Love opens the most impossible gates; love is the gate to all the secrets of the universe.

— Swami Vivekananda

Sarada Devi, whose birth anniversary will be observed today (22 December), personified that axiom. She had indeed opened many “impossible gates”. And one such gate was opened for Sister Nivedita who gained access to Indian society, thanks to Sarada Devi. But for her, she would have lapsed into oblivion.

Hence, Nivedita sang paeans to Sarada’s glory. In a letter to Sarada herself, she once wrote: “Surely you are the most wonderful thing of God ~ Sri Ramakrishna’s own chalice of His love for the world…”

Sarada provided her with a niche, saying “Naren (Vivekananda) has brought a beautiful flower (Nivedita) from abroad because it would be useful for Thakur’s (Sri Ramakrishna’s) puja.” Could there be a greater certificate to one whose life’s mission was essentially spiritual? She was able to see an impeccably pure heart in Nivedita and loved her as her own child. Hard boiled conservatives saw an inexorable audacity. She said, “Her (Nivedita’s) outside is white and her inside is white.”

Sarada Devi was made the Abbess of the Ramakrishna Order unanimously. Which is why, hers’ was the last word on any contentious issue. Nivedita wrote to her friend: “Then you should see the chivalrous feeling that the monks have for her. They always call her ‘Mother’ and speak of her as ‘The Holy Mother’ , and she is literally their first thought in every emergency. There are always one or two in attendance on her, and whatever her wish is, it is their command. …She really is, under the simplest, most unassuming guise, one of the strongest and greatest of women.”

Referring to Nivedita’s devotion, Sarada Devi remarked: “She would prostrate before me with great tenderness and take the dust off my feet with her handkerchief. I felt that she hesitated even to touch my feet.” Evidently, Nivedita also realised that Sarada was the consummation of purity.

The reason why Nivedita describes Sarada as “one of the strongest and greatest of women” is rooted in her maiden visit to Sarada. When Nivedita arrived, Vivekananda was worried if Sarada would accept her. Without her approval, he could not let Nivedita continue. He sent Nivedita to meet Sarada, and something magical must have happened ~ “A day of days,” Nivedita wrote in her diary. And in a letter dated 22 May 1898, she wrote: “And she (Sarada) is so tender ~ ‘my daughter’ she calls me. She has always been terribly orthodox, but all this melted away the instant she saw the first two Westerners ~ Mrs Bull and Miss Macleod (Vivekananda”s American followers), and she tasted food with them to the surprise of everyone. This gave us all a sense of dignity and made my future work possible in a way nothing else could possibly have done.”

When Vivekananda heard about this, he was overwhelmed with joy. On 25 March 1898 he initiated Nivedita as a novice of the Order. He ensured that her school was started without delay.

Sarada Devi inaugurated Nivedita’s school for girls at 16 Bose Para Lane in North Calcutta on 13 November 1898. But Nivedita lacked the resources to run the school. Accompanying Vivekananda, she left for the West on 20 June to collect funds. She returned to Calcutta on 28 February 1902, a short while before Vivekananda’s demise, and reopened the school.

Nivedita’s struggles multiplied because she was being socially discriminated against. Sarada Devi came forward to protect her from harassment. For instance, when she published a photograph of her girls in Empress, conservatives had cast aspersions on her. Sarada sympathised and supported her. She made their hostile opposition turn into a damp squib.

Sarada persuaded the people to send their daughters to Nivedita’s school. She was not a silent witness to Nivedita’s predicament. She overtly articulated her feelings ~ “When she (Nivedita) visited the homes to register their children for her school, she was humiliated; some did not allow her to go inside; and some allowed her to go inside but later purified the place by sprinkling Ganga water. She saw everything but did not mind. She left each place with a smiling face. There was no bounden necessity for her to educate the girls of our country by enduring such insults and ill-treatment and ruining her life little by little. You see my daughter Nivedita had such a wonderful mind that she took on the responsibility of teaching our girls on her own shoulders because her guru, Naren (Swami Vivekananda) wanted it and asked her to do it. She did not care for the incivility of our people.”

Sarada was furious when Nivedita was ridiculed by her kith and kin. She was once not allowed to partake of the prasad that Nivedita had brought for her after performing puja herself. Sarada was ready to part company with her relatives, if necessary, but never with Nivedita. She gave her a wide berth within her inner circle.

Sarada Devi proved she was far more modern than the most modern of her time. Her sense of modernity sought to eliminate caste-based prejudice. As Vivekananda said: “Her advent marks the beginning of a new era in the history of India.”

By elevating Sarada Devi to the position of “central figure”, Vivekananda dreamt of starting a women’s monastery where young girls could be trained as proficient nuns, in order to serve the cause of women selflessly. He had wanted to set it up on the eastern bank of the Ganga in Dakshineswar. It did not materialise during his lifetime, however.

In 1954, the year of Sarada Devi’s birth centenary, the monastery came into being. It was generally known as “Sarada Math”.

In Vivekananda’s reckoning, she was unrivalled. Towards the end of his life, he said to her, “Mother, this much I know that hundreds of Vivekanandas like me will arise by your grace. But, with it, I also know that there is only one, not a second one like you in this world.” On his passing, Sarada said: “My Naren died of overwork, overwork only.”

A little more than a year before her death, on 22 September 1910, Nivedita wrote to her friend, SK Ratcliffe, then the Editor of The Statesman, stressing the need for spiritual attainment in the manner of Sarada Devi. She wrote in the letter: “If I ever 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 lives. Such sweetness and serenity as hers, with such depth of experience and affection, are past all imagining. And how wonderful her life is…”

It would be pertinent to quote Vivekananda ~ “The ideal lived and taught by her (Sarada) would not only spiritualise the efforts for the emancipation of women in India but also influence and penetrate into the minds and hearts of women all the world over.”

As Nivedita once exclaimed, “Oh how perfect she is ~ and how deeply and wonderfully to be loved!”

The writer is with the Ramakrishna Mission Ashram, Narendrapur.