One of her well known biographers has legitimately described her as “the First Lady of spiritual India”. Indeed, there was none to match her in the fact that she could reside in samadhi and samsara (mundane world) with equal ease, unobtrusively switching from the one to the other at will. She was, therefore, a Setu (bridge) between the transcendental and the temporal to those who were spiritually susceptible to her real nature. Sister Nivedita was the one so tuned to be able to assess her typical demeanour rightly in a brief compass. She wrote to Mr. and Mrs. Ratcliffe (the then Editor of The Statesman):
“Oh dear, oh dear! How one is slipping back into this awful belief in life! If I go to prison for a prolonged period, none of my friends need grieve about it – for I shall immediately take to meditation and try to climb those wonderful heights on which the Holy Mother (Sarada Devi) lives. Such sweetness and serenity as hers, with such depth of experience and affection, are past all imagining. And how wonderful her life is ~ she lives in the elaborate system of worship spontaneously organized and maintained by others, for the adoration of her own Husband (Sri Ramakrishna), whom she worships as God, but cherishes a deep human tenderness for nevertheless. ‘I loved simply to look at Him!’ I heard her say the other night! And living so, she seems more and more like a drop of water on a lotus leaf ~ touching the world at all points, yet undiverted by it ~ un-deluded ~ filled with beatitude. She is of course an abbess but so childlike and sweet nevertheless, and with much rigorous standard about marriage! Sometimes it is almost amusing to see how impossible it is to her to condone the desertion of a husband by a wife ~ and this, regardless of the treatment meted out, by the lord and master. She simply doesn’t seem to regard that branch of criticism as her province.
“But always that Hindu ideal of perfect wife! Oh how perfect she is – and how deeply and wonderfully to be loved!”
Notwithstanding such offbeat saintliness, Sarada Devi was, nonetheless, a revolutionary in her attitude, with a sublime beauty and grace. Remarkably, she, even then, never broke but built and buttressed. She was conspicuously calm yet dynamic. A celestial love perennially fed into her being, by dint of which she quietly did her job of transforming the society around her with a quintessential sense of justice, equanimity and determination. For that, in spite of an imminent threat of being ostracized, she never flinched from going beyond caste and community, though she remained resolutely loyal to social customs of abiding values. However, if she had at all broken anything ever, it was surely the crass dichotomies that divided man from man. This made her uniquely modern with an unprecedented novelty and traditional in one with an unparalleled ingenuity.
Sarada Devi was benignly rebellious. Still, she was by no means “meek or docile when challenged by injustice or wickedness”. Of the sixty-seven years of her life, thirty-seven she spent in a caste and community ridden milieu and had incessantly propped the poor with absolutely no discrimination. Every moment she was consciously engaged there in correcting some or other ills plaguing their rural life. She did so consolidating the power of her universal motherhood, dovetailing herself with their weal and woes. A paragon of virtue, she was, accordingly, the Holy Mother to all and sundry. People could actually feel her holiness under her protective wings. Moslems and Dalits were no exception to it.
People of her neighbouring village were Moslems who used to earn their livelihood by making silk. But their business was ruined because of the competition of the imported silk. For the sake of survival, they eventually indulged in stealing and burglary. Their condition became worse due to a famine. Since they were involved in criminal activities, others were afraid of them. But Sarada Devi empathised with their misery and came forward to assist them. She employed some of them to build a house, keeping no fear, suspicion or prejudice. She even gave one to eat a meal in her residence, paying no heed to the reservations of her kith and kin. She noticed her niece serving him throwing food from a distance, treating him as an untouchable. It was intolerable to her. She immediately took over from her and waited on the person properly. She didn’t stop there. She herself then cleaned the spot where he completed his meal, as she would do with her honoured guests. Giving vent to her displeasure on her niece, she said she made no distinction between him and a monastic disciple (Swami Saradananda, the first General Secretary of Ramakrishna Mission) of Sri Ramakrishna.
Another Moslem villager, likewise, brought some fruits and hesitantly asked her whether she would accept them for worship. “Of course, I will,” she replied. She took the fruits from him and assured him she would certainly offer them in Sri Ramakrishna’s puja. A woman devotee couldn’t bear this and said: “We know he is a thief. How can you offer these things to the Master?” After the man had left, she spoke to the woman, saying, “I know who is good and who is bad.” Many such so-called repulsive persons reformed themselves in her safe and serene refuge.There were numerous similar examples by which she taught the close and the communal that humanity was much above caste and community. The fact of winning over a bandit belonging to a lowest caste in her young age is too well known to be repeated. He had at once undergone a change to forget violence by her touching influence of love and respect. She was, as a result, all along an affectionate daughter to him and his wife. It’s everyone’s guess with what courage and commitment she thus carried out her silent struggle for a cause, resorting to sheer common sense as well as compassion, giving a lie to superstition. Sarada Devi was much ahead of her time. Otherwise what else could explain her highly progressive thinking despite her conservative upbringing as an orthodox Brahmin of a remote village in the nineteenth century? Her endeavours to improve the condition of the indigent in her village were dramatic, in view of its backwardness. She started a primary school, made provision for clean drinking water, tried to bring water from the nearest rivulet for irrigation, etc. The way she did these was unimaginable for a lady like her with no formal education and exposure. It is also incredible that she could so pragmatically focus on three fundamental aspects, namely, education, health and food, for the development of her people.
Sarada Devi’s life in Calcutta was equally eventful. All types of people were around her here – learned, illiterate, respectable, despicable, rich and poor. None was out of her attention, as everyone had free access to her. Above all, her patronage to social and national causes was exceptional for its nuances. For instance, she ate with the foreigners whom orthodox Brahmins despised as mlechas, giving out the message that they too were dear to her. She compared Nivedita with an exotic flower brought by Swami Vivekananda from abroad for Sri Ramakrishna’s worship. She was even ready to part with the company of her upper caste close associates who objected to her liberal behaviour. She was a great advocate of girl education as initiated by Nivedita.
She stood in defence of Nivedita against the communal Hindus who planned to slander her. Most significantly, the freedom fighters believed her blessings were necessary for them to achieve Independence. Nivedita wrote in 1909: “All parties are now united to say, new spirit comes from R.K.V. (Ramakrishna- Vivekananda) and men who have been released (from jail) come to make pranams to Holy Mother. She says ‘what fearlessness, only R.K. (Ramakrishna) and Swamiji could have brought about this fearlessness! All their (the British Government) fault!’ Isn’t she extraordinary?” Impact of her personality was thus wide and deep. From a cobbler to saintly monks, all were her disciples. She spiritually initiated a large number of men and women from across the country, including a British lady of Calcutta.
It is difficult to quantify the regenerative efforts Sarada Devi had applied throughout her life, even at the risk of her being excommunicated from upper caste society. The profundity with which she did her work of uplifting the marginalized had left indelible marks, waiting to be comprehensibly studied by scholars for our lessons. The truth that she had contributed astoundingly in principle as well as in practice is reflected in multifarious social and spiritual activities of the Ramakrishna Movement that Swami Vivekananda organised banking on her patronage, wisdom and example. Swamiji was firmly convinced that Sarada Devi was an unsurpassable power born to “revive” India.
The writer is with the Ramakrishna Mission, Narendrapur