Several years ago, in a large city in India, I attended a theatrical performance by a remarkable traveling company, semi-professional, made up of some sixty children. At the end of the play the director of the company invited me to the religious service which was always celebrated by the young actors before they had their supper. On an improvised altar behind the scenes had been placed portraits of various gods, prophets, and great men: Gandhi was neighbor to Buddha, and Sri Rama-krishna’s portrait stood dose to a Botticelli Madonna. Among all these serene faces, the one which most attracted my attention was that of a Western lady; and my hosts brought the picture to me so that I might look at it dosely. It was an Irish* woman who had died a few years before, after devoting all her life to India: Sister Nivedita was the name she bore in India.
Lizelle Reymond recounts this life, in pages that are moving in their simple sincerity; the only thing that is left for me to say is how well-known her name is to the people of Bengal, even among the humble and the illiterate. As a matter of fact, Nivedita spent only a few years in India; but her guru, Swami Vivekananda, had given her the key to the country and its people, and she had submitted herself to the austere and exacting disdpline which enabled her to make use of this key. Her amazing vitality, both multiplied and channeled by that as-cetism and that consecration, was such that even today there is scarcely any field – religion, pedagogy, science, art, politics, leaders of India who made the epoch from 1895 to 1914 famous, were her intimate friends.
It is .indeed surprising that forty years after Nivedita’s death no real biography of her should yet have been written, apart from some booklets in which Hindu children in their primary school, venerating her name as they study, are learning to read. I asked some friends in India about this, and they smiled. Nivedita’s life was too closely interwoven with the deep waves of spirituality and nationalism started by the underground struggle for liberty to be disclosed earlier. The biographer who would relive the life of that history’s heroine, in its most daring flights as well as in its deepest secrets, had not yet appeared. For an intimate understanding of this woman, who was both astonishingly multiple and profoundly one, a person was needed who would do the work with the same fire, the same absolute devotion, that Nivedita had felt for India: a person who would be able to enter into all the anguish, all the righteous anger, all the inner experiences, all the joys also, that she herself knew.
One of Nivedita’s greatest friends, the one whom Swami Vivekananda called “Yum-Yum,” had a sudden intuitive feeling, a few years ago, as we sat in her XVIth century house at Stratford-on-Avon, that Nivedita’s biographer was actually ready and waiting in the person of Lizelle Reymond. And this at once appeared so obvious to us all, that the decision was reached on the spot, and the documents immediately began to pour in from all sides. Archives, huge files of correspondence, the personal recollections of relatives, friends, disciples, and admirers – all this piled up quickly. The patient and punctiliously careful biographer spent several years in analyzing all these, verifying them, completing them, comparing them. She traveled all over India to get in personal touch with Nivedita’s old friends – amongst them many a spiritual and political leader who has now won national fame – and to breathe the atmosphere of the places in which her heroine had lived and worked, loved and suffered. Rich contributions to this vast store of material were made with alacrity by Nivedita’s brother and sister, by all the monks of the Order of Ramakrishna who had known her and particularly by the late Abbot of the Order Maharaj Swami Vivajananda, by the present Revered head of the Monastery, Swami Shankarananda, who was in his youth her private secretary for several years, as well as Gonen Maharaj; by Hindus who were her intimate friends, such as Sri Auro-bindo, Barindra Ghose, Bhupendranath Dutt, Surendranath Tagore, Ramananda Chatterjee; Western friends like S. 1L Rat-cliffe, Lady Margesson, Mr. Sturdy, Miss Josephine MacLeod; and many others too numerous to be named and personally thanked here. And some six hundred autograph signed letters of Nivedita’s supplied all the details for the reconstruction of the events of her life.
It may surprise some of the men and women who were closely connected with one aspect of her work to discover how manifold were the activities which rounded her life and of which each one only saw one particular facet The author of this book has risen above any specialized point of view. She has tried to restore to us in its totality, in all its beauty and all its power, this intensely human personality that was Nive-dita. Let us be grateful to her for that Her book is more than a biography. It is a page from the history of India; it is also a course of instruction, from which each reader will draw what he can understand. Some will find here lessons in energy, and in devotion. Others will discover in these pages the yogi’s secret of a balanced life, of that mysterious spiritual treasure which India has carefully prescribed for thousands of years. Others may feel the breath of a still higher inspiration. And all will be true.