By Swami Tyagananda
Swami Tyagananda is minister of the Ramakrishna-Vedanta Society in Boston. Before coming to America, he was the editor of the Vedanta Kesari, one of the journals associated with the Ramakrishna Order in Chennai, India. This article was originally published as an editorial in that journal.
Holy Mother gives to the spiritual seeker two vitally important gifts for success in life. These two gifts are hope and love.
We are passing through a critical period. For the first time in history, hope is weakening at an alarming rate from the human psyche. We have passed through periods of hopelessness before. But such occurrences were restricted to particular regions and did not assume almost a worldwide proportion as has happened today. Consciously or unconsciously, people have lost faith in almost everything worthwhile and naturally this has left them precious little to be hopeful about. With joy and hope extinguished from the lamp of life, men and women have become little better than robots: they are programmed by the unknown forces lurking in their own minds, and move about mechanically until the body-machine breaks done beyond repair.
One may want to revolt against this kind of a portrayal and reject it as unrealistic. But truth is truth for all that. We have made ourselves perfect automatons. We eat mechanically, we work mechanically, we laugh mechanically, we dream mechanically, we love mechanically, we weep mechanically—all programmed by our inner forces. And since we have chosen, though unconsciously, to be machines, we must meet the fate of machines; a life devoid of hope. Spontaneity, joy, creativity belong to conscious beings, not to machines. Are these qualities manifesting in your life? Ask yourself this question and be honest. If the answer is yes, well, you’ve escaped being a robot. If the answer is no, you’ve got to do something about it. One thing you can do is to go to Holy Mother.
Spiritual seekers in general have to encounter another kind of hopelessness as well. When a seeker begins to practice spiritual disciplines in dead earnest, he or she is full of hope that soon they will be drifting along blissfully in the spiritual current, have visions and other spiritual experiences, and rise far above one’s initial failings and weaknesses. Days pass, perhaps months, and even years. And nothing happens. “Where are the visions? Why do I not get any spiritual experience? Why do I continue to be my old self with all my old weaknesses?”—the bewildered seeker asks himself or herself. Perhaps the seeker looks around and says, “Maybe the environment and the people I’m living with are not conducive to my spiritual progress. Maybe I should go to a new place and live in congenial company.”
Or perhaps the seeker feels depressed. The seeker says, no, spiritual life is not for me. My samskaras [inborn tendencies] are too unspiritual! So he or she gives up the spiritual quest and finds comfort in doing “what everyone is doing.” Sometimes the seeker, who began spiritual practices with God-realization in view, just gives up the hope of ever reaching the goal in the foreseeable future, but continues with the practices half-heartedly just to soothe his or her troubled, depressed conscience. The seeker considers the case hopeless and finds that they are just drifting along at the mercy of what they call “fate.” Have you ever found yourself in any of the situations described above? If you have, you should go to Holy Mother.
What do you find when you become a student of Holy Mother’s life? You find an unlettered village woman, pure, simple and devoted, who scaled the pinnacle of spiritual life. She did all the duties that came her way, first as a daughter in Jayrambati, then as a wife at Dakshineswar, and later as the guru and Mother of her numerous devotee-children. She lived in a family, surrounded by her relatives—a quarreling bunch of brothers, a nagging and insane sister-in-law, and a mentally unstable niece—and several other bizarre people. She loved them all and cared for them with infinite patience. Most important of all, she remained immersed in God-consciousness all the while, though outwardly very few could have known it. Superficially, Mother’s life looks so ordinary, so commonplace—one reason why it is so difficult to understand. Swami Premananda, an eminent disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, contrasts her life with Ramakrishna’s in a letter:
Who can really understand the greatness of Holy Mother? True it is there have been great holy women in past ages—such as Sita, Savitri, Radha. But in this present age, before our very eyes, we see Holy Mother surpass them all by her exemplary life.
She is difficult to understand because she keeps her superhuman powers hidden. In the life of Sri Ramakrishna we have seen these powers expressed. Many times during the day he would go into ecstasy and samadhi. We saw him always God-intoxicated. But Mother holds these powers suppressed within herself. How much greater her superhuman power must be! Hail Mother! Hail Mother! Hail Mother, the embodiment of Sakti, the Divine Mother.
Swami Premananda speaks in this letter of her superhuman powers. This knowledge has two effects on the devotee. The first effect is apparently negative. If Holy Mother possesses all the superhuman powers, if she is the Divine Mother incarnate, then she forthwith ceases to be a model. You know that she could attain the highest even while living in the midst of a large household beset with the usual problems and wrangles, only because she was the Divine Mother herself. How can you and I emulate the Divine Mother?
We can aspire to follow the example of another evolved human being, a saint, with the conviction and hope of becoming like him or her. For we know the difference between us is only one of degree. But the Divine Mother? She is in a class by herself. It would be ridiculous to even imagine doing and succeeding in whatever she does. After all, she is endowed with superhuman powers, while most of us have not yet manifested fully even the human powers within us.
If she has chosen to take birth as an unlettered village-woman and to live in the midst of quarrelsome relatives, it is only a matter of play-acting for her. But for you and me, our life situations are cruelly real. How can Holy Mother then be a source of inspiration? Her divinity, her superhuman powers make her different, someone far removed from humanity. How can you relate yourself meaningfully to someone who is so radically different?
Now a look at the positive effect on the devotee. The knowledge that Holy Mother is the Divine Mother is necessary, for only then can you surrender yourself fully and unconditionally at her feet. If she has to protect me and save me, she must herself be beyond the need for protection and saving. No human being, however exalted or evolved, can assume that position. Only the Divine Mother can. Holy Mother’s superhuman powers are a source of strength to the devotee who knows, come what may, “My Mother will always protect me and save me.” Holy Mother herself gave this assurance when she said:
I am the mother of the wicked, as I am the mother of the virtuous. Never fear. Whenever you are in distress, just say to yourself, “I have a mother.”
She was, of course, referring to the redeeming superhuman powers of the Divine, dwelling in her own self, which could grant protection and freedom from fear to anyone.
When you begin the study of Holy Mother’s life, this is the first dilemma you are faced with: Is she human? Or is she divine? In a sense, this is the dilemma you face while studying the lives of all great godmen and godwomen. Do their lives indicate the ascent of man or the descent of God? Vedantic teachers have a way of answering this question. They simply say, “Neither.” There is a point, they tell us, where the ascent of man and the descent of God intersect. It is at that point that the avatara—the incarnation of God—dwells. The avatara is either fully human and fully divine simultaneously or he is neither. He simply defies all categorization. When Dr. Sarkar, the homeopath who was treating Sri Ramakrishna at Kasipur, objected to the devotees’ looking upon Sri Ramakrishna as an avatara, Vivekananda—then Narendra, a young lad of just twenty-two—articulated this idea of the avatara as the meeting-point of the human and the divine.
We think of the Master [Narendra told Dr. Sarkar] as a person who is like God. Do you know, sir, what it is like? There is a point between the vegetable creation and the animal creation where it is very difficult to determine whether a particular thing is a vegetable or an animal. Likewise, there is a stage between the man-world and the God-world where it is extremely hard to say whether a person is a man or God . . . [So] we offer worship to him [Sri Ramakrishna] bordering on divine worship.
When we look at Mother’s life against the background of this understanding, we begin to realize how she is so human and so divine at the same time. By her humanity she establishes a strong bond with her spiritual children; by her divinity she lifts them up and protects them. And it is this delightful intermingling of the human and the divine in Holy Mother that produces hope in the spiritual seeker.
First and foremost, Mother’s life teaches you that it matters little where you live. What is important is how you live. It is not unoften that we attribute our failures, setbacks, and weaknesses to the environment in which we live. Holy Mother showed through her own life that it is possible to maintain the deepest poise and live a life of ceaseless prayer and God-consciousness even in the midst of circumstances we would normally dub as hostile and unsuitable for spiritual life: a busy household and cranky relatives, for instance. There can be no doubt that she chose the circumstances of her external life to teach us that no one need feel hopeless. Wherever you are, and in whatever condition, it is possible for you to develop your potentialities and evolve.
Next, her practical approach to life’s problems. Philosophy may often impress, but it does not always satisfy. When you ask a question, what kind of an answer do you look for? Philosophical or practical? This is not to say that a philosophical answer cannot be practical or vice versa. But philosophers are popularly regarded as “impractical” people, and “practical” people are generally seen to swear by anything but philosophy. Right or wrong, this distinction is recognized everywhere. Holy Mother obliterates this distinction in her own quiet, gentle manner. Study her life, read her conversations—and you will find it difficult to discover a more practical person anywhere in the world.
To every doubt, to every question, her answer is practical. And because it is practical, it goes straight to your heart. She does not mince words, she does not “philosophize,” she simply tells you the truth as it is, bare and simple. Further, she tells it in an idiom you can understand. And yet, her answer—her “practical” answer—is not divorced from its philosophical implications.
Take the simple teaching she gave, almost her “last message,” to a devotee before she passed away. When the devotee wept and said, “Mother, after you go what will happen to us?” Holy Mother said to her, “Why should you be afraid? You have seen the Master. What should frighten you?” Then she added very slowly,
Let me tell you something. My child, if you want peace, then do not look into anybody’s faults. Look into your own faults. Learn to make the world your own. No one is a stranger, my child; the whole world is your own.
There can be no two opinions that this is a “practical” teaching. But Vedantic teachers have emphasized that behind its all-too-apparent simplicity and practicality lies the profound philosophy of advaita—nondualism. Every teaching of Holy Mother—mark the word “every”—is practical, and if you care to follow its trail backwards you will find yourself gazing into the vast expanse of Vedantic thought. Mother bridges the gap between theory and practice, between being philosophical and being practical. This unique nature of Mother’s intensely practical teachings injects hope into the devotee. The devotee is able to see a clear path to God emerging from the abstractions of philosophy. From Holy Mother the devotee knows what he must do and how he or she must do it.
But every time you undertake to do something you cannot be too sure you will succeed. Obstacles come: some you overcome, some you cannot. Besides, you have to work within your own limitations. There are times when you feel you are just up against a stone wall. Who are you going to turn to? When a child is in danger or difficulty, where does it go to? It goes to its mother. That is what even the spiritual seeker does: he or she goes to Holy Mother. We know there are chances of being rejected if we go anywhere else. But a mother will never, never reject her child. We feel convinced that we have simply to know—and never forget—that we are Mother’s children. Every time we run to her, she will be there to protect us, to soothe us and to cheer us. What more can we ask for?
These, then, are the three main factors which make Holy Mother a haven of hope: one, her life which shows it is possible to lead a spiritual life wherever you are and in whatever condition; two, her intensely practical teachings which show you clearly the how of everything, three, her being what she is, a true Mother—not only for one life, but for eternity—and as her child you are assured of her constant protection and encouragement.
If spiritual life is to become meaningful, there must be love in your heart. Love, said Vivekananda, opens the most impossible gates. Spiritual life begins in the real sense only when the gate of the heart opens to receive the Divine. The key to this gate is love. Love is Holy Mother’s second gift to the spiritual seeker.
In spite of all the talk of love the world over, love is one thing that is least understood. In any case, the Vedantic idea of love is radically different from what the word means to most of us. There is a passage in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad (2.4.5) which gives a new perspective on the idea of love:
It is not for the sake of the husband, my dear, that he is loved, but for one’s own sake that he is loved. It is not for the sake of the wife, my dear, that she is loved, but for one’s own sake that she is loved. . . It is not for the sake of wealth, my dear, that it is loved, but for one’s own sake that it is loved. . . It is not for the sake of all, my dear, that all is loved, but for one’s own sake that it is loved.
The repetition of the phrase “for one’s own sake” is quite distressing at first sight. Is there nothing but self-interest at the back of love in this world? Is that how Vedanta looks at it? Swami Ashokananda, a noted authority on Vedantic thought, answers:
It sounds hard and cynical to interpret human relationship in such terms. But if you go on analyzing your motive, you will find that even though it may not be grossly selfish, it is fundamentally selfish all the same. When a wife loves her husband fully, unselfishly, we honor such love and it is to be honored. But even then, philosophically speaking, self-interest is involved. This self gets something; some artha—meaning, or significance—is derived from that love. Without this significance the relationship would be untenable. A woman would not look at a man unless some value were realized by her in that person.
That is true of every relationship. It is true even of the relationship between a perceiver and the material object he or she is perceiving. When you are looking at a mountain, or looking at the sky, or at a piece of stone, there is some significance, some need which is being satisfied or realized in the perceiving. I would give it the simple name of self-interest. Such self-interest may be all right in a lower state, but compared with the truth it is still a deluded state. Why should you seek any significance when all significance is already within you?
That is the Vedantic position: “All significance is already within you.” You are in reality the Self—free, immortal, one without-a-second. Commenting on the Upanishadic passage, Sankara says: “Our love for other objects is secondary, since they contribute to the pleasure of the Self; and our love for the Self alone is primary.” That is why even our love out of “self-interest” is really our unconscious love for the Self. Vivekananda’s rendering of this Upanishadic passage therefore runs as follows:
It is not for the sake of the husband that the wife loves the husband, but for the sake of the Atman that she loves the husband, because she loves the Self. None loves the wife for the sake of the wife; but it is because one loves the Self that one loves the wife. . . None loves wealth on account of the wealth; but because one loves the Self, therefore one loves wealth. . . None loves a thing for that thing’s sake; but it is for the Self that one loves it.
Now the picture becomes clearer. In the lowest sense of the word, love is selfishness. But this self, says Vedanta, is only the shadow of that real Self which is behind. At present we haven’t become conscious of our true nature as the Self. The infinite love for the Self is manifesting unconsciously through only a shadow, a reflection, and so it appears evil. Swamiji’s explanation is simple. Those that love without knowing the Self, their love is selfishness at its worst and “enlightened self-interest” at its best. Those that love, knowing what that Self is, their love is free.
Every time we particularize an object [Swamiji explains], we differentiate it from the Self. I am trying to love a woman; as soon as that woman is particularized, she is separated from the Atman, and my love for her will not be eternal, but will end in grief. But as soon as I see that woman as the Atman, that love becomes perfect and will never suffer. So with everything; as soon as you are attached to anything in the universe, detaching it from the universe as a whole, from the Atman, there comes a reaction. With everything that we love outside the Self, grief and misery will be the result. If we enjoy everything in the Self, and as the Self, no misery or reaction will come. This is perfect bliss.
Now we are in a position to understand to some extent the Vedantic idea of love. Love is not emotion, it is POWER. It takes the form of emotion only when it is projected through the unawakened, imperfect and impure mind. And love as emotion binds, takes away your freedom, and sooner or later produces grief and misery all around. In itself love is simply POWER. When this power is projected through the awakened and pure mind, it unites, frees and produces unalloyed joy.
The Self is the source of all power and so of love too. In the ignorant, this Self is, as it were, sleeping. It needs, as Swami Vivekananda said, to be “roused to self-conscious activity.” When it becomes “awakened,” love emerges from it spontaneously and fills the person with ineffable bliss. He or she remains immersed in the bliss of the Self and becomes, in the Vedantic language, Atmarama. (It may be recalled that Swami Vivekananda used to call Sri Ramakrishna’s reliquary “Atmarama’s Kauta.” (Kauta in Bengali means “casket”.)
The Mundaka Upanisad (3.1.4) describes the person who has attained this state as one “reveling in the Self” (atmakridah), “delighting in the Self” (atmaratih). The lotus of their life blooms and they become a center of tremendous power and attraction. Everyone loves them because they love their own true Self. How paradoxical that one immersed in the Self should command the love of all! To a Vedantin, of course, this is not a paradoxical situation at all. The Vedantin knows that the Self is one, and in loving your own true Self you are really loving all, and even when you are apparently loving “others,” you do so because you see in them nothing but the true Self. This is a wonderful state indeed. And Vedantic teachers say that real love is possible only in this state.
What is the nature of this love? First, it is universal. It recognizes no distinctions. Second, it is fearless. Third, it seeks no return of any kind. It is “unconditional giving.” Fourth, it produces no misery, or anxiety, or jealousy. Fifth, it is grounded in purity. Sixth, it is an irresistible power which transforms the one who is loved.
It is in Holy Mother’s life that all these characteristics of true love are manifested fully and abundantly. The reason isobvious. Holy Mother was atmarama. She lived on a plane where everything was a play of the Divine. Naturally, she loved all, no matter whether the recipient of her love was Swami Saradananda, a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna and her attendant, or it was Amjad, a Muslim mulberry cultivator who was also a part-time thief. She loved the young revolutionaries who were engaged in the freedom struggle of India, but that did not prevent her from admitting that the British were also her children.
Her love was fearless too. She blessed many young freedom fighters with spiritual initiation (diksa) and protected them often from the ruthless hands of the law which was bent on crushing all quest for political freedom. She loved the dacoit couple who blocked her way at night in the fields of Telo-bhelo. She addressed them as her “father” and “mother,” and they could not but respond by looking after her as their daughter. It was not as a part of strategy to save herself that young Sarada “became” their daughter. No, it was the inexhaustible store of love in her being that simply could not be stopped from flooding every heart that came before her.
It was not her fear of the dacoits that made her love them. It was her fearlessness that did it. Fear can never produce love. True love arises only when fear vanishes. Even to love God, fear of God must vanish. In the beginning such fear may be tolerable, even lauded, but one must transcend it as early as possible. The test of holiness, says Vedanta, is not that you are God-fearing, but that you become God-loving.
At Dakshineswar, Mother befriended and loved a woman who had led a wild life in her youth, notwithstanding the danger of such association Sri Ramakrishna had brought to her attention. Yes, Mother was fearless. She knew her powers, her strength—and there was no question of restraining the great Mother-heart which wanted to envelop the whole world by its all-encompassing love.
It is the duty of the mother to give, of a child to receive. Therein lies the test of true motherhood. A true mother always gives with no thought of return. Holy Mother demonstrated through her life the true Mother’s love. She did everything for her devotee-children, but not once did she ask anything of them or expect them to do anything for her. After Sri Ramakrishna’s mahasamadhi, Mother had to spend the days in dire poverty at Kamarpukur.
The devotees in Calcutta knew nothing about the difficulties she was passing through. If Mother had sent just a word to them, they would have rushed to the place and made all arrangements for her comfortable stay. But Holy Mother was born to give, not to receive and beg. She didn’t naturally seek anyone’s help. But without her knowledge a maidservant who used to keep her company at night spoke to the villagers about Mother’s plight, the word spread and the Calcutta devotees came to know the real state of affairs and they brought her over to Calcutta.
Because Mother’s love was unconditional and undemanding, she was absolutely free from misery, anxiety, jealousy, envy—familiar traits in all ordinary varieties of love we see around us. Mother, on the other hand, lived and moved about with “a pitcher of overflowing bliss” permanently installed in her heart. Her awakened Mother-heart was grounded in purity, and that was the secret why her love was inexhaustible, unparalleled and tremendously powerful. It was impossible to come in her presence and not be won over by her love. Entire lives were changed for the better through her love.
Love, then, is the second gift of Holy Mother to her children. She gave this love unstintingly during her lifetime, and she is continuing to give it to everyone even today through her inspiring life and teachings. After her mahasamadhi, and cremation at Belur Math (where her temple now stands), the atmosphere had become sad and gloomy. Swami Shivananada then told the assembled Sadhus and Brahmacharis:
Where will Mother go leaving her children? She has not gone anywhere. She is now all-pervading. Previously, when she was in one place, we had to take the trouble to go and see her. Now we need not go anywhere. Wherever we may be, if we pray to her with devotion, we will receive her grace and see her.
Mother’s grace enters into your life in the form of hope and love. Life ceases to be an adventure with an uncertain end. You become hopeful of achieving the goal of life. With the onset of hope, love sprouts. Seeing Holy Mother’s life and her love, you become charged with love yourself—love for the ideal, love for Sri Ramakrishna, Mother, Swamiji, love for your “neighbor”—and your neighbor is not only the one who stays next door, but also the one who is next to next door, and the one next to that, ad infinitum. Love recognizes no boundaries. It envelopes all and everyone into one infinite whole. Just as an iron piece gets magnetized whenever it enters the magnetic field of a powerful magnet, whoever enters the powerful, charismatic spiritual field of Holy Mother gets charged with hope and love.
The Christian triad of theological virtues—Faith, Hope, and Love—find a striking parallel here. Mother is the embodiment of Faith. The Devi-mahatmyam (5.50) points this out very clearly by saying that Mother dwells in every being as Faith (sraddha). From Mother as Faith personified, emerges Hope which matures into Love. And the highest expression of love is unification. You become united with the Supreme Reality forever more.
When Faith dawns in the seeker’s heart, it is only a question of time before Hope and then Love make their appearance. This is almost a universal pattern observed in the life of every pilgrim on the spiritual path. What Holy Mother does is to speed up the process. The journey is long, difficult—like “walking on a razor’s edge,” we are told. Mother shows you that you are not lonely. Every time you feel tired or discouraged, or whenever you tumble down a little, there’s someone you can call upon—someone called Mother. She is there near you always. All you need to do is to remember that. All wounds are healed, all weariness disappears, all discouraging thoughts vanish by just one loving, tender glance from Mother’s eyes. When she sees your earnestness, zeal and enthusiasm for Truth, she plants Hope in your heart, which grows up in time into a mighty tree of Love, under whose shade anyone may come and find peace.
You don’t have to wait passively for Mother’s gifts. No, you must force your will upon her. That’s what every child does. The child weeps and wails, pleads and pesters his mother to give what she or he needs. Mother wants you to do it. There’s no fun in giving to the child what she or he is not interested in. Nor will she give if she sees your interest is just mediocre, half-hearted. If you haven’t become sufficiently “hungry” for her gifts, she’ll wait until you become so. She loves to see her children surround her and demanding—yes, demanding, not begging—their heritage. Just don’t give up until she relents—and relent she will, have no doubt about it.