Born in the European country of Ireland to Mary Isabel and Samuel Richmond Noble, the woman we now know as ‘Sister Nivedita’ was once named Margaret Elizabeth Noble. Her journey from being a next door Irish teacher to becoming a fundamental instrument in educating a foreign land to fight for nationalism against the British is awe-inspiring.
Her devotion to the service of mankind- the very lessons she carried from her father which were later given direction by Swami Vivekananda’s presence in her life, proved a catalyst in pulling hundreds out of their misery in India.
A young ten-year-old Margaret lost her father when she was ten. At the age of seventeen, she became a teacher who soon established a school following a unique method of her teaching. Her writings started getting published in periodicals and newspapers, soon making her a known face among the London intellects.
In 1895, she was invited to Lady Isabel Margesson’s house where Swami Vivekananda was explaining Vedanta philosophy to the family. At this point, Margaret was already involved with teachings of the East and hence found nothing profound in Swamiji’s words. What awed her was his personality as evident in her words she wrote later in her life.
”A majestic personage, clad in a saffron gown and wearing a red waist-band, sat there on the floor, cross-legged. As he spoke to the company, he recited Sanskrit verses in his deep, sonorous voice.”
Consequently, she attended many of his events and asked many doubts until her faith on Swami Vivekananda’s teachings became unshakeable. His philosophies brought out a visible change in her and she admits her life would have been like a ”headless dream” had Swami Vivekananda not visited London that year in 1985.
Her ignited passion for learning, serving and devoting made Vivekananda extend her an invitation for visiting India. He could see her future role in the building of crumbling India blazing under the heat of the struggle for Independence.
In 1898, Margaret left her home, her family and friends to come to India. Her love for India wasn’t that of a first-sight. It was Swami Vivekananda’s plan of action to make Margaret fall in love with India and its people as she explored more of its history, culture, diversity, philosophies, traditions and lives of great Indian personalities.
Much sooner, she had taken the call to devote her life to the service of the nation. On 11 March 1898, Swami Vivekananda introduced Sister Nivedita (Nivedita meaning one who is dedicated to God) to the people of Calcutta. In his speech, Swami Vivekananda said – “England has sent us another gift in Miss Margaret Noble.”
In her early life in Ireland, Margaret was engaged before her fiance died in an accident. In 1898, Swami Vivekananda initiated Margaret in the vow of lifelong celibacy, ie. Brahmacharya, making her the first western woman to be received into an Indian monastic order. Sister Nivedita considered herself to be the spiritual daughter of Swami Vivekananda whom she fondly referred to as ‘The King”.
Life in Calcutta
Finally, in 1898, she got Swami Vivekananda, Sharda Devi and Ramakrishna to inaugurate her school in Bagbazar area of Calcutta. Sister Nivedita went door to door to ask girls to come in. However, until much later, the only students she had were widows and adult women as most of the male members refused to send their daughters to school. To maintain the funds, Sister Nivedita continued working as a writer and lecturer parallely.
During the plague epidemic in 1899, she aggressively participated in volunteering and nursing the patients while inspiring youth to render support in spreading awareness and volunteer.
Being a prolific orator and writer, Sister Nivedita toured India to motivate Indian youth and to build a feeling of respect for their culture and heritage. To inculcate the national spirit, she made nationalism a part of day-to-day activities apart from taking bigger steps towards freedom. So while at one point she introduced Vande Mataram as a daily prayer in her school, she also exposed Lord Curzon of defying East culture as inferior to that of West, leading him to publicly apologise to the masses.
Sister Nivedita also had a life changing impact on the artists of that time. She inspired the poets and writers to develop pure Indian school of art. Artists like Abanindranath Tagore, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Havell and Subramanya Bharti were greatly inpsired by her and contributed to arts and social work in the country. She provided support to Annie Besant and edited Aurobindo Ghosh’s nationalist newspaper.
”The whole history of the world shows that the Indian intellect is second to none. This must be proved by the performance of a task beyond the power of others, the seizing of the first place in the intellectual advance of the world. Is there any inherent weakness that would make it impossible for us to do this? Are the countrymen of Bhaskaracharya and Shankaracharya inferior to the countrymen of Newton and Darwin? We trust not. It is for us, by the power of our thought, to break down the iron walls of opposition that confront us, and to seize and enjoy the intellectual sovereignty of the world.”
”The whole history of the world shows that the Indian intellect is second to none. This must be proved by the performance of a task beyond the power of others, the seizing of the first place in the intellectual advance of the world. Is there any inherent weakness that would make it impossible for us to do this? Are the countrymen of Bhaskaracharya and Shankaracharya inferior to the countrymen of Newton and Darwin?
We trust not. It is for us, by the power of our thought, to break down the iron walls of opposition that confront us, and to seize and enjoy the intellectual sovereignty of the world.”
She shared a deep bond with Swami Vivekananda all through her life as evident by her first chance meeting with him which changed the entire course of her life. When Swami Vivekananda died, she had wished to carry a piece of saffron cloth he was wrapped in. However, she refused to take it as she was unsure of this gesture’s appropriateness. By chance or by Vivekananda’s blessing, when the pyre burnt and flames almost died out, a piece of saffron clanged to her sleeve, hence fulfilling her wish to carry a piece of him with her.
”The mother’s heart, the hero’s will The sweetness of the southern breeze, The sacred charm and strength that dwell On Aryan altars, flaming, free; All these be yours and many more No ancient soul could dream before- Be thou to India’s future son The mistress, servant, friend in one.”