of the Book: FOOTFALLS OF INDIAN HISTORY
Author: Sister NIVEDITA (Margaret E. Noble)
Recent Publishers: Rupa and Company, New Delhi, 2002.
Summary by Dr.V.S.Gopalakrishnan
India is a “functioning anarchy”, remarked J.K. Galbraith, an US ambassador during the Nehru era. Despite Nehru, the Congress party made it so since the Independence obtained from the British in 1947. Pre-Independence, the exploited India was disciplined, fighting for freedom and pride. Sister Nivedita (born in Ireland in 1867 and named Margaret Noble) came to India in 1998 at Swami Vivekananda’s suggestion. She joined him in the service of the downtrodden from their base in Calcutta. Nivedita meaning “the dedicated one” was how she was named by the Swami. She picked up Bengali, adored Indian culture and traditions, opened a school for girls, did yeoman service during the Bengal famines, floods and plague. Though Vivekananda died in 1902, she worked tirelessly till her end in 1911. She promoted Indian artists and encouraged Indian literature. A thorough Westerner till her 31st year, she had become a great admirer and servant of India.
Richard Attenborough produced a movie on Mahatma Gandhi. I would recommend to him that he produce a movie on the fabulously fascinating life of Sister Nivedita. She wrote many books on various aspects of India in full praise and indeed approval of its culture and traditions. The book under review is one of them. It requires a catholic mind to accept India as it has evolved.
Nivedita shows a remarkable insight into India’s past which comes out in this book. It is not that she accepted India without questioning. She showed that understanding India is more important and was the proper way to go about it. In a short summary like this I need only to quote her words rather than describe what she had said.
She traces history from a Bengali angle. The higher caste families of Bengal came from Magadha. Thus the capital shifted to Gour (in Bengal) on the destruction of Pataliputra (Magadhan capital). Thereafter during reign of the Senas dynasty, the capital moved to Vikrampur (Bengal). Then came the Mohammedan (nawabi) capitals of Murshidabad and Dacca. She states, “One of the master-facts in Indian history, a fact borne in upon us more deeply by every hour of study, is that India is and always has been a synthesis”. She further states, “The thought of goddesses is older than of gods, just as the idea of queens is prior to that of kings”. More insightfully she says, “Civilizations, like religions, are a web; they are not statues or salon –pictures, (but) great creations of individual genius”. I (the Reviewer) came to know from her that to the Mohammedan the tamarind tree is holy, like the Bo tree to the Buddhist!
Bimbisara was the king of Magadha at the time of Buddha’s “Great Renunciation”. At the time of Buddha’s death, Ajatashatru (son of Bimbisara) was the king. Nivedita says, “Buddhism might well be divided historically into the Rajgir period (with Bimbisara and Ajatashatru), the Pataliputra period (Ashokan times) and the Takshasila period ( Kanishka)”. The first Buddhist Council took place at Rajgir, the Second Council at Pataliputra and Third Council at Taxila. Nivedita thinks that the Christian congregational worship owes to Buddhist Chaitya congregational worship.
The Bodhisattvas are part of the Mahayana, the new doctrine, prevalent in Tibet, China and Japan. The old and original Hinayana doctrine, prevalent in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand, does not recognize the Bodhisattvas but recognizes only the Tripitakas. Well versed inart, the author states, “Cave No. 19 at Ajanta remains one of the architectural triumphs of the world”. How many modern Indians have this sensibility, I wonder! She goes on, “Nowhere in the world could more beautiful painting be found than in the king listening to the golden goose in Cave 17, or than the Masque of Spring – which I should have liked to interpret as the entrance of Queen Maya into the Garden of Lumbini –on the top of a pilaster in the same cave”.
Nivedita thinks that the Shiva Linga evolved from the Stupa idea. Vedic Rudra became modern (!) Mahadeva, namely Shiva. She believes that Kanheri was a University and Elephanta was a Cathedral.
Parallelly, of the West, Nivedita says, “Roman Empire went for its luxuries, and Pliny laments the drain of imperial gold for the silks and ivory and gems of the East”. Of Greece, she says, “Severe chastity and restraint of the decorative instinct is the mark of Greece. Exuberance is the characteristic, on the other hand, of Oriental art”.
On Hinduism, she observes, “Prehistoric Ganesha .. had a history, before being established as the son of Shiva and Parvati”. Again, “Damayanti, Sita and Savitri constitute an idealization of woman to which I doubt whether any other race can show a parallel”. Who but Nivedita only could put it like this: “Banaras is not only an Indian Canterbury, it is also an Oxford”!
How marvellous that Nivedita could write all this while being totally preoccupied with social service, and political work for India’s freedom! An excellent read indeed!
-Summary/Review by Dr.V.S.Gopalakrishnan