42. “Deeds, Deeds, Deeds!”
When she left Darjeeling to return to the plains, she had been given a clean bill of health for a year. She flung herself now into the great revolutionary activities set in motion by Aurobindo Ghose. “No more words, words, words! Let us have deeds, deeds, deeds!” she cried.
Aurobindo Ghose had settled in Calcutta – then the administrative capital of India – as Principal of the newly founded National College. And his influence went, inevitably, far beyond his official functions. What he was doing was to impart an esoteric significance to the nationalist movement, and make it a confession of faith. In appearance a passive type, a quiet – even silent – figure, he was a man of iron will whose work, personality, possessions, earnings, belonged to God and to that India which he considered not as a geographical entity but as the Mother of every Hindu; and he seized hold on the people and created between them and the “nation” a profoundly mystic bond.
The nationalism he taught was thus a religion in itself, and it was so that he had become the teacher of the nation. He wanted every participant in the movement to feel himself an instrument in the hand of God, renouncing his own will and even his body and accepting this law as an act of obedience and inner submission. The goal he aimed for was to make every man a leader in himself, and to create a state-within-the-state, with every part of the whole organization mutually respected. This esoteric nationalism had, logically, no chance of success; just as hostile forces arise against any new philosophy of life, so he found himself opposed by authority, force, and arms. But the rock of confidence was Aurobindo Ghose’s own faith, and his sibylline words which gained weight daily: “Sri Krishna cannot grow to manhood unless He is called upon to work for others, unless the Asuric forces of the world [the dark forces opposed to light] are about Him and work against Him and make Him feel His strength.” This injunction to act, endure, and suffer without question – to let oneself be guided by the assurance that God gives strength to him who struggles – required sacrifices which became in turn a reservoir of power from which new fighters drew inspiration to go forward. The individual and the community were no longer separated.
If it was from the history of the Irish “troubles” that the Hindu extremists had borrowed the term “nationalist” to define exactly the nature of their claim, Aurobindo Ghose with his clear insight into the Swadharma [law of action] of his own people was suffusing it with a spiritual strength and making it live.
On her return journey to Calcutta from Benares, Nivedita made a long detour into the interior, where she visited a number of rich zemindars, to enlist their financial support for her sva-deshi agencies. But even while traveling she worked, and her newspaper connections gave her a heavy schedule. Her short spontaneous sketches became articles which she sent regularly to New India, a periodical which had been established about 1901 by Swami Besant, or to a newer paper which Barindra Ghose, together with Swami Vivekananda’s youngest brother Bhupendranath Dutt, had just launched. This paper was called the Yugantar. Upendranath Banerjee also worked on it, and Surendranath Tagore was in the same group. When it appeared in its finished form in March, 1906, it represented the definite result of many attempts, each of which had served temporarily, in its way, as a means of infiltration. Now the Yugantar was immediately recognized as “the revolutionaries’ catechism.” It had announced its motto as that of complete spiritual freedom – the political freedom of the country being merely an aspect of this.
“That idea,” said Nivedita, “you have got from my guru!
Very good! Give it any form you like in your columns – it is what the crowd will demand very soon!”
The Yugantar sold for a rupee a copy, and early in 1907 its circulation reached the figure of fifty thousand.
Nivedita also contributed to Aurobindo Ghose’s paper, Bande Mataran, and thanks to all this direct and indirect journalistic collaboration, she was invited by Tirumalacharya of Madras to become director of the Bala Bharath. “I want to run my paper according to the principles honored in certain regions of our country,” he wrote to her. “I want to place it entirely at your disposal,so as to improve and increase its influence.” In spite of the satisfaction such a post would have given her, Nive-. dita refused it: she had to remain detached, ready at a moment’s notice to replace any “opposition” editor who might find himself in difficulties, and to preserve (between the lines) the tone of “constant sedition” that molded public opinion. She kept up a connection with Bala Bharath, however. It followed the form of Mazzini’s Young Italy; and the great Tamil poet Sub-ramanya Bharati published in it his poems in honor of Nivedita, whom he called his “political guru.”
Throughout this year of 1906, too, she devoted her pent-up energy to many young nationalists who crowded about her. She spent herself freely, but she left it to them to solve the problem of understanding Aurobindo Ghose’s “law of honor,” to assimilate it, and graft it onto their daily life. She knew very well what the armed struggle in Ireland had been like. In London she had taken part in active organizations and had lived among rebels. Now on the soil of India the many self-sacrifices still veiled by subde forms of selfishness had to come forth and express the true Hindu impulse. She well knew that she was both blamed and envied for her Western aggressiveness, whereas in fact she only recognized a right to use violence for those men who were seeking to redeem their inner cowardice. She was often asked, “What must we do to earn the respect of the English?” Her reply was categorical:
“Fight as they would fight in your place, and be ready to face the consequences. But it will be a hard test of sincerity!”
.’And what will the consequences be?” she was asked further. “I don’t knowl” she answered. “We have no more the right to foresee them than to expect a reward for our sacrifices. That is not our business. Let us be fearless, that is the important thing. The blood we shed will wash us of the accusation of being cowards. Let us get to work on ourselves!”
To the nationalist leaders she said: “Well, go to it! What are you waiting for? There are as many ways of fighting as there are enemies. In Ireland we have a saying which history has verified, ‘England yields nothing without bombs!’ Every step forward, every reform, has always been wrested from the government, and paid for by a handful of men. But Ireland is proud of its heroes. Where are the heroes produced by your generation?”
She detested pretentiousness and arrogance. Of the Hindus who declared, “We are ready to give our lives for India,” she demanded, point-blank, “Can you handle a weapon? Can you shoot? No? Well, go and learn!” She unmasked those who were not sure of themselves, and sent them away.
“To gain the princess of his choice,” she said, “Arjuna had a steady enough hand and a quick enough eye to hit the target when he could only see it reflected in a pool. Nowadays the Hindu, because he is accused of cowardice, must possess enough self-mastery to strike and pay for it with his blood: that is the first stage in the yoga of honor.” And she added:
“The ideal struggle would be to conquer through nonviolence preached by our sages, but are we capable of it? No! Our generation, reared in the acceptance of submission to the foreigner, lives in a pessimistic atmosphere. Let us start by getting out of it. The nonviolence which in theory we value so much is worthless in practice until the day when we are strong enough to strike an irresistible blow and decide not to do so. The man who does not strike because he is weak commits a sin. The man who does not strike because he is afraid is a coward. Krishna accused Arjuna of hypocrisy because he refused to fight on the battlefield. ‘Rise up!’ he said to him. ‘Go and fight! You speak like a sage, but your actions betray you and show you for a coward!’ “
Nivedita maintained this high conception of violence amid the timid youths who still hesitated and were easily intoxicated by their own reaction. There was no doubt, at the same time, that her words shocked her friends. She had to struggle against nearly all of them – all those who approached the problems of the moment with a conception in which reality and ideal had to be adjusted to facts. They were even at variance with themselves. Rabindranath Tagore, the first to throw himself into the political arena, now withdrew. “India is not following the right path,” he said. “It welcomes too many foreign elements in its struggle.” Nivedita was with him in detesting these elements: she really disliked living a life that was so different from the one traced out for her by her guru. But for her the passive arrow in the hands of the good archer served its heroic purpose, and she felt herself to be, likewise, nothing but a tool. Tagore, on the other hand, was refusing to accept those elements which wrecked his inner joy and harmony, and which warped the silent meditation of the India he sang. Some people accused him of cowardice, egoism, and pride, but in fact he was merely incapable of serving a cause which was beyond him.
At the other end of the scale, Nivedita fought against an unhealthy intolerance which was dividing individuals, falsifying their relations, and sowing suspicion everywhere. In 1906, Gok-hale, who was savagely assailed by the extremists, was threatened with death, and Nivedita was thunderstruck. She went from one nationalist to another, demanding, “Did you do that?” and adding, “It’s impossible! This is not the time to tear ourselves to pieces.” Even in the opposition camp, however, Gokhale remained her friend, and whenever she felt forced to criticize him in public she wrote him a personal letter of apology. In March, 1907, she wrote to him:
I do hope you will not succeed in giving up the Council. That seems to me to be your place, where you are invaluable. Besides, you are some day to be in India what Lamartine was in Paris in the great crisis. I have always thought this was your destiny. Still, that will come to you, whether you remain on the Council or go off. “Thy place in life is seeking after thee, therefore be thou at rest from seeking after it.”
Among the young nationalists, meanwhile, there were out* breaks of self-distrust, perplexity, even heart-rending despair. One day Bhupendranath Dutt came to Nivedita with the appeal of a man baffled: “Why is the crowd shouting ‘Kali! Kalil* everywhere? Can you hear it? It still wants to be hypnotized. But it’s only superstition! Where are we going? Can’t you see that we are dying of starvation? We must flee! But where? Where is the true India? The India for which the struggle is just? Show it to us!’*
She showed it to him, and to others, in the struggles of other countries for independence. In one accelerated movement she relived with them the nationalist uprisings that had created modem Europe. She had sent for a whole case of books on the various events of 1848, and this formed their circulating library. * With them she read Mazzini and Cavour, and discussed Swami Vivekananda’s lectures and Prince Kropotkin’s latest book. She explained to them the secret mechanism that linked organized groups, as it did in Ireland, where each man stood for the honor of the whole group and where orders were transmitted and aims followed with an almost superhuman devotion to duty. She urged them on:
“Seek resolutely the means of asserting yourself. You’ve been walking in a dream for two generations! How do you expect people to respect you? We must wish the power of infinite and patient sacrifice to truth, to duty, to love: a sacrifice that knows nothing of rest, nothing of conditions, nothing of limit; a power of devotion that says, ‘Take! Take!* He who will reach the goal must know how to float on the current of obedience and see nothing beyond the work in hand: ‘No plans,* as my guru said to me.”
At the same time, she gave of her own earnings and collected, from others, money to establish co-operating groups in the villages of Bengal. Some women even brought then* jewels to contribute to this cause.
The summer was hard. There were floods and famine in East Bengal, and Nivedita worked with other women in the organization of assistance. When she went to Barisal and spoke in her ocher-yellow robe, she collected enough money to give a good meal to five thousand people every third day during the worst period. The pictures she brought Backfrom the famine areas were frightful: people deprived of all necessities, clothed in banana leaves, eating seaweed, dying of hunger in front of their ruined homes. “Mother, give rice, give rice,” the women shouted. The only market was one boat that sold cucumbers and pepper plants. For four days Nivedita went up and down the canals in a houseboat, struggling against the current. The water kept rising. So did the prices. Rice became more and more scarce. The panic-stricken animals herded peacefully in the same refuge, as in the legends, the tiger and the cow close together, the cobra curled up between the hoofs of the goat
But when Nivedita tried to interest the Calcutta public, on her return, her lecture in the Town Hall was ignored.
She fell ill with fever, and was told that she had malaria and must rest She had personal sorrows, also, to grieve over. Gopaler Ma had died, at the age of ninety, and although her death was peaceful and holy, in observance of the rites of her faith, Nivedita was saddened by the loss of her aged friend. Another friend had been suddenly snatched away, too: Swami Swarupananda, who had died as a young man still, only thirty-four. When she went to Dum-Dum, eight miles from Calcutta, and sought repose in the magnificent retreat of one of the nationalist leaders – a hidden haven in a garden of mango trees – she seemed to hear their voices in death, and the children of Bengal tapping their empty swollen bellies; and the trees were filled with the sobbing of the wind. Was all this a mysterious warning for her that her line of life was beginning to weaken? She withdrew within and prayed: “Mother, what is Your will? For how much longer, Mother, must I still struggle?”
She was very tired. The peace in which Gopaler Ma had died was calling to her. But she still clutched her warrior’s arms to her breast. She lived through days of passionate mysticism, burning with fever. Then, suddenly, she gave up.
“My active personal role is finished,” she wrote. “May my last will be done for India… . ” And in a later letter, in Decern-ber, she looked Backon these days: “I sat down one evening thinking, If this were my last word to the Indian people, let me try to write Swami’s whole ideal for them in one message. … So it might have been really my last will and testament.”
Even in giving up, she still worked, determined to complete her service, not merely end it For three days and nights, with hardly any rest, she was busy writing out a summary of all her many letters on “Aggressive Hinduism.” In doing this she relived her experience, heard again the crowds’ applause, and their singing, felt all eyes upon her once more. Then the vision would blur. But she still had to make her will. This did not take long. In case she should die before Mrs. Ole Bull, who was now fifty-six years old, what would be done with the money mentioned on Mrs. Bull’s charity list? Her generous friend had said that she wished to bequeath large sums for work being done in India, and she wished to have Nivedita free to administer this money. So Nivedita wrote a long letter to Mrs. Bull which she hoped would serve as a codicil in case of Nivedita’s own death. The letter read as follows:
I wish to bequeath to the Nation one thousand pounds yearly for an art competition; to Christine one thousand pounds plus two thousand pounds and my share of Swamiji’s Works and my books; to Science three thousand pounds at the disposal of my Bairn for Indian Science.
This was in July, 1906. She went to bed dropping with fatigue.
Strength and will power seemed to have dissolved within her. She was prostrate for several weeks. She often wept Her life flowed past as if in a filter, without light. When she found her way slowly Backto life she was a different woman, whom her friends never completely recognized. She had abandoned the proud instrument of her active willpower, to become a much more detached servant “I am beginning to worship passivity,” she wrote, some time later, “as the highest and best mood. I see that one struggles too hard, one shuts out light from all about one. I fear that I too often darken the windows of the house! Peace! Peace!”