians.
She considered this to be the most important task before her. In a letter to a friend she explains, “the whole task now is to give the word ‘nationality’ to India, in all its breadth and meaning. The rest will do itself. India must be obsessed with this great conception…..It means new views of history, of customs, and it means the assimilation of the whole Ramakrishna Vivekananda idea in religion, the synthesis of all religious beliefs. It means a final understanding of the fact that the political process and the economic disasters are only sided issues -that the one essential fact is the realisation of its nationality by the Nation.”
But this cannot be done by mere lectures. The concept must be implemented through work.
She declared “The true seer is he who carries his vision into action, regardless of the consequences to himself, this is the doctrine of the Gita repeated again and again.” Since she was not a hypocrite, she practised what she preached. She carried out a vast range of social and educational activities, whether it is building schools for women, or taking care of patients stricken by plague or helping Jagadishchandra Bose in working on his research or providing leadership to Swadeshi movement.
That is the message she hammered home again and again, particularly to young people.
Indian culture is great, but just revering it without any action has made society stagnant. So she tells young Indians, “I am here to teach you to become a man! Live your epics today. The Ramayana is not something that came once and for all, from a society that is dead and gone. Make your own Ramayana, not in the written story but in service and achievement for the Motherland”. In 1904, in Patna, she addressed the Hindu Boys Association: “Students should always ask themselves what India expected of them……. The good of your country should be your true aim. Do not seek it by literary pursuits of clever writings of articles or oratory. There are too many among youth who are fit for these things. Think that the whole country is your country, and your country needs work…….By no means to be found sleeping when the cry comes for battle.”
The importance she gave to the all-out engagement of service at every moment to India is evident in her belief that art itself must be put in service to the cause of the Nation: “like science, like education, like industry, like trade… must now be followed for the remaking of the Motherland and for no other aim”. So when she saw the painting of Abanindranath Tagore’s Bharatmata, she rejoiced that it is “spirit of the motherland, the giver of all food, yet eternally virgin, eternally raft from a human sense in prayer and gift… is she not, after all, our very own,… at once mother and daughter of the Indian land “.
This vision of a united yet pluralistic Indian civilisation existing from time immemorial also guided her when she created the first national flag of India. India already existed as a nation, so she felt that one could not merely manufacture a national flag. The design should mean something. So she chose Vajra or thunderbolt as the symbol. It the weapon of Lord Indra, king of the gods. According to legend it was built from the bones of Rishi Dadhichi who willingly sacrificed his life so that the devas can build their weapon to destroy the Asura who was holding back rainfall from the earth and creating a draught. Thus it is a symbol of renunciation for the greater good. The vajra is also a symbol of Buddha that implies ‘The Selfless Man’. Finally, Goddess Durga carries vajra as one of her weapons to slay Mahisasura to restore dharma. Thus the thunderbolt becomes the symbol of self-sacrifice, service and strength. In the flag designed by Nivedita, the vajra emblem was displayed between the two words Bande and Mataram. That one single creation displays how many sisters Nivedita was in tune with Indian culture, how much she wanted it to rise up from subjugation to borrowed ideas to provide leadership to the world. It is a paradox that a Britisher when British supremacy was at its highest could become immersed in the web of Indian life, but now Indians born and brought up here declare that they hate this country’s culture and want to reshape it into the vision of already discredited foreign ideologies. This demonstrates again that political independence alone is not enough; the task of making Indians feel like a confident nation is an ongoing project.
What Nivedita still gives us is a positive vision of India. She came to a country suffering from foreign rule, filled with poverty, dirt, deep social inequities, its culture stagnant and decaying. Yet she saw the potential – that the mother shall be what she once was in the glorious past. So she worked hard, without any hope of reward for herself except the satisfaction of seeing her vision slowly fulfilled. Her life provides the model to follow — one struggles against whatever wrongs or discrimination he or she finds with the aim of building a flourishing Bharatiya nation. That is proof that the national spirit, that democracy is alive.
We Indians must strive for the qualities Sister Nivedita embodied as immortalised by Vivekananda in his lines —
The mother’s heart, the hero’s will
The sweetness of the southern breeze,
The sacred charm and strength that dwells
On Aryan altars, flaming, free
Only then will Bharat be Mahabharat.