31. A Political Mission
Nivedita took up her life after Swami Vivekananda’s death without hesitancy or apprehension. She knew that an immense task lay before her, and she was not afraid. Now as never before the true value of her guru’s teaching was revealed to her. He had given her her freedom, and had made her a karmayogini [following the yoga of disinterested work], so that she could enter the lists in the armor of an unwavering faith. He had shown her the Unity that embraces the worker, his action, and the work itself, and the Energy that is impulse, movement, and repose. At this vital moment in her career she sharply analyzed the spiritual discipline that had been hers so far, and every step now appeared in its true perspective. Her guru had led her to cast off her personality, then to abandon herself in submission, and now, finally, to obtain complete mastery over herself. It had not been easy. When he loved most, he most upbraided. Now, alone and face to face with her responsibilities, she understood why Swami Vivekananda had taken such pains in preparing her. India, “Mother India,” had become her Ishta, the supreme object of her devotion, in which she perceived the aim of her life and the peace of her acceptance.
Swami Vivekananda’s life mission had been to establish a monastery which combined meditation with service. Hers was entirely different, and had several facets. It went far beyond her initial aim of working only for the women of India, although they were not to be left out of the larger purpose. She was to live, now, in and for the grand design of which her guru had dreamed: an India in which the masses – the ignorant, the poor, the illiterate, the cobbler, the sweeper – were to be the flesh and blood of “Mother India.”
She had already asked herself the questions and looked ahead to the trials. She foresaw the difficulties that were to arise with the senior cenobites of Belur and her brother monks; Swami Vivekananda had warned her of these immediately after his own return to India. But she allowed nothing, small or large, to give her pause. If she no longer had her guru, she could drink from the fountain at which he had drunk, and let herself be carried away by the current of the life divine. From the ideals and principles which he had given her she moved on into action, but she would not blame him for any future consequences. She took her part boldly in India’s struggle to find its soul, and she gave all she had without wondering what would become of her.
Those first years of the twentieth century were for India – as S. K. Ratcliffe was to write a decade later – a time of “exceptional deadness in public life,” but nevertheless the seeds of a new life could be felt germinating everywhere. “The people as yet are like men in dreams,” Nivedita had summed up her own impression soon after her return. “They are not awake; they do not know to what end their dormant power may be diverted. The soil and all that grows upon the soil – are these not things to make men strong?” Beneath this external apathy a clandestine movement, aimed at undermining the “enemy occupation,” was beginning to form and to establish a network in which Nivedita was to find her place, amid other heroic sacrifices that were often still incoherent Such a movement, not yet clearly defined, was seeking its leaders.
In this nascent movement Nivedita played the required part of being a useful link between intellectuals. The outbursts of enthusiasm and the murmurs of the malcontents emerging from their former apathy were all, for her, so many efforts to be canalized and directed before they became positive. But always, at a given moment, she withdrew, to let the workers act freely and accomplish, alone, something which would be unique and their own contribution. She filled to perfection the role of an instrument. Among the elite, like the swift water that dashes on the mill wheel with no care for the grain that is crushed, she was the motive force that simply works, indifferent to the pleasures and sorrows of the miller. Only the end counted. On a lower plane, in the midst of the masses, she found herself in the presence of contradictory forces – greatness and pettiness, bravery and cowardice – and here her attitude had to be different. Her first task was to fashion the characters of the people who worked with her, and give them Backthe desire for self-sacrifice “which they had lost through subjugation.
Thus Nivedita, like her guru, knew solitude: a stem sanny-asa in which nothing was personal – neither her work nor the power which radiated from her. But in her detachment she had kept a natural tenderness “which lightened the burdens and griefs of those who confided in her. She drew from the teaching of Sri Ramakrishna an intensely human love which brought happiness to those about her, though she did not stop with that. “If Swamiji had done nothing but transmit love, he would still be living and could teach under a mango tree/* she said. “But he has given me this power so that I can do this work, so that I can struggle as he struggled. May it devour me as it devoured him!”
In her worst difficulties she kept her mind fixed on the ultimate Will. “Are you going to tell me that my India, in which I believe, does not exist?” she would demand of those who showed anxiety. “The captain of a ship is always thinking of his port of destination, even when he is not on the bridge. The port I am making for is the fulfillment of India’s destiny. That is the course on which my compass is set night and day.
She made also this point clear in her public speeches: “I am here to teach you to become men! 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 written stories but in service and achievement for the Motherland!”
She always took care not to set herself up as a religious teacher. “The poorest of the poor knows more about it than I do,” she declared, when pressed to speak of her faith. But she loved indiscriminately, like a mother.
“She was a mother of the people,” Rabindranath Tagore was to say of her after her death. “While we were giving our time, our money, even our life, we had not yet been able to give our heart. We had not acquired the power to know the people as absolutely real and near.”
But for Nivedita every Hindu was a brother, and, more than that, a son of Mother India. When many took her for their guru in politics, she raised no objections. It mattered litde to her. In the midst of the enthusiasm she evoked, such a relationship was inevitable. She took advantage of it to make herself the apostle of an expression which was much to the fore, the “Dharma” a word that cannot be translated into any Western language. “Dharma is the substance, the selfness, of things and of men,” she said, and fell Backfor further exposition on the words of Swami Vivekananda:
“Man, impelled by the force of life, believes in his religion, his family, the class which sustains him, the village which maintains him, and the country which he honors. He is ready to give his life for any of these. He lives for an ideal, and his thirst ever carries him on, to the point where he can conceive of the Unity in diversity. This effort, this accent of life with all its force and energy, is the Dharma which epitomizes the dream of India as a whole.”
Nivedita had questioned her guru long and earnestly on this point – a fact which explained the similarity between the views of Swami Vivekananda the patriot, and her own teaching. “The new state of things must be a growth from within,” he had said. Conscious of the fundamental contradictions, both in conception and in aim, between the nationalistic ideas of Western countries and the traditional society of India, Nivedita during this period of transition used the idea of “strength,” as derived from the Upanishads, to give to the word Dharma a wider interpretation based on centuries-old ideals.
“Dharma is for us,” she explained, “what civilization is for the West. It is a goal, an effort to maintain the supremacy of spiritual values. Such is the function of a self-reliant religion. Never lose sight of the fact that India rests on that foundation! God is the heart of that person who, going beyond his individual experience, realizes his entire solidarity with others, transposes his personal law, and projects it upon the entire group. That is Dharma.”
The idea of Dharma incorporated in practical sociology was well received, and frequently discussed, with Nivedita’s active encouragement. By way of analogy, she often used the metaphor of the passive power of Shiva’s body, from which Kali’s tumultuous movement sprang. “The man who enters wholeheartedly into collective Dharma plays the same part,” she said. “His effective power is great. For that reason he must submit himself to a personal discipline that is all the more exacting.” Continuing her use of religious symbols, she would repeat that Dharma was forcefully pointed to in the last verse of the Gita as the way traced out for the Hindu nation: “Where there is Krishna, the master of Yoga, and where there is Partha, the archer, there indeed are glory, victory, prosperity, and the immutable law of justice.”
With her extremely human, and novel, way of transition from esoteric concept to direct social significance and instigation, Nivedita would show how, in this lofty interpretation, Dharma contained within itself the whole symbol of the “nation” which was yet so new to conceive. It was difficult to give weight to this idea. There was at first the vague aspiration toward moving on from the living practical religion which Swami Viveka-nanda had taught to the full concept of the “nation”; this took shape gradually, and at last was clearly established. The inherent ideal suddenly burst out of the narrow mold of the family and embraced the group, the village, the town. The particular aim was transformed into a collective ideal. “Dharma” had become synonymous with “Indian nation.”
India a nation! What a dazzling thought! Was it capable of the sacrifices that would be necessary to maintain its life, to express itself, to gain its freedom? “Mother India” soon appeared to be the divine Energy – Shakti – clothed in the foam of the sea, the red dust of Malabar, the mud of the Ganges, the sands of the Punjab, the snows of Kashmir. To bewitch men, She let Herself be worshiped according to all the rites, and in all the temples, “Instead of being the slaves of an unknowable Brahman let us be Her slaves,” cried Nivedita. “In place of altars, build factories and universities. Instead of bringing offerings, take care of the people, and educate them. Instead of giving ourselves up to passive adoration, let us struggle to acquire knowledge, and to establish co-operation and organization. Our orthodoxy should express itself in the civic life. All that exists is That One, though savants may call it what name they will!”
Although Nivedita’s determination towards action had been consummated some time before, her active interest in India’s political life had really begun during the meeting of the National Congress in Calcutta in December, 1901, just after her return from the West. It took specific shape a few weeks later, when Kakuso Okakura and her old friend Surendranath Tagore came together at the house of Mrs. Bull, who had just arrived in Calcutta. The two men were working jointly with their friends to establish chains of secret societies – to arouse the Hindus’ political sense – in the Northern Provinces. The attempts were premature and failed, but Nivedita found the work astonishingly similar to what she herself had been doing seven years before, among the Irish in England. Okakura soon departed on a Buddhist pilgrimage across India. Before he returned to Calcutta Nivedita had already been marked down by the British police for her allegedly subversive activities.
The first warning that the police had begun to open her mail dated from the beginning of March, 1902. She laughed at this – the attack was normal – but there was no doubt that she was writing many letters to the political leaders she had met during the Congress meetings which clearly showed her preoccupations. One man who immediately became her friend was Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a calm, austere man who, though only Nivedita’s age, had taught political economy at Poona for twenty years. They disagreed – he was too moderate and even-tempered to suit her – but she appreciated his nobility of character and set great store by his friendship even when she was trying to bring him to her more extreme approach.
It is an obvious fact to me that our differences of opinion are merely such [she wrote] that I could more easily imagine myself retreating before the last ordeal than your courage failing us in anything that you saw to be right For, after all, I am only a woman, while I rejoice to think that yours is every inch the strength and persistency of a manl
But I wish I could infect you with my view of the whole thing. Instead of sadness you would then be filled with such an infinite joy! And you might just as well have it There is a great festival of struggle and growing life before us. When one feels baffled and sad, it is because one has failed to find the true lines of action along which the fire leaps to the blaze. When one has found more, is there any time for sighing? Do not let us spend our effort longer trying to reform abuses: let us make life! Manhood and womanhood will find out for themselves what way to work; set life free! Accept all that comes of it! The instinct of a great people filled with divine austerity and the highest human passion will lead them very far from your thoughts to mine about them. So much the better.
I wish I could give you this gladness that fills me! I love the sorrow and the struggle and the divine self-sacrifice that may be ours!
If she had a special personal liking for Gokhale, her views were certainly more in accord with those of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the leader of the extremist party, publisher of the nationalist newspaper Kesari. But both men worked in perfect harmony with the friends Nivedita had discovered in Bengal. All, together, represented that hidden force which was to burst out a few years later.
During those first months of 1902, the seeds of all Nivedita’s later life had really been sown under the eyes of Swami Vive-kananda. He had placed entire confidence in her and had made it dear that he would never interfere in any path she chose to take, though sometimes he appeared to be concerned as to whether she could combine this expression of active life with the spiritual discipline he had given her. Once when he was in Calcutta he had reproved her sharply in the presence of several of his disciples. She had not arrived, on her daily visit to him, by eight o’clock that evening, and the Swami was beginning to be anxious when she came in.
“Nivedita, you should above all remember that you are a Brahmadharini,” he said, sternly. “You should not go outside after dark for any reason, not even to come here. What is the cause of your lateness?”
“I went out with Okakura on some business – we were delayed,” she answered. Conversation was resumed, but only after Nivedita had bowed in obedience to her guru.
On the other hand, Swami Vivekananda had very often remarked, to these groups of disciples and friends during the last months, that he counted on Nivedita to arouse the political sense among Hindus. He wanted patriotism in India, love for the country. It was in that sense that he had pledged her to serve India, and to sacrifice herself to the last renunciation.
“I see that the independence of India will come in some unthinkable way,” he used to say, “but if you cannot make yourself worthy of it, it will not live over three generations. India cannot be Japan or Russia. She must stand on her own ideal. She will have to build up a government that includes members of all castes, with no superiority complex between them. If the boundaries of caste disappear, the qualities of castes must remain. In a well-organized state, scholars, fighters, merchants, and laborers must be equally respected. Your first work is to educate the masses.”
It was only to be expected that Nivedita, having taken such a clearly defined stand, should find herself in serious difficulties, after Swami Vivekananda’s death, with the Belur monastery. The direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, who had been entrusted with the propagation of the monastic and spiritual ideal of their institution, associated with the concept of humanitarian
service, showed considerable concern over her political activities.
For her part, although she wished to collaborate with the Ramakrishna Mission through her work for the women of India, she felt nonetheless that she had a definite political mission as well. The divergence of opinion was complete. She had a cruel but short struggle within herself, because she felt bound by the promise she had made to her guru never to compromise the monastery by any of her activities, and she wanted to keep her word rigorously.
To the monks, Swami Vivekananda had said that Nivedita must be given full liberty, “even if she works without any connection with the Mission”; but they now realized that she might deflect their line of conduct They appealed to her vow of obedience either to renounce entirely the activity which was so dear to her, or so to organize her life that her freedom would be wholly recognized. Was not her educational mission, to which she had hardly put her hand since her return, activity enough? She listened to the proposal, and replied categorically to Swami Brahmananda:
“I cannot do otherwise than this. I have identified myself with the idea of Mother India, I have become the idea itself, and I could die more easily than submit.”
Swami Brahmananda loved Nivedita deeply, though he disapproved of her attitude. One day she called upon him unexpectedly to discuss the delicate situation. But the conversation turned into a meditation. After half an hour, when Swami Brahmananda opened his eyes, she was still motionless, devoid of thought, lost in the void.
It was this great spiritual unity between them that inspired the supple, yet rigorous, arrangement to which Nivedita submitted in the following letter:
17, Bose Para Lane, Bagh Bazar,
July 18th, 1902
Dear Swami Brahmananda,
Will you accept on behalf of the Order and myself my
acknowledgement of your letter this morning. Painful as is the occasion I can but acquiesce in any measures that are necessary to my complete freedom.
I trust however that you and other members of the Order will not fail to lay my love and reverence daily at the feet of the ashes of Sri Ramakrishna and my own beloved Guru.
I shall write to the Indian Papers and acquaint them as quietly as possible with my changed position.
Yours in all gratitude and good faith,
Nivedita of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda
The signature of this letter had been discussed at great length. It did not engage the responsibility of the monastery and kept Nivedita spiritually allied to her brother monks.
Among the big Calcutta dailies, Patrika was the first to publish the news item which appeared next day under the heading, Sister Nivedita:
We have been requested to inform the public that at the conclusion of the days of mourning for the Swami Viveka-nanda, it has been decided between the members of the Order at Belur Math and Sister Nivedita that her work shall henceforth be regarded as free and entirely independent of their sanction of authority.
There remained the practical question of accounts, which was soon settled. Of the sums at her disposal, Nivedita handed over to the Math four hundred pounds, to buy a house for Sarada Devi. She kept for herself only the annual current grant for the upkeep of her house at Bagh Bazar, and a sum for travel expenses on a projected lecture tour. Swami Sadananda remained with her, together with one of the Order’s most distinguished novices, Amulyer Maharaj. Her life of independence had an excellent beginning!
To Miss MacLeod, however, she confided her sorrow at seeing the problem of Indian women set against her political mission, confessing both her thought and her stabbings of uncertainty. A few weeks after Swami Vivekananda’s death she wrote:
The great stream of the Oriental woman’s life flows on.
Who am I that I should seek in any way to change it? Suppose even that I could add my impress to ten or twelve girls, would it be so much gain? Is it not rather by taking the national consciousness of the women, like that of the men, and setting it toward greater problems and responsibilities, that one can help? Then, when they have surveyed the great scheme, have they not already become open to new views of life and necessity? Will they not achieve these for themselves?
Yum, I don’t know! This may all be my own sophistry.
I cannot tell. Only I think my task is to awake a nation, not to influence a few women. A man has come and shown me how – but this is only giving edge to my sword. Already I saw these things. . ..
As to my task, I may not succeed. You do not realize as I do, you cannot, the hopelessness of the task and my own inadequacy. But ought this to make any difference? I see – therefore ought I not to act? Must we not throw ourselves now into the great ocean of Mother and leave it to Her whether we come to land or not?
Why was the Guru withdrawn just then? Was it not that each atom might work out unhindered without torture to him – the great destiny that his life flowing through might bring it? Do you not remember how he said, “When a great man has prepared his workers, he must go to another place, for he cannot make them free in his own presence!”
But Nivedita was full of confidence, and she added, “I know you will always shadow and bless the work done in his name. . .