[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]
Swami Vivekananda said, "There is no chance for the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved... Hence it is that my first endeavour is to start a Math for women." 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. 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.
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 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.'
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, Sri Sarada Devi 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. 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 Swamiii's motto (atmanomokshartham jagat hitaya), 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.
Once properly launched. Ramakrishna Sarada Mission grew rapidly. It saw vigorous development in the 1970's and continues to grow today; not only was there a proliferation of centres but its activities too increased and diversified. In 1973, the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission Vidyarthini Mandiram (students' home) was started in Trivandrum. The sub-centre in Calicut was started in 1999. In 1975, Mission centres were established in Bangalore and Pune. Often, these new centres were started on land donated by devotees. The Mission centre at Malleshwaram, Bangalore, first occupied,rent-free, a small building on a piece of land belonging to a devotee. Two years later, the Karnataka government gave a large property free of cost but on the condition that it should be used for a Sri Sarada Math centre, not a Mission centre.
Consequently, in 1978, the Mission was changed into a Math but when the land was inspected, everyone came away disappointed. It was on Nandidurg Road, on low land full of refuse, had no sign of greenery anywhere and on one side was a cemetery. But what could be done? After clearing the rubbish, a suitable spot was prepared and Swami Vireswarananda performed the foundation-stone-laying of the Math building. The building was inaugurated in 1981.
The unpleasant piece of land that had upset everyone was transformed under the gentle care of the Math's residents. Within two years the entire property was full of greenery and it now has the atmosphere of an ashram with many large trees and buildings covered with flowering vines. There is also an enclosed pond with many fish. Seeing it brings to mind the story in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. In the lake in front of Moti Seal's garden house, there were many fish. To teach his devotees how to meditate on Brahman without form, Sri Ramakrishna brought them there to show them that sight. He said, "See, it is like these fish floating about in the sea of bliss."
A primary schoolhouse was constructed on a more elevated spot on the premises. On the side of it is an open platform where the poor children of the neighbourhood are taught. These children receive everything from breakfast to meals at noon, clothes, books and stationery. This has all been made possible by the magnanimous donations of devotees. The Math has also started contributing to the well-being of the neighbouring villagers by helping with repair of the ponds and providing nourishing food for the cows in drought-affected areas. The women of the village are taught reading and writing and to earn money by making incense and other cottage industries.
ln Pune, things happened differently. There were two wealthy devotees of Sri Ramakrishna, Bodas and Jathar, who wanted a Sri Sarada Math centre established there. In 1969, they donated a four-acre plot of land for this purpose. The property was in a thinly populated suburb, far from the city. At the time, there were no funds for a house. Four years later in 1973, Pravrajika Mokshaprana Mataji performed the foundation ceremony and in February 1975, she inaugurated Sri Sarada Math in Pune.
This plot could not have been more different from the Karnataka one. In front of it runs the road to Sinhagarh and behind flows the Mutha river. On either side of the compound, there were a few houses. People crossed the river and entered the Math premises directly, as there was no compound wall. Bodas advised us, "Mataji, keep a dog for protection." Pravrajika Shraddhaprana Mataji immediately answered him, "Bodas, for protecrion we depend on GOD not on DOG." Now, that area is thickly populated. In the Math compound, there is a free primary school and a library. In 2000, a beautiful temple was established there for Holy Mother. Local women devotees help run the school as well as maintain the temple.
Haridwar, already an established place of pilgrimage, got a retreat centre for sannyasinis to meditate in peace, in 1978.
0n 8 March 1976, the foundation stone was laid for a temple at Sri Sarada Math headquarters in Dakshineswar. A large tent was set up in the Math compound. In this tent, Swami Vireswarananda, then president of the Ramakrishna Order, Swami Gambhirananda, General Secretary and several senior sanyasis were seated for the foundation ceremony performed by President Maharaj.
Five years later, on the day of Jagaddhatri Puja in November 1981, he himself opened the temple. On this occasion a souvenir (without advertisements) was published. The cost of building the temple was rupees forty lakh. It was made possible by generous devotees. Many senior sadhus of Belur Math rejoiced at the news and one sent a letter to Pravrajika Muktiprana Mataji saying that for the construction of the Belur Math temple they had to take a loan but Sri Sarada Math managed without one. He wrote, "Mother is Lakshmi, why should there be any lack of money for her temple? That is why it was not only unnecessary to borrow money but you did not have to raise money by publishing advertisements in the souvenir."
Two days after the opening, two teenage girls were conversing in a bus in Dakshineswar. One was saying, "Do you know, in Sri Sarada Math they have built a Belur Math!" In other words, the new temple looks just like the one at Belur Math. Unlike Belur Math's temple, however, an idol was not installed in the shrine. Instead, seated at the centre of the altar is a large photograph of Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi. In the old shrine of Sri Sarada Math, Sri Ramakrishna's photograph had been at the centre. This change was made in accordance with the opinion of the majority of members of the Math. Previously, Mother's photograph occupied the centre only at Thrissur, Kerala.
Swamiji himself had wanted this. Seeing Mother at the centre, a sadhu asked, "Do you think Mother is happy about being in the middle?" the mataji to whom the question was addressed immediately replied, "Whether Mother is happy about it or not, I can't say, but I know Sri Ramakrishna and Swamiji are." Men as well as women devotees are welcome to visit this temple in the mornings and evenings. But men can only pay obeisance and not stay on to meditate there and they may not sit in the temple during arati, devotional singing, ritual worship or homa. Swamiji's injunction regarding it was, "In this Math there will be no connection with men." Apart from this, when Mother was living in the Udbodhan House, there were strict rules for men devotees requesting her darshan. We try to maintain that tradition.
"In villages and towns they will open centres and strive for the spread of women's education. Through such devout preachers of character there will be the real spread of women's education in the country." From 1980, the work of Sri Sarada Math and Ramakrishna Sarada Mission expanded in various directions. A Mission centre was started in the village of Thakurnagar in Midnapore district to teach poor women weaving. It was started despite many obstacles and difficulties. From the villagers' point of view, in a male-dominated society, they could not accept the idea that women could stand on their own feet and be independent. They could not tolerate women earning. The institution quietly continued to work in spite of the adverse circumstances for a long time.
After this, in 1982, another Mission centre was opened in the village of Shilla, Burdwan district. Although the land was donated, sannyasinis had to beg from the residents of surrounding villages to build the thatched hut in which the school was started. The centre now manages a primary school for the poor Bagdi, Dom and Muslim boys and girls of the area and also a vocational school for the needy girls.
Each centre observes a special annual celebration of Mother's birthday. The celebration at the Shilla centre is especially grand. A few day's before the celebration, boys from the nearby villages, beating a drum, announce, "Mother's celebration at Sarada Mission will be on such and such day. Put away your cooking pots. All are invited for the FEAST!" In other words, every member of every family in the village is seated for a feast in the Mission. That day, in no house will anyone need to put her cooking pots on the stove.
More than twelve thousand people are seated for prasad. They come in groups from noon and through the entire afternoon. Every villager assumes responsibility for the huge feast to be cooked and served. They feel the Mission is their own place and joyfully volunteer to participate in the work of the celebration. In a tent pitched outside, there are discourses on Mother's teachings, on the Bible and other scriptures by sannyasinis. Maulavis read from the Koran. For many years, at the time of reading of the Koran, Mother's photograph was removed from the tent because in Islam, worship of an image is prohibited. But on Mother's one hundred and fiftieth birthday, Mother sat in the tent and listened to the reading of the Koran. The Maulavis did not ask for the photograph to be removed. Perhaps they felt her living presence in the photograph and there could be no objection to Mother's presence as a living person.
In 1990, a centre was opened in Gangarampur village in the district of South 24 Parganas. This village is on Diamond Harbour Road and only twenty-five kilometres from the Governor's House in Kolkata. Three days after the ashram was inaugurated, a few men from the locality came to see it. Secretary Mataji came out to meet them. When they saw her, in bewilderment they asked, "Aren't there any men here to whom we can talk?" They could not believe that women could run an ashram and do everything themselves. Today the situation has completely changed. The people of the village come running to the matajis at any time of the day or night for food, medicines or money.
Here a primary school is run for the local poor Hindu and Muslim boys and girls. At first the guardians brought only their boys to be admitted. When they were asked, "Isn't there any girl of school-going age" they replied, "If we send the girls to school, who will do the work at home?" Today, a major change has come over these people who were so disinterested in education for girls. At present, the ratio of students is such that while there are seventy-four boys, the number of girls is two hundred sixteen. A dispensary and clinic have also been opened along with a needlework class for women. Gradually the rate of literacy among the women has also risen.
The authorities of Sri Sarada Math finally resolved to open a centre in each state of India. In 1987, a branch of Sri Sarada Math was established at Bhubaneswar, Orissa. During the same year, a Math centre was established in Ernakulam, Kerala. Here an Old Age Home has been opened to care for thirty women.
Also, in the 1980s, a Ramakrishna Sarada Vedanta Society was established outside India in Sydney, Australia. Now there are three there. Sri Ramakrishna's, Sri Sarada Devi's and Swami Vivekananda's lives and teachings are taught there and lecture tours to other cities of Australia and to Singapore and Malaysia are regularly undertaken. Of course, when the first invitation came from Sri Lanka during Sister Nivedita's centenary celebrations in April 1968, Pravrajikas Muktiprana Mataji and Atmaprana Mataji went to Sri Lanka.
In 1991, a Math centre was established at Indore, Madhya Pradesh, and in 1993, a Mission section of that centre was created under which a secondary school was opened.
In Varanasi, a Math centre was officially started in 1993, though, for many years before that, Sri Sarada Math sannyasinis lived in the house called 'Sarada Kutir' hallowed by Pravajika Bharatiprana Mataji's austerities.
A shadow of sorrow fell over the Math on 6 May 1994, when Pravrajika Muktiprana Mataji, the first General Secretary, passed away due to heart failure. From the time she assumed the responsibility of her office, for forty years the members of the Math and Mission were free of worries. After her demise. Pravrajika Shraddhaprana Mataji accepted the General Secretary's role.
After five more years, Pravrajika Mokshaprana Mataji passed away. The basic attitudes of the Order-renunciation, austerity and yearning for God-realization-shone so brightly in their great lives that in their company everyone received peace and strength. The position of the President was then filled by Pravrajika Shraddhaprana Mataji and Pravrajika Amalaprana Mataji assumed the responsibility of General Secretary.