Sister Nivedita (1867–1911), “the offered one to God”, is a personification of empathy and spirituality who eternally lives in the soul of India. As Margaret Elizabeth Noble, she responded to Swami Vivekananda’s call, travelled to India, leaving behind her friends and family, including her mother, and reached Calcutta on 28th January 1898. Earlier Swami Vivekananda had written to her, “let me tell you frankly that I am now convinced that you have a great future in the work for India. What was wanted was not a man but a woman, a real lioness, to work for the Indians, women especially.” Later, he introduced her saying “England has sent us another gift in Miss Margaret Noble”
Margaret, though an accomplished teacher, a prolific writer and a soul that was devoted to learning, enriching others with her transformative brilliance, yet she felt a void in her heart, an unquenched yearning for the Light. It was at this juncture that Swami Vivekananda illumined her to become “the Dedicated one to God”. His message to her after her initiation was simple “Go thou and follow Him who was born and gave His life for others”.
Margaret’s father, who was a pastor, had taught her that service to humankind is true service to God. She imbibed this golden rule stating that our soul’s spiritual salvation is through fearless, indefatigable, self-forgetful service of fellow human beings. To labour is to pray, to conquer is to renounce, and the future of the earth depends upon the change in human consciousness. She became a pioneer in the field of educating women at a time and in a society where it was considered taboo, perhaps sacrilege even; but also, as a human applying the balm of empathy on the sick and the distressed.
The watershed moments in her life were serving humanity during the plague outbreak of Calcutta in 1899, and the great East Bengal famine of 1906, when she risked her own life to treat patients. After this she contracted a severe form of malaria that eventually took her life on 13th October 1911, at the young age of 44. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (Jn 15:13).
Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri says that, “All in her pointed to a nobler kind…A wide self-giving was her native act”. The revolutionary Tamil patriot-poet Subramania Bharati (1882-1921) in his tribute wrote of her as the “Sun dispelling my soul’s darkness, Rain to the parched land of our lives, Helper of the helpless, Offering of Grace, Destructive fire to the evil in men”. Mother Sarada Devi, who embraced Sr. Nivedita as “khooki” or “little girl” in Bengali, on the death of Sr. Nivedita said, “All creatures cry for a great soul”. The epitaph inscribed on her grave says, “Here reposes Sr. Nivedita who gave her ALL to India”.
The author is Research Director, Environmental Scientist, and Professor at St. Joseph’s University, Bengaluru.