Studies from an eastern home
A few tributes
Professor Patrick Geddes
OUR acquaintance began in New York early in 1900, and continued into intimacy and collaboration during the following summer, at that meeting of the International Association which became the Summer School of the Paris Exhibition of that in many ways memorable year. Actively occupied as a guide to many of its departments, and carrying on a peripatetic interpretation of them upon lines of regional and occupational evolution, broadly akin to those of Le Play and his disciples, I found no one who so rapidly and ardently seized upon the principle and delighted in every application of it as Sister Nivedita.
Eager to master these evolutionary methods, and to apply them to her own studies, to Indian problems therefore above all, she settled above our home into an attic cell, which suited at once her love of wide and lofty outlooks and her ascetic care of material simplicity; and there she worked, for strenuous weeks. She has generously recognised, at the opening of The Web of Indian Life, how
thus coming "to understand a little of Europe," she had been given indirectly a method by which to interpret her Indian experiences--while for my part I must no less recognise how her keener vision and more sympathetic and spiritual insight carried her discernment of the rich and varied embroidery of the Indian web far beyond that simple texture of the underlying canvas, of the material conditions of life, which it was my privilege at the outset of our many conversations to help her to lay hold upon.
The whole personality of Nivedita--her face, her voice, her changing moods and daily life, were ever expressing the alternating reaction of outward environment and inward spirit which goes on throughout the individual and social life. She was open at once to the concrete and the abstract, to the scientific and the philosophic, and her many moods were in perpetual interplay--sparkling with keen observation, with humorous or poetic interpretation, or, opal-like, suffused with mystic light, aflame with moral fire. All came out in her talks, her occasional lectures--each a striking improvisation--now in gentlest persuasiveness leading her audience into sympathetic understanding, or even approval, of some aspect or feature of Indian life, unknown or perhaps repellent before; or again, bursting into indignant
flash and veritable thunder upon our complacent and supercilious British philistinism.
With children she was at once a born teacher and a skilled. She would sit with them upon the floor in the firelight and tell them her Cradle Tales of Hinduism, with a power and charm even excelling her written version of them, so touching this or that ardent young soul to dream of following her to the utmost East. Or she might give them a literature lesson--say, on Shelley's Skylark--and here demand, and arouse, their observation and their imagination in touch with the poet's. This union of sense and symbol, which we too easily let slip apart, was ever with her. Thus of our many memory portraits, none comes back more vividly than of her in autumn twilight, now crooning, now chanting, the Hymn to Agni over the glowing, dying embers of a garden-fire. Strange though the words were, we still hear the refrain. It was the tongue, the music, of Orient in Occident, the expression of spirit in nature--a face, a voice, aglow with energy, at peace with night.
It is as vain to describe Sister Nivedita in two pages as to reduce fire to a formula and call it knowledge. There was, indeed, something flame-like
about her, and not only her language but her whole vital personality often reminded me of fire. Like fire, and like Shiva, Kali, and other Indian powers of the spirit, she was at once destructive and creative, terrible and beneficent. There was no dull tolerance about her, and I suppose no one ever called her gentle. Even with friends her disagreement could be vehement, and her contradiction was very direct. In face of the enemy her eyes turned to glowing steel, and under anger they deepened in colour, like Garibaldi's. Her scorn of presumptuous ignorance and her indignation at wrong were blasting. I do not doubt that rage lacerated her own heart, but she withered the enemy up, No one would call her gentle.
But of all nobly sympathetic natures she was among the finest. She identified herself with the Indians among whom she lived as barely half a dozen men or women from these islands have done before. I do not mean merely by her adoption of Hindu symbolism for thought, nor by her purified form of Hindu worship. To me, thought and religion are so much the outcome of physical nature, of nationality, and ancient association or descent, that it seems hardly possible for a foreigner, born outside those overwhelming influences, to make another people's thought and religion genuinely his own. Explicable, and
even reasonable, as her worship in the temple beside the Ganges was, it seemed a little strained and exotic for one of our race--a little self-conscious and unreal, like an Englishman going about in the beautiful Indian dress. But her readiness to accept and interpret what was clearest and highest in Hindu thought, her capacity not merely for understanding Indian life, but for discovering and so intensifying the ideal in its customs, and the indignant revolt kindled in her by the insolence, degradation, and maiming restriction to which every subject race is necessarily exposed--from such imaginative sympathy, I think, arose the extraordinary power which she exercised over the more thoughtful and active of the Indian patriots around her. I do not know whether on the religious side it could be said of her, as of the philosopher, that she was "drunk with God"; but on the side of daily life and political thought it might certainly be said that she was drunk with India.
Her greatest book, The Web of Indian Life, reveals the ideal of the Indian spirit with great beauty, and in it there is a passage which seems to illustrate the contrast between the ordinary Anglo-Indian woman's aspect of India and her own. She is saying how differently Niagara would have been regarded if it had been situated on the Ganges:
Spiritual as she was, here was no impracticable or dreamy spirit. Whether teaching in her little school among poor Indian streets of Calcutta, or struggling against the famine and exploitation of Eastern Bengal, or awakening in young India the spirit which marked the growing consciousness of nationality, her eye was fixed not only on some eternal absorption in the infinite, but on the eternal issues of the present moment here. We might say of her as has been said of the Gita:
Sister Nivedita always appeared to me to act on the Gita's own stirring exhortation, "Holding gain and loss as one, prepare for battle." She herself was thus always prepared. For a spirit like hers was not likely to meet with anything but battle in
this world, and it is as a soldier in the War of Liberation that I remember her--a soldier with a flaming sword.
H. W. NEVINSON.
PROFESSOR CHEYNE, D.D., D.LITT., F.B.A.
The beautiful character of Sister Nivedita is well known to her friends, but needs to be brought before outsiders, especially those of the younger generation. She was like a star, if we should not rather say, like a sun, and it would be sad if this sun should altogether set. Her place can hardly be filled in the present æon, though one or another may arise who may remind the well-equipped historical student of her. Once in the last century, however, Vivekananda and his disciple Nivedita have had their prototypes: I refer to the saintly and heroic religious and social reformers known respectively as the Bab and Kurratu’l-‘Ayn ("Refreshment of the eyes"). The latter illustrious pair lived and worked primarily for Persia, the former for India, but both had a sense that their principles could only have adequate recognition when all nations accepted them as their standard of right. The Bab and "Her Highness the Pure" were, however, much less modern than Vivekananda and Nivedita: it is Baha ’Ullah, and especially his son and successor Abdul Baha, who first in modern times have consciously undertaken
in a practical manner to blend the characteristic qualities of East and West.
It is the modernity of these Indian reformers which attracts. But then it must be remembered that they come at the end of a long period which goes back as far as Rammohun Roy. Nivedita, though "dedicated" to the service of India, and so far as was possible Hinduised, never ceased to keep in touch with Western thinkers and reformers: her visits to her earlier fatherland sufficiently prevented this. The intellectual department in which she was really a stranger was the critical study of the Christian Scriptures; it was the reading of a small book of mine called Bible Problems, and perhaps, I may add, the example of a critic who was also a preacher of the Gospel, which I set, which revealed to her the possibilities she had missed. And yet I do not question that all is for the best. It was better that Nivedita and I should work independently from different points of view, and in order that a larger point of view might emerge in the future. She was well aware that her teacher had not himself reached the goal, and that West and East would have to join hands to pass the difficult region on the other side of which dwells Religious Truth. And I too am fully conscious of the deficiencies of my own stock of knowledge. It is to Sister Nivedita I owe it that these deficiencies are not greater than they are.
At this point I venture to quote what I have said elsewhere (in the Modern Review, Calcutta, February 1912):
"It was The Web of Indian Life which brought us spiritually together. The book fascinated me. I had never before seen India described from the inside. I wrote to her as warmly as I felt, at the same time drawing her attention to the criticisms which some dryasdust professor had brought against her views of history. She replied in glowing terms, at the same time answering my inquiry as to the best sources of information for Hindu religion in its noblest form. She pointed me to the Bhagavad Gita and the lectures of the Swami Vivekananda. This produced a revolution in my view of the capacity of Hindu religion for adapting itself progressively to the spiritual needs of Indians, and for contributing elements of enormous value to the purification, enrichment, and reinterpretation of Christianity. . . . Sister Nivedita was well aware that I looked for help to the Aryan East, and especially to her and her Master, and this may have been the chief reason why she paid me in the dazzling coin of affection, reverence, and gratitude for the sympathy which I delighted to express to her."
T. K. CHEYNE.
MR. RABINDRANATH TAGORE
[The following passages are translated from an appreciation of Sister Nivedita contributed by Mr. Rabindranath Tagore, the poet of Bengal, to a vernacular magazine soon after her death.]
She had a versatile, all-round genius, and with that there was another thing in her nature: that was her militancy. She had power, and she exerted that power with full force on the lives of others. A great enthusiasm to take possession of the mind after conquering it worked in her nature. . . . I have not noticed in any other human being the wonderful power that was hers of absolute dedication of herself. In her own personality there was nothing which could stand in the way of this utter self-dedication. No bodily need, weakness, or craving; no European habit which had grown up from infancy; no family affection or tender tie of kinship; no slight received from her own people; no indifference, weakness, and want of self-sacrifice on the part of those for whom she had devoted her life, could turn her aside. He who has seen her has seen the essential form of man, the form of the spirit. It is a piece of great good fortune to be able to see how the inner being of man reveals itself with unobstructed and undiminished energy and effulgence, nullifying the obstruction of all outer material coatings or
impediments. We have been blessed in that we have witnessed that unconquered nobility of man in Sister Nivedita. . . . The life which Sister Nivedita gave for us was a very great life. There was no defrauding of us on her part--that is, she gave herself up fully for the service of India; she did not keep anything back for her own use. Every moment of every day she gave whatever was best in her, whatever was noblest. For this she underwent all the privation and austerity that is possible for man. Her resolve was this and this alone--that she would give only that which was absolutely genuine; she would not mix self with it in the least;--no, not her hunger or thirst, profit or loss, name or fame; neither fear nor shrinking, nor ease nor rest. . . . She was in fact a Mother of the People. We had not seen before an embodiment of the spirit of motherhood which, passing beyond the limits of the family, can spread itself over the whole country. We have had some idea of the sense of duty of man in this respect, but had not witnessed the wholehearted mother-love of women. When she uttered the words "Our People," the tone of absolute kinship which struck the ear was not heard from any other among us. Whoever has seen what reality there was in her love of the people, has surely understood that we--while giving perhaps our time, our money, even our life--have not been
able to give them our heart; we have not acquired the power to know the people as absolutely real and near. . . . The man who does not see the people, the nation, in every man, may say with his lips what he likes, but he does not see the country properly. I have seen that Sister Nivedita saw the common people, touched them, did not simply think of them mentally. The respect with which she would greet some ordinary Mussulman woman dwelling in a hut in a village is not possible for an ordinary individual; for the vision that enables one to see the greatness of humanity in humble individuals is a very uncommon gift. It was because this vision was so natural to her that she did not lose her respect for India in spite of the nearness of her life to the life of the people of India for so long a time.
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.