This article was written for the Nippon Vedanta Kyokai Golden Jubilee souvenir. Pravrajika Vrajaprana is a nun at Sarada Convent, Santa Barbara.
Although I’ve written on a number of topics related to Vedanta and the Ramakrishna tradition for a number of years, I have never written about Holy Mother, Sri Sarada Devi. That I am doing so now speaks more of my inability to say no to Swami Medhasananda, the head of our Vedanta Center in Japan who requested an article for his Golden Jubilee Souvenir, rather than any influx of newly located courage or wisdom. The reason I have never written on her is that I have always felt greatly unequal to the task and, of course, I still do. The first rule of writing is: “Write what you know.” That is impossible in this case, for Mother is well past our understanding.
It is said in the Devi Mahatmyam that the Divine Mother’s “incomparable greatness and power Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva are unable to describe.” For mortals such as ourselves, writing about Holy Mother is equally formidable because she was so successful at keeping her real nature hidden. While Sri Sarada Devi was a manifestation of the Divine Mother, she cloaked her divinity under the veil of simplicity and humility. Just as the Divine Mother covers herself with the veil of yogamaya, so did Holy Mother keep herself literally veiled, living among us as one of us. It was not for nothing that Sri Ramakrishna once jokingly described her as “a cat hidden under the ashes.”
Indeed, Mother was so efficient at hiding her real nature that few could see who she really was. As Swami Vivekananda said in a letter to Swami Shivananda: “You have not yet understood the wonderful significance of Mother’s life—none of you. But gradually you will know.” If Swamiji could speak to his spiritually illumined brother-disciples like that, where does this leave the rest of us?
Swami Haripremananda recalled that once when he was massaging Mother’s feet, he looked at her thin, shriveled foot and wondered how the Mother of the Universe could have such an emaciated foot. As he continued stroking her feet, the swami said that he clearly saw two incomparably beautiful feet with alta bordering them. “Gold anklets, inlaid with pearls and precious stones adorned the feet. Whose feet had I been tending?” the swami asked himself. When he tried to look at Mother’s face, he
saw the image of Jagaddhatri with golden hue, three eyes, four arms and decked with numerous ornaments. There was a crown on her head and weapons in her hands. A sublime effulgence radiated from her. Before I had had a good look, I cried out, “Mother! Mother!” and lost consciousness.
When the swami awoke, he saw Holy Mother, old and thin, tending to her niece Radhu. This swami was afforded a glimpse of the real nature of Holy Mother, of which most of us will remain ignorant. Yet when we seek for a model for us to emulate, the crown and weapons and four arms won’t do us much good, except to remind us that the woman who disguised herself as a simple village woman was in reality the Divine Mother of the Universe. Beneath her guise of quiet simplicity was a storehouse of infinite divine power, which she chose not to manifest. Once when her young nephew insisted upon her revealing her true identity she finally relented, saying: “People say I am Kali.” Not allowing her any evasion, her nephew held her to her response and questioned her yet again: “Kali? Truly so?” To which Mother replied, “Yes.”
That gives us the first hint of how we can emulate Holy Mother, and that is to remind ourselves that while we are not manifestations of the Divine Mother herself, who has assumed a human form and has disguised herself as an ordinary person, we too have within us an infinite storehouse of divine power. We are ordinary people whose real nature is extraordinary. While Mother chose not to manifest it, most people remain utterly unaware of it. Yet our real nature is the Atman. We are limitless, pure, perfect, free, untouched by grief or pain or death or pettiness of any sort. But we have become so involved in our disguise as limited human beings that we have assumed that role and taken it for granted. While Mother chose to live like a cat hidden under ashes, we have somehow confused ourselves with the ashes themselves. Mother’s choice to keep her divine nature hidden from public view serves to remind us that we must choose to remember our true identity as the Atman and that the goal of our life is to manifest that divinity which lies latent within us.
Sri Ramakrishna said about Holy Mother: “She is Sarada—Saraswati. She is born to bestow knowledge on others.” In her life Mother not only directly bestowed knowledge on others, but she also showed us, through her example, how to attain knowledge and manifest the divinity already within us. No matter how heavily she was engaged in work, her mind remained fixed on God, just as a compass’s needle turns to the north. When she meditated, she remained completely absorbed. Mother worked hard her entire life, never shirking it, and always encouraged others to be engaged in work to keep their minds and bodies in good stead. Her work was concentrated, efficient and careful. Even a broom was to be treated with respect by putting it away carefully. She was practical in her application of work and she was wise about the necessity of work: “One must do some work,” she said. “Through work alone can one remove the bondage of work, not by avoiding work. Total detachment comes later on. One should not be without work even for a moment.”
Every act of work was an act of worship and the underlying music of all her activities was her continual recollection of God. By studying her life and words, we can learn to emulate Mother’s example so that we, too, may try to keep our own minds attuned to God at all times. Mother also left instructions for us on how to keep our minds focused on God. She said: “Meditate every day. . . . Constant meditation will make the mind one-pointed. Mother emphasized that regularity and consistency were extremely important in spiritual life. “No doubt you must do your duties,” she said. “This keeps your mind in good condition. But it is also necessary to practice japa, meditation, and prayer. One must practice these at least in the morning and evening. Such practice acts like the rudder of a boat.” Again, she said: “Practice meditation, and by and by your mind will be so calm and fixed that you will find it hard to keep away from meditation.”
Mother repeatedly emphasized the importance of japa. No matter how deeply we are engaged in work, we can still do japa in order to keep our minds tied to God. She said: “One must practice meditation and japa. These remove the impurities of the mind. . . . As one gets the fragrance of a flower by handling it, or as one gets the smell of sandalwood by rubbing it against a stone, in the same way one gets spiritual awakening by constantly thinking of God.” Just as children learn habits that they maintain their entire life, so we too must develop the habit of keeping recollectedness of God. Mother said: “Just see the power of habit. By the law of habit man attains realization by continuous practice of Japa.” She also said: “ Practice japa. Through that you will attain everything.”
What is so wonderful about Mother’s words is that there is nothing difficult about any of her teachings. It requires no learning, no special training, no special skills. The only thing is really does require is a sincere desire to attain God. With sincerity and earnestness we only need to put simple actions, such as japa and recollectedness, into practice and follow through with regularity and, most importantly of all, with love. For, while it is hardly complicated to repeat one’s mantra and to keep recollect God’s presence, it is devilishly difficult to put it into practice. Years and lifetimes of outgoing tendencies have made our minds recalcitrant and difficult to control. What makes the process natural and easy? Love. When we love someone, we think of them all the time. We can’t help ourselves, our minds go to that person whether we will it or not. Similarly, Mother teaches us that love is the surest, and sweetest, way to remember God.
“If you love a human being, you will have to suffer for it,” Mother said. “He is blessed indeed who can love God alone. There is no suffering in loving God. Be devoted to God and take shelter at his feet. It is enough to remember that there is someone—call him Father or Mother—who is always protecting you.” Those who had the blessing of associating with Holy Mother remember her extraordinary love. Her love made the love of others pale in comparison. Once a senior monk complained to Mother about some younger monks in his charge, and he asked her to be sterner with them and not care for them so much in her motherly way. Affronted, Mother shot back: “Love is our forte.” Love, she continued, is how Sri Ramakrishna’s family had taken shape.
Mother’s love wasn’t the ordinary love that we see with wives and husbands, parents and children, friends and lovers who often end up with bruised feelings, broken hearts, feelings of expectations never met. Mother’s love was constant, incapable of self-seeking and untarnished by any desire for any return. She loved because she was aware of the divinity within every person she encountered; she recognized their real nature and saw everyone as her own. Because she had attained the highest stage of God-realization, it was her direct experience that within every being shone with the light of divinity. Mother effortlessly practiced Vedanta in its highest form. All separation is a delusion, there is nothing but Brahman which pervades the entire universe. When Vedanta becomes a living reality, a lived reality as in the case of Holy Mother, love is the natural, spontaneous response. As Swami Vivekananda said: “Wherever there has been expansion in love or progress in well-being … it has been through the perception, realization, and the practicalization of the eternal truth—the oneness of all beings.”
For Mother this love took form as a Mother’s love, the purest form of human love that we encounter. As Christopher Isherwood charmingly wrote about her: “As she grew older she seemed to inhabit a world made up entirely of her children.” Because of that, Holy Mother was “genuinely unable, like a mother, to see faults in any of them” The following reminiscence shows Mother’s love in action—practical, quiet, humble, deeply thoughtful. This example shows us what divine love means in its practical application. It shows Vedanta in action:
Once an elderly low-caste woman laborer arrived at Mother’s home in Jayrambati to deliver goods sent by a devotee. Mother asked her to bathe and take some rest before she began her return journey. After she had rested, Mother told the woman to spend the night, and she slept in the veranda outside Mother’s door. The woman, not only exhausted but also suffering the effects of malaria, went into a deep sleep and in that sleep she soiled her bed. Waking before dawn, Mother immediately could tell what had happened. She knew that if the incident were discovered, the hapless woman would be very badly treated. So Mother gently woke the woman, quietly gave her puffed rice and molasses and sweetly told her to begin her journey before the heat of the day. The woman departed happily and Mother thoroughly cleaned the area so no one would discover anything amiss. Only an alert devotee who later inquired who had cleaned the veranda was able to uncover what had transpired.
What is so remarkable about this incident is how unremarkable it is—but only if one were dealing with one’s own child. Often we hear mothers say that they never thought they could stand to change babies’ diapers, only to discover that when they had their own child, everything changed. No longer was cleaning excrement abhorrent to them, cleaning up after one’s own child was a tender act of love. And this is how Mother treated an unknown low-caste woman. While we have no concept of “caste” in the West, perhaps we can make the analogy of an unkempt homeless person, a person who is often treated as a throw-away people, unwanted and uncared for. To someone like that Mother was simply her Mother. Just as she is to us, simply our Mother.
Mother teaches us how to live Vedanta in the most natural way possible. The essence of Vedanta philosophy is that Brahman alone is real and that Brahman and Atman are one. The logical extension of this is that if all is Brahman and that the Atman, the deepest part of ourselves, is one with Brahman, then we are all united to one another. “No one is a stranger, my child. The world and you are the same.” Thus Mother’s actions of treating everyone as her own child, in the most vivid and practical way possible, is the way for all of us to live in the world. Perhaps the best way to emulate Holy Mother is to remember how she could never see anyone else as other, whoever she encountered was her dear child. If we can even try to see others as she did: literally seeing others as manifestations of divinity and, as a result, treating them with love, respect and kindness, wouldn’t our life on earth be blessed? And wouldn’t our lives also be a blessing to those around us?