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 physical 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 inspiring 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’s 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.
I know this was the tradition of the time, and still occurs today in parts of the world, but it is wrong for anyone to be betrothed at such a young age, especially to someone who is an adult. It is difficult for me to appreciate their dynamic as spiritual and exemplary given this. What are your thoughts on this? I am interested to hear your perspective.
Thank you for your comment and interest. In ancient days, these customs served the community very well. As sometimes happens, traditions get perverted over time. With some research, you will find that this kind of situation has also resulted in some very suitable arrangements. Ānandamayī Mā is an example. You asked for my perspective: Consider the absolute saintliness of the couple in question. No one on Earth would criticize Ramakrishna and Sarada Devi for their betrothal which, by the way, they had little to do with. It was their parents’ arrangements. At any rate, please be less quick to judge. If you write off the example of these Masters, it is you who will lose out. Namaste.
I though of you as I read your work. I have ordered the book as I believe it should be part of my “cooking”.
Yes, John, keeping company with this book would be an excellent way to keep cooking! Namaste.
I plan to read Holy Mother again. We have learned that all saints have one thing in common, that they love God unconditionally. What a worldly being perceives as hardship, is nonexistent to a liberated Soul, for they are One with Chiti. Chiti is Love, Love is Chiti.
Thank you, Tosh. For the benefit of Quiet Karma’s new visitors: Chiti is one of yoga’s many names for Divine Consciousness, God. Appropriate to this post, Chiti also means Divine Mother. Namaste.
Devoted to her husband, Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi achieved Self Realization…and fulfilled a Guru Gita dictum: “The knowledge from the Guru’s lips is obtained only through devotion.”
Ramakrishna did not give Holy Mother a few children, but he did give her a raft of disciple children to cook for. I read that she started her spiritual practices at 3:00 A.M. every day and was cooking by dawn. Her personal quarters in the music temple look as big an American closet. In the photo I found, her room had no door, but rather a see-through gate.
Ramakrishna left her no funds to live on after his passing. Apparently, she nearly starved before his shocked disciples learned of her situation…they were glad to care for Holy Mother the rest of her life (she had not wanted to inconvenience them with her troubles).
Holy Mother was illiterate and could only receive her Guru’s wisdom directly from his lips. Fortuantely for us, she had disciple ‘children’ were both literate and moved to capture her wisdom in writing for us…
Thank you for sharing those interesting points of Holy Mother’s life, Rob. In our modern world it’s so difficult to understand the conditions people used to endure–and thrive in–not so long ago. And it certainly demonstrates that we can have no excuses for shirking our spiritual practices. Namaste.
Thanks for a glimpse of Holy Mother. My comment addresses your reply to Elizabeth. You reply, ” It’s human nature to come up with excuses for things that seem out of reach.”
Your reply is very important to all seekers. We must believe and know that realization is attainable. The saints have gave teachings so that we can realize Truth as they did. We have to recognize it’s in the palm of our hands; then we need to cook. Thanks for the reminder.
Thank you for making the comments a conversation, Modesto. I do firmly believe that Self-realization is attainable by anyone who wants it badly enough. Namaste.
It’s painful to witness how hard other people’s life has been (and for many, still is) – so much suffering. Yet Sarada Devi seemed to have risen above it all and became in inspiration for all of us.
Thank you, James. One of the notable things about Sarada Devi is that she never seemed to notice that she led a hard life. She loved to serve, and her mind was always absorbed in thoughts of God. In spite of her various physical challenges she enjoyed a blissful life. Namaste.
Nice summary of Sarada Devi’s biography. It certainly does give perspective whenever we think our own life is difficult to think about what Sara Devi endured. She took refuge in the Lord and the Lord worked through her to the benefit of others.
I agree, Tim. It’s very helpful to have a real-life example of someone devoted to the spiritual life. Namaste.
Your writing style is amiable, and I enjoy the way you include your personal involvement with the topics. Also your replies to the posts show superior attunement. Very nice!
Thank you for the feedback, Richard. I hope you continue to enjoy the posts and comments. Namaste.
“It’s humbling to realize that a person can flourish spiritually in such conditions.” Thank you for this potent reminder. Looking forward to reading the book–slowly, slowly–reading less, contemplating more. Cheers, Elizabeth
Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth. It’s human nature to come up with excuses for things that seem out of reach. One of the reasons that we read about the lives of saints is to help us see how they overcame obstacles, taking us in their wake. Namaste.
A favorite to be sure but it goes much further, describing her service combined with worship, meditation and signs of her spiritual transformtion as seen by others. I look forward to Sundays and your newsletter, Tony
Thank you, Tony. Sarada Devi didn’t experience good health and yet she continued her service and spiritual practices. She’s an inspiration to anyone on the spiritual path. Namaste.
“There may be different kinds of food-stuffs in the storeroom, but one must cook them. Whoever cooks earlier gets his meal earlier… The more intensely a person practices spiritual discipline, the more quickly he attains God.”
This quote spoke to me. Must get cooking!
It is a great analogy, isn’t it? It’s one that we can all relate to. Sarada Devi and Ramakrishna were both adept at presenting the teachings through familiar examples. They made the spiritual life accessible to everyone. Namaste.
Thanks for the summary of Mother’s path. She was surely a unique and devout lover of God. Her explanation of need for effort sounds just like an analogy Ramakrishna might have given. Birds of a feather, as they say. Om.
Thank you for your comment, Candice. Sarada Devi was a perfect disciple. She imbibed her Guru’s teachings and lived by them. When he passed away, his teachings continued through her. Even the twelve disciples of Ramakrishna who became monks after his passing referred to her wisdom. Namaste.