EVERY great personage delivers his message partly through his life and partly through his teachings. No doubt they are mutually complementary, but it seems that in certain spiritual types the message delivered in terms of life is more significant than the message conveyed through words. The Holy Mother belongs to this category.
In the account of her life has been described at length what she teaches man by her life, and the ‘ Conversations ‘ published in the next part contains the teachings she conveyed through her words. Here only a bare analysis of her message is given with a view to drawing one’s attention to its essential contents.
Any great spiritual movement and the personalities inaugurating it have two sets of teachings, interdependent, no doubt, yet each having its distinctiveness. One is the cult side of the teaching and the other the cultural or philosophical side of it. The first is centred in personalities, and the second in principles. The cult side of the teaching consists of the beliefs
and devotional attitudes concerning the personality from whom the movement started, while the cultural aspect is formed of the philosophical and theological teachings of these personalities. Thus the cultural side of Sri Krishna’s message is contained in the philosophy of non-attached activity preached in the Gita, and the cult side in the peculiar theory of devotion centring round him. In the case of the Buddha, the former lies in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, and the latter in the theory of Buddhahood, which developed into the Buddhology of the Mahayana system. The cultural aspect of Christ’s message is embodied in the Sermon on the Mount, and the cult aspect in the doctrine of his Sonship. In the teachings of Mohammed, the cultural side is represented by his teaching on the unity of God, and the cult side by his claim to Prophethood.
Now both cult and culture are equally important for a religious movement; for its health and vitality depend on maintaining the balance between these two aspects of its spiritual content. The cult is the heart of a religious movement, and the culture the framework of bones and muscles constituting its body. The cult, like the heart of an organism, is the unseen source of vigour in a religious movement. On the other hand, culture, like the body of a creature, is the form through which this vigour becomes expressive, attractive and significant. Without the cultural aspect, cult becomes mere sentimentalism or fanaticism – in the former case, bearing no significance to the life around, and in the latter, becoming a positive menace to society. So also without the cult and the devotional spirit generated by it, mere culture degenerates into feeble intellectualism or vapid cosmopolitanism, devoid of that dynamism and spirit of self-sacrifice so essential for making any religious movement expressive and significant.
In regard to the spiritual movement inaugurated by Sri Ramakrishna, too, this twofold division into cult and culture holds good. The cult side of the teaching may briefly be formulated thus: (a) Sri Ramakrishna is a divine incarnation who embodies in himself the spiritual consciousness of the past incarnations and of all expressions of the Deity (b) He is a living presence whom a devotee can ‘ contact ‘ through love and discipline, (c) His life and personality have opened a new way of salvation ; for by personal devotion and service to him one becomes a participant in the spiritual consciousness he has created, and this expedites one’s spiritual evolution just as.a river hurries to its destination an object that has entrusted itself to its current.
The culture side of it is embodied in the great ideals exemplified in the life of Sri Ramakrishna and his apostles, in the teachings of the Master recorded by his disciples, and in the Neo-Vedanta or science of religion preached by Swami Vive-kananda, reconciling the varied aspects of the spiritual heritage that has come down through the different religions of the world.
To get the right perspective of the message of the Holy Mother, it has to be viewed in the light of this analysis. The message of every one of the great disciples of Sri Ramakrishna represents both the cult and the culture aspects of the movement, but the proportion may differ. Thus Swami Vivekananda is the most illustrious representative of the culture aspect, his life-work and discourses being the most important factors that have made the life and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna significant to the generality of men who are not his professed followers. The Swami was an ardent believer in the cult, too, but his conviction in this respect did not find expression in his preachings. The Holy Mother, on the other hand, is the greatest representative of the cult side of the movement. In making this statement, it is not implied that she made no contribution to the cultural side. In fact she has made very valuable contributions to it, as will be evident from what follows. But the distinctiveness and originality of her message consist in that she was the first person to exemplify the principles of the cult which has given to the Ramakrishna Movement whatever vitality it possesses. In that sense she may truly be described as the Sakti (Power) behind the movement.
Her contribution to the cult may briefly be stated as follows: (1) The central idea that forms the motive force behind the Ramakrishna Movement is the notion that an aspirant’s spiritual potentialities are unfolded by service of Sri Ramakrishna through dedicated work done in his name and for the advancement of his mission on earth. Although it was only in later days that this service took an organizational shape, the inception of the idea goes Backto the lifetime of the Master when his immediate disciples served him in flesh and blood. Of them all, the Holy Mother is the pioneer and the best exemplar of this new form of spiritual practice. (2) All through her life she bore witness to the fact that the Master is a living presence. The way in which she visualized him when she made her daily offerings and the manner in which she had vivid visions of him in all critical situations, are the assurances we get from her life in regard to this important aspect of the cult.
Thus it is no exaggeration to say that the cult associated with Sri Ramakrishna is based no less on the experiences of her life than on the spiritual power manifested in a unique manner in his person.
Next comes the cultural aspect of her message. It is an aspect in which even those who do not care for the cult will be interested. Her teachings in this respect are to be gleaned more from her actions and behaviour in life than from any formal discourses or lectures. She was born in humble circumstances and had no schooling of any kind. She was therefore no intellectual or an exponent of any system of philosophy. But her life was rooted in a cultural soil, the quality of which she exhibited as a glorious character and as steadfast devotion to certain ideals. In her life more than in the life of any of the Master’s disciples, or even of the Master himself, we find an illustration of the ideal of living in the world but yet being not of it. The most noted of the Master’s disciples were monks and though they concerned themselves with preaching, philanthropic activities and administrative work, they all lived outside the family. Even the Master, though married, had nothing to do with the family, except for the very pure and tender relationship he had with the Holy Mother. But in the Holy Mother we find the unique example of one who lived in the circle of her relatives and bore the worries of such a life to the fullest extent, but at the same time kept intact her spirit of renunciation, discrimination and devotion.
The uniqueness of her life, however, consists in that she was wife, nun and mother at the same time. These three situations in life may at first look conflicting, but the Holy Mother harmonized them in her life. She was wedded to Sri Rama-krishna at the age of five, and till the end of the Master’s life she kept company with him and served him to the best of her ability like any Hindu wife. But a woman who does this alone and keeps aloof from the intellectual and spiritual life of her husband, either due to deficiencies of endowment or differences of temperament, cannot be a companion to him in a true sense. How the Holy Mother was a flawless pattern of wifehood in this respect also, how she could easily grasp and fully participate in the spiritual ideals of her husband, and how she made herself fit to continue his work of spiritual ministry after his death – are aspects of her life that have been dealt with at length in these pages. If to be a companion in life to her husband is the fundamental duty of a wife, the Holy Mother has set the highest example of it, and that at a level where such companionship means also the pursuit of lofty spiritual ideals. Being the wife of a spiritual teacher who remained a Brahmachari (celibate) for life and insisted on celibacy as an essential discipline of spiritual life, she remained a nun in spite of her married condition. As such she had no children of the body, but she had such a large number of devotees and disciples, to whom she was a mother and much more, and in relation to them she displayed all the love and sweetness which a woman reveals when she receives fulfilment as a mother. In this respect the Holy Mother is a unique figure • in world’s history. There have been great wives, great mothers and great nuns, but few. if any, who have been all these at the same time. She, therefore, reveals a new possibility in the field of womanly character.
It is this aspect of the Holy Mother that all have to remember when she is spoken of as the last word
of Sri Ramakrishna on the ideal of womanhood. To follow in her footsteps a woman need not get married at the age of five, or observe Purdah, or remain illiterate for life. These features are the mere accidents of her life, not the essentials of the ideal she represented. But a woman who proposes to follow her must necessarily be a real companion, a real participant, in the intellectual and spiritual life of her husband, have a maternal tenderness in her relation with all, and be austere and godly in her life. The Holy Mother demonstrates that wifely devotion is possible without the attraction of sex, that maternal love can be manifested without oneself bearing children, and that the highest godliness can be cultivated even in the midst of the common avocations of life. Especially today, when changed social conditions are forcing many women out of their traditional role as housewives and approximating them to masculine standards, the Holy Mother reminds them that even in doing so woman need not lose her soul but express her latent possibilities in a wider relationship.
In her conversations with disciples she has left behind a valuable body of instructions, emphasizing certain aspects of the cultural side of the movement. The ‘ Conversations ‘ published in the next part set them forth in detail. Here only a brief summary of their salient features is given.
In her teachings she presupposed all the important doctrines of the Vedanta, but never entered into the subtleties of metaphysics or the theoretical exposition of any particular philosophical doctrine. She admitted that in the fullness of one’s spiritual evolution, one reached a state in which all manifested phenomena were realized as illusory and even the idea of God was transcended. ” In course of time, she once said, ” one does not feel even the existence of God. After attaining Jnana (wisdom), one sees that gods and deities are all Maya (illusion). Everything comes into existence in time and also disappears in time . . . God and such things really disappear.”
While thus admitting the truth of thenon-dualistic goal, she never compromised on the question of the absolute supremacy of the path of devotion in all spiritual striving. Thus when a disciple once spoke to her complacently about the ultimate unreality of God, creation and the rest, she said in reply, ” Narendra once said to me, ‘ Mother, the knowledge that explains away the lotus feet of the Guru is nothing but ignorance. What is the validity of knowledge if it proves that the Guru is nought? Give up this dry discussion, this hodge-podge of philosophy. Who has been able to know God by reasoning ? Even sages like Suka and Vyasa are at best like big ants trying to carry away a few grains of sugar from a large heap.”
Thus the path of devotion formed the principal subject of her teaching. She always impressed on aspirants the need of looking upon God as one’s
‘ own ‘ and of surrendering oneself unconditionally to Him. For spiritual illumination ultimately depended on His grace alone, and all spiritual practices, which men generally performed for attaining Him, were at best only contributive factors, being helpful in the purification of the mind. For this reason she often spoke of God as possessing the nature of a child. A child might not give a thing to a person who asked for it a hundred times, whereas it might give it away to another even at the first request. In the same way the grace of God was not conditioned by anything.
She did not, however, mean thereby to minimize the importance of self-effort. ” Everything, no doubt, happens only by the will of God,” she used to say, ” yet man must work, because God expresses His will through the actions of man. Again, all the facilities that one got in life were determined by one’s past actions, and, besides, by one’s present actions one can counteract one’s past actions.” What she sought to impress on the devotees was that they should neither overestimate nor underestimate the value of spiritual practices. It was wrong if one thought that just as goods could be purchased from the market for a price, God could be attained by the power of one’s spiritual practices like Japa and meditation. For ultimately it was the result of divine grace alone. If, however, there was any condition in grace, it was pure devotion. So she said, ” Neither Mantra nor scripture is of any avail. Pure loving devotion alone can win everything.”
But this kind of devotion, according to her, was the most difficult thing to attain ; for it could not be had so long as there was the slightest trace of worldly desire in the mind. Only Isvarakotis (aspirants born with divine tendency) possessed it in abundance, and others attained to it to the extent they freed themselves from all worldly desires. For this reason, she once said that God might give salvation to anyone, but He seldom conferred devotion on men.
Spiritual practices, according to her, were useful in bestowing this purity of mind so necessary for the dawn of devotion. They cut asunder the ties of past Karma and helped to subdue the power of the senses. As the wind scattered the clouds, the Name of God destroyed worldliness. And again, just as by handling flowers or pieces of sandal-wood one’s palms caught the fragrance of those objects, so divine contemplation helped one to mould one’s mind in His image.
Hence, while maintaining the importance of grace, she always insisted on the value of spiritual practices regularly and patiently undergone. ” Don’t relax practice,” she used to say, ” simply because you do not get His vision. Does an angler catch a big carp every day the moment he sits with the rod ? He has to wait and wait, and many a time he is disappointed.”
She seemed to have attached special importance to spiritual experiences that came as a result of strenuous practice. ” God-realization”, she said, ” can be had at any time by the grace of God, but there is a difference between it and what comes in the fullness of time, as between mangoes that ripen in the proper season and those that ripen in the month of Jyaishta (May-June). The latter are not very sweet.” She also insisted that the normal course of spiritual progress was gradual. Perhaps one had practised Japa and austerities in one life ; in the next life one’s spiritual mood deepened thereby, and in the life following, still more and so on.
Among spiritual disciplines, she stressed Japa as most important. According to her, initiation with the Mantra purified the body. God, she said, had given fingers in order that they might be blessed by counting Japa. An athlete was in the habit of carrying a calf in his arms from its very birth. He did it every day and as a consequence he gradually developed the strength necessary to carry it without effort even after it had become a full-grown animal. Exactly similar, she used to say, was the nature of the spiritual progress one made, gradually and unobserved, through the practice of Japa. By continually making Japa thousands of times, one’s mind automatically got steadied and absorbed in meditation and one’s Kundalini (spiritual power) was ultimately roused. When a pure mind performed Japa, the holy word bubbled itself up spontaneously from within without any effort on its part. One who reached this state attained success in Japa.
Along with the practice of Japa and meditation, she advocated the importance of healthy altruistic works. For men ordinarily could not do spiritual practices all the twenty-four hours of the day; so work performed with a spiritual motive was the best thing to fill up the gap. Without that there was even positive danger ; for an idle mind was proverbially the devil’s workshop. So she favoured the type of altruistic activities undertaken by the monks of the Ramakrishna Order.
She always advised spiritual aspirants to be patient in times of difficulties and troubles. For misery, she said, was the symbol of God’s compassion. In place of getting worried, an aspirant should pray to the Divine with tears in his eyes when he wanted illumination or found himself faced with doubts and difficulties. She impressed on all aspirants, whether householder or Sannyasin, the need of being continent – if they were really serious about their spiritual life. For to have non-attachment to the body and its pleasures was the sine qua non of spiritual life. ” Today the human body is, tomorrow it is not; and even its short span of life is beset with pain and misery ” – discriminating thus, one should cultivate a spirit of dispassion and renunciation, and then the true love of God dawned in one’s mind. She put all her ideas on spiritual life in a clinching form when she said, ” He who is able to renounce all for His sake is a living god. Even the decrees of fate are cancelled if one takes refuge in God. Fate strikes off with her own hand what she has written about such a person. What does one obtain by realizing God ? Does he develop a pair of horns ? No. He gains discrimination between the real and the unreal, gets spiritual consciousness, and passes beyond life and death.”