"After our youngest son had seen Star Wars for the twelfth or thirteenth time, I said, "Why do you go so often?" He said, "For the same reason you have been reading the Old Testament all of your life." He was in a new world of myth." Bill Moyers, interview with Joseph Campbell












PRABUDDHA BHARATASri Sarada Devi: The Power of Love and Compassion  




          Sri Sarada Devi: The Power of Love and Compassion


          Dr. Sreemati Mukherjee




     How can a nineteenth-century Bengali village housewife speak to the needs of a modern Indian woman, situated in the twenty-first century at the crossroads of culture, history, tradition and modernity? (1) In a world that knows, perhaps, one of the worst crises in human values, what has Sri Ramakrishna’s wife, Sri Sarada Devi, to offer us? As I look around me, I notice a world where moral and psychological fragmentation, relativism of values, and the increasing complexities of urban existence make simple certitudes impossible. One could be accused of intellectual bad faith if one professes one’s belief or reverence for traditionally sanctioned spiritual figures or icons. The only kind of belief that is intellectually sanctioned is perhaps belief in social progress through Marxist revolution or belief in the methodologies of science, although such positions are not free from their own inner contradictions and moments of bad faith. Therefore, living at a time when trenchant skepticism and non-commitment to absolute positions is intellectually de rigueur, I would like to explore what the values of humility, silence and self-abnegation embodied in the character of Sri Sarada Devi can mean for someone who wishes to avoid the terrifying abysses that intellectual power or intellectual culture alone can lead to.


     Loneliness and alienation are not really the characteristic malaise of twentieth-century life alone. In mid nineteenth-century England, Matthew Arnold (1822-88) had pointed out the gradual alienation of the intellectual particularly, from both the self and nature. In The Scholar Gipsy he lays the burden of blame not only on the increasing materialism and mechanization of society but also on an excessive life of the intellect, which makes mental poise and serenity difficult to achieve. Those acquainted with the Victorian ethos will know that not only was it a period of frenetic intellectual and scientific pursuit, but also one in which the manifold complexities of urban culture often caused the self-conscious individual to retreat from meaningful relationships and a meaningful response to nature. In the poem To Marguerite Arnold poignantly utters:


     Yes! In the sea of life enisled,
     With echoing straits between us thrown,
     Dotting the shoreless water wild,
     We mortal millions live alone. (2)


     The trend towards the increasing incarceration of the individual within the often futile and oppressive life of the self continued in Western culture (reflecting tendencies in our own culture today), and emerged as an image of universal or global disorder and sterility in what is perhaps the seminal poem of the twentieth century - T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. In this ground-breaking poem Eliot visualized/dramatized this state of spiritual nullity and sterility as a place or a state where there is


     … no water but only rock
     Rock and no water and the sandy road. (3)


     His answer to this state of spiritual malaise that afflicts the world are the three words of advice that Brahma (Prajapati) supposedly gave respectively to the gods, to man and to the demons in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: damyata, datta and dayadhvam. (4) Eliot, of course, changes the order of the words in his poem to datta, dayadhvam and damyata, which, Harish Trivedi in Postcolonial Transactions has taken great pains to point out, is an act of great intellectual casuistry on Eliot’s part. I am not interested in debating these questions here, but would like to draw attention to the closing lines of the poem, which borrow the traditional invocation of peace at the end of most of the Upanishads: ‘Shantih! Shantih! Shantih!’ It is with the word shanti or shantih that I would like to start exploring the relevance of Sri Sarada Devi’s life for us, and for myself, situated at the crossroads of tradition and modernity in India.




     Is Shanti Still Possible?




     How does one explain the meaning of the word shanti, I wonder. Is it something that one arrives at through meditation alone, or through reconciling sometimes the most brutal contraries of experience, or through connecting with some of the most vital and abiding areas of one’s own being? Eliot’s own explanation of it in the elaborate notes he provides at the end of the poem is: ‘The Peace which passeth understanding.’ (5) Jibanananda Das in his famous poem Banalata Sen, a poem that echoes and re-echoes with the loneliness and fatigue of living in the world, uses the word shanti to describe the invaluable gift that Banalata Sen eventually gave the poet. (6) From the echoes and re-echoes that the frequent use of long vowel sounds in Bengali creates in the poem, the word shanti reverberates through the multiple layers of experience that the ‘thousand’ years of the poet’s ‘walking’ on the face of the earth embodies. (7) In the end the word retains an incalculable dimension whose meaning cannot be satisfactorily fixed. It suggests a mysterious regeneration which is not simply romantic regeneration. In song 410 of the Gitabitan Rabindranath Tagore uses the term to imply a regeneration that lights up the darkness of experience. It is to all these realms of experience, part understood, part visualized, part articulated, but experienced deeply as ‘the still point of the turning world’, (8) that I would refer my understanding of Sri Sarada Devi.




     Shanti as Powerlessness




     Sri Sarada Devi had none of the external conditions of power as we understand it today, none of the accomplishments that make us viable and competitive commodities in the ruthless rat race of our professional lives. However, her life perhaps bears out the truth of the following lines from the Gospel of Matthew: ‘For whosoever will save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.’ (9) In my opinion she stands for that inexplicable condition of grace which operates on us in mysterious and unseen ways, carrying restorative and healing powers. A kind of grace that Shakespeare visualized in Cordelia, who importuned the earth to yield forth its ‘blest secrets’ and its ‘unpublished virtues’ in order to cure the tempestuous sorrow and raging illness of her father’s mind. (10)


     I think when we look at Holy Mother’s (this term was first used by her Western devotees) life (1853-1920) we have to situate it within its particular social, economic and cultural context. Born in a village of Bengal with few opportunities for a formal education, she was married off at the age of five. The lives of extraordinary people do not normally fit the trajectory of everyday lives, nor can they be codified according to conventional patterns and moulds. While obeying certain conventional patterns of a woman’s existence in late nineteenth-century Bengal, her life defies and goes beyond such conventions, and even contains paradoxical elements. Married, yet not married, housewife and sannyasini at the same time, she remains, like Sri Ramakrishna, the ultimate enigma, whose meaning it might worth be our pains to try and comprehend somewhat.


     In his essay ‘My Week with Gandhi’ the American journalist Louis Fischer made insightful observations about the nature of Gandhi’s power. (11) Citing examples of presidents and prime ministers like Lloyd George and Churchill who functioned within the external accoutrements of power, Fischer exclaims about Gandhi, ‘His power was nil, his authority enormous. It came of love. The source of his power lay in his love.’ (12) I feel that such a comment would be extremely appropriate in the context of Holy Mother’s life, whose power lay in her seeming powerlessness.




     Patience as the Defining Mode of Power/Powerlessness




     Indeed, the kind of power she embodied seemed to work best not through anger and admonition - although she had provocation enough - but through patience and endurance that went even beyond the mythical and partook of the condition of grace that I alluded to before. Even if we read her as an avatara (as her devotees surely do), we must keep in mind that she had her inescapable human dimensions, and for a human being to have the kind of patience and tolerance she exemplified, borders on standards that remain unreachable for most of us. If she stands for Shakti, then it is a Shakti that expresses itself in its limitless capacity for tolerance and forgiveness, and its capacity to bear pain. Like Jesus Christ, whose trials on the Cross became one of the ultimate symbols of endurance under pain that the human imagination can encompass, Sarada Devi provides a fairly recent historical example of the possibilities of such endurance in a human being.




     Sacrifice as a Viable Existential Mode




     Sri Sarada Devi’s life was problematic, to say the least. Married to a man who wished to pursue sannyasa and God realization, she managed to make the sacrifice of domestic bliss very early in life. If she had bliss in the company of Sri Ramakrishna, it was not the regular kind of wedded bliss that many women still want. Her life was marked by sacrifice at every point. If there was pleasure, then it centred around watching kirtan and dancing in Sri Ramakrishna’s room through a bamboo curtain; in conversing with women devotees; in training Latu Maharaj, who came to Sri Ramakrishna as a boy, in domestic and kitchen chores; in casual and simple conversation with her husband; and later on in life, having the assurance of the love of a great many devotees, householder and monastic. Seen from the standpoint of a woman’s sensibility, her greatest sacrifice was probably giving up the desire to have a child. Historically and culturally located at a time when motherhood remained a woman’s foremost area of self-expression, she had to renounce what seems a powerful and instinctive desire for the sake of the ideal of dispassion and detachment that her husband wished to follow. A certain incident narrated in Swami Gambhirananda’s Bengali biography on her will attest to the fact that such a decision or choice was not without feelings of regret for her.


     Once while on a visit to Kamarpukur during the early years of her married life, she heard Sri Ramakrishna holding forth in a semi-humorous, semi-serious mood on how injudicious it was to have children, since the children whose annaprashana (first rice-feeding) parents celebrated, almost inevitably died. His constant harping on the death of the children occasioned a rare moment of remonstrance from Mother. She quietly exclaimed from within, ‘Would all of them have died?’ Whereupon Sri Ramakrishna delightedly exclaimed that he had indeed stepped on the tail of a true-bred snake. (13) The incident with its mixture of humour and pathos, testifies to her desire to have a child. To quote facts well known to devotees of Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi, Sri Ramakrishna had assured her that her need for children would one day be met, and she would have so many that she would not have time for herself. Indeed, this came true, and if the idea of Shakti symbolizes plenitude, Mother was loved, demanded upon, and also harassed by devotees male and female for all the years of her life after the passing away of Sri Ramakrishna.




     Shakti: Destruction, Defying Categorization, Ultimately Enigmatic




     In the biography by Brahmachari Akshaya­chaitanya, the first book-length study of her life, there is a passage where the author quotes Swami Vivekananda as saying that within Holy Mother’s apparently calm exterior was embodied the power of the destructive aspect (of God as woman and Shakti). (14) If she embodies Shakti, as Sri Ramakrishna himself said she did, (15) then we have to keep in mind that energy must also have its terrifying dimensions. My mind goes back to an incident I read many years ago, once again in Swami Gambhirananda’s biography. In the chapter entitled ‘Devi’ he refers to an incident where, in response to someone tentatively suggesting that a mad relative of hers might set fire to an ashrama created for Sri Ramakrishna, Mother seemed to undergo a facial transformation and declared in a loud and unnatural tone, ‘That would be just wonderful! Just the way He wanted it! Let everything be a vast cremation ground.’ Thereupon she started laughing, once again in a loud and unnatural manner, which readers familiar with Bengali will recognize in the term attahasya (373).


     Credit should be given to Swami Gambhirananda for including this piece of information that offers what many would construe as an unnatural, uncanny and even monstrous dimension of Mother’s personality. However, the incident seems to underscore the complexity of the idea of Shakti. Sri Rama­krishna speaks of Kali or Mahamaya as someone who gives birth to a child and then gobbles it up. If Kali means Time that both redeems and destroys, accepting Kali means accepting tragedy as integral to life. Kali is no symbol that speaks to one of various kinds of power only, but also an idea that stands for the struggles embedded in life. By that token, even if we are afforded a rare glimpse into the terrifying depths of Sri Sarada Devi’s personality in an incident like this, she also exemplifies suffering and pain as that face of Kali who is Time.




     Shakti: Fortitude




     If one were to peruse her biographies written by Brahmachari Akshayachaitanya, Swami Gambhirananda and Swami Tapasyananda, one would become aware of Sarada Devi’s grinding domestic routine. As Swami Tathagatananda, head of the Vedanta Society of New York, once said at a congregation in which I happened to be present, ‘None of you, I can guarantee, would have been able to take her routine in that narrow, extremely low-roofed room, hung over with pots and pans, crowded with women relatives and women visitors, in the way she did, from three in the morning till about eleven in the night.’ The lives of women vegetable sellers who travel long distances to sell their produce, or hospital ayahs who work many hours outside their house without profitable gains recompensing them, perhaps bear a much closer relationship to the sheer physical demands of her work routine, than us who often occupy elite positions in society and remain far removed from the conditions of such labour.


     It will be worthwhile to remember that Sri Sarada Devi lived a life that by most standards could be called qualified and circumscribed by poverty. Indeed, there is enough documentation to prove that after the death of Sri Ramakrishna, when she lived mostly alone in his parental home at Kamarpukur from 1887 to 1890, she wore saris that were knotted in various places to cover up the rents in the fabric, and that she also lived on a diet that consisted of rice and spinach, without even salt to season the fare. Although her stay at Kamarpukur was punctuated by trips to Calcutta and to places of pilgrimage, it was an intensely difficult period of her life. Besides the fact of poverty, she also had to face the indifference of Sri Ramakrishna’s surviving relatives and the cruelty of villagers, many of whom criticized her for not subscribing to the strict norms dictating a widow’s appearance. Keeping in mind Sri Ramakrishna’s wish that she wear ornaments and a sari that attested to her married state, she did not bow to the weight of public opinion, but preserved her dignity and singularity of purpose in the face of public criticism.




     In the Midst of Family Life




     Unhappy with her daughter’s state in Kamarpukur, Shyamasundari Devi, her mother, requested Sri Sarada Devi to take up residence with her in Jayrambati, where she lived on and off till her death. Holy Mother had four surviving brothers, Prasannakumar, Kalikumar, Baradaprasad and Abhaycharan, and their families now became her own. Her youngest and most promising brother Abhay­charan passed away shortly, leaving behind a wife (Surabala) and an infant daughter (Radharani or Radhu). Surabala had lost her mother as a child and had been brought up by her aunt and grandmother, who too passed away shortly after her husband’s death. Whatever the reasons for her mental unhinging, she thereupon became completely incapable of looking after her daughter. Observing her callous treatment of Radhu in the family courtyard, Mother resolved to take responsibility for the child herself. From that day onwards, practically till the last days of her life, Holy Mother remained Radhu’s formal caretaker.


     Some aspects of Sri Sarada Devi’s life have a persistent quality. They are her unwavering commitment to people both within and without the family, a scrupulous sense of dispensing her duties and an untiring espousal of the doctrine of work. In her youth it was Sri Ramakrishna, his mother, women devotees like Golap Ma, would-be monastic disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, and other householder devotees who visited him who benefited from her ceaseless attention to their welfare. Her own needs of washing, eating and sleeping were met with the minimum of fuss and almost beyond the direct observation of any person. In our age of obstreperous flaunting of ourselves and our rejection of the values of quietness and patience, maybe we need to look at the quiet message that her life sends us. Apart from an occasional moment of grumbling (85), she submitted to an arduous routine of work with the utmost grace and acceptance. Her life is well documented, and if this was not the reality of her nature, there would be stray references here and there, arguing to the contrary. She retained a habit of contentment well into her final years, and rarely displayed displeasure or taciturnity.


     Her domestic life with her brothers’ families was vexing, to say the least. In the early years of her stay with her brothers, Kalipra­sanna particularly harangued her constantly for money. Later on Radhu, Surabala and Nalini (Prasannakumar’s daughter) each took a part in taxing and stretching her patience to its utmost limits. The three women mentioned above were a constant feature of her retinue, whether she lived in Jayrambati or in Calcutta. Of course, the presence of women devotees like Golap Ma and Yogin Ma lessened the burden of living with such oppressive and intractable relatives, but Sri Sarada Devi mostly lived out a domestic existence that was troublesome and precarious, to say the least. The principal share in making her family life truly thorn-infested was of course Radhu’s and Surabala’s.




     Love as the Defining Mode of Being




     Radhu was often sick and had to be nursed very carefully, and Sri Sarada Devi often took the burden of this nursing. As a child she (Radhu) had a sweet temperament, but as she developed and matured into adult years, she lost a great deal of her earlier sweetness and in fact acquired a complaining, truculent nature. Holy Mother, unremitting in her care and attention towards Radhu, often bore the brunt of Radhu’s temperamental behaviour that sometimes crossed all recognizable limits of decency and order. I shall refer to certain incidents that occurred towards the end of Holy Mother’s life.


     By this time Radhu was not only married but also the mother of a child. During the months of her pregnancy, Radhu’s nerves had been in such a state of stress that she could not adjust to even the most peaceful and un­problematic of surroundings; the least noise anywhere would be enough to upset her. Having moved around with her to various places, Holy Mother eventually resided with her in a small house in a place called Koalpara, where the almost absolute quietness of the village surroundings satisfied Radhu. For someone who was used to so much attention from a variety of devotees both male and female, Holy Mother could well have been a little less accommodating of Radhu’s idiosyncrasies. But such was the absolute nature of her commitment to this girl that she never walked away from what she read as her duty in a particular situation.


     In spite of being the recipient of such loving care for years on end, Radhu remained capable of the most negative reciprocation imaginable. Once denied opium, which she had formed a habit of taking from the time of the difficult delivery of her child, Radhu took a large brinjal from a basket of vegetables that Holy Mother was cutting, and hurled it against her back. Sri Sarada Devi’s back swelled up at the point of contact, but all she said was, ‘Thakur, don’t count that as Radhu’s sin. She’s witless!’ (268).


     Within the bounds of my knowledge, I can only think of Christ’s reaction on the Cross, where he prayed to his Father to ‘forgive’ the perpetrators who had executed the deed of nailing him on the Cross, as an analogous incident. Absolute forgiveness of this nature is hard to imagine, but Sri Sarada Devi remains a fairly recent historical example of this kind of ultimate human possibility. Perhaps, this is the ‘water’ that Eliot was bemoaning the lack of in the rock-strewn wasteland of our modern existence.


     Radharani, as I have mentioned before, was not the only thorn disturbing the domestic peace of Holy Mother’s household. Sura­bala would often break out into insane demonstrations of anger and jealousy, not stopping to accuse Sri Sarada Devi of appropriating Radhu for her own self. Once Holy Mother lost her patience and declared in an agitated tone, a rough translation of which amounts to ‘Look, don’t treat me as an ordinary person! You are lucky I don’t take offence with what you say. … Your daughter will remain yours. I can cut off her hold on me any minute that I choose to!’ (291). Nalini for her part insisted on airing all her petty superstitions and obsessions. Once she told Sri Sarada Devi that she would have to take her bath all over again because a crow had committed some imaginary offence on her. Whereupon Sri Sarada Devi rejoined, ‘Obsessions! Your mind is never clean of them. They will increase as much as you allow them to’ (409). To this same Nalini, she had on a similar occasion insisted on the purity of the mind, because it was the mind, she felt, that determined the perception of good and evil (ibid.).


     Despite the frustrating conditions of her domestic life, Sri Sarada Devi had acquired an iconic status by the time she died. Sought after, importuned and loved by devotees not only from Bengal but from all over India, she retained till the last days of her life a principle of care and commitment to all those who sought her shelter in some way. Perhaps more than Sri Ramakrishna, she was tolerant of human excesses and deviances. Given her social, cultural and historical location as a Bengali woman with a conservative rural upbringing, it was no ordinary act of catholicity to say that the thief Amjad and her much beloved Sharat (Swami Saradananda) were equally her sons (328). This was in response to Nalini’s remonstration one day at Jayrambati, that she should not extend excessive hospitality to Amjad knowing that he was a thief. She also extended hospitality to Nivedita and to the Americans Sarah Bull and Josephine MacLeod at a time when foreigners were considered to be ‘untouchable’ by conservative Bengalis.


     Her last words to a woman devotee were: ‘If you want peace of mind, do not find fault with others. Rather see your own faults. Learn to make the whole world your own. No one is a stranger, my child; this whole world is your own!’ (450). It is on this note that I would like to end my tribute to Sri Sarada Devi. She touched the lives of many while she was alive. Even after her death she continues to draw many lives to her and perhaps provides them with that still point of rest or repose, that shanti with which this article began.





     Notes and References





     1. What, in short, is modernity? Different people, different critics and different cultural historians define it variously. In India, perhaps it would be safe to equate the arrival of modernity with the revival or inculcation of scientific and rational methods of enquiry that was one of the gifts (although the word gift is used keeping in mind the coercive, politically implicated and sometimes emasculating effects of Western education in India) that Western thinkers brought to the country. We see the visible manifestation of this spirit in Raja Rammohun Roy and his championing of a more rational and thereby a more humane basis to social practices and rituals which were sometimes stifling, life-denying and cruelly oppressive to women in particular.

     2. Matthew Arnold, ‘To Marguerite’ in The New Oxford Book of English Verse (1250-1950), ed. Helen Gardner (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 687.

     3. T S Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays (1909-1950) (New York, San Diego and London: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1950), 47.

     4. The Upanishads, trans. Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester (Hollywood: Vedanta Press, 1975), 182-3.

     5. Complete Poems and Plays, 55.

     6. Jibanananda Das, ‘Banalata Sen’ in Bangla Kabita Samuchchay, ed. Sukumar Sen (New Delhi: Sahitya Academy, 1991), 412.

     7. ‘Thousand’ and ‘walking’ are simply English translations of the Bengali words hajaar and chalitechhi that occur in the poem.

     8. ‘Burnt Norton’ in Complete Poems and Plays, 119.

     9. St Matthew, 16.25.

     10. King Lear, 4.4.

     11. Louis Fischer, ‘My Week with Gandhi’ in Higher Secondary English Selections (Prose) (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati Publishing Department on behalf of the West Bengal Council of Higher Secondary Education, 1984).

     12. Ibid., 61.

     13. Swami Gambhirananda, Sri Ma Sarada Devi (Calcutta: Udbodhan Karyalay, 1987), 32. Translations of all Bengali citations are mine.

     14. Brahmachari Akshayachaitanya, Sri Sri Sarada Devi (Calcutta: Calcutta Book House, 1396 BE), 108.

     15. Sri Ma Sarada Devi, 105.

International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015








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