During these four weeks at Almora, as at Belur, Swami Vivekananda regularly met his disciples in the mornings for collective instruction. But collective as these classes were, the Swami concealed in them a very definite aim: they were the practical training ground, no less, for the complete transformation of Margaret Noble – imbued with all the predispositions and preconceived ideas of her English background – into Sister Nivedita with all the deep meaning tht name implies into one who loved India for itself and could enter into the life of its people without pausing for disapproval, comparison, or even comment.
He kept her under constant observation. He knew very well that her English background formed the main obstacle in her attempt to cultivate a true affection for India. And he knew that she would have forcefully denied any accusation of harboring such prejudices. She was entirely unconscious of them. He made it his task now, therefore, to bring to the surface all those preconceived ideas that lay at the root of her most delicate problems. Systematically he pressed her to set aside her present criteria in social, literary, and artistic fields, without any anxiety for the inevitable but temporary affect which this would have upon her intellect. . . .
Up to now, Nivedita had looked upon India from the outside, not dissociating her new impressions from all that she had seen and heard before. This had seemed to her a normal, and even necessary, procedure; but now her guru pointed out that if this attitude was ideal for sharpening the perceptions of the citizens of a free country, every nation had nevertheless the same right to develop according to its own particular propensities. An entirely new problem of development had arisen in India, where the civilization of the West had superimposed itself upon – or had taken over without assimilating – an ancient national heritage, and offered Indians the prospect of a modern life that was completely dissociated from the foundations of their religion.
Nivedita had never stopped to think of all this. She still considered Britain’s interference in Indian affairs as having brought the measure of stability necessary for the improvement of material conditions. At Naini Tal the attitude of Swami Vive-kananda had naturally surprised her. And she was even more astonished by his impatient demand, “Why do you insist on comparing this country with yours, what is suitable here with what is done theref Really, patriotism like yours is a sin.”
Although she did not know it, her English attitude had given him a harsh shock on the very day after her initiation at Belur. In a seemingly casual manner, he had asked her, “Nivedita, to what great fatherland do you now belong?” And she had not understood; her loyalty was not yet to God. She had answered, “But, Swami, I am British.” He had said nothing. And thus far he had merely observed her in her relations with Hindus. But now, like a gardener in the rainy season, he dug, rolled, and hoed the earth that was to take the seed.
To Nivedita herself, meanwhile, living with Indians had presented strange and unforseen problems which she was unable to see in true perspective. In her own human associations, for example, she discovered the most glaring contradictions. For one thing, she was considered “unclean” by people who, in her eyes, were ignorant of the most elementary principles of hygiene. Then there was the difficulty of the food question: the dishes cooked by the monks were delicious, but could she have tasted the food that was sold in the several shops on the roads or the curries that the Indian women cooked on the ground in front of their houses? She could not, in spite of herself, help recalling what she had heard about India since her childhood – even before she knew where it was on the map – and she could not help seeing the sordid misery which had been the main subject of missionary reports. Wherever she went, she found examples of this distress, and she became at last seriously disturbed by them; the lepers begging at the roadside, the children running after the carriages and beating their swollen bellies, and, in some districts, the scraggy beasts searching for a blade of grass to eat.
She pitied the lot of all these wretched folk, and she talked about charity, and funds to be raised, until Swami Vivekananda said to her sharply.
“All I want you to see is that, with the majority of people, charity is nothing but the expression of an egoistic interest.”
He would allow no compromise whatever and would flare up, on occasion, into immediate argument. After traveling in Europe or America he knew by experience that for a long time to come the white race would continue to consider as “pagan” – or as “exoticism” – any measures that were not dictated by itself; he knew that the colored man, harassed object of curiosity, would with few exceptions continue to be looked upon as a poor and patronized relation. In his bold attempt to carry the message of India to the West, only divine love had sustained him and overcome the obstacles in his path; and it was in this same understanding that he refrained, at the moment, from telling Nivedita what a white woman who had consecrated herself to the service of India would have to suffer at the hands of orthodox Hindu society. He was certainly not unaware of what this was likely to be. But he intended that the tolerance he was to preach and demonstrate should itself become the effective weapon in his disciple’s hands.
Many years later, in writing the life of the Swami Vivekananda, Nivedita was to describe those days of struggle:
It seemed as if going-to-school had commenced; and just as schooling is often disagreeable to the taught, so here, though it cost infinite pain, the blindness of a half-view must be done away with. A mind must be brought to change its centre of gravity. It was never more than this; never the dictating of opinion or creed; never more than emancipation from partiality. Even at the end of the terrible experience, when this method, as regarded race and country, was renounced, never to be taken up systematically again, the Swami did not call for any confession of faith, any declaration of new opinion. He dropped the whole question. I went free. But he had revealed a different standpoint in thought and feeling, so completely and so strongly as to make it impossible for me to rest, until later, by my own labours, I had arrived at a view in which both these partial presentments stood rationalized and accounted for. . . . But at the time they were a veritable lion in the path, and remained so until I had grasped the folly of allowing anything whatever to obscure to me the personality that was here revealing itself.
During all this time Swami Vivekananda protected her against herself so that the great Hindu family which had welcomed her should not suspect her reactions. He kept her isolated until she had become the woman he was striving to make her. He relied on her savoir-faire to bridge the gap between herself and the spirit of the Hindu who obeys unconditionally the laws imposed by his guru, sacrificing the principle of personality to that of the group. At the same time he sought to widen her horizons so that in every position of authority she should remain completely herself.
Nivedita was still incapable of appreciating these nuances. Indeed, she experienced moments of satisfaction when, unexpectedly, she found her thoughts in harmony with those of the ‘Hindus. But these moments were fleeting, and the spell was easily broken. She had felt it during their journey and sometimes a sleeping anger had come to life within her-that forgotten anger of the Irishwoman on her guard. She had seen the Swami endure in silence the most cruel insults on the part of the English. In the circumstances, as the true granddaughter of Richard Hamilton, she would have flared out in anger, had not the Swami’s attitude of perfect calm prevented her. At first she had not understood why, during the journey, he had preferred to eat with his monks in their carriage, but at a station one day she had seen a liveried servant debar him from entering the restaurant into which she and her friends were going. Another time, an employee had burst into the compartment where the travelers had gathered during the day and had ordered the five monks out. The Swami and the monks withdrew in silence.
Nivedita herself had had some unpleasant experiences. Once she had got really angry in a northern town which the three Western women were visiting in the company of a Hindu friend of the Ramakrishna Mission. He had taken them to the Hindu quarter, and a group of little girls had run out after them, shouting, “Memsa’b, Memsa’b!” [the name given to Western ladies]. They were dirty but pretty, with colored beads round their neck and bright flowing veils – mostly in rags – around their heads. Mrs. Bull had thrown them a handful of small coins, and the children had pounced upon this largesse, when suddenly a policeman appeared, truncheon in hand. The people all around jostled one another, with cries of terror. And Nivedita, shocked and indignant, burst into vehement protest.
“What do you mean by this?” she demanded of the policeman. “I did not call you.”
The policeman was amazed at her outburst. And the Hindu friend, terrified lest tne incident have a sequel, hurried Nivedita away.
“Miss Noble,” he exclaimed, “if you go on protesting like that, you will not be able to move about in India at alii”
At Almora, too, the situation was no less difficult. The pilgrims had hardly been there a few days when one of the monks was informed that the police had set spies to watch the activities of the Swami. Nivedita was thunderstruck.
“The government must be mad, or at least prove so if Swamiji is interfered with,” she wrote to Nell Hammond. “That would be the torch to carry fire through the country. And I, the most loyal Englishwoman that ever breathed in this country (I could not have suspected the depth of my own loyalty till I got here) will be the first to set it alight! You could not imagine, living in England, what race hatred means. Manlines* seems a barrier to nothingl”
Four months later, in Kashmir, Nivedita was a witness to the same sort of opposition. The Maharajah wished to hand over to Swami Vivekananda an estate on which a Sanskrit college was to be established. But authorization for the transfer of deeds was refused. Why? The Swami’s great dream collapsed. But in the face of this defeat he said simply, “The Divine Mother has other plans. It does not meet with Her approval that the work which will join East and West should be instituted in an Indian State. She has chosen a more difficult route. It is written that Calcutta, the intellectual center of the country, shall be the field of our experiment.”
“How is it,” Nivedita asked, “that an Indian Maharajah cannot give a brother of his faith an estate that is his own property? How is it that a Hindu cannot work freely at home for the good of his own country?”
It soon became officially known that the British Resident, Sir Adalbert Talbot, had refused to allow the project to be discussed in the Council. Following upon attacks by Christian missionaries, this ruling set itself in opposition to the establishment of an Indian cultural center for the teaching of Sanskrit Incapable of remaining neutral, Nivedita took a stand in the conflict.
“It is just possible, if this happens, that I may go for a private interview with the Resident without Swamiji’s knowledge,” she wrote to Nell Hammond. “I have at least as much right to speak for the Master to the representative of our government as against him. … As an Englishwoman, how could one bear England to do the mean thing?”
Gradually, however, she was won over to the Swarm’s attitude: the knowledge of how to let oneself be carried by the current as one works, how not to waste one’s energy. But at the same time, in order to make good use of the material she had collected, she prepared a paper on the relations between India and Britain, to be published in London. From her point of view, Britain was playing a vital role in India in spite of mis-cakes. Shocked by the idea of the white man muzzling the Hindu bom, she tried to clarify her conception of the “individual” (it was Peter Kropotkin who had taught her to do this): Is not man the product of the soil which engenders him, she argued; an expression of spontaneous life which no one has the right to stifle?
In this summer of 1898, Nivedita’s letters to Nell Hammond continued to be full of political preoccupations. She was passing through a transitional stage of development, of which she herself was of course totally unconscious, and her notes and comments show this.
To do England justice, I think India is in many ways well and faithfully served by her sons, but not in such a manner as to produce the true emotional response. On the other hand, of course, every nation demands freedom: Italy from Austria, Greece from Turkey, India from England naturally, and in the course of centuries the Hindu may be equal to the peaceful government of himself and the Moslem. At present, the only possible chance of that political peace which is essential to India’s social development lies in the presence of the strong third power coming from a sufficient distance to be without local prejudice.
This was written in June from Almora where Nivedita talked with several well-informed Hindus who were spending the summer there, and twice she met Mrs. Annie Besant, who told her that she herself had no hope of influencing the English who were then in India. Mrs. Besant placed all her hope in the enlightenment of English public opinion at home.-, so as to change the point of view of those who were about to go to India. With this, Nivedita did not agree. The two women had many talks on ways and means of establishing useful contacts, but Nivedita persisted in believing in the necessity for action in India itself. In early September she sent a message, through Nell Hammond, to all her London friends:
I want everyone I know to get me every Anglo-Indian introduction that they find possible. So please be on the lookout! I see great possibilities before anyone here who has a large and influential acquaintance, in the way of so utterly changing public opinion, and illuminating public ignorance, that you can hardly imagine it. It is the dream of my life to make England and India love each other.
She spoke of this plan, with characteristic enthusiasm, to her guru. He encouraged her: “Work; seek; perhaps you will find a way.” But he was less hopeful than she was. “He says he held my opinion two years ago,” her letter to Nell Hammond continued, “but now he despairs. That is after die insults of two years. But I hope I shall not lose hopes about his nation as quickly as he about mine.”
Did she notice the change in her attitude? It seems unlikely. But the change was there. Softened by the strange tenderness that emanates from the soil of India, she was viewing it through new eyes, asking herself no more questions but co-operating fully with her guru and his followers. She was trying merely to be a tool in his hands.
She would have liked the Swami to allow her to go knocking like a beggar on the doors of the rich, to say to them, “Give me money, books, clothes, rice, medicines; give without counting the cost, and without asking whither the wind will carry the offering.” Yet she had the perspective to laugh at this impulse in herself: “In my childhood I never could lower my pride even to ask my own mother for food without the most terrible ettort, and nowadays I don’t in the least mind asking tor things!” Gradually, the rule of life that Swamiji had laid down for her at Belur – in anticipation of the day when she would really enter into Hindu living – took on its full significance. “You will have to set yourself to Hinduism,” he had said. “Your thoughts, your deeds, your conceptions, your habits…. Your life, internal and external, will have to become all that an orthodox brahman Brahmacharim’s ought to be – like one consecrated to God. The means will come to you, if only you desire it enough. But you have to forget your own past, and cause it to be forgotten. You have to lose even its memory!”
Years later, Nivedita was to write: “Swamiji gave me a unified purpose. I am rich!”