Gauri Ma’s was a striking personality. She was what the Upanishads ask one to be – strong, courageous and full of determination. She passed through very hard experiences of life, but it is doubtful whether she wavered or faltered for a moment at any time. She did not know what it was to fear. Her very presence radiated strength and would infuse courage and hope into drooping spirits. She was all positive, there was nothing negative in her. She had a dynamism rare even amongst men.
The early name of Gauri Ma Was Mridani. The date of her birth is not definitely known. It was about 1857. Her father, Parvati Charan Chatto-padhyaya, was an orthodox Brahmin belonging to Sibpore near Howrah. Her mother, Giribala Devi, was an erudite and accomplished lady. She composed Bengali songs and wrote Sanskrit hymns which were published in book form. She had also some knowledge of Persian and English. Giribala Devi had a very religious bent of mind and was a person of high spiritual attainments. Bhowanipore, a suburb of Calcutta, was where she usually lived, managing the property of her mother, as the latter had no son. There Mridani also lived with her mother.Mridani was sent to a girls’ school for education.
There she attracted the notice of all because of her remarkable intelligence. But the Christian influence in the school was undermining the faith of the Hindu girls in their own religion. Mridani greatly resented this and as a protest left the school, followed by many other girls. Such great independence of spirit she showed even at an early age. So Mridani could not continue her studies in school; but she had learnt enough Sanskrit to read and understand scriptures like the Gita, the Chandi, the Ramayana, the Maha-bharata, and with her sharp memory she could quote extensively from those books. Afterwards she acquired great proficiency in the knowledge of scriptures.
Mridani imbibed from her mother and grandmother a devotional attitude towards life. She would find great interest in discussions on religious topics, and the performance of worship etc. was a source of great joy to her. In a very unexpected way she became a great devotee of Sri Krishna, though her family deity was the Divine Mother. It is said that a woman devotee from Vrindavan came at this time to Bhowanipore and stayed for a period in the family of Mridani. That lady worshipped Sri Krishna. She was so much charmed with the religious spirit of young Mridani, that of her own accord she gave the latter the image of Sri Krishna which she had been worshipping for a long time. This image Gauri Ma worshipped with great love and devotion till the last day of her life.
The elders of the.family arranged at this time for the marriage of Mridani. But she was unwilling to marry. She openly said that she would marry only that One who does not die. Her guardians were upset at this strange attitude, but thought she might yet be compelled to marry. So all arrangements for the marriage were made, but Mridani fled from the house on the day of the marriage.
In a day or two Mridani was found and brought Backhome. But it was difficult for her to adjust her spiritual life to the family atmosphere. The call of renunciation was too strong in her. So she made a second attempt to flee from the house, but it failed. At the third attempt she succeeded in escaping the vigilance of her relations, and this time no trace could be found of her. Spurred on by her spirit of renunciation, Mridani – a young girl in her teens – plunged into the unknown, with only God as her guide and help. When one ponders over the full significance of the step she thus took, one wonders how bold God had made her!
She went to Hardwar after seeing many sacred places on the way. She now began to wear ochre robes, considering herself a Sannyasini. She went up to Kedamath and Badrinarayan – two important places of pilgrimage in the Himalayas – and then came down to the plains. Her life, at this time was full of thrilling experiences. In the beginning she found it difficult to adapt herself to the hardships which she had to face, but gradually she got accustomed to them. Lest her beauty should attract notice, she cut off her hair.
Sometimes she would smear herself with mud or ashes. Now and then she would dress herself like, a monk to hide her identity. For nine or ton years she passed her days in Tapasya and in visiting many sacred places.
While at Puri, Gauri Ma came in contact with Balaram Bose, a great devotee of Sri Raina-krishna. At his instance Gauri Ma visited Dakshi-neswar. She was charmed with the lift? and teachings of the Master, and placed herself in his tutelage. After this she began to live at Dakshineswar and in Calcutta. When at Dakshineswar she would stay with the Holy Mother at the Nahabat, and tried to be of utmost service to the Master. The Holy Mother was shy and had not seen the outside world; Gauri Ma was bold and had experience of the world. Gauri Ma, therefore?, was a source of great strength to the Mother.
Gauri Ma looked upon the Master as Sri Chaitanya reborn. One day, while in the presence of the Master, she had the experience of divine ecstasy similar to that experienced by the followers of Sri Chaitanya under the spiritual influence of the latter.
At the time of the passing away of Sri Kama-krishna, Gauri Ma was in Vrindavan engaged in hard spiritual practices. When the sad news reached her, she got a rude shock, especially as the Master had inquired about her during his last days. Gauri Ma now applied herself to Tapasya more intensely. After two or three years she went again to the Himalayas and practised Tapasya in various places. Of all the places of pilgrimage she preferred those in the Himalayan region, and also Vrindavan, Puri and Navadwip.
The energy which Gauri Ma devoted in her early days to fulfilling the desire for personal salvation was applied in her later days to the welfare of the many. The last forty years or so of her life were devoted to the cause of women in Bengal. With her wide experience of travel, intense Sadhana and deep culture, she was eminently fitted for the task. Once Sri Ramakrishna gave her a hint that she would have to work for the cause of women. But she was not willing at that time to give up her love for Tapasya and stay in the noise and bustle of a city. Fate, however, forced her.
Gauri Ma, in the course of her wanderings throughout the country, saw the deplorable condition of women. Slowly a desire arose in her mind to do something for them. So in the nineties of the last century she started an Ashrama at Barrackpore near Calcutta to provide shelter for some helpless girls and women, with arrangements for their secular and spiritual training. From this small beginning has grown the present Sri Saradcshwari Ashrama and School, situated in North Calcutta – which is one of the most important institutions in the city for the education of Hindu women. To develop this institution Gauri Ma had to undergo strenuous labour. She had to go about collecting funds, do household duties and look after the training of the inmates. She visited many parts of Bengal, Bihar and Assam to preach her ideas about female education as well as to enlist sympathy for her institution. The present Saradeshwari Ashrama is a monument of her Herculean labour, steadfast perseverance and great organising ability. She built it up literally out of nothing – with no funds, no resources, no public sympathy when it was started. Gradually when people began to feel the influence of her personality, help started to come in. But Gauri Ma depended not so much on outside help as on the strength of her cause and the blessings of the Master. She saw the miserable failure of the modern educational system, especially of that for women, and wanted to evolve in her Ashrama a form of education best suited to our girls. She was very particular that while acquiring English education the girls should not lose the Indian background. The Institution is at present run by a band of women who received training under Gauri Ma and dedicated their lives to this cause.
Hundreds of persons – men and women – came under the spiritual influence of Gauri Ma. Wherever she would go, there would be great enthusiasm to see and hear her. From her words people would get new hopes and aspirations.
After a life of strenuous Sadhana aud harder labour in the service of others she passed away on February 28, 1938, at the advanced age of more than eighty. But she has left behind an example which will not let people forget her.