UNTIL THE birth centenary of Sri Sarada Devi in 1953, she was Known only to a limited circle of devotees. Presently however, her life and teachings have spread, not only in every part of India, but also internationally. Thousands of devotees in America worship her even more than they do Sri Ramakrishna. Many devotees see her as the incarnation of Mahashakti.
Sri Sarada Math, the world's largest independent women's monastic institution, started a unique tradition at their headquarters in Dakshineswar as well as in some of their branch centres. In the temple at the headquarters, Mother is seated prominently in the middle of the altar. On her right is Sri Ramakrishna, and Swami Vivekananda is to her left. This arrangement is not arbitrary. It has been made within a deep metaphysical and philosophical context.
As we know, Sri Ramakrishna, on Phalaharini-Kalika night worshipped Holy Mother as the Divine Mother. We can say it was by this event that the status of Sarada Devi was raised to that of Divine Motherhood. During Sri Ramakrishna's lifetime there had been incidents where she had indeed been the Mahashakti, the guardian and active coordinator of his mission. Sri Ramakrishna's explicit reaction was an explicit recognition of her rule. It is well known that Sri Ramakrishna, during his last days, told Sarada Devi that she would have to work for his cause. When we read the life story of Sarada Devi we see how she fulfilled this prediction of Sri Ramakrishna. What Sri Ramakrishna taught to his disciples was clearly exemplified in Sarada Devi's life.
The theological idea in Vedanta that Brahman and Shakti are identical has become very true in the lives of Sri Ramakrishna and of Sarada Devi. Sri Ramakrishna is the Purusha in one context, but he is also Prakriti in a different context. There have been devotees who look upon Sri Ramakrishna as Mother. In the spiritual tradition of the Ramakrishna Order, it is difficult to isolate the one from the other. In practical life, we need to maintain the difference between the Master and the Mother, but in the depth of our contemplative life, we feel they are one.
We can think of Holy Mother in our contemplation in a number of ways. We can let our mind go to the past where the little child Sarada, in her mother's lap, pointed out the boy Gadadhar, in a crowd of relatives and friends, as her future husband. We can think of their marriage ceremony. She was a five year old girl, marrying a twenty-four year old Sri Ramakrishna. We can visualize the young Sarada, her mother's only daughter, helping the poor household by cutting tall, wild grass from marshes for the cattle, taking care of her little brothers and helping her mother in the household tasks.
Remember Sri Ramakrishna returning to Kamarpukur for some rest and sending for the eleven year old wife from her father's house in Jayrambati. How sweet and exemplary are the scenes where Sri Ramakrishna instructs her in theoretical and in practical matters! With what devotion and great interest, believing every word of her God-intoxicated husband, she learnt those lessons. What a thrilling scene comes to our memory, of the young Sarada walking through the meadows with several companions for the journey to the river Ganga for a holy bath. Her frail body could not keep pace with the sturdier men and women, and she was left to trail behind. A bandit appeared from nowhere and asked her threatening questions. How intelligently Sarada addresses the terrible bandit saying, 'Father, I am your daughter, Sarada, on my way to Calcutta to take a holy bath in the Ganga, but my companions have gone ahead.' The sweet and gentle words softened the hard-hearted robber whose childless wife then appeared on the scene. With great affection, Sarada was taken into a humble wayside shop where they rendered her their sweet and sincere service. The next day, the bandit "father" took his adopted daughter to Dakshineswar with great care. The "son-in-law", Sri Ramakrishna, on hearing the story, paid great respect to this strange "father-in-law". The whole episode can well be an object of contemplation, bringing great peace to our minds and tears to our eyes.
Let us think of that scene of rumours and whispers in Kamarpukur and Jayrambati reaching Sarada Devi's ears. Her husband had become totally mad because of his intense spiritual practices. What! Could that be true? The young wife, now eighteen years of age, wanted to verify this for herself. She arrived at Dakshineswar with her father and found her gentle husband quite different from what rumour had made him out to be. He was so calm and loving. He welcomed her with great cordiality. Sarada Devi fell ill from the journey and Sri Ramakrishna made arrangements for her treatment and kept her near himself. After her recovery, she devoted herself wholeheartedly to the service of her saintly husband. To her he was not merely a husband but also father, mother, master and God.
When she went subsequently to live in her quarters in the nearby nahabat (music tower), her life was that of a recluse. In addition to her meditations in the morning and night, she was always busy with personal service to Sri Ramakrishna, cooking for him, feeding him and attending to the visiting devotees. Yet, very few people even knew she was living there. Everything was done so quietly. Sometimes she had for companion Lakshmi, niece of Sri Ramakrishna, and sometimes some elderly women disciples of the Master: Yogin Ma, Golap Ma and the wife of the devoted Mahendranath Gupta or the old woman devotee, Gopaler Ma who looked upon Ramakrishna as Gopal, the child Krishna, and had great affection for his spiritual partner living in the nahabat. Holy Mother described later how happy were those days. Though she did not have access to the assembly in Sri Ramakrishna's bedroom, she sometimes managed to stand in the veranda of the nahabat and look through the bamboo screens. How splendid was the spectacle inside -- the inspiring dialogues between the Master and his disciples, the melodious singing and the ecstatic dancing! Latu, one of the Master's young attendants, was sent by the latter to help Holy Mother at the nahabat. Another young disciple, Saradaprasanna (later Swami Trigunatita), was sent to her with the cryptic statement that he was not going to an ordinary woman, but to a spiritual Mahashakti like Radha, and that he should never forget this!
Scenes come to our mind when Sri Ramakrishna is bedridden with the terrible disease in his throat. At Cossipore Garden House, Holy Mother in a little room downstairs, is attending to the Master's food and other needs. How alert and careful she was, and at the same time, how sweet and calm. We can recollect in our mind Sri Ramakrishna's passing away in Mahasamadhi in the dead of night and Holy Mother crying, 'Oh Mother, where have you gone?' From the biographies we read that Sri Ramakrishna, appearing in a subtle form, assured her that he was in the next room, he had not gone anywhere.
After Sri Ramakrishna's passing away, Holy Mother went on a pilgrimage to Vrindavan, Puri and many other holy places. At Puri, she was walking to the temple of Lord Jagannath. Refusing to ride in a carriage on this pilgrimage, she said, 'I want to see the Lord as his insignificant, humble maid servant.' She carried a picture of Sri Ramakrishna and held that picture up to the deity. Sri Ramakrishna, as we know, had never visited Lord Jagannath at Puri because he felt his being would merge into that of the Lord of the Universe. This scene at Puri is worthy of a devotee's contemplation.
Holy Mother seems a silent spectator of the events that came to pass so quickly after the death of Sri Ramakrishna: her stay in Vrindavan, her sojourns in Kamarpukur, Jayrambati and sometimes in Calcutta. Later, Swami Saradananda bought a house in Baghbazar, in Calcutta, to serve the double purpose of Holy Mother's residence whenever she came to Calcutta, and of office of the periodical Udbodhan and other Bengali publications of the Order. This house, called "Holy Mother's House" continues to exist as a place of pilgrimage for all devotees of Sri Ramakrishna. When Holy Mother used to live in that house during her visits to Calcutta, devotees had the opportunity of meeting her and gaining spiritual instruction from her. In accordance with the custom of the time, men and women devotees had separate visiting hours. Before male devotees, she would be veiled. If someone had a question to ask, it was conveyed to her by the attendant who stood by her side, and her answer, spoken in a very soft voice, would be communicated to the devotee in question. Before women devotees, she would not be veiled. She was always very particular about feeding the devotees with prasad.
At Jayrambati, the Mother was different. There, in her ancestral country home, she was very uninhibited, not being bound down by the cultural restrictions that were customary in the city. She was very free with the devotees, both men and women, and took great pains to look after them. She would cook and even do the cleaning up herself, in spite of the objections of the devotees. Even with her ceaseless activities, one felt that her mind was constantly tied to Sri Ramakrishna. In those days, Jayrambati was a place where malaria and other malignant types of fever were prevalent. Swami Saradananda, a permanent resident in Holy Mother's house in Calcutta, was in charge of ensuring that Holy Mother's requirements were met. He often had to come to Jayrambati in case of any difficulty in the village household. The Mother's younger brothers created many problems, but the Mother, their older sister, overlooked these vexations. She went out of her way to help them. Those devotees who had the opportunity to see Holy Mother in Jayrambati were very fortunate to be able to avail of her company in this intimate atmosphere. From the numerous biographies and accounts of the Holy Mother's life, we know of the many remarkable and inspiring incidents that occurred in Jayrambati. These go to prove her great compassion and same-sightedness for everyone, and yet she was so unsophisticated and humble! These events are some of the components of the meditation on the Holy Mother.
As time goes on, more and more devotees are worshipping Holy Mother and being drawn to her as the Universal Mother, not bound by caste, colour, scholarship or financial condition. She is the loving mother, removing our tensions and afflictions and assuring and comforting us in the struggles of life. Contemplating on Holy Mother in any of these ways is conducive to our spiritual harmony, strength and peace.