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Mainstream, VOL LV No 48 New Delhi November 18, 2017

Nivedita as an Incredible Educationist - Patriot

Sunday 19 November 2017

by Samit Kar

Swami Vivekananda came in contact with Margaret Elizabeth Nobel for the first time in November 1895 in the latter’s friend’s residence in London. He was then in the midst of a world- wide tour to garner morality and financial support to establish the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission as wished by Sarada Devi, the wife of the Ramakrishna Deva. Vivekananda became a well-known figure in many parts of the world since his famous oration in the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in September 1893. There can be no denial that the Ramakrishna Mission was a devout religio-social organisation expressing deep faith in incessant service to humanity following the principles of Hinduism. He also personally believed, Hinduism as a religion is head and shoulders above all the religions of the world. But there was also no denial that Hinduism faced the worst brunt during the 18th and 19th century in Bengal in particular and India in general under the fiat of Brahminical orthodoxy in league with a section of the British adminis-trators. The Master, Ramakrishna Deva, and his devoted disciple, Vivekananda, were immensely pained to see the deplorable status of Hinduism then facing large scale exodus to Christianity precceded by conversion to Islam. The Rama-krishna Mission movement began to assume the proportion of a social reform movement to cure and allay the aberrations inflicting Hinduism during this period.

The objective of the Ramakrishna Mission under the magical inspiration and wise teachings of Ramakrishna Deva in a language true to the understanding of a large number of commoners and the inspirational role of Vivekananda as a superb organiser enabled the organisation to grow in leaps and bounds across the world. The organisation was established on May 1, 1897 and apart from preaching the glorious role of spiritualism, it also adopted certain laudable roles like spreading education, deliverance of health care and social welfare for the downtrodden, poor villagers and members of the depressed castes. The spread of education became one of the important roles of the Rama-krishna Mission and Vivekananda used to say repeatedly, “man-making is my mission through education”.

When Vivekananda introduced himself before the largely attended World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, he said: “I am a Hindoo Monk from India.” However, it needs to be remembered that he expressed his strong reservation to what was then going on in the name of Hinduism in India. He became so annoyed with Hinduism that he chose to become a member of the Brahmo Samaj which also emerged as a social reform movement against Hinduism under the leadership of Raja Ram- mohan Roy, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, Keshab Chandra Sen and other great social philosophers and humanists par excellence. When Vivekananda was undergoing a world- wide tour to collect allround support to build the Ramakrishna Mission, he was also carrying in his heart a burning flame to liberate his Motherland from the yoke of British colonialism. The philosophy of Vedanta and the teachings of Ramakrishna Deva lay central to his heart and his penchant to establish the Ramakrishna Mission on the western bank of River Hooghly at a place called Belur in Howrah district in West Bengal became his life’s most sought-after mission. But at the same time he used to cultivate his life-long obsession to liberate his motherland, if necessary even by means of violence and the fiery path. When he could meet Margaret for the first time, Vivekananda made a passionate and mesmerising speech on the cardinal imperatives of Vedanta, the deep-sighted teachings of Rama-krishna Deva and the relevance of establishing the international centre of the Ramakrishna Mission at Belur, later known as the Belur Math. But he also mentioned that everything can wait for the time being but the freedom of his beloved motherland cannot. This was his first and foremost task, which needed to be accomplished without delay. There is a common saying: Love at first sight. The same seems to be very apt to decipher the love between the Master and the Sister which began to snowball with the passage of time.

Vivekananda believed that religion should provide an incessant service to humanity and the Ramakrishna Mission should never budge from this mission. Thus, it would be critically wrong to consider him as an average Hindu Sanyasin. His devotion to the cause of humanity was always exemplary and his commitment to educate the Indian masses, especially Indian women, was indeed beyond comparison. His tremendous attraction to Margaret from the moment he could see her might be due to her equally deepest possible commitment towards the spread of education, especially education of the tiny tots. Margaret set up a primary educational centre at Wimbledon, about 40 kms from London, and developed wonderful techniques of teaching. She used to watch the activities of the toddlers without letting them know that all their activities were discreetly observed by her in order to carefully assess their intrinsic potential. This gave her a far- reaching insight regarding their potential in order to assume what future occupation a child should adopt. Margaret used to provide clay, balls, coloured threads, strings etc. by following the methods of teaching propounded by Maria Montessori and Froebel. In this way Margaret imparted a unique and new method of teaching —the Playway to educate the greenhorns. There was no pressure, no hard and fast imposition and no scope to set up a syllabus-based teaching leading to a very unhealthy practice of ill-educated parenting, these days known as ‘helicopter parenting’.

The British Government has recently announced to comemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Margaret Elizabeth Nobel who later became known as Sister Nivedita as Vivekananda christened her so on March 25, 1898 subsequent to her arrival in then Calcutta on January 24 of the same year. The British Government decided to provide a face-lift to the school where Margaret used to teach the children with her unique improvised techniques at Wimbledon that later bacame the nuts and bolts of Montessori teaching. Vivekananda became more glued to Margaret when he could find out her uncanny ability as a teacher. He was further attracted when he could ascertain that Margaret was intimately connected with the activities of the Irish revolutionaries who were then fighting a similar battle like the Indians against the British Government to demand their national independence. She was also a hard-core member of the British Labour Party. There is indeed a very strong debate whether Margaret arrived in India due to repeated pleas of Vivekananda or for the sake of organising the Indian masses as widespread discontent was then brewing in various parts of the world against the grave crisis of capitalism leading to the outbreak of World War I since 1914. There is also a huge debate whether Vivekananda’s appeal to Margaret to come and contribute to India to spread female education was actually to hoodwink the British Police and the colonial administrators as both of them were hand in glove to organise a mass revolt against the British Government.

The spread of education in every country is the most important endeavour in the making of a nation. Without education, human develop-ment is impossible, let alone the rise of mass revolt in an educationally backward nation like India. Thus, Vivekananda in his different letters written to Margaret used to stress on the relevance to spread education in India and the daunting spirit in her descrbing her as a ‘lioness’. The need of a lioness, as written by Vivekananda, does provide a semblance of intuition that he was perhaps more eager to see her lend the push-factor to the cause of mass revolt apart from playing the role of a passionate teacher. Vivekananda made necessary arrangements to begin Margaret’s effort to serve as a school teacher in then Calcutta. The school building housed at 16A Bosepara Lane at Bagbazar in North Calcutta was inaugurated by Sarada Devi in the presence of Vivekananda on the auspicious day of Kali Puja in 1898. Margaret, who by then became known as Bhagini Nivedita, went door to door to enroll girl students for her school. But during the days of 19th century Bengal, education to the girls was possibly a nightmare instead of a rosy dream. Therefore, she could get a very lukewarm response from the then Bengali society and some even began to see her activities with utter suspicion. But there could be hardly any doubt that Nivedita’s concern for spreading girls’ education was indeed genuine and she soon became a die-hard patriot—prepared even to sacrifice her invalu-able neck to attain the freedom of India whom she called her mother-land. No foreigner, irrespective of gender, could be compared to her for her continuous craving for freedom of her motherland.

Vivekananda, after writing a series of letters, wrote the final letter of invitation to Margaret on July 29, 1897, three months after the establish-ment of the Belur Math. She reciprocated positively and reached the Budge Budge sea port on January 24, 1898. Vivekananda went there to welcome her. Margaret began her role as a school teacher and started to collect as many girl students as possible despite facing resistance from the conservative Bengalis.

Her contribution as a primary school teacher at Wimbledon was indeed memorable and she could be described as one of the harbingers of the Montessori education system. She had deep love and compassion for the children and was known to have a very sensitive mind. But in India, her passion as a school teacher was found to be short-lived and soon she became actively involved with Indian politics. There was hardly any nationalist leader bearing national stature who did not visit her residence and she soon became a centre of attraction in the realm of Indian politics. Doctor Bhupendra Nath Dutt, the younger brother of Vivekananda, wrote in his Swami Vivekananda: Patriot Prophet (1957) that the latter had little faith in peaceful democratic movement towards the ouster of British rule in India and was actively considering to join secret militant societies for this purpose. Nivedita followed suit since March 1902 after her return from Europe and instead of an educationist, she became fully devoted to Indian politics to attain freedom of her motherland. She even contested Vivekananda’s concept of man-making through education and instead said: “The eradication of the British rule should be the first priority as nothing could be gained through the spread of education made by the faulty policy of the colonialists. Thus, their removal has to be our primary concern instead of spreading a wrong educational system which can do no good to my motherland.”

It is therefore surprising as to why the British Government has decided to observe the 150th birth anniversary of Sister Nivedita (1867-1911) in the wake of the beginning of her 151st Birth Anniversary, which fell on October 28, 2017. Surprisingly enough, the Ramakrishna Mission too decided to do so. Nivedita’s love and concern for a new approach to primary education is indeed laudable. But her daunting contribution as an incredible Indian patriot and her inherent hatred towards British colonialism while in Ireland and India remains unforgettable in our memory lane. The British Government will highlight her contribution as a primary educator. But would she be ever glorified as an outstanding patriot and an Indian nationalist par excellence?

The colonial interpretation of History is perhaps the biggest impediment to Enlighten-ment and the spread of knowledge without bias and prejudice. Who can disagree that the British had always played the spoilsport to hoodwink the world ever since modern human civilisation spread its tentacles to subvert people across the world? The assessment of Nivedita’s illumi-nating contribution would never be well known due to British machinations. She will be glorified from a reductionist viewpoint instead of pursuing a holistic view.

The author was in the Sociology Faculty in Presidency College, Kolkata.

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