47. Final Tasks
Years ago, on her return from the pilgrimage to Amamath, she had plunged into a life of action. Now, coming Backfrom this other pilgrimage, she entered upon an existence of quiet meditation. But the one did not oppose the other: her work was completed now, and she was crowning it with the fruits of her experience – or would, as soon as the last threads were gathered up, the last duties done. . . .
She went and knocked on the door of Sri Sarada Devi, to receive her blessing.
All the most enterprising, as well as the most contemplative, of Sri Ramakrishna’s sons in religion knew the secret of Sarada Devi’s silent withdrawal which brought to each of them the inspiration he needed. After one look at her daughter, the saintly woman gave Nivedita all that she sought, by telling her quite simply of an incident in her own life:
“One day, long ago, Sri Ramakrishna had summoned me. I was twenty. It was spring, bursting with life. In his kindness to me, he said, ‘In the garden there is a small house. Go in, and shut the door. It is there that you must live. Meditate and pray. One day the door will open, and many will crowd around you calling you Mother! “
Meditate and pray. . . . Nivedita still felt the pulse of life about her. How she longed for that dynamic immobility, full of secret life! But there were still several tasks to be finished before she could close the door and meditate with her face toward the north. She spent the succeeding months in cutting herself free. . . .
First, there was her school.
Materially she was no longer part of it – she only taught now and then – but she maintained it financially, and its purpose and development were her responsibility. In 1909, the school had been closed for more than four months, and in 1910, the holidays ran into five months because of lack of funds. Christine had been summoned to America by her family, and the date of her return was uncertain. During this difficult period, Nivedita chose to leave the school entirely in the hands of the first brahmacharinis she had trained and who lived at the school. In the beginning there were waverings, of course, but young San-toshini had a firm hand and soon gave the school a pronounced Hindu outlook. It made quick progress, and long before Christine came Backit had established itself, no longer as Nivedita’s own mission but as a school bearing the name of its founders. Other brahmacharinis spoke of getting together and opening similar schools in other districts of Calcutta.
In this transfer of power is to be found, also, one of the tenderest and least-known pages of Nivedita’s life. She had never sought to establish a boarding school, but circumstances had decided that, in a sense, she should do so. Among her pupils were several child widows who required her special attention. She had taken in only a very few, for they became her responsibility, insomuch as religious custom did not allow a widow to return to her family after she had left it.
The first who had come were sixteen years old. They were so tiny and wretched, with their shaven heads, and their white veils always falling over their faces! Then others had come, even younger. On the death of their husbands, whether or not their marriage had been consummated, they were forced to lead in the midst of their family a life of strict continence, fasting, and self-denial. Nivedita’s school had seemed like a paradise to them.
The Matir Mandir, a special section in the school, was established on the day when Nivedita gave these children quarters in a room overlooking the inner courtyard. There, under the watchful eye of Santoshini – the first Hindu to dedicate herself to Nivedita’s ideal – they lived a life of devoted piety. Strict rules and regulations had to be applied to train these young widows as nuns, ready to help those who were even less fortunate than themselves. When Sarada Devi was in Bagh Bazar, they used to go to her once or twice a week for spiritual instruction. Sometimes Nivedita went with them. On such days she wore the ocher yellow dress.
She could not improve their material lot, but she taught them a new outlook and gave them a new aim in life. One of them, not yet fifteen, said to her, “I want to be a doctor/’ “You will,” Nivedita replied, “if you do the work I give you/* She trained them to take charge of the day scholars along with the pupil-teachers who came daily. Several of these were from Brahmo-samaj families, to become later Rabindranath Tagore’s first assistants in his famous educational institution, Shantiniketan. When these girls arrived in the morning, they would go straight to Nivedita’s room next to the alcove where she meditated. They often saw her lost in herself, her face bathed in tears. She looked so far away that the girls would pray, “My own, my own – come Backto me. .. “
One of the things that she undertook at that time was the effort to introduce a sense of beauty and harmony into her pupils’ narrow lives by laying out a garden for the school. In the summer of 1910 she wrote to Miss MacLeod:
We are going to have the garden. I hope to begin planting on the first of August. The lease is signed. I mean to have a patch of flat open grass and a blazing border with flowers tumbling over the top of the wall toward it. . . . My imagination runs riot. . . . Oh, what a joy I expect from itl It is a piece of land at our comer. So Swamiji’s early promise bids fair to be fulfilled at last. And the cup of Karma is getting full. After a while, all the good will be exhausted – and then? As for a garden, a real garden, the very soil is sacred. I do want zinnias, sweet peas in many colors, gorgeous things like sunflowers. .. .
The Matri Mandir pupils formed part of the household. They shared Nivedita’s successes, as well as her poverty when the school was closed. She relied on them implicitly. “If it is not my business to know how the school will develop/’ she said, “it is not my business either to know how these children will interpret my message, become their own.. . .”
Thus she gathered up the threads of one activity, completed one task. A more difficult chain to break was the one which linked her to the writings of Swami Vivekananda. Apart from his book on Raja-Yoga, written in England, he had left behind him only a mass of confused drafts and hurried notes. The many lectures which Goodwin had taken down in shorthand had required very careful editing. Nivedita had joined forces with a team of pious and reverent workers. Her work was solid. The disciples recognized, and were carried away by, the Swami’s mystic enthusiasm, expressed in Nivedita’s impassioned style. After working at Karma-Yoga, she was putting the finishing touches on Jnana-Yoga. This was to be her final task.
When she realized this she felt a wrench in her heart, so great was the desire to perfect the mold of her guru’s work. But her life of spiritual fulfillment was no longer in harmony with this activity. With passionate renunciation, she sacrificed it. She gave up, in favor of the monks, all she possessed: her vision of her guru, and her power of interpreting it. She gave them the autographed letters she had received in America, for the magnum opus they were preparing. It was to be called The Life of the Swami Vivekananda, by his Eastern and Western Disciples. Although Nivedita was no longer working, she thus continued to have a part in a creative task.
Her own writing did not cause her much anxiety. It consisted of various essays on education, history, and civics, inspired by questions of the moment. She was to let her successors make use of them. But she took the greatest care with her Diary, a collection of block-notes which she always carried with her, and in which she wrote daily comments on the political history of India as it was evolved behind the scenes of the Congress. Some of these notes dealt with the work of Dr. Bose, and other matters. Several copies o£ these documents had been distributed and the originals entrusted to a close friend, to await the time, ten or twenty years later, when a Hindu would consult them for the history of the period.
Suddenly she was confronted by a totally unexpected, and indeed unimaginable, ordeal.
She was at Darjeeling for the summer holidays when she received a telegram telling her that Mrs. Bull was dying of pernicious anemia and asking her to come to her in Boston. Nivedita had promised that she would look after her old friend, wherever she might be, if the need arose; and now she set sail for the United States immediately, to keep her promise.
She found herself at a tragic battlefield. The self-willed Mrs. Bull, whom Swami Vivekananda had called his “second mother,” was struggling to hold on to her life and her money. She no longer trusted anyone. The terror in her eyes turned to supplication when she saw Nivedita, and she clung to her desperately, wanting her beside her day and night, thirsting for her love and peace. But the great soul of Dhiramata, that Nivedita knew so well, was fleeing now from all light, all generosity, all desire for perfection. In the darkness of her delirium she perceived only two haunting faces: her daughter Olea, whom she had driven away; and her adopted son Jagadis Bose, who had fled from her authority. The mother, who in her passion for them had forgotten how to love, pushed them away from her.
Nivedita intervened in this terrible struggle and strove until a little love had found its way Backinto Dhiramata’s wild heart. As Nivedita meditated near her, the sick woman rediscovered for brief moments her spiritual life, the triumphant memory of Swami Vivekananda, the joy of giving. At the same time her health seemed to improve; in a few weeks the crisis was past; there was talk of convalescence. Nivedita seized the opportunity of bringing Olea Backto her mother, and Jagadis Bose to his “foster mother’s” memory. But it was only the soul that was reborn. The body died.
Then, suddenly, drama broke out. Olea – that strange woman whose life was streaked with shadows – accused Nivedita of intriguing. Why had she come so far to look after her mother? Had she not brought poisonous fruits from India? Had she not influenced her mother to make favorable legacies? Olea had plenty of money, but it was not enough for her. Attacking on all fronts, savagely and passionately, she tried to destroy the works of charity that had brought her mother such unalloyed happiness. She brought suit to contest her mother’s will.
Nivedita did not hit back. Was it her place to struggle in that dark night? She had asked nothing. But Mrs. Bull’s amazed relatives took refuge behind her, and she was obliged to defend herself in order to protect them. From what? What could she say?
Suddenly she realized. Shiva – she thought of the god, and called upon his name. She knew why the problem of possession was returning to her like the monstrous serpent Kaliya emerging from the darkness to terrify the worshipers of God. She had prepared the way for it by implanting the forgotten son, Jagadis, in the sick woman’s memory, and by bringing Backthe daughter to her bedside. She, Nivedita, had been seized with a desire to see Olea reconciled with her mother and to satisfy the proudest ambition of her life – the success of Jagadis Bose, Dhiramata’s adopted son. That was why the blow had struck her.
At that moment Nivedita withdrew within herself. She plunged alone into the “evil” with which she had identified herself, mastered it, absorbed it until it died within her. “O Shiva, Thou blue-throated god who drinkest the poison of the world,” she prayed fervently, “help me! In Thee I am no longer conscious of good or evil. Let me become the conscious spectator of all these fragments of universal harmony. Let me no longer act, but merely radiate Thy Light. . .
She loved Olea in her madness, and Bose in his fear of insecurity. During the course of the lawsuit, Nivedita’s disinterested attitude leveled many painful difficulties. She defended one child without attacking the other, until the hydra, bereft of its prey, recoiled. When she felt that she was no longer necessary, she went away.
She made a rapid return to India. In England, where she spent only a fortnight, her friends saw in her a woman aged by ten years. They tried to persuade her to stay for the Universal Races Congress which was to be held in July, but she refused – promising, however, to send a paper, which she would write on the ship. (Incidentally, Nivedita’s name is not mentioned on any list of members of that Congress, but in the Acts of the Congress there is a thirteen-page paper on interracial problems, with the title of “The Present Position of Women.”) She made her last landing in India at six o’clock on the morning ot the seventh of April, 1911.
Dawn is breaking over Bombay harbor. The hilly islands rising out of the water are shrouded in a grey light which they are gradually putting ofi. And the smell ot the hot sunbaked soil comes across the water, and across the Little boats with their swallow sails. And it is India, . . . India at last.
She felt exhausted. But it is impossible to note the profound intimacy of this homecoming without remembering Margaret Noble’s first arrival – ignorant, fascinated, bewildered, alien, eager – thirteen years before. . . .
She was still grief-stricken over her friend’s sad death and the wretched tumult that had followed it when she Learned, four months later, of Olea Bull’s suicide. In the same letter, Dhiramata’s brother gave her the news that the lawsuit had been lost, and also that he would give to India the sum stipulated in the contested will. Nivedita asked only to withdraw, to meditate. .. .