ĀNANDAMAYĪ MĀ (the bliss-permeated Mother, 1896–1982) was a leading Hindu spiritual master in twentieth-century India. She was regarded a divine manifestation by her disciples, who came from all strata of the Indian society and from around the world. A number of them were well-known scholars, artists, as well as social and political leaders, including Indira Gandhi (1917–1984), the former prime minister of India. At the core of Ānandamayī Mā's teaching was the identity of the individual Self (ātman ) with the Absolute (brahman ) and the unity of all existence. She recommended a fundamental reorientation of life in order to realize one's identity with the Absolute. While these precepts have long been a part of Hindu philosophical thought, what drew people to her was her powerful yet gracious presence that seemed to bear a living testimony to them. The course of her life seemed to flow from a deep spiritual awareness that often led her to deviate from the norms of contemporary Hindu society. Her life, like lives of many Hindu women saints, was marked by enigma and paradoxes.
Ānandamayī Mā was born to a devout but poor brahman couple, Bipin Bihari Bhattacharya and Mokshada Devi, in the village of Kheora in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and was given the name Nirmala Sundari (the one of taintless beauty). She was indeed very beautiful. Even as a child, she surprised elders by going into trancelike states during sessions of devotional singing and showing deep affinity with animals and trees. As was customary at the time, after receiving little formal education, Nirmala was married to Ramani Mohan Chakravarti at the age of twelve. When she joined her husband five years later, she excelled in performing household duties, but declined to have a physical relationship. Instead, she asked permission to engage in spiritual exercises (sādhanā ) every night after finishing her domestic work.
Nirmala had had no formal training in spiritual matters, yet various yogic postures and the states of mind (bhāva s) associated with them seemed to come effortlessly to her as she followed her spiritual impulse, which she called kheyāla. One night, she initiated herself onto the meditative path in a unique manner: She played the roles of both the gurū and the disciple, establishing nondifferentiation between the two. A few months later she initiated her husband and became his gurū, inverting the norm for Hindu women of the time. During this period of her intense sādhanā (1918–1924), she was often found in ecstatic states, viewed by some as signs of mental disturbance. With her husband's support, however, she continued her practice.
By 1924, when her husband accepted a job on the Shahbag estates in Dhaka, she had attracted a considerable following. Her husband welcomed in their home crowds of people, including scholars and professionals who were amazed at Nirmala's succinct answers to their complex philosophical queries. Here, Nirmala also led worship ceremonies (pūjā ) for the goddess Kālī, departing from the tradition by excluding animal sacrifice. From 1926 Nirmala came to be called Ānandamayī Mā by her disciples, for they saw her in a state of constant bliss. They built a small āśrama (retreat center) near Dhaka that became the first of the thirty established before the end of her life. Around the same time she began to refer to herself as "this body," indicating detachment from it, and declared that her true self was unchanging.
From the early 1930s until her passing away in 1982, like a Hindu renunciant, she ceaselessly traveled across India imparting spiritual guidance to a wide range of people. She was, however, not a traditional renunciate. Her husband, now called Bholānāth, accompanied her until his death in 1938. During his last illness, Ānandamayī Mā served him as a devoted wife, but continued her work after his death. Through example and conversations in everyday language she taught her followers to make Self-realization the main goal of life. She did not prescribe a specific method for all for the attainment of this goal and recognized that each individual had to follow the path suitable for him- or herself. The only spiritual program that she guided yearly was a weeklong retreat in one of her āśramas that emphasized self-restraint and meditation. Her femininity imparted a grace and gentleness to her spiritual mentoring that touched everyone who came to her.
Ānandamayī Mā did not recognize sectarian, religious caste, or gender differences at the level of the Self. She blessed and guided all who approached her. Her followers included Hindus across caste boundaries, non-Hindus, and a large number of women who found her especially inspirational. She, however, did not intervene in the working of her āśramas, where the administrators followed purity/pollution rules that mark the Hindu caste system. For this, she was criticized by some as the gurū of the elite and the high caste. Some remark that her teaching did not emphasize charitable work, even though schools, hospitals, and veterinary clinics were and still are run by her āśramas. Others explain that in Ānandamayī Mā's inherently spiritual view, the solution to human suffering had to be sought through spiritual advancement. This would lead people to see others as a part of the self. Charity would not be needed then. Ānandamayī Mā is recognized as a mystic of rare spiritual insight in India. Holding together the roles of wife, renunciate, and spiritual guide in a seamless manner, her life pointed out the possibilities for spiritual life that are open for women in the Hindu milieu despite the restrictive norms set for them by the orthodoxy.
Banerjee, Shyamananda. A Mystic Sage: Ma Anandamayi. Calcutta, 1973.
Chaudhuri, Narayan. That Compassionate Touch of Ma Anandamayee. Delhi, 1980.
Ganguli, Anil. Anandamayi Ma: The Mother Bliss-Incarnate. Calcutta, 1983.
Hallstrom, Lisa Lassell. Mother of Bliss: Ānandamayī Mā (1896–1982). New York, 1999.
Kaviraj, Gopinath, ed. Mother as Seen by Her Devotees. 2d ed. Varanasi, India, 1976.
Lannoy, Richard. Anandamayi: Her Life and Wisdom. Shaftesbury, UK, 1996.
Lipski, Alexander. The Life and Teaching of 'Srī Ānandamayī Mā. Delhi, 1977.
Maschmann, Melita. Encountering Bliss: Journey through India with Ānandamayī Mā. Translated by Shridhar B. Shrotri. Delhi, 2002.
Mukerji, Bithika. From the Life of Anandamayi Ma. 2 vols. Calcutta, 1980–1981; 2d ed., 1996.
Neelima Shukla-Bhatt (2005)
"Ānandamayī Mā." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/anandamayi-ma
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