It was inevitable that, in the early years of the century, Nivedita should fling herself heart and soul into that movement toward India’s economic self-dependence which was to become known throughout the world under the name of Svadeshi. Several flourishing private industries in Bengal were founded on her initiative and with her financial assistance. She organized centers of supply and distribution of raw materials, and acted as a link between artisans, stockbrokers, and wholesalers. She interested herself in loans with low interest, and likewise established an assistance fund with interest-free loans but with stricdy calculated repayments. She also took an interest in the elaboration of the statutes of the first co-operative societies. She worked tirelessly with young people, inspiring them, organizing them. And she insisted that practical labor of this kind must go hand in hand with religion itself.
One day, as she arrived at Belur by boat with Swami Sada-nanda, she saw crossing the lawn a well-built young man who was visibly a prey to great emotion. Paying no attention to the novices who crowded around her in welcome, she jumped ashore and called to the unknown youth.
“What have you come here for?”
“To find the strength to live and forget the world.”
“Don’t leave the world: that’s not the right path,” she said.
“I am seeking God alone,” the young man answered stubbornly.
“God is in action, in the play o£ life,” Nivedita retorted sternly. “The country needs all its strength. Come, I will show you how you can play your part.”
Not clearly defined at the outset, Svadeshi was an attempt at nonco-operation with the government which passed gradually from theory to practice to become a methodical boycott of all English goods; later, it became also a rejection of every English cultural influence. This “revolution” meant that the poorest of the middle class, underpaid, underfed, badly housed, was ready to accept a still lower standard of living and to do without a number of daily necessities, in order to live a “national life.” Nivedita had her own initial paraphrase of it.
“It is better for every man to have his own law of action, even if it be imperfect, than to have the law of another well applied,” says the sacred Gita. To the students of the Dawn Society, Nivedita said, “Svadeshi is exactly that” She evoked for them a Hindu economic life, distinctly national although in every way embryonic, and yet infinitely preferable to the condition of an enslaved people. And how she loved her band of young patriots, who were seeking a regeneration from within, and not awaiting any external aid!
“All India is watching the struggle that is going on in Eastern Bengal,” she wrote in the Indian Review of March, 1905. “The air is tense with expectation, with sympathy, with pride in those grim heroic people and their silent struggle to the death for their svadeshi trade. Quietly, all India is assimilating their power. Are they not a farmer people engaged in a warfare which is none the less real for being fought with spiritual weapons? . . . This svadeshi movement is an integral part of the National Righteousness. . .
New industries were created spontaneously, transforming economic life. The people manufactured anything and everywhere, because in so doing they became conscious of their own freedom. To start with, there were soap, matches, paper, ink; then pottery, bricks, and lesser trinkets. But the great effort was made in the houses where the Hindu spun and wove, himself, the cotton that he himself had grown. The self-appointed weavers set up their looms in the Backalleys, while their wives washed, dyed, and spun the raw cotton. The children polished newly cut wood to make spindles. By and by, the fine Manchester muslins were replaced by coarse Khaddar cloth. It was soon a sacrilege to go to the temple clad in imported clothes.
Svadeshi had even reached the shrines of the gods. Thousands of Hindus had vowed at the shrines of Kalighat and Puri never to buy anything that was not svadeshi. All these sporadic industries, most primitive as they were, brought one immediate advantage: the little money that was in circulation remained in the hands of the Hindus. A perceptible increase in prosperity (if it could be called that!) was quickly seen in the congested quarters and slums of the city. There was more food in the shops, and there were new articles for sale.
Nivedita watched all this and cheered it on. “Hold out! We are coming to help you!” she would exclaim, the moment she learned of any hardship. At the same time, she and her assistants stood guard to make sure that svadeshi retained its noble and dignified character, and to emphasize it as a means of unity. The “empty bellies” of the districts regularly devastated by flood or famine had to become positive elements in the struggle, and to join with those sections of the Moslem population that rebelled because the religious basis of svadeshi, supported by the Hindus, could never be their own. But the national aim was one: the independence of India.
When the salesmen trained in the new selling agencies run by the students of the Dawn Society had learned their jobs, they went off in their turn to found new branches in other parts of Calcutta or in other provincial towns. Barindra Ghose acted as link between the city and country centers. One day he found himself without money, and with a serious responsibility to meet, and he hurried to Bagh Bazar to Nivedita to ask assistance. It was high noon. She came out to see who was there, and did not recognize him at first in the blinding light “Who is it?”
“Your Bairn. We are lost! No money! What is to be done?” “First, do not beg! Money will come through work. . . .”
Nivedita’s activities in the city were paralleled by, and complementary to, Rabindranath Tagore’s efforts to set up independent rural centers. Their points of view were often highly divergent, but they worked together none the less. Meanwhile, she was making good use of contact with the West
She succeeded, thus, in sending a group of young men to England, to the United States, and to Japan for professional training courses. They learned wool weaving and the whole technique of subproducts, the manufacture of pharmaceutical goods, glass-blowing, and, most important, the handling of metals. All these were reliable trades, the possibilities of which Nivedita had studied, and on which, through her Western friends, she had gathered a vast documentation. Mrs. Bull had sent magic-lanterns with slides for technical teaching, and Miss MacLeod’s friends had contributed a library of technical treatises. When the first specialized workers returned to Calcutta Nivedita helped them to establish themselves.
Several of these young men had been actually forced into a life of action under the subjugation of Nivedita’s authority. She was listened to because she radiated a dazzling purity, but men feared her, too, because of her intransigence. She separated with one of the novices she loved most, because he disassociated his functions as monk from the sacrifice that was necessary for the country. To serve Mother India, Nivedita wanted dealers in the bazaars, instructors in the use of tools and machines, lecturers with a real spiritual vocation to influence their pupil’s characters. She sought a spirituality that was eminently practical, that mingled with life and had become a part of life. Whenever she discovered some foreign article in the stock of a shop in the bazaar, she was furiously angry. But the most simple Hindu wares – an earthenware cup, a finely made oil lamp costing less than one cent – were full of charm for her. They became the subject of newspaper articles. Her descriptions emphasized the elegance of simple lines, and established canons of taste. She revealed beauties which the Hindus themselves had failed to see, and which they discovered with her.
During the years when the svadeshi movement was at its height Nivedita stood fearlessly by the Bengal leaders, taking upon herself their difficulties and dangers. She was herself never disturbed, however, and thus it was sometimes possible for her to take the place of leaders who were missing. Her Sunday breakfasts assumed great importance at this time. She also spent months in the work of preparation for the first “National Sva-deshi Exhibitions” held at Calcutta during the sessions of the National Congress. In these exhibitions the most diverse articles were on sale: the best weaving, polished wooden ploughs, jams and condiments, sewing and embroidery. Nivedita’s school had embroidered the national flag for the exhibition of 1905. She was also among the first to peddle, throughout Calcutta, the first woven stuffs, the first soaps, the first pencils.
In spite of her zeal for svadeshi, and the satisfaction she derived from her labors in it, Nivedita remained essentially, in this as in all else, the breaker-down of barriers within India itself. Through svadeshi, she would gradually win over some refractory section of Hindu society or some religious group which was still hostile; and with her inborn taste for adventure she would open boldly the doors that were most firmly closed. Impersonal, neither offering nor demanding anything, her manner itself moved the Hindus and made them yield to her. Her eyes prayed as her hands showed the work she was hawking. “And you?” she seemed to say. “What have you done for India? Won’t you come to our aid?”
So it was that when she called at a house, they did not let her go until her presence had sanctified the entire family. They led her before aged grandmothers, brought little children to her, and introduced her to young wives. They took her to the family shrine, to receive the darshan of the god worshiped there. Often the men would wipe the dust from her feet and ask for her blessing, as if, for them, Nivedita were Mother India Herself, come to their door to beg an offering for the poorest of Her children.