The 19th Century Renaissance in Bengal began with the reformation of religion. It was started by a small group of intellectuals, mainly English educated and oriented towards the West. However, they failed to realise that sanatan dharma (Religion Eternal) wasn’t at fault and needed no reformation. Its objective is the Highest Good (Nishreyas) which has no impediment towards its attainment. Intellect indulges in the gratuitous and dabbles at the non-essentials of religion. It cannot penetrate into the essentials of religion unless it couples itself with spiritual insight.
The fundamentals of sanatan dharma are extremely trong and liberal, which is why it survives despite problems over time. Any society built upon its foundations can flourish and prosper. It nurtures those values which are immutable and universal, and with the potential to create a rich civilisation. These values were discovered through rigorous efforts and experiments conducted by the seekers of eternal truths through the vicissitudes of history. Without being able to assess the contretemps, the Renaissance intellectuals confused degenerated social customs with religion.
The extraordinary strength of sanatan dharma lies in the fact that it is constitutionally independent of social variables and is about the knowledge of the Absolute (Tattwa-Jnana) based on reason and realisation. One who is accomplished in this sphere, knows how to ingeniously serve society with an ingrained perception of sameness (samadarshana) in order to elevate man from the mundane to the sublime. Gita describes the wise in its verse 18 of chapter five as: “The wise see the same in all ~ whether it be a Brahmin endowed with learning and humility, or a cow or an elephant or a dog or an outcaste (Chandala)”.
One who is Tattwa-Jnani is a Tattwadarshi as well, who sees all essentially divine, notwithstanding their external differences, whether social or otherwise. Therefore, to a wise person, the discriminations of caste, class and community are irrelevant. A wise man is firmly rooted in the truth that they have no bearing on the Religion which is one and infinite. One who is thus established in sanatan dharma builds and never breaks. He isn’t an iconoclast. So, when he ponders over a social transformation his method is creative and constructive. He knows for sure that society is a graded organisation but its gradations are only incidental.
For example, Swami Vivekananda ~ a product of the Bengal Renaissance ~ treads the path of sanatan dharma and globally reveals its glory by his exceptional life and work. Shifting from the original stance of the Renaissance, he envisages in the end of the 19th Century a humane society based on harmony of Eastern and Western ideals. He blends tradition with modernity, remaining faithful to sanatan dharma. When he gives a maiden speech in the inaugural session at the Parliament of Religions of Chicago in 1893, he conveys the message of sanatan dharma, showing how its spirit, if emulated, could change the world fraught with discrimination, distrust and distress.
He says: “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal brotherhood. We believe not only in universal brotherhood, but we accept all religions as true”. He talks of “assimilation” in a full throated voice in this world forum, upholding the central theme of **sanatan dharma** and fervently appeals to stop all manner of “fight” and “persecution”. Notably, he quotes from two very ancient yet popular pieces of literature, namely, sivamahimn- stotram and Bhagavadgita, where the philosophy thoughts of sanatan dharma is embedded in wonderful poetical language.
He tries to bail the world out of parochialism, and pragmatically offers something that is enduring as well as useful for peaceful co-existence. To translate his thoughts into action in a systematic fashion for socio-economic regeneration and moral uplift of our people, he established the Ramakrishna Mission in 1897. But, surprisingly, he placed Sarada Devi on its apex… like an iconic figure, as it were attaching the epithet sangha-janani (Mother of the Order) beside her name. The spouse of Sri Ramrakrishna, an unobtrusive Brahmin woman born and brought up in an extremely conservative milieu and with no formal education, how could she fit in such an important position which requires public dealings and crucial decisions?
It didn’t escape Swamiji’s vision that Sarada Devi was a living embodiment of sanatan dharma with the highest spiritual realisation as well as an epitome of Indianness. No one is better suited to hold that position. There is a perfect flashing point of tradition and modernity in her. Her thoughts and actions operate in its premises with conscience and consciousness of a superlative degree. As she is full of the wealth of sanatan dharma, so also has a progressive outlook. An intricate combination of the two makes her consummately competent for reformation, a task that she performs with unprecedented skill and common sense, even while behind the veil.
She rejuvenated religion and broke the contrived social barriers dividing man from man in terms of class, caste, colour and faith. Her handling of the poor and the outcaste is legendary. Her dealings with the intelligent and educated is equally amazing. She was the centre of a boundless orbit where, other than Hindus, Americans, the British, Muslims, Parsis, Jains, Brahmos, freedom fighters freely exist. Everyone finds peaceful rest under her benign wings. Her uniformly affectionate behaviour brings her the haloed appellation “Mother of all”.
All that and a lot more of Sarada Devi made Swamiji realise that she manifests everything which signifies Sri Ramakrishna’s advent. In fact, to him she was the real proof of the eternal values, of which Sri Ramakrishna was the repository, resorting to which he set up the Ramakrishna Mission into a mother for the welfare of mankind. Sarada Devi in her turn proved Swamiji absolutely correct. She survived for twenty-three years and for five years after the inception of the Mission and the demise of the Swamiji respectively, doing justice to the faith Swamiji had reposed in her.
The numerous social activities she initiated for the alleviation of illiteracy, ignorance and poverty at the grassroots level in her native place Jayarambati, do not find space in conventional history . Yet they have left an indelible impressiin on countless minds that reveal them in their reminiscences. Her feeling of empathy with the urban destitute and the desolate, eking out a meagre existence, is similarly profound. Her attitude towards the gentry and the elite is proportionate to their intrinsic requirements.
Above all, her anxiety to empower women is astoundingly deep. She wanted women to receive education, and to come out of their cocoon subsistence. But, surpassing everything, her impeccable leadership to sannyasins on whom Swamiji depended is epochmaking since she is a woman and a grihi (householder). The teachings of Sarada Devi are pearls of wisdom conveyed through conversations. For instance, she says: “What does a man become by realising god? Does he grow two horns? No, what happens is, he develops discrimination between the real and the unreal, becomes conscious spiritually, and goes beyond life and earth. God is realised in spirit, how else can one see God?
Has God talked to anyone who is devoid of ecstatic fervour? One sees God in spiritual vision, talks to him and establishes a relationship with him in spirit”. Sarada Devi’s knowledge was not derived from books. She lives the life according tod in keeping with the certitudes of sanatana dharma; people from all walks of life received love and care that emanated from the inmost depth of her unsullied being. Her life is a object lesson to all, especially to those who aspire to do good to the world.
Her parting message wass: “Let me tell you something … if you want peace, then do not look into anybody’s faults. Look into your own faults, learn to make the world your own, No one is a stranger … the whole world is your own”.
(The writer is with Ramakrishna Mission, Narendrapur)