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The Story of Sister Nivedita, a Woman Who Knew That India’s Unity Was in Its Diversity

Nivedita added to the mantra of nation-making, which would set a direction and course to an awakened people in their ultimate movement towards freedom.

Nivedita was now driven by her mission of generating awareness

among Indians about the underlying oneness in their civilisational

experience, despite external disparities. It was a misconception to

think that the British, with English education, introduction of

cheap postage and building of a strong infrastructure of roads and

railways, had created India. The idea of India was to be propagated

by homegrown efforts and not foreign examples. In her expressive

words, Nivedita wrote, ‘It is not by imitation of foreigners, but by

renewed effort to self-expression—in other words, by movements of

national revival—that nations rise. History is ashirbad, the promise

that the nationality makes to each one of its children . . . History is

the warp upon which is to be woven the woof of Nationality.

Only in the mirror of her own past can India see her soul reflected and only in such vision can she recognise herself.’

The lessons of Pestalozzi and Froebel in the field of education,

which had formed a deep impression on Nivedita in her early days,

could be applied to all areas of development. In this, she had found

support for Vivekananda’s views of national development along

indigenous lines and now felt a great urge to articulate and elaborate

on this ideal. ‘The whole task now is to give the word “Nationality”

to India—in all its breadth and meaning,’ she explained. India must be observed by this great conception. Hindu and Mohammedan must become one in it with a passionate admiration

of each other. It means new views of history, of custom, and it

means the assimilation of the whole Ramakrishna-Vivekananda

idea in Religion—the synthesis of all religious ideas. It means a

final understanding of the fact that the political process and the

economic disaster are only side-issues, that the one essential fact

is realisation of her own Nationality by the Nation.

These thoughts, with which she found herself ‘bubbling over’,

found powerful expression in her significant book The Web of Indian

Life. Her great satisfaction lay in the realisation that ‘it is not my

book at all, but Swamiji’s, and my only hope about it is that I may

have said the things He would have liked said’.

Ever since her arrival in India in 1898, Nivedita had slowly

come to identify with the inner cry of its people. Her stay in a

conservative Bengali locality, interaction with residents during

plague, advocacy of education to girls and women, extended travels

around the country, some with Swamiji and some in the course

of her lectures, had given her a rare insight into the vastness of

India and its cultural differences. But she could also see from the

distanced, broader perspective of a Westerner the fundamental

pattern of unity that lay below the surface of diversity. With a

compassionate mind, she sought not to critique but to understand

the societal and religious structure that bound the country. At the

same time, she drew on her own knowledge and experiences of

Western society to make relevant analogies placing her observations

in context. Nivedita acknowledged that Prof. Geddes had taught

her to understand Europe and indirectly given her a method by

which she could also read her Indian experiences. In the six word

sequence of Place-Work-Family-Ideals-Thoughts-Action

used by Geddes in his social analysis resulting in a synthesis of

knowledge, Nivedita detected ‘enough dynamite to make a nation’. Geddes had recognized Nivedita’s keen vision and sympathetic and

spiritual insight. Far beyond the simple underlying canvas of its

material conditions, Nivedita could discern India’s rich and varied

embroidery. According to her, there was a fundamental unity,

which through centuries had been forged on folklore, mythologies,

music and shared history, but had remained unnoticed and

dormant. It was only by invoking this spirit of national unity that

the exploitative British rule could be challenged and vanquished.

As Nivedita put it, ‘The idea of Nationality will be the Sword

of India . . . She will have to be ready and willing to fight.’

Vivekananda had stressed on ‘man-making’, character building and

physical training, which would create an inner strength, shaking off

the diffidence and inertia of centuries. Nivedita added to this her

mantra of nation-making, which would set a direction and course to

an awakened people in their ultimate movement towards freedom.

In his introduction to The Web of Indian Life, Rabindranath

Tagore drew attention to the customary contempt and disparaging

remarks of Western commentators on India, which had sapped the

national morale. This ‘vast accumulation of calumny against India’

was the result of a superficial knowledge and a limited acquaintance

with Indian languages. Nivedita, on the other hand ‘had won her

access to the inmost heart of our society by her supreme gift of

sympathy. She did not come to us with the impertinent curiosity

of a visitor nor did she elevate herself on a special high perch with

the idea that a bird’s eye view is truer than the human view because

of its superior aloofness. She lived our life and came to know us

by becoming one of ourselves. She became so intimately familiar

with our people that she had the rare opportunity of observing us

unawares’. The Poet could recognise the sensitive understanding

of Nivedita and commented,

The mental sense, by the help of which we feel the spirit of a people,

is like the sense of sight, or of touch—it is a natural gift . . . those

who have no ear for music, hear sounds, but not the song . . . And

Sister Nivedita has uttered the vital truths about Indian life.”

Excerpted from Margot: Sister Nivedita of Vivekananda by Reba Som, with permission from Penguin Random House India’. You can buy your copy here.

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Written by Penguin India


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