Saturday 11 November 2017

Article : A tribute to Sister Nivedita (Part 1)

यतो धर्म: ततो जय:

As we inch towards Sister Nivedita's 150th birth anniversary, one would do well to recognise, re-evaluate her life and work and to rekindle a deeper and wider interest in her. That would, in a sense, be a tribute of gratefulness to her as Lokmata

The Sahitya Akademi award for literary excellence in the Bengali language in 1978 went to Sankari Prasad Basu (1928-2014) for his multi-volume opus on Swami Vivekananda's life and times — Vivekananda O Samakalin Bharatbarsha. In each of the seven volumes Basu, primarily a professor of literature in the University of Calcutta, poured a wealth of information hitherto unknown, on the various dimension of the Swami's life. After an exhausting and often lonely research trudge — lightened only by the labour and kindness of the monks of the Ramakrishna Mission and a large number of ordinary people who were driven to action whenever told that this unassuming professor of literature was in fact 'Swamiji's' biographer and was travelling the length and breadth of the country to unravel and discover all possible documents and leads that could shed more light on the master himself.

Once the volumes began appearing, they created a wave in Bengal and in the Bengali literary circles, generating not only a great interest in the Swami's life but also giving rise to a multi-dimensional debate on the various angles and interpretations that the author made. Yet, Basu's opus was never translated into other Indian languages or into English so that it could reach a larger audience both at home and abroad. Even on his death, Basu was largely forgotten by Akademi stalwarts, despite making such a seminal and epochal contribution to India's cultural history. He was not, as they say, well-connected and rarely cared to visit the hallowed zones of the national capital and never bothered to kowtow to political power and prestige. Moreover Basu refrained or rather could not sing paeans to the political masters and thus could not ingratiate or enrich himself in any way.

But Basu per se is not the object of discussion in this column; rather it is the principal personalities around whom his work and life revolved. Apart from writing a detailed multi-volume biography of Vivekananda, Basu's another lasting contribution, and one which continues to remain unparalleled, was his multi-volume biography of Sister Nivedita (1867-1911) — Nivedita Lokmata — which immortalised in much greater detail than Lizelle Raymond did — Nivedita's life and contribution to India's quest for self-expression — cultural, educational and political.

In fact, had it not been for Basu and later for Pravrajika Atmaprana, the story of the Lokmata — one who had inspired scores of Indian leaders from the Lokmanya to the Deshbandhu, to Sri Aurobindo and Gurudev — would have remained untold, unrecorded and forgotten. It was Rabindranath Tagore who conferred the epithet of 'Lokmata' on Nivedita and Basu picked it up and immortalised it in his four volume biography of this Irish catholic turned Hindu, disciple of Swami Vivekananda.

But unfortunately, as is the habit with a class of our intellectuals and institutions they control — Nivedita's contribution to the creation of the "idea of India", or her corpus of work on as varied and intricate subjects as cultural history, education, civic nationalism, cleanliness, women education and empowerment, art, historiography, religious and dharmic debates, Swadeshi and much more remain largely unexplored or unfathomed.

It is unknown, for example, that in 1906, it was she who designed a prototype of the national flag with the 'vajra' at the centre and wrote a detailed exposition of the centrality and power of that symbol both in Hinduism and Buddhism. Her significance for the 'vajra' was striking: "The selfless man is the thunderbolt" for national action. It was that lighting like selflessness which needed to be cultivated among workers of Indian freedom. Nivedita herself often embodied that thunder-like presence, imbued from her master — her father as she often called Swami Vivekananda.

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