Friday, 2 March 2018

Indian Women in the Letters of Sister Nivedita - 1

यतो धर्म: ततो जय:

Indian Women in the Letters of Sister Nivedita


- Dr Suruchi Pande

Letters of sister nivedita give us a different experience of her brilliant observations and sensitivity. Her unique style of documentation is a typical characteristic feature of her British upbringing. Her notes and readings on Indian women and women's education from various strata provide us important social aspects. She has referred to Sarala Ghoshal, Abala Basu, Ms Sorabji, Ramabai, and many other lay as well as prominent women of that time. I have tried to restrict myself to some references related to her work, inner development, and women with whom she had a close acquaintance as reflected in her letters. Here I have selected some of her letters and I have referred to the two volumes of Letters of Sister Nivedita.

She was perfectly aware of constructive aspects of Indian women, their values and she also felt the necessity to have a great spread of education. She understood that there was a need of having trained nurses.

It is important and interesting to note that Sister Nivedita is beautifully independent in her thinking and she is extremely frank in her opinions. She was initiated to develop and establish the idea of a monastery for Hindu nuns. She was a hardcore and down to earth karmayogini who disapproved hypocrisy. In one of her letters to Miss J Macleod, dated 8 December 1904, she wrote:

"I have just been having a long argument with a boy—oh Yum!—if you only knew how the contempt for secular life and activity has eaten into the heart of this people! If you only knew how spiritual vanity leads them into thinking that a great aspiration is greatness, instead of vigorously exacting from themselves the toll of work and self-sacrifice at every inch of the road! A man who wears the Sannyasin's grab will speak of a man far greater and braver than himself, with contempt, merely because he is not a Sannyasin.

And yet I dare not trust altogether to myself and my own judgment, for you know Swamiji was generally down on me about something or other—and yet perhaps He only wanted to force me into working out my own way, with a whole heart—and indeed I can work no other! (2.702)."

Sister Nivedita on Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi

Sister Nivedita developed a special relation with Sri Sarada Devi. And Swami Vivekananda was particularly happy for that because acceptance of his foreign friends and disciples by Holy Mother was a sign of great social significance. Nivedita has sent the detailed sketch of Holy Mother to Mrs Eric Hammond—Nell—in her letter dated 22 May 1898. She writes:

"I have often thought that I ought to tell you the lady who was the Wife of Sri Ramakrishna, Sarada as her name is. To begin with, she is dressed in a white cotton cloth like any other Hindu widow under 50. This cloth goes round the waist and forms a skirt, then it passes round the body and over the head like a nun's veil. When a man speaks to her, he stands behind her, and she pulls this white veil very far forward over her face. Nor does she answer him directly. She speaks to another and older woman in almost a whisper, and this woman repeats her words to the man. In this way it comes about that the Master [Vivekananda] has never seen the face of Sarada! Added to this, you must try to imagine her always seated on the floor, on small piece of bamboo matting. All this does not sound very sensible perhaps, yet this woman, when you know her well, is said to be the very soul of practicality and common-sense, as she certainly gives every token of being, to those who know her slightly. Sri Ramakrishna always consulted her before undertaking anything and her advice is always acted upon by his disciples. She is the very soul of sweetness—so gentle and loving and as merry as a girl. You should have heard her laugh the other day when I insisted that the Swami must come up and see us at once, or we would go home. The monk who had brought the message that the Master would delay seeing us was quite alarmed at my moving towards my shoes, and departed post haste to bring him up, and then you should have heard Sarada's laughter! It just pealed out. And she is so tender—'my daughter' she calls me. She has always been terribly orthodox, but all this melted away the instant she saw the first two Westerns—Mrs. Bull and Miss Macleod, and she tasted food with them! Fruit is always presented to us immediately, and this was naturally offered to her, and she to the surprise of everyone accepted. This gave us all a dignity and made my future work possible in a way nothing else could possibly have done. Isn't' it funny? The best proof I can give you of her real greatness is that she is always attended when in Culcutta by 14 or 15 high caste ladies, who would be rebellious and quarrelsome and give infinite trouble to everyone if she by her wonderful tact and winsomeness did not keep perpetual peace. There is no foundation for this statement in the character of these ladies. It is only my inference about women in general."

Then you should see the chivalrous feeling that the monks have for her. They always call her 'Mother' and speak of her as 'The Holy Mother'—and she is literally their first thought in every emergency. There are always one or two in attendance on her, and whatever her wish is, it is their command. It is a wonderful relationship to watch. I should love to give her a message from you, if you care to send to her one. A monk read the Magnificat in Bengali to her one day for me, and you should have seen how she enjoyed it. She really is, under the simplest, most unassuming guise, one of the strongest and greatest of women (1.9–10).

To Be Continued.............