Nivedita, Sister (1867–1911)

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Nivedita, Sister (1867–1911)

Irish-born disciple of Hindu spiritualism and a leader in the cause of Indian nationalism and independence. Name variations: Margaret Noble. Born Margaret Elizabeth Noble at Dungannon, County Tyrone, Ireland, on October 28, 1867; died in Darjeeling in eastern India, on October 12, 1911; daughter of Samuel Noble and Mary (Hamilton) Noble; never married.

Destined to be known in India as Sister Nivedita (meaning "the dedicated soul"), Margaret Noble was born in Dungannon, Ireland, in 1867, the daughter of Samuel and Mary Noble . Her ancestry and early years provided a groundwork for what was to be a life dedicated to spiritualism and nationalism. Of Anglo-Saxon descent, Margaret's family had moved to Ireland from Scotland five centuries before her birth and had put the cause of country above religion and race. Her grandfather John Noble was a Protestant minister in the Wesleyan Church in Northern Ireland but sided with the Roman Catholics against the pro-English "Church of Ireland." Her father was a shopkeeper in the small town of Dungannon. He gave up his business when Margaret was a year old, sold his house, and the family moved to England where Samuel enrolled as a theological student at the Wesleyan Church in Manchester.

Taught to read from the family Bible by her grandmother, Margaret was early introduced to religious life and thinking. She often joined her father and grandfather on their visits to the poor, developing an inclination toward service that was to be a mainstay of her life. Before Samuel's death at the young age of 34, he advised Mary Noble about their daughter: "When God calls her, let her go. She will; spread her wings. … She will do great things."

Margaret's widowed mother enrolled her two daughters in Halifax College, a school run by the Congregationalist Church. There, in an atmosphere of rigid discipline, the headmistress concerned herself with moral education and intellectual development, and the environment greatly influenced Margaret. She passed her examinations and left the school determined to earn her own living.

She was 18 when she became a schoolteacher in 1884, teaching literature and history in an English Lake District school. Rather than impose a prepared course of study, Noble used her lessons as a means to examining her pupils' reactions. She then spent a year at an orphanage in Rugby, England, where 20 girls were taught to become maidservants. At age 21, Noble became a secondary schoolteacher in a large mining center in Wrexham. She also published articles in local papers, including "A Visit to a Coal Mine, by a Lady" and "A Page from Wrexham Life."

Noble was interested in the work of two well-known educators, Pestalozzi and Froebel. She was also influenced by the British sociologist Patrick Geddes, organizer of the Paris Exposition. Drawn to his theories regarding the evolution of society in relation to the environment, she became Geddes' secretary.

While Noble cherished her Irish nationalism, she became English in her social habits. She met the Russian revolutionary Peter Kropotkin when he came to speak to the "Free Ireland" circle, and Noble recognized in him the voice of her father, seeing Kropotkin as a leader of the oppressed.

By 1892, Noble's intellectual gifts had earned her a distinguished position in London's high society at the Sesame Club (a social club for men and women). She opened a school at Wimbledon with a broad conception of education for girls. Three years later, when the Hindu Monk Swami Vivekananda of Calcutta, India, visited England, Noble attended his religious lectures. In the first weekend class she attended (on Bhakti Yoga) as well as the second (on the divinity of man), Vivekananda spoke of religion without dogmas, without liturgies, and without penances. He saw ignorance, selfishness, and greed as bringers of suffering, an idea with which Noble strongly identified. She found in Vivekananda's message of Hinduism, with wisdom drawn from Sri Ramakrishna, the Hindu spiritual saint of Calcutta, a religion whose foundations, classification of elements, and forms of worship could be discussed scientifically. Noble declared herself the Swami's disciple by addressing him as "Master." Urged by Vivekananda to help women in India, she felt that her future work was there.

In 1898, she went to Calcutta, and on March 25 she received from Vivekananda the name "Nivedita." She was consecrated into Bramacharya (life of celibacy). Said Vivekananda: "Sister Nivedita is another gift of England to India." In her modest home in Calcutta, she started a new way of life, facing the challenges of beginning in a new country.

She had arrived in India with no thought beyond helping Vivekananda in his religious and educational work, but her nationalist tradition quickly made her identify with India's struggle for independence. It was not long before she was appointed to a position within the Indian nationalist organization, which had its headquarters in Bengal. Aurobindo Ghosh was the organization's chief leader. Dreaming of a unified India, which would stand for the recreation of the Dharma (true faith), Sister Nivedita saw India as organically, not merely mechanically, united: the North produced prophets, the South priests.

Nivedita stood "surety" for the Bengali revolutionary Bhupendra Nath Dutta (the youngest brother of Swami Vivekananda), who was arrested for sedition as the editor of the Jugantar newspaper. Taking an active part as a member of the executive committee of the Revolutionary Party in Bengal, Nivedita was disillusioned with the anti-India attitude of the British government. In 1902, she criticized schools in British India for what she regarded as the lack of a central ethical and moral standard. She was present at the Calcutta University Hall when Lord Curzon made his convocation speech in 1905. Nivedita condemned the speech, which was critical of Indian nationalism.

Nivedita was also instrumental in helping to assert the spiritual import of Indian fine arts. She inspired E.B. Havell, the principal of the Government School of Art in Calcutta, who became the first English art critic to defend Indian art from vulgar attacks by British critics. The great Indian artist Rabindranath Tagore, who turned to the national style of Indian art, was also influenced by Nivedita, as was the famous Bengali artist Nanda Lal Bose.

Asked by Vivekananda to improve education for the women of India, Nivedita traveled widely to raise funds for a girls' school. To both collect money and inform the Western public about India, she left for Europe and America in

1899 and organized the "Ramakrishna Guild of Help" while in the West. Many times rebuffed on her journey, Nivedita returned to India in 1902, the year of Vivekananda's death. Feeling that she should not confine herself to the Ramakrishna Order, which had been started by Vivekananda, she decided to focus on his idea of nation-making. She traveled to different parts of India to obtain knowledge of the people and to propagate his views. In Bombay, where she spoke on "The Unity of Asia" and "Hindu Mind in Modern Science," she was applauded when she concluded: "European science" can "now observe with the utmost accuracy the laws governing molecular physics. … But even this sci ence was nothing to what the grotesque-looking Yogi studies in his solitude—Nature."

In her lecture tours throughout India in 1902, Nivedita addressed youths on nationalism. She gave to the revolutionaries' center in Calcutta the library she had amassed of books on nationalist movements in various countries. While in Baroda in western India, she looked into Aurobindo Ghosh's revolutionary work at close quarters. She suggested that Aurobindo, whom she admired, should shift his activities out of the reach of the British-Indian police, and it seems that Aurobindo went to the French territory in the south of India in order to do so. She was also familiar with the work of Sarala Devi , the Holy Mother of the Ramakrishna Order, who forged a link between the Bengali and Punjabi revolutionary groups

Meanwhile Nivedita did not forget her original goal of advancing the cause of women's education. Vivekananda had encouraged Nivedita to produce great women to match the values of the modern world: "Your education, sincerity, purity, immense love, determination and above all, the Celtic blood make you just the woman wanted." Her first experimental school had been in existence from November 1898 to the end of May 1899. In 1903, her new creation, the Nivedita School on Nivedita Street in Bagh Bazar (in north Calcutta) opened its doors. This school for girls was able to group together, with their parents' consent, children from such widely different castes as Brahmin, Kayastha, and Gowala.

To encourage boys' education as well, Nivedita sent some young men to Japan, England, and America where they were trained in pharmaceutical goods, glass-blowing, and the handling of metals. When they returned to India, she helped them to establish their own businesses, for she wanted to have dealers in the marketplace who used modern tools and machines. In order to popularize Indian goods, she prepared the "National Swadeshi Exhibitions" in Calcutta during the session of the Indian National Congress Party.

By 1906, Sister Nivedita was vigorously associated with many aspects of Indian public life. When floods and famine struck East Bengal that year, she consoled the weak, addressed women's meetings, and preached the use of Swadeshi goods and the boycott of British ones. She stressed the need to take to Charkha (spinning wheel to make clothes) and other useful crafts; regarding peasants, she remarked that those who paid the revenues should have the right to control the expenditures.

Nivedita aligned herself to the ancient Hindu philosophy and saw the Bhagavad Gita (a long poem composed by Brahmins) as an authoritative pronouncement on the Hindu society. She believed that the Gita was specially written for the benefit of women and the working classes, who, as destitute of classical learning, had little chance of studying these great scriptures. She placed high honor on the status of women, advocating that where women are honored gods are pleased; felt that the Laws of Manu were for domestic happiness; and subscribed to the proverb, "Thou shall not strike a woman, even with a flower."

Between 1907 and 1911, Nivedita took two trips to America and England. In 1907–08, she again became a part of high society in London. Intending to found a pro-Indian information center there, she explained in her journalistic writings at the time that the British policies toward Calcutta politicians were unduly harsh. She was in close contact with the publicist and poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, husband of Anne Blunt , who urged England's withdrawal from Indian affairs, and discussed the Indian freedom issue with British labor leader Keir Hardie. Meanwhile, the British government in India passed the Newspaper Act which suppressed all the nationalist papers.

After an absence of 15 years, she visited Ireland, noting the same longing for liberty. She then arrived in America where she served as a journalist and as a mother figure to many Hindu youths living abroad. Upon her return, India was in turmoil; even the Balur Monastery was regularly watched by the British government police. Although failing in health, a confident Nivedita declared, "Mother India will know victory." She died in Darjeeling in North Bengal, at age 44, very much a daughter of India. Bengal gave her a national funeral, Calcutta offered her memorial tributes at the Town Hall, and her ashes were distributed to many places.

Sister Nivedita arrived in India at a time when Vivekananda was pointing the country in new directions, and she added to this movement toward social and political emancipation. She became a "sister to all Indians" while at the same time forging a link with the West. Like Vivekananda, Nivedita believed that India should borrow relevant aspects of education and science from the West but remain committed to its ancient ethical and religious values. She preserved much of her thinking in print and her works include an account and study of Vivekananda's life entitled The Master As I Saw Him.


Nivedita, Sister. The Wave of Indian Life. Calcutta: Longmans, Green, 1918.

Raymond, Lizelle. The Dedicated: A Biography of Nivedita. NY: John Day, 1953.

suggested reading:

Datta, Bhupendra Nath. Swami Vivekananda: Patriot = Prophet: A Study. Calcutta: Nababharat, 1954.

Madhavananda, Swami, ed. The Complete Works of the Swami Vivekananda. Calcutta: Sree Gouranga Press for the Advaita Ashrama, 1922.

Santosh C. Saha , formerly Assistant Professor of History, Cuttington University, Liberia