[The story of Sri Sarada Math--how it was conceived, how it came to be established and how a small center grew into the great organization it is today, needs to be recounted. In a series of articles starting with September 2011: Sri Sarada Math, Dakshineswar-I, we will attempt to tell that story. Editor, Samvit]
From a branch of the Ramakrishna Math, the women's Math was made into an independent organization based on the same ideals, thus forming the women's wing of the Ramakrishna Order. It took years for Swami Vivekananda's revolutionary dream to be realized. Sri Sarada Math was the fruition of a prophetic vision and evolved in course of time into the largest Hindu women's monastic organisation. However, this was not without its accompanying trials and tribulations. It was an evolution continued after Swamij's passing away but there was not one step in the way that he had not foreseen. Lines referring to the women's Math in his correspondence bear testimony to his unerring vision, of his ability to see how the Math would develop, the twists and turns in its journey.
A new chapter in history was opened and it was possible due to Swami Akhilananda's wholehearted responsibility and great personal efforts undertaken for the welfare of women, along with Esther Harrington's generous contribution. Swamiji said, 'The ideal of perfect womanhood is perfect independence.' When Sri Sarada Math, Dakshineswar, inaugurated on 2 December 1954, began to function independently, many devotees came to help. In May 1960, with the advice of Belur Math, the Trustees of Sri Sarada Math established the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission just like the Ramakrishna Mission; and within four years, apart from the headquarters, it was managing five branch centres. Even a decade before, let alone the devotees, many sannyasis of the Ramakrishna Math had doubted if women could live together in a Math like men, bear the administrative responsibility of managing an institution. The success of the women's Math and Mission has showed the infallibility of Swamiji's prophecy about the inner strength and skill of women.
Swamiji brought his Irish disciple, Margaret Elizabeth Noble, to Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi, with the intention of blending the best ideals of the East and West to create a core group of missionary educationists. He initiated Margaret Noble into the vows of brahmacharya, and named her Nivedita. Sister Nivedita dedicated her life to making her guru's dream a reality.
Subsequently, after Sri Sarada Math was established, Pravrajika Muktiprana felt that the world must know of Nivedita's life of sacrifice and wrote a testimonial biography, Bhagini Nivedita, published in Bengali in 1959. Two years later, Pravrajika Atmaprana wrote an authoritative biography of Nivedita in English, Sister Nivedita of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda, which was awarded a prize by the prestigious Sahitya Akademi.
In the meantime, the number of members of Sri Sarada Math grew. In 1962, a new residential building was constructed to accommodate them. The next year, 1963, was the birth centenary of Swami Vivekananda. At Sri Sarada Math, it was observed with great enthusiasm. There was a special worship, homa, an exhibition, meeting and a procession. Everyone who participated in the celebrations experienced the great joy of the occasion. Delegates came from various provinces of India to take part and all received the hospitality of Sri Sarada Math.
Swamiji said, 'Devout married women will also be allowed to stay now and then.' Women devotees from distant places requested to stay in the Math for at least a few days. In consideration of these requests, after Swamiji's centenary, a guest house was constructed. Pravrajika Bharatiprana laid the foundation stone in the southwestern corner of the Math premises in 1964. Forty years later this was totally absorbed as monastic quarters. Two other buildings, one acquired and the other constructed, are in use as guest houses.
Swamiji said, 'Later on you will see that after a generation or two people of the country will appreciate the worth of this Math.' Looking back, it seems as though Swamiji himself inspired his countrymen during his centenary. Women devotees from other states came to Kolkata, saw Sri Sarada Math, spoke with the members of the Math and were blessed by seeing Pravrajika Bharatiprana who made everyone feel they were dear to her. Filled with delight, they returned to their provinces, feeling that it would be very good if a Sri Sarada Math or Ramakrishna Sarada Mission centre was established in their state.
The first request for a centre outside Bengal came from Chennai where Pravrajika Bharatiprana inaugurated Sri Sarada Math in a rented house in 1964. Today the Math is established on its own property. Besides daily meditation, worship, chanting of scriptures and religious discourses, this centre operates a modern, well-equipped, free clinic, a tailoring centre for poor women and a Sunday school for boys and girls.
In Thrissur, Kerala, the Ramakrishna Mission authorities were managing primary and secondary schools since 1929. The girls' section, Sarada Mandiram, was handed over to Sri Sarada Math in 1968. Now there is also a students' hostel and a junior, middle and senior high school. A large temple has been built there. A sub-centre of this branch has been established in Calicut.
When a request came from New Delhi in 1970, Pravrajika Bharatiprana opened a Mission centre there. A primary school was started too. The centre also manages a school for the poor children of a nearby village. Lectures on religion and culture are held regularly for women and there are Sunday schools for children.
Swamiji said, 'With five hundred men, the conquest of India might take fifty years: with as many women, not more than a few weeks.' In August 1972, K. A. A. Raja, Chief Commissioner of Arunachal Pradesh, came to meet the General Secretary of Sri Sarada. Math, Pravrajika Muktiprana. Arunachal Pradesh was then a Union Territory and their Raja was responsible for its governance. He said the society there was not progressing because of the lack of modern education for girls. There were schools for boys but no opportunities for girls.
If the boys got educated, they moved out of the village for employment or even if they stayed in their native place, they could not change the pattern of life at home. Therefore, if girls who could apply their education at home and in the village are not educated, society cannot hope to improve. He earnestly requested Pravrajika Muktiprana that the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission open a school for girls of that area. Pravrajika Muktiprana took Pravrajika Shraddhaprana with her to see the place. From Dibrugarh, they went one hundred forty kilometres by car to the very small town of Khonsa, perched on top of the Patkoi hills. At this tiny place, the seat of the government of Tirap district, they met the chief of the village of Khonsa. He donated an entire forested hill to the Mission.
The houses were made of bamboo like the elevated huts used by hunters after big game. The tribal people lived above, pigs lived below. The environment was most unhygienic. At the top of each mound-like hill, was a slum. The tribe from one village did not interact with that of any other. There was such enmity among them that they were not allowed to enter another village. Violators of this rule were in danger of being killed.
In this volatile environment, a school was started in February 1973. The Khonsa School was entirely residential. The tribal children had to be trained in a variety of areas including such basic ones as healthy eating habits and personal hygiene. It was an arduous task for the sannyasinis and brahmacharinis. The children were taught reading and writing, starting with the alphabet. Since their tribal languages were unknown to the Mission workers, they communicated in a mix of Assamese and English.
However, within only a few months it was found that when they returned home during vacations, they bathed their younger siblings and tried to keep their homes and environment clean. In ten or fifteen years, not only Khonsa but even nearby villages were changed! The first batches of students passing out of the Khonsa Ramakrishna Sarada Mission School became housewives. They applied in their homes and families all the manners and customs they learned at the boarding house. The appearance of the whole society was completely transformed. In 1981, the students took the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) examination for the first time.
Now we can see that just as they have learnt to be excellent housewives, similarly, they established themselves in many professions-twenty-eight have become doctors, twenty engineers, thirty teachers at various levels, six nurses and twenty-two are government officers. For village girls who do not have the opportunity to gain admission to this school, the Mission workers are running another primary school in the nearby village of Khonsa. There are now more than hundred girls studying there. Another school for girls of Arunachal Pradesh has come up in 2011 at Khasso in Dirang.
Swamiji said, 'I say that though outwardly there may be differences between men and women, in their real nature, there is none. Hence, if a man can be a knower of Brahman, why cannot a woman attain the same knowledge?' It was Ekadashi on Tuesday, 30 January 1973. At nine in the morning, sannyasinis and brahmacharinis of Sri Sarada Math's nuns' quarters, had assembled in a room at the western end of the building, where lay revered Bharatiprana Mataji. President Mataji's last moments had come.
All gathered spontaneously began repeating Sri Ramakrishna's name aloud, when suddenly, Mataji herself began to say, `Om Satchidananda Brahman Shivoham Shivoham.' It was a clear indication that her mind was soaring beyond name and form and becoming absorbed in the indivisible Reality. Her weak voice became feebler still but she continued repeating those words. Everyone joined in with her till the whole room vibrated with a spiritual atmosphere. Sorrow was changed into an awe-inspiring experience as a great soul absorbed in Brahman departed. Swamiji said, '...if even one amongst the women became a knower of Brahman, then by the radiance of her personality thousands of women would be inspired and awakened to truth, and great well-being of the country and society would ensue.'
That women in future generations with faith in these words of Swamiji be inspired by Pravrajika Bharatiprana's life, her biography was published in Bengali as Bharatiprana Smritikatha in December 1988 and in English as Pravrajika Bharatiprana in August 1992. It was also translated into Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and so on.
Swamiji said, `Who on seeing the tiny sprout of the banyan can imagine that in course of time it will develop into a gigantic banyan tree? At present I shall start the Math in this way ...You will see, it will shed its lustre over the whole country in time.' After Pravrajika Bharatiprana passed away in 1973, Pravrajika Mokshaprana became President. It was during and after her tenure that branch centres of Sri Sarada Math were established in various states of India.
In the meantime, members coming from various provinces and speaking different languages united harmoniously at the Math as one community. It was their allegiance to the ideal of the monastic community, love and devotion for Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother and Swamiji that held them together. On the one hand, young women of various provinces came to associate with one another at the Math. On the other, branches of the Math and Mission spread to various provinces.
The Math was recognized as an independent organization in 1959. The Ramakrishna Math and Sri Sarada Math became two separate organizations legally. The seal or emblem of one organization could not be used by the other. For long Sri Sarada Math and the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission used the Ramakrishna Math's seal but it was changed in 1973. The parts of the Ramakrishna Math seal as designed by Swamiji were retained. The swan, lotus, sun, waves and snake motifs were all retained but with slight modifications in the new design for the women's Math. In the Sri Sarada Math seal, the swan in the centre as well as the snake on the periphery, are facing the opposite direction; two lotus buds have been added and the sun has almost completely risen.
With this began a decade of developments. Many Sri Sarada Math and Ramakrishna Sarada Mission centres began to spring up gradually in the different provinces of India. These centres based on Swamiji's Motto (atmanomokshartham jagadhitaya), mostly catered to the needs of children and women of the common mass, by imparting primary education and health care. Thus emphasis on spiritual development side by side with service to society continued to grow with the right spirit.