She was an Irish woman who met Swami Vivekananda in London, and later came to Bharat to work with him. She became a celibate in 1898, when she was 31 years old, and dedicated her life to helping the poor in Bharat.
What’s an amazing aspect of her personality? The answer lies in the name – Sister Nivedita. Reading the prefix ‘sister’ is a constant reminder of her Christian roots. It is also a symbol of the fact that though she was Hindu in spirit, she was open to the teachings she received from other faiths. In this aspect, she was just like her guru Vivekananda. I hope you’ll be impressed by the instances mentioned below:
First, Vivekananda wanted her to ‘Hinduize’ her thoughts and forget the past. That didn’t mean she had to lose her personality. It meant that she must understand the concerns of the Bharatiya woman without the troubles of the past affecting her. It definitely did not mean that she abandon reasoning and logic. Or abandon her trust in aspects of the Christian faith. Such an open-mindedness can be proven by the fact that neither Vivekananda, nor Nivedita, disliked the idea of Jesus Christ. Here’s an incident from the last time they met, before Vivekananda’s death –
Sister Nivedita always ate with her fingers, a la Hindu; and after she had eaten. Swami poured water over her hands. She said, very much the disciple, “I cannot bear you to do this.” He answered. “Jesus Christ washed the feet of his disciples.”1
She initially desired to make England and Bharat love one another. Later, she despised the English government. She also disagreed with Vivekananda over several matters. That did little to mar their relationship. Why do I mention this? To tell you that neither Nivedita nor Vivekananda were dogmatic and bigoted. In fact, Vivekananda considered Nivedita’s “Celtic blood”2 as one of the main reasons why she could inspire Bharatiya women.
Here’s another example of their wonderful, and broad-minded relationship.
Sister Nivedita, even when she was a practising Christian, thought that Buddha’s teachings were clearer than the lessons of Christianity. And that’s what drew her to Vivekananda as a teacher. Why did she go to him and not to some Buddhist monk? Because Buddha was considered to be Hindu. It’s in modern times that he is propagated as someone separate from the Hindu fold. So the duo discussed and challenged and even disagreed on religion and life. Isn’t this refreshing at a time as today, when teachers usually don’t give space to students to challenge and discuss?
So why is she not better known? Isn’t it natural that she should be loved at least as much as ‘Mother’ Teresa? But even Hindus don’t know much about her. It’s possible that her association with Hindu nationalism has made her unpopular with educationists. Perhaps she’d be better known if she were associated with Mahatma Gandhi, or if she hadn’t given importance to the singing of Vande Mataram in schools.
And perhaps these aspects make her unpopular with feminists. Which is surprising, isn’t it? For here is a woman who had a mind of her own, often challenged her own Guru at times, and did much for the cause of Bharatiya women.
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