Nivedita’s lectures opposed British policy in India, and her name figured, because of her nationalist activities, upon a list of “persons to be watched.” She also took a conspicuous part in what was known as the “Budh-Gaya case,” the question of the care and jurisdiction of the holy temple, on the site where Gautama Buddha had received enlightenment, where Hindus, Buddhists, and devotees of other religions worship together.
To Nivedita, Budh-Gaya was not a shrine of Buddhism only, but a holy place of Indian nationalism. She set herself up as champion of the people and made the Budh-Gaya question an issue of national unity in the editorials of many papers. Eventually the “case” was setded by allowing Budh-Gaya to remain in the hands of the Mahunt – the religious ruler – as the heart of Hinduism; and when that occured the Mahunt sent Nivedita a vivid token, a vajra, emblem of the Buddhist Thunderbolt. The gift was accompanied by a prayer: “May you be an empty channel for His will to flow through. . .
Meanwhile, she had not only visited Budh-Gaya herself – she came with a special blessing from Swami Brahmananda of the Ramakrishna Mission, and to her in her love for Mother India this shrine was an essential part of Hinduism – but she had organized, at Swami Brahmananda’s suggestion, a tour which appeared to be in itself merely a historical and artistic pilgrimage. She was braving the censures of the British press with ironical unconcern.
The quality of the participants (about twenty in all) was to bring the leaders of public opinion into dose personal contact with the Mahunt. It was indeed a distinguished company o£ “pilgrims.” Along with Nivedita and Christine Greenstidal were Mr. and Mrs. Rabindranath Tagore, with their children and nephews; Dr. and Mrs. Jagadis Bose; Mr. and Mrs. S. K. Ratcliffe; the son of the Prince of Tripura; Sir Jadunath Sarkar; Indranath Nandi; Professor Chandra Dey; most of Nivedita’s more intimate friends and political associates; and three students under the special guidance of Swami Sadananda. The trip was to include a visit to the most famous Buddhist haunts, together with an inspection of the newly uncovered stupas, bas-reliefs, and inscriptions. The itinerary covered Samath, Benares, Raj agriha, and Nalanda with a stay of four days at Budh-Gaya. Nivedita had prepared a complete program of lectures and picnics. For the return journey she had also planned visits to Hindu and Moslem friends, who, in their turn, were ready to vie with one another in the lavish entertainment of their guests. The travelers set out during the October vacation of 1904, and the trip lasted almost a month.
Her friends soon discovered an aspect of Nivedita’s nature of which they had no knowledge. With her passion for history, she revealed an uncanny instinct for evoking the past, and she was a punctiliously careful guide in all the party’s learned researches. At the same time she remained always the receptive confidante. It was small wonder that her friends hung on herywords.
After an early breakfast, Nivedita would read and comment upon a few pages from The Light of Asia, or from her own book, The Web of Indian Life. The pilgrims would discuss history, nationalism, and the lives of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vive-kananda. She would often and gladly speak of the Lord Buddha.
“The Hindus who chose Sri Raramkrishna as their guru acted with the same discernment as the Hindus who, in days gone by, followed the greatest sadhu of their time, the victorious Buddha, in search of a purer life and a stricter faith,” a letter from Sir Jadunath Sarkar had quoted her as saying. “If ever I write the life of Swami Vivekananda, I shall naturally describe him as the greatest sage of all time, and shall only mention Chaitanya, or the Vish-naiva sect to which he belonged, in passing. If, much later, historians, on the authority of my book, affirm that Ramakrishna’s followers have seceded from Hindu society to form a caste apart from the Vishnaivas, or that they ousted the followers of Ghai-tanya, then they will only be making the same mistake as those who teach that Buddhism does not belong to us.”
In the evening, the pilgrims sat on the tottering steps of the ruins and watched the glowworms. They meditated in the deepening peace. Nivedita would recall a personal experience, Rabindranath Tagore would sing a quiet melody. How delightful was the ‘intimacy of these pauses that brought hearts and souls into contact!
“Tagore was a perfect guest,” Nivedita noted, “with nothing of the spoiled child socially about him. He has a naive sort of vanity in speech which is so childish as to be rather touching. He sang and chatted day and night, was always ready to entertain or be entertained, struggled all the time between work for the country and the national longing to seek liberation. He’s a real poet, who sings and gladdens our souls!”
The Mahunt received them like a king, with his faith as his treasure. The night before they left, however, Nivedita was suddenly seized with a fit of sadness and poured out her doubts to him. How many of the pupils she had brought, how many of her dose friends who were leaving with deep satisfaction, had really absorbed something of Budh-Gaya’s message of love and tolerance? Of this magnificent experience, what were they going to retain?
“Swami Vivekananda had indeed sowed the seeds of an effective spirituality,” she said, ‘but every being must grow, shake off its bonds, and become a giant tree.”
“Let the great Gardener bless each one of His plants,” the monk responded. “Is it for us to understand aught of it?”
His outstretched palms called down the divine blessing, his smile welcomed it, his eyes bequeathed it. Nivedita bowed low before him, and touched his feet in homage.
Leaving Budh-Gaya, the travelers took the road the Buddha had followed by moonlight to Rajagriha, fifty miles away. They also went by night An elephant for the women and children opened the way. The men came next, surrounded by torch-bearers. Two halts were made each night, for rest and refreshment around a campfire. One of the pilgrims would recite the words of Lord Buddha in a rhythmic melody which all the others would take up in chorus. Once they halted in the middle of the jungle, at a ruined temple which seemed haunted by dancing shadows. Were they heroes miming their epics before the court of the gods, with nymphs stifling their plaintive cries? Laughter and crying rent the night air. Dawn showed the travelers a staircase of mossy stones leading from the temple to a lotus-covered pool. They bathed, and lay stretched out on the cool flat rocks.
One of Nivedita’s unexpected pleasures during this trip was in the living history of old stones. She had always been interested in archeology, but this went further: here was a whole historical theory of Buddhist knowledge which developed and imposed itself upon her. At Rajagriha she was much excited at the sight of a huge Buddha in black stone – buried for centuries – rising from the sand. She went into the poorest hovels to see if the stone on which the village women crushed their spices were not some carved work, and she looked at every village well to find out if its edges were not made of terra cotta. She visited small artisan-sculptors and wood-engravers, at work on the same kind of figures that had been carved for two thousand years. “Oh, what a marvelous country,” she cried. “There are unknown hands, unconscious of perfection, which indefinitely recreate the perfect forms of gods and sacred symbols. India cannot die. Its past, its present, and its future are one unity, as its traditional art is the expression of its social and religious life.” Her first articles on Indian Art were written during this journey.
When she returned to Calcutta she said to Swami Brahman-anda: “I shall now preach the message of unity through art. Art is one of India’s great religions.” And to her political friends she said:'”I have seen on the stones the very image of Shakti. The Divine Energy we worship is an immortal reality. It is India itselfl”
When questioned about the results of her pilgrimage, she smiled. “In his wisdom Buddha has sent us away rejoicing,” she answered. “Infinitely great are the divine favors; but are our eyes capable of discerning them?”