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.
[In other Sunday addresses on Holy Mother, Swami Prabhavananda made the following points:]
Coming into the presence of Holy Mother, even for a second, for a moment was enough. You touch her feet and that is enough. This has been experienced by hundreds and thousands of people. And what happened? Their lives were completely transformed. If one is prepared, if one is ready, then the reaction to that transmission comes immediately. Otherwise, it has a delayed reaction. This is a truth, a fact, that whoever came and had her blessing; their lives were completely transformed. I have seen the sinner become a saint. Not by lectures, not by gathering information about spirituality or religion, but in silence.
Swami Vivekananda used to speak about Holy Mother this way, “Mother lives in that transcendental consciousness continuously and yet keeps her normal consciousness.” Swamiji said about Holy Mother that, “She is the living Durga.” I will tell you how Swami Vivekananda came to this country. First, he had the vision of Ramakrishna who wanted him to come here. But Vivekananda thought, well I must corroborate this vision and who can corroborate it? So he went to Holy Mother without saying anything about the vision. He simply asked her permission—would she permit him to go to America to preach? Holy Mother first thought, “No” he is such a young boy to be in a foreign country. So she was thinking of not allowing him to come and was going to write him, when Sri Ramakrishna came and held her arm and said, “No, ask him to go.” So she blessed Vivekananda and encouraged him to come to this country.
After the passing of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda organized the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. Though Holy Mother held no official position, she was the Mother of the whole organization. Whenever there would arise any doubt or difficulty or any problem, she was the final answer to everything. Swami Vivekananda said that with all their spiritual struggles and with the attainment of samadhi, the highest truth, whenever there would be any subtle problems in spiritual life that they could not answer, Holy Mother in her simple way would dissolve all doubts and bring the solution. As Swamiji used to say, “It is a miracle how that simple country woman knows everything.” Her teachings as I said, were mostly in silence because there was that power in her.
I heard this from her attendant Rashbehari [Swami Arupananda]: Many years after the passing of Sri Ramakrishna, most of the disciples were in Benares for a celebration. Holy Mother also was in Benares, and she gave some money to a disciple to buy a gerua cloth for all the disciples of Sri Ramakrishna. Then she said, “Get a silk cloth for Rakhal.” Rashbehari asked, “But why, they are all your sons; are they not? Why something special for Rakhal?” And she replied, “Yes, they are all my sons, but Rakhal is my son.”
In Benares, when Maharaj saluted Holy Mother as he came down the stairs, Golap Ma asked him, “Mother wants to know why you have to worship her?” Then he danced like a little boy and said, “Because she holds the key to the knowledge of Brahman.”
They all went to visit Saranath near Benares. Saranath is the place where they went underground, dug and found the relics of Buddha, and then they built a Buddhist temple there. So Maharaj went by motorcar and Holy Mother went in a horse carriage to Saranath. Maharaj somehow realized when Mother returns by horse carriage, there will be a spook on the side of the road. The horse will shy and the carriage will fall down. Maharaj told Holy Mother, “You take the motorcar and I’ll go in the horse carriage.” As they were coming by carriage, the horse shied and it fell down. Of course, there was not much injury to anyone. Holy Mother remarked, “You see, Rakhal was ready to sacrifice his life for my sake.”
One time, I think it was on the birthday of Ramakrishna, Holy Mother came to the Belur Math to attend the celebration. As she arrived my Master, Swami Brahmananda went into ecstasy, into deep samadhi. Just think, just feeling her presence he went into deep samadhi. All the other brother disciples were a little concerned about him, because he stayed in that samadhi for a long time, and nobody could bring him out of that deep contemplation. Then Holy Mother received a report about it and said, “Do not be concerned about him, he will come out all right.” Then after a while she came herself, touched his hand and said, “My son, I have brought some sacramental food for you, wake up and eat.” And immediately Maharaj came back to normal consciousness and prostrated himself before her.
Maharaj once told me that no one can really understand Mother unless she reveals herself to that person. She is still living, and she reveals herself even to those who are not worthy. She showed her unbounded grace and appeared before a disciple of Maharaj in this country. The whole world disappeared, and there was only Mother and what power she bore.
Swami Premananda said to us, “The poison that we cannot swallow, we send to Holy Mother. That is, the people who come to us and we cannot help, we send them to Holy Mother.” One time a man went to her with a letter from my Master, Swami Brahmananda. Maharaj had requested Holy Mother to bless this man. As Holy Mother saw that person she said, “Oh, Rakhal also sends a man like that!” You see, he was so impure! But of course, Holy Mother accepted him, blessed him, and transformed his life.
Swami Trigunatita is regarded as a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna and was the founder of our Vedanta center in San Francisco. There is a story told about him that he was sent to Holy Mother, by Sri Ramakrishna, who advised him to be initiated by Holy Mother. Why did he send him to Holy Mother? Sri Ramakrishna repeated a couplet from the Vaishnava scriptures, which expressed the idea that Radha, the divine Shakti of Krishna, has greater power than Krishna.
One time in Sister Nivedita’s house, she invited Holy Mother to listen to Easter music. Though Holy Mother did not understand the words, she caught the spirit of the resurrection of Christ and went into samadhi listening to the music. At another time Sister Nivedita was explaining to her the Western ceremony of marriage, and she was repeating the vows that they take. As Holy Mother listened to those words, she said, “These are righteous words.” You see how appreciative she was of everything!
She was conscious all the time that she was the Mother of the Universe. At the same time you could see that she was just like your own mother, a simple little woman. You know Josephine MacLeod, Tantine said, “I never saw anything in her except that she was a very simple good woman.”
Sri Ramakrishna did not have too many disciples, but Holy Mother made at least a thousand disciples. Here is the peculiarity, a most unique thing: no Avatar, no Divine Incarnation was worshiped while they were living the way Holy Mother was worshiped. She was worshiped as the Divine Mother, as Mother Goddess, God the Mother. But you see, she still remained a simple countrywoman.
One disciple once asked her, “Are you our real Mother?” She said, “Yes.” And this is a real relationship. Holy Mother is nearer and we have a closer relationship with her, than with our own mother who gave us birth, from whom we got this life. She is our Eternal Mother, more than our own mother. This is the way she made us feel.
One time somebody asked her, “Mother why do you let such people come to you?” Her reply was, “If the child gets into the mud, what does the mother do? She just wipes and bathes the child and takes the child on her lap.”
I know another story; there was a so-called untouchable who came to Holy Mother for initiation. But she said, “You know this is a village, people will think badly of it. Come to Calcutta, then I shall initiate you.” Then this untouchable said with great force, “Yes, when you were in danger, then you accepted the dacoit and his wife as your parents, but now…” Then Holy Mother told the untouchable, “All right you stay here. This is Shiva-puri. Anybody who stays here for three days and three nights will be purified. And then I shall initiate you.” He agreed and received initiation. She looked equally upon all.
The public would come and touch her feet, hundreds and thousands of people standing in rows. Afterwards she would place her feet in cold water, because she said, “Some people come and touch my feet, and it feels like hot charcoal fire.” You know what they call vicarious atonement. That’s what it was; she used to take the sins of others. And then some disciple said, “But Mother, we will not allow others to do that.” Holy Mother smiled and said, “Do you think our Lord came just to eat sweets?”
There is one incident about which I knew personally. In our hometown of Vishnupur, there was a man who was really shunned by society because of his bad character. He was a great drunkard and did all kinds of other things. When Holy Mother came to the railway station, this man knew about her. And so did another man, a very good soul, who was regarded as a holy man in our hometown. Both of these men came to the railway station to receive Holy Mother. This holy man had an ashrama retreat on the bank of a lake. Years later when the [Southern California] nuns and Krishna [Swami Krishnananda] went with me to India, we stayed in that place by the lake. He made arrangements for Holy Mother to stay at his ashrama and the other man who was regarded socially as very bad, also made arrangements in his home for Holy Mother to stay. Now, both of these men went to Holy Mother and prayed that she may come to their home. She said, “No, I’ll go with you,” meaning with the immoral man. This man felt that he was so bad he would not even touch the feet of Holy Mother. He would stand at a distance and say, “No, I am not worthy to touch Mother’s feet, I have done so many sinful acts.” And of course, we know how the life of this man was completely transformed. He became holy, one of the great devotees. Any time Holy Mother came and passed by this hometown of ours, she stayed in that house. And now that house has become a sacred spot, a place of pilgrimage.
One time a woman who had lived a very wicked life, became very repentant. She heard about Holy Mother and came to see her. But she did not dare enter the room where Holy Mother was seated. She stood outside and prostrated herself. Mother said, “Come in child.” The woman said, “No Mother I am a wicked woman, I am so impure, I’ve lived such a bad life. I would not dare to come into your presence. From a distance I will bow down.” What did Mother do? Mother got up, took her by the hand and brought her in and said, “You have become repentant.” Then instantly she initiated her and of course this woman’s life was transformed. There are many such incidents.
One time a fellow came and just struck his forehead on the big toe of Holy Mother in such a way that it pained her. And you know that fellow said, “I did that purposely so that Mother would remember that pain and remember me.”
At the time there was a boycott of English goods. One of her brahmachari attendants was asked by Holy Mother to go and buy some English cloth for someone in her family. The young brahmachari said, “But Mother, don’t you know that we have boycotted English goods? I cannot go and buy these.” Then Mother said, “Yes, what you are doing is all right, you should boycott. But you see, the English people are also as much my children as you are. I cannot boycott.” She made no distinction giving that same universal love to all.
This reminds me of another rather political incident. You see one of the boys reported to Holy Mother how President Woodrow Wilson was trying to form the League of Nations. He was trying to prevent war in the future. She didn’t know President Wilson, but as soon as everything was told to her Mother quietly remarked, “They speak with their lips, they do not speak from their heart.”
She said, “I must be very old. I saw my father die and I saw my Mother die. I saw so many die, so I must be very old.” But she did not mention that her husband had died.
Just lately I found a letter of Holy Mother that came into my hands. Of course, she did not write it herself, but she used to dictate them. I mention this because there is a wonderful truth there. A disciple of hers who was a swami was living at Mayavati, one of our monasteries in the Himalayas. This monastery is dedicated to the practice of the nondualistic aspect of Vedanta. There could be no shrine room, no altar, no worship, not even offering flowers to the picture. That is the strict rule that is followed in this monastery. This swami wrote to her, “Mother, if I stay here I have to practice nondualism and I am not a nondualist. I want to love God. What should I do?” Then Holy Mother wrote this letter to him, and I got a copy of that letter recently. Holy Mother wrote, “No, my son, you are not a dualist. Our master, our guru,” referring to Sri Ramakrishna, “he was a nondualist. All of his disciples are nondualists, you are also a nondualist.” There is no quarrel or fight or difference, between loving God, worshiping God, and nondualism.