[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]
Finally, Swami Vivekananda's dream and vision of Sri Sarada Math came to be realized. On 22 October 1954, Swami Saswatananda wrote to Swami Akhilananda: I ... Sri Ramakrishna is doing his work through you.' 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.
It was in the early hours of December 2, 1954. The sound of the shehnai (an Indian flute) drifted from a garden on the bank of the River Ganga, a little north of the Kali temple. On the western side of the garden is a wide gate. On a high arch above the gate is written in wrought iron letters, Suradhuni Kanan (a garden on the bank of the Ganga). From this gate there are wide steps going down to the river. For several days, boats had been carrying provisions to this bank from Belur Math.
Many ochre-robed sannyasis in the garden had been busily overseeing the renovations of the large garden house and of another old house on the bank of the Ganga. On that day, the entire place was beautifully decorated. There was a huge pandal (tent), the preparations for a great feast was on.
Meanwhile, twenty-five or thirty brahmacharinis in white robes were bringing provisions for the ritualistic worship from Sister Nivedita School and Matri Bhavan. At that time these two institutions were under the Ramakrishna Mission.
Gradually, devotees arrived. 'Over three thousand women took prasad,' wrote Swami Saswatananda, 'The nuns arranged everything by themselves.' From Shyambazar in central Kolkata to Dakshineswar in the photograph of the north, manybuses arrived bearing the large poster saying: '2 December 1954: The Opening of the Women's Math planned by Swami Vivekananda at Dakshineswar near the Kali Temple.'
In front of the house adjoining the river bank, all stood in readiness. At ten past nine in the morning, the President of Belur Math, Swami Sankarananda, began the opening ceremony. He opened the door to a large hall, on the eastern side of which was a small shrine. Arranged on the long wooden altar were three thrones for the deities. Swami Sankarananda placed the photograph of Sri Ramakrishna on the middle one and on either side of it, Sri Sarada Devi's and Swami Vivekananda's. Brahmacharini Renu performed the special worship while Brahmacharini Kalyani was the tantradharak (assistant priest who recites texts from the scriptures).
The mantras of the resolve to establish the women's Math were pronounced. It was decreed that the sankalpa (resolution), written by Swami Omkarananda, would never be pronounced a second time. Therefore, according to the injunction of the authorities of Belur Math, this paper would not be preserved but be consigned to the River Ganga.
The responsibility of establishing the women's Math that Swami Vivekananda gave to his brother disciples of Sri Ramakrishna and his (Swamiji's) sannyasi disciples was thus accomplished. By establishing Sri Sarada Math, they successfully discharged their duty. After this, many women's Maths and ashrams of the Ramakrishna Order would be started. They would all be branch centres of this headquarters.
Swami Vivekananda ordained that: 'In the women's Math there shall be no connection with monks and in the Math for men no connection with nuns.' Following Swamiji's rule, after the inauguration ceremony was over and everyone had taken prasad (consecrated food) of fruits and sweets, the Belur Math sannyasis and male devotees left the Math premises.
Swamiji said, 'The Holy Mother will be their central figure and the wives and daughters of the devotees of Sri Ramakrishna will be the first inmates; for they will easily appreciate the usefulness of such a Math.' The responsibility of leading Sri Sarada Math was given to Mother's disciple and attendant (also a former pupil of Sister Nivedita), Sarala Devi, to whom Swami Saradananda gave Kaula Sannyasa and the name, Sri Bharati. Before coming to Sri Sarada Math, she had lived a solitary life of austerities for twenty-seven years at Varanasi. The austerities that she practised as service to Mother in her human form, she now practised to realize her divinity. Mother had once told Sarala Devi, 'I have some work to be done, which you will do before you go.' Swami Saswatananda wrote on 21 July 1954: 'Everyone likes this link with Mother.'
Each and every young woman who joined the Math then was from a family of devotees such as Brahmacharinis Renu, Asha, Gauri, Lakshmi, Kalyani and others. What they had most in common was an intense dispassion for the world. Brahmacharini Asha had earlier (in 1946) written an article titled, 'Hindu Women's Right to Sannyasa' published in Udbodhan, a Bengali journal of the Ramakrishna Math, in which she expressed her strong desire for the life of renunciation.
Swamiji said, 'So long as competent women are not available for the management of the women's Math, it will be conducted by men from a distance.' He said, 'The elderly sadhus of the Math will manage the affairs of this Math from a distance.' From 1954 to 1958, Sri Sarada Math was a branch centre of Belur Math. The trustees of Belur Math assumed the responsibility of its administration. However, only the members of Sri Sarada Math conducted its daily work. When necessity arose, they sought advice from the senior sannyasis of Belur Math. During this initial period, the members of Sri Sarada Math were engaged in efforts to firmly establish themselves in a life of spirituality.
Swamiji said, 'Convert everyone into the monastic order whoever seeks for it, irrespective of sex, and then I shall be in your midst... We want two thousand sannyasis, nay ten, or even twenty thousand-men and women, both ... we want sannyasis.' In 1958 the Belur Math authorities decided that Sarala Devi and the seven brahmacharinis of the women's Math would be tonsured and perform the shraddha ceremony. Then on Mother's birthday they would initiate them into the vows of sannyasa. In the early hours of 1 January 1959, in the old shrine of Belur Math, Swami Sankarananda and several senior sannyasis were seated before a homa fire. Eight members of Sri Sarada Math performed the sacred rites, received ochre robes and accepted their new names from Swami Sankarananda.
Swami Madhavananda decided the structure of the names. They would have the word 'Pravrajika' before them and would end with 'prana'. So the names of the eight sannyasinis were respectively, Pravrajika Bharatiprana (Sarala Devi or Sri Bharati), Pravrajika Mokshaprana (Brahmacharini Renu), Pravrajika Muktiprana (Brahmacharini Asha), Pravrajika Dayaprana (Brahmacharini Gauri), Pravrajika Vidyaprana (Brahmacharini Bijali), Pravrajika Shraddhaprana (Brahmacharini Lakshmi), Pravrajika Bhaktiprana (Brahmacharini Kalyani) and Pravrajika Medhaprana (Brahmacharini Dakshayani).
Swamiji said, 'Thereafter the women will manage all their affairs themselves. Women must be put in a position to solve their own problems in their own way. No one can or ought to do this for them.' In that same year, on 26 August 1959, the Belur Math authorities recognized Sri Sarada Math as an independent organization. Of the eight sannyasinis, the first seven were elected to be the Trustees.
The Trust-deed was registered on 9 September. Pravrajika Bharatiprana was the first President. Pravrajika Mokshaprana was the Vice-president; Pravrajika Muktiprana became General Secretary; Pravrajika Shraddhaprana was the Assistant Secretary and Pravrajika Vidyaprana, the Treasurer. They accepted their administrative responsibilities with perfect accord. The President bore the responsibilities of granting spiritual initiation, brahmacharya initiation and the conferring of sannyasa. An independent Order of sannyasinis was born.
At this time, one of the residents of the Math was going on a pilgrimage. She went to Belur Math seeking permission from the General Secretary, Swami Madhavananda. He reminded her, 'You are now independent. You do not need to get our permission.' About three-four years earlier, a girl from another state expressed her desire to join the Math. Ramakrishna Math sannyasis of that place informed Swami Madhavananda in Belur Math, who told her to finish her studies and arranged for her to take spiritual initiation. After her final examinations in 1959, the girl sought permission to join Sri Sarada Math again. This time, the Ramakrishna Math sannyasis told her to write to Sri Sarada Math directly because Sri Sarada Math had become an independent organization. Belur Math authorities were cognizant of and careful about this matter.
Shankaracharya did not sanction sannyasa for women. But by the grace of Swami Vivekananda, these sannyasinis were incorporated in the Puri sampradaya (sect), one of the ten Orders of the dashanami sampradaya started by Shankaracharya. They also obtained the right to confer sannyasa upon others. This honour was an epoch-making incident in the history of the world. Swamiji said, 'As brahmacharis and sadhus will be trained in this Math here, so in the other Math also, brahmacharinis and sadhvis will be trained.' Once Sri Sarada Math had complete independent status in October 1959, Pravrajika Bharatiprana granted sannyasa to eight brahmacharinis and brahmacharya to two trainees of the Math. She began to give spiritual initiation to both men and women from 6 December 1959.
From the establishment of Sri Sarada Math in 1954 till it was legally independent in 1959, several girls from various places in India joined the Math. The total number of members was fifty-two. They all saw Pravrajika Bharatiprana as the mirror image of Mother and her intimate companions, Yogin-Ma and Golap-Ma and other saintly women.
Swamiji said, 'After that... many householders will help in this noble work.' When Sri Sarada Math 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 The Math focuses on atmanomokshartham (spiritual development), while the Mission's main aim is jagadhitaya (service to society). Women devotees with faith in this ideal can become members of the Mission.
Swamiji said, 'Just as centres have to be started for teaching men, so also centres have to be started for teaching women. Brahmacharinis of education and character should take up the task of teaching at these different centres.' Two centres run by the Ramakrishna Mission for women, the Matri Bhavan (maternity hospital) in south Kolkata and the Women's Welfare Centre in central Kolkata, were handed over to the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission.
At this time, a generous devotee, Devendranath Bhattacharya, a resident of Dum Dum, donated a building and eleven acres of land to the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission for a college. In 1961, the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission Vivekananda Vidyabhavan, a degree college was started with thirty students. Now, apart from a large college building, there are two hostel buildings, an auditorium and a prayer hall.
There are five hundred students in the partly-residential college. Till date, twenty alumni of this college have joined Sri Sarada Math.
A year later, by the request of the government, Shiksha Mandir, a mother-teacher training centre with pre-basic and junior-basic courses was opened in the vicinity of Baranagore. Pravrajika Bharatiprana laid the foundation-stone of Shiksha Mandir and Pravrajika Mokshaprana accepted the responsibility of managing the centre. Thirty years later, in 1992, the State government closed the mother-teacher training course. Later, it also closed the pre-basic department. The Mission then opened a free primary school for children of poor families in the area. The children of this department receive books and notebooks, clothes, a noon meal and medicines when necessary.
In 1963, the Ramakrishna Mission authorities handed over the Sister Nivedita Girls' School (which until then it had been managing) to the Ramakrishna. Sarada Mission.
In addition to this, at the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission headquarters in Dakshineswar, a school called Nivedita Vidyapith for needy children of the locality, Nivedita Kanyapith, a vocational school for women, and Sevayan, a homoeopathic dispensary and health-care centre were also started. These three centres have expanded much since they started. There is also a library, a Nivedita Study Circle and a Sunday school (Vivekananda Kishore Sangha) and so on. Within four years of the establishment of the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission, apart from the headquarters, it was managing five branch centres.
Even a decade before the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission was established, let alone the large group of devotees, many sannyasis of the Ramakrishna Math had doubted if women could live together in a Math like Monks because of the administrative of responsibility managing an institution. The success of the women's Math and Mission has showed the infallibility of Swami's prophesy about the inner strength and skill of women.