In India, the name of one woman stands out as an epitome of self-sacrifice and purity who looked upon herself as a mother of all beings serving them as her children throughout her whole life. This was the great Holy Mother Sarada Devi. She was the spiritual counterpart and wife of the nineteenth-century mystic saint of Bengal Shri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Mother Sarada Devi is considered the ideal for women in the modern age on account of her simplicity, purity, unconditional love, selfless service and spiritual illumination. She exhorted everyone to develop a personal relationship with God and strive for discrimination and ecstatic love for the Supreme Being.
Birth and Early Life
Mother Sarada Devi or the Holy Mother, as she was generally referred to, was born in the little hamlet of Jayrambati on the South Eastern border of the Bankura district about sixty miles to the west of Calcutta. The soil in the village was rich, and agriculture was the chief occupation. There were no bazaars or fairs in the village and the villagers had to depend on neighbouring bigger villages for clothes and other products. Festivals like Durga Puja, Dol Purnima and worship of a number of deities like Shiva and Kali were celebrated grandly. In the midst of the agriculturists and artisans, there were only two Brahmin families in the village and Saradamani as she was named took birth in one of them on 22nd December 1853. Her father was Ramachandra Mukhopadhyaya, and her mother was Syamasundari Devi. Her father was a farmer and though poor, was a kind and generous man and during the Bengal famine of 1864 he helped a number of famine-stricken people with foodgrains from his granary. Her mother was a simple and compassionate housewife. As a little girl, she helped her mother in cooking and looking after her younger brothers. Though girls were not educated in those days the religious life, the recitals of epics, village dramas, temple recitals and the service atmosphere in which young girls grew up enabled the development and moulding of their character.
Meanwhile, Shri Ramakrishna in the neighbouring village of Kamarpukur was passing through a period of intense spiritual development and was continuously engaged in prayer and worship neglecting his worldly duties. Observing his strange behaviour, people began to believe that he was possessed by an evil spirit and methods of exorcism were tried, and spirits invoked. Finally, his parents decided to arrange his marriage thinking that a loving wife and family responsibilities would turn his mind to the worldly path. Expecting rebellion from him they were surprised to find that he readily acquiesced and seeing their frustrated attempts in securing a bride as they were poor and were unable to pay the bridal money for suitable girls, he asked them to go to Jayrambati as his bride was waiting there. Surprised at his suggestion, his mother and brother went there but hesitated as they found only little Sarada, who was a child of five years while Ramakrishna was twenty-three years of age. Having no choice the marriage took place, and they returned with the bride to Kamarpukur. She then went back to her parental home until she came of age as was the norm in those days.
Time passed by and Mother Sarada grew up into a young woman of eighteen years. On Shri Ramakrishna’s earlier visits to her parental home, she found him to be kind and concerned. As the years passed, she wondered if he would remember her and waited impatiently for the day when she could be reunited with him and serve him. Meanwhile, she heard from friends and neighbours that her husband was involved in intense spiritual practices and was being labelled a lunatic. Though she tried to ignore this talk as idle gossip and immersed herself in the household activities at her parental home, in her heart, she was deeply concerned. She then decided not to wait for his call and left with her father for Dakshineshwar in Calcutta where Shri Ramakrishna was staying. Due to the rigours of travel to which she was unaccustomed, she fell sick en route but it is said that she had a dream in which the Divine Mother took care of her. On reaching there, Shri Ramakrishna accepted her presence. He was concerned about her illness and called a doctor to attend on her. Mother Sarada was happy to note that he had not forgotten her nor was there anything wrong with his mental stability. Having no more doubts, she decided to stay at Dakshineshwar and serve the Master devotedly.
The Divine Union
Shri Ramakrishna had a twofold intention in asking her to stay. Firstly he wished to instil in her the higher ideals for which he had taken birth on Earth and secondly he wished to test himself if he was free from lower base instincts. For a true seeker of Brahman, purity of behaviour was based on the perception of unity between the spirit of man and woman and not on a sense of any moral conflict. He looked upon his young wife as an embodiment of the Divine Mother. She too would feel the ecstasy of his divine bliss and would utter the Divine names as instructed by him to bring him out of his state of Samadhi. This was possible only due to her level of purity and exalted spiritual state. Shri Ramakrishna himself acknowledged the immense value of her contribution to his spiritual stature. In the culmination of his spiritual practices he performed the final rite of worship which involved the placing of the Holy Mother on a pedestal and worshipping her in the form of a deity as the Divine Mother of the Universe. The mind and body of Mother Sarada thus became a venue of expression of the Supreme Energy manifested in Shri Ramakrishna. Thus, this long period of spiritual ministering helped her in her spiritual growth enabling her to fulfil what he had left unfinished after his passing away.
At The Feet of the Master
Serving her husband and being in close contact with such an advanced spiritual soul gave Mother Sarada an opportunity to raise her spiritual consciousness to his level. Thus, Shri Ramakrishna imparted to her the training of devotion and meditation along with service and she had to absorb that insatiable longing and spirit of renunciation that was the hallmark of his character. He would tell her that the moon is called ‘Chandamama’ or Uncle by all indicating that the moon was the common property of all. Similarly everyone had a right to God, and those who called on Him sincerely would behold Him. These words had an extraordinary effect on the simple mind of young Mother Sarada. Shri Ramakrishna initiated her into meditation and Japa along with exhortations and instructions, and she would continuously chant the Bija Mantra, which was initiated by Shri Ramakrishna in the midst of service to the Master and his devotees. She would get up at 3 am to meditate and such was the depth of her meditation that when the master passed by on his early morning ablutions she would be totally unaware of him as well as her surroundings. She would pray deeply to make her heart and mind pure and stainless. Being steady in meditation it is said that she reached great, exalted heights but in her modesty and humility rarely glorified herself though her companions have personally witnessed and left accounts of these experiences. She knew that a transformation of the inner life and not external manifestations was the essence of realisation. It is said that not only in the spiritual life but also in the secular life the Master guided her in cooking, making betel rolls, rolling wicks and in other spheres of domestic work. He taught her to be careful about luggage while travelling and to select friends and associates carefully. Thus, he slowly took pains in preparing her for the great mission of her life after his departure from the worldly plane.
At His Service
For over thirteen years, she stayed in the Nahabat (music tower) of the Kali temple at Dakshineshwar serving Shri Ramakrishna and his aged mother with short visits to her parental home at Jayrambati. This period was a period of great inner development in her life. She was modest and reserved and would do all the work and live in trying conditions in the small home unnoticed by anyone. She never exhibited any difficulty in adjusting from her village life to the city life and never gave anyone any cause for complaint. Her chief duty was cooking for the Holy Master as he had a very delicate stomach and only she had the ability to tend to him exactly as per his requirements. She would personally serve him the meals and engage him in small talk so that he would not go off into some higher state of consciousness like Samadhi. She dutifully served and took care of her mother in law. As the days passed by more and more devotees began to gather around the Master and she would work endlessly making huge amounts of chapatti and betel rolls. Sometimes the Master would send her some disciples to help to knead the flour, etc. As the Master feared his delicate stomach and would eat very little she would coax him to eat like a little child. Under her loving care, his health improved considerably.
In spite of Mother Sarada not being able to spend much time with the Holy Master, he was sensitive to her difficulties and feelings. This reflected true spiritual love which though non-physical and impersonal could be vigilant to the welfare of the object of affection. Recognising her purity and spiritual prowess, the Holy Master brought her into contact with his close disciples to enable her to demonstrate her motherliness towards them. In her pure and unsullied service was set the example of love that transcended all boundaries of physical expression which sought the highest union, namely a soul to soul connection. It is said that standing and watching the Master and his disciples for hours on end when they were singing and dancing in devotional ecstasy through hidden openings in the partition that existed for women in those days, led to her contracting rheumatism but she never complained and continued her activities willingly and cheerfully.
An ideal daughter
The death of her father plunged her maternal family into great difficulty as the income which her father derived from his priestly duties had stopped. Her four brothers were still young to bear the burden of household responsibilities. At that time, Mother Sarada went to stay in Jayrambati to help her mother. She helped in the husking of paddy to earn their precarious living and encouraged her mother with advice and companionship. Slowly conditions improved a little as her brothers engaged in priestly work and management of their lands. It is said that she had an attack of dysentery which was cured only by the Divine grace of the Goddess of the Simhavahini temple at Jayrambati. This Goddess is worshipped to this day by devotees travelling from all over the country. In one of her visits to Calcutta from Jayrambati which was a difficult journey infested with forests in those days it is said that she even converted a dacoit couple who began treating her as their daughter.
The Passing Away of Shri Ramakrishna
Shri Ramakrishna fell ill with cancer and was taken to Calcutta for treatment. When the disciples missed her expert hand in feeding and taking care of the Divine Master and requested her to return, she immediately agreed in spite of the fact that there were no woman’s quarters. Without consideration of personal convenience, she stayed in a small shed on the terrace in Syamapukur cooking for him and coming down only to feed him. She then moved to Cossipore garden house when he was shifted there to help improve his treatment. Unfortunately, the Master did not improve, and Mother Sarada remembered the predictions that the Divine Master had made on earlier occasions. With her mind filled with fear, she went to the Shiva temple at Tarakeshwar and without food and water for two days pleaded for Divine mercy. She later related that she heard the breaking of pots and the thought that there was no husband or wife as everything is intrinsically Divine. Suddenly all attachment vanished, and a spirit of total renunciation filled her mind. When she returned, the Master asked her whether her doubts were clarified. She bowed reverentially to him and from that day continued her service with renewed vigour. The Master soon passed away after calling her to his bedside and reassuring her that his disciples would look after her. After the cremation as she was removing her jewellery she had a vision of the Holy Master in which he reassured her that he had not gone away but only from one room to another thus providing comfort to her grief-stricken heart.
Since the Holy Master towards the close of his life had exhorted Mother Sarada to go on pilgrimage she decided to assuage her grief by visiting a number of holy places like Banaras, Ayodhya and Brindavan accompanied by a few of the other devotees. The grief of the passing away of the Holy Master and the spiritual vibrations of the holy places raised Mother Sarada’s spiritual consciousness to a very high level and gave her many spiritual experiences including the visions of the Holy Master. This assuaged her grief and the anguish of separation turning it to a sense of utter joy and radiant peace. She would always be in a state of constant prayer and meditation. Once she was absorbed in a state of Samadhi and answered a number of queries as if the Master himself was answering them through her. She later stated that the consciousness of the Master had superimposed on her at that state.
Changes in her life
After her return from the pilgrimage to Kamarpukur, the pension promised to Shri Ramakrishna before his passing away that she was to have received from the temple was unscrupulously stopped and she found herself lonely and in utter poverty. Also, Shri Ramakrishna had asked her not to remove her bracelets or her white sari with red border which she normally wore. She was deemed a ‘merry widow’ and even her friends and relatives left her at this juncture for various reasons. She was only thirty-four years old at this time. In these trying times, it was only the vivid consciousness of the Holy Master that sustained her and helped her to overcome this ordeal. When thoughts arose in her that if she had a son he would surely have looked after her the Holy Master would appear and reassure her that soon many ‘sons’ would appear and address her as ‘Mother’. Soon the disciples of the Holy Master heard about her plight and immediately gathered together and requested her to come over to Calcutta. Thus after an ordeal of nine months, Mother Sarada was joyfully welcomed by the Holy Master’s disciples who were regrouping themselves at that time. They decided to provide her with shelter and accommodation in the future throughout their life. By then they had formed the Ramakrishna Order of Monks and later a permanent house named Udbodhan House was built where she spent much of her later life.
During this period, she went into deep bouts of meditation and had visions of the Holy Master, which filled her with a purpose of life convincing her that her life could be used for a greater goal. At this time, she also became entangled with the problems of the families of her brothers and tried to help them to the best of her abilities. There were two types of people who approached her namely those who could gain material advantage from her and those who went to her for spiritual illumination. As the Holy Master’s name and glory spread, people, would come from far and wide to take her blessings. Being kind and compassionate she could refuse no one though it is said that her feet would burn with contact from worldly people. It is said that she accepted many sins and sufferings of people at this time and bore many illnesses. Despite her illnesses, she would initiate all those who approached her and as she stated later in spite of being aware of their sins the moment they uttered the word ‘Mother’ her heart would melt and they would get more than they deserved. As long as she could, she would personally cook and care for the devotees and serve them lovingly. The money and sweets brought to her were lovingly distributed to all and she never allowed sycophancy of any sort.
Ministry of Disciples
She always initiated disciples after receiving intuition from the Holy Master, and it is said that she could divine the spiritual stature of the disciples. She helped many of the disciples in their spiritual path by simple instructions for meditation and helped in solving their queries. Her spiritual initiation of them with Mantras and the connection which the disciples established with the Holy Master through her hastened the spiritual progress of the disciples. It is the spiritual austerities of Great Masters which help aspirants in transcending their weaknesses and limitations along with their faith and devotion. There are on record a number of instances of experiences of devotees who were cured of illnesses, whose problems were solved or who were uplifted after initiation from Mother Sarada. In her simple way, she would advise devotees not to pay heed to psychic phenomenon and miracles but to concentrate only on purity and devotion.
Service to humanity
Mother Sarada would never send anyone empty handed and always came forward to help the sick and suffering specially during famines and epidemics. Irrespective of caste or creed she embraced one and all and even animals like cows and cats came under the purview of this love. A number of Muslims and Western followers of the Holy Master like Sister Nivedita formed a close relationship with her.
Mother Sarada moved back and forth between Calcutta and Jayrambati during her final years. Soon her health declined, and she passed away in Calcutta on 20th July 1920 exhorting all the devotees always to strive for the lofty ideals of the Holy Master. Her body was carried across the Ganges and cremated at Belur Math. Today on this spot stands a beautiful white temple, and thousands of devotees come from all over the world to pay their respects to the Holy Mother, who was the embodiment of love and compassion.
Mother Sarada Devi was a beacon of hope and light in the galaxy of great women and was considered a ministering angel embracing all who approached her irrespective of caste and religion. Her compassion and motherliness were phenomenal and it is said that she took on the sins of her disciples and her body suffered as a consequence, such was the power of her love and identification with all human beings. Her divinity and luminosity was hidden and rarely exhibited externally and though she portrayed herself to be a normal Indian woman performing the daily chores her sweet love and subtle divinity drew her to all. Though she was a spiritual giant in her right, she served Shri Ramakrishna and his disciples sincerely and carried on his legacy after his passing away serving as an inspiration and guide to the new spiritual movement. She is honoured and remembered today as an ideal of the universal motherhood of God.