This article originally appeared in Volume 14 (Fall 2009) of American Vedantist and is reprinted with their permission. The article appears in two parts. Read Part 2 here.
Swami Prabhavananda (1893-1976) founded the Vedanta Society of Southern California in 1929. He was born in the village of Surmanagar and brought up in Vishnupur, about twenty miles west of Holy Mother’s hometown of Jayrambati. The swami met eleven of the sixteen monastic disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, many of whom he lived with and knew intimately, and from the disciples he heard numerous stories about Holy Mother. In addition, he met Swami Sadananda, Mahendra Nath Gupta, Girish Ghosh and Sister Nivedita.
Material for this article was drawn from 13 lectures on Holy Mother given by Swami Prabhavananda between 1948 and 1975.
The life of Holy Mother has been written beautifully by many authors, and so I will not recount her life story. First, I will give you my own experiences that I had with her. I had the blessed fortune to meet her many times in my life. I shall also relate to you what I have heard directly from the disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, and you will find how they looked upon her; as well as some stories I have heard from her attendant [Rashbehari, later Swami Arupananda], a brother disciple of mine.
Let me first tell you my own experiences with her. Her birthplace Jayrambati was about twenty miles from my hometown. In order to go to her home from Calcutta, she would take a train to my hometown Vishnupur. She would get off at the railway station there and have to wait for some time before she could get a bullock cart to go to her village. At that time, practically nobody in our district knew about Holy Mother.
She was staying at an inn and was on the porch the day I first saw her. A friend and I were going out for a walk. I was then only 14 or 15 years old and I noticed Radhu, Holy Mother’s niece standing and holding one of the pillars. Then we noticed a holy man who was seated and surrounded by many women, who were also seated there. As my friend and I continued walking, we criticized this sadhu. “Look at this holy man surrounded by women!” As a result, look what happened to me! When we returned from our walk, it was a little dark. My friend was to go home in one direction, and I was to go home in another direction. But something drew me back to this holy man. He said, “Will you see Holy Mother?” I got excited because I had read the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna at that time. You see, as a young boy I was an atheist. And it was the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna that attracted me. As I read the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Naren and Rakhal, these two names attracted me. Of course, Naren [Swami Vivekananda] was not living then, so I had Rakhal [Swami Brahmananda] on my mind.
I said, “Holy Mother. Do you mean Paramahamsa’s wife?” “Yes.” She was right there and so I touched her toes. You see we did that with our fingers. And she kissed me like our mother’s kiss, by placing her fingers on the chin and then putting them to her lips. Then she said, “Son, haven’t I seen you before?” I said, “No, Mother, I have not seen you.” Of course, mothers recognize their children but unfortunately, children do not recognize the mother who is the Mother of the Universe.
Holy Mother would come to Calcutta and stay at the Udbodhan Office. Visitors were allowed twice a week to come and touch her feet. One day was reserved for the women and another day reserved for the men. I used to go to see her once a week and she would remain veiled. And so I used to go and touch her toes. She would be seated with her body and face covered. You could see only her feet. Thousands of people would come. There would be rows of people in lines for two or three blocks. Not that I had any special reverence for Holy Mother, because I always considered her to be a simple countrywoman, like my own mother. However, I used to go because I would get a wonderful sensation like an electric shock every time I touched her toes. Later I learned in that way she transmitted spiritual power. But I didn’t know. Just for that sensation, I went to see her once a week, because afterwards I would feel a soothing influence in my whole body. Holy Mother used to come and live in Calcutta for six months as a general rule, and then go to back to Jayrambati for six months. This was around 1910 or 1911.
One time another friend of mine [who became Swami Amriteswarananda] and I came together to Vishnupur. Unfortunately he died young. If he had lived today, I am sure he would have become the President of our Order. I use to call him Paresh. In our home we stayed, and then we hired a bullock cart and traveled, sleeping in the bullock cart, all night. First, we went to Koalpara [about three miles from Jayrambati], where Holy Mother used to come and stay occasionally. In Koalpara there is an adobe house where there is a picture of Holy Mother and Sri Ramakrishna. We saw a picture of Holy Mother, which she installed and worshiped herself. And so we had the blessed fortune to see that picture and bow down to it. Sri Ramakrishna himself also worshiped his own picture and said, “Someday this picture [meaning his own photo] will be worshiped in many homes in the world.”
I always carried a picture of Holy Mother. In the Udbodhan Office, I had a friend who gave me that picture. Generally, they did not sell them at that time. I carried that picture all my life. Holy Mother told in a vision, “I see many in America placing my picture on the left of Thakur.” I think I was the first one who did that. That is the picture you see there in the [Hollywood Vedanta Society] shrine.
As we went to Mother’s house, we were late to arrive. She had told her attendant Rashbehari, a swami [Swami Arupananda] who later recorded the teachings of Holy Mother [1909-13, 1918], “Two of Rakhal’s sons are coming. Save some food for them.” We did not write to her nor was there any telephone, but she knew we were coming.
When we would go to her village, she didn’t have a veil or anything like that. Then like a mother she served us food on leaf plates. One very interesting thing: she looked like one’s own Mother to whoever saw her. So she appeared to me as my own mother. I saw no difference. It was not only like that with me, but also with many others I have known. When we would see her, she would act and behave just like our own mother. She sat by us and asked us if we liked the food, just as our own mother does. If we liked something, then she would give us more. So in that way she fed us. I have never eaten such food in my life. It was like nectar, I still remember that. After finishing the leaf plates, we were going to throw them out. Then Mother said, “What are you doing?” “We cannot leave these leaf plates here. We ate in those.” Then she said, “What would you have done if your mother had been present?” So we left them there.
Both of us stayed there for three days and three nights. When we left Holy Mother, she stood by the door and kissed us. And as far as she could see, she kept looking at us. This was the custom she had with everybody that used to go to her. These were wonderful times. We did not have any teaching or anything; she did not teach us anything. Just to see her and to touch her feet was enough.
While we were there, she initiated one young man. As we came back, we saw he was very sick and was dying. And at the moment of death, he sat straight up and chanted the mantra that Holy Mother gave to him. So it was a wonderful death from that standpoint.
When we were students in Calcutta, they gave word to us that Mother will be coming to the Belur Math and they needed volunteers. So many of our college boys went there. We stood in rows at the Belur Math. It was not the present big monastery, so there was very little room there. Holy Mother was carried in a palanquin up to the gate, and then they had a chair prepared for her. There were four disciples of Sri Ramakrishna: Maharaj (Swami Brahmananda), Swami Saradananda, Swami Premananda, and Swami Shivananda. They carried her on their shoulders. Then Maharaj gave the order that nobody should bow down before Mother at that time. But we saw Khoka Maharaj, Swami Subodhananda. He just rolled on the ground before her. Maharaj said, “Who is that, who is that?” Of course, Khoka Maharaj in the meantime disappeared. So Mother was carried by these four swamis upstairs to the shrine room. I believe she was worshiped at that time by these disciples. One thing I know that while she was living, she was worshiped by hundreds and thousands of people as a living Goddess.
While living on earth, I saw her only once more when I became a monk and three of us [Prajnan Maharaj and Satyen (Swami Atmabodhananda)] were going to Mayavati. Maharaj [Swami Brahmananda] said to us, “Go and take the blessings of Holy Mother.” So we went. At that time, she did not have a veil and of course, she kissed us as usual. Then she offered us each one flower. I do not know what the others did but when the flower dried up, I threw it away.
A funny incident comes to my mind. There was a Brahmin and he came to show his respects to Holy Mother. She used to appear in Calcutta and would cover herself completely. She was seated and you could see only her feet. This old man sat down at her feet and began to meditate, and to practice breathing exercises and all kinds of things that a person does in ritualistic worship before an image. Now you see, it was a hot day and Holy Mother was perspiring with her veil, all covered up. Then one attendant of Holy Mother, Golap Ma, came and dragged him out and said to him, “What is this? Do you think this is a clay image that you have to bring life into her?”
There is another very interesting story. I do not know if these stories are published, I have no idea. It occurred in the Udbodhan Office while Holy Mother was there. You see, downstairs was the Udbodhan Office, and upstairs was the place for Holy Mother. There was a bedstead and on the other side of the bedstead there was a shrine. She stayed in the shrine during that time. There was one holy man who came, who did not belong to our Order. He prostrated before Holy Mother and then came and sat at the Udbodhan Office downstairs. Mother sent three fruits to this holy man, but he kept silent. They said, “Go away now. Go away now,” but he would not listen to anybody. He sat straight there and would not move. About an hour later Holy Mother sent another fruit. As he received that fruit he began to dance in joy saying, “At long last Mother gave me liberation.” You see, three fruits dharma, artha, kama. Dharma is merit, artha is fortune, and kama is what you desire. But moksha the fourth fruit is liberation. So when Mother gave him three fruits he held them and would not move until she sent another fruit.
Now I will tell you how Swamiji, Maharaj, and Swami Yogananda who was her attendant, would touch her feet. Swamiji would dip himself in the Ganges six or seven times. He thought he was not pure enough to touch her feet. And then only he would go and touch her feet. But you see we didn’t know. We went under any condition. But Maharaj would go just like a little boy who had done something wrong and was afraid to approach his mother. So he would compose himself first by saying, “Hello Radhu, how are you?” Then he would bow down to her and try to go away. And the Mother would say, “Rakhal sit down.” On other occasions, Swami Brahmananda would approach Holy Mother with spiritual emotion and fervor and his whole body would be shaking. That is, he would be in ecstatic consciousness whenever he would approach to touch the feet of Holy Mother. Swami Yogananda who was her attendant, would not touch her feet. Where she would stand, there he would take the dust after she left. Of course, all this happened after Thakur passed away.
Perhaps you know the story how, when Thakur passed away Mother wept saying, “O Mother why did you leave me alone?” What a relationship they had! She called him “Mother” and he called her “Mother.” And then she was going to take the dress of a widow. In a vision Thakur said to her, “I am not dead, just this room and that room separates us, that is all.” She had to live in a village where she wore a white cloth with a red border. You see widows are not allowed to use a red border. Also, a widow is not supposed to have any vermilion here on her forehead. But I learned she used to put vermilion in another place so it would not be noticeable, because she knew he was not dead.
She made no difference between sinner or saint. While Thakur was living, he asked three followers of his to take initiation from Holy Mother. But later after the passing away of Sri Ramakrishna, she initiated anybody who asked. Holy Mother made this remark, “Thakur selected his disciples, but he is sending me them like ants in rows,” and she initiated everyone that came to her.
She looked equally upon all. There was a Muslim robber [Amjad], what we call a “dacoit.” He had great respect and reverence for Holy Mother and his whole life changed. He used to bring fruits for Mother. When a woman of the household was offering him food, she was almost throwing the foodstuff at him. Holy Mother was shocked. She said, “What is this? He is as much my child as Sarat,” Swami Saradananda. Then she herself served him food.
In this connection there is a very interesting story that I remember. There was a drunken man and Swami Saradananda never allowed him to go and see Holy Mother, because he did not know how he would behave. He remained drunk almost all of the time. At twelve o’clock midnight, he would come and roll on the ground near the Udbodhan where Holy Mother lived upstairs and sing a song to this effect.
“Cherish my precious Mother Shayma, tenderly within, O mind. May you and I alone behold Her, letting no one else intrude.” And then he would add the line, “Let not the rascal Sarat intrude.” As he would sing that song, Holy Mother suddenly would open the door and come out and bless him.
Holy Mother disobeyed Sri Ramakrishna at one time. There was a woman of ill character, and she wanted to offer food to Sri Ramakrishna. So she carried the food to him and Holy Mother followed her. Then Sri Ramakrishna could not touch that food. Holy Mother said, “No, you have to take that food. Whoever calls me ‘Mother,’ he is my son or she is my daughter. You have to eat that.” And he had to. She saw no sinner, no saint. Of course, this woman was completely transformed.
Swami Vivekananda used to say about her that Holy Mother lived in samadhi all the time. At the same time she would be active, doing the household duties, talking and appearing in a normal state. It was phenomenal. I have heard Swami Turiyananda say that, “Mother never comes down from her throat center. We have difficulty to bring our mind to that center, and Holy Mother finds it difficult to come down from the highest center to this center, and forcibly keep her mind there.” Just think of that, a man of God is speaking. In other words, she lived in bhava samadhi or samadhi all of the time and at the same time carried on the work. See the power of Mother.
There was the nephew of Sri Ramakrishna, Shibuda [Shibu, Shivaram]. I met him, both Ramlal and Shibuda the younger brother. He was very much devoted to Holy Mother. At one time Holy Mother was going from Jayrambati to Kamarpukar, and Shibuda was carrying her clothing and what things she required. Suddenly Shibuda turned toward her and said, “Auntie tell me who you are.” “Oh Shibuda what are you saying, I am your auntie.” “Well if you are my auntie only, then here is your bag. You carry it yourself.” Then she said, “No, I am Mother Kali.” Then he carried it.
Another time Shibuda came and wanted to stay there for three nights in Jayrambati. Mother said, “How is that, what about the worship of the deities?” He said, “I have finished the worship for three days and three nights.” “That won’t do, you have to offer worship everyday. Go back.” “All right auntie, but tell me who you are.” Then again she said, “I am Mother Kali.” So he chanted some verses bowing down to Mother.
Swami Ramakrishnananda took her to South India. There was a woman who I believe was a disciple of Maharaj. This woman did not know any language but Tamil, and Holy Mother only Bengali. But they would talk together for an hour or so and perfectly understand each other. This happened when Holy Mother came to visit the Ramakrishna Monastery in Bangalore. I heard this from a famous swami who was present on the occasion. She was taken out for a ride and when she came back, there were about a thousand people gathered there. Mother looked at them and said in Bengali [which meant], “I wish I could speak your language.” When this was interpreted to the audience they said, “No Mother we do not want to hear you speak, we just want your darshan.” Holy Mother meditated on a rock there in Bangalore, and today they have a little shrine there with the picture of Mother.
How she received the Western disciples of Swamiji is something. When Swamiji went back from this country [America], he took some women disciples—Nivedita, Tantine and Mrs. Ole Bull. They were introduced to Holy Mother who was seated near them on the floor. They were given sweets on a plate, and of course, there was no talk because Mother did not know their language. Swamiji was standing and these disciples were taking their food. Suddenly, Holy Mother stooped down and took one of the sweets. Mother said, “Why should I not eat from the same plate with my own daughters?” That even thrilled Swamiji because he knew that she had accepted his Western disciples.
During her mahasamadhi all of Thakur’s disciples were present there. Her disciples were not allowed to come at that time, except her attendant. Three days before she passed away, she was eating puffed rice mixed with mustard oil and green onions and green chilies. That is the favorite food of our women in that district. She was very sick, and she was eating that. So Golap Ma went and told Swami Saradananda, and he came and bowed down to her. She said, “My son what can I do for you?” and she was hiding the food like a little girl. Then Swami Saradananda said, “I want that,” pointing to the food. So Mother gave it to him. After three days she passed away. That made Swami Saradananda feel very bad.
During the period of her mahasamadhi when she was passing away, Maharaj [Swami Brahmananda] did not come. He was at Bhubaneswar. Swami Saradananda was asked, “Why is it that all of you disciples are present and only Maharaj is not present?” Swami Saradananda said, “Maharaj is not like us.” You see Maharaj had the power to stay wherever he was and yet come [in subtle form] and visit anyone. So he visited her. Mother knew. Swami Saradananda also knew and that’s why he said, “He is not like one of us.” At exactly the time of her death Maharaj told Swami Nirvanananda, “Mother just left her body.” The telegram came exactly at that hour. At that time Holy Mother’s beauty came out. While living, that beauty was not there, because people might look at her with impure eyes and that would harm them. So her real beauty came out when she passed away.
Now Swami Saradananda felt very bad that he took away the plate of food from Holy Mother. When Maharaj came to Calcutta, Swami Saradananda told that story and said, “Maharaj you have to eat this food and let her eat through your mouth.” Then he prepared that same thing, and Maharaj in an ecstatic mood took that food.
[Swami Prabhavananda then recited some of Holy Mother’s teachings and read a letter over six hundred words in length, from Swami Premananda to Surendra about the glories of Holy Mother].
I should tell you in this connection because they are taking the collection, Sri Ramakrishna could not touch money. But Holy Mother whenever any money would come to her would touch it to her foreword, because that is Mother Lakshmi and that is how we are fed.
(Continued in Part 2)