Studies from an eastern home
IT is now nearly ten years since there was published, under the title of The Web of Indian Life, a book which immediately found its appropriate public. In England and America it was recognised as belonging to that newer and finer type of interpretation as applied to the East of which our time has produced some noteworthy examples; in India it was welcomed as almost the first attempt on the part of an English writer to present the ethical and social ideals embodied in the Indian woman and family. Many among the readers of the book were aware that its author stood in a unique relation to the Indian people: that she had identified herself without reserve with their life and been dedicated wholly to their service; while not a few were assured that she was destined to carry forward the task thus brilliantly begun of revealing the inner side of Eastern society to the West. But this was not to be. Two years ago she died, with her work in India,
as it seemed to those who knew her best and had most reason to hope greatly, hardly more than envisaged and planned.
Margaret Noble, known for some twelve years to multitudes of people throughout India as Sister Nivedita, was of Irish parentage and birth, and was born at Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, in 1867. Very soon afterwards her father, Samuel Richmond Noble, entered the Lancashire Independent College, in preparation for the Congregational ministry, but did not live to fulfil his early promise. Margaret, his elder daughter, passed from school in the north of England to a teacher's training, and was fortunate enough to become acquainted in London with some of the most enthusiastic apostles of the New Education. Her practical experience was gained as teacher in various girls' schools, and more especially in association with a Dutch lady who had established in a suburb of South London a school of a thoroughly modern type. In 1892, being then in her twenty-fifth year, she opened at Wimbledon a school of her own in which she strove to give expression to the broad and fine conception of girls' education with which then and afterwards she was identified. At Wimbledon, too, she was the centre of a group of friends, eager inquirers into everything, given to
the discussion of books, ethics, and society with the confident energy of youth, and beginning in several directions social work which has since borne varied fruit. Always, however, with Margaret Noble, intellectual inquiry was immediately related to what she regarded as her proper work--education; and she was one of the most active of those, mostly, like herself, concerned with the newer applications of educational theory, who, twenty years or so ago, founded the Sesame Club, the earliest in this country of those social centres for men and women which have since so largely multiplied.
Busy with her school and kindred schemes, abounding in life, a keen reader and thinker, with a continually widening circle of friends--such she was in 1895, when there came into her life the influence which in a few months altered its whole current and purpose.
It was, as she has recorded in The Master as I Saw Him, at a drawing-room meeting in November of the year just mentioned that Margaret Noble for the first time met the Swami Vivekananda, who had been recognised by many as a challenging figure in the London of that time. He had appeared before the Parliament of Religions, held during the Chicago Exhibition of 1893, as the first of the modern missionaries
of Hinduism to the Western world. He was unknown and had come unheralded; but his discourse--the one incident of that curious assembly that is remembered to-day--was epoch-marking. From it must be dated the widespread interest in Indian thought and religion, and especially in the philosophy of Vedanta, which has been so unmistakable a feature of educated America during the past two decades.
You will hear from those who came within the scope of this masterful teacher's influence many differing estimates of the effect created by his personality and speech. Before leaving India, he had been known as the specially chosen disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the Bengali saint who had lived in a temple-garden at Dakshineshwar, on the river a few miles above Calcutta, and whose life and sayings were made known to European readers through one of Max-Müller's later books. To Sister Nivedita herself the life lived by Ramakrishna and extended and interpreted by his chief follower summed up the Hindu consciousness, and stood for the final proof of "the entire sufficiency of any single creed or conception to lead the soul to God as its true goal."
But Ramakrishna was a pure devotee: his concern was simply the realisation in the individual of the Divine. Vivekananda was a man of action. Not only did he carry westward the message of Vedantism, but he had dreams of a renewal of the life of India through the infusion of fresh knowledge and renascent ideals. He stood entirely aloof from politics: yet it is hardly surprising that his younger followers should have acclaimed him as something more than a teacher of Vedantism--as, in truth, the prophet of New India in a sense which, it seems quite certain, he never for a moment intended.
The Swami left America for England in August 1895, and a few weeks later he had begun lecturing in London. Miss Noble had few opportunities of hearing him before his return to America during the winter, but in the spring of 1896 he was back in London, and was holding a class in the house of an English friend in St. George's Road, near Victoria Station. There she was a constant and for a time a hostile and contentious hearer. Always passionately religious, she had in her girlhood
become a member of the Anglican Church and was deeply responsive to its ritual and sentiment. But the doctrines of orthodoxy had long since ceased to hold her intelligence; and at twenty-eight, in the full tide of her manifold intellectual interests, she was, it may be supposed, as completely detached from the religious beliefs of her childhood as from the occult ideas by which at that time some among her friends were impressed. The message of Swami Vivekananda went to the mark, little as she recognised this at the time. She disputed his assertions, fought him in the discussion class, provided indeed the strongest antagonism which he had to meet at any of his London gatherings. But it is clear that from the first his influence was winning. About his teaching there was nothing that could be associated with any sect or special doctrine. Although himself obeying the impulse and fulfilling the purpose of his master Ramakrishna, he dealt always impersonally with the body of truth common to all religions, and dwelt upon the necessity, especially in the present stage of the world's history, for the exchange of ideals between peoples, and especially between East and West. He was, too, much more than a preacher. While glorifying the Indian past and the ancient contribution of his people to the intellectual wealth of the world, he was a man of modern outlook, incessantly framing
concrete schemes for the social regeneration of India. He was bent upon the firm establishment of the Order of Ramakrishna, of which he was the head--an order which he designed not for contemplation alone, but for social service; he would, if he could, have commanded vast resources for educational enterprise; and he was resolved to initiate some definite agency for the education of Indian women. This last was the part of his programme which, from an early stage of their acquaintance, Swami Vivekananda seems to have marked out as the special work of Margaret Noble; and before he left England, at the end of 1896, she had come to recognise the call. A year later she sailed for India, landed at Calcutta in the beginning of 1898, and made her home with some American friends at Belur, on the river a short distance from the city, where was established the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission. Soon after her arrival in Bengal she was admitted to the Order by the name of Nivedita (the Dedicated)--thereafter the name by which she was known, far beyond the bounds of her personal activity.
From May to October of her first year in India the Swami, Sister Nivedita, and three other Western women travelled together in the North-West, in Kumaon and Kashmir. The tour, which included a pilgrimage to the famous shrine of Amarnath,
was rich in experience, afterwards recorded in The Master as I Saw Him. It gave her, as she said in that book, glimpses of "a great religious life of the ancient order, living itself out amidst the full and torturing consciousness of all the anomalies and perplexities of the modern transition." These fruitful journeyings ended in the autumn of 1898, and then it was that Sister Nivedita endeavoured to carry out her project for an Indian school in the Hindu quarter of Calcutta. For reasons which everyone who knows a little of the world of orthodox Hinduism will appreciate, the experiment was attended with much difficulty, and in the course of a few months it was abandoned in order that new means and opportunities might be found. In June 1899, accompanied by Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita left Calcutta for Europe, and during the autumn they were fellow-guests in the house of some invaluable American friends on the Hudson River. The Swami returned to India at the close of 1900. This period of a year and a half furnished Sister Nivedita with most of the opportunities of companionship and discussion which gave her the special point of view which for the rest of her life marked her interpretation of Indian life and thought. She remained in England until the beginning of 1902, when she resumed her work in Calcutta under conditions much more favourable
to success than those which had accompanied its beginning. But the personal association from which it had sprung was then almost at an end. Swami Vivekananda died at Belur on July 4, 1902. A few months afterwards Sister Nivedita was joined by an American colleague, Miss Christine Greenstidel, and together they entered upon the work of enlarging the scope of the school in Bose Para Lane, Bagh Bazar. In the early part of the year 1905 a dangerous illness befel Sister Nivedita, and this was followed, in the autumn of 1906, by a long spell of malarial fever, the result of the visit of inquiry and service, described in this volume, which she paid during the rainy season of that year to Eastern Bengal, where the people were suffering miserably from famine and flood. The terrible strain of these two illnesses broke down her magnificent constitution, and physically she was never the same again. The last three years of her life were largely spent in England and America. She returned finally to India in the spring of 1911, and was staying for the customary autumn holiday at Darjeeling when, on October 13, she died--a fortnight before the close of her forty-fourth year. Indian friends only, and those the most devoted, were with her at the last; and the body was given to the fire with the Hindu rites of which she had so often spoken and written.
When people asked, as they constantly did, what Sister Nivedita was doing in India, her own answer was always simple. She was a teacher, and in India she was doing nothing else than applying the principles which she had learned from her own instructors in Europe. The Swami Vivekananda's practical aims had been predominantly educational, and his English disciple went to India primarily under the belief that her own part in the far-reaching work to which he had set his hand was to make a school, in an Indian home, where the methods and ideals of the modern educationist might be brought within the cloistral domain of the Eastern wife and mother. Beginning as a tiny kindergarten, the school grew steadily until it had a large attendance of little Hindu girls up to the marriageable age, and a still larger number of married women and widows. As conducted by Sister Nivedita and her colleague, the school involved no uprooting from familiar surroundings. Neither child nor woman was taken from her home into a foreign world; her schooling demanded only a daily migration from one home to another in the same lane or ward. The principle was, as Sister Nivedita herself expressed it, by means of familiar factors of her daily life so to educate the Indian girl as to enable her to realise those ends which are themselves integral aspirations of that life. There was
no attempt to convert her to any religious or social system alien from her own; but rather, by means of her own customs and traditions, to develop her in harmony with Indian ideals, the teachers themselves following those ideals as far as they could be made practicable. It appeared to some that Sister Nivedita, alike in her school and in the zenana, was in certain respects a reactionary influence--upholding the purdah and child marriage and perpetual widowhood as institutions essential to the preservation of the society which she had learned to admire. But she was far indeed from seeking to maintain the old unchanged. "Under the old scheme," she said, "women found not only a discipline but a career"; yet she saw that this old scheme was a preparation and an opportunity fitted only to the soil in which it grew. To the Indian as to the European woman the modern revolution has brought a" narrowing of her lot, and has wrought havoc with the traditional skill in handicraft. "To-day every Indian woman can cook, and that well. But she cannot sew, and she has nothing but gossip and prayer, when the afternoon siesta is over, wherewith to occupy her leisure." Hence Sister Nivedita and her colleague found it necessary to teach the wives and widows needlework of various kinds. But it may well be that they themselves learned more of the irresistible movement of the modern spirit
in the orthodox world of Hinduism, when they found themselves met by an insistent demand from the young wives to be taught English so that they might become in some real sense the companions of their husbands.
The success that attended the Vivekananda school in Bagh Bazar was not of the resounding kind; but it was a most noteworthy sign of the times; and in the later years of Sister Nivedita's life it was prevented only by the narrow means possessed by the Sisters from developing into a great institution. Its influence, however, could never have been measured by the number of its pupils or the amount of regular teaching done within the modest rooms and courts which are described in the opening chapters of this book. How long it took Sister Nivedita to conquer the suspicions of the quiet, proud, and intensely self-respecting people of Bagh Bazar I have no means of knowing: I can speak only of what I saw when, some two or three years after she had made her home among them, I had opportunities of observing her among the surroundings into which she fitted so perfectly. She was then entirely accepted by her Hindu neighbours. All their doors were open to her. In the bazaars and lanes and by the riverside everybody knew her, and she would be saluted as she passed with an affectionate reverence which was beautiful
and touching to see. The House of the Sisters was known of all; not as a school merely, but as a centre of unfailing friendliness and succour. The people remembered how, when the plague broke out among them, Sister Nivedita had joined with the brethren of the Order of Ramakrishna in a crusade of nursing and sanative cleansing. And in times when there was no spectacular call of pestilence or flood, there went out from her house a constant stream of social and personal service. For this, as Sister Nivedita always maintained, there was an ever-increasing call under the economic pressure upon the class which, with its more or less of English education, was rendering clerical and professional service to the ruling power.
Beginning thus, with the conviction that the European can work fruitfully in India only upon the basis of perfect co-operation with the children of the soil, Sister Nivedita was led to make the great renunciation. The land to whose service she had devoted herself made an overwhelming appeal to her--its history and thought, its people and their life, its present state in subjection and social transition. There could be no partial surrender with her: she gave herself utterly. Accepting the lot of the Indian woman, living as her neighbours lived, in a little native house severely
devoid of all inessentials, she worked among them in all seasons--when the splendid cold weather of Bengal gave place to the terrific heat, and this in turn to the rains which every year made the narrow streets of the quarter into rivulets. "Never have I known such complete self-effacement," wrote her closest Indian woman friend:
It needs not to be said that this was the secret of her extraordinary power. India instinctively understands every form of renunciation, and it would, I conceive, be impossible to exaggerate the impression made by this life of absolute sincerity and self-dedication, with its rejoicing acceptance of the austerity and simplicity of the old Indian order. But this, of course, was not all. No one who knows the India of the past decade will need to be told that the influence of her ideal and example went out from the little house in Bagh Bazar in ever-widening circles as the
years went on. Sister Nivedita was the most fervent and convinced of Nationalists: the word continually on her lips was Nationality. She had unbounded faith in the reserve power of the Indian people, and her call to the younger generation was a ringing challenge to them to rise, not only to the height of the past, but to the demand of the future. Unsparing she could be, at times, in criticising the Indian character; but she never bated a jot of her belief in the certainty of its triumph, and it went hard with anyone, European or Asiatic, who offered any kind of insult or disparagement to the people of her adoption. The beginning of her work in India coincided with a stage of extraordinary deadness in public and intellectual life. But the change was already on the way, and she had the joy of seeing the growth of a new spirit, the rapid formation of new ideals, the dawn, as she believed, of a renascent national life and power. The influences that have gone to the shaping of the New India are still obscure; but this may be said with complete assurance, that among them all there has been no single factor that has surpassed, or equalled, the character and life and words of Margaret Noble.
There were no rules of exclusion in the House of the Sisters, provided only that the privileged
male visitor did not intrude during the hours given up to the orthodox Hindu ladies who came for tuition in needlework and English. And to one engaged throughout the week in the merciless daily labour that generally falls upon the Englishman in India, the Sundays in Bose Para Lane were a refreshment and a stimulus the memory of which is never likely to pass away. Breakfast was served with the extreme of simplicity on the little veranda, and the group would not break up until long after the morning sun had become too hot for a comfortable journey back through the blazing streets. Her house was a wonderful rendezvous. Not often did one meet a Western visitor, save at those times when an English or American friend would be making a stay in Calcutta; but nowhere else, so far as my experience went, was there an opportunity of making acquaintance with so many interesting types of the Indian world. There would come members of Council and leaders in the public affairs of Bengal; Indian artists, men of letters, men of science; orators, teachers, journalists, students; frequently a travelled member of the Order of Ramakrishna, occasionally a wandering scholar, not seldom a public man or leader of religion from a far province. The experience was beyond expression delightful, and its influence, you knew, was to be felt along many lines.
There was a time, in the years which followed her return from the first of her long visits to the West, when it seemed likely that Sister Nivedita would develop into a regular and constant speaker. She gave frequent addresses, and not in Calcutta alone. In the autumn of 1902 she made a tour in Western India, where she lectured to large audiences. This was succeeded by a similar tour in the Madras Presidency during the same winter, and when at home she was constantly in request as a speaker at meetings large and small. Latterly, however, she showed a disposition to confine her activities to writing and to direct contact with those who were making towards the New India of which she dreamed. Many of her friends approved this change of plan; but it has always seemed to me that public speech gave her the opportunity most adapted to the delivery of her message. She varied greatly, it is true, on the platform. Always rather at the mercy of a too difficult thesis, given to the use of socio-philosophic terms, and following a too compressed method of exposition, she not infrequently soared beyond the comprehension of her audience. She spoke least successfully when under the strain of an important occasion; most brilliantly when responding to the immediate stimulus of a challenge in debate or of a suggestion or incident arising naturally in the meeting. One thinks of her at
her best (and how often she was so!) addressing some crowded gathering in the years before her health was broken and before there came upon her that sense of "the petty done, the undone vast," in which latterly she seemed to abide. And from a score or so of occasions, differing greatly in circumstances, I recall especially two as showing her in most characteristic fashion.
The first was during the rainy season of 1902, when she cut short a Sunday evening call at Bagh Bazar by saying that she was due at a lecture. She allowed me to accompany her, and we went to a Bengali school in the university quarter. The quadrangle was densely crowded with youths and men, and on a dais was seated, alongside the symbolic tulsi plant, a Katkak (one of the last survivals of the ancient minstrels), who as we entered began a recital from the Ramayana. For an hour or so he continued, declaiming and intoning, while his hearers listened enrapt and a friendly interpreter explained to me, the one outsider present, the movement of the story. When the recital was finished Sister Nivedita rose to speak, without any preliminary (she always disliked the intrusion of a chairman). She spoke, as always, from the feeling of the moment as regards the expression, from long reflection and conviction as regards the substance. And she began with a reference to the recital to which they
had just been listening, pointing her moral swiftly and powerfully. Did they, she asked, think it was enough to learn and admire the ancient stories and to glory in the ideals which had inspired the men and women of early India? "Believe me, that is nothing. The Ramayana is not something that came once for all, from a society that is dead and gone; it is something springing ever from the living heart of a people. Our word to the young Indian to-day is: Make your own Ramayana, not in written stories, but in service and achievement for the motherland."
The other occasion, a year or two later, was one in which, at the first glance, she seemed ex-extraordinarily "out of the picture." The hall of the Dalhousie Institute, Calcutta, was filled with a mixed audience, mostly Indian, for as odd a purpose as could well be imagined in that country--to hear a debate on Marriage versus Celibacy. The discussion had been arranged, as an anniversary treat, by the committee of a Bengali public library, and the last of the Military Members of the Viceroy's Council (Sir Edmond Elles) was in the chair. The case for celibacy was stated by the late Sir Edward Law, the Finance Minister; the case for marriage by an elderly Parsee member of the Indian Civil Service. Both openers gave play to the easy facetiousness which is commonly deemed appropriate to the
public discussion of this and kindred subjects, and the meeting had reached a low ebb when, towards the end, Sir Edmond Elles called upon Sister Nivedita, who was seated on the platform with an English woman friend. She began slowly, with a courteous half-humorous rebuke to the chairman, and then in a few pointed and searching sentences outlined the conception of wifehood as revealed in Eastern tradition. Developing this, and incidentally crushing some criticism by a previous speaker of the Western woman who makes a career for herself outside marriage, she gave a brilliant little exposition of the contrasted and complementary views of the place of woman as mother and as individual. It was marvellously skilful, complete, and convincing, and the whole thing occupied a bare ten minutes. But what interested one even more than the perfection of the speech was the way in which the tone of the meeting was transformed by the touchstone of her dominating spirit. Many times, before and after that, I heard her speak: to groups of students, or in the Calcutta Town Hall before a great audience, on her one absorbing theme--the religion of Nationalism; to English gatherings in hall or church or drawing-room. And I have thought, and still think, that her gift of speech was something which, when fully exercised, I have never known surpassed--so fine and sure was it
in form, so deeply impassioned, of such flashing and undaunted sincerity.
It cannot, perhaps, be said that any of her books fully represent the strength and range of her mind, notwithstanding the fine literary faculty which was undoubtedly hers. As with her speaking so with her writing: it was most effective when it came out in attack or controversy. There are things buried in Indian newspapers and magazines which revealed an extraordinary power of direct and resonant expression, and a grip of argument and affairs which she would not have blamed one for praising as masculine. And yet her books, though so much less wonderful than herself, are surely destined for a larger public than they have yet reached. Kali the Mother, the little volume in which she gave the firstfruits of her Indian studies under Vivekananda, showed something of her interpretative faculty, although its title and sentiment were startling to those English readers who knew only the ordinary European view of the "bloody goddess." Into The Web of Indian Life she put, as her friends knew, all the force of her mind and all the intensity of her faith. The result was moving and powerful, if unequal: it gave an earnest of what the world might have expected from her had she lived to write the interpretation of Indian domestic life and the social structure of Hinduism to which undoubtedly
she would have devoted herself. Her later books display a steady advance in mastery of expression. In Cradle Tales of Hinduism she retold a number of the heroic stories of which she made constant use in her lessons and addresses; and in The Master as I Saw Him, the last to be published in her lifetime, she gave a picture of the Swami Vivekananda as she had come to know him during the seven years of their association. The task of writing the Life of the teacher to whom she owed the purpose and direction of her own activity, she left to other hands.
No effort has been made in the foregoing rough sketch to portray the personality, the rare and splendid and dauntless spirit, that was Margaret Noble. To do this would be to attempt the impossible. So much of the reality as can be conveyed to those who did not know her will be contained in a collection of Letters and Memorials, which, it is hoped, may before long be brought together. And in the meantime I am enabled to quote a few brief tributes from some who, in England or India, were associated in one way or another with her work and her ideal.
Nothing that she touched remained commonplace; her letters, much more than her books, disclose the temper and genius that were known to her friends and fellow-workers. Her dominant notes
were clarity and sincerity and an incomparable vitality. She was, of all the men and women one has known, the most vividly alive. Having renounced all that most of us hold dearest, she had the right to be earnest and to demand earnestness; but not in the smallest degree did the overmastering purpose of her being remove her from the sphere of personal relations. At all times she toiled with an absolute concentration; her inner life was intense, austere, and deeply controlled. Yet never was anyone more wholly and exquisitely human, more lovely and spontaneous in the sharing of daily services and joys. Professor Geddes has recalled the infinite changefulness of her moods. They ran, in truth, over the whole scale: from the fierceness and scorn of which Mr. Nevinson speaks to a sparkling playfulness that made her, in India as in the West, the life and light of her circle. In matters of personal conduct, as in weightier affairs of public or social activity, she was an unequalled counsellor: so extraordinary in its rapidity and sureness was her judgment. And those to whom she gave the ennobling gift of her friendship knew her as the most perfect of comrades, while they hold the memory of that gift as this world's highest benediction. They think of her years of sustained and intense endeavour, of her open-eyed and impassioned search for truth, of the courage that never quailed, the
noble compassionate heart; they think of her tending the victims of famine and plague, or ministering day by day among the humble folk with whom her lot was cast: putting heart into the helpless and defeated, showing to the young and perplexed the star of a glowing faith and purpose, royally spending all the powers of a rich intelligence and an overflowing humanity for all who called upon her in their need. And some among them count it an honour beyond all price that they were permitted to share, in however imperfect a measure, the mind and confidence of this radiant child of God.
S. K. RATCLIFFE.
21 BUCKINGHAM STREET, LONDON, W.C.,
xx:1 Mrs. J. C. Bose, in the Modern Review (Calcutta), November 1911.
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