Sister Nivedita met Swami Vivekananda in 1895 in London and traveled to Calcutta (present-day Kolkata), India in 1898. Swami Vivekananda gave her the name Nivedita (meaning "Dedicated to God") when he initiated her into the vow of Brahmacharya on 25 March 1898. In November 1898, she opened a girls' school in Bagbazar area of Calcutta. She wanted to educate those girls who were deprived of even basic education. During the plague epidemic in Calcutta in 1899 Nivedita nursed and took care of the poor patients.
Nivedita had close associations with the newly established Ramakrishna Mission. However, because of her active contribution in the field of Indian Nationalism, she had to publicly dissociate herself from the activities of the Ramakrishna Mission under the then president Swami Brahmananda. She was very intimate with Sarada Devi, the spiritual consort of Ramakrishna and one of the major influences behind Ramakrishna Mission and also with all brother disciples of Swami Vivekananda. She died on 13 October 1911 in Darjeeling. Her epitaph reads, "Here reposes Sister Nivedita who gave her all to India".
Margaret Elizabeth Noble was born on 28 October 1867 in the town of Dungannon in County Tyrone, Ireland to Mary Isabel and Samuel Richmond Noble and was named for her paternal grandmother. The Nobles were of Scottish descent, settled in Ireland for about five centuries. Her father, who was a pastor, taught that service to mankind is the true service to God. When Margaret was one year old Samuel moved to Manchester, England and there he enrolled as a theological student of the Wesleyan Church. Young Margaret at this time stayed with her maternal grandfather Hamilton in Northern Ireland. When she was four years old she returned to live with her father.
Margaret's father Samuel died in 1877 when she was only ten years old Margaret was brought up by her maternal grandfather. Hamilton was one of the first-ranking leaders of the freedom movement of Ireland.
Margaret did her education from Church boarding school in London. She and her sister attended Halifax College, run by a member of Congregationalist Church. The headmistress of this college taught her about personal sacrifice. She extensively studied various subjects, including physics, arts, music, literature. She embraced teaching at the age of seventeen. She first worked in Keswick as a teacher of children. Subsequently, she established a school in Wimbledon and followed her own unique methods of teaching. She also participated in Church sponsored activities, being religious in nature. She was also a prolific writer and wrote in the paper and periodicals. In this way she soon became a known name among the intellectuals of London. She was engaged to be married to a Welsh youth who died soon after engagement. The regulated religious life could not give her the necessary peace and harmony so she began to study various books on religion.
In November 1895 she met Swami Vivekananda who had come from America to visit London and stayed there for three months. On a cold afternoon, Swami Vivekananda, on an invitation, was explaining Vedanta philosophy in the drawing room of an aristocratic family in London. Lady Isabel Margesson, a friend of Margaret, invited Ebenedger Cook, who was a teaching staff in Margaret's 'Ruskin School', for this meeting. Margaret also went with him, with much curiosity and interest. Margaret did not know that this incident would bend her life in a different way. Margaret described her experience on the occasion. 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. Margaret being already delved deep into the teachings of the East, found nothing quite new in what she heard on this occasion. What was new to her was the personality of the Swamiji himself. She attended several other lectures of Swami Vivekananda. She raised a lot of questions whose answers dispelled her doubts and established faith and reverence for the speaker.
Nivedita wrote in 1904 to a friend about her decision to follow Swami Vivekananada as a result of her meeting him in England in November 1895:
Suppose he had not come to London that time! Life would have been like a headless dream, for I always knew that I was waiting for something. I always said that a call would come. And it did. But if I had known more of life, I doubt whether, when the time came, I should certainly have recognised it.
Fortunately, I knew little and was spared that torture ... Always I had this burning voice within, but nothing to utter. How often and often I sat down, pen in hand, to speak, and there was no speech! And now there is no end to it! As surely I am fitted to my world, so surely is my world in need of me, waiting – ready. The arrow has found its place in the bow. But if he had not come! If he had meditated, on the Himalayan peaks! ... I, for one, had never been here.
She started taking interest in the teachings of Gautama Buddha, Swami Vivekananda as alternate source of peace and benediction.
Vivekananda's principles and teachings influenced her and this brought about a visible change in her. Seeing the fire and passion in her, Swami Vivekananda could foresee her future role in India. On 25th of march 1898 it was the holiest and most unforgettable day for Nivedita (Margaret) of her life. That was the day on which her guru dedicated her to god and to the service of India.
Swami Vivekananda felt extreme pain by the wretchedness and misery of the people of India under the British rule and his opinion was that education was the panacea for all evils plaguing the contemporary Indian society, especially that of Indian women. Margaret was chosen for the role of educating Indian women.
Responding to the call of Swami Vivekananda, Margaret decided to travel to India leaving behind her family and friends, including her mother. Mombasa, the ship bringing Margaret to India, reached Calcutta on 28 January 1898. On 22 February, Margaret visited Dakshineshwar temple, the place where Ramakrishna did his sadhana.
Swami Vivekananda devoted the initial few days in building her character and developing her love for India and its people. He explained to her India’s history, philosophy, literature, life of the common mass, social traditions, and also the lives of great personalities, both ancient and modern. A few weeks later, two of Swami Vivekananda's women disciples in America, Sara C. Bull, wife of famous Norwegian violinist and composer Ole Bull and Josephine MacLeod arrived in India. The three became lifelong friends.
On 11 March 1898, Swami Vivekananda organised a public meeting at Star Theatre to introduce Sister Nivedita to the people of Calcutta. In his speech Swami Vivekananda said – "England has sent us another gift in Miss Margaret Noble." In this meeting Margaret expressed her desire to serve India and its people.
On 17 March she met Sarada Devi who greeted Margaret affectionately as Khooki (i.e. my daughter).
On 25 March 1898, Swami Vivekananda formally initiated Margaret in the vow of Brahmacharya (lifelong celibacy) and gave her the name of "Nivedita", the dedicated one. She became the first Western woman to be received into an Indian monastic order. Swami Vivekananda said to her – "Go thou and follow Him, Who was born and gave His life for others five hundred times before He attained the vision of the Buddha." She later recorded some of her experiences with her master in the book The Master as I Saw Him. She often used to refer to Swami Vivekananda as "The King" and considered herself as the spiritual daughter (Manaskanya in Bengali) of Swami.
Within a few days of arrival in India, on 17 March 1898, Margaret met Sarada Devi, wife and spiritual consort of Ramakrishna, who, surpassing all language and cultural barriers, embraced her as "khooki" or "little girl" in Bengali. It was the day of demise of St.Patrick. This being a very holy & special day in Margaret's life, Nivedita recounted it as her "day of days." Till her death in 1911, Nivedita remained one of the closest associates of Sarada Devi. On 13 November 1898 the Holy Mother Sarada Devi came to open the school of Nivedita. After worshiping Ramakrishna she consecrated the school and blessed it, saying: ‘I pray that the blessings of the Divine Mother may be upon the school and the girls; and the girls trained from the school may become ideal girls.’ Nivedita became extremely delighted and recorded her feelings later as ‘I cannot imagine a grander omen than her blessings, spoken over the educated Hindu womanhood of the future.’ The first photograph of Sarada Devi was taken at Nivedita's house.
Nivedita wrote in a letter to Nell Hammond about Sarada Devi after her first few meetings with her, "She really is, under the simplest, most unassuming guise, one of the strongest and greatest of women." An excerpt is taken here from the Gospel of Holy Mother, where Sarada Devi's impressions about Nivedita are captured vividly:
Referring to Nivedita, she [Sarada Devi] said, "What sincere devotion Nivedita had! She never considered anything too much that she might do for me. She would often come to see me at night. Once seeing that light struck my eyes, she put a shade of paper around the lamp. She would prostrate herself before me and, with great tenderness, take the dust of my feet with her handkerchief. I felt that she not even hesitated to touch my feet." The thought of Nivedita opened the floodgate of her mind and she suddenly became grave... The Mother now and then expressed her feelings towards the Sister. She said at last, "The inner soul feels for a sincere devotee."
Nivedita travelled to a lot of places in India, including Kashmir, with Swami Vivekananda, Josephine Mcleod and Sara Bull and this helped her in connecting to Indian masses, Indian culture and its history. She also went to United States to raise awareness and get help for her cause. On 11 May 1898 Nivedita, along with Swami Vivekananda, Sara Bull, Josephine MacLeod, and Swami Turiyananda, set foot for the Himalayas. From Nainital they travelled to Almora. On 5 June 1898, she wrote a letter to her friend Nell Hammond exclaiming, Oh Nell, Nell, India is indeed the Holy Land. In Almora she first learned the art of meditation. She wrote about this experience, "A mind must be brought to change its centre of gravity...again open and disinterested state of mind welcomes truth." She also started learning Bengali from Swami Swarupananda.
From Almora they went to Kashmir valley where they stayed in houseboats. In summer of 1898 Nivedita travelled to Amarnath with Swami Vivekananda. Later in 1899 she travelled to America with Swami Vivekananda and stayed in Ridgely Manor.
Swami Vivekananda died at ten minutes past nine p.m. on 4 July 1902. On that night Nivedita dreamed Ramakrishna leaving his body a second time. On the next morning, Swami Saradananda from Belur Math sent a monk with a letter to Sister Nivedita and conveying the message of Vivekananda's death. Instantly everything around Nivedita's eyes became blank. She immediately rushed to the Math and reached the place around 7 a.m and entered the room of Vivekananda. There she found Swamiji's body was laid on the floor. She sat near Vivekananda's head and started to fan his (dead) body with a hand-fan. Till 1 p.m. she sat like that and continued fanning Swami Vivekananda's body.
In the afternoon of 5 July, Swami Vivekanand'a body was taken for cremation. Vivekananda's body was wrapped with a saffron cloth. Nivedita wished to take a small portion of that cloth so that she could send it as a memento to Josephine MacLeod. Understanding the mind of Nivedita Swami Saradananda asked her to cut a small portion of the Swami's cloth. But, Nivedita was unsure whether the act would be proper or not and decided not to take it. When Vivekananda's body was being cremated she sat all the while looking at the burning pyre. Around six o'clock in the evening the burning flame was about to go out. Suddenly Nivedita felt somebody had pulled her sleeve. She turned around and found a small piece of saffron cloth which had somehow come out of the pyre during cremation. Nivedita lifted it and took it considering it as a blessing of the Swami.
Nivedita was planning to open a school for girls who were deprived of even basic education. She toured England and America, gave lectures on England and America and raised funds to establish a girls school. The main reason why Swamiji invited Nivedita to India was to spread education to the women of the country. That's why when Nivedita informed Vivekananda about her planning he felt very excited. He organised a meeting at Balaram Bose’s house on this issue. Many lay devotees of Sri Ramakrishna, including Mastermashay (Sri M., the chronicler of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna), Suresh Dutta, Haramohan etc. attended this meeting. In this meeting Nivedita explained her plan of the proposed school and requested everyone to send their girls to the school to study. During her speech Vivekananda entered the room and took seat behind everyone. Nivedita did not notice it. But, when Nivedita appealed to collect girl students for the school, she suddenly discovered Vivekananda in the room pushing others and prompting – "Ye, get up, get up! It’s not good enough to just become girls’ fathers. All of you must cooperate in the matter of their education as per national ideals. Stand up and commit. Reply to her appeal. Say, 'We all agree. We shall send our girls to you.'" But no one stood up to support Nivedita's proposal. Finally Vivekananda forced Haramohan to agree to the proposal and behalf of Haramohan Vivekananda promised to send her girls to the school.
On 13 November 1898, on the day of Kali Puja, at 16 Bosepara Lane in the Bagbazar area of Calcutta, she started the school. The school was inaugurated by Sarada Devi, in the presence of Swami Vivekananda and some of the other disciples of Ramakrishna. Sarada Devi blessed and prayed for the school saying – "I pray that the blessings of the Divine Mother may be upon the school and the girls; and the girls trained from the school may become ideal girls."
Nivedita went from home to home in educate girls, many of whom were in pitiable condition owing to the socio-economic condition of early 20th century India. In many cases she encountered refusal from the male members of the girl's family. Nivedita had widows and adult women among her students. She taught sewing, elementary rules of hygiene, nursing, etc., apart from regular courses.
Collecting money for the school was not an easy task. She had to earn money from her writings and giving lectures and later she spent all to meet the expenses of the school.
She took part in altruistic activities. She worked to improve the lives of Indian women of all castes.
During the outbreak of plague epidemic in Calcutta in 1899 Nivedita nursed and took care of the patients, cleaned rubbish from the area, and inspired and motivated many youths to render voluntary service. She inserted appeals for help in the English newspapers and requested for financial support for her plague relief activities. She also organised the day-to-day activities, inspected the work and personally handed over the written instructions for the preventive measures by moving around.
She was friend to many intellectuals and artists in the Bengali community, including Rabindranath Tagore, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Abala Bose, and Abanindranath Tagore. Later she took up the cause of Indian independence. Sri Aurobindo was one of her friends as well.
She took active interest in promoting Indian history, culture and science. She actively encouraged Dr. Jagadish Chandra Bose, the epoch-making Indian scientist and seminal philosopher of science who is credited to have discovered the wireless radio, to pursue original scientific research and helped him financially as well in getting due recognition when he was faced by an indifferent attitude of the British Government. Bose, who was called by her as "khoka" or the "little one" in Bengali, and his wife lady Abala Bose, were in very close terms with her. Keeping in view Nivedita’s contribution to the scientific research work of Jagadish Chandra, Rabindranath Tagore said: "In the day of his success, Jagadish gained an invaluable energiser and helper in Sister Nivedita, and in any record of his life’s work her name must be given a place of honour."
Her identity as both a westerner by birth and a disciple of Swami Vivekananda enabled her to do several things that might have been difficult for Indians. She promoted pan-Indian nationalism.
Nivedita was a prolific writer and extensively toured India to deliver lectures, especially on India's culture and religion. She appealed to the Indian youth to work selflessly for the cause of the motherland along the ideals of Swami Vivekananda. Initially Nivedita, like contemporary intellectuals from Europe, was optimistic about British rule in India and believed that it was possible for India and England to love each other. However, in the course of her stay, she came to witness the brutal side of the British rule, the repression and oppression and the division between the ruling elite and the ruled plebeians; she concluded that it was necessary for India to gain independence to prosper. Therefore, she devoted herself wholeheartedly to the cause of opposing the British rule. After Swami's death, she, being acutely aware of the inconvenience of the newly formed Ramakrishna Mission on account of her political activities, publicly dissociated herself from it. However, till her last days she had very cordial relationship with the brother disciples of Swami Vivekananda like Swami Brahmananda, Baburam Maharaj (Swami Premananda) and Swami Saradananda, who helped her in her charitable and education activities in every possible way; she was very close to the holy mother, Sarada Devi.
Nivedita had initially worked with Okakura of Japan and Sarala Ghoshal who was related to the Tagore family. She later started working on her own and maintained direct relationship with many of the young revolutionaries of Bengal, including those of Anushilan Samity, a secret organisation. She inspired many youths in taking up the cause of freeing India through her lectures. She also exposed Lord Curzon after his speech in the University of Calcutta in 1905 where he mentioned that truth was given a higher place in the moral codes of the West, than in East. She undertook her own research and made it public that in the book Problems of The Far East by Curzon she had proudly described how he had given false statements about his age and marriage to the president of the Korean Foreign Office to win his favour. This statement when published in newspapers like Amrita Bazar Patrika and The Statesman caused a furore and forced Curzon to apologise.
In 1905 the British Government under Curzon initiated the partition of Bengal which was a major turning point in the Indian independence movement. Nivedita played a pioneering role in organising the movement. She provided financial and logistical support and leveraged her contacts to get information from government agencies and forewarn the revolutionaries.
She met Indian artists like Abanindranath Tagore, Ananda Coomaraswamy and Havell and inspired them to develop pure Indian school of art. She always inspired and guided the talented students of the Calcutta Art School to move along the forgotten tracks of ancient Indian art like Nandalal Bose, Asit Kumar Haldar and Surendranath Gangopadhyay. She exerted great influence on famous Tamil poet, Subrahmanya Bharati, who met her only briefly in 1906. She influenced Bharathi to work for the freedom of women in the country, which he did all through his life Nivedita designed the national flag of India with the thunderbolt as the emblem against a red background.
Nivedita tried her utmost to inculcate the nationalist spirit in the minds of her students through all their daily activities. She introduced singing of the song Vande Màtaram in her school as a prayer.
Nivedita provided guarded support to Annie Besant, and was very close to Aurobindo Ghosh (later Sri Aurobindo), one of the major contributors towards early nationalist movement. She edited Karma Yogin, the nationalist newspaper of Aurobindo.
The following piece is from an editorial in Karma Yogin, written by Nivedita, which depicts her intense respect for India:
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.
Nivedita died at the dawn of 13 October 1911, age 43, in Roy Villa, Darjeeling. Today, her memorial is located below the Railway station on the way to the Victoria Falls (of Darjeeling) with these words inscribed in her epitaph – "Here reposes Sister Nivedita who gave her all to India".
Swami Vivekananda wrote a poem to Sister Nivedita, A benediction to Sister Nivedita. In this poem Vivekananda regarded Nivedita as The mistress, servant, friend in one–
Sister Nivedita remains one of the most influential female figures of India. Her book Kali, the Mother influenced Abanindranath Tagore who painted Bharat Mata. In 2010, the office of the board of West Bengal Board of Secondary Education in Salt Lake, Kolkata was named after Sister Nivedita. The Sister Nivedita Academy, an institution dedicated to her memory has been established in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Several schools and colleges have been named after her. In 1968, the Indian Government issued a postal stamp in her memory. The Nivedita bridge near Dakhineswer, Kolkata is named in her honor. In 2015, a new Government Degree College at Hastings House, Alipur, Kolkata was named after Sister Nivedita.
Her works included The Web of Indian Life, which sought to rectify many myths in the Western world about Indian culture and customs, Kali the Mother, The Master as I Saw Him on Swami Vivekananda, Notes of Some Wanderings with the Swami Vivekananda on her travels from Nainital, Almora and other places with Swamiji, The Cradle Tales of Hindusim on the stories from Puranas, Ramayana and Mahabharata, Studies from an Eastern Home, Civil Ideal and Indian Nationality, Hints on National Education in India, Glimpses of Famine and Flood in East Bengal—1906.Kali the Mother, Swan Sonnenschein & Co.,. 1900.
The Web of Indian Life, W. Heinemann 1904
Cradle Tales of Hinduism, Longmans 1907
An Indian Study of Love and Death, Longmans, Green & Co.,
The Master as I Saw Him, 1910
Select essays of Sister Nivedita, 1911 Ganesh & Co.,
Studies from an Eastern Home, Longmans, Green & Co., 1913
Myths of the Hindus & Buddhists, London : George G. Harrap & Co., 1913
Notes of some wanderings with the Swami Vivekananda, 1913
Footfalls of Indian History, Longmans, Green & Co., 1915
Religion and Dharma, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915
Civic & national ideals. Udbodhan Office. 1929.
A newly annotated edition of The Ancient Abbey of Ajanta, that was serialised in The Modern Review during 1910 and 1911, was published in 2009 by Lalmati, Kolkata, with annotations, additions and photographs by Prasenjit Dasgupta and Soumen Paul. Another collection of essay's relating to Buddhism has been published by New Age Publishers of Kolkata titled Studies in Buddhism, that has been compiled and annotated by Prasenjit Dasgupta and Soumen Paul.Volume 1: The Master as I Saw Him; Notes of Some Wanderings; Kedar Nath and Bhadri Narayan; Kali the Mother. ISBN 978-81-8040-458-0
Volume 2: The Web of Indian Life; An Indian Study of Love and Death; Studies from an Eastern Home; Lectures and Articles. ASIN B003XGBYHG
Volume 3: Indian Art; Cradle Tales of Hinduism; Religion and Dharma; Aggressive Hinduism. ISBN 978-1-177-78247-0
Volume 4: Footfalls of Indian History; Civic Ideal and Indian Nationality; Hints on National Education in India; Lambs Among Wolves. ASIN B0010HSR48
Volume 5: On Education; On Hindu Life, Thought and Religion; On Political, Economic and Social Problems; Biographical Sketches and Reviews. ASIN B0000D5LXI