By Swami Tyagananda
Swami Tyagananda is the 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.
Telo-bhelo. Many devotees of Holy Mother Sarada Devi know what that name stands for. The very mention of “Telo-bhelo” brings before their mind’s eye a long and lonesome stretch of land on the way from Jayrambati to Dakshineswar. A meadow that was at one time infested with armed thieves known in India as dacoits. No one dared in those days to cross that place at night or alone.
Time: a little before sunset, in February, 1877. A group arrives near Telo-bhelo, among them is Sarada, barely twenty-four. They pause for a moment, aware of the danger ahead. After a quick powwow they decide they’ll be able to cross the meadow before it gets dark, so they press on. Tired and footsore, Sarada is finding it difficult to keep up with her companions. They glance at her now and then with impatience. Sensing their anxiety at the approaching night, Sarada urges them to hurry, saying she’ll follow and meet them at Tarakeswar, the village on the other side of the meadow.
The sun gradually sinks below the horizon. Sarada is trudging alone when she suddenly sees a tall figure approaching her in the dusk. Seeing a long, stout stick on the man’s shoulder, she realizes who this fierce-looking person is. She stands still. In a gruff, stern voice the stranger hisses, “Who’s there? Where are you going?” As the man comes nearer, Sarada says softly, “Father, I am your daughter.”
It’s amazing what five little words can do when they are uttered with total honesty and simplicity. The dacoit, obviously taken aback by this response, says gently, “Don’t be afraid. There’s a woman with me. She’ll be here presently.” Soon enough, the dacoit’s wife is seen at a distance. Sarada says to the dacoit, “Father, my companions have gone ahead. Perhaps I am going in the wrong direction. Your son-in-law lives at the Kali temple at Dakshineswar. I’m going to him. Please come with me there. He will greatly appreciate your kindness and help.”
By this time the dacoit’s wife has joined them. Trustfully Sarada clasps her hand and says, “Mother, I am your child Sarada. I couldn’t keep pace with my people and lagged behind. I’m terribly frightened. It is by sheer luck that you and Father have come; otherwise I do not know what I would have done.”
The dacoit couple probably wonder whether they are dreaming. Finding a potential victim nervous, jittery, ready to flee is normal. But here is one young woman who expressed relief and joy at meeting them. And to top it all, they hear that she is their daughter! We do not know what thoughts ran through their minds, but we know the eventual result: they accept Sarada as their daughter. The dacoit couple guide her to the nearest village, buy some simple food for her, and then make her rest in the village inn. The dacoit-Father keeps watch all night, sitting outside with his stick nearby.
Early next morning they set out for Tarakeswar, the village where Sarada was to spend the night with her companions. Soon after reaching the village, they are spotted by her people, who are relieved to find her safe. She tells them, “I don’t know what I would have done if these kind people had not taken me under their wing.”
When the moment of parting comes, Sarada’s dacoit parents begin to weep. Giving her some green peas, the dacoit-Mother a says, “Child, when you eat puffed rice tonight, please take these peas with it.” Later, the couple visit Dakshineswar several times with gifts and Sri Ramakrishna receives them affectionately as if they were his relatives.
What are we to make of this incident? It is possible to give a supernatural slant to it by saying, what the dacoit-couple saw in Sarada was not really their daughter but the Divine Mother. One version does indeed run like that, although it also mentions Mother’s refusal to confirm she had anything to do with what they saw. It is also possible to be hardheaded and say that it was just luck that Mother’s brainwave successfully disarmed the dacoits by invoking their sympathy.
Neither of these explanations seems convincing or particularly useful to us. If Mother overcame the crisis by revealing her divinity (a claim disowned by Mother herself), we learn nothing about how to face such situations in our own lives. We merely have one more incident, among many others, showing her divine nature. On the other hand, seeing Mother’s actions as a part of a cute trick to save herself would be a bigger blunder. It is so un-Motherlike to say something and not mean it. Throughout her life, Mother’s thoughts, words and actions were in perfect harmony with one another. If a dacoit’s appearance could unsettle that harmony, Sarada would not have become the Holy Mother we worship today.
It is clear that we must look deeper into this episode to learn what lesson it has for us. Almost the first thing that strikes us is that a dacoit is never just a dacoit. That is only one, of the many identities a person can have. A dacoit is also a father or mother, a brother or sister, a son or daughter, a friend, a neighbor. This is true of all of us. We have many different identities. We relate to people around us in different ways and we switch our roles many times in a day without even knowing we are doing it.
Another thing we are reminded of is of the various—and often mutually contradictory—traits of our personality. At present we are unfortunately more complex than we believe we are. Our heart is a garden full of seeds, some good and some bad, some constructive and some destructive. We have seeds of love and also seeds of hatred; seeds of compassion and also of cruelty; of restraint and also of indulgence; of trust and of distrust; of humility and of arrogance; of openness and of pettiness. You name it, we’ve got it. It’s a big mess down there in our heart and most of us shudder to even peep into it.
Which of our identities becomes operative at a given time and which seeds get sprouted depend on the particular situation and the people we are with. Ideally, this shouldn’t be the case. I must be my own master. Why should I allow external factors to condition my behavior and determine my responses? I shouldn’t really, but that is exactly what I do. So I find myself in a friendly-mode in the company of one person and in a reserved-mode in the company of another. I don’t “choose” to do this; it just happens that way.
Some people water the seeds of love in my heart and I love them; some water the seeds of hatred and I hate them. Isn’t all this crazy? It’s my garden. Why should I leave it at the mercy of every Tom, Dick and Harriet? It’s embarrassing that I have no security system to protect my garden. Just anyone walks in and waters any of the seeds here. All I do is watch helplessly the birth of now a beautiful plant, now an ugly weed.
It’s not as if I don’t ever water my garden. I do it, but it’s done as mechanically and carelessly as I lead the rest of my life. Result? I water wrong seeds at the wrong time and suffer. I water others’ gardens too. There also I water the wrong seeds and not only suffer myself but make them suffer also. Sometimes I accidentally water the good and healthy seeds in my own and others’ hearts, and that gives me peace, joy, and the sense of being free. But these are fleeting experiences which vanish as soon as the water dries up.
Holy people are skillful gardeners of the heart. It is, however, better to put the statement the other way round, because skillful gardening comes first and holiness later. Only when we become skillful gardeners of the heart do we give ourselves a chance to become holy. A holy person can distinguish between good seeds and bad seeds, separate them, and water only those seeds that’ll produce healthy, beautiful plants with fragrant flowers and nourishing fruits. That is why we see a holy person always thinking positive thoughts, speaking loving words, and engaged in constructive activity. A natural result of the sprouting of good seeds.
We now understand the secret of holy company—why company of the holy makes us more peaceful, joyful, hopeful, loving. These things are not injected into us from outside. We already had the seeds of all these, perhaps lying unnoticed, unwatered in some neglected corner of our heart. What a holy person does is to water these seeds in our heart, and that makes us, as it were, new persons. When we become “new”, the world around us becomes “new” also.
Let us go back to Telo-bhelo and take another look at our dacoit grandparents. When a dacoit is on the prowl he is obviously wearing his dacoit-identity. As a part of that identity he automatically switches on certain traits of his personality, such as roughness, rudeness, ruthlessness. Treating such a person as a dacoit would only strengthen these seeds. Mother knew this. With her “Father, I am your daughter” she watered the seeds of parental love, care, and concern in the man’s heart. The man’s dacoit-identity was switched off and the father-identity took its place. A similar thing happened in the case of the dacoit-Mother too. When the identities were changed, their perception and attitude also changed. In the young traveler before them, they couldn’t see a potential victim, they saw their daughter.
Now let’s get this clear. It’s not just the words “Father, I am your daughter” that brought about the transformation. If you and I say something like that, nothing may come of it. Lord knows, it might even produce some unintended effect. Something more than just words is involved. here. The mind goes back to another five words: “Sisters and Brothers of America.” When Vivekananda uttered them, they electrified the audience and the echoes of those words continue to reverberate in our hearts even today. But if you and I dare to use the same words, it’s going to sound theatrical, stuffy, gimmicky. Words are only vehicles. Without power to drive them, they are fit only for the garage or the junkyard. But if they are filled with power—watch out!—they can crash the gates of any heart.
Mother’s “Father, I am your daughter” carried tremendous power born of skillful gardening of the human heart. It’s only this power than can identify the right seeds, water them at the right time, and transform people. And this power comes when we have succeeded in transforming our own selves first. Mother had this power in the fullest measure. There are any number of incidents in her life to testify this. The wonders she did with this power during her lifetime is a small matter, when we consider that her power is continuing to operate with a much greater magnitude even today and is transforming the lives of people in the East and the West.
We all can become skillful gardeners of the human heart. Not just “can,” we must, if we want lasting peace, joy, freedom in life. There is no other way. We’ve got to begin by watering the healthy, positive seeds within us. This is same as saying we must consciously rouse our good samskaras at all times and in all situations. While dealing with others, we must take care that we never water the wrong seeds in their heart. This is not easy, but it is a practice that is perfected through repeated effort and experience.
Although perfection may take time, even imperfect practice is good enough to bring positive results and encourage us to strive harder. We’ll see that within a few weeks of our practice we’ll already begin to feel more peaceful, more joyful, more loving. We’ll be amazed to see dramatic improvements in our interpersonal relationships.
If it is difficult to believe so much can change with just a little bit of conscious gardening of the human heart, all we need to do is to give it a trial, and find out the truth for ourselves. After all, we cannot forget the fact that “Father, I am your daughter” changed a fierce dacoit into a loving father. We may never encounter a dacoit in our life. But getting the people around us to be more loving, kind, considerate, helpful is not a bad idea.