Śārāda Devī

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ŚĀRĀDA DEVĪ (18531920) was the wife of Śri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (18361886), a highly regarded Hindu spiritual master from Bengal, India. She is called the Holy Mother (Śrima ) by the followers of Ramakrishna, who worship her along with her husband as a manifestation of the divine. By the end of Ramakrishna's life, his followers included some leading Bengali intellectuals. As he wished, Śāradā Devī became the chief source of spiritual and emotional support for his disciples after his death, when they began to establish a spiritual order in his name. Up to this point she had led her life in accordance with the Indian cultural ideal of a quiet and dutiful wife; however, she played a pivotal role in the burgeoning order with her piety, pragmatism, and motherly qualities. In the early twenty-first century Śāradā Devī receives the highest degree of honor in the order's many centers throughout the world, along with Ramakrishna himself and his most famous disciple Swami Vivekananda (18631902).

Śāradā Devī was born to a poor Brahmin family in Jayrambati, a tiny village in West Bengal, in 1853. As a child Śāradāthen known as Saradamaniwas fascinated by Indian folklore and Hindu narratives. She did not receive any formal education but learned to serve others as she helped her mother run a large household. During the terrible famine of 1864, Śāradā worked ceaselessly as her family served food to hungry people. Service to others remained her chief occupation throughout life. At the age of six she was married to Gadadhar Chattopadhayawho later took the name of Ramakrishnafrom a neighboring village. Chattopadhaya, who was eighteen years her senior, was the priest of Kālī's temple in Dakshineshwar, a town near Calcutta, and engaged in intense spiritual practices. His frequent ecstasies and unorthodox ways of worship led some onlookers to doubt his mental stability. Śāradā joined her husband on her own accord when she was eighteen, after hearing these rumors about his mental health. She found her husband to be a kind and caring person; however, he never consummated the marriage. Instead, he began to give her spiritual instruction. Śāradā complied with her husband's wish to lead the life of a celibate spiritual seeker.

Even while leading the life of a married virgin at Dakshineshwar, Śāradā Devī served her husband, who was now also her gurū, her living god. Except for her hours of meditation, most of her time was spent in cooking for Ramakrishna and the growing number of his devotees. While Śāradā Devī remained completely in the background, her unassuming but warm personality attracted some female devotees to become her lifelong companions. She also welcomed in her circle some women of low status and questionable character whom her husband had admonished. Ramakrishna then declared that Śāradā was the Mother of the Universe and performed an elaborate ritual of worship for her. He also asked his disciples to address her as the Holy Mother. While this exalted status fulfilled Śāradā Devī's maternal dreams in some ways, it did little to change her daily work routine, which became even more grueling when Ramakrishna was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

After Ramakrishna died in 1886, Śāradā Devī moved to his village of Kamarpukur and bravely endured poverty verging on starvation for a year. When Devī was invited to return to Calcutta by Ramakrishna's disciples, who had begun to form the Ramakrishna order, her spiritual ministry began in earnest. She did not lead the secluded life of a traditional Hindu widow after 1887. Moving back and forth between Jayrambati and Calcutta, she initiated disciples with mantras, advised them in spiritual and practical matters, and provided the community with motherly warmth. Her ministry was markedly different from that of Ramakrishna. While the latter instructed his disciples in the intricacies of meditation and mystical experiences, she taught them devotion to the master, simplicity in living, and loving service to others through her own example. Following Vivekananda's visit to America, his Western followers also came to regard her as the Holy Mother.

Śāradā Devī was among the earliest Hindu spiritual personalities to have Western devotees. She accepted the divine status accorded to her and the adoration of the devotees without much concern. Even with her changed status, she continued to cook for and feed her disciple-children and took care of her younger siblings' families. She welcomed low-caste devotees and showed a special concern for women. Though uneducated herself, she advocated education for women. Her contemporary devotees emphasize the theme of forgiveness in her teachings. Her saying, "No one is a stranger. The whole world is your own," is considered her most valuable message to the world. When Devī died in 1920, the growing circle of Ramakrishna's followers around the world regarded her as the Holy Mother in her own right, a manifestation of God's maternal love.

Unfolding during the heyday of British rule in India, Śāradā Devī's life demonstrated the strength of simplicity and motherly affectiona quality that was considered a distinctive characteristic of Mother India in the nationalist discourse of the early twentieth century. In Devī's ability to combine traditional values with a liberal outlook and to transform mundane work into spiritual practice through selfless service, she provided a model of inspiration for modern Indian women. Even though some contemporary critics of Ramakrishna view Śāradā Devī as a helpless victim of exploitation and imposed spirituality, her quintessential motherly qualities and piety made her the leader of one of the most successful spiritual orders of modern India that has attracted followers around the world.

See Also

Gender and Religion, article on Gender and Hinduism; Hinduism; Ramakrishna.


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Neelima Shukla-Bhatt (2005)