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NIVEDITA, SISTER (1867–1911)

Sister Nivedita was a freedom fighter. She was born Margaret Elizabeth Noble on 28 October 1867 in Dungannon, Northern Ireland. Like many Ulster families they were of Scots descent and had been living in Ireland for generations. They were staunch Methodists, a sect of Protestantism that focuses on individual conscience and moral action. Both of Margaret’s grandfathers had been involved in Ireland’s struggle for Home Rule. She grew up in England, where she initially worked as an educationist interested in the progressive theories of Pestalozzi and Fröbel. She met Swami Vivekananda in London in 1895, and he encouraged her to come to India. She came to Kolkata in 1898 at the age of 30 as his disciple. Living simply in a small house in Bosepara Lane, she threw herself into social work, opening a school for Hindu girls and helping with plague relief. She was initiated into the Ramakrishna order, followed the teachings of Ramakrishna and Sarada Ma, and even worshipped images of Kali and Shiva. She campaigned in the West for two years to garner support for the order, returning to India in 1902. She started another school, the Ramakrishna Balika Vidyalaya. Sixty women in purdah attended the school on the opening day.

Vivekananda’s death the same year led her to leave the order to join India’s freedom struggle, though she continued to maintain close relations with it. She toured the country tirelessly, giving lectures and helping with relief and campaign work wherever she was. In politics she was influenced by the theories of Prince Kropotkin, but her radicalism did not prevent her from being on good terms with politicians of all colours. She was dedicated to Indian art, culture and science, encouraging among others Abanindranath Tagore and Jagadish Chandra Bose in their work. She opposed Western attempts to see Indian culture as a pale shadow of Greco-Roman civilisation. Her syncretism was reflected in her appearance; tall and fair with deep blue eyes and brown hair, she wore a simple white gown with a string of rudraksha beads round her neck. The floods and famine in Bengal in 1905–1906 absorbed a great deal of her strength, eventually proving too much for her. Her health declined from then on. In 1911 while visiting flood- and famine-struck villages in East Bengal she contracted malaria and died in Darjeeling.
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