of Holy Mother
aspects of Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi surprise postmodernists:
her illiteracy, her ignorance of scientific things and her
simple, rustic appearance. Holy Mother is considered the ideal
of the present and future ages. She is said to represent the
ideal and glory of perfect womanhood in particular and of
the ideal of motherhood in general. Yet in a few aspects like
those mentioned above, she appears to be different from the
present and future generations of women. We are not going
to discuss here her traits like purity, character and spirituality,
but shall concentrate only on her secular education and simplicity.
Mother and Education
of the surprising aspects of Holy Mother is her so-called
lack of secular learning. She did not have the basics of schooling.
With some effort, she could just manage to read. But she could
not write. (1) If at all, she is said to have written ma in
Bengali once - that is all. How could she be the ideal of
the ultramodern woman then? Or is the ideal of the future
woman such rural simplicity and lack of secular knowledge?
Perhaps not. Considering the present information revolution,
the way education is spreading everywhere and the fact that
women’s education is gaining tremendous boost the world over,
it is rather surprising that the ideal of future womanhood
herself should have been virtually illiterate.
reasons are put forth for Holy Mother’s illiteracy. One, she
strove to learn but was dissuaded by ignorant relatives. However,
she stealthily learnt the Bengali alphabet initially and,
later, learnt to read from a little girl. (2) This urge to
learn is presented as the urge of the modern woman to learn.
Two, the reason why women of modern times should be educated
is because the ideal of the modern age, Holy Mother, suffered
so much and showed how learning could help in certain situations
of life. Three, her own desire to learn being unfulfilled,
and because of her awareness that learning is vital to life,
Holy Mother initiated several institutions like the Nivedita
School and the school at Badanganj, near her village, so that
women could learn. Four, Holy Mother need not have to learn
because she is Sarasvati herself, the goddess of learning.
Five, her lack of learning and her innocence appear as a sweet
sport of the Divine Mother for the devotee.
are good reasons and may appeal to devotees and admirers.
But as an ideal, it is a different matter. Devotees may accept
the ideal as it is, for they know. For the modern and future
generations to accept this ideal, however, we should present
reasons. Moreover, it is not that she should be selectively
accepted. An ideal is an ideal. Therefore the modern woman
- computer savvy, learned, English-speaking, cellphone-waving,
vehicle-driving, college-educated - and Holy Mother, an innocent
villager, cannot perhaps go together. Is Holy Mother outdated
then? How should one reconcile her lack of learning with her
being the ideal of the future woman?
above five reasons apart, there are also two methods of reconciliation:
the ‘computer method’ and the ‘philosophy method’.
Method: Time was when people thought knowledge of
typing was indispensable for learning computers. However,
with the advent of voice mail, the recorder and so on, we
can imagine future generations seeing our keyboards in museums.
They may wonder that to express our thoughts we ancients used
fingers. So there is no harm if one does not know typing now.
But what about writing? Like typing, writing on paper with
pen or pencil, too, could become obsolete. It is true that
the time is imminent when computers will replace exercise
books and white sheets. How many literate and working people
use pen and paper now as they did before? Even personal signatures
are going digital. Already we hear of schools in several countries
using computers to train even kindergarten children. So writing
is not absolutely needed now. We don’t know what the Silicon
Valley has in store for us for the future. Therefore Holy
Mother was ahead of her times in not being able to write,
but able to communicate verbally, and through thought. Language,
as we know, was not a barrier for her to express herself or
to understand her disciples and admirers from different regions
of India and abroad. Regarding language, we shall speak presently.
Method: Post-structuralism is the latest trend in
Western philosophy. Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Roland
Barthes, Michel Foucault and others are the pioneers in this
field. Most of them are French, Derrida being the most famous
of them; he has made major contributions in the field of post-structuralism
was the hope of philosophy, language, anthropology, literature
and so on, because they all sought a scientific ground or
a rational basis for their existence. Structuralism was developed
in order to seek meaning or the common ground of things. According
to the dictionary, structuralism is a theory ‘that considers
any text as a structure whose various parts only have meaning
when they are considered in relation to each other’. That
is, when we read various things in a book, we seek their central
meaning. Derrida argued against structuralism. He says that
when we believe in structuralism, we believe in what the text
ought to mean rather than what it actually means. That is,
we are pre-conditioned. So his theory was destructuralism,
based on Martin Heidegger’s Destruktion. Derrida argued that
whenever you think of structuralism, you seek the centre of
something, which is wrong. By seeking the centre, we ignore
the other things; we sideline the binary opposites. He was
for the ignored things rather than the central figure put
on the pedestal. Generally understood, deconstruction, then,
is reading things without seeking the centre or the rock bottom
or the foundation; it is giving importance to the sidelined
1966, Derrida gave a lecture at Johns Hopkins University,
USA, that became revolutionary according to Jim Powell (Derrida
for Beginners). Here, Derrida showed that the whole of Western
philosophy is dependent on this theory of structuralism. How
is that? Derrida said that because the God of Christianity
was centralized by all post-Greek philosophers, certain other
things were excluded. What were the things excluded? God,
according to Christianity, is the Word, Logos. ‘In the beginning
was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’
Derrida calls the Word or God the ‘Transcendental Signified’.
‘Signified’ and ‘signifier’ are two terms commonly used in
Derrida literature. We have their equivalents in rupa (form)
and nama (name), respectively. The signified is form, like
cowness, while the signifier is the name given to it. The
real cow is the referent. So God is the Transcendental Signified.
The popular (transcendental) signifiers are Truth, God, supreme
Spirit and so on. These are names but they don’t fully describe
It or God. Yet Western philosophers have depended on them,
which have become central to philosophy. When it comes to
God, we cannot have a referent. So He or It is transcendental.
So He or It is called the Transcendental Signified. This is
like Vedanta: according to Vedanta, God is the innermost experience
of the soul. What God is cannot be explained.
argues that the Transcendental Signified cannot have a signifier
or nama. Can words express Him or It? Even Vedanta asks the
same question. He is beyond everything. His best expression
is Logos or the Word. God expressed Himself through the Word.
That became the Son. It is like speech, where one expresses
one’s self directly. Somewhat speaking in the language of
the Indian Sphota theory, where there are the four stages
of speech (para, pashyanti, madhyama and vaikhari), Derrida
says that when we speak, we speak our soul out. That is, the
innermost self is speaking itself - para becomes vaikhari.
There is the presence of the speaker in speech. Writing, however,
is different. A person may write something and die. So there
is absence. Speech is soul poured out in presence, whereas
writing signifies absence. Writing, according to Derrida,
is 'less immediate'. It is corruption. It is said that Socrates
too spoke of writing being secondary to speech. Derrida says
that when writing was developed the word or speech was ignored.
Writing became central, and speech was sidelined.
was a time when things were natural. We did not know how to
write. We were pure then. We heard truths from the lips of
experienced elders. There was presence then, not absence.
Nowadays a person need not have any experience but may write.
So it is not the soul speaking. Once we began to write we
became corrupt, says Derrida. His On Grammatology, according
to Jim Powell, is a classic which argues in favour of speech.
Modern philosophers are fast accepting Derrida’s view that
speech is natural and has the personal touch, while writing
have used this to show that even from the philosophical point
of view, Holy Mother was extremely modern because she considered
speech as better than writing. One may say she did not know
how to write. Yes, but suppose Holy Mother really had wished
to learn the art of writing. Who could have stopped her? Yet
she did not learn the art of writing. She spoke. And that
transformed everyone. Therefore Holy Mother is ultramodern
and a perfect ideal for the future woman. Then again, we believe
the Satya Yuga has begun with the advent of Sri Ramakrishna.
Perhaps, in order to be in tune with that age, the ideals
of the age (and of future ages) - Ramakrishna and Sarada Devi
- chose to remain illiterate, as it were. Calligraphy and
the art of writing are comparatively recent. Our sages transmitted
knowledge verbally, and that has in fact came down intact.
Can we say the Vedic sages were ignorant? They knew far better
than all of us put together.
Mother and Technology
the modern world of gadgets and the Internet, Holy Mother
belongs nowhere, so it would seem. She appears outmoded and
in no way linked to our technological world. She did not know
that air trapped in a water pipe made the tap hiss; she did
not know how to wind a clock; she did not know anything about
science. She was scared to ride in a car. Yet she has to be
the ideal. How can this be possible?
answer to this puzzle is simple: Even Newton and Einstein,
the pioneers of modern scientific development, would look
quite unscientific, when placed in present circumstances.
They knew less than today’s schoolboy does, because the schoolboy
is computer savvy, while the computer is a strange thing for
them. They are out of date.
the point is, the scientific spirit shows in the way of thinking
and not in the lifestyle. One may be perfectly unscientific
amid all the gadgets in the world, and a rustic could be scientific
in the absence of such gadgets. One may be a professional
scientist and yet be perfectly unscientific in thinking. As
a matter of fact, even in this so-called age of science most
people think in a surprisingly primitive way. Really, are
we rational? Are we open to newer ideas? Are we unbiased?
Are we ready to give up our pet notions when new truths are
revealed, or do we raise impregnable walls against new ideas?
That is the test. Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi passes the test
admirably. Though she came with a purpose, she never imposed
her ideas on anyone.
thing that appears unscientific in Holy Mother is her faith
in strange remedies, in which modern people do not trust,
for example the clay of the Simhavahini temple. In 1875, when
Holy Mother was twenty-two years old, she had a severe attack
of dysentery. While she was suffering intensely, the village
goddess Simhavahini suggested the cure to her mother Shyamasundari,
which relieved her of her suffering. (55-6) Since then Holy
Mother believed in the clay of the precincts of the Simhavahini
temple. That became a regular medicine.
second treatment was not her invention, but was a local practice
that she too abided by. When someone had malaria, the only
medicine the villagers of those parts knew was to heat an
iron rod and apply it on the region over the spleen. The singeing,
they believed, would cure people of malaria. Even Ramakrishna
underwent this treatment. But unlike others, Holy Mother did
not wish to be tied or held down by others; she had such control
over herself that she simply lay down and endured the torture.
does one explain such strange beliefs? We shall not discuss
the second cure, as Holy Mother must have been a helpless
victim of her circumstances. But regarding the first, Mother’s
trust in the Simhavahini clay, it is perfectly scientific.
The question here is of faith. Says Swami Vivekananda:
is not the sign of a candid and scientific mind to throw overboard
anything without proper investigation. Surface scientists,
unable to explain the various extraordinary mental phenomena,
strive to ignore their very existence. They are, therefore,
more culpable than those who think that their prayers are
answered by a being, or beings, above the clouds, or than
those who believe that their petitions will make such beings
change the course of the universe. The latter have the excuse
of ignorance. … The former have no such excuse. (2)
faith heals better than any drug. And there is a God who looks
into our affairs all the time.
was a time when the medical world pooh-poohed prayer and faith
as factors in healing. Several years ago Reader’s Digest published
an article from an official medical journal, saying that prayers
are as effective as medicines in curing diseases. The thing
in itself, like medicine, is of some importance, true; but
of greater importance is the mindset receiving the thing.
Holy Mother came to instil faith in human beings. Not that
we should believe in spooks and hobgoblins, but the great
quality of simple faith has been destroyed in the name of
science. All of Ramakrishna’s and Holy Mother’s work was centred
around restoring that faith once again in human minds. Faith
can achieve anything.
there is a rush to the Simhavahini temple, from where people
take a little clay hoping to cure ailments. During Holy Mother’s
time, there were no other means in that remote village. But
whenever doctors were available, Holy Mother resorted to them
with full faith.
days appearance is everything. What you are may be different;
but what you seem is vital. All that glitters is gold. That
is why our postmodern world needs ideals like movie stars,
who glitter and shine, and that is why the true and the genuine
Mother can in no way come near such modern-day ideals. Far,
far from them. If one looks at her photographs, one sees her
attired in a cheap, simple, white sari. All her jewels are
a pair of bangles - perfectly old-fashioned. In only three
photographs we see her seated on a chair. In all the rest,
she is her simple self. She definitely knew she would be worshipped
for all time to come, yet she did not care for external glitter.
So Holy Mother is not appealing in that sense of the word.
Can such a simple woman appeal to the glittering present and
some modern people do not find much appeal in Holy Mother.
That is perfectly all right. As Sri Ramakrishna used to say,
the Divine Mother does not want the play to end. She wishes
that it should continue. If all the players touch the granny
in the play of hideand-seek, the play will end. That the
Divine Mother does not want. So she hides herself. If the
children want the glitter, let them go for it. Let them play
with the toys of the world. When they get tired, they will
cry for Mother. And Mother is, of course, always there for
those who want her.
second reason why Holy Mother appears so simple is that she
is the ideal and harbinger of the future. And surprisingly
enough, the future will be nothing but the glorious past of
India, only even more glorious. Says Swamiji:
times have I been told that looking into the past only degenerates
and leads to nothing, and that we should look to the future.
That is true. But out of the past is built the future. Look
back, therefore, as far as you can, drink deep of the eternal
fountains that are behind, and after that, look forward, march
forward and make India brighter, greater, much higher than
she ever was. Our ancestors were great. We must first recall
move in circles, not straight lines. The future will most
certainly take us back to the simplicity of the past. Swamiji
one side, new India is saying, ‘If we only adopt Western ideas,
Western language, Western food, Western dress, and Western
manners, we shall be as strong and powerful as the Western
nations’; on the other, old India is saying, ‘Fools! By imitation,
others’ ideas never become one’s own; nothing, unless earned,
is your own. Does the ass in the lion’s skin become the lion?"
will be the watchword of the future, and Holy Mother is a
best example of that. Further, purity is the greatest ornament,
and that was what Holy Mother came to demonstrate. We should
quote Swamiji again because he is eloquent in the praise of
is unique; that character was depicted once and for all. …
[She was] purer than purity itself, all patience, and all
suffering. She who suffered that life of suffering without
a murmur, she the ever-chaste and ever-pure wife, she the
ideal of the people, the ideal of the gods, the great Sita,
our national God she must always remain. And every one of
us knows her too well to require much delineation. All our
mythology may vanish, even our Vedas may depart, and our Sanskrit
language may vanish for ever, but so long as there will be
five Hindus living here, even if only speaking the most vulgar
patois, there will be the story of Sita present. Mark my words:
Sita has gone into the very vitals of our race. She is there
in the blood of every Hindu man and woman; we are all children
of Sita. Any attempt to modernise our women, if it tries to
take our women away from that ideal of Sita, is immediately
a failure, as we see every day. The women of India must grow
and develop in the footprints of Sita, and that is the only
replace the word Sita with Sarada and re-read the above lines,
for both were one.
of the glamour of the past century, the world is slowly reverting
to natural ways of life. The old simplicity and naturalness
is becoming the ideal once more. Everywhere we hear of ecology,
nature cure, alternative lifestyles and so on. This trend
is bound to continue. Holy Mother came to show that through
her life. This does not mean technology will go. It will remain.
But life on earth itself will become simple - for our own
survival. The naturalness and simplicity of Holy Mother’s
life indeed give us a foretaste of things to come.
Swami Gambhirananda, Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi (Madras:
Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1977), 30-1.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.121.