Belfast Telegraph

A passage to India: Malachi O'Doherty on trial of Northern Irish woman regarded as saint

Malachi O'Doherty first visited the subcontinent 40 years ago. This week he makes a return there on the trail of a Dungannon woman whom many Indians regard as a saint

Hindu devotees taking a ritual dip in the River Ganges
Hindu devotees taking a ritual dip in the River Ganges
Malachi visiting India 40 years ago

I am going back to India this week for the first time in 40 years. I already know that things will be different there. Many of the people I knew then were older than me and will be dead now.

The population has doubled.

I used to take evening walks along the River Yamuna on the edge of Delhi and look out across flat farmland to the horizon. Now I can see on Google maps that the other side of the river is built up.

Yamuna Bazaar, where I spent most of my time, is now like a little enclave cut off by a huge highway.

I am not even sure that my old home is still there.

It was an ashram. There was a cottage in one corner for the boss, the guru Swami Paramananda Saraswati.

There were four or five rooms shaped like blocks with flat roofs. There was a well and a lot of trees. I can see from Google Earth that the trees are still there but not what they shelter, for they have grown so big that they cover everything.

Sign In

I was a disciple of Swamiji.

I was devoted to him, indeed besotted by him, and thought that I was being transformed under his tutelage.

I could see as well that he was a manipulative fanatic, and in time I extracted myself with some difficulty from his influence.

But I am the person that I am in part because of the years I spent there. Swamiji died a couple of years after I came back to Ireland.

I am not going to India this week to resolve any unfinished business, for I have moved a long way from the life that I lived there.

That was a celibate, abstemious and religious life.

But I have been given a 'major individual artist award' by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to research a project that first intrigued me when I was there.

I was not the first person from Ulster to fall under the spell of a powerful swami.

One other is actually famous there. She is revered as a saint. Schools and hospitals are named after her.

She was Margaret Noble. She was born in Dungannon in 1867, grew up in England and, while working as a teacher in London, met Swami Vivekananda.

She had been part of a community of people who explored religious ideas, strongly influenced by Christian Science and intrigued by the East.

This group had invited Vivekananda to address them and in time she came to love him as a father figure.

She went to India with him. He initiated her as a Hindu nun with the name Sister Nivedita, initially as part of an order called the Ramakrishna Mission, which she left after he died.

She retained her conviction that Vivekananda had been a manifestation of the divine.

And she became politically active.

Having first believed that the British Empire was good for India, she reversed her thinking and became an activist for independence on a revolutionary committee in Kolkata (then Calcutta).

The Ramakrishna Mission has collated her letters and we now have a magnificent resource for exploring her thinking.

Nivedita was an amazing woman.

She interacted with the greatest intellectuals of her time, though she had left school at 16 to be a school teacher. She has left behind a huge body of work, including a biography of Vivekananda.

On top of that she edited all of Vivekananda's writings and those of the biologist Jagdish Chandra Bose.

She even assisted in the translation from French of the writings of Joan of Arc for a biographer.

That she is hardly known here is remarkable.

I contend that she is not well known in India either, for she has been too lightly adopted as a saintly figure, without nuance.

So the book I am funded to write will try to put flesh and blood on her.

First I will go to Delhi to find the ashram and see what is there. Then I will travel to Garhmukteshwar on the Ganges.

Swamiji was building an ashram there when I left. I used to have to go to the sub-divisional magistrate to apply for permission to buy cement.

He would sign a little docket, I would take it to the cement stores in another town, and literally hitchhike back to the building site with, usually, 25 sacks. Truck drivers were always happy to pick me up, so long as I paid them.

We were building our ashram in a little pilgrim town called Brij Ghat, meaning the 'ghat by the bridge'.

A ghat is a part of a river's edge reserved for bathing.

From Google Maps I can see that Brij Ghat is now also about double the size it was then.

It has ATMs and public toilets.

But I have taken a room in a hotel in Garhmukteshwar for a little more comfort than I would have settled for back then, when I slept in a sleeping bag on a bare wooden bed, washed at the pump and used the ditch on the other side of the road as my toilet, sometimes not getting myself back out again before the wild pigs had dashed in for a feed.

I will stay there to watch Poornima, the ritual bathing in the Ganges under the full Moon. I think this time I will not join in.

Then I will go to Kolkata to visit sites associated with Vivekananda and Nivedita. I will stay at a culture centre run by the Ramakrishna Mission and visit Nivedita's home, which is now a museum dedicated to her.

I will go to the temple at Daksineshwar, where Vivekananda first fell under the spell of his own guru, Ramakrishna, and I will go to the Ramakrishna Mission at Belur Math.

I would like to go to the Himalayas to follow the journeys that Nivedita made, but the weather isn't right for that yet, so I will go later in the year.

When I was there 40 years ago I did not make a single phone call home, because there was no reliable service available to me. This time I will be Skyping every day and posting pictures on social media.

The whole world has changed since then and perhaps even the option of cutting yourself off as I did then doesn't exist. I doubt I would be tempted anyway.

But if you don't hear from me, you may assume that I have fallen under the spell again and am to be found somewhere near the Ganges, perhaps doing a headstand.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph