Sarada Devi: The Universal Mother
is a very special occasion for all of us to think about Holy
Mother: what she was, what she means to us now. It is rather
difficult to picture her because our knowledge about her is
only second-hand: we get a glimpse of her from writings on
her by swamis, by others who saw her and by those who had
heard about her from still others. You will be surprised and
perhaps shocked to know that not many in the beginning were
inclined to go to Holy Mother because they could not really
see her, since she was always veiled and never spoke anything
about philosophy, religion and the like. Not many could grasp
the greatness of Holy Mother: they thought she was great because
she was Sri Ramakrishna’s wife.
down from Divinity to Human Level
more I think about it, the more it seems to me that it is
rather easy to get into an ecstatic mood, raise our consciousness,
dwell in that highest divine realm and be lost to the outside
world. But, having had the highest spiritual experience, it
is very difficult to come down to the human level and work
like anyone else, without betraying any traces of having had
that ecstatic experience. That was the uniqueness of Holy
Life Was Her Sermon
am sure many of you know about an incident from Buddha’s life.
There was a hall where he addressed his monks and other disciples.
One day, on entering the hall, he surveyed it in a moment
to see if everyone was present. One monk was absent. And Buddha
asked the others, ‘What about him?’ ‘Well, sir, he is sick.
He’s staying in his room,’ was the reply. ‘Is there anyone
to serve him?’ Buddha asked. ‘No, sir.’
got up, slowly walked up to the sick monk’s place, took a
towel, soaked it in water, squeezed it and washed him and
served him. When the monk was asleep, Buddha came out. The
other monks were waiting for him. Buddha was about to go away
without a word. Some monks asked him, ‘Sir, what about the
rendered the sermon,’ he said. That is it. ‘I rendered the
sermon.’ That, again, was Holy Mother. To serve others is
very difficult. We can talk, we can explain things, but, with
that full awareness inside, to behave just like an ordinary
human being is practically impossible. That is why many could
not understand her in the beginning. The more they lived with
her, the more they began to understand how it was possible
for a human being to serve others as she did. She was daughter
to her parents, wife to Sri Ramakrishna and spiritual guide
and teacher to many, but more than all this, she was a mother,
unique in every way.
lived true to her pronouncement ‘I am the Mother of all.’
Anybody, rich or poor, literate or illiterate, high class
or low class, known or unknown - all received from her that
wonderful love and affection. That is one important thing
I discover in her life. Anybody could go and feel, ‘Here is
someone who is my very own.’ Day or night, people visited
her. Slowly her name spread, and more people started coming.
Without exception all felt that she was heavenly. That is
why I say she is holy and she is motherly. Everyone had that
kind of feeling - monks, devotees, the Western disciples of
Swami Vivekananda who accompanied him to India, and those
who visited India after his passing way. Their common refrain
was, ‘She is our real mother.’
Compassionate and Forgiving
could love others like a mother for a day, or maybe for some
days, but throughout our life? That is very difficult. Even
when she was sick, she was ready to help anyone. In the Chandi
we read about the glory of the Divine Mother: ‘Ya devi
sarvabhuteshu matrirupena samsthitha; … Ya devi sarvabhuteshu
dayarupena samsthita; … Ya devi sarvabhuteshu kshantirupena
samsthita; Namastasyai. Namastasyai. Namastasyai namo namah.’
(’Salutations to the Divine Mother, who dwells in all beings
as mother, as compassion, as forgiveness.’)
as mother, as compassion, as forgiveness - all this we hear
about. Well, maybe we also try to imagine. Until we see a
person translating these things into action, we don’t really
understand. Holy Mother was such a person. She was not only
motherly to everyone, but also compassionate and forgiving.
is not one but many incidents in her life to illustrate how
people received her blessings. Of all those who received her
grace, that Muslim robber comes to my mind again and again,
the one who went to jail many times. He was not allowed to
even reach and see her. One day he climbed the wall and jumped
into the place just to have a glimpse of Mother when she was
sick. As he stood before her, she asked, ‘Baba, where were
you all these days?’ ‘Oh, I did some robbery and then I was
caught and was put in the jail. Just the other day they released
me,’ he said. And she made him sit there and served him.
devotee once asked her, ‘Mother, why do you waste so much
time for him?’
he is lost.’
you know he robbed such and such a place the other day?’
else can he do? They have lost their jobs.’ (They used to
work in a silk industry. Due to an unfortunate competition,
that industry was dead. And all those workers, very strong
Muslims, had nothing to do. Therefore, they took to robbing
others.) ‘If you give him some work he will certainly do that.
When there is no work, how does he maintain his family? So
robbing has become his profession. And therefore he comes
here. I cannot say no to him.’ Look, Mother did not take it
Was Hers Was for Others
if any robber comes from jail and walks into your house, how
would you feel? Mother felt at home with him, not once, but
many times. There are so many such incidents in her life.
In the Bhagavadgita there is a nice saying from Sri Krishna:
‘Four types of persons worship me: those who are in distress,
those who seek material benefits, those who are seekers of
truth and those who know me (jnanis).’1 All these people worship
the Lord. Now, we all do it. All religions have this kind
of approach. It is easy to go to a shrine or a chapel and
sit down and say, ‘Oh, God …’ and submit our petition to Him.
And then, maybe our prayer is sanctioned or maybe not, but
we live on faith and hope. With Mother, it is not like that.
You go with all these things to her, someone sitting before
you in flesh and blood. And whatever you want, you ask her.
is easy to pray to a deity and expect that something will
happen after some time. Here it is not like that. To a living
person you say this and get the things done. That I call impossible
in this world, but she did it. People used to go to her for
many things. If she had what they wanted, she immediately
gave them that. Otherwise, she made them sit, procured the
thing and gave it. She never denied anyone anything. Where
do you have another like her?
it so happened that somebody came to her clad in a small length
of cloth. Mother had no money to purchase cloths. Somebody
had given her a new cloth. It was on the clothesline, washed,
dry and ready to wear. She immediately brought it, folded
it and gave it to the person. If she had anything, it belonged
to people. She was always concerned about others. She was
a nurse, maid, mother—all in one. And she served everyone,
day or night.
with a Difference
family came to her one day, travelling a long distance by
bullock cart. One of them had malaria. Jayrambati was a very
bad place for the disease. The patient was shivering and didn’t
know what to do. They were to go away right after seeing Mother
and receiving her blessings. But he had to stay back. Now,
how to provide for all of them in the house? Those who were
helping Mother said, ‘Let them go to the next village and
stay in such and such a place.’
I can’t send them out,’ said Mother. Mind that, that night
she cooked for them, served them, and served especially that
diseased man. She brought some ingredients, prepared some
kind of paste of them, poured some milk into it and gave it
to him. Next morning, she sent him back in a bullock cart.
And she herself was sick for a few days.
was not once, but it happened many times. People came there
quite healthy, but since that area was not conducive to good
health, they fell sick. And she was there on the spot to serve
them. ‘He’s my child,’ she used to say. ‘I shall do what I
can for him or her.’ This is what I call really impossible.
What is important is, she served others not just in a human
way, but with a spiritual background, with total identification
Made Everyone Her Own
everybody your own, nobody is a stranger, the world is yours’
- Mother did not say that from imagination or for the good
of the world. She was like that: she made everybody her own
- no distinction.
those days of the beginning of the twentieth century, caste
restrictions in society were rigid, particularly with regard
to Muslims and untouchables. Orthodox people never allowed
them inside their house. Mother not only allowed them inside,
but served them food, cleaned the area herself because others
refused to do it. They would tell her, ‘You are a brahmin;
you should not touch those things.’ She removed the leavings
and cleaned the place after her children ate. Somebody said,
‘You will lose your caste.’ ‘I have no caste,’ she said. What
caste? Being unorthodox in that orthodox area and keeping
her head high at the same time was very difficult. She served
everyone and made them feel that she was their mother.
this is only the empirical side of her personality. To speak
of her spiritual service: People come to her with so many
doubts, with so many images in their mind, and told her their
problems. Mother gave them spiritual instructions suitable
and natural to each according to his stage in life.
And she was not particular about any place for initiating
people. They could meet her anywhere: at the railway station
or at the roadside adjacent to the fields. Wherever she was,
that place was holy. And there she welcomed them, instructed
them, guided them and bade them farewell. One needed just
to say, ‘Mother, please instruct me’, and she was ready. As
a spiritual guide, she observed no restriction. Her refrain
was, ‘They have come all the way; I need to help them.’
her spiritual service she stands above many people. Many of
the later seniors of the Ramakrishna Order were her disciples.
Once, when two disciples of Swamiji came to meet him, he said,
‘Go to Mother. Receive her blessings first and then come here.’
Swamiji had been to the Western world and conquered the hearts
and minds of many people. When he went to Holy Mother, he
was just like a humble soul: standing before her, waiting
for her orders. Others could not understand Mother’s greatness,
but Swamiji did. Other disciples of Sri Ramakrishna could
not imagine how great she was. One day, Swami Vijnanananda,
a brother disciple of Vivekananda, went to make prostrations
before Mother. He saluted her briefly from a distance and
came away. Swamiji said, ‘Come here, you don’t know whom you
are approaching. Is that the way to salute her?’ And Swamiji
showed him how to salute her by prostrating full length before
her. ‘Just do like that. You will be blessed, I tell you,’
he said. And mind that, the person was another disciple of
another occasion, I heard, Swami Brahmananda went to see her.
He washed his hands three or four times with Ganga water,
sprinkled it on his body and stood shivering before her. He
returned after a quick prostration. That was because her spiritual
stature was so high. We could perhaps understand Sri Ramakrishna’s
stature, because it was evident and could be felt. But Mother’s
was absolutely concealed. Therefore, they were awed of her.
Her one word was law and obeyed as an order in the entire
Ramakrishna Order. So thoughtful, so wise was her intuitive
counsel. She could say things straight to even great swamis
like Brahmananda and Vivekananda, and, on occasion, to even
Sri Ramakrishna if she felt that her motherhood was questioned.
She was the only one who could say no to Sri Ramakrishna,
because she had that motherly feeling: for the sake of my
children, it must be done, it must be so - no discrimination.
Exemplar, Not an Instructor
never encouraged any narrowness in the administration of the
Ramakrishna Order. If someone wanted to do something that
might not have universal approval and said, ‘Our custom tells
us to do this’, she would say, ‘No, this Order belongs to
the whole world. You should do everything in such a way that
everyone will have a place here.’ She did not approve of political
affiliations either. The Ramakrishna Order is one place where
none should feel isolated. She was so broad, so universal
and so calm and sublime at the same time. This combination
is very difficult. It is the highest spiritual achievement.
And again, coming down to the lowest level of humankind and
behaving with them without losing her spiritual stature is
something very difficult. What you find in her teachings,
she followed it all exactly. That is why I say she is an exemplar,
not an instructor. She never talked about things. She did
them and observing her, people learnt from her.
a lady came to her from a long distance to get some instruction
from her. Mother said, ‘Come in.’ And she was talking to Mother
and Mother was doing her job, cooking and keeping things ready.
‘Mother, won’t you please tell me something?’ Mother replied,
‘Don’t you see me?’
many of us religion means rituals, going to a shrine, a chapel
and bowing down many times. No doubt, they have their rewards.
But do you feel for people? Do you care for them? Do you love
them? Do you identify yourself with others? That is real religion.
all know, after the Last Supper, Jesus Christ spelt out the
essence of Christianity. ‘As I love you, you love one another.
As I serve you, you serve one another.’ To love and serve
was the theme of Holy Mother’s life. She loved and served
others and ministered to their needs. None ever went away
from her without being satisfied. That is what is called a
universal motherly attitude.
asked me the other day, mentioning a great soul who is highly
honoured. ‘Don’t you see, swami …?’ ‘Well, for me it is easy
to understand,’ I said.
have known another person who was steeped in spirituality,
but kept herself busy serving people; serving them herself,
not through somebody.’
That person is Holy Mother. Her whole life is nothing but
the expression of that motherly attitude. Even when she was
a little girl in Jayrambati, everybody thought she was a grown-up
girl. She was just five or six years old. She felt for everyone,
carried things from her house and gave them. Her parents never
objected. When she grew up and came to Sri Ramakrishna at
Dakshineswar, then again the same thing. Not only did she
serve Sri Ramakrishna, but she served all people who came
there. And mind you, all that silently. The man who was in
charge of the temple said one day, ‘Yes, some people say she
is here, but I have never seen her.’ Absolutely silent service,
unseen by others - that is not easy.
these monks and disciples of Sri Ramakrishna had experienced
her service. When Sri Ramakrishna said, ‘Don’t feed them too
much’, she said, ‘No, leave that to me. You give them spiritual
instructions, but the question of their health is my concern.
I know who needs what and how much.’ And she did not even
mind what Ramakrishna said. She did her things in her own
motherly way. Some need more, some less. You cannot make a
rule: only two chapatis for everyone. Sri Ramakrishna made
a rule, you know, that monks should only take two chapatis
at night, nothing more. But mother used to serve them two,
three or four, according to their need and capacity. Ramakrishna
could say nothing more. She was a mother to everyone from
the very beginning. See that holiness and motherly attitude,
a beautiful combination in one soul. And her spiritual illumination!
Concealing all that and serving others was something natural
remember an incident in the life of Sri Ramana Maharshi. Once,
I think an American gentleman went to see him. Someone told
the visitor, ‘You go to that hall; Maharshi is there.’ He
entered the hall and found many people cutting vegetables.
And he asked someone, ‘I would like to see the great Ramana
Maharshi. Will you please lead me to him?’ And Maharshi was
sitting right there peeling potatoes. He looked at him and
said, ‘Sit down.’ He pushed a few potatoes before the visitor.
‘Come on, take them and start peeling them.’ To Maharshi,
spiritual life was not something separate from secular life.
Life is One. ‘Come, join us,’ he said. The visitor could not
understand. Here is a man to meet whom people come from all
parts of the world. Was he standing there, giving lectures?
No, he was just like anyone else.
Mother was just like that throughout her life. We have seen
many great saints going to different places and performing
some austerities, but Mother, never. One attitude purified
her completely: ‘I am the Mother of all.’
of her disciples once told us, ‘You need not do anything.
Just be unselfish, don’t seek anything and be motherly to
all. You will see a miracle happening in your own life.‘ Purity
of heart is a big thing, practically impossible in this world.
You can have that purity only through two things: unselfishness
and love, as a mother loves her children.
me, but Thou.’ Develop this attitude and you don’t need to
believe in any God, said a disciple of Swamiji. And Swamiji
himself says in his ‘Karma Yoga’:
a man has not studied a single system of philosophy, although
he does not believe in any God, and never has believed, although
he has not prayed even once in his whole life, if the simple
power of good actions has brought him to that state where
he is ready to give up his life and all else for others, he
has arrived at the same point to which the religious man will
come through his prayers and the philosopher through his knowledge.
And Mother translated that into action throughout her life.
Unselfishness and service; to love and serve: Swamiji made
that the motto of the Ramakrishna Order. It is based on Mother’s
life and actions. ‘He who sees Shiva in the poor, in the weak,
and in the diseased really worships Shiva,’ he proclaimed.
(3) To me, Holy Mother is the most holy, the most motherly.
we follow in her footsteps; may we gain some purity that comes
out of that love and service, and gain some kind of illumination
in this very life - that is my prayer.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.86.