Reba Som’s biography of Sister Nivedita comes with a glossy packaging, made more attractive by the ‘Advanced Praise’ by three eminent intellectuals that has been quite conspicuously inscribed at two prominent places in the book. Though never short of public attention in her own time, Nivedita would have been happy to know that her life and work has endured and caused some excitement even after all these years. Other than the Introduction, Som’s biography is spread over six chapters, the first three of which are structured in keeping with Nivedita’s changing perceptions about Swami Vivekananda. This is certainly a new and interesting way of looking at things. Chapters 4 to 6 deal with ways in which Nivedita drew closer to contemporary Indian politics, much to the disapproval of her guru. Also original and interesting is the argument occurring at several places (p. 34, p. 193) that Nivedita’s work or even more generally, her worldview, was vitally shaped by her grooming in the educational theory of the Swiss educationist, Pestalozzi. I am no less happy to find that Som takes up in some seriousness the matter of the vexed relationship between Vivekananda and Nivedita, a theme that has long been kept under covers.
In my own work, upon suggesting that the monk in Vivekananda did feel threatened by the attention from a doting female pupil I met either with accusing remarks or else offended silence.
The inclusion of photographs and sketches have added value to the present volume and I would be remiss if I did not also compliment Penguin on the high production quality. For a book running into nearly 300 pages, it is also very reasonably priced. Som’s work is a well-researched, detailed narrative on Nivedita’s life in India and abroad though there is also good reason to agree with Namita Gokhale’s observation that rather than narrowly focus on Nivedita, it represents ‘a remarkable record of an era and the extraordinary figures that inhabited it’. However, the problem that I have found with this kind of narrative arrangement is that it tends to distract and dissipate the main thrust of an argument. I personally think Som could have done without recurring references to Vivekananda’s own life, especially to the years before meeting Nivedita (pp. 8–14), his solitary correspondence with Sarfaraz Hussain at Nainital
(p. 24) which really had no bearing on contemporary events or reminding us that the Indian National Congress was founded in 1885 (p. 126).
For a historian Reba Som is surprisingly inaccurate with facts. Thus, contrary to her claim, the anti-Sati law was passed in 1829, not 1828 (p. xvii) and technically, the first attempt to regulate (though not very effectively) the Company’s affairs in India would be the Regulating Act of 1773 and not the Pitt’s India Act of 1784 (p. xv). On p. 37, she mistakes Mahendralal Sarkar for Mahendranath Sarkar. On p. 8, whereas she refers to the Indian Mirror as her source, the corresponding citation on p. 256 refers to the ‘English Mirror’. In some cases, thanks also to a somewhat careless copy editor, references are left incomplete. Thus, page numbers are not provided for citation # 9 on p. xxvii and # 51 on p. 97. On p. 22, when our author would have us believe that it was not the woman that Vivekananda dreaded but temptation, she omits to acknowledge the fact that this is actually a remark made by Nivedita herself in The Master as I saw Him. On p. 103, just when Vivekananda shares with Nivedita premonitions of his impending death, the ‘house gecko cried out’. Since the last part of the narrative is not supported by any acknowledged source, one can only imagine that this is the author’s way of dramatizing the episode. It is grossly simplistic to argue (p. xii) that Brahmos were on the side of ‘reform’ and Hindus on the side of ‘revival’. I found two typos on p. 269 (ref. #47) and on p. 270 (ref. # 66).
Contrary to claims made occasionally by Nivedita herself as also our author (p. xxvii), there is some reason to doubt if the Sister formally quit Christianity and ‘embraced ‘Hinduism’. Apart from the fact that she was given a Christian burial about a year after her death in 1911, there is also the letter that she wrote in January 1899 and I quote: ‘Mrs. (Henrietta) Muller severed her connections with Hinduism, returning to Christianity. It was news to me that any of us had left Christianity.’ Writing of Nivedita and her friend Christine Greenstidel, Sri Aurobindo was also to observe how ‘both
were westerners to the core and had nothing at all of the Hindu outlook, although Sister Nivedita, an Irish woman, had the power of penetrating by way of an inclusive sympathy into the ways of the life of the people around her. Her own nature remained non-Oriental to the core.’
Two perplexing statements that Som makes are worth closer scrutiny. First, there is the argument about Nivedita noticing in Vivekananda a ‘transition’ from monism to dualism (p. 17) which, reportedly, led him to worship Hindu divinities like Siva or Sakti. Though there is otherwise ample inconsistency in Vivekananda this is not one of them. Rather, like his guru, Sri Ramakrishna, the Swami held an ecumenical view which took advaita to subsume and represent the ultimate meeting point of all forms of religious faith or worship. Why else, one may ask, would the advaitin Vivekananda also comment on the dualistic Bhakti Yoga? Legend has it that even Acharya Sankara composed devotional verses and the well-known medieval advaitin, Madhavendra Puri, was given to Krishna bhakti. The other point pertains to how, by raising the status of the woman to that of the Divine Mother, Vivekananda would ‘side-step the sexuality of the Feminine Principle’ (p. 31). My reservations on this formulation are two-fold. First, it was not really a matter of raising the status of the woman to that of the Divine Mother as acknowledging her as the Mother’s manifestation, a very different thing. Second, it is not the sexuality of the Female Principle that posed the threat to the male spiritual practitioner but the earthly woman herself whose world he socially shared and inhabited. In any case, the conquest of female sexuality through the act of ‘perceiving’ the mother in every woman (matribhava)
did not originate in Vivekananda. It was something that Sri Ramakrishna himself practised and repeatedly prescribed to his male disciples.
Reba Som faults me in particular for putting Swami Vivekananda in the Hindu revivalist camp (p. 176, Note no. 26). This is not the appropriate platform on which to foist and resume this long-standing debate. But in my defence let me say just two things. First, whether or not Vivekananda was a revivalist depends on just how the term revival is conceptually defined. The revivalist, in my opinion, has to be kept apart from the reactionary. Second, the critique of the term which originated with Professor Tapan Roychowdhury, is apparently based on a misreading of categories. Roychowdhury, as I recall, had alleged that that which was ‘far from dead (Hinduism)’ could not have been revived. Elsewhere, I have responded to this by stating that short of a miracle, it was the ‘dying’ that could be revived, not the dead.
Som’s biography, otherwise informative, richly textured and eminently readable, suffers from the absence of certain features which are common to books of this genre. For one, it lacks a bibliography and a chronology of events, both of which might have been useful to the interested reader. Also, its handling of available sources remains inadequate. I can cite at least three sources which this book ignores but which, if used, would have considerably enriched her work. There is, for instance, the work of Peter Heehs which would have helped her to better place Nivedita within the history of revolutionary movements in colonial Bengal; that of Girijasankar Raychaudhuri who, among other things, notes Nivedita’s unhappiness with the interventions made by monks of the Ramakrishna Order with the daily running of her school and Rustom Bahrucha’s Another Asia which brings alive the relations between Tagore and Okakura, individuals whom Som has rightly taken to be important to her project. In this biography, Som uses but one essay by Saralabala Sarkar and that too in English translation. If only she had dug a little deeper, she would have discovered more in Sarkar’s Collected Works
published by Ananda Publishers. Also, Som’s work relies far too
much on Nivedita’s correspondence. Of the 722 citations made in the book, about 422 relate to the letters alone whereas references to Nivedita’s writings and speeches, spread over five volumes, barely exceed 100. This is tantamount to putting together a biography of Nivedita in her own words and methodologically, looks somewhat suspect.
On the whole, the ideological differences between Vivekananda and Nivedita reflect the key debate created by the Indian nationalist discourse in the colonial era as to whether or not social emancipation should precede political enfranchisement. This is a question that was not satisfactorily resolved in their time and remains unresolved to this day.
Amiya P. Sen is an historian by training and profession.
Sair–ul–Manazil by Sangin Beg, translated into English by Nausheen Jaffery, edited by Swapna Liddle, and illustrated by Neeti Banerji with a Foreword by Narayani Gupta, written in the 1820s originally in Persian, was perhaps the first systematic attempt to list the monuments of the city of Delhi. Apart from public buildings like mosques, temples, shrines, and tombs, it lists wells, gardens, houses, shops, and stray graves. The author enlivens it by a description of the various localities of the city, of the people who lived and worked there in his time, social activities and fairs, and historical anecdotes connected with places and people.
Tulika Books, Delhi, 2017, pp. 172, R650.00