BIRTH AND EDUCATION
SRI SARADA DEVI,1 the Holy Mother, was born as the eldest child of her devoted parents on the 22nd of December, 1853. Born and brought up in the rural atmosphere of Jayrambati, her early training was just like that of any poor village girl of India belonging to the higher castes. Ever since she was a little girl, she helped her mother in cooking, and often when the latter could not attend to it for unavoidable reasons, she used to take her place in the kitchen. Referring to these experiences of her early days, the Holy Mother used to say, ” I cooked and my father helped me to take down the big rice pot from the oven.” As to the other types of work she was accustomed to do, she said, ” In my childhood I sometimes used to go into neck-deep water and cut grass for the cows. I carried tiffin to the labourers in the field. During one season the paddy was destroyed by pests, and I had to collect the grain from one field after another.”
1 The name given to her according to astrological calculation was Thakurmani.
As a girl she was too serious and self-composed to give herself up to childish games like others of her
age. Aghormani, a companion and playmate of her girlhood, used to say of her : ” Mother was very simple in her habits. She would never quarrel with anybody while playing. When others fell out, she would mediate and establish cordial relations. In play she used to personate herself either as the mistress or governess of the house. Among her playthings there were some dolls, but she was more interested in the clay images of Kali and Lakshmi which she devoutly worshipped with flowers and Bilva leaves. Once on the occasion of the Jagad-dhatri Puja, she was meditating on the Goddess with such deep concentration and sense of identification with Her, that the sight of it struck awe in the mind of Ramhriday Ghoshal of Haldepukur.”
Much of her time was taken up with looking after her own younger brothers. Sometimes she went with them to the village school, but since a literary education was not considered quite a necessary accomplishment for a village girl in those days, no one seemed to have taken any trouble to teach her or ensure her regular attendance at school. She had, however, a keen desire to study, and in later days learned to read by her own efforts. Referring to this, she said, ” Lakshmi1 and I used to read the Bengali primer a little at Kamarpukur. My nephew Hriday 9 snatched the book away from me.
He said, 1 Women should not learn to read and write. Are you preparing yourself in this way to read novels and dramas later on ? ‘ But Lakshmi did not give up the book. She belonged to the family ; therefore she held on to her book. I too secretly had a copy bought for one anna. Lakshmi used to attend the village school. On returning home she would teach me. But I really improved my capacity to read only long after at Dakshineswar. The Master (i.e, Sri Ramakrishna) was staying then at Syampukur for treatment. I was all alone. A girl belonging to the family of Bhava Mukherji used to come to the temple-garden to bathe in the Ganges. Now and then she would spend a long time with me. She used to give me lessons and afterwards examine me. And in return, I would give her a large quantity of greens, vegetables and other articles of food that were sent to me from the temple-garden.”
Though she knew quite well how to read, she never mastered the art of writing. In later days a -disciple wanted to have an autograph from her, and she agreed in a way. But in a vain effort to write her own name, she scrawled and scrawled, and being unable to produce anything readable, gave up the attempt.
It should not be understood from the above that the rural surroundings of her early days did not provide her with any facilities for education. In India, culture has never been identified with literacy.
The Indian mind has devised methods of its own for the training of the head and the heart and for an unconscious assimilation of the nation’s highest ideals, without unduly emphasizing the pedagogue’s art. The religious life of the family, the atmosphere of self-abnegation and service in which girls grow up, the temple festivals, the recitals of epics, village dramas, devotional narratives, – these and several other factors of a like nature provide even women, who live a comparatively isolated life, with facilities for developing a unified character undistracted by the conflicting thoughts and ideals that flow into* the minds of the literate through the productions of commercialized publishing houses.
The Holy Mother had plenty of opportunity to receive the training that such an environment provided. As we have seen, Jayrambati and its neighbourhood were not without religious festivals-Yatra performances (a form of devotional drama)* were frequent in those times, and she had occasion to attend many of them. In her instructions to disciples the Holy Mother used to quote verses and aphorisms that had been imprinted on her memory by attending such performances in her early days. What was more, the care and contact of her poor but cultured and devoted parents were an educational facility of no mean importance. That the Holy Mother was powerfully impressed by them is plain from the great regard and appreciation with which she always spoke of them in later days.
And above all, she had, in her early girlhood, the rare good fortune of coming in contact with a great soul in the most intimate relationship of a woman’s life – a contact which in time helped her to understand and realize the purpose of education in the highest sense.
A niece of Sri Ramakxishna.
* A nephew of Sri Ramakrishna and a constant companion and attendant of his for a long time.