Women Enlightenment : in Action and Works of Sister Nivedita

More on Portrayal of Women in Literary World

Sister Nivedita, a Scot-Irish disciple of Swami Vivekananda, social worker, author, teacher, was born as Margaret Elizabeth Noble in 1867 in Ireland. She met Swami Vivekananda in 1895 in London and came down to Kolkata in 1898. Swami Vivekananda gave her the name Nivedita when he initiated her into the vow of Brahmacharya on 25 March 1898. It was her ‘rebirth’ as she often said, and to make her new name meaningful, she devoted whole of her life in the service of humanity in general and upliftment of women in particular. She rendered her painstaking services by extensive and practical social work and by the ocean of the creative writings that inspired the intellectuals globally.
I have chosen this topic mainly on three counts. First, currently, India is celebrating the birth centenary of Swami Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita’s mentor. Secondly, last year was the year of death centenary of Sister Nivedita herself; it may be recalled that she breathed her last in 1911.
The third and main reason is to draw the attention of the faculty of English to the most regrettable fact that we have paid little attention towards the ocean of her writings which are largely marked by her incessant endeavors for the enlightenment and upliftment of women.
Most of her works, which include collection of essays, short stories and memoirs, abound in her deep concern for the upliftment and empowerment of women and yet we, the Indians hardly take note of her services; both social and literary. I therefore find it necessary to furnish a select list of her major works; many of which were published by the British and American publishers. Very few of would be aware of the fact that Sister Nivedita also inspired youths as the editor of Karma Yogin, the nationalist newspaper founded by Sri Aurobindo.
Based on the bulk of her works and actions that speak amply for what an enlightened woman is all about, I contend that she was for the women’s enlightenment rather than feminism.
Before I may talk about Sister Nivedita’s deep concern for the women’s upliftment in her works, I would like to show how and why all her actions and works are marked by her compassionate treatment of the women folk.
A true missionary of the newly established Ramakrishna Mission, she had dedicated her whole life for the cause of humanity, more specifically for the upliftment of the down-trodden woman. Apart from being the first ever true woman missionary in India, Sister Nivedita was a prolific writer and mesmerizing orator who extensively toured India to deliver lectures, especially on social awareness and India's culture. She appealed to the Indian youth to work selflessly for the cause of the motherland and humanity along the ideals of Swami Vivekananda. In all her works, she has reflected her deepest concerns for the pathetic conditions of the mankind, particularly women, in the 1890s. She showed the way out not by precepts but practice.
A great humanitarian, Sister Nivedita intensively took part in the scores of altruistic activities for the upliftment of women, until she breathed her last in 1911. For the enlightenment of  the women, she worked hard for the promotion of the social services, arts, spirituality, Indian history, culture and science among the women and took extreme pains to improve the lives of the Indian women, irrespective of class or creed. To this end, she started a school for exclusively for girls and women who were deprived of even basic education in Kolkata in November 1898. She went from home to home in educate girls, many of whom were in pitiable conditions. Nivedita had widows and adult women among her students. She taught sewing, elementary rules of hygiene, nursing etc., apart from regular courses.
During the outbreak of plague epidemic in Kolkata in 1899, Nivedita nursed and took care of thousands of the patients, cleaned rubbish from the streets. To train the women folk about the preventive measures, she also personally distributed the written instructions by moving around the most affected areas.
Many intellectuals, artists and scientists in Kolkata, including the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, Sir Jagdish Chandra BoseAbala Bose, Annie Besant, Sri Aurobindo and Abanindranath Tagore were impressed by  Sister Nivedita’s efforts for the women’s enlightenment. Nivedita inculcated the nationalist spirit and humanitarian values among her students through all their daily activities. She introduced singing of the song Vande Màtaram in her school as a prayer.
All her activities encircled almost all fields of human life; culture, arts, education, science, spirituality, literature and scores of others. Because of her intense participation in all these fields of humanity, it was obvious that her actions and experiences were translated into her creative writings. I would now like to show how she projected her concern for the enlightenment of women in her books.
Studies from an Eastern Home is a set of essays by Sister Nivedita, published posthumously in 1913. In this book, she gives a rare ground-level vista of Hinduism from a woman's point of view in the 19th century. Pervading her writing is an earnest quest for spiritual liberation and sincere love for the Indian people of all castes. In this book, she nullifies the dogma that the way to salvation is open only for specific class of human being and asserts that all humans are equal because the same divinity pervades in all alike, irrespective of class or creed.
In The Web of Indian Life, Sister Nivedita seeks to rectify many dogmatic myths about Indian culture and customs that were prevalent in the Western world. In this book, she dwells upon the dignity of man, highlighting the significant role of women.
In The Cradle Tales of Hinduism Sister Nivedita retells the stories from Puranas, Ramayana and Mahabharata and drawing parallels form the characters like Kunti, Draupadi and Savitri, she attempts to highlight the role of women in developing the man into a superman.
I have chosen to speak at some length on Select Essays of Sister Nivedita precisely because it is a landmark work in which, Sister Nivedita talks at length on variety of issues concerning human life. As the manuscripts of this book went to the press when she was counting her days and it was published soon after her death, this book is considered to be the essence of her thoughts. Though the focal point of this book is the causes of the human predicament, it questions and negates the imperialistic attitude and dominance of the West in order to subjugate the millions of Indians and upholds the supremacy of humanity only against all other considerations.  The longest essay in her landmark work is The Present Position of Woman in which she out rightly rejects the Western notion of the classification of women and asserts: “Perhaps the only true classification is based on ideals, and if so, we might divide human society, in so far as woman is concerned, into communities dominated by the civic, and communities dominated by the family, ideal.” Commending the significant role the Indian women have played in past, she writes that the civic evolution of woman as a process, always takes place most rapidly in those communities and at those epochs when political or industrial transformation, or both, are most energetic and individuating and proudly concludes her argument thus; “In India, also, women have held power, from time to time, as rulers and administrators, often with memorable success.” In the same book, in the essay Revival or Reform, Sister Nivedita talks about the orthodoxies of cults and religions across the globe and stresses the need to cast away the insular sectarian dogmas in the larger interest of humanity. Though a Christian by birth and breeding, she has no hesitation in blaming the Christians for spreading insular dogmas. Similarly, in What books to Read, she advises the Indian youths to start with the Ramayan and the Mahabharat before switching over to Homer and Virgil and other Western classics. She feels that knowledge of the cultural heritage of one’s own land is imperative for the progress of the society. Preferring character to intellectual accomplishment in the essay The Future Education of the Indian Woman, she writes; “An education of the brain that uprooted humility and took away tenderness would be no true education at all. These virtues may find different forms of expression in mediaeval and modern civilizations, but they are necessary in both. All education worth having must first devote itself to the developing and consolidating of character, and only secondarily concern itself with intellectual accomplishment." For an all-round development of the Indian woman, who could effectively take on the challenges of the twentieth century, she envisages the need for ‘a form of education that might attain this end of developing the faculties of soul and mind in harmony with one another’ and insists that woman must be taught science, history and geography because from these subjects the mind envisages ideas. The essay clearly outlines her vision of the enlightened Indian woman. It may be recalled that the school she started only for girls in 1898 had earned a name and fame in a very short period and it was frequently visited by Rabindranath Tagore and Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose. In his Foreword to the book, AJF Blair, the editor of Empire has complimented Sister Nivedita in these words; "The white flower of nobility"— “Nivedita" dedicated."  Whether we think of her by her English or her Indian name; was ever human being more appropriately called? ... Unselfish, brave, white-souled, dowered so nobly with mental, spiritual and physical graces, who can express in words what she was to those who loved her, or gather up the measure of their loss ? The words on her epigraph best speaks for her treatment of humanism for which she dedicated all her life leaving the luxuries to England. Her epitaph reads, "Here reposes Sister Nivedita who gave her all to India".
I sincerely feel the need to look back in not, in anger; but with all dignity and dig out the treasure of Sister Nivedita’s actions for the enlightenment of women since it has been lying ‘un-mined’ in her works for over a century.

Jagdish Anerao, Asso. Professor of English, AP Patel Arts & Commerce College, Naroda, Ahmedabad