Elements in Sister Nivedita’s Educational Vision

Elements in Sister Nivedita’s Educational Vision



This paper traces the development of educational ideas of Sister Nivedita, from the time she was a teacher in England to when she had blossomed into a visionary of national consciousness in India. It traces the influence of the ideas of Western educationists like Pestalozzi and Froebel on her, and how in light of the new direction her life got through Swami Vivekananda, and with the added exposure of Indian society, she applied them to her work in India. The Paper highlights some key elements and thrusts in Nivedita’s Educational Vision – like Mass Education, Women’s Education, Manual and Technical Education, and most importantly, Education in ‘Nationality’ (or National Consciousness). To her, educating the countrymen was the duty most sacred, and education’s goal was primarily social and directed towards expanding the consciousness of a person, while bringing about a purification of one’s heart and will. For Indians, who had a well-established ‘family ideal’, she thought education had to play a role in expanding the ideal to the level of identification with the entire nation, and (consequently) humanity at large

Nivedita in England – An Educationist in making

Immediately after completing her formal education at the age of 17 from the Crossley Heath Orphan Home and School at Halifax, Nivedita, born Margaret Noble1, began to work as a teacher in Keswick in the Lake district in North England. She then moved to Rugby and taught in an orphanage, and from there moved to Wrexham, where, along with teaching, she also enrolled as volunteer with Church of St. Mark. She had an enriching experience in Wrexham, where she also gained confidence as a writer, writing on questions of social and public interest. Following this, she spent about two years in Chester, after which she moved to London on the offer of heading a school in Wimbledon started by Madam de Leeuw. Eventually Nivedita started her own School – the Ruskin School – in Wimbledon.  This phase in Nivedita’s life was the time when her ideas on education first took shape. These were the years when new ideas and developments in education, particularly early childhood education, began to take currency in Britain, as indeed in the whole of the West, and came to be known as the New Education Movement.

Influence of Pestalozzi-Froebel ideas on Nivedita

The Patron-Saints of this New Education Movement were the Swiss Educationist Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827) and his German disciple Fredrich Froebel (1782-1852).  Pestalozzi had keenly felt the need to take education to the poor masses.  He lived a great part of his life in poverty, teaching at small schools, mostly with the underprivileged classes.  He once took a role in an orphanage where he was involved in caretaking of the children under him. There he got the opportunity to intensely study various aspects of their behavior.  He came to believe that an effective way of making a child learn was to reduce knowledge to its elements and construct a series of psychologically ordered exercises. The basis of his theory was a close interconnection between psychology and learning. He believed that any abstract thought had to be gathered from concrete sensory experience.2 Thus, all knowledge began in the sensual perception and moved towards the abstract. This later became a mantra for Nivedita in all spheres of knowledge, that a human being moves from ‘the familiar to the unfamiliar’, and ‘concrete to the abstract’, and informed not just her ideas on education but learning and development in any sphere, including religion and spirituality.

When Pestalozzi began to codify what he considered as laws of learning, his influence began to spread. Among those influenced was the German educationist Froebel, who in 1840 coined the word ‘Kindergarten’, thus, laying the foundation of early child education system prevalent even now.  While Pestalozzi worked mostly in the realm of ideas, Froebel was a great innovator in design.  Based on the principles he had absorbed from Pestalozzi, and extended by himself, he designed early childhood educational material known as ‘Froebel Gifts’, which were essentially building blocks of different shapes with coloured balls, and could be effectively used for elementary arithmetic as well geometry. Advancing on Pestalozzi’s ideas of learning through the concrete Froebel, based his educational system on activity. He observed that the child was most at ease while at play and thus to them all ‘work’ had to be presented in form of play. It is through play that a child enters into relationships with the external world. The ‘game’ was to be the central ingredient in Froebel’s scheme of things.

The ideas of Pestalozzi and innovations of Froebel began to spread far and wide and the first Kindergarten in America started in 1850s. In many other parts of Europe the concept was tried. Pestalozzi-Froebel-Haus in Germany, was one of the first influential institution of early childhood teacher training, founded by a Germany lady, Henriette Schrader-Breymann, Froebel’s disciple and grand-niece, in 1882. The Institute based itself on Pestalozzi-Froebelian idea of ‘learning by doing’, but did not restrict themselves to the Froebellian apparatus and used themes from nature as well as domestic work. This also led to a wider professionalisation of early childhood education, particularly among women who took lead in taking up a trained career in child education. Those trained at this institute took these ideas to different parts of the world. A wider democratization of education also followed, reaching the poorer sections, as a result of the adaptations in Frobelian design of the ‘Kindergarten’, in different parts of Europe and America.3 Any imaginative educationist in the West during that time took serious note of these developments.

This was the scenario when Nivedita began her career a teacher and later as an experimental educationist in the second half of the 1880s. It was when she was conducting her own school in Wimbledon that she came in touch with Ebenezer Cooke, a disciple of Ruskin and an influential lithographer and art educationist of the time, who was known to have considerable reputation as an educational thinker based on the ideas of Pestalozzi and Froebel.  It was he who introduced her to the intellectual circle in London known as the Sesame Club, which had, among others, Lady Ripon, Lady Margesson, and Ronald McNeill as the key members, and where stalwarts like Thomas Huxley and George Bernard Shaw used to speak. Intellectually stimulated by this company, Nivedita began to write articles and participate in discussions on new trends in education, especially early childhood education, and developed a good name in this field as a bright thinker-practitioner.  It was through her association with Sesame Club that she eventually met Swami Vivekananda in November 1895.

Starting off in India

Upon her advent in India Nivedita in January 1898, Nivedita did not start immediately into any concrete work. A Pestalozzian in her knew it well enough that education starts from familiar to the unfamiliar. So in order to devise any system for education of Indian girls or plans for Indian women, she had to first familiarize herself with the ethos of the land which could help her arrive at possible bases for the girls in their educational journey. And Swamiji himself had imprinted upon her clearly enough that any educational method in India for Indian women had to be in consonance with the Indian ethos. Thus, she first had to undergo training in steeping herself in the spirit of India. And who could be a better master for that than her Vivekananda!  We know that for first nine months after her arrival in India she spent first three and a half in Calcutta, getting precious lessons from Swamiji, and meeting some socially and intellectually influential persons. She also spent time in visiting existing educational endeavours like Mataji’s Mahakali Pathshala, the Brahmo Samaj School, the Bethune College, as well as, and more importantly, enriching herself with exposure to traditional ways of Hindu life as seen in the lives of Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi and her companions like Gopaler Ma. From May till October she spent about five months in company of Swamiji, along with Josephine MacLeod and Sara Bull, visiting many different places like Kumaon hills (Nainital and Almora), Punjab, and Kashmir.  The treasure of experience she got from this time is well described by her in her most important work “The Master as I saw him” and “Notes on some wanderings with the Swami Vivekananda”.  Returning from there she was set to embark upon a new journey. Inaugurated by Holy Mother Sarada Devi, and in the presence of Swamiji and Swami Brahmananda, Nivedita’s small school for girls started on the Kali Puja (Deepawali) day on 13th November 1898.4

While handling small girls and trying to formulate a good model for early childhood learning Nivedita felt that there could not be any rigidity in applying the concept of the Froebelian Kindergarten or its European equivalents in India. It was conceived in a certain context pertaining to Germany and in difference in detailing was inevitable. In fact she thought that the Indian village with a range of early occupations and tools offers the best setting for the Indian equivalent of a kindergarten.5 But she held on to the basic Pestalozzian principle that all learning must proceed from the concrete. She writes, “It is a law which cannot be too deeply understood and believed by the teacher, that thought proceeds from concrete to abstract, that knowledge grows by experience, and that experience begins with senses, that two senses are more than twice as good a foundation as one. Therefore where we want the young mind to acquire a new kind of knowledge, we have always first to sit down and consider : How can we make this subject concrete? How can we bring it home to sensation?”6

Education as Training of Will, Feelings and Choices

Just like Swamiji who emphasized that all power comes from heart, and before that even intellectual equipment is a mere superficiality, in Nivedita’s view too education first and foremost concerned itself with training of a person in feelings and choices. “Unless we train the feelings and the choice, our man is not educated. He is only decked out in certain intellectual tricks that he has learnt to perform. By these tricks he can earn his bread. He cannot appeal to the heart, or give life”.7

Nivedita believed that throughout the early years of education there was nothing more important than the training of feelings. “To feel nobly, and to choose loftily and honestly, is a thousand-fold more important to the development of faculty than any other single aspect of the educational process (ibid.)”. To her education concerns with man as a moral being and is primarily a moral function. To her the ideal education installed the heart as the lord, with intellect as its loyal and harmonious servant.

Women’s Education : Developing from ‘Family Ideal’ to ‘Social  and National Ideal’

Upon closely observing the lives of ordinary women in India Nivedita was firmly convinced that far from being uneducated the conservative Hindu woman was the recipient of an education which was in its own way highly specialised even though its type was such that its value could not be easily assessed. She was particularly in appreciation of the Indian practice of ‘brata’ (‘vrata’), which were ritualized duties held sacred, which the Indian girls were brought up on from early childhood. She believed that they were a way of teaching great spiritual as well as social values (4.400). While she greatly appreciated the tremendous role women had played particularly within the framework of the family through the ages, she thought they could play a much greater role socially and nationally, and contribute to the making of a much greater Indian nation in future. She felt that their present education (which was within the family framework) was largely an education in discipline rather than a development and that the women in India in the modern age should be developed for greater social potentiality that would make them efficient enough to play much larger and varied roles for the community and country at large than what was traditionally expected of them. She thought that woman to be an ideal who can fit into any role circumstances demand of her and carry that out perfectly. “Efficiency to all the circumstances of life, this womanhood before wifehood, and humanity before womanhood, is something which the education of the girl must aim, in every age. (4.364)”

She believed that the hesitation in India towards girls’ education had always been due to a misgiving as to its actual aims, and she considered Indian people to be wise in exercising such a cautionary perspective. They had no reason for feeling in any way inferior about their womenfolk, who had, for ages, embodied grace and sweetness, gentles and piety, and such virtues that had stood the test of time. Nivedita firmly believed that any scheme of education for girls in India be based on consolidation of character, and intellectual accompaniments could only be attended to only on this foundation.

Moreover, she thought there was a compelling reason for the educational system for Indian girls needing to be true to the Indian ideals than any other ones put before them. She was convinced that the latter could never be constructive but merely imitative, as it was not based on the ‘familiar’, thus violating the cardinal principle of education itself. To her, only knowledge in synthesis was true knowledge, and thus, the world had to be seen through the home. “The educated woman should not be less a homemaker than the uneducated. Rather, she should make a finer home. We are educated, not that we may find easier duties but that we may add to ourselves duties that the uneducated never thought of. Submission was the noblest effort of the uneducated woman. Responsibility is rather the call that comes to the educated.”8

She deeply valued the importance of the traditional role of a mother, a wife – who is the sheet anchor of the Indian home. “Even silence serves, for woman must ever provide the force out of which man acts. It is faith cherished in the home that governs action in the world. To hold a thought and be true to it unwavering is far greater than to spring impulsively to noble deeds.”9 But founded on this traditional role, it was a wider identification with the community and nation at large that Nivedita envisaged for the Indian woman of the future. “It is her awakened sense of responsibility that constitutes the truly educated woman. It is her love and pity for her own people, and the wisdom with which she considers their interests, that marks her out as modern and cultivated and great.”10

But with changes in the modern world she knew women also had to move along with men for a harmonious life in the family as well as society. “Unless women are united with men in the scrutiny of life, that scrutiny must for ever remain crippled and barren, unproductive of spiritual growth or civilizing gain. Humanity is only complete in the two-fold organ, the feminine mind united with the masculine and neither alone.”11

She warned against an attitude of negativity in those involved in educating the women or anyone for that matter. There was no place for criticism or discouragement. Just as Vivekananda thought service could be truest and highest only when it was rendered while recognizing the divine dimension of the served, similarly, Nivedita too, believed that only those who saw the noblest in the taught could be effective as teachers. And this idea extended beyond the individual. “Only by love of our own people can we learn the love for humanity – and only by a profound belief in the future of the Indian woman can any man be made worthy to help in bring that about”12, she declared.

The prophetic vision of a great Bharatvarsha of the future, that Swamiji had livened up in her, made her think of women’s role in this great nation-building exercise. And here is the call she gave to all the daughters of Mother India to stand up to the role they had to play for bringing about a great nation. “It is essential for the joyous revealing of the great Mother, that she be first surrounded by the mighty circle of these, Her daughters, the Indian women of the days to come. It is they who must consecrate themselves before Her, touching her feet with their proud heads and vowing to Her their own, their husbands’, and their children’s lives. Then, and then only, will she stand crowned before the world. Her sanctuary today is full of shadows. But when the womanhood of India can perform the great Arati of Nationality, that temple shall be all light, nay, the dawn verily shall be near at hand. (4.362)”

Manual and Technical Education

Nivedita had developed ideas and possible lines of action for all phases of education starting from Primary to Manual and Technical, while thinking of nationalistic basis for this. She was a keen observer of new trends in ‘human resources development’ anywhere in the world. For “education to be of any avail, it must extend through all degrees, from its lowest and humblest grades. We must have technical education and we must also have higher research, because technical education without higher research, is a branch without a tree, a blossom without any root. (4.329)” She was well-abreast with the developments in America in the space of manual and technical education in which she thought it was leading the world. She knew about latest developments in technical education leading American centres of learning like MIT and Stanford, and also other interesting developments like the Sloyd course in carpentry developed in Sweden.

To Nivedita, in manual education too, the chief object was development of the mind’s culture. She believed that without imparting theoretical knowledge in sciences merely Manual Training would be insufficient and not do justice towards developing the potentialities within its recipients. “To attempt to give manual training without some theoretic knowledge, however elementary of Mechanics, Physics, and Chemistry, and without the deliberate culture of powers of observation with regard to plants, animals, and the outside world generally is like trying to divorce the hand from the eye, or both from the mind. (4.420)”

In technical education in particular Nivedita felt that leading Indian tradesmen and privileged class, and the sovereigns of the Native states should take a lead. They could sponsor competent candidates to learn such courses abroad, and later direct that experience in starting similar ventures in the country. Here she was advocating a spirit of private philanthropy towards civic and national goals. She knew the charitable instinct in Indians was well-developed and motivated by a religious orientation, but, till then had not been channeled towards causes perceived to be secular. She observed that philanthropy in the West was considerably developed and was driving social and educational transformations. In fact she pointed out that “Public spirit in the West is highly developed and Governments and municipalities incorporate a new educational feature only after it has been tested and sounded by private initiatives. She hoped Indians too would exhibit such a spirit. “A union of two or three far-sighted Indian merchants anxious for the future of industry in this country, would be sufficient to establish manual training high schools, and technical schools of College Grade, in the capital of different presidencies. And Indian sovereigns might do likewise, each in his own state. (4.422)” That is why, she so energetically, despite severe obstacles, strove to champion J.N. Tata’s plan of a research institution in science and humanities which later fructified into what is today the Indian Institute of Science.

The New 3 ‘R’s of Modern Education

Just like how reading, writing, and arithmetic (the 3 ‘R’s) are the basic pillars of elementary learning, Nivedita firmly held the view that for a proper perspective of the world around us in the modern age one had to be fairly developed in the three senses dealing with Nature, Time, and Space, namely, Science, History, and Geography respectively. In her view these three were closely linked with the question of cultivation of consciousness in ‘nationality’ and civic virtues. She wrote extensively on how History, Geography, and Science could be taught – again based on leading the recipient from concrete to the abstract; and from familiar to the unfamiliar; from one’s immediate to the universal.

An Education in Nation-Building

The most important thrust in Nivedita’s vision for education India was to establish it soundly on a basis of a ‘national consciousness’. Any effective education had to increase the national self-consciousness, and sentiment of vigour and responsibility. And once this is firm, international and universal dimensions would follow, thus raising it a new level of perfection. She wrote in the pamphlet ‘The Project of Ramakrishna School for Girls’ published during her American tour of 1900-01, “To produce an Oriental in whom Orientalism had been intensified, while to it had been added the Western conception of the Cause of Humanity, of the Country, of the People as a whole, Western power of initiative and organisation, Western energy and practicality – such an ideal should inspire our energy and of culture in the East. (4.371)”

Nivedita believed that training of the mind and development of power of concentration had been the chief thrust of Hindu education for ages. And therefore, it did not have anything substantial to learn from West towards this. She felt that superiority of the West lay in her realisation of the value of united efforts in any given direction. This Western trait she referred to as ‘organizing of the popular mind’(4.335). It was here she felt India could learn from the West.

According to Nivedita, “A National Education is first and foremost, education in national idealism. We must remember however, that the aim of education is emancipation of sympathy and intellect. (4.351)” She wanted the ideals presented before the children and students to be in a form informed by their own past.  “Our own imagination must be first based on our own heroic literature. Our hope must be woven out of our own history. From the known to the unknown must be the motto of every teacher, rule of every lesson. (4.352)” A true national education in India would awaken people towards a life of sacrifice towards ‘jana-desha-dharma’ (4.346).

India is all, I am nothing!

On his return to India, Swamiji in his Madras lecture, gave this Mantra to his countrymen : “For the next fifty years this alone shall be our keynote – this, our great Mother India. Let all other vain gods disappear for the time from our minds. This is the only god that is awake, our own race – everywhere his hands, everywhere his feet, everywhere his ears, he covers everything.”13 Echoing that Nivedita said, “This desire to serve, the longing to better conditions, to advance our fellows, to lift the whole, is the real religion of the present day. Everything else is doctrine, opinion, theory. Here is the fire of faith and action. Each day should begin with some conscious act of reference to it. A moment of silence, a hymn, a prayer, a salutation.”14 She hoped minds and hearts will be trained to the service of the jana-desha-dharma, and that will act as the motive-spring of all the struggles.

Nivedita thought of ‘organised unselfishness’ (4.347) as the foundation of National feeling. “The best preparation for nation-making that a child can receive is to see his elders always eager to consider the general good, rather their own. …We are a nation, where every man is an organ of the whole, when every part of the whole is precious to us, when the family weighs nothing in comparison with the People. (4.347-348)”

Moving to the larger ideal of ‘nationality’ is a constant refrain in Nivedita’s writings and wished the countrymen, particularly the children and youth deeply nurture this ideal within themselves. “The centre of gravity must be for them, outside the family. We must demand from them sacrifices for India, Bhakti for India, learning for India. (4.348)”

Such an education to Nivedita was the perfect recipe for creating future heroes. She did not think heroes were born; she believed all human beings have an innate longing for self-sacrifice, and the force of heroic thought impels them in that direction.

She thought that the challenge of educating the Indian masses could be best solved by dedicated and inspired educational missionaries coming from within the country. It was her fervent desire to see a band of educational missionaries who would across length and breadth of the country educating the masses. She took the example of many Western countries where youngmen were required to serve for a few years in the military service and hoped for a similar army of educational missionaries in India. “Why should it be thought impossible that every student, when his own education is over, should be called upon to give three years to the people? (4.331)” she wondered. She believed that this could not organised by any central efforts by voluntary selflessness of countrymen themselves.

She knew that in the modern times a strong Indian nation needs to have a thoroughly democratized society with careers open to ability for all and towards achievement of this education was the key. “The motherland must recognize no caste, for that would prevent her availing herself of the best possible service. For this, the presence of a social formation representing democracy is absolutely necessary. So far from recognizing caste, indeed education must be absolutely democratized, in order that all talents may be discovered, and the remaking of the Swadesh may proceed apace.”15

She thought that there was no other way of making unity of the country effective than education “If one class of people derive all their mental sustenance from one set of ideas and bulk of the population from something else, this unity, although certainly present cannot be easily be made effective.”16 She felt that all had to be trained to respond to the same forces in same ways, and by that alone the country would acquire solidarity and power of prompt and intelligent action.

Just like her Master, Nivedita too, was at her inspired best while giving a call, to her countrymen for a life of sacrifice. She clearly saw that “we have no choice, that the education of all, the People as well as the classes, woman as well as man, – is not to be a desire with us, but lies upon us as a command. Humanity is mind, not body, soul, not flesh. Its heritage is in the life of thought and feeling. To close against any gates of the higher life is a sin greater than murder, for it means responsibility of spiritual death, for inner bondage, and the result is ruin unspeakable. There is but one imperative duty before us today. It is help on Education by our lives if need be. Education in the great sense as well as little, in the little as well as in the big. (4.342-343)” And here again she continuously tried to raise the ideal from family and community to nation at large. “Why should we limit the social motive to a man’s own family, or to his community? Why not alter the focus, till we all stand, aiming each at the good of all-others, and willing, if need be, to sacrifice himself, his family, and even his particular social group, for the good of the whole? The will of the hero is ever an impulse to self-sacrifice…. Shall I leave my family to struggle with poverty, unprovided? Away with the little vision! Shall we not eagerly die, both I and they, to show to the world what the India idea of duty may be? May not a single household be glad to starve, in order that a nation’s face may shine? The hero’s choice is made in a flash. To him, the larger vision is closer than the near. (3.336-337)” And she urged the countrymen to immerse this little ‘self’ into the Virat of Bharatvarsha. “The great teacher of Dakshineswar used to hold gold in one hand and earth in the other, and change them backwards and forwards, from hand to hand, muttering ‘Earth is Gold’! Gold is earth!’ till, having lost all sense of relative values, he could throw them both into the river. Similarly let us say, “India is all, I am nothing! India is all” till one idea alone remains with us, of throwing away self and life and ease, as so much dross, in the great stream of effort that is making for the national righteousness.”17

The central theme of Sister Nivedita’s mission was to create a strong national consciousness in Indian people. Each Indian should live for the country’s sake and hold oneself as an offering to Mother India was her constant thrust. On her beads she was known to repeat ‘Bharatvarsha’ as the mantra. Steeped in the idea of reaching Advaita through rejecting dualities, she urged everyone to imagine India is one – as imagining so she would actually become one. To her India was the great unity all Indian people had to arrive at. In today’s times when people question whether India is or can ever be called a ‘nation’ and point out what they think is her ‘fragmentary nature’, Nivedita’s exhortation to her Indian brethren has an abiding value. “Let love for the country and countrymen, for the People and Soil, be the mould into which our lives flow hot. If we reach this, every thought we think, every word of knowledge gained, will aid in making clearer and clearer the picture. With faith in the Mother, and Bhakti for India, the true interpretation of facts will come to us unsought. We shall see the country as united, where we were told that she was fragmentary. Thinking her united she will actually be so. The universe is the creation of the mind, not matter. And can any force in the world resist a single thought, held with intensity by three hundred millions of people?”18

Notes and References

  1. For the sake of simplicity and uniformity the name Nivedita will be used throughout the paper.
  2. Sister Nivedita, Hints on National Education in India, Complete Works of Sister Nivedita,4.404
  3. Pam Hirsch; Mary Hilton, Practical Visionaries: Women, Education and Social Progress, 1790-1930, 186-187
  4. Pravrajika Atmaprana, Sister Nivedita (Calcutta: Sister Nivedita Girls’ School, 1999)
  5. Sister Nivedita, Hints on National Education in India, Complete Works of Sister Nivedita,4.411
  6. Sister Nivedita, Hints on Practical Education, Complete Works of Sister Nivedita, 5.44
  7. Sister Nivedita, Hints on National Education in India, Complete Works of Sister Nivedita,4.344
  8. Sister Nivedita, The Education of Women, Complete Works of Sister Nivedita 5.28-29
  9. Sister Nivedita, The Education of Woman, Complete Works of Sister Nivedita 5.27
  10. Sister Nivedita, The Education of Indian Women, Complete Works of Sister Nivedita 5.72
  11. Sister Nivedita, The Education of Women, Complete Works of Sister Nivedita 5.30
  12. Sister Nivedita, Hints on National Education in India, Complete Works of Sister Nivedita,4.369
  13. Swami Vivekananda, Lectures from Combo to Almora, Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol 3
  14. Sister Nivedita, Hints on National Education in India, Complete Works of Sister Nivedita,4.346
  15. Sister Nivedita, Civic Ideal and Indian Nationality, Complete Works of Sister Nivedita,4.292
  16. Sister Nivedita, Hints on National Education in India, Complete Works of Sister Nivedita,4.330.
  17. Sister Nivedita, The Education of Woman, Complete Works of Sister Nivedita 5.27
  18. Sister Nivedita, Hints on National Education in India, Complete Works of Sister Nivedita,4.349.