Sarada Devi: The Holy Mother

By Swami Nikhilananda

Swami Nikhilananda, a disciple of Sri Sarada Devi, founded the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York in 1933, and remained its head until his death in 1973. Swami Nikhilananda translated the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and other scriptures, and also wrote biographies of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, and Swami Vivekananda. The author of Hinduism: Its Meaning for the Liberation of the Spirit, and Man in Search of Immortality, Swami Nikhilananda also compiled Vivekananda: The Yogas and Other Works. His greatest literary contribution was his translation from the original Bengali into English of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.“Sarada Devi: the Holy Mother” is an excerpt from the Vedanta and the West article, “Some Glimpses of Holy Mother” which appeared in the September-October, 1962, edition of Vedanta and the West. This article was a chapter from Swami Nikhilananda’s book, Holy Mother.

Holy Mother, in a unique way, fulfilled the duties of wife, mother, and nun. There have been before in the world the ideal wife, the ideal mother, and the ideal nun, but a combination of the three in one person is rare indeed. Holy Mother was wedded to Sri Ramakrishna at the age of five, lived with him as long as he lived, and ministered to his physical needs in the best tradition of a Hindu wife. She was his companion in spiritual life. She demonstrated that wifely devotion and love are possible without demanding physical satisfaction from one’s mate.

In spite of her marriage she remained a nun, pure in body and mind, and in uninterrupted communion with God. Though she had no children of the flesh, she had many of the spirit. Like an earthly mother she looked after her disciples’ physical comfort. But unlike an earthly mother she was totally unattached in her love and expected no return from it. Truly Sister Nivedita declared that Holy Mother was Sri Ramakrishna’s last word on the ideal of Indian womanhood. But why of Indian womanhood alone? She can very well represent the universal ideal of womanhood.

Holy Mother’s immaculate purity, her unceasing meditation and prayer, her all-embracing compassion and utter selflessness, endowed her with the delicacy and tenderness of a maiden, a subtle grace and quiet dignity, and withal guilelessness and simplicity.

Her innate motherliness put visitors at ease. To a person coming to her for the first time, she conveyed the feeling that she had been eagerly waiting for him. Holy Mother always inspired reverence but never a feeling of remoteness.

Sri Ramakrishna used to speak of two kinds of illumined persons. One consists of ordinary human beings who through the practice of spiritual disciplines attain the knowledge of Brahman and merge in the Supreme Spirit. They are no longer concerned with the activities of the transitory phenomenal world. The others are God-men, born perfect, who have a special message for humanity. After the realization of their true nature, they remain at the phenomenal level, working for the spiritual regeneration of their fellow creatures. God becomes manifest through God-men. The Infinite sings its melody through their finite minds and bodies. Hence the sport of God as a human bein, the naralila, is so appealing. Reason cannot unravel this mystery, but the heart may enjoy it.

It is extremely difficult for ordinary people to recognize God when he is embodied as a human being. An apparent victim of hunger and thirst, pain and pleasure, hope and despair, sickness and fear, he weeps, laughs, and suffers without really losing awareness of his divine nature. In the God-man humanity blends with divinity. When living at the phenomenal level the God-man is alert about human affairs, possesses practical knowledge and realism, and observes the conventions of society. Side by side with divine ecstasies, he cultivates humility, magnanimity, ethical sensitivity, love, the spirit of service, modesty, and other similar traits in order to set a model for others. He also shows how one living in the world can rise above it and enjoy inner peace in the midst of life’s turmoil and worry.

The life of Holy Mother is a demonstration of these facts. Though an embodiment of divinity, she identified herself of her own accord with the lives of her relatives, the people of her village, and her devotees. She rejoiced at the happiness of others and wept at their suffering. Purposely she often suppressed her true nature, because, as she said, “The excessive manifestation of divinity creates fear in the minds of devotees; they cannot feel intimate.” Once a disciple spoke of her being the Divine Mother, and she said, “You always harp on that one theme. I say that I am your mother, and that does not satisfy you.” Her language was simple and natural, and her conduct spontaneous and unostentatious. She never lost these characteristics, even while giving initiation or spiritual instruction. In her conduct she was always alert, remembering that in the future people would regard her as an ideal to follow.

Her brothers regarded her as their affectionate big sister, her nieces and nephews as their indulgent aunt, and her disciples as their mother. Many ladies, after visiting her, said that she was just like one of them. Yet she said to a disciple that, even in the midst of all her activities, by a mere wish she could remember her divine nature in a flash, and realize the world to be the playground of maya. If she was constantly conscious of her true self, how could she fulfill her mission?

How humble she was! Once when she was ill an ordinary priest was called in to perform some special worship for her recovery. After the ceremony she took the dust of his feet. When someone told her of his having a loose character, she remarked, “That may be. One must show respect for the brahminical garb. The Master was not born to break traditions.”

Often she said to her disciples that she constantly prayed for the total effacement of her ego. And yet she once said openly: “I am the Primordial Power, the Mother of the Universe. I have assumed this body out of compassion for the world. I have been born in every epoch in the past; I shall be born, too, in the future.”

She respected the traditions and norms of society. One notices here a difference between Holy Mother and Buddha and Shankara. Buddha repudiated the gods, religious rituals, the scriptures, and the caste system as obstacles to attaining the freedom of nirvana. Shankara accepted all these as preparatory disciplines for the knowledge of Brahman, which he said could be attained only by monks who renounced the world and went beyond rituals, worship, and social convention. Holy Mother, however, though practicing true renunciation, remained a householder and till the end of her life respected the gods, rituals, and social proprieties. She performed religious rites and showed veneration even to a minor deity such as the village goddess Simhavahini. Someone said to her, “Mother, why do you do that? Everything happens by your will alone.” The Mother replied, “If you vow to worship gods and goddesses at the time of illness, you can be cured by their grace. Besides, everyone should get his due.” Before she started on a trip she consulted the almanac for the auspicious day, according to the Hindu belief. She enjoyed listening to the reading of Hindu religious books.

Generally Holy Mother obeyed caste rules; but she often made exceptions in the case of her disciples, especially about food restrictions. In her opinion devotees of God belonged to a single caste, a spiritual family. About other social matters she used her discrimination and common sense and did not wantonly violate social standards. In most respects Holy Mother lived as a Hindu widow of the brahmin caste, though Sri Ramakrishna had assured her that he was not really dead.

An orthodox Hindu widow is not permitted to remarry and thus leads the austere life of a nun. This austerity is all the more rigorous in the case of a brahmin widow. She avoids such food, clothes, and ornaments that may stimulate her physical desires. Thus she is permitted to eat a full vegetarian meal at midday, but takes only fruit and milk at night. She cannot eat certain foods, such as onions or garlic. A widow in Bengal uses a white sari without a border, cuts her hair short, and gives up all ornaments. Through these strict disciplines imposed on widows, the Hindu lawgivers constantly reminded them of the ideal of chastity, which is deeply ingrained in the Indian mind. They wanted widows to be living examples of simplicity, renunciation, purity, nonattachment, and the spirit of unselfish service.

Holy Mother observed some of these rules. Like a Hindu widow, she was a vegetarian, but again, unlike a Hindu widow, she did not cut her hair, wore gold bracelets, put on a sari with a narrow red border, and ate a light supper at night. On many occasions she did not observe the pollution of food by touch, especially when some of her nonbrahmin women disciples touched her plate. She regarded all her disciples as her own children. For some young widows who were her disciples she relaxed the strict rules about food, saying to one of them, “What good will it do to torture the soul?” To another she said, “If the soul’s craving for food is not satisfied, one commits an offense.”

Holy Mother condemned the morbid passion for purity, especially regarding pollution by touch, that people show in the name of religious orthodoxy. But she never encouraged or condoned carelessness, and she disapproved of vanity.

Holy Mother was practical and realistic about mundane affairs. She learned to be so from Sri Ramakrishna at Kamarpukur after her marriage, and later at Dakshineswar. For example, she scolded some of her disciples for going on foot to Jayrambati from Koalpara on a stormy night and said, “This kind of rashness is not right.”

One day Swami Vivekananda dismissed a servant for stealing money. The servant went to Holy Mother at the Udbodhan and said to her with tears in his eyes, “Mother, I am very poor and cannot manage my expenses with my small salary. I have a big family. That is why I acted that way.” In the afternoon Swami Premananda came to her house, and the Mother said to him, “Look here, Baburam, this man is very poor. Being harassed by want he stole the money. But why should Naren scold him and send him away? You are all monks and do not realize the afflictions of householders. Take this servant back.” When told that this might annoy Swami Vivekananda, she said with firmness: “Take him back; I am asking you to do so.”

When Swami Premananda returned to the Belur Math with the servant, Swami Vivekananda said, “See what Baburam has done; he has brought back that fellow.” But when he heard what the Mother had said, the Swami did not utter another word and took him back.

Holy Mother highly disapproved of carelessness and waste. Once, after sweeping the courtyard at Jayrambati, someone threw the broom aside carelessly. She reprimanded the person, saying that the broom could have been treated a little more gently. Everything should be shown proper respect. On another occasion, at the Udbodhan, she expressed her displeasure because an empty basket was thrown away by one of the inmates. She said to the monks that, being world-renouncers, they might not care for a trivial thing like a basket, but nevertheless it could have been preserved for some other useful purpose.

One day she gave a disciple a special dish of food that she had prepared. The quantity was too great. He ate what he could and was about to throw away the rest when the Mother asked him to give it to a poor neighbor. Afterwards she said to the disciple, “We should give everyone his due. What is not edible for man, give to a cow; what is not edible for a cow, give to a dog; what is not edible for a dog, throw into a lake for fish to eat. But never waste.”

Holy Mother urged the monks to shun idleness, and she herself was intensely active both in Calcutta and at Jayrambati. Her life in both places generally followed the same pattern. She always got up at three in the morning, as was her habit during the Dakshineswar days, and did not retire before eleven o’clock at night. At Jayrambati, where she was mistress of the house, she busied herself with various household activities and at the same time talked to her intimate attendants. When she was in good health she also took part in the more strenuous household duties, like scouring utensils, carrying water from the tank, or husking paddy.

The Mother herself made the arrangements for the daily worship, such as gathering flowers, at which she was sometimes assisted by her nieces or devotees. After the worship she went into the kitchen and relieved the cook, who would then go out for her refreshment or to attend to any other personal needs. She herself cooked most of the food to be offered to the Master in the shrine. In earlier days Holy Mother with her own hands served all the devotees their meals, and she herself ate only after they had finished eating. Sometimes she worked in the kitchen in the evening in order to relieve the cook from overwork.

One evening an attendant was reading a letter from a disciple to Holy Mother. It was full of eulogy and adoration. After listening to it she remarked, “Often I say to myself, I am but the daughter of Ram Mukherjee. Many of my contemporaries are still alive at Jayrambati. In what respect do I differ from them? Devotees come from unknown places and prostrate themselves before me. I am told that some of them are judges and some lawyers. Why should they come to me in this way?”

The answer to her query was given by herself. She once said: “People call me the Divine Mother. I think, maybe they are right. How otherwise can one explain the strange things that have happened in my life?. . . If I say to myself that a certain thing should happen, the wish is always fulfilled.”

There existed an extraordinary relationship between Sri Ramakrishna and Holy Mother. She often spoke of herself as his handmaid and instrument, as one of the many seekers who found refuge at his feet. When a devotee asked her advice she said, “I do not know anything. I repeat only what I have heard from the Master. Read The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna and you will know all you need.” To another who asked her blessing she said, “The Master will bless you.”

How often she asked her disciples to pray for her so that she might not have a trace of vanity! She repeatedly asked the devotees to cling to Sri Ramakrishna in order to avoid the pitfalls of life. One day a disciple, asked about his welfare, said that through her blessing he was well. “You all make the same mistake,” she rebuked him. “Why do you bring me into everything? Can’t you speak of the Master? Don’t you see that everything happens by his will?” Regarding the Master she stated, “He is the Supreme God and the Supreme Goddess. He is the essence of all mantras and the embodiment of all deities.” She carried Sri Ramakrishna’s picture everywhere and worshiped it daily, seeing in it his living presence. Often she remarked that one should not make a distinction between the physical body and its shadow in a picture. She talked intimately with the Master and fed him in the picture. And yet she did not conceal the fact that she and the Master were identical and that there was no difference between them except in outer form.

Sri Ramakrishna, too, knew Holy Mother’s nature. He spoke of her as the bestower of wisdom, as his own Shakti. Once, seeing Latu meditating in the Panchavati, he said to him, “You fool, the deity whom you are contemplating is working herself to death by scouring pots and pans.” Here are a few other statements of his about her: “The Mother who is in the temple is the same as the mother who dwells in the nahabat [the small music tower where Holy Mother lived at the Dakshineswar temple].” “If she is displeased with a person, it is beyond even my power to protect him.” “If she is angry she can destroy everything.” “If anyone gives me an offering, I send it to the nahabat; otherwise, how will the giver attain liberation?” As the culmination of his spiritual practices, the Master formally worshiped Holy Mother as the Divine Mother of the universe.

Holy Mother has been described by such epithets as the Divine Mother, the Mother of the universe, Prakriti, Shakti or Power, Mahashakti or the Great Power, and Mahamaya or the Great Deluder. These epithets are not sentimental expressions but have a noetic meaning. . . . Like modern science, Hinduism describes Shakti or Energy as the creator of physical objects and the source of the universe. But according to science this inert and nonintelligent energy is a self-creating, self-preserving, and self-dissolving category. It does not need extraneous help to project phenomena.

According to Hinduism, Shakti is the potency of Brahman and inseparable from it, like fire and its power to burn. The potency is unable to function by itself. Brahman, which is existence, consciousness, and bliss, by its mere presence impregnates Shakti, as it were. Thus names and forms are evolved. The why and wherefore of the infinite Brahman’s becoming the manifold creation, or the One’s becoming the many, or the Absolute’s appearing as the relative, is a profound mystery which cannot be solved by the human mind. After projecting the universe, Shakti casts a spell on the creatures in order to perpetuate the creation. Hence she is called Mahamaya, the Great Deluder. The Creative Energy contains in her womb the seeds of creation and nourishes the creatures after giving birth to them. Finally, at the end of a cosmic cycle, she withdraws the universe into herself.

All women, in a sense, function as the Divine Energy. But her fullest manifestation is seen through the body and mind of a woman of unblemished character. Holy Mother was such a woman. Hence she is regarded as the Supreme Goddess or Great Power, a special manifestation of the Divine Energy. Once a devotee said to her that after her no one would worship the minor goddesses of the Hindu religion. She replied, “Why, they too are parts of me.” Conscious of her divine nature, she kindled the sparks of spirituality in her disciples, accepted their worship, and give them assurance of liberation.

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Sarada Devi: The Holy Mother