Holy Mother: The Ideal of Womanhood

By Swami Vireswarananda

Swami Vireswarananda, a disciple of Holy Mother, was the tenth President of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission from 1966 until his death in 1985. Swami Vireswarananda was the author of Spiritual Ideal for the Present Age along with translations of the Bhagavad Gita as well as both Shankara and Ramanuja’s bhasya of the Brahma Sutras.

The life of Sri Saradamani Devi or the Holy Mother, as she is now known all over India and abroad, is bereft of all those things which we are apt to consider great according to our present-day standards. Judged by the current standards, she looked like a common pious lady going round her daily routine household duties. Hers was a life of extreme simplicity devoid of all events and activities which attract one’s attention.

Engrossed in feverish action we are apt to overlook the real significance of a simple and unostentatious life. Friends of her childhood, whom many have seen, used to say, “We have lived with her from her very childhood, we have played and mixed intimately with her, but we have never experienced anything supernatural abut her. Today we are surprised to see so many devotees coming to her, a temple built in which she is installed as a deity, and what not. Who knows what all this mean!” Again some have remarked, “She whom we went to see was found sitting like a bashful daughter-in-law in a family, with a long-drawn veil. We could not find anything of divinity about her,” and so on.

Swami Saradananda, who had the good fortune to serve her after the passing away of Swami Yogananda, once remarked: “We could get some inkling at least of the greatness of the Master, but of this lady we cannot understand anything. She has drawn the veil of Maya so thick around her that no one can see through it and have a glimpse of her greatness.” One is reminded of a great saint’s song, “O Mother, nobody knows who and what you are; people describe you variously,” and it is but natural, for as he says again, “If, O Mother, you do not reveal yourself, who can know you?”

Once Sri Ramakrishna’s disciple, Swami Premananda, wrote to one thus:

Who knows Mother? Who can know her? You have heard of great women like Sita, Savitri and Sri Radha; but Mother has surpassed all of them. There is not the least display of divine power in her. In the Master, at least the glory of knowledge was manifest, and he used to go frequently into samadhi. But in Mother even this greatness is not manifest. What a tremendous personality to keep all her powers in such control! Don’t you see how hundreds and thousands of people are flocking to her? She possesses infinite power (shakti) and benignity. Have you not noticed how the empress of the universe is playing the part of a beggar woman at Jayrambati—cleaning the house, washing utensils, winnowing rice and even removing the plates of her devotees after they have taken their food? The Master’s cancer helped to unite the devotees into an organization and Mother is undergoing these hardships at Jayrambati in order to set an ideal for the householders. What great patience, what compassion and, above all, what great humility!

When the Mother was at Madras on her way to Rameswaram and other places of pilgrimage in South India, the devotees and friends of the Math at Madras (now Chennai) used to come and inquire of Swami Ramakrishnananda whether she was going to deliver any lecture. That was the yardstick by which they measured greatness—intellectualism. They had heard Mrs. Besant, who could throw the audience into raptures by her oratory. So they expected the Mother also to give lectures, but they returned sorely disappointed when the Swami replied in the negative. What a pity, they missed a great opportunity! If only they had cared to sit at her feet for a few moments, they would have been immensely profited by it.

We read in the scriptures that when a person returns to the normal plane after attaining samadhi, or the super-conscious state, though the world of duality appears to him again, it loses all attraction for him, for he has realized its insubstantiality. One got an inkling of this experience, as it were, after spending a few moments in the presence of the Mother. Ah, what a blissful experience to sit at the feet of one who was an embodiment of humility, kindness and love, whose very look revealed a heart lacerated at the suffering of humanity, whose love knew no difference between a saint and a sinner and who shed a holy radiance that could not be fathomed, but in which one was content to bask!

Those who breathed in this spiritual atmosphere found, when they came out, that their deep-seated malady—the attraction for the world of the senses and sense-enjoyment—was cured to a great extent. It tasted insipid. Life was no longer an aimless wandering but seemed to have a purpose and value. The soul that was slumbering was awakened and heard the sweet though yet distinct call of the Infinite and became restless to attain it. What a metamorphosis!

Saradamani Devi was married to Sri Ramakrishna when she was only five years old. The marriage took place when the Master was brought to Kamarpukur from Dakshineswar by his relatives who mistook his God-intoxicated state and the consequent strange behavior as madness. After his marriage, the Master returned to Dakshineswar and resumed his intense spiritual practices which lasted for twelve years. During this period he had visited Kamarpukur twice, and during these two short visits little Sarada also came from Jayrambati, her parental home. It was not, however, till she came to stay at the Dakshineswar temple garden that the enactment of the great drama before the world began.

Sarada in her distant village-home had come to know of the Master’s ill-health and she had longed to be by his side and to serve him. Her father, coming to understand her inner feelings took her to Dakshineswar. They had to cover all the distance, about sixty miles, walking. On the way Sarada fell ill, for she was not accustomed to this kind of hardship, and when she reached Dakshineswar she was still ailing. It was about 9 P.M. All other members of her party went to see the Master’s mother, who was staying in the music tower, but Sarada went straight to the Master’s room. What a welcome the distressed wife got from her husband, an ascetic of ascetics! “Oh, you have come now? Would that my Mathur were alive to take care of you!”

After seeing the Master, Sarada wanted to go to her mother-in-law in the music tower, but the Master said, “No, no, stay here. It would be rather difficult for the doctor to treat you there.” So Sarada stayed in his room with another lady. Next day a doctor was sent for, and within a few days she was well and went to live with her mother-in-law. This warm welcome from the Master and his care and solicitude for her dispelled from her mind all doubts and misgivings and she decided to stay at Dakshineswar and serve the Master and his mother.

Slowly the great drama began to unfold itself. Tota Puri had once remarked, “A wife presents no danger to one who is really established in Brahman, for, a true seer of Brahman sees no difference between man and woman, being established in the perception of unity, the Self.” The Master wanted to test himself, and so he allowed his wife to be by his side and serve him to her heart’s content. He even permitted her for some time to sleep along with him. Yet never did his mind swerve from the path of purity.

One day the Mother asked him, “How do you look upon me?” the Master replied, “I look upon you as the embodiment of the Divine Mother.” To this unique feature of their conjugal life she also made her contribution. It was possible because she too was the Master’s equal in purity. The Master had asked her in the early days of her association with him at Dakshineswar, “Do you want to drag me down into maya?” “Why should I do that?” came the prompt reply, “I have come only to help you in your religious quest.” Did she not pray to the Lord, “Even the moon has dark spots; make me pure as those spotless tuberoses.” The Master realized her absolute purity and recognized her contribution to his religious life. He later said to his disciples, “Had she not been so pure, who knows whether I might not have lost my self-control!” Truly did one of Sri Ramakrishna’s disciples (Swami Abhedananda) sing, “Whose character and whose life were pure, who was purity incarnate—to her our salutations!” This unimaginably pure conjugal life culminated in the Master’s putting the Holy Mother on the pedestal of the deity and worshipping her as the great Mother of the Universe with all the prescribed rituals. This marked the triumph of the spirit over the body, the resurgence of the divine in him and the invoking of the presence of the Divine Mother in his wife.

The life of the Holy Mother was one of continuous service to the Master, with all her heart and without caring for her personal inconveniences. It was the be-all and end-all of her life. It was not prompted by any sense of duty, but was the outcome of her love and reverence for him. It did not end merely with external service, for she grasped the central principle of his life and made it a part of her life. Her thoughts and aspirations were all imbued with his ideal and she became a true helpmate in fulfilling his life’s mission. Truly did Swami Abhedananda say of her, “Whose soul is dedicated to the Master, who is fond of hearing his name, and who is the embodiment, as it were, of his thoughts—I salute thee again and again.” Even after the Master passed away, her life was one continuous offering at his altar. She was always absorbed in his adoration and in the carrying out of his life’s mission, for the fulfillment of which she was left behind.

Tenderness is the basis of man’s relationship with his wife and Sri Ramakrishna’s relationship with his wife was ideal in this respect. He was always careful to see that he did not wound her feelings and showed the greatest consideration for her wishes. His attitude towards her was one of deep respect, so much so that in later life when she was treated disrespectfully by one of her relatives, she remarked, “I was married to a husband who never spoke harshly to me and never hurt my feelings. He did not strike me even with a flower!” He would always and in everything try to make her feel how close she was to his heart. He had even some gold ornaments made for her. He took particular care to see that no one insulted her, for he knew that it would harm the offender if she was really incensed. He used to say, “You may be saved if the being in this body (i.e. in him) takes offense, but if the being in her is angry, no one will be able to save you.”

The Mother used to distribute liberally sweets and vegetables brought by devotees for the Master, after keeping what was necessary for him. Once he remarked, “How can you make both ends meet if you spend in this manner?” She felt hurt at these words, which questioned the large-heartedness of a mother, and left his presence sullenly. The Master understood the situation and said to his nephew Ramlal, “Go and pacify your aunt. If she is angry, I shall be undone.” This mutual respect was a prominent feature of their marital life.

The Mother’s greatness became all the more manifest in the domestic setting in which she found herself after the passing away of the Master. She used to live for the most part in her parental home at Jayrambati, and being the eldest child of the family, the responsibility of bringing up her younger brothers and taking care of her aged mother fell on her. Some of these brothers were extremely worldly people, and proved a source of annoyance to her all her life. Added to this was the great trouble she had to undergo for the sake of a fatherless niece of hers and her insane mother. But Mother bore it all and looked after their worldly welfare. Even ordinary mothers, who are so loving towards their children, expect a return from them. But the love of the Holy Mother for her relations, who could not return anything, who were often ungrateful to her, was something unique. It brought out in bold relief her spiritual greatness and her benign motherhood.

The same maternal love was evident in her spiritual ministration also. This love did not allow her to refuse spiritual succor to anyone, even to the worst type of sinner. It was given irrespective of the worth of the receiver, for the only motive behind was her maternal love. She would remark, “Who else will bear the responsibilities of the sinner and the afflicted?” Being the mother of all, she gave freely to all without expecting anything in return.

We have briefly depicted the conjugal life of these two great souls. Has it any message for the modern world? It has, but to realize its true significance, we have first to grasp the noble traditions of India.

A great change is coming all over the world in the outlook of women. Women in the East have tried to refute the ancient view that the sexes are differently equipped, and therefore have different functions to perform in the social and national life. They have competed with men in all spheres of life and to a great extent successfully, though it is questionable whether this has really made them happier. Indian women too are changing their outlook and are not satisfied with a life purely in the domestic sphere—the home, which has been their main preoccupation for centuries, though there have been some notable exceptions to this. They claim freedom to live a fuller life.

There is much justification for this revolt of women. Their position in Indian society is not at all that is desirable, and it goes without saying that their participation in various fields of India’s national life should be welcomed. But in the excitement of this new adventure, our women should not lose what is most valuable. It is to emphasize this that the great drama was enacted at Dakshineswar.

The essence of Indian culture is the recognition of the unity of life and the acceptance of the fact that the realization of this unity is the highest good as also true self-expression. The acceptance of this truth and the means to realize it have been the basis of all our social institutions. India grasped the purpose of life long ago and organized society with a view to the attainment of that goal. In this organization she did not fail to take note of the fact that men and women were in various stages of spiritual progress, and as such the enforcing of the highest ideal on one and all would create confusion in society. So India built a society on a graded scale to provide scope for some amount of enjoyment to spiritually immature souls, but at the same time India took care that they did not lose sight of the goal. Life was so regulated that all could proceed to that final goal through various experiences and stages of life.

Married life is a stage in the growth of the soul towards perfection. One has to go through this experience in order to go beyond it. Marriage is a symbol of the union of souls, and not a mere physical union. That is what makes the marital bond so sacred. Physical love is only the outer court of the temple, not even the inner court, much less the sanctum sanctorum, but when properly regulated, it leads people right in front of the Deity. This is true of the vast majority of people, but there are pure souls for whom from the very beginning marriage is a union of souls, and to whom any other union is inconceivable as we find in the case of the Master and Sri Sarada Devi.

As human beings evolve spiritually, their conception of love also develops. Love is a force within human beings which expresses itself on the physical plane as the urge to procreate, but when regulated by higher ideals, it leads one to spiritual illumination. Marriage is fulfilled in discipline and service and not in pleasure. It looks to the enrichment of life and not to pleasure. It builds character and gives rise to higher interests when enjoyment has ceased to be the aim. Hindu marriage gives prominence to these high values and refuses to accept the romantic view of marriage. Happiness comes from the fulfillment of these higher interests and the performance of prescribed duties and not from leading a temporal life. The couple are spiritual partners, each of whom supplements the other, and both proceed towards the ultimate goal.

Just as the woman is asked to be a perfect wife, so also is man asked to be a perfect husband. The pattern is fixed before hand and the couple are expected to attune themselves to it. To be like Sita or Rama is the ideal of a married life. In this the demerits of the partners do not count seriously, for the failure of one will not justify the other’s not attaining this ideal.

The ideal of wifehood is not slavery imposed on women by society, as some are apt to think, but it is a means to sublimate the physical instincts, to spiritualize the emotions. The greatness of Hinduism lies in the fact that it takes men and women from where they are and helps them in their forward march by asking them to change their angle of vision about things secular. It thus wipes out the difference between the sacred and the secular and makes everything sacred. We are conscious of the fact that there are cases that do not justify such an ideal, but in this relative world nothing is perfect, and when we set up a social ideal, we have to judge it by its capacity to produce “the greatest good of the greatest number” and if it is so, then such a principle cannot be relegated to the dust bin simply because it does not apply to a very few abnormal cases, at least not till we have found a better one to replace it, for, life without ideals would only take us back to the stage of cave-men. Swami Vivekananda says:

The ideas behind our marriage system are the only ideas through which there can be a real civilization. There cannot be anything else. If individual pleasure were to be allowed to run loose in society the result must be evil, evil children, wicked and demoniacal. We have lost all these ideals, made almost a caricature of some of these great ideals. However faulty the working out may be, the principle is sound and if its application has become defective, work it out better. Why kill the principle?

Though the majority of men and women naturally prefer marriage and parenthood, yet there are exceptions among them who have felt the call of religion and want to take to the path of renunciation. They dare to walk alone without a helpmate in their journey towards the Infinite. There is no need for such women to go through the experience of wifehood or motherhood.

The ultimate goal is the realization of the Self, pure and sexless, and this can be attained only through complete renunciation and absolute celibacy. What binds us is “lust and greed,” and if one wants to be free, one must completely eradicate these two. You see, by leading a householder’s life one needlessly dissipates one’s mental powers. The loss one thus incurs can be made up if one takes to the monastic life. The obstacles to spiritual life are “lust and greed.” Attachment to these diverts one from the way leading to God.

The Holy Mother’s life holds up an ideal for every one—for the wife, the mother and the nun—for what was she but a nun, having the essentials of that life to perfection, which are purity and spirit of renunciation? As Sister Nivedita puts it, “She is Sri Ramakrishna’s final word as to the ideal of womanhood,” for she is of a universal type, and not particularly Indian.

Such great souls are sure to blossom in all races and climates where social conditions are favorable for them to remain essentially feminine. Everyone has to evolve towards the goal according to his or her svadharma (one’s own inner law) for as the Bhagavad Gita says: “The dharma of another, however well performed, is fraught with danger.” The aim of women, therefore, must be to be a perfect woman and not an imperfect man, for she cannot be something other than her true self. For women are the life-energy of every nation which cannot be wasted by directing it to the wrong channels. Hinduism accepts the doctrine of Shiva-Shakti—that the ultimate reality has two aspects, the Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine.

As Sri Ramakrishna, quoting the Adhyatma Ramayana, puts it, “O Rama, thou alone art all that we see as male, and Sita, all that we see as female.” These two aspects of the divine are not identical, but complementary, the two together making a perfect whole. So neither man nor woman is superior, but they are equals, though equipped differently. Unless this ideal of the Divine Feminine—Shakti—is reinstated, there is no hope for humanity. Swami Vivekananda wrote to one of the brother disciples:

You have not yet understood the wonderful significance of Mother’s life—none of you. But gradually you will. Without Shakti there is no regeneration for the world. Mother is born to revive that wonderful Shakti in India.

The Mother by her life has revitalized this great tradition. Mother has shown the way, and it is for women to follow in her footsteps, for their own salvation and for the good of the world.

My Experience with the Compassionate Mother
June 5, 2004
The Holy Mother as a Disciple Saw Her
August 5, 2004
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Holy Mother: The Ideal of Womanhood