Personally, I am uneasy writing about Holy Mother. It is difficult to verbalize about what is extremely dear to one’s heart. One feels like having committed a sacrilege by putting that into words. No matter what you write, you get a feeling in your gut that you have done gross injustice to the subject.
Another reason I find it hard to write about Holy Mother is that there is hardly anything dramatic or extraordinary in her life and personality, the kind of adventure and glory we see in Sri Ramakrishna or Swami Vivekananda. The best description of Holy Mother’s personality, I found, in a passage that Swamiji uttered in his First Public Lecture in the East in Colombo. He was speaking of the effect of Indian thought on the western mind. But, the words are absolutely true of Holy Mother’s life also. So, I will take the liberty of paraphrasing Swamiji’s words to make it sound like he is speaking of Holy Mother. “Those who keep their eyes open, those who understand the workings of the minds of different people of this world, those who are thinkers and study people, will find the immense change that has been produced in the tone, the procedure, the methods, and in the lives of the people of the world by this slow, never ceasing permeation of Holy Mother’s personality…If there is one word in the English language to represent the gift of Holy Mother’s life to the world, if there is one word in the English language to express the effect which her personality produces upon mankind; it is this one word, ‘fascination’. It is the opposite of anything that takes you suddenly; it throws on you, as it were, a charm imperceptibly. To many, the daily circumstances of Holy Mother’s life might be repulsive at first sight; but let them persevere, let them study her life, let them become familiar with the great principles underlying this amazing person, and it is ninety-nine to one that the charm will come over them, and fascination will be the result. Slow and silent, as the gentle dew that falls in the morning, unseen and unheard yet producing a most tremendous result, has been the work of the calm, patient, all-suffering Holy Mother upon the people who come in contact with her.”
At first sight, it is almost impossible to specifically locate Holy Mother in the genesis and evolution of this worldwide spiritual organization. But, every person, without an exception, once he enters this movement, is totally ‘fascinated’ by Holy Mother, and becomes intensely attached to her. When and how exactly she starts exerting her imperceptible influence on us is impossible to say. As Swamiji said, “If there is one word in the English language to express this effect…it is this one word, ‘fascination’. It is the opposite of anything that takes you suddenly; it throws on you, as it were, a charm imperceptibly.”
What exactly is the role of Holy Mother in the Ramakrishna Movement? More fundamentally, who exactly is this lady that we worship today as Holy Mother? Kasmai devaya havisha vidhema?  Many illustrious monks and thinkers have tried to answer these questions. All of them resort to poetry, giving up all positive language, in trying to describe Holy Mother. Ordinary language seems to fall short when we speak of her. Swamiji exhorts in one place, “You people always want action! You cannot yet perceive the poetry of everyday common little incidents in life!” Swami Vireshwarananda makes a wonderful observation in one of his lectures: “When Holy Mother was at Madras on her way to Rameswaram, devotees used to come and inquire Shashi Maharaj whether she was going to deliver any lecture. That was the yardstick by which they measured greatness – intellectuality. They had heard Annie Besant, who could throw the audience into raptures by her oratory. So they expected Holy Mother also to give lectures!” It is not possible to speak about her in asserting, positive language. Take for instance Swami Brahmananda. He says, “Who can understand our Holy Mother?…Is it possible for an ordinary person to have digested the worship of an incarnation like Sri Ramakrishna? From this, one has to understand what a great container of power she is!…Our Holy Mother is Mahamaya herself! But such is her Maya that none can understand her. Inside, she is the ocean of realization; outside, absolute calm. How ordinary and easy she appears! Even Avataras cannot keep under control such Bhava and Bhakti.”
Look at the words Swami Brahmananda uses, ‘How ordinary and easy she appears!’ She is very ordinary. She is very easy of approach. But, that is just how it appears. That is not the truth. Why not? Because, slow and silent, as the gentle dew that falls in the morning, unseen and unheard yet producing a most tremendous result, has been the work of the calm, patient, all-suffering Holy Mother upon the people who come in contact with her. Not only that, Swami Yatishwarananda mentions another amazing facet of Holy Mother. He says, “Which aspect of Holy Mother do you like? Only her love and affection? Remember that she is Kali too. If need be, she will tear open your heart.”
This is an amazing personality we are dealing with here. Swami Saradananda, after living with Holy Mother for eighteen long years, once mentioned about her, “What can we understand of the Holy Mother! However, this much I can say that I have never seen such a great mind, and I do not hope to see one either. It is beyond our capacity to comprehend the extent of Holy Mother’s glory and power. I have never seen such attachment, nor have I seen such detachment. She was so deeply attached to Radhu. But when her last day came she said, ‘Please send her away.’ I said, ‘Mother, you are now telling to send Radhu away. But what will happen when you will like to see her again?’ Holy Mother replied, ‘No, I have not the slightest attraction for her anymore.’ While saying these words, Swami Saradananda became absorbed within himself and started humming a song whose meaning was, ‘Amazed at your activities, I am wondering whether I should laugh or cry. In this strange world, you make and unmake things all day long, just as children do while playing. I have lived long by your side and followed you. Let me now acknowledge my defeat – I could not understand you.’”
There is one more reason why Holy Mother is not what she appears to be – ordinary and easy. One morning in Jayrambati, Holy Mother was husking paddy, which she did almost every day. Swami Arupananda asked her, “Mother, why should you work so hard?” She replied, “My child, to make my life a model, I have done much more than is necessary.”
Her life is more than a role model. For whom is her life a model? What is the model she is speaking of? Why did she have to make her life a model for others? Sister Nivedita said, “To me it has always appeared that Holy Mother is Sri Ramakrishna’s final word as to the ideal of Indian womanhood.” So, is Holy Mother a role model only for women? These are some questions that need to be answered, which I shall try presently.
An Avatara reveals a new spiritual ideal for humanity and propagates this new ideal in two distinct, yet deeply interconnected ways. One is the cult aspect of the teaching and the other is its philosophical aspect. The philosophical aspect of the Avatara’s teachings is centered on principles. The cult aspect is centered in personality; it consists of beliefs and devotional attitudes concerning the Avatara. The health and vitality of the religious movement depend on maintaining balance between these two aspects. While philosophy is the skeleton, muscles and skin, cult is the heart of the movement. It is the hidden source of vigor in a religious movement. Without philosophy, cult becomes sentimentalism or fanaticism. So also, without the devotional spirit generated by the cult, philosophy degenerates into intellectualism or cosmopolitanism, without a spirit of self-sacrifice so essential for making any religious movement vibrant.
Holy Mother is the greatest representative of the cult aspect of the Ramakrishna Movement, while Swami Vivekananda is the most illustrious representative of its philosophical aspect. In fact, once when he was very young, Swami Saradananda confided in Swami Yogananda, “I do not always understand what Naren means. He talks about many things. Whenever he speaks about something, he does it with such emphasis that all his previous statements become practically meaningless.” Swami Yogananda advised him, “Let me tell you something. You stick to Holy Mother. Whatever she says is right.” Holy Mother was the first, and the foremost, person to embody the cult principles which has given to the Ramakrishna Movement whatever vitality it possesses. It is in this sense that Holy Mother is considered as the Shakti behind this movement.
Sri Ramakrishna revealed a new spiritual ideal called Vijnana. How do we reach that spiritual state starting from where we are at present? The Divine Mother gave him specific directions in this regard. It is interesting to note that the path followed by the Avatara himself to reach that new spiritual ideal may not be suitable for the masses. At least in Sri Ramakrishna’s case, that is so. The path he took for reaching the state of Vijnana is not meant for ordinary people like us. So, a separate path, a separate set of spiritual practices had to be laid out for us. The Divine Mother specifically revealed to him that ordinary people would reach the new state of Vijnana by following the path of Bhakti-mishrita-Karma-Yoga. Swami Saradananda elaborates this revelation in Sri Ramakrishna Lila Prasanga as follows: “An ordinary person must try to do his duties with detachment, depending on the Lord, like the maidservant who does everything for her master, knowing in her heart that her home is elsewhere. This is known as karma yoga. As far as possible one should take the name of the Lord and meditate on Him while discharging one’s everyday duties in an unattached way.’
Sri Ramakrishna needed someone who could demonstrate to the masses exactly how one should proceed along this new path to reach the new ideal. Sri Ramakrishna selected Holy Mother for this extremely vital job. In a way, each of his disciples – both monastic and householder – did this job to the limit possible by each one of them. But, Holy Mother was specifically meant to do this.
Holy Mother’s entire life is a glowing illustration of the three beliefs on which the cult aspect of the Ramakrishna Movement stands:
- Sri Ramakrishna is an Avatara. He embodies in himself the spiritual consciousness of the past incarnations and is the expression of all forms of God.
- His life and personality have revealed a new spiritual ideal.
- By tyaga and seva, one can participate in the spiritual consciousness he has created.
We grow spiritually by dedicating all our actions to Sri Ramakrishna. This belief is the primary motive force behind the Ramakrishna Movement. Long before Swamiji institutionalized this idea, Holy Mother pioneered this new path leading to the new ideal. Holy Mother demonstrated how to become totally identified with Sri Ramakrishna by working for him. Swami Yogananda made a wonderful observation in this regard, which I quote: At Vrindavan, Holy Mother had many spiritual experiences. One day her companions found her in deep Samadhi. They uttered the name of the Lord Krishna in her ears and tried to bring her mind down. They could not. I then repeated the name of Sri Ramakrishna with all my might and strength of voice. Then Holy Mother seemed to come down to the ordinary sense-plane. During such periods of ecstasy, her manner of speech, her voice, her way of taking food, her mode of walking and her general behavior were exactly like those of the Master. The scriptures mention a spiritual state known as ‘Tadatmya Bhava’, being at one with God…Holy Mother forgot her own separate existence and became one with him. When I put to her some intricate questions about spiritual matters, shortly after her states of Samadhi, she replied in a God-intoxicated mood, very much like Sri Ramakrishna, that is, in the same manner characteristic of the Master, using even the same easy style of expression with metaphors and parables. We were amazed to see the spirit of Sri Ramakrishna unified with her. It was unique. We realized that the Master and Holy Mother were essentially one, though appearing in separate forms. Once a disciple questioned Swami Saradananda why Holy Mother took only two or three minutes to initiate a disciple, while he took about half an hour. The Swami replied, “The very touch or will of Holy Mother is sufficient assurance that the disciple had surrendered to, and had been accepted by, Sri Ramakrishna. In my case, I need to spend some time in meditation before I receive that assurance.”
Holy Mother was the Vijnana ideal in flesh & blood. The most noted of Sri Ramakrishna’s disciples were monks. Though they were involved in preaching, philanthropy and administration, they all lived outside the family. Even Sri Ramakrishna himself, though married, had nothing to do with family. But in Holy Mother, we find the unique example of one who lived in the circle of her relatives and bore the worries of such a life to the fullest extent, but at the same time kept intact her Viveka and Vairagya.
She was wife, nun and mother at the same time. These are mutually conflicting situations in life. But Holy Mother harmonized them in her life. She was married to Sri Ramakrishna at the age of five. Till the end of his life she was his companion, fully participating in his spiritual ideals. Being the wife of a spiritual teacher who remained a celibate for life and insisted on celibacy as an essential discipline of spiritual life, she remained a nun in spite of her married condition. As such she had no children of the body, but she had a large number of devotees and disciples, to whom she was a mother. In relation to them she displayed all the love and sweetness which a woman reveals when she receives fulfilment as a mother. In this respect, Holy Mother is a unique figure in world history. There have been great wives, great nuns and great mothers, but none who have been all of these at the same time. Holy Mother, therefore, reveals a new possibility in the field of womanly character. This is perhaps why Nivedita called her Sri Ramakrishna’s final word as to the ideal of womanhood. Holy Mother demonstrated that wifely devotion is possible without physical attraction, that maternal love can be manifested without oneself bearing children, and that the highest spirituality can be cultivated even in the midst of daily life in the world.
Although Swamiji & Holy Mother had totally different mechanisms for delivering the message of Sri Ramakrishna, both of them were essentially on the same page, at all times. This equivalence is not obvious always, but we find glimpses during moments of crises and dilemma in Swamiji’s life. In March 1898 there was an outbreak of plague in Calcutta. Swamiji immediately made plans for relief work, but there was no money. He told his brother disciples, “We shall sell the land we have purchased for the Math. We are monks. We must be ready to sleep under trees and live on alms as we did before. Must we care for monastery and possessions when by selling them, we could relieve thousands of helpless people suffering before our own eyes?” Swamiji had such a strong personality that his brother disciples could not dissuade him. Swami Shivananda however said, “Swamiji, you always consult Holy Mother about important matters. Will you not consult with her before selling the Math?” Swamiji immediately went to Holy Mother in Calcutta, accompanied by Swami Brahmananda, Shivananda and Saradananda. There Swamiji said, “Mother, there is no money to serve the plague-stricken people. I am planning to sell the Math property and use that money for relief work. We are monks. We can live under trees. We need your permission.” Holy Mother had always supported Swamiji’s projects. But on this matter, she did not agree. She said, “My son, you cannot sell the Math property. This is not your Math. It belongs to the Master. You are my heroic sons. You can indeed spend your lives under trees. But my children who will come in the future will not be able to live like that. This Math is for them…Will the purpose of Belur Math end after conducting only one relief work? The Master’s mission has many objectives. The infinite ideas of the Master will spread all over the world in the future. His mission will continue through ages.”
Although this looks like Holy Mother disagreed with Swamiji, what actually happened was something very deep. A lot of resentment had built up in some of the direct disciples regarding Swamiji’s modern methods of organization. So, in the course of this dilemma, when Holy Mother declared that the Math, and the organization associated with it, was actually the will of Sri Ramakrishna, everyone fell in line.
Who actually started this wonderful organization? It is interesting to study the dynamics of its genesis. It is popular knowledge that Swamiji hit upon the idea of organization while he was in the West. That is a fact. But that is not the whole truth. Holy Mother once said to a disciple: “How much I wept and prayed to the Master for my children! That is why you find Math and Mission centers everywhere today. After the Master’s demise his disciples renounced the world, found a temporary shelter and for a few days lived together. Then one by one they went out independently and began to wander. That made me very sad. I prayed to the Master, ‘O Lord, you incarnated as a man and spent your life with a few disciples. Now has everything ended with your passing away? In that case what need was there for your embodiment entailing so much suffering? I have seen in Vrindavan and Benares so many holy men living on alms and sleeping under trees. There is no lack of sadhus of that type. I cannot bear to see my children, who have renounced all for your sake, wandering about for a morsel of food. It is my prayer, O Lord that those who give up the world for your sake may not suffer for want of simple food and clothing. My children should live together, clinging to you and your teachings; people of the world should come to them and get peace of mind by hearing your words from them. That is why you incarnated yourself in a human form.’” When a person like Holy Mother prays, it carries infinite power with it. The Ramakrishna movement and the monastic organization that is at the back of it sprang from the resolution she made in her pure and powerful mind. She is the bedrock on which Sri Ramakrishna’s spiritual edifice is built. That is the power of the Cult aspect. She is, in a very real sense, the mother who gave birth to the spiritual movement associated with Sri Ramakrishna’s name.
We saw that Sri Ramakrishna had a divine revelation that the spiritual path for mankind would be Bhakti-mishrita-Karma-Yoga. Later on, when Swamiji was formulating the new doctrine for the movement, in his famous Karma Yoga lectures, he narrates a beautiful story. A young monk went to a forest and practiced Yoga for a long time. One day, some birds disturbed him during his meditation. He looked at them with anger. The birds got burnt to ashes. He was overjoyed at this development of power. After sometime he had to go to the town to beg his food. He went, stood at a door, and said, ‘Mother, give me food.’ The lady of the house said, ‘Wait a little, my son.’ The sadhu thought, ‘You wretched woman, how dare you make me wait! You do not know my power yet.’ While he was thinking thus the lady said again: ‘My son, don’t think too much of yourself. I am not a bird you can burn.’ He was astonished. When the woman came with food, he fell at her feet and said, ‘Mother, how do you know about what happened deep in the forest?’ She said, ‘My son, I do not know your Yoga or your Sadhana. I am a common everyday woman. I made you wait because my husband is ill, and I was nursing him. All my life I have struggled to do my duty. When I was unmarried, I did my duty to my parents; now that I am married, I do my duty to my husband; that is all the Yoga I practice. But by doing my duty I have become illumined; thus I could read your thoughts and know what you had done in the forest.’
Through this story, Swamiji is essentially telling us that working for the love of God, coupled with Brahmacharya is enough for our spiritual awakening. This was in fact a story from the Mahabharata. But, when Swamiji explained it, there was tremendous life force in his words. Where did that force come from? It came from what he directly saw in Dakshineswar and Cossipore, in the life and personality of Holy Mother. He knew that this was not just another fairy tale. This could happen. In fact, it had happened. By the way, did you notice how similar the personality of that woman in the story was with that of Holy Mother?
Recall the Shodashi Puja that Sri Ramakrishna performed on Phalaharini Kali Puja night. Sri Ramakrishna informed Holy Mother that she was to come to his room at around midnight. She went. He made her sit on a stool, which he had duly consecrated. Then he invoked the presence of the Divine Mother of the Universe in Sri Sharada Devi and worshipped her as one would ritually worship an idol. She went into Nirvikalpa Samadhi. Around day-break, she came back to normal consciousness, got up and went to her room in the Nahabat. This information we find in her biographies.
We need to imagine a little bit here. Then we will understand what I am trying to say. Remember that Holy Mother was an ordinary household lady, for all practical purposes. She too had fixed duties to perform. So, when her husband asked her to come to his room by midnight, how did she come? She had a household to run. That night, she must have prepared food for quite a good number of people. She must have served them food. After that, she would have cleaned the eating place and the vessels. She must have done all these. Then she must have bathed. Only then would she have gone to her husband’s room. Similarly, next day morning, coming down from Samadhi, she goes back to her room, for what? For rest? Where is rest for a lady of the house?! Early morning she must have collected milk for preparing chana for her husband (he needed it as a staple diet). After that, she would have begun the innumerable daily duties such as preparing breakfast, washing clothes, drying them up, etc. She didn’t claim any privileges after her Nirvikalpa Samadhi!
Moreover, let us remember that one becomes fit to experience this kind of Samadhi only after the most rigorous Sadhana done for a long time. In this instance we find this lady doing all her daily duties, and then she is ready for the highest spiritual experience directly after that! It makes us wonder what must have been the attitude with which she had been working, if her preparation for Nirvikalpa Samadhi was the daily duties she performed! She herself used to say, “Sri Ramakrishna has left me behind to manifest the Motherhood of God to the world.” This is an important facet of her motherhood. She takes us by the hand and teaches us how to live and work so that we can participate in the spiritual consciousness of Sri Ramakrishna. This is the training a mother gives her child, making him aware of his paternal heritage.
Once while Swamiji embarked on his wanderings in North India, he prayed to Holy Mother that he might not return before attaining the highest realization. She blessed him profusely, but asked him whether he would not like to take leave of his mother Bhuvaneswari Devi. Swamiji addressed Holy Mother and replied, “You alone are my mother, and none else!”
I end this essay by quoting Swamiji’s words about Holy Mother, “You have not yet understood the wonderful significance of Mother’s life, none of you. But gradually you will know. Without Shakti, there is no regeneration for the world.”
 Paraphrased from: Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-3: Lectures from Colombo to Almora: First Public Lecture In The East (Delivered in Colombo) on 15th Jan 1897
 “Who is the deity we shall worship with our offerings?”: Hiranyagarbha Suktam: Rg Veda: 10.121
 Complete Works of Sister Nivedita: Vol-1: Master as I saw him: Ch.-XVIII: Swami Vivekananda And His Attitude To Buddha: Pg: 178
 Sri Sharada Devi, the Great Wonder: Pg: 56 & 143
 Ibid: Pg: 34
 Sri Sharada Devi, the Great Wonder: Pg: 37
 Sri Sharada Devi & her Divine Play by Swami Chetanananda: Pg: 627
 Complete Works of Sister Nivedita: Vol-1: Master as I saw him: Ch.-X: Calcutta & Holy Women: Pg: 105-106
 Adapted-Cf: Sri Sharada Devi, the Holy Mother by Swami Tapasyananda; 1958; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai: Pg: 270-277
 Sri Sharada Devi & her Divine Play by Swami Chetanananda: Pg: 266
 Cf: Sri Ramakrishna & His Divine Play: Swami Saradananda; 2003; Vedanta Society of St. Louis: Page: 361
 Adapted-Cf: Sri Sharada Devi, the Holy Mother by Swami Tapasyananda; 1958; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai: Pg:270-277
 Sri Sharada Devi, the Great Wonder: a compilation; 1994; Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata: Pg: 43 & 44
 Ibid: Pg: 37
 Adapted-Cf: Sri Sharada Devi, the Holy Mother by Swami Tapasyananda; 1958; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai: Pg:275-276
 Sri Sharada Devi & her Divine Play by Swami Chetanananda: Pg: 202-203
 Sri Sharada Devi, the Great Wonder: Pg: 164-165
 Cf: Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-1; Karma Yoga: Chapter-IV: What is duty?
 Just before he narrated this story, Swamiji had elaborated on the necessity of Brahmacharya (chastity) for spiritual awakening. Hence, the story has to be understood against the background of ideas in the main lecture.
 Sri Sharada Devi & her Divine Play, by Swami Chetanananda: Pg: 61-66
Sri Sharada Devi & her Divine Play, by Swami Chetanananda: Pg: 424
 Life of Swami Vivekananda by Eastern & Western Disciples: Vol-1: Pg: 243-244
 Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-7: Epistles: No. XXV : From U. S.A in 1894 to Swami Shivananda