When I’m looking for inspiration, I often turn to the story of Sarada Devi, a woman saint born in 1853. We each have difficulties on our personal journey, but the story of Holy Mother, as many knew her, brings perspective to our own problems.
Modern Westerners would view Sarada Devi’s life as one of severe hardship. She was born into poverty and never escaped that condition. As the eldest daughter in a large family, she was consigned to hard work and service from an early age. And she was not immune to the sicknesses and diseases of the times.
The Influence of Ancient Traditions
Swami Nikhilananda, the author and a direct disciple of Sarada Devi, takes great care to explain the role of women in Indian culture. The first chapter of the book explains the traditions prevalent during her time. Sarada Devi’s life serves as an ideal example of how these customs served individuals and their communities.
Young Sarada grew up in a remote Indian village more than a century ago. She was destined to serve others, which she reportedly did with enthusiasm and joy. Her brothers went to school, but literacy for girls was not encouraged at the time. Although Sarada didn’t receive any formal education, her interest in learning was intense. She eventually learned to read, and the lack of education had no adverse affect on her life’s purpose.
Marriage and Vocation
Following the tradition of the time, Sarada was betrothed at the age of five. Her husband-to-be, Sri Ramakrishna, was then twenty-three. He had already begun working as a Brahmin priest in the Calcutta suburb of Dakshineswar. Ramakrishna’s spiritual journey was developing at that time. He later became known as one of India’s greatest mystics and yogis.
When Sarada came of age, she left her family and joined her husband. She received spiritual initiation from him and became his disciple. Sarada spent her days in service to Ramakrishna, his mother, and the many visitors who were drawn to her husband. Under his guidance, she performed intense spiritual practices, such as long hours of meditation and japa. Sarada’s early adult life prepared her to continue Ramakrishna’s work after his early passing at the age of fifty.
A Simple Yet Powerful Life
Sarada Devi lived during the early days of photography. This book includes several images that give us a sense of her tiny stature and severe living conditions. It’s humbling to realize that a person can flourish spiritually in such conditions.
Holy Mother served others until the last days of her life. She was a daughter, sister, wife, and Guru. She advised Ramakrishna’s disciples as well as her own. She explained difficult yogic principles in spite of her lack of formal education. Holy Mother’s company enlivened spirituality in thousands of devotees.
In the Eastern tradition, it’s possible to achieve spiritual heights simply through devotion to one’s Guru. Once a devotee asked Holy Mother if he needed to practice any disciplines since she had blessed him. He believed himself to be highly devoted. This was her response:
“You may be right. But the real point is this: there may be different kinds of food-stuffs in the storeroom, but one must cook them. Whoever cooks earlier gets his meal earlier. Some can eat in the morning, some in the evening, and some may have to fast because they have been too lazy to cook. The more intensely a person practices spiritual discipline, the more quickly he attains God. Even if a devotee does not practice spiritual discipline, he will attain God in the end—surely he will. If he spends his time idly, without practicing prayer and meditation, he will take a long time to realize God.”
This book has been my companion for many years. Its pages are marked, dog-eared, and littered with sticky notes. I’m never disappointed when I turn to it for inspiration. It’s one of my favorite ways of keeping company with saints. I highly recommend Holy Mother, Being the Life of Sri Sarada Devi, Wife of Sri Ramakrishna and Helpmate in His Mission by Swami Nikhilananda (aff link). It is a historical record and rare example of a saint’s life, capable of inspiring all spiritual seekers.
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.