A Champion Of Downtrodden Women

BY RUCHIRA GHOSH

This is the saga of a courageous, undaunted, free-spirited British lady, who spent a major part of her life in an alien land, wholeheartedly devoting herself to the service of humanity. To date, she is venerated and fondly remembered for the yeomen’s service she rendered to the masses (read women) in her adopted country.

On a cold November evening in 1895, Miss Margaret Noble, then all of 28 met Swami Vivekananda in a West End drawing-room of London. Her friend Mr Ebenezer Cook had invited Margaret to Lady Isabel Marges’ home where a Hindu Yogi would discuss religion. Miss Noble learnt that the Yogi, Swami Vivekananda, during his phenomenal tour of the United States had addressed the Parliament of Religions held at Chicago in 1893. On the appointed day she joined a group of fifteen or sixteen people before whom the Swami spoke about the need for exchange of ideas between nations.

Though her mind was in turmoil, Margaret heard more discourses that Swami Vivekananda gave in London during his sojourn. Though she did not agree with him totally, she was so impressed by his character and his apparent readiness to seek truth, that even before he left England, she addressed him as “Master”.

When Swami Vivekananda returned to London in April 1896, Margaret imbibed more of his teachings. Vivekananda outlined his plans for women’s education in his own country and Margaret offered to help him. Learning of Margaret’s intentions, Vivekananda said he would stand by anyone who helped him in that.

After Vivekananda’s return to India Margaret along with an associate, Mr Sturdy took charge of the Vedanta Centre in London. Vivekananda had set himself to the task of revamping the activities of Ramakrishna’s followers. Margaret was the link between the “Math” (monastery) and the western sympathizers of the project and garnered funds.  

Swamiji regularly corresponded with Margaret on these matters. At long last, she wrote to Vivekananda saying she wanted to come to India to learn how to fulfil herself through service. To Vivekananda, this signified how Margaret had given up the role of a giver and wanted to be a learner. She had completely shed her ego. The ‘Right Time’ had arrived. Vivekananda warned that she would have to live amidst superstition, poverty, in an uncongenial environment. She would also have to endure infernal tropical heat.  Advising her to think seriously before she took the plunge, he promised all support in whatever she would undertake. Margaret spent some time in preparation, gave her sister, Mary the charge of Ruskin School (her brainchild). On a wet day, she set sail with her mother, siblings, and some friends seeing her off. A new chapter was unfolding…

Margaret was welcomed in Madras by Mr Goodwin, Vivekananda’s stenographer-disciple. On 18 January 1898, Vivekananda and his associates received her enthusiastically in Calcutta. She was lodged with some friends of the Ramakrishna Order at a house in Park Street. The next day, Vivekananda sent a monk to teach her Bengali. Shortly afterwards, she moved in with two American friends (read patron/sponsors) of Swamiji- Mrs Sarah Ole Bull and Miss Josephine MacLeod, who were in India in connection with the establishment of a “Math” and temple at Belur. Vivekananda often visited the three foreigners and held discussions with them.

Another landmark was Nivedita’s meeting with Sarada Devi (Sri Maa), the divine consort of Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, whom she first saw accompanied by Mrs Bull and Miss Macleod. Sri Maa received them affectionately. She was nicknamed Margaret Khuki (little girl, in Bangla).

Later that year, Margaret accompanied Swamiji, and the two American ladies on a trip to Nainital, Almora and Kashmir among others. This was a spiritually fulfilling journey that helped to orient her to Indian ethos and culture.

Nivedita returned to Calcutta 1n November 1898.

On November 13, Sri Maa inaugurated the school in Bosepara Lane. A few local girls were Nivedita’s first pupils. Soon they roped in their mothers. Sister Nivedita also introduced painting, clay work and sewing. She coached the Mission Brahmacharis in various subjects, spoke at the weekly meetings of the Mission, and lectured on education at the Brahmo Samaj.  Her teachers’ training classes drew many distinguished ladies. She also taught history at an American missionary school.

On 25th March 1899, Vivekananda initiated Margaret Noble into Brahmacharya rechristening her as Bhagini (sister) Nivedita (the epitome of consecration).

Her work to alleviate the suffering of the people during the outbreak of the plague in 1899 was lauded by all her contemporaries.

Meanwhile, she adapted herself to Hindu etiquette, thus earning the approval of Mother Saradamani and her associates (mostly orthodox Hindu widows). Vivekananda personally helped Nivedita to mingle with divergent people. He ensured more and more people took food and beverages served by her, thus dissolving their prejudices against foreigners. The school’s funds were scarce. Secondly, many pupils would be withdrawn and married off. The school lacked dedicated volunteers. Widows and destitute could be roped in, but they would require safe lodging and training. Ultimately, Nivedita was disheartened when the school shut.

Ramkrishna Sarada Mission Sister Nivedita Girls’ School.

In June 1899, Nivedita went on a tour of the West with Swami Vivekananda, and Swami Turiyananda. She delivered lectures to raise funds for the nascent “Math”.  During the voyage to London, Vivekananda was all attention to Nivedita. He told her about Hindu religious beliefs, the lives of Hindu saints and other great men. Thus, she was initiated into the core of the Hindu viewpoint on life and ideology. Subsequently, she incorporated them in her literary works, the most famous of which was ‘Cradle tales of Hinduism’. 

Thence till 1902, when she returned home, she continued to give lectures in the UK and   USA schools. A few days later, Swamiji symbolically hosted the “last supper” for her. Nivedita had a premonition of an impending tragedy.  On 4th July 1902, Swamiji passed away. A chapter had ended. Later, Nivedita wrote to MacLeod saying that she could not confine herself to work for women. Her task was to awaken people to the problems and tasks which lay ahead. Nivedita now decided to “discover India and propagate Swami’s message to the masses”.

Beginning in 1903, Nivedita focused intensely on her school again. In her absence, Miss Bett, her old maid, had looked after the school. Christine Greenstide, an American disciple of Swamiji, joined Nivedita in March 1903. The number of pupils stood at 45. They implemented the latest methods of education which aimed at supplementing book knowledge by practical exercises. An exclusive section was opened for the neighbourhood women who had cordial ties with Nivedita and Christine. Scientist J.C. Bose’s sister, Labanyaprova, taught reading and writing; Mother Saradamani’s associate, Joginma, taught religion, while Christine taught sewing and needlework. Nivedita taught them Geography, History, and Drawing. Monks from the Mission held discourses on the Gita. More and more housewives began to come forward to be schooled. New vistas opened before their eyes. Sri Maa Mother visited the school occasionally to inspire the girls. The school slowly expanded and had to be shifted to bigger premises. This was the beginning of what is now Ramkrishna Sarada Mission Sister Nivedita Girls’ School.

The School lit with diyas during the Deepawali celebrations, 2019.

Nivedita and Christine interacted with the orthodox, mainly illiterate womenfolk, fully honouring their sentiments, beliefs and customs. She introduced the teaching of Sanskrit, encouraging the girls to scribble Sanskrit on palm leaves.

Each day the students sang “Bande Mataram,” (though it was prohibited by the government), and uttered Sanskrit prayers before an adorned photograph of Sri Ramakrishna. By 1910, the school had nearly seventy students. Nivedita was a strict disciplinarian. Academics apart, the girls were allowed to visit the Museum, the Zoo, Dakshineswar, Belur Math, Sri Maa’s home and such likes. She took her students to Brahmo Girls’ School where patriotic lectures used to be delivered. She arranged for a display of their handicrafts at Swadeshi Exhibitions. Spinning classes were held. She read Vivekananda’s life with her girls. Nivedita looked after her ‘child-widow’ students with great care. Her school became a safe haven where lonely young souls found knowledge, shelter, and mental bliss. Even though it was certainly not roses all the way for her, Nivedita felt truly blessed.  

Aged 43, Sister Nivedita died on 13 October 1911, in Darjeeling, and is buried there. The epitaph on her tombstone reads “Here lies Sister Nivedita, who gave her all to India”.

New Delhi-based Ruchira Adhikari Ghosh eats, drinks and dreams literature.  She has a penchant for fiction & classical masterpieces. No nonfiction for her – however marvellous it may be. With a Post Graduate diploma in Journalism & Mass Communication, Ruchira is a professional journalist and has regularly contributed to noted dailies. For her, creativity is a journey into the realm of fantasy. It also offers her a catharsis from emotional turmoil & worldly woes.