Samvit Excerpts - September 2011

[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 ths one, we will attempt to tell that story. Editor, Samvit]

Sri Sarada Math, Dakshineswar-I

Swami Vivekananda

It was nothing less than an inspiration. The idea of a Math for women-revolutionary for its time-came to Swami Vivekananda. In 1895, he wrote to Swami Ramakrishnananda from America: '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.'

Sri Sarada Math came into existence more than fifty years ago. The history of its inception, the first push towards its actual construction, the struggles and the challenges are all documented in a series of letters, some written by Swamji himself and many others by senior monks of the Ramakrishna Order. In letters Swamiji wrote between 1894 and 1901, we find ample evidence of his vision for the Math. This article is an attempt to compare the reality-what was achieved and what stands today with that vision as gleaned from the letters.

Swamiji's Vision

Swami Shivananda

Swamiji prophesied that the wave of spiritual influence that arose from the advent of Sri Ramakrishna and Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi would inundate the world for many centuries to come and that the lives of people especially those of women would see unprecedented advancement. The very short span of a single century has evinced the foretold future. We have not yet arrived at the point where we are able to assess that great renaissance. Its full manifestation is yet to come. In 1894, Swamiji wrote an impassioned letter to one of his brother disciples, Swami Shivananda, from America: 'Mother has been born to revive ... Shakti in India; and making her the nucleaus, once more will Gargis and Maitreyis be born into the world ... Hence it is her Math that I want first... Without the grace of Shakti nothing is to be accomplished ... Hence we must first build a Math for Mother. First Mother and Mother's daughters, then Father and Father's sons-can you understand this? ...To me, Mother's grace is a hundred thousand times more valuable than Father's. Mother's grace, Mother's blessings are all paramount to me...'

Sister Nivedita

Swamiji tried his utmost to turn his dream into reality. In the same letter he mentioned: 'Brother, in this terrible winter I am lecturing from place to place and fighting against odds, so that funds may be collected for Mother's Math.' About Swamiji's vision, Sister Nivedita wrote to Josephine MacLeod from Baghbazar, Kolkata, on 12 March 1899: '...The Swami ... pointed up the river in the direction of Dakshineswar and said he had begun to take steps towards a permanent home for the Mother and me...' In 1901, in an interesting conversation with his disciple, Sarat Chandra Chakravarty who noted all that Swamiji said, 'With the Holy Mother as the centre of inspiration, a Math is to be established on the eastern bank of the Ganga.' He continued: 'It is very difficult to understand why in this country so much difference is made between men and women, whereas the Vedanta declares that one and the same conscious Self is present in all beings. You always criticize the women, but say what have you done for their uplift? ...Binding them by hard rules, the men have turned the women into mere manufacturing machines! If you do not raise the women, who are the living embodiment of the Divine Mother, don't think you have any other way to rise.' But the disciple had his doubts and his own opinions. It seemed to him that women were a snare, a delusion.

Swamiji wanted a convent, a Math, for women. Of all the disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, he was the first to understand the unique greatness of Mother and the role she would play in the regeneration of India and the world. Swamiji's idea was that women's monasticism in modern India would grow with Mother as its centre. Men's monasticism was already growing around Sri Ramakrishna. He believed that women were capable of both acquiring knowledge and devotion. He argued that women were denied access, in a period of degeneration, to the study of the Vedas. This was when the priests considered women and some other castes unfit to comprehend Vedic knowledge. In the Vedic or Upanishadic age, few women could discuss about Brahman taking the place otherwise reserved only for brahmins. While the large majority of women were barred from the domain of religious discussions, Maitreyi, Gargi and a few others were exceptions and were revered. Swamiji felt that if such ideal women were entitled to spiritual knowledge, why not the women of today? He also felt that where there was no regard, no appreciation of women and where they lived in sadness, that family or country could not rise in the world. The position of women needed to be raised first; a convent or Math would be ideal in every way. After much doubting, the disciple became curious about Swamiji's plan and he wanted to know more.

Swamiji's Plans

Swamiji related his plans: 'On the other side of the Ganges a big plot of land will be acquired, where unmarried girls or brahmacharini widows will live; devout married women will also be allowed to stay now and then. Men will have no concern with this -lath. The elderly sadhus of the Math will manage the affairs of this Math from a distance.' He continued to elaborate on the different aspects of this future Math; the training it would have for the inmates. 'Spirituality, sacrifice and self- control will be the motto of the pupils of this Math, and service ... the vow of their life. In view of such ideal lives, who will not respect and have faith in them? ...To what straits the strictures of local usages have reduced the women of this country, rendering them lifeless and inert, you could understand if only you visited the Western countries. You alone are responsible for this miserable condition of the women and it rests with you also to raise them again. Therefore, I say, set to work.' Swamiji knew an example had to be set and a high ideal established because in women as in men, there is longing for knowledge and devotion. Dedicated women would be educators, nurses and doctors and would serve their communities and other women. But his vision of a convent for women had to wait.

Working out Swamiji's Plans

Swami Akhilananda

In 1951, a move was made to realize it. While Swami Akhilananda was returning to America from India in early 1951, he stopped at Gretz, France, to see his brother disciple, Swami Siddheswarananda. There, he received a letter from Swami Saswatananda of Belur Math about a piece of land that was up for sale-'a nice garden house at Dakshineswar'. The location of the plot and the buildings on it made it ideal for a women's Math. Swami Saswatananda wrote: 'If you could see it, you would have given the advance money for the purchase of (this land) without any hesitation while you were here. Please don't allow it to go into someone else's hands. Whoever sees it will say the same thing ... It is a chance of a lifetime... will be blessed if we try to give status and responsibility to mothers. By making you an instrument, Sri Ramakrishna, Mother and Swamiji have created the stone temple at Belur Math. Similarly, this work also will be done through you.'

At the same time, Swami Prabodhananda wrote to Swami Akhilananda: 'This property is inexpensive, we have to sign an agreement at once or we will lose it; please send the cable to reserve it. Saswatananda and I have looked into all the details. I feel Sri Ramakrishna made you construct the stone temple (at Belur) and he wants you to also build the ideal strimath (women's Math). You are blessed-please do not delay even for a day or it will go to someone else ... Sri Ramakrishna gave us just the place we wanted.'

Swami Saswatananda

Swami Akhilananda did not need any coaxing. He himself was adamant about a Math for women. He wrote in a letter to Belur Math: 'We should certainly start working on the plan and wishes of Swamiji regarding women's institutions on the centenary of Mother. The world needs this work. Yes, a women's Math should be established as Swamiji wanted in his rules for the monks, as women will gain experience in spiritual life, karma yoga and public relations. Although they would need help from the senior leaders of the Math, the three important leaders should be solely responsible for their activities. The elderly ladies who are disciples of Mother should be granted sannyasa immediately by our revered President. Of course, if he kindly considers that it is better to do so at the time of the Centenary Celebration of the Mother, we must obey his wish and decision as to the matter of time, as he is the leader of the Order. Brahmacharya and sannyasa should be granted to the deserving trained women devotees who are living the dedicated life n our Mission institutions. I understand some of our Swamis feel that sannyasa should not be given to women as Shankara did not give this to them. Is Swamiji inferior to Shankara? It seems to me some of our Swamis are audacious enough to think that we have to follow Shankara's tradition when Swamiji explicitly wanted women to be brahmacharinis and sannyasinis, as he wanted to start a women's Math parallel to the Belur Math for the monks... Swamiji wanted women to manage their own institutions. According to Swamiji, monks were asked to manage the women's institutions from a distance until they were in a position to handle their own affairs; I feel women are getting ready to take care of their own institutions. Swamiji could see far ahead of time so he advised the monks to allow the women to work for themselves.'

Garden House at Dakshineswar

Swami Akhilananda made everything clear. He concluded his letter saying that brahmacharya and sannyasa had been given by Swamiji and Mother to several women devotees. Could he have known of the following incident? One March day in 1916, a young girl had come to Swami Brahmananda yearning to lead a spiritual life. He listened to her and then sent her to an ashrama. At that time Swami Brahmananda had said to Swami Premananda, 'Who can understand the divine play of Sri Ramakrishna? Swami Vivekananda wanted to see a convent established for young women, and now I see that some day soon his desire will be fulfilled. Young women are becoming imbued with the ideal of renunciation as taught by our master.'

Many letters were written by the treasurer at Belur, Swami Saswatananda, to Swami Akhilananda, requesting that he send money to purchase this property for the monastic quarters for the women. Other legal issues had to be settled. In a letter dated 31 December 1951, Swami Saswatananda wrote: 'Hope you are getting better by the grace of the Holy Mother. When you feel better and stronger, please engage yourself whole-heartedly for the responsibility you have undertaken for the welfare of women this prayer is coming always from the heart of everyone of us. I'm very much relieved to know from the cable and letter that you are out of danger. When you become active, please jump into the work taking the name of Mother. I firmly believe that this work will be done by you.'

The Raising of Funds

Swami Akhilananda sent money from time to time; Swami Saswatananda wrote on 26 December 1952: '1 was waiting for your cheque after I got your cable and letter ... It is great that you could send this money. No matter how anxious we are, when the time comes things will happen smoothly and miraculously. Sri Ramakrishna earmarked you for this purpose. He arranged everything for his own huge temple, how can he cause any problem during Mother's memorial? That will never happen.'

Reams of letters were written from India. In one dated 29 October 1953, Swami Saswatananda wrote: I understand you are trying hard to raise funds for the women's Math ... Pray the Four Forces be on your side.' (The Four Forces were Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda and Swami Brahmananda.) Again on 18 November, Swami Saswatananda wrote to Swami Akhilananda urging him to send money for the women's Math. On 20 March 1954, he sent another letter to Swami Akhilananda: 'Please get involved a little more intensely now... We could not collect money in this country ...I I do not think any Swami in America will be of any help.' A letter from Swami Saswatananda to Swami Akhilananda, dated 11 May 1954, discloses: 'At present that property is listed in your, Satyen Maharafs and Priya Maharaj's names ... If we cannot start the women's Math this year at least by December we would let go a unique historic occasion without being able to make a permanent memorial to Mother.'

Esther Harrington

On 7 June 1954, Swami Saswatananda wrote: 'Abani Maharaj (Swami Prabhavananda) told us he will try to get some help for women's Math.' At last, on 22 October 1954, Swami Saswatananda wrote to Swami Akhilananda:'... Finally with your great personal efforts Ladies have a place of their own to stay. Sri Ramakrishna is doing his work through you.' Swami Akhilananda was able to send forty thousand dollars ($40,000), a gift from Esther Harrington of Providence, one of his devotees, for the women's Math. Esther was born on 1 May 1894, and passed away on 8 February 1966, in America at Providence, Rhode Island. She graduated from Rhode Island School of Design as an artist and from Rhode Island College with a teaching degree. She taught both at Rhode Island School of Design and at the local high schools at least until 1940. She moved to New York thence and returned in the early 1960s. She was very close to Swami Akhilananda and saw him at least once a week.

The Auspicious Day

It was in the early hours of the morning of 2 December 1954. The musical sound of the shehnai (an Indian flute) drifted from a garden house at Dakshineswar on the bank of the Ganga, a little north of the Kali temple, proclaiming the auspicious inauguration of the women's Math-that was how Swami Vivekananda's dream and vision of Sri Sarada Math came to be realized. It was like opening a new chapter in history. In the following issues we shall see how this women's organization as ordained by Swamiji, gradually developed with the march of time.