In 2013, Sister Nivedita’s one-storied house at 16 Bosepara Lane, Bagbazar, was officially acquired by the government of West Bengal from its erstwhile owners and handed over to the Archaeological Survey of India for restoration. The house has been renovated since and was unveiled a few days back on 23 October.

One wonders, however, if her reputation has been duly revamped and renovated too. Often the wallpaper of zeal and the glue of excited commemoration hides the cracks in the edifice beneath. Nivedita’s critical heritage as a social reformer and cultural and religious commentator is yet to be resolved: her contribution is yet to be truly put in perspective. The doubting Thomases have looked at Nivedita’s legacy quizzically. They have located her initiatives in a more pervasive sphere of fin-de-siècle or decadent end-of-the-century radicalism in Europe, which offered a heady blend of mysticism, socialism, suffrage, vegetarianism, homo-sexual politics and anti-imperialism.

These critics, mostly postcolonial, and quite recent, like Parama Roy, Ashis Nandy and Kumari Jayawardene have seen her as Margaret Noble, a stereotypical western seeker who assumes an easy continuity between her spiritual attachment to India on the one hand and her dis-identification from the spoils and circuits of imperialism on the other. Despite her strong sympathies for the claims of anti-colonial nationalism then taking shape in India, her detractors have always looked at Sister Nivedita’s spiritual proclivities with suspicion, refusing to accept the maturity and seriousness of her politics. The objections against her may be summarised as twofold.

The first set of reservations, drawing upon the nationalist idiom, are based on a narrowly orientalist typology. The second set invokes a broader, more liberal and Marxist thematic to announce the dramatic incompatibility of spiritual endeavour and progressive ethical and political capacity. In such a critical dispensation Sister Nivedita gets alienated as Margaret Noble, the Irish outsider, a mere collaborator with Swami Vivekananda, the nationalist-mystic, and her anti-colonial efforts are discredited on the grounds that her nostalgic spiritualism appealed exclusively to recessive strains within Indian nationalism, favouring orthodoxy and revivalism over rationalism and reformism.

In a letter dated 29 July, 1897 Swami Vivekananda wrote to Margaret Noble from Almora: “India cannot yet produce great women, she must borrow them from other nations. Your education, sincerity, purity, immense love, determination, and above all, the Celtic blood make you just the woman wanted.” – Vivekananda further added: “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 specially.”

Although Vivekananda invited her, he forewarned Margaret Noble about the adverse weather conditions in India, particularly the hot Indian summers and the discomforts she may have to face in a caste-ridden Indian society as a European woman. He alerted Noble to the misery, the superstition, and the slavery that were prevalent.

It was, thus, not an uncritical and emotional leap into the unknown for Noble but a decision reached in the light and shade of vision and a practical determination. For thirteen years she tirelessly dedicated herself to spreading education, taking care of people devastated by the plague, trying to eradicate superstition from Indian minds, and trying to achieve freedom for India.

Her works The Master As I Saw Him, The Web of Indian Life, Kali the Mother, Cradle Tales of Hinduism and others had a great impact on contemporary Indian society, far removed from the standards of westernised religion and belief systems.

It is interesting to note how Nivedita, an “outsider”, delved deeper into Indian customs and rituals than hardboiled nativists. In the essay “What Books to Read”, she advised the Indian youth to start with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata before trying to unravel Homer and Virgil. She felt that knowledge of the cultural heritage of one’s own land was imperative for the progress of society. In the essay “Revival or Reform”, Sister Nivedita talked about the orthodoxies of cults and religions across the globe and stressed the need to cast away the insular sectarian dogmas in the larger interest of humanity.

As is evident, she started answering her postcolonial critics half a century before they could even formulate their objections. Though a Christian by birth and breeding, she had no hesitation in blaming the Christians for spreading insular dogmas.

The Kantian discourse against religion, Jacques Derrida reminds us in his essay “Faith and Knowledge”, makes a crucial distinction between two kinds of religious belief: the one “dogmatic”, the other “reflective”. Of these, it is only the first, religion of cult, which cannot be accommodated within the bounds of reason alone, in that its morally transcendent appeal to works of grace makes for an indolent morality in which doing (being) good is tantamount to doing (being) nothing.

Reflective faith, on the other hand, a moral religion entirely amenable to the limits of rationality, enjoins man to action by scrupulously withholding from him the certain knowledge of divine cooperation. Here lies the rub, however. Only Christianity gains, in Kant’s eyes, the prerogative of reflectivity. Of all the public religions that had ever existed, Christianity alone, according to Kant, was moral. And so, this discourse of and for the limit, and against the risky hybridity of prayer and desire, starts to limit the field of tolerance itself.

Margaret Noble had anticipated Kant’s diatribe and Derrida’s explication and comment on it. So far ahead was she of her times and its prejudices that in the introduction that Rabindranath Tagore wrote to the 1918 edition of her. The Web of Indian Life he insisted that Noble had metamorphosed into Nivedita because, “she lived (our) life and came to know us by becoming one of ourselves. She became so intimately familiar with our people that she had the rare opportunity of observing us unawares.

As a race we have our special limitations and imperfections, and for a foreigner it does not require a high degree of keen sightedness to detect them. We know for certain that these defects did not escape Nivedita’s observation, but she did not stop there to generalise, as most other foreigners do. And because she had a comprehensive mind and extraordinary insight of love she could see the creative ideals at work behind our social forms and discover our soul that has living connection with its past and its marching towards its fulfilment”.

In the journal The Queen (24 August 1904) a British commentator contrasted Nivedita’s sympathetic vision of India with the missionary documents or scholarly works by suggesting that it would be well if those who gather their impressions of the Indian Empire solely from missionaries, who travelled to India with preconceived (Kantian) ideas and little sympathy, or from the abstruse works of scholars, or the chatter of the AngloIndians, would do well to revise the impressions they gathered from these sources in the light of Nivedita’s scholarly and empathetic work. In her public lecture “Kali, and her Worship” delivered on 13 February 1899 at the Albert Hall in Calcutta, Sister Nivedita already made clear her difference of opinion with the missionaries: “I see nothing in Calcutta today, which is more calculated, if we accept it thankfully, to strengthen and purify our thought of God as the Mother than the presence of a section who deny and distrust our worship.” Instead of counter-attacking the missionaries, Sister Nivedita advised her audience to listen to the message of the Mother through their enemy’s utterances.

Christianity was the measuring device used by the British missionaries to judge India, its tradition, customs and rites. Christianity was used as an antithetical system of emancipation from the backwardness of Hindu practices when it came to the liberation of women.

Sister Nivedita waged almost a lone crusade against this closing of the western mind and the wrapping of Kantian sanction around its ideological perimeters. The great irony, after all these years, is that postcolonial Indian critics have used the same Kantian rat-trap to confine one of the great minds of the Indian renaissance of ideas in the late 19th century in the suburbs of national intellectual history.

Thus, when her abode is being revamped and rededicated to our grateful nation on the occasion of Nivedita’s 150th birth anniversary, may the house of her ideas be restored and made the subject of our edification too.

(The writers are respectively, assistant professor, department of English, Vidyasagar College for Women and visiting faculty University of Calcutta, and assistant professor, department of English, Lal Baba College and faculty, West Bengal State University)