CALCUTTA AND THE HOLY WOMEN
The Swami had one remarkable characteristic. He made all who were near him appear great. In his presence, one saw and loved, at its highest, their unspoken purpose; and even their faults and failings, if one realised them, would seem to be justified and accounted for.
We surely stand at many different grades of perception! Some of us see and recognise only the form and the acts of a man. Others will refer his features to a central type, and note on his external aspect the tide-marks of the will, in all its mixedness and complexity of ebb and flow. But still others are aware of a vast magazine of cause behind, against which a life stands out as a single fragmentary effect. We ourselves cannot gauge the knowledge that prompts our own words and deeds.
Something after this fashion was the vision that grew upon me, of the world into which I had entered, as the Swami’s disciple, on my arrival in Calcutta, early in November 1898. During the months between that date and the following July, I saw him always in the midst of his own people, without even the friendly intervention of a European home. I became myself one of the people, living with them in surroundings which his genius had created. And thus enveloped by his interpretation, thus dominated by his passionate love of his own race, it was like walking in some twilight of the gods, where the forms of men and women loomed larger than their wont.
It had been taken for granted from the first, that at the earliest opportunity I would open a girls’ school in Calcutta. And it was characteristic of the Swami’s methods, that I had not been hurried in the initiation of this work, but had been given leisure and travel and mental preparation. To myself it was clear that this school, when opened, must at first be only tentative and experimental. I had to learn what was wanted, to determine where I myself stood, to explore the very world of which my efforts were to become a part.
The one thing that I knew was, that an educational effort must begin at the stand-point of the learner, and help him to development in his own way. But I had no definite plans or expectations, save to make some educational discovery which would be qualitatively true and universally applicable, to the work of the modern education of Indian women.*
* It must here be pointed out that the school in question proved even more tentative than I had imagined. In the autumn of 1903, the whole work for Indian women was taken up and organised by an American disciple, Sister Christine, and to her, and her faithfulness and initiative, alone, it owes all its success up to the present. From the experiment which I made in 1898 to 1899, was gathered only my own education. – Nivedita
Others, however, had probably thought more largely of the matter, and I had heard much as to the desirability of holding myself above all sects. But all these questions were solved once for all, on a certain evening in camp, in the forest of Vernag, in Kashmir, when the Swami turned to me, as we all sat in a circle about the log-fire, and asked me what were now my plans for the school. I replied eagerly, begging to be freed from collaborators, to be allowed to begin in a small way, spelling out my method; and urging, above all, the necessity of a definite religious colour, and the usefulness of sects.
The Swami listened and accepted, and as far as his loyalty went to every wish of mine, in this matter, thenceforth, he might have been the disciple and I the teacher. Only in one respect was he inflexible. The work for the education of Indian women to which he would give his name, might be as sectarian as I chose to make it. “You wish through a sect to rise beyond all sects,” had been his sole reply to this part of my statement. He withdrew, at the first sign of hesitation on my side, the name of an Indian lady whose help had been proffered. But he would not on the other hand, countenance my own seeking of assistance amongst the few acquaintances I had already made. For the ocean of Indian character I had as yet no plummet, and it was safer to go long unaided than to commit an error at the start.
It was to carry out this plan, then, that I arrived in Calcutta alone, in the beginning of November. I was able to find my way at once, from the station to the north end of the town. But once there, with insular rigidity, I insisted on being made the guest of the women. The Swami was himself staying, as it happened, at a sort of parish-room of the Order, in Calcutta. Through him, therefore, the negotiations were carried on. The widow of Sri Ramakrishna – Sarada Devi, or “the Holy Mother,” as she is called amongst us – was living close by, with her community of ladies; and in the course of the day, I was accorded possession of an empty room in her house.
This is one of the occasions on which people look back, feeling that their courage was providentially determined by their ignorance. It is difficult to see how else a necessary solution could have been found. Yet had I deeply understood at the time, the degree of social embarrassment which my rashness might have brought, not only upon my innocent hostess, but also on her kindred in their distant village, I could not have acted as I did. At any cost, I must in that case have withdrawn. As it was, however, I imagined caste to be only a foolish personal prejudice, – which must yield to knowledge, – against some supposed uncleanness of foreign habits; and thus cheerfully assuming all the ignorance to be on her side, confidently forced myself upon this Indian lady’s hospitality.
In the event, fortunately, the Swami’s influence proved all-powerful, and I was accepted by society. Within a week or ten days, a house in the close neighbourhood was found for me. But even then, I spent all my afternoons in the Mother’s room. And when the hot weather came, it was by her express command that I returned to her better-arranged house, for sleeping-quarters. And then I occupied no room apart, but shared the cool and simple dormitory of the others, with its row of mats, pillows, and nets, against the polished red earthenware of the floor.
It was a strange household, of which I now found myself a part. Downstairs, in one of the guard-rooms beside the front-door, lived a monk, whose severe austerities, from his youth up, had brought him to the threshold of death, from consumption, in the prime of manhood. To his room I used to go, for Bengali lessons. In the kitchen behind, worked a disciple of his, and a Brahmin cook; while to us women-folk belonged all above-stairs, with roofs and terraces, and the sight of the Ganges hard by.
Of the head of our little community, it seems almost presumptuous to speak. Her history is well-known. How she was wedded at five, and forgotten by her husband till she was eighteen; how she then, with her mother’s permission, made her way on foot from her village-home to the temple of Dakshineswar on the Ganges-side, and appeared before him; how he remembered the bond, but spoke of the ideals of the life he had adopted; and how she responded by bidding him Godspeed in that life, and asking only to be taught by him as the Guru, – all these things have been told of her many times over.
From that time she lived faithfully by his side for many years, in a building in the same garden, at once nun and wife, and always chief of his disciples. She was young when her tutelage began and in hours of quiet talk, she will tell sometimes in how many directions his training extended. He was a great lover of order, and taught her even such trifles as where to keep her lamp and its appurtenances, during the day. He could not endure squalor, and notwithstanding severe asceticism, he loved grace and beauty and gentle dignity of bearing. One story that is told of this period of her life, is of her bringing to him a basket of fruit and vegetables one day, with all the eagerness and pride of a happy child. He looked at it gravely, and said “But why so extravagant?”
– “At least it was not for myself!” said the young wife, all her sunshine gone, in sudden disappointment, and she turned and went away, crying quietly. But this Sri Ramakrishna could not bear to see. “Go, one of you,” he said, turning to the boys beside him, “And bring her back. My very devotion to God will take wings, if I see her weep!”
So dear she was to him. Yet one of her most striking traits is the absolute detachment with which she speaks of the husband she worships. She stands like a rock, through loud and shine, as those about her tell, for the fulfilment of every word of his. But “Guru Deb!” “Divine Master,” is the name she calls him by, and not one word of her uttering ever conveys the slightest trace of self-assertion with regard to him. One who did not know who she was, would never suspect, from speech of hers, that her right was stronger, or her place closer, than that of any other of those about her. It would seem as if the wife had been long ago forgotten, save for her faithfulness, in the disciple. Yet so deeply is she reverenced by all about her, that there is not one of them who would, for instance, occupy a railway berth above her, when travelling with her. Her very presence is to them a consecration.
To me it has always appeared that she is Sri Ramakrishna’s final word as to the ideal of Indian womanhood. But is she the last of an old order, or the beginning of a new? In her, one sees realised that wisdom and sweetness to which the simplest of women may attain. And yet, to myself, the stateliness of her courtesy and her great open mind are almost as wonderful as her sainthood. I have never known her hesitate, in giving utterance to large and generous judgment, however new or complex might be the question put before her. Her life is one long stillness of prayer. Her whole experience is of theocratic civilisation. Yet she rises to the height of every situation.
Is she tortured by the perversity of any about her? The only sign is a strange quiet and intensity that comes upon her. Does one carry to her some perplexity or mortification born of social developments beyond her ken? With unerring intuition she goes straight to the heart of the matter, and sets the questioner in the true attitude to the difficulty. Or is there need for severity? No foolish sentimentality causes her to waver. The novice whom she may condemn, for so many years to beg his bread, will leave the place within the hour. He who has transgressed her code of delicacy and honour, will never enter her presence again. “Can’t you see,” said Sri Ramakrishna, to one who had erred in some such way, “Can’t you see that the woman in her is wounded? And that is dangerous!”
And yet is she, as one of her spiritual children said of her, speaking literally of her gift of song, “full of music,” all gentleness, all playfulness. And the room wherein she worships, withal, is filled with sweetness.
The Mother can read, and much of her time is passed with her Ramayana. But she does not write. Yet it is not to be supposed that she is an uneducated woman. Not only has she had long and arduous experience in administration, secular and religious; but she has also travelled over a great part of India, visiting most of the chief places of pilgrimage. And it must be remembered that as the wife of Sri Ramakrishna she has had the highest opportunity of personal development that it is possible to enjoy At every moment, she bears unconscious witness to this association with the great. But in nothing perhaps does it speak more loudly than in her instant power to penetrate a new religious feeling or idea.
I first realised this gift in the Holy Mother, on the occasion of a visit that she paid us in recent years, on the afternoon of a certain Easter-Day. Before that, probably, I had always been too much absorbed, when with her, in striving to learn what she represented, to think of observing her in the contrary position. On this particular occasion, however, after going over our whole house, the Mother and her party expressed a desire to rest in the chapel, and hear something of the meaning of the Christian festival. This was followed by Easter music, and singing, with our small French organ. And in the swiftness of her comprehension, and the depth of her sympathy with these resurrection-hymns, unimpeded by any foreignness or unfamiliarity in them, we saw revealed for the first time, one of the most impressive aspects of the great religious culture of Sarada Devi. The same power is seen to a certain extent, in all the women about her, who were touched by the hand of Sri Ramakrishna. But in her, it has all the strength and certainty of some high and arduous form of scholarship.
The same trait came out again, one evening, when, in the midst of her little circle, the Holy Mother asked my Gurubhagini and myself, to describe to her a European wedding. With much fun and laughter, personating now the “Christian Brahmin,” and again the bride and bridegroom, we complied. But we were neither of us prepared for the effect of the marriage vow.
“For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, – till death us do part,” were words that drew exclamations of delight from all about us. But none appreciated them as did the Mother. Again and again she had them repeated to her. “Oh the Dharmmi words! the righteous words!” she said.
Amongst the ladies who lived more or less continuously in the household of Sarada Devi at this time were Gopal’s Mother, Jogin-Mother, Rose-Mother, Sister Lucky, and a number of others. These were all widows, – the first and the last child-widows – and they had all been personal disciples of Sri Ramakrishna when he lived in the temple garden at Dakshineshwar.
Sister Lucky, or Lakshmididi as is the Indian form of her name, was indeed a niece of his, and is still a comparatively young woman. She is widely sought after as a religious teacher and director, and is a most gifted and delightful companion. Sometimes she will repeat page after page of some sacred dialogue, out of one of the Jatras, or religious operas, or again she will make the quiet room ring with gentle merriment, as she poses the different members of the party in groups for religious tableaux. Now it is Kali, and again Saraswati, another time it will be Jagadhattri, or yet again, perhaps, Krishna under his kadamba tree, that she will arrange, with picturesque effect and scant dramatic material.
Amusements like these were much approved of, it is said, by Sri Ramakrishna, who would sometimes himself, according to the ladies, spend hours, in reciting religious plays, taking the part of each player in turns, and making all around him realise the utmost meaning of the prayers and worship uttered in the poetry.
Gopal’s Mother was an old, old woman. She had already been old, fifteen or twenty years before, when she had first walked over, one day at noon, from her cell at Kamarhatty, by the Ganges-side, to see the Master in the garden at Dakshineswar. He received her, so they say, standing at his door, as if he expected her. And she, whose chosen worship had been for many years Gopala, the Babe Krishna, the Christ-Child of Hinduism, – saw Him revealed to her, as in a vision, as she drew near. How true she always was to this! Never once through all the years that followed, did she offer salutation to Sri Ramakrishna, who took her thenceforth as his mother. And never have I known her to speak of our Holy Mother, save as “my daughter-in-law.”
In the months which I spent with the Mother and her ladies, Gopaler-Ma would sometimes be in Calcutta, and sometimes, for weeks together, away at Kamarhatty.
There, a few of us went, one full-moon night, to visit her. How beautiful was the Ganges, as the little boat crept on and on! And how beautiful seemed the long flight of steps rising out of the water, and leading up, through its lofty bathing-ghat, past the terraced lawn, to the cloister-like verandah on the right, where, in a little room, – built probably in the first place for some servant of the great house at its side, – Gopaler-Ma had lived and told her beads, for many a year.
The great house was empty now. And her own little room was absolutely without comforts. Her bed was of stone, and her floor of stone, and the piece of matting she offered her guests to sit on, had to be taken down from a shelf and unrolled. The handful of parched rice and sugar-candy that formed her only store, and were all that she could give in hospitality, were taken from an earthen pot that hung from the roof by a few cords. But the place was spotlessly clean, washed constantly by Ganges-water of her own sturdy carrying. And in a niche near her hand lay an old copy of the Ramayana, and her great horn spectacles, and the little white bag containing her beads. On those beads, Gopaler-Ma had become a saint!
Hour after hour, day after day, for how many years, had she sat, day and night, absorbed in them!
The radiant white moonlight made the trees and flowers outside seem like black shadows, moving and whispering in a dream-world of white marble. But nothing could seem so dreamlike, as, in the midst of our busy hurrying world, the thought of spots like this little cell of Gopaler-Ma, enshrining her silent intensity of peace. “Ah!” said the Swami, when he heard of the visit, “this is the old India that you have seen, the India of prayers and tears, of vigils and fasts, that is passing away, never to return!”
In Calcutta, Gopaler-Ma felt, perhaps a little more than others, the natural shock to habits of eighty years’ standing, at having a European in the house. But once over-ruled, she was generosity itself. Conservative she always was: stubbornly prejudiced, never. As far as the daily life went, there can have been little difference, to her consciousness, between her own hermitage on the Ganges-bank, and the conventual round of the Mother’s household. The days were full of peace and sweetness. Long before dawn, one and another rose quietly and sat on the sleeping-mat, from which sheets and pillows were now removed, beads in hand, and face turned to the wall. Then came the cleansing of the rooms and personal bathing. On great days, the Mother and one other would be carried down to the river in a palkee, and till this arrived, the time was spent in reading the Ramayana.
Then came the Mother’s worship in her own room, with all the younger women busy over lights and incense, Ganges-water and flowers and offerings. Even Gopaler-Ma would aid, as this hour came round, in the preparation of fruits and vegetables. The noon-day meal and the restful afternoon would pass, and again as evening drew on, the servant going by the door with the lighted lamp would break in upon our chat. Groups would break up. Each of us would prostrate before image or picture, and touch the feet of Gopaler-Ma and the Mother, or accompany the latter to where the light was placed, near the basil-plant on the terrace; and fortunate indeed was she who from this was permitted to go, like a daughter, and sit beside the Mother at her evening-meditation, there to learn those salutations to the Guru which formed, with her, the beginning and end of all worship.
The Indian home thinks of itself as perpetually chanting the beautiful psalm of custom. To it, every little act and detail of household method, and personal habit is something inexpressibly precious and sacred, an eternal treasure of the nation, handed down from the past, to be kept unflawed, and passed on to the future. This mode of thought is interwoven with the passionate quest of ideal purity, and with the worship of motherhood, to make the guiding and restraining force of the whole Indian character. The East worships simplicity, and herein lies one of the main reasons why vulgarity is impossible to any Eastern people.
But no one can point out such a secret as this, at the moment when one needs it, for the simple reason that no one can place himself sufficiently outside his own consciousness to find out that others were born, not only with a different equipment of associations, but also with a different instinct as to their value. Fortunately, however, by watching the Swami, and puzzling over the contrasts he unconsciously presented, I was able to discover it, and many things were made easier thereby.
No one was ever more clearly aware that character was everything, or, as he phrased it, that “custom was nothing,” yet none could be more carried away than he by the perfection and significance of all with which he was familiar. To the customs of his own people he brought the eye of a poet, and the imagination of a prophet. He had learnt that ”custom was nothing” when he had met with ideal womanhood and faith amongst polyandrous peoples, or delicacy and modesty adorned in the evening costumes of the West.
But these things had not shaken his reverence for the conventionalities of his own country. The plain white veil of the widow was to him the symbol of holiness, as well as sorrow. The gerrua rags of the sannyasin, the mat on the floor for a bed, the green leaf instead of a plate, eating with the fingers, the use of the national costume, all these things he appeared to regard as a veritable consecration. Each of them whispered to him some secret of spiritual power or human tenderness. And he answered with a passion of loyalty that would achieve for them, if it could, the very conquest of the world; but failing, would think all heaven lay in sharing their defeat.
Thus he taught me also to sing the melodious song, in feeble and faltering fashion, it is true, but yet in some sort of unison with its own great choir, inasmuch as, with them, I learnt to listen through the music, even while following, for the revelation it could bring of a nation’s ideals and a nation’s heart.
Those months between November 1898 and June 1899, were full of happy glimpses. My little school was begun on the day of Kali Puja, and the Mother herself came and performed the opening ceremony of worship. At the end, she gave a whispered blessing, spoken aloud by Rose-Mother. She ‘prayed that the blessing of the great Mother might be upon the school, and the girls it should train be ideal girls.’ And somehow to know that an undertaking is remembered and fraught with prayer in the lofty mind and heart of our Mother, is to me a benediction that makes content. I cannot imagine a grander omen than her blessing, spoken over the educated Hindu womanhood of the future.
The Swami lived commonly at the monastery, five or six miles out of Calcutta, and on the opposite bank of the river. But, on his frequent visits to town, he would almost always send for me to join him, either at the noon or evening meal, and to those who showed me kindness, he would always make a special effort to offer hospitality at Belur.
Even his smallest actions often had a meaning that was not evident to a new eye. I did not dream, when he came to me one day and asked me to cook for him a certain invalid dish, that there was any special intention in the request. And when I heard afterwards that on receiving it, he had himself eaten very little, preferring to share it with those about him, I was only disappointed, being at that time unaware of the almost sacramental nature of this act. It was many months before I learnt to understand the deep forethought and kindness with which he – and also the Holy Mother on his behalf, – was constantly working to make a place for me, as a foreigner, in Hindu society. The aim of his whole life was, as he had said to me, in Kashmir, “to make Hinduism aggressive, like Christianity and Islam,” and this was one of the ways in which he sought to realise that ideal.
The same purpose spoke again in his definition of the aims of the Order of Ramakrishna -“to effect an exchange of the highest ideals of the East and the West, and to realise these in practice” – a definition whose perfection, and special appropriateness to the present circumstances of India, grows on one with time.
To his mind, Hinduism was not to remain a stationary system, but to prove herself capable of embracing and welcoming the whole modern development. She was no congeries of divided sects, but a single living Mother-Church, recognising all that had been born of her, fearless of the new, eager for the love of her children, wherever they might be found, wise, merciful, self-directing, pardoning and reconciling. Above all she was the holder of a definite vision, the preacher of a distinct message amongst the nations. To prove her this, however, he relied on no force but that of character. The building of the temple of his faith was allimportant, it was true; but for it there was infinite time, and with it worked the tendency and drift of things.
For himself, the responsibility was to choose sound bricks. And he chose, not with an eye to the intellect, or power of attraction, or volume of force, of those who were chosen, but always for a certain quality of simple sincerity, and, as it seemed, for that alone. Once accepted, the ideal put before them all was the same; not muktP but renunciation, not self-realisation, but self-abandonment. And this rather, again, on behalf of man, than as an offering to God. It was the human motive that he asserted to his disciples.
May one of them never forget a certain day of consecration, in the chapel at the monastery, when, as the opening step in a life-time, so to speak, he first taught her to perform the worship of Siva, and then made the whole culminate in an offering of flowers at the feet of the Buddha!
“Go thou,” he said, as if addressing in one person each separate soul that would ever come to him for guidance, “and follow Him, who was born and gave His life for others FIVE HUNDRED TIMES, before He attained the vision of the Budddha!”