32. Spreading the Swami’s Message
Nivedita’s work was very far from being political. As the spiritually adopted daughter of Swami Vivekananda, she held a position of honor, of question (had he let his mande fall upon her shoulder?), and of appointed labor. She was invited to talk about her guru. Other invitations came to her from Lahore, Bombay, Poona.
Meanwhile, the many obituary notices in the various Indian newspapers gave some idea of the importance of the movement for spiritual co-operation which Swami Vivekananda had launched in the heart of orthodox India. They contained pen-portraits, enthusiastic analyses, and also some bitter criticism. He was described as a religious and social reformer, an aposde of neo-Hinduism who had revived the sannyasa of Buddha and Shankara, an ambassador between India and the West. One writer recalled the traditional story of Kabir, whose body, at his death, was demanded by both Hindus and Moslems, and remarked, “A similar fate seems to await the memory of Swami Vivekananda.” He had exalted the divinities of Hindus, Zoro-astrians, Buddhists, Jews, Christians. But however opinions of his work might differ, there was universal recognition of his central purpose: to establish the greatness of the Vedanta philosophy and to endow it with a practical meaning.
In her first public talk two weeks after the Swami’s death, Nivedita appeared at Jessore (a town in East Bengal) in the yellow robe of a fully ordained swami. She spoke with deep emotion and great simplicity, but refused to deal with topics of religion. “Swami Vivekananda shall be the whole of my religion and my patriotism,” she said. During the three days of her stay, she was in close contact with schoolchildren and their parents, and also with the young men of the district belonging to Kakuso Okakura’s group. She had already worked with Kakuso Okakura in an editorial capacity, six months before, in the rewriting and replanning of his book, The Ideals of the East, as well as his travel notes.
By the third week in September, taking Swami Sadananda with her, she started on her speaking tour to the north of India. A letter to Miss MacLeod at this time reveals a mood of apprehension that was unusual with her, and also the closeness of her spirit to any word that could be recalled from Swami Vivekananda:
I was precipitated upon the task somewhat more suddenly than we expected, as you see. . . . When I wrote to you I needed help. But life itself took me in hand. It is good to hear the words you tell (about myself) from the guru: “India shall ring with her.” I came out on this journey with “Margot’s boldness” ringing in my heart. Is that the plan Swamiji is now beginning to fulfill? I begin now to understand a little of the development of his own mind regarding it
Bombay, at the beginning of her trip, brought Nivedita for the first time into contact with a public that was not Bengali. In this prosperous city she immediately sensed a subdued hostility to be overcome, particularly among the wealthy “westernized” Hindus who had become accustomed to turning their eyes toward Europe. Her first lecture here was on “The National Significance of Swami Vivekananda’s Life and Work.” When it was over she said, “Dare I say now that Bombay is his? At least they tell me so!” The gist of her message was as follows: “Swami Vivekananda was at once the expression of superconscious religion and one of the greatest patriots ever bora. He lived at a moment of national disintegration, and he was fearless of the new. He lived when men were abandoning their heritage, and he was an ardent worshiper of the old. In him the national destiny fulfilled itself. . . . His whole life was a search for the common basis of Hinduism. Because he believed in its organic unity, he found, with unexpected particulars and paradoxes, the key to Indian unity in its exclusiveness.
“What then was the prophecy that Swami Vivekananda left to his own people, he who never dreamed of failure? Here was a man who spoke of naught but strength. To him, his country’s hope is in herself. Never in the alien. The India of his dreams was in the future; the new phase of consciousness initiated today through pain and suffering was to be but the first step in a long evolution. It is in her own life – not in imitation – that India will find life, from her proper past and environment. Vivekananda had but one word, one constantly reiterated message! ‘Awake! Arise! Struggle on, and not until the goal is reached!’ ” In addition to her lecture on Swami Vivekananda, Nivedita spoke on “The Hindu Mind in Modem Science,” “The Unity of India,” “The Problem of the Assimilation of the English Language,” “Indian Womanhood,” “Asiatic Modes,” and other subjects. She addressed various social groups in Bombay, and spoke in several theaters. Her lectures were reported at length in the newspapers, and there was no question but that she had won her public. Students would come and ask her, “How can we make ourselves useful?” And she would reply, “Serve India in one way or another! Set yourselves free, like me!”
During the six weeks of her tour she made lengthy stays in a number of towns, establishing contact everywhere with the groups that supported her guru. She went as far north as Lahore, but spent most of her time in Surat, Baroda, and Ahmedabad. Then she went on to Wardha and Nagpur, where in the deportations she saw for the first time at first hand the consequences of the open struggle against Britain. And in Baroda she made the acquaintance of Aurobindo Ghose who, in fact, met her at the railroad station as representative of the Gaekwar of Baroda and drove her to the State guesthouse.
Aurobindo Ghose was then thirty years old.* He had apparently no important part in politics to play at that time, but lived a life of semiseclusion, occupied with study when he was not engaged with his duties as a professor in Baroda College. During the nine years since his return from England he had been assimilating Asiatic culture with the same enthusiasm with which, at Cambridge University, he had mastered that of the West. He and Nivedita were already known to one another through their writing, as well as through their bond in their love of India and of freedom. To Aurobindo Ghose, Nivedita was the author of Kali, the Mother. To her, he was the leader of the future, whose fiery articles in the Indu Prakash – one of Bombay’s large newspapers – had sounded opening guns in the coming struggle, four years before.
Now he was giving meticulous individual training to the members of a party which was to have important work to do later on, when the time came to canalize revolutionary aspirations into a single concerted action. His plan was widely conceived, and was gradually implemented as he enlisted the necessary men to form a network through towns and villages from Baroda to Bengal. But Nivedita was impatient.
“Calcutta needs you,” she told him. “Your place is in Bengal.”
“Not yet,” he answered. “I am working behind the lines. But the advance posts must be manned.”
“You can count on me,” Nivedita said, stretching out her hand. “I am your ally.”
She brought him all she possessed, with her Irish blood, to be fitted into the prepared plan.
In Baroda she gave lectures, went sightseeing, and paid several visits to the palace of the Gaekwar. But many evening hours were spent in heated discussions with Aurobindo Ghose or
* Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950). After the great part he played in the politics of Bengal (1900-1911) he retired in Pondicherry to form the Ashram bearing his name. He has given a striking philosophy applying for the first time the theory of evolution to the Vedantic doctrines with a vision of supramentalized life. He is considered as one of the greatest seers of the modem age.
with Romesh Chunder Dutt, whom she was delighted to see again in Baroda.
When she returned to Calcutta she found an invitation from Madras awaiting her. She set off three weeks later, stopping only a few days en route at Bhuvaneshvar, the holy town of Shiva, where according to tradition, seven thousand temples repeat the same incantation, “Om Namah Shivaya, I prostrate myself before Shiva!” She had taken several friends with her to share these few days of holiday and discovery. She climbed to the top of Udayagari Hill where monolithic temples dug out of the rock told the history of India. She walked out into the country to visit those lands of the south which her guru had loved so deeply. She went inside the village houses, into the poorest hovels, and said, “Here I am in the heart of my India.” What days of serenity and repose and contemplation spent in the outpourings of an extravagant faith! All around her the temples prayed, all with the same fervor, whether they were shapeless masses of pebbles raised by pilgrims or domes bristling with grinning gargoyles. In the evening, cymbals, drums, and conches beat out heavy, throbbing rhythms that struck deep into the soul.
At Madras, Nivedita was awaited with mixed feelings by the personal friends of Swami Vivekananda. Some of them were afraid of her, because of her independence and her influence. Others admired her for her courage. All, alike, were eager to question her about the last months of the Swami’s life.
She stayed several weeks in Madras, and here, too, her success was widespread and moving. She spoke often, in the Ramakrishna Mission and in different halls in the city. With touching simplicity, she created around her an atmosphere of isolation, reserved for the spirit of her guru. She became a living link between contemplation and action. The words of passionate renunciation took on a double meaning on her lips: for the elders they were an incantation; for the young men they rang out like a call to arms. Two generations rose to bless her. There were no more doubts or arguments.
“Either the unity of India exists today or there will never be unity among us,” she said in her lectures, “The Unity of India,” and added: “Do not allow people to tell you that the unity does not exist; do not allow a false patriotism that declares we are weak, we are divided, miserable, helpless and bound. New life, strong life, must be forever finding new expression. If this life of ours be true, we shall be realizing new truths all the time. Let us express it in strength, whatever form the truth may take!”
She went south as far as Salem, where she inaugurated the first Hall dedicated to Swami Vivekananda, and also visited several members of the Congress; then she continued her journey toward Trichinopoli. This was an incursion into Brahman and Dravidian India, and it moved her deeply.
“If the North is the intellect, the heart of the continent,” one of her friends quoted her as saying, “the South appears as a colossal statue of stone, seated in majestic repose, looking with deep inscrutable eyes from sea to sea. Swami Vivekananda felt that his mission had become Indian only when he was accepted by Madras. So, too, in days afar off, Buddhism and Vaishnavism started from the North, and became national and enduring only after the South had tested them and set her seal on them.” It was this same approval that Nivedita had come to seek from the South, in the service of Mother India.
For herself, moreover, she found inspiration in every new impression. She was never tired of watching the women of the South, with their flowing gait, their uncovered faces, their hair hanging down their backs, their jewels that jangled as they passed her. All their saris were of vivid colors. The men, with their naked chests daubed with sandal paste or ashes and marked with carmine, proudly displayed all the signs of their castes. Life had thrown aside all its veils and was bursting with exuberance.
The temple of Chidambaram offered her another great experience, as she realized the similarity between the Hindu temples and the medieval Christian abbeys as they had been described to her. She spent a whole day in the temple gardens, behind the high pyramid-shaped doors on which, ranged in seven tiers, there is depicted a fantastic dance that shows gods wearing miters, goddesses crowned with flowers, and all their army of attendants, potbellied gnomes, and monsters with eyes like loto balls. On the inner side the garden walls were lined with straw sheds, where the priests lived with the wandering monks and the pilgrims. Brahman children were learning the Sanskrit Shastras, and writing on palm leaves. Under broad parasols of plaited straw, vendors of fruit, flowers, and sweetmeats were selling offerings to the gods. Widows with shaven heads were tapping their blown cheeks and shouting prayers. “Hara, Hara, Hara!”# they cried. The air was redolent of flowers, incense, and burnt oil. “It is here that civic life must be grafted,” Nive-dita said to her friends. “The life of the temple must overflow into the life of the world. The movement must start from the temples and return, after a long journey, to the shrine of the Divine Mother Herself.”
The one thing that threw a cloud over the last days of the journey was Swami Sadananda’s ill-health. Throughout the trip the monk had been a tower of never-failing strength to Nivedita. “If any one thing has contributed more than another to any success I have had,” she had written in October, “it has been Swami Sadananda. First, giving me freedom; second, transferring his bodyguard to me, just as he gave it to Swamiji.
. . . Can you not realize the strength it is to have the company of a sadhu, Swami’s disciple and my own brother, wherever I go?” Whenever she spoke, she added in the same letter, she would glance from time to time toward the monk sitting beside her. “I feel as if some wild king of the woods had allowed itself to be tamed and chained, in too great a generosity even to know the sacrifice it was making.”
Now, as Christmas found them still at Madras, Swami Sadananda was far from well. But it had been his suggestion that the Holy Night should be celebrated in the Khanda Giri country, at the foot of hills that were covered with whispering trees. They lighted a fire in the open air and sat around it with local villagers, who had brought sandalwood and incense. Swami * One of Shiva’s names.
Sadananda and Amalyer Maharaj had dressed themselves as Chaldean shepherds, making their blankets into cloaks. Nivedita read aloud the story of the birth of Jesus, of the Magi who came from the East, of Mary who “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart,” and the monk translated, word for word, for the village people. One of the men bowed his face to the earth and shouted, “Glory to Christ! Jesus is our path, too! Peace on earth! Glory to the divine Child!” The harmony of the night embraced all these simple and fervent worshipers, who saw and heard the angels of God. “Blessed are the pure in heart. . .
It was early January, in 1903, when Nivedita returned to Calcutta. Urgent tasks were awaiting her there.