48. The End of the Journey
The period through which she now passed appeared, on the surface, to be the most sterile of her life; actually it was the richest – a period spent in meditation, and filled with the presence of divine beings. The school was temporarily closed, and Christine had gone away; she was at Mayavati, working on Swami Vivekananda’s biography, and would later join the Brahmo-samaj College – a position which, Nivedita thought, would give her the independence of a leader.
Nivedita lived alone behind closed doors. She had not taken up her journalistic work again; and the consequent loss of income left her so poor that it is doubtful whether she had enough to eat. She refused all invitations, and she never went out. She seemed to have no more duties to carry out. From appearances one might judge that all her plans had gone bankrupt, and many who did not know the real truth pitied her. As a matter of fact, she was doing no work now except to help her Bairn, and to write a few stories about the gods who came to visit her. She received them piously and had long conversations with them, which she wrote down. She bought the flowers they liked, especially the white daturas, and laid them at the feet of Shiva, while Gauri, Uma, and Shankara played with the sun and the stars, the pinkish fogs that welcome the day, and the wanner mists of twilight. Nivedita kept her shutters drawn so that the divine messengers should not be disturbed. Every hour was equally rich in serenity, beauty, and piety.
Those who understood the life of the imagination – the painter Nanda Lai Bose and his friends – were the only visitors allowed. Their master, Afaanindranath Tagore, often came with them. They surrounded Nivedita with a touching homage because she, with infinite skill, had taught them that the public would one day appreciate their Hindu work for its own sake, and she had made them give up the idea of copying the West. She described to them, in her own fashion, the symbols, the atmosphere, the form, and the color in which the Golden Legend of India was bom, and how its mystic art is engendered. The myths took on their full spiritual value in these hours of living prayer.
She always sent her friends away at dusk. They knew that the twilight hours belonged to her. Two old men-servants whom she had kept with her sat in the courtyard with some neighbors and chanted the Vedas. Nivedita did not admire their poor singing, but merely the incessant repetition of the incantation, which emphasized the rhythms within her soul. The voices of the singers rose in supplication and resounded like the crack of the carter’s whip before it falls on the Backof the sluggish animal. For Nivedita, it was the unity of the being, in motionless serenity, divine abandonment.
She had removed every picture from her room. The temple of her soul lay bare, like a wineskin dried up by the sun. Was there any need to fill it? Even the desire for God no longer tempted her. She watched with serene calm, lost in the harmony of eternity.
A time came when, for some reason unknown to herself, she wanted to behold a real flame: a flame which would illumine what she perceived in the heart of Immobility, and which she could put out when she no longer needed it. She knew that this wish was like a step backward in her spiritual life, but the flame would help her as the clamping-iron in the rock gives a hold to the climber as he crosses a chasm. As she meditated before this flame an unexpected image imposed itself on her mind: a wonderful statue in black stone, the image of Prajna Paramita, the Ultimate Wisdom of the Buddhist It had been given to her by her friend Dinesh Chandra (whom she had helped in the revision of his book, The History of Bengali Language and Literature), and he had hesitated to give it to her, because legend avers that the image requires a jealous cult from its worshipers and finally destroys them. But Nivedita would hear none of that, and she paid homage to it in her room with flowers and incense. Its divine presence was like a mysterious stronghold for her, and sustained her while all crutches of her spiritual life fell to pieces about her, one by one.
Swami Sadananda had died in February; and now, in July, her guru’s mother, for whom her devotions had made the end peaceful, also passed away. In the house next door Swami Ramakrishnananda, one of Sri Ramakrishna’s direct disciples, lay dying. She loved him. But she suddenly felt herself old, worn out, and when the monk died she did not have the strength to accompany his body to the buming-ghat on the Ganges. She stood for a long time on the Baranagore Bridge after the funeral procession had passed, until, in the glow of the sunset, she saw the flame of the pyre: the same flame which was burning within her – the flame of Infinite Wisdom.
One day, in her meditation, she felt the void that had surrounded her suddenly disappear. She kept her eyes closed. The flame had gone out abruptly, but there was no darkness. “Alle-luiai” Around herself she saw a new, transparent, diaphanous beauty. The hours that followed brought her still more life and understanding and joy and harmony. It was no illusion. She had become at once the source and the ocean, and all that passes from one to the other. Before this intensity of feeling, she withdrew into an inner, and absolute, peace.
Then she experienced the richness of which Sarada Devi had spoken, the unsuspected richness that dwells entirely within. Nivedita had become her own observer in that moment of eternity which embraces the future and the past, that immediate moment without form which her guru had promised to her. What did it matter now whether she was sitting meditating in a room or leading the most active life in the outside world? She was like the man in the scriptures, who
“With bare breast and bare feet goes to the market-place,
Spattered with mud and ashes, smiling broadly,
Who has no need of the miraculous power of the gods!
For at his touch the trees spring into full flower. . .
That summer of wonderful, pure light was short Nivedita lived like a leaf detached from the bough, with no will and no desire. Life seemed to have come to a standstill around her. She was happy, in a consecration of the heart When Dr. and Mrs. Bose suggested that she should go with them to Darjeeling for the summer holidays, she accepted their hospitality but let them go on ahead.
They waited for her impatiently, so that they might all go together to Sikkim to visit the temple of Sandakphu, twelve thousand feet above sea level on the Tibet Road. It was the kind of trip Nivedita enjoyed – through mountain defiles and over icy passes. There was a sanctuary which, she told Bose, she would have liked to visit How good it was of him to have thought of it!
He had hired ponies and engaged guides. The ponies were saddled, sleeping bags rolled, provisions prepared, just as for a pilgrimage. But when Nivedita arrived, she was not feeling well. She was so tired on the day set for departure that the expedition was put off for twenty-four hours. But before the next day came Nivedita was stricken with fever. Two days later Dr. Sircar, who had been called in, knew that her condition was hopeless; he had diagnosed a malignant dysentery, a disease which at this time was almost incurable in the mountains. Only the descent to the plains could have saved her; and it was too late for that.
Her friends, loving and hopeful, tried to hide the real situation from her. But she knew, and was ready. She had awaited this moment so confidently! Shiva was going to meet her. . . . The beauty of her smile revealed her inner peace. For several days she lay without speaking a word, her eyes closed; but this was no sign of weakness: her breath maintained a regular rhythm, in harmony with her inner prayer. Her fingers touched the beads of her rosary, but no longer told them.
* The song of the barber Upali, in the Vinaya Pitaka.
Her consciousness, turned inward, was reposing in God. The whole of her life lay spread out before her like a sunlit river flowing over golden sands, rich in the joy of its source, the caprice of its torrents, the song of its waterfalls, the light falling on it deep lakes, and the bustle of life on its banks. But when one is faced with death the soul frees itself from all its accumulated riches: some disappear lightly as in smoke, others dissolve in tears. Then there is the instrument itself, the body, which must be abandoned with ease and without clinging. Nivedita heard the friends who loved her moving about her, knew that they were trying to keep her warm. But the cold was already upon her, the cold of the snow, the spotless carpet on which Shiva, the supreme God, meditates. Would her plunge into the darkness be but a part of the ever-renewed cycle, the prelude to a new birth? Nivedita smiled, joyful in her surrender.
She felt her body slipping away. First it was the nerves and their subtle reactions; then the muscles, carriers of strength; then the more delicate organs. She lived without eating, ideally pure and beautiful, nourished with strange music, luminous rhythms, and the song of the earth. Mrs. Bose never left her side; she understood the dying Nivedita’s tearless serenity.
For eleven days, Nivedita held communion with Shiva. When this was finished, she turned to her friends. But how far away she wasl How difficult it was for her to speak to them!
One last joy was reserved for her. Gonen Maharaj, whom Bose had caught up with at Jaipur, arrived in time, bringing with him a basket of ripe fruit from the Belur garden. The monks who had sent it were unaware of Nivedita’s illness; they could not have guessed that she was awaiting this fruit before she could die… . For her it was the sign of grace given by her guru as the day waned; the sign that her work was really completely finished.
While she still had the strength, Nivedita sought to gather her friends about her, and to eat with them once more. The young student Boshi Sen was there. She handed him over to her Bairn as his disciple. She talked with them until evening, encouraging and consoling. When she felt that they were at peace, she recited the prayer of her youth:
“I am the straight way, the soverign truth, the true life, the blessed life, the life uncreated. . .
“From the unreal lead us to the Real,
From the darkness lead us to the Light,
From death lead us to Immortality….”
When darkness fell she rested, and was silent. She was seeing the vision of Shiva. The end was near now, and all the friends gathered about her bedside. One of them, leaning down, heard her murmur, “The ship is sinking, but I shall see the sun rise.”
At dawn on the thirteenth of October, 1911, she slipped peacefully away. Gonen Maharaj, with filial piety, brought the fire to her lips and took the imprint of her feet She was forty-four years old.
When the news of her death became known, a cry of despair went up from the land she had loved. Bengal gave a national funeral to this woman of the West. Covered with yellow flowers, as if with the shroud of gerrua, her body was burned in Darjeeling on the traditional pyre. Sister Nivedita, the spiritual daughter of Swami Vivekananda, was a daughter of India.
Calcutta offered her memorial tributes at the Town Hall. And she received an unexpected apotheosis: her ashes were distributed as so many relics. Some were placed under the altar stone in Swami Vivekananda’s temple at Belur, some in Boshi Sen’s chapel in Bagh Bazar. Others were deposited beneath the cornerstone of the Bose Research Institute in Calcutta, in 1915. In this great home of modem science Nivedita’s name is not inscribed in marble, but a bas-relief showing a woman with prayer beads, holding a lamb, recalls her memory. Yet other ashes were buried amid the honeysuckle in the family grave at Great Torrington, under the sign of the Cross. This ceremony took place on the twelfth of October, 1912: a religious service conducted by a clergyman and three deacons, in the presence of her sister.
A street in Calcutta now bears the name of Nivedita. Thousands of Hindu girls have grown up in the school named after her. But a more intimate honor has been reserved for her: that of being worshiped to this very day, as the guru of their lifetime, by many illustrious children of India who have devoted their lives to their country, and who remembered her name on the day of Indian Independence. She had wished ardently to march, on that day, behind the flag of India, shouting from her soul: “Wah guru ki fate – Glory to the Guru! Ja ya, jaya, Mother India!”