By Sister Gayatriprana

Sister Nivedita

Sister Nivedita

Ireland is a country that, like India, was dominated by foreign power for nearly a thousand years. Its sons and daughters struggled for long to get their political freedom and in the last few centuries the saying Erinn go bragh- Ireland for ever! became a rallying cry, somewhat like the Vande Mataram or Hail, Mother India of India. Irish culture is very ancient, with strong affinities with the culture of the Vedas, and its language is one of the European languages most akin to Sanskrit; but it has suffered terribly from foreign domination and only got partial freedom after the First World War. As Vivekananda never tired of pointing out, any culture deprived of its freedom loses vitality, direction, and purpose; this was true of India and, sadly, of Ireland also. But for the last hundred years the Irish have made determined efforts to revive their dying language, research their rich cultural heritage, and build up their economy into what has been called the Celtic Tiger. They even produced a forbear of our present American President, a Mr. O’bama!

But the country has suffered terribly, and everywhere you turn there are memorials to Irish people slain in cold blood, either by the British or by factions of their own. Old sectarian and ethnic tensions still surge below the surface, and only the other day broke out in violence once again. The country is healing, but slowly. Like India, Ireland was torn into two separate political entities: the fully independent Republic of Ireland and Ulster, the northern part of the country still loyal to the British. The tendency is to look back to the old “troubles” in a rather bleak and hopeless way. Erinn go bragh is still “sicklied oe’r with the pale cast of thought”, while Ireland undergoes tremendous austerities brought about by the global financial collapse.

Out of this unpromising background Jean McGuinness came into my life last year. I was introduced to her by a mutual friend who informed me that Jean wanted to know all she could about Margaret Noble. Being a rowdy Celt myself and a passionate admirer of her whom we Vedantists call Sister Nivedita, I was delighted to connect with Jean, particularly when I heard her story. Jean had taught in the nursing school at The Queen’s College, Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, and had taken early retirement in order to study the Irish language. The degree she was taking required her to write an essay in Irish Gaelic, but she had been wondering just quite on what subject. After quite a lot of non-productive Googling, she was walking down the main street of Dungannon, her hometown, when something caught her eye. It was a white and blue plaque that Jean was certain had not been there before.

Sister Nivedita: Ulster Historical Circle plaque

Sister Nivedita: Ulster Historical Circle plaque

“Who,” thought Jean, “was Margaret Noble, and why was a plaque like this put up in tiny Dungannon—and by the Ulster History Circle, no less?” It did not take her long to get in touch with Mr. Maurice Hayes, the gentleman whose researches into the notables from Tyrone (the county in which Dungannon is located) had led him to have the plaque installed.

As soon as Jean heard even the bare outlines of Margaret’s life, she was hooked. Margaret would be the subject of her essay in Irish! Soon she was immersed in all the biographies she could find, Margaret’s writings, photos of her, and the learned monographs that are beginning to appear on a woman who for nearly a century has been all but unknown in the West. But Jean also wanted to speak with someone from the same Indian tradition that Margaret had dedicated her life to, and thus my introduction to her. Within a few months I was in Ireland, listening to Jean’s ambitions to make Margaret better known to the townspeople of Dungannon, who were still in ignorance of their illustrious native daughter. Should we have a public conference, perhaps a play, a tour of the place where the glorious Margaret/Nivedita had spent the formative years of her life? Always an enthusiast for Nivedita, I encouraged Jean in all of her dreams, even though she hesitated to take the initiative. What would the locals—staunch Protestants and Catholics—think of an Irish girl who became a Hindu nun? Did it count that her work had been outside of Ireland, not within it? After long discussions, Jean decided to tackle the proposed project in incremental steps: speaking to the city council, the travel bureau, the schools, local clubs, and all other organizations that would listen to her.

I left her to it and got on with my life. Then, early this year Jean sent me an amazing clipping from the Tyrone Times, which announced that Nivedita had been voted by the people of Tyrone “Tyrone’s most inspirational person ever.” From a shortlist of fifty distinguished Tyroneans Margaret had been voted first, followed closely by Thomas Clarke, her Dungannon contemporary who had fought so valiantly for Irish independence. The writer of the article remarked, “As befitting a town renowned for fostering civil rights and revolution, the competition came down to a tug-of-war between two political figures who have been described respectively as “the mother of a nation” and “the father of a nation.” Dungannon had gone ahead and anointed Margaret “Tyrone’s answer to Mother Teresa”, a pretty remarkable epithet, reflecting Tyrone’s pride in their native daughter. The same article gave a short history of Margaret’s career and announced that there would be a three-day event in Dungannon marking the centenary of her passing in 1911. Jean had done her homework and the event was soon going to be a reality!

So I found myself in Dungannon at the end of May participating in a celebration of Margaret/Nivedita, to some extent wondering just how she would be portrayed. Would her political prowess and achievements hold the attention of her Irish compatriots, or would the Indian culture also shine through? To my surprise the first speaker was Malachi O’Doherty, a local writer, broadcaster and a lecturer at The Queen’s College, Belfast, whose subject was “The Disciple.” Malachi had spent five years in an ashram in Kolkata and spoke with feeling about the ambience of the Ganges, as also the stresses and strains of adjusting to India, and in particular to the traditional guru, steeped in a culture so totally different from his own. This was an intensely personal talk and left a very deep impression in my own mind as to how some aspects of India might have struck Nivedita when she first encountered them.

Then came Professor Murdo Macdonald of the University of Dundee in Scotland. Professor Macdonald’s subject is Celtic art, and one of his interests is the life and work of the great Scottish thinker Patrick Geddes, with whom Nivedita worked for a year. Geddes, later one of the international pioneers of contemporary town planning, had had the highest opinion of Nivedita’s intelligence and abilities and had shared with her his enthusiasm for the idea that art and culture are very closely tied to geography. She had gone out and inspired the artists of Bengal to begin the modernization of Indian art, at the same time rooting it in its very own cultural milieu, entirely free of the Europeanism that had previously been foisted upon it. Thus she gained the devoted appreciation of the great Calcutta school of artists and of Ananda Coomaraswamy, the internationally known authority on Indian art who had edited, after her death, her great work on Art of the Hindus and Buddhists.

During lunch I spoke with Professor Macdonald and learned from him the other contacts Nivedita had had with the progressive thinkers of Europe. As he spoke I realized that there was practically no major thinker she had not known and been appreciated by. This is an aspect of Nivedita that our own tradition has neglected to emphasize, and I urged the professor to write a book tying all of this information together. This woman was a radical and inspired thinker, whose influence on world thought is only now beginning to be recognized. In our own literature she naturally takes her place in relationship to Vivekananda; but her influence in the West has been much greater than I at least had appreciated.

The third speaker was Doctor Malcolm Sen, an Indian native who teaches English and Irish literature at the universities of Dublin and Galway. His subject was Margaret Noble, Vedic Asceticism and Indian Nationalism, underscoring the close cultural and political ties that existed and still exist between India and Ireland. These provided for Nivedita links and precedents which she employed in her far-reaching cultural and political work in India, in effect bringing Indian culture back to life and infusing in the nation a sense of its political unity, all in the spirit of the Vedas, texts cognate with the old pre-Christian Irish spiritual tradition.

The following day we were taken on a tour of Dungannon, a tiny town, of which every paving stone seemed steeped in the history of Ireland’s struggle for freedom. I understood why the town is recognized as a leader in civil rights and revolution—and why Nivedita, taken to India by Vivekananda primarily to further women’s education, inexorably found herself drawn into the struggle for freedom of a people who up till then had had no inkling of nationhood or national unity. This insight tied right in with my own talk that evening at the quaint Craic Theater, where Jean’s dramatization of Nivedita’s life was to take place. Sitting in the dim light of the foyer where refreshments were being served, I spoke of how difficult it was for Nivedita, a humanistic, democratic, independent-thinking, modern woman on fire with the need for the freedom of both Ireland and India, to work with the massive passivity and self-satisfaction of Mother India’s millennial culture which at times seemed about to snuff her out forever. Quoting from her letters I dwelt on her struggle to undertake her heroic call to India to awake, her creation of the national thunderbolt flag, her inspiring example to India’s men as well as women to develop their talents—in art, in politics, literature, and science—and put them behind the effort to revitalize their culture and raise their nation politically, through the energy of the Divine Feminine. I also mentioned Sarada Devi, who had silently and unwaveringly stood behind her beloved Khooki (Little Girl, her pet name for Nivedita), and given her the support to keep going. As I spoke I could feel a rising tide of emotion around me. It may have had to do with the feelings of the Irish themselves in relation to their own, long, bloody struggle; but whatever it was, as soon as I finished speaking I found myself almost lifted off the ground by the crowd surging round me in appreciation.

This was the crowd who had come to see Jean’s play, “Awakening a Nation,” put on by the local talent. It was a different group than the day before, when the mayor and other dignitaries and scholars were present. It looked like most of the citizens of Dungannon had turned out, including “the boys” who provided traditional, foot-tapping music in the local pub. The play had aroused tremendous expectation, and I must say we were not disappointed. Starting out with Jean herself seeking for a subject for her paper on her computer, it quickly took us to a scene where Nivedita kneels at the feet of Vivekananda, speaking to her the words of his letter of June 7th, 1896:

Nivedita kneeling ar Vivekananda's feet

Nivedita kneeling ar Vivekananda's feet

My ideal indeed can be put into a few words and that is: to preach unto mankind their divinity, and how to make it manifest in every moment of life.

This world is in chains of superstition. I pity the oppressed, whether man or woman, and I pity more the oppressors. One idea I see as clear as daylight is that misery is caused by ignorance and nothing else. Who will give the world light? Sacrifice in the past has been the law, it will be, alas, for ages to come. The earth’s bravest and best will have to sacrifice themselves for the good of many, for the welfare of all. Buddhas by the hundred are necessary with eternal love and pity.Religions of the world have become lifeless mockeries. What the world wants is character. The world is in need of those whose life is one burning love, selfless. That word will make every word tell like a thunderbolt.

It is no superstition with you, I am sure; you have the making in you of a world-mover, and others will also come. Bold words and bolder deeds are what we want.

Awake, awake great ones! The world is burning with misery. Can you sleep? Let us call and call till the sleeping gods awake, till the god within answers to the call. What more is in life? What greater work?” (Complete Works, Vol. 7, p. 498)

If I had had any doubts as to how Nivedita was going to be presented, this very powerful and beautifully delivered meditation removed them completely. Jean had selected a pen portrait of Nivedita that only Vivekananda could have given; and this wonderful beginning suffused the whole play.

Nivedita's service during the plague

Nivedita's service during the plague

From there we went to Nivedita’s study in Kolkata and we were launched into a reconstruction of her life in her own words. In addition to the live action onstage there was a large back screen on which contemporary images were projected. In one moving scene we see her fanning a child dying of plague, with contemporary images of just how horrible the plague was projected behind her:

We then see Nivedita working with Aurobindo to resist British tyranny, and after a period of interior struggle, herself launching out on her international lecture tour. As her fiery words pour forth in America, England, France, symbols of each country appear behind her. Once again, Jean’s choice of materials is stunning, and we suddenly realize just what a force Nivedita was for change, although she met with so much opposition and obstruction, both in India and in the West.

Then we see her sick and unable to do her work, followed by the final scene where her bier is carried in, laid down with reverence and covered with greens, while two loyal Indian men stand at her feet. We hear the voice of Rabindranath Tagore speaking out his final eulogy of a woman he called the ‘Mother of the people’:

He who has seen her has seen the essential form of man, the form of the spirit. It is a piece of great good fortune to be able to see how the inner being of man reveals itself with unobstructed and undiminished energy and effulgence, nullifying the obstruction of all outer material coatings or impediments. We have been witnesses to that unconquered nobility of man in Sister Nivedita. The respect with which she would greet some ordinary Mussalman woman dwelling in a hut in a village is not possible for an ordinary individual; for the vision that enables one to see the greatness of humanity in a humble individual is a very uncommon gift. It was because this vision was so natural to her that she did not lose her respect for India, in spite of the nearness of her life to the life of the people of India for so long a time. She is to be respected not because she was a Hindu but because she was great. She is to be honored not because she was like us, but because she was greater than we.

As these soaring words are spoken with the utmost gravity and feeling, images of Margaret’s life appear behind her bier, slowly moving from Ireland to India; from there to the Himalayan peaks and finally up into the endlessly moving clouds above the Himalayas. There was pindrop silence, broken every once in a while by suppressed sobbing. It was clear that the life of this glorious daughter of Dungannon had caught the imagination and heartstrings of her countrymen and women. And when the lights went on, the audience rose to its feet and burst out into joyous exultation. She was one of us! This is what our Ireland can produce! In the words of Dungannon’s mayor, Nivedita demonstrated “the power of selfless sacrifice and how it is possible to change society through individual efforts.”

Time will tell just how much Nivedita impacts her native land and helps to move it forward, as she moved India forward. But for now, what became apparent was that the events of that weekend in May were a pretty impressive testimonial for a woman who was all but unknown last year. And now there will be a repeat performance of the play at the Craic Theater, a confirmed engagement at the Samuel Beckett Theater at Trinity College, Dublin, and a planned documentary and a couple of interviews with RTE, Ireland’s equivalent of the BBC. Other inquiries are coming in from Belfast and Donegal, but nothing confirmed as yet.

Standing in awe of the power of the spirit and the effectiveness of Irish women, I can only say Nivedita go bragh! Jean go bragh! Erinn go bragh!


SISTER GAYATRIPRANA is a writer on Vivekananda Vedanta, with a background in the neurosciences. Formerly a monastic member of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, she retired to Santa Fe, NM.