34. Young India
Five years after Margaret Noble’s arrival in India – a disciple of Swami Vivekananda with no thought beyond helping him in his religious and educational work, a British stranger with no knowledge of the alien land to which she had come – Nivedita was now filling an appointed place within the Indian Nationalist Organization which had its headquarters in Bengal. Aurobindo Ghose, in spite of his absence, was the organization’s chief leader. Nivedita’s work of propaganda was done largely, at this time, through the medium of her “Sunday breakfasts,” and in her contacts with the students of the actively revolutionary “Dawn Society.”
The breakfasts actually began in November, 1902, when she described her northern tour to her friends, and by the end of the first year they were serving in the capacity of a secret rendezvous between nationalists. “We keep more or less open house,” she wrote in a letter at the outset. “We are extravagant in brown bread and Quaker oats.” With Nivedita as their life and soul the breakfast gatherings discussed the events of the week, and also the newspapers. They organized assistance, when necessary, for the families of political exiles. They soon became, on several counts, an indispensable adjunct to the Nationalist Organization’s work.
Nivedita entertained in her study on the upper floor of her house: a quiet room. On the walls were an ivory crucifix and a photograph of Swami Vivekananda. The table, piled with notes, articles, and clippings, held also a bowl of flowers and a very rare statuette of the Buddha. Visitors sat on straw mats on the floor. Everyone would bring his friends; and, in spite of the increasing heat and the discomfort in returning home under the blazing midday sun, the groups, sheltered behind lowered straw blinds and sustained by many cups of coffee, did not break up until late in the morning.
The fact of being received by Nivedita soon became a veritable testimonial, and added greatly to the feeling of solidarity among the newcomers. Accepted by her they were welcomed and trusted whether they were emissaries from Poona with definite and advanced ideas, Bengalis, who always invested facts with more subtle contours, sometimes a monk of the Rama-krishna Mission, or English journalists like S. K. Ratcliffe, whom her friends jokingly called “Nivedita’s chela “ There were constant goings and comings between Baroda and Calcutta, too. And whether these Sunday visitors were members of the National Congress, leaders in public affairs, Civil Servants, men of letters, professors, or journalists, when they found themselves in Nivedita’s house they set aside their respective caste barriers, to become nothing but ”nationalists” in her sense of that word. “The test, the real test, of a leader lies in holding widely different people together along the lines of their common sympathies,” Swami Vivekananda had taught her, “and this can only be done unconsciously: never by trying.” It was this unification-in-variety that was the object of her preliminary work.
The meetings were permeated by an atmosphere of complete freedom, which was of necessity an atmosphere of quest and intellectual upheaval. These friends of Nivedita’s belonged, every one of them, to perfectly autonomous and aristocratic groups which held an exclusive monopoly of their own knowledge and no correlation each with each. The Western education to which the country had been subject had disseminated unas-similable principles of European democracy and had resulted merely in an increase of the general uneasiness. The India of 1903 was like a volcano ready to erupt.
In this India a spontaneous enthusiasm, bom of the country’s own needs, was necessary before the revolutionary movement could be properly formed; and for that, consciously or unconsciously, all eyes were turned toward Aurobindo Ghose. The plan which he envisaged and on which he was working could be revealed only to minds in a fit state to receive it. No ground in which to sow the seed and bring it to harvest could be more favorable than that of Nivedita’s mind and character, prepared as it had been long ago by the sacrifices of her own Irish ancestors. It was this quality of personal surrender, of boundless love for Ireland transformed into a fervent Indian patriotism, which provided the vitality that radiated from her.
Henry W. Nevinson, who was a friend of Nivedita’s, wrote of her ten years later; “I do not know whether on the religious side it could be said of Nivedita, as of the philosopher, that she was drunk with God; but on the side of daily life and political thought it might certainly be said that she was drunk with India.”
Nobody could have called her gentle. She was, rather, a kind of prophet, possessed of a courage that was more masculine than feminine, and refusing to countenance any weakness or criticism. The almost harsh nonconformist rationalism and independence of her nature, which had been in conflict with her emotionalism, had achieved a harmony; as we now say, a sublimation. Going Backover her life, one can trace the process. Now, in the very austerity of her inner life, she possessed not only a freedom but an acute judgment which many of those around her feared without being able to do without it. Every positive movement that she detected was commended at its true value. She loathed any kind of morbid sentimentality. If any of her friends were attacked she brought a biting sarcasm to the defense; she was their shield and buckler, and she gloried in it.
At the Sunday breakfasts there would always be a few students hovering about her, hoping to help her and the work, in some way: to carry a message, to act as guide for a stranger in Calcutta, to translate a Bengali text How she loved these young people! “Are they not my reserve capital?” she said proudly. She would make them come forward and state their opinions at her Sunday gatherings, although they preferred to stand at one side listening to what was being said, in the same respectful attitude they adopted before their parents; then as soon as the other visitors had left they would rush up to her to learn her reactions. The most enthusiastic and fearless of these young men was Barindra Ghose, just arrived from Baroda, where for the past two years he had been undergoing initiation by his brother Aurobindo into his future work. He was twenty years old. He had first seen Swami Vivekananda when he was fifteen. He was all afire with zeal.
“I came to Calcutta with the idea of preaching the cause of independence, as a political missionary. Nothing shall stop me!” he declared.
“Good!” Nivedita replied, showing no surprise at this pugnacious attitude. “Your aim is noble; but – are you ready? Remember, you are not bom for yourself but for your neighbor, for your own kind, for humanity in the sum.”
“Yes, on condition that you are our Joan of Arc!” he answered. “That you show us the way. We need you. Let us march behind you and all will be well, even if we don’t know where your banner leads. Give your orders. We will work together, even if you are in Calcutta and I am in the villages of Bengal.”
There was a pleading, and at the same time almost threatening, note in his voice. Like thousands of other young men to whom Nivedita had spoken during her travels, Barindra Ghose was seeking comrades who would constitute a unified group. He was impatient Nivedita reassured him:
“If you are still isolated, I will help you. That is why I am here. The leaders are here, too, but the work of the pioneers will be hard. I know fellow captains and fellow crewmen, to toil along the same lines and exchange ideas to good effect Take heart! The way is opening before you.”
Barindra’s work in Bengal was the organization in the villages – even the most remote – of a chain of Samitisj or youth organizations, which would meet under all kinds of pretexts, but with the real aim of providing a civic and political education and opening the eyes of the young to the “affairs of the nation.” Similar youth organizations had already been established in the Deccan under the leadership of the outspoken Nationalist leader Bel Gangadhar Tilak. In smoky little grain shops, on the terraced roofs of private houses, young men would meet to hear about the lives of Mazzini and Garibaldi, to read exhortations from Swami Vivekananda, to listen to the warlike incidents of the Mahabharata and to comments on the Bhagavad Gita. The number of samitis increased daily.
Nivedita’s own dream at this time was to found in Swami Vivekananda’s name (as he had done in the name of Sri Ramakrishna) an association which would gather together the future disciples of her guru’s national idea. “I feel myself able to make ten thousand Vivekanandas,” she wrote, “for just as he could understand and make Ramakrishnas, so I can see in him the things he himself could not. My object will be to keep a set of boys six months, and then to send them out for six months* travel; again six months of study, and so on…From this dedicated organization she saw emerging the watchful leaders of men who, in their turn, would organize “Indian Vivekananda societies” and “schools of active political education” throughout the whole vast country.
This plan was not in fact realized, but it served as a basis for Satis Chandra Mukherjee in giving a more solid foundation to the somewhat nebulous and intermittent student organization called “The Dawn.” The organization had been bom in a wave of his enthusiasm years ago, when he had heard Swami Vivekananda preach the Hindu civilization in America. The articles in his monthly review – also named The Dawn – ceased then to be exclusively philosophical and began to emphasize social questions, under such headings as “Cottage Industries,” “Customs and Manners,” and “Village Life.” In his organization he offered a complete political education, while insisting on brahmacharya and governing the choice of the members by a strict moral ruling. From among the young men who lived in poor overcrowded student hostels in the capital, a thousand responded to his appeal. Here was an asceticism which fired a youth eager to give of itself.
The teaching of “The Dawn” had its foundation in the Bhagavad Gita, on which one of the senior monks of the Rama-krishna mission lectured without allowing his students to be led astray in empty philosophical discussion. His subject was “What it is to sacrifice one’s life for an ideal.” Nivedita attended these lectures, and the students crowded around her to hear what she thought of them. In the Gita she saw a boundless source of power. “You have in your hands the most perfect instrument that exists,” she said. “Carry over its teaching into your daily lives. When will the real fighter in the good cause rise up again, the Gita in one hand and a sword in die other?” Then she added:
“A hero whose footsteps we can easily follow left us only the other day. . . . Swami Vivekananda is quite near to us. We can still walk in his shadow.”
For several years Nivedita played an important part in the Dawn Society, dealing for the most part with the subject of Nationality. This was a new idea to discuss, and its rudiments had to be elaborated in some detail. To do this she had recourse to evolutionist theories, and in the nature of the country and the characteristics of its land and waters she sought the elements that had gone to make up man in his environment. She looked at India from its dim beginnings to its future epochs, from the point of view of an idealistic Indian patriot. The logic of her arguments was such as to checkmate any opponent, even when at one and the same time she eulogized her friend and mentor Romesh Chunder Dutt for his unswerving loyalty to the British government, and sowed the seeds of revolt in the minds of the young! “Shim government service! Shun any service!” she repeated.
The students used to call her “White Mountain,” because of her fair complexion and her somewhat sharp features. Her white skin was for them an accident; it had been accepted, like her blue eyes. She was not a “memsab” but the sister of all
Hindus. She belonged to the clan of Satis Chandra Mukherjee, who was venerated like a guru. Her pupils would tolerate no criticism of her.
There is no doubt that she inspired the most noble passions in her hearers, although if she had not worn the robe of a nun her pupils might often have been divided by jealousy. As it was, they all had a touching personal pride in her. Some of them said:
“We have often been told of the sages of olden times. Nivedita is one of them. She has overthrown the barriers of time. Strengthened by the life of the West, and its freedom, she has come Backinto a familiar environment, to serve those whom she had loved before.”
It was to these pupils that Nivedita gave the best of herself, widening their vision and showing them the close relationship between social ideas (which have progressed simultaneously but differently in India and Europe) and their possible points of application. She made them feel that they were free members of a great nation, looking beyond the narrow circle of their ancestral families while still preserving their traditions. She was grateful to the Hindu mothers whose ambition was renunciation, but she wanted their sacrifice to goad their sons who were ready for action and to fight for the nation. “Brahmach-arins are necessary,” she said, “but not young men whose ideal is passivity. I want you to be active, with the brahmacharya of a hero, assimilating all the experiences of life whatever they may be, without running away from them. For love and hatred are dualities which will disappear. I want men who can face life squarely and find God in the manifestation of their sacrifice. The goddess of your worship, Mother India, dwells in famine, in suffering, and in poverty rather than on the altars where you offer her flowers and incense. She is where your sacrifice is!
“If you want to know the real India,” she would often add, “dream the dreams of Akbar and Ashoka. Patriotism is not learned in books. It is a feeling which seizes the whole being: it is at once the blood and the marrow; it is in the air one breathes and the sound one hears!1‘
In late April, 1908, Swami Sadananda set out with six specially selected students for the north of India, and Nivedita was overjoyed. She had collected the necessary money and obtained parental permission for the boys’ trip, and she infused in them the medieval guilds’ spirit of comradeship going from village to village. She sent this first group to Kedamath, the temple of Lord Shiva in the Himalayas, and she dreamed of other, similar tours to Puranic, Jain, Buddhist, and Dravidian India. Although her plan for a Students’ Hostel was premature and could not be carried through, a second expedition took place the next year. “Sadananda’s life seems to have opened,” she wrote to Miss MacLeod at this time. “He is no longer a servant, but a great teacher and leader – and still with the same humility and faithfulness to anyone who will teach him something!”
During May, 1903, she lectured at one of the Midnapore samitis. The boys welcomed her with shouts of “Hip, hip, hurrah!” but she cut their outburst short “Have you become so hybrid that you express your approval in foreign slogans?” she said. “Repeat after me, ‘Vah Guru ki fate! Victory to the Guru!’ “
She spoke thirteen times in five days. “When one can do this sort of thing it is generally of some value,” she wrote. But she had one great difficulty to overcome. ‘The boys find it hard to understand my lectures,” the letter continued. “They go over their heads. I try to use all instruments, but I see very plainly that I have to find channels to speak through others, and the ideas become modified. I thought to turn the world upside down, so strong was the life I felt within me, and I am crying to the winds and only the winds take up and echo my cry. . . Then she summed up:
“I would like to do a great service, or at least to make an utter sacrifice.”
Had she not yet given everything?