Hinduism Sister Nivedita
by
Amiya P. Sen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0242

Introduction

Sister Nivedita (born Margaret Elizabeth Noble) remains as debated a figure in the history of colonial Hinduism as her guru, Swami Vivekananda (b. 1863–d. 1902). In several ways, she represented the going forward and amplification of some of the most cherished desires and goals of the Swami himself. Arguably, her thoughts and deeds extended the early Orientalist interest in India, albeit with the difference that these were more apologetic in tone than marked by a sense of exciting discovery. In essence, Nivedita’s writings and speeches, as those of Vivekananda, represent a somewhat combative counter-aggression to the moral and intellectual challenges that the contemporary West had earlier thrown to the Hindu mind. “Nivedita,” literally meaning “the dedicated,” was a name conferred upon her by her guru and came to represent more a life committed to the service of India and Indians than some spiritual consecration. Swami Vivekananda thought poorly of her spiritual potentialities and declined to ordain her as a fully consecrated sanyasini. Nivedita herself had little to do with an ascetic life, plunging instead into invigorating social and secular work. An aesthetic rather than an ascetic temperament better defines her. The Sister took renunciation to combine self-control and a sense of civic responsibility and interpreted the Hindu term mukti not so much as the quest for personal salvation as celebrating the larger sense of human freedom. Beginning with 1895 when she first met Vivekananda, Nivedita served the Swami as a close companion and coworker, actively pursuing projects that he had launched, closely observing the unfolding of contemporary Indian life and its attendant problems. To her guru’s memory she remained intensely faithful, even as she carried within herself subdued elements of disagreement and defiance. Sister Nivedita saw herself as the rightful interpreter for the West in India and for India in the West. When in India, she worked tirelessly for the cause of Indian women, promoting India’s artistic and aesthetic traditions, creatively reinterpreting the substance of Hindu mythology and religion, and recovering India’s lost “manhood,” but above all, seeking to encourage a deep sense of bonding among Indians themselves. For Nivedita, India was quintessentially Hindu and yet conceptually indivisible. To this end she was even prepared to underplay obvious differences and divergences. Though sometimes accused of being impulsive, excessively idealistic, and intolerant, Nivedita was also self-effacing in character. In her time, few non-Indians were known to have loved and idealized India and Indians as much she did.

General Overviews

Any overview of Nivedita’s life and work must begin with the existing biographical literature, of which there is now plenty. Evidently, scholars who can read Bengali will be more advantageously placed since they can profitably consult a range of works in that language that has consistently been produced since the early 20th century. In some instances, Bengali biographies have also substantively differed in treatment from those produced in European languages. This section on biographical literature includes contributions from insider figures which were formally associated with the woman’s wing of the Ramakrishna Order known as the Sarada Mission, named after Sarada Devi, the widow of Ramakrishna. Muktiprana 2017 is a work of this genre and remains the best short biography to date in the Bengali language. Atmaprana 2014 is an English-language work, which in its professional treatment does not compare favorably with that of Mutktiprana. There have also been significant contributions by lay scholars, as for instance Basu 1999–2012, a monumental, multivolume work but quite uncritical in its tone and treatment. Scholars and researchers still tend to rely heavily on Reymond 2014. Foxe 1975 is relatively unknown but acts as a useful supplement to Reymond. Majumdar 1968 was published as a commemorative volume to mark the Birth Centenary of Nivedita and includes a wide range of scholarly articles. Som 2017 is the latest in a series of competent English-language biographies. Chattopadhyaya 2018 is something of an exception in Nivedita literature on account of its highly dissenting and critical approach to the subject. A relatively less known but useful collection of essays is Mandal 2018, carrying contributions from both monks and lay scholars. Two recent collections of papers on various aspects of Nivedita’s life and work are the special issue of Prabuddha Bharata and Das, et al. 2020. The former is clearly more scholarly and professional in handling Nivedita as a complex subject.

  • Atmaprana, Parivrajika. Sister Nivedita. 7th ed. Kolkata: Sister Nivedita Girls’ School, 2014.

    An early biography in good circulation and the work of an author institutionally associated with the Ramakrishna Sarada movement. Atmaprana did not consult any Bengali-language sources since she did not know the language. This proved to be a disadvantage. Originally published in 1961.

  • Basu, Sankariprasad. Nivedita Lokmata. 4 vols. Kolkata: Ananda, 1999–2012.

    A multivolume and professionally competent work in the Bengali language by a reputed Vivekananda scholar. Though detailed and useful, the work remains uncritically adulatory at places. Vol. 4 is exclusively devoted to the study of Nivedita’s thoughts on Indian art and the art movement. Originally published between 1968 and 1994. Vol. 1 is divided into two parts: Part 1, 5th repr. (1999) and Part 2, 6th repr. (2009); Vol. 2, 2d repr. (2007); Vol. 3, 4th repr. (2012); Vol. 4 carries the title Nivedita O Bharater Shilpa Andolan, 2d reprint (2010).

  • Chattopadhyaya, Rajagopal. The Paper Lioness: Margaret Noble. Kolkata: Banglar Mukh Prakashan, 2018.

    This is the slightly shortened English version of the Bengali original by the name of Kaguje Singhi (2017). A highly critical work that questions popular perceptions about Nivedita’s life and work. Includes rare photographs. One of the rare few scholars to justify the Ramakrishna Mission’s severing ties with Nivedita in 1902.

  • Das, Sanjukta, Parna Das, and Kakoli Sinha Roy, eds. Re-visioning Sister Nivedita. Kolkata: Sampark, 2020.

    A collection of eleven short articles mostly by Kolkata-based teachers and scholars on the literary, social, and political views of Sister Nivedita. A belated commemorative volume marking the 150th birth anniversary of Nivedita. The essays are quite uneven in quality with visibly inadequate editorial intervention at places.

  • Foxe, Barbara. Long Journey Home: A Biography of Margaret Noble (Nivedita). London: Rider, 1975.

    A biography of Nivedita that followed about two decades after the pioneering work Reymond 2014 and complementing it in some ways. The work succeeds in bringing out certain unsavory sides to Nivedita’s character. Not very popular as a biography and did not go into an Indian edition.

  • Majumdar, Amiya Kumar, ed. Nivedita Commemoration Volume. Calcutta: Nivedita Janmotsav Samiti, 1968.

    A useful collection of scholarly articles, though of somewhat uneven quality, brought out on the occasion of the Nivedita birth centenary celebrations. Subsequently reprinted at Kolkata by Advaita Ashram in 2016.

  • Mandal, Harihar Prasad, ed. Bhagini Nivedita: Sardhasata Janmabarshe Shraddhanjali. Purasree Special Issue. Kolkata: Kolkata Corporation, 2018.

    This is a commemorative volume brought out as a part of the Nivedita 150th birth anniversary celebrations and has a good number of articles, reminiscences, poems, and analytical studies. Of particular interest is the section contributed by Sankari Prasad Basu.

  • Muktiprana, Pravrajika. Bhagini Nivedita. 10th ed. Kolkata: Ramakrishna Sarada Mission, 2017.

    Easily the most popular general biography in the Bengali language and the work of an author formally associated with the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission. This is a work that is competent, thorough, and objective. Originally published in 1959.

  • Narasimhananda, Swami, ed. Special Issue: Nivedita: Offered to India. Prabuddha Bharata. Edited by 122.1 (January 2017).

    A valuable collection of papers and articles published on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Nivedita. It includes both insider stories and articles of critical scholarship that examine several aspects of Nivedita’s life and work in India and abroad.

  • Reymond, Lizelle. The Dedicated: A Biography of Nivedita. Indian edition. Kolkata: Aruna Prakashan, 2014.

    Reymond’s work remains the best-known and most popular biography in the English language. Translated from the original French by Katherine Woods with research assistance from Jean Herbert. The author knew some people from Vivekananda’s entourage in the West and had access to private papers, which considerably aided her work. Originally published in 1953.

  • Som, Reba. Margot: Sister Nivedita of Vivekananda. Delhi: Penguin Viking, 2017.

    The latest English-language biography of Nivedita. Readable but not very thorough with the use of the entire range of available sources. Lacks a bibliography and a biographical timeline, both of which, if included, would have been useful.

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