The Afterlives of the Soul: Sister Nivedita on Love and Death

Know as we might what actually happens when we die, we spend our lives trembling at the fact of our finitude, trying to wrest from it some greater poetic truth — something that slakes the soul’s thirst for meaning. Even the spiritual materialists among us are haunted by incomprehension at the cessation of consciousness — how can this entire carnival of wonder just, one day, melt into nothingness? And what, in the end, does it all mean, will it all have meant? These questions come alive in the 1908 book An Indian Study of Love and Death (public library | public domain) by the Irish teacher and activist Margaret Elizabeth Noble (October 18, 1867–October 13, 1911), christened Sister Nivedita by Swami Vivekananda after she emigrated to Calcutta when she was twenty-one to begin devoting her life to India and the sacred search for meaning. Sister Nivedita To be clear, Sister Nivedita’s intimation that the soul is immortal is a fundamentally unprovable fact — a claim counter to everything we know about the universe, beyond the reach of our empiricism — and yet radiating it from it is that larger poetic truth Whitman too touched, as did Tracy K. Smith, which is its own consolation, its own consecration. Sister Nivedita writes: All things bring forth their opposites… Life is a rhythm, a rhythm of rhythms, and rhythm is but a continuous movement from one point to the reverse. Every experience within life is made up of such movement between two, and we cannot conceive that life itself should be different from all its elements. But if so, it must itself, in experience, be succeeded by death. Bodily consciousness must be succeeded by bodily unconsciousness. Manifestation by non-manifestation. This mode of acting and knowing, by not acting and not knowing in this mode. Yet as I am myself a constant factor, in my own waking and sleeping, in health and in disease, so there must be a factor which remains constant, and undergoes this experience, of death as well as of life. This factor we call the soul. The soul then persists. […] For the soul dwells ever in the presence of the soul. At death, a veil that confused and dimmed has been withdrawn. Shall we weep for the veil, as for the wearer of the veil? I see my soul reflected in Nature by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 English edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.) Such a conception of the soul renders it something different from consciousness — for we now know that consciousness is a full-body phenomenon that does not survive the entropic undoing of death. Sister Nivedita paints the afterlife she imagines for this supra-conscious entity: To the soul, time does not exist. Only her own great purpose exists, shining clear and steady through the mists before her. To her, death brings no change. Death changes the body alone. The soul loses not her own consciousness: she loses body-consciousness. And that is all. The cares of the body are gone. The hopes and fears and memories of the body no longer exist. But that which was the life of the soul, the thought of God, or the yearning to bless, or the burning hope of truth, remains still, gathers ever to its perfect consummation in the eternal. But inside this metaphysical meditation is a quiet invitation for something else, something consummately earthly — no matter what happens at death, imagine what life would be like if lived with a passionate love of truth and “the yearning to bless” everything it touches. Imagine.

The Afterlives of the Soul: Sister Nivedita on Love and Death

Know as we might what actually happens when we die, we spend our lives trembling at the fact of our finitude, trying to wrest from it some greater poetic truth — something that slakes the soul’s thirst for meaning. Even the spiritual materialists among us are haunted by incomprehension at the cessation of consciousness — how can this entire carnival of wonder just, one day, melt into nothingness? And what, in the end, does it all mean, will it all have meant?

These questions come alive in the 1908 book An Indian Study of Love and Death (public library | public domain) by the Irish teacher and activist Margaret Elizabeth Noble (October 18, 1867–October 13, 1911), christened Sister Nivedita by Swami Vivekananda after she emigrated to Calcutta when she was twenty-one to begin devoting her life to India and the sacred search for meaning.

Sister Nivedita

To be clear, Sister Nivedita’s intimation that the soul is immortal is a fundamentally unprovable fact — a claim counter to everything we know about the universe, beyond the reach of our empiricism — and yet radiating it from it is that larger poetic truth Whitman too touched, as did Tracy K. Smith, which is its own consolation, its own consecration.

Sister Nivedita writes:

All things bring forth their opposites… Life is a rhythm, a rhythm of rhythms, and rhythm is but a continuous movement from one point to the reverse. Every experience within life is made up of such movement between two, and we cannot conceive that life itself should be different from all its elements. But if so, it must itself, in experience, be succeeded by death. Bodily consciousness must be succeeded by bodily unconsciousness. Manifestation by non-manifestation. This mode of acting and knowing, by not acting and not knowing in this mode.

Yet as I am myself a constant factor, in my own waking and sleeping, in health and in disease, so there must be a factor which remains constant, and undergoes this experience, of death as well as of life. This factor we call the soul.

The soul then persists.

[…]

For the soul dwells ever in the presence of the soul. At death, a veil that confused and dimmed has been withdrawn. Shall we weep for the veil, as for the wearer of the veil?

I see my soul reflected in Nature by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 English edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Such a conception of the soul renders it something different from consciousness — for we now know that consciousness is a full-body phenomenon that does not survive the entropic undoing of death. Sister Nivedita paints the afterlife she imagines for this supra-conscious entity:

To the soul, time does not exist. Only her own great purpose exists, shining clear and steady through the mists before her.

To her, death brings no change. Death changes the body alone. The soul loses not her own consciousness: she loses body-consciousness. And that is all.

The cares of the body are gone. The hopes and fears and memories of the body no longer exist. But that which was the life of the soul, the thought of God, or the yearning to bless, or the burning hope of truth, remains still, gathers ever to its perfect consummation in the eternal.

But inside this metaphysical meditation is a quiet invitation for something else, something consummately earthly — no matter what happens at death, imagine what life would be like if lived with a passionate love of truth and “the yearning to bless” everything it touches. Imagine.