In 1859, a five-year-old village girl named Saradamani Mukhopadhyaya was married to Gadadhar Chattopadhyay, a twenty-three-year-old Hindu priest known today as Ramakrishna Paramhansa and worshipped as an incarnation of God. Saradamani would see her husband for brief visits until she moved in with him at his temple near Kolkata, India when she was eighteen or nineteen. She was in the background during their lives together, nearly invisible to the outside world due to the Hindu custom of purdah, the sequestering of wives from public view. When he died, she was expected to cut off her hair, dress herself in plain white clothing, and nevermore adorn herself with jewelry. The rest of her life would be served out in penance for remaining alive after her man had died.
I have a colorized photograph of Sarada Devi, the name by which Saradamani is popularly known. She sits, legs crossed, in a white sari with thin red trim on its border. Her hair is long and loose over one shoulder, and she wears a thick gold bracelet on each wrist. The original black-and-white photograph was taken years after the death of her husband. But the sari, hair, and bangles in my picture carry the same message: she was not a widow.
After her husband died, Sarada claimed that Ramakrishna told her that she was not a widow because he was not actually dead – after all, he was God. She kept her hair long, wore a thin red trim on her sari, and continued to wear her gold bracelets. Initially, she was criticized for not following protocol. But eventually, she gained renown as a guru and a living goddess.
In other pictures of Sarada Devi, her head is covered, so her hair is not fully visible. She appears at times to be wearing a solid white sari with no apparent trim. But whenever her forearms are visible, she is consistently wearing thick, rope-styled bangles that appear to be the same ones in the image given to me.
For the purposes of this chapter, I will focus primarily on narratives, written by contemporaries of Sarada Devi, that are accepted by religious communities dedicated to furthering the teachings of Sarada and her husband. Those stories have have shaped and sustained an international community of devotees for over a century. Those same stories describe Sarada as a woman who derived power from her relationship with her husband and his companions, and who transformed reality by declaring an act of truth concerning her non-widowhood. The narrative of Sarada, the humble wife, is intertwined with the counter-narrative of Sarada, the Living Goddess who did as she saw fit.
I love the hagiographies of Shri Ma (Holy Mother, a title given to Sarada Devi by her devotees) that reveal the Deity hidden within the maternal figure of a simple Bengali villager. I also respect the work of scholars who try to find the woman behind the goddess, who situate Sarada as an oppressed wife trapped within the social realities of nineteenth century Bengal. But I seek neither woman nor Goddess. I want to understand the power of her gold bracelets, and how they contributed to a counter-narrative that continues to trouble and bless those who are drawn to her.
The Madman’s Religion(s)
We will first examine Ramakrishna’s religious expression and the spiritual currents of nineteenth-century Bengal that inform it, then explore Sarada’s narrative within those currents in search of a counter-narrative, beginning with her marriage as a child bride and ending with her life as a spiritual leader of her God-husband’s growing community.
The official story of Ramakrishna is that of a holy man whose bizarre behavior gained him notoriety, then acceptance, as a God-intoxicated saint and an incarnation of God/Goddess in his own right. During the course of his search for Brahman, the Universal Principle that informs reality, Ramakrishna engaged in different practices that were considered extreme, such as eating filth, worshipping a cat, behaving as a monkey, and dressing as a woman. He was primarily devoted to Kali, the fanged, skull bedecked, scantily clothed, buxom goddess with long, thick, loose hair. Kali was also the focus of Ramakrishna’s duties as the chief priest in the Dakshineshwar Kali Temple near Kolkata, India. But devotion to (and identification with) Kali was not his only means of spiritual expression. Another important practice for Ramakrishna and his disciples was Vaishnava kirtan: singing, dancing, and trance during services dedicated to Krishna. Kirtan comes out of the Bhakti (devotional) tradition attributed to a sixteenth century Bengali saint, Chaitanya, who was especially devoted to Krishna, the blue, boyish, seductive flute-playing avatar of Vishnu.
Bengal in the days of Chaitanya was a fertile place for multi-religious devotion. Ascetics roamed the region, practicing austerities and preaching the scandalous secrets of Tantra in which rules restricting sexual activity and consumption of forbidden things (such as meat, wine, and filth) were symbolically or actually broken in order to find God in everything. Muslims had been in Bengal for centuries, and with Islam came Sufi singing and dancing in sama rituals that invoked the many names and attributes of Allah, preached universal brotherhood, understood trance as a means for annihilation of the soul as it merged with Allah, and claimed madness as a sign of devotion to God-as-Beloved. In the article, “Sufism (Bengali)” in the Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature, Visvanath Chatterjee describes the influence of Sufism on Bengali literature and religious culture:
The sufi [sic] doctrine reached Bengali literature mostly through some of the Muslim writers of Bengal… There appeared a number of Muslim writers who wrote Vaishnava lyrics in Bengali… The impact of sufi doctrine in Bengali was not limited to the sphere of poetry. It touched the lives of the people and influenced the “sadhana” of religious men… It is small wonder, therefore, that the sufi [sic] element can be traced even in the Bengali school of Vaishnavism. It may be seen in the faith and practice of the greatest devotee and religious leader, Sri Chaitanya (1486-1533). One of Chaitanya’s close associates, Haridas, was a sufi before he embraced the Vaishnava faith… What is even more remarkable is the fact that the impact of the sufi doctrine is found even in the great religious classic, Krishnada’s Chaitanya-charitamrita (Nectar of the life of Chaitanya, c. 1585), the standard biography of Chaitanya and a landmark in Bengali literature.
Chaitanya’s call for the removal of caste distinctions between his followers and his acceptance of Buddhist and Muslim devotees were scandalous in the eyes of orthodox Hindus, but were in accordance with Sufis’ notion of universal brotherhood and tolerance of other faiths. The Sufi counter-narrative of Lover and Beloved, understood as wine-like intoxication and allegorically represented in certain sex acts (extramarital affairs between men and women, sex between men), is similar in some ways Buddhist-Hindu Tantra in the celebration of the forbidden. Chaitanya’s bhakti has its own forbidden sexual side in celebrating the erotic dalliances of Krishna with female cowherders, especially with Krishna’s favorite, Radha. Chaitanya saw himself as the union between Krishna and Radha. He dressed as both Radha and Krishna so he could do women’s and men’s devotion, and crossdressing also aided his (and his companions’) efforts to take on the role of Radha in their adoration of and lust for Krishna. Ramakrishna continued the tradition – like Chaitanya, Ramakrishna was both god and goddess – and even dressed at various times as a woman:
In order to obtain [Radha’s] grace, Sri Ramakrishna requested Mathur [the temple proprietor] to get him a woman’s dress and jewelry… Mathur got him a Benarasi sari, a gauzy dupatta, a gharara and a choli. Sri Ramakrishna admired the clothes, dressed himself as a woman in the sari, gave a coy look, minced his steps and fanned himself with a chamara. Much to the amusement of the people, Ramakrishna behaved as a woman, combed the hair of other women, gathered flowers, wore anklets and went about like a wealthy matron joining the other women when he entered the temple. Mathur, who was on the side reserved for men, was not able to recognize Sri Ramakrishna.
His identification with the feminine extended into his notion of himself as a mother to his disciples. He was even known to breast-feed some of his male followers.
Considering that Bengal had been a testing ground for interreligious exchange for centuries before Ramakrishna, his eclectic approach to the quest for transcendence (which included brief conversions to Christianity and Islam) is not so surprising. Not only did he become a woman, he also accepted a few female disciples and appears to have initiated one of them as sannyasini (nun). That same openness to different traditions and breaking from tradition is apparent in the work of Ramakrishna’s chief disciple, Vivekananda, who presented his master’s teachings as friendly to all religions and spread the word of Ramakrishna to Europe and America. Vivekananda also encouraged women to join the movement, and he was an important ally of Sarada, promoting her as the Universal Mother and the bedrock of the Ramakrishna movement. Nevertheless, recognition of Sarada as the Universal Mother is contingent on Ramakrishna as her guru, just as recognizing the validity of Julian of Norwich’s theology depended on Jesus as its source. But Julian is most certainly not Jesus, even as she sought to suffer as he had suffered. Sarada, on the other hand, was known to temporarily become her husband, and like Ramakrishna, Sarada was a mortal who is Kali, the Universal Goddess. Nevertheless, there are some important distinctions between wife and husband. Unlike her husband, she did not have to change genders in order to act as the Mother’s handmaid, to understand Radha’s feminine longing for Krishna, or to become Kali, neither did Sarada crossdress.
The Madman’s Wife
Official accounts of Ramakrishna’s ventures into cross-dressing are framed as expressions of his devotion to the multiple forms of Brahman, the Eternal One manifested in all gods. Likewise, the catatonic states that hit him were mystical moments when he merged with Brahman. If these states were symptoms of a mental disorder, it was a divinely mandated one. The blessings of such sacred insanity notwithstanding, his family was not always happy with his antics, and considered his marriage to Sarada a means to bring him back to mundane reality.
Sarada was betrothed to Ramakrishna when she was five and he was twenty-two. Both of them were Bengals of the Brahmin caste (the priestly and technically the highest status) but from poor families, so gold jewelry was borrowed for the wedding ceremony. Afterwards, the groom’s family tried to remove the precious items from the little girl, who wept and resisted their attempts. Her husband suggested said that they wait until his child-bride was asleep, then remove the ornaments.
At the time of their marriage (1859), Ramakrishna was the chief priest of the Dakshineswar Temple, a position with a measure of financial security and social standing for him and his household. Dakshineshwar Temple is a large complex beside the Ganges River. Within the complex is a large, nine-domed Kali temple in the center, with smaller temples to the west (with steps leading down to the Ganges River) and to the north of the Kali temple. The complex was built by Rani Rasmani, a wealthy, low-caste widow. Rasmani was a champion of the poor and powerless – she was especially famous for defending the rights of fishers on the stretch of the Ganges beside which the temple complex sat. But because of her caste, none of the local brahmins would consecrate the temple complex. Ramakrishna’s brother Ramakumar came up with a solution: dedicate the grounds to a brahmin. Rasmani then asked Ramakumar to bless the complex and become Kali’s priest in the main temple. Initially, Ramakrishna was like the other brahmins who would not work with Rasmani because of her low caste. But he came around to the open-mindedness of his brother, at least enough to function as the chief priest in her temple complex when Ramakumar died. For her part, Rasmani stood with Ramakrishna when patrons of the temple wanted to dismiss him because they thought he was too crazy to function as its priest.
When Sarada was around eighteen years of age, she travelled to his temple to see for herself whether her husband was insane. Ramakrishna welcomed her warmly, and she stayed with him for eight months, secure in the knowledge that he was not crazy. This marked the beginning of their married life together. During these eight months, Ramakrishna and Sarada worked out their relationship. She assured him she would never try to tempt him to have sex, and she was allowed to be physically close to him. He performed Sodasi Puja, formally worshipping her as the Universal Mother, within weeks of her arrival. But the closeness they shared at the beginning of their lives together was also the sisterly intimacy of female devotees: “I was in the state of the handmaiden for a long time,” he said. “I used to dress in women’s clothing and wear jewelry and a scarf… If I didn’t do this, how could’ve I brought my wife and lived with her for eight months? The two of us were Handmaids of the Mother!”
Ramakrishna may have regarded Sarada as a fellow handmaid, but his identification with the feminine did not require that he give up the privileges he had as a man in eighteenth century Bengal society, neither did he liberate Sarada from the restrictions imposed upon her as a Brahmin wife. His acknowledgment of Sarada’s divine motherhood did not keep him from expecting that she follow the strict taboos of purdah, the Hindu tradition of wife-sequestering. She refrained from showing her face in public or associating with men other than her kinfolk – and she was not upset at having to do so. Despite Sarada’s desire to be in his presence, spending time with Sarada after those initial eight months (unless she was serving him food or occasionally rubbing oil on his body before his bath) was not a priority for Ramakrishna, who was focused on his male disciples. When she was at Dakshineswar, Sarada was restricted to a small area in a building on the temple grounds. According to Swami Nikhilananda,
[Sarada lived] in a small room in the northern side of the temple compound, called the Nahabat, from where she could get a view of the room in which the Master lived… In later days the Holy Mother would, while recounting the experiences of her early days, tell her nieces, “You won’t be able to live in such a room even for a day.”
Sarada’s life with Ramakrishna was not at all what a wife should expect from her spouse. Not every husband would worship his wife as the Supreme Goddess, then ignore her when in the ubiquitous presence of his disciples, all the while refusing to have sex with her and eliminating her chance to bear children of her own. Ramakrishna praised his wife for making herself invisible to the outside world, and the praise was not flattering. “I was extremely concerned about her when she first came here,” he said. “She came from the country and did not know about the ways of city life. I thought people would criticize her movements and we should all be hurt. But she is so wonderful that she has hidden herself completely from view.” Sarada would go out to the Ganges to bathe, and to the courtyard to converse with other women, but only when she would not be observed by the general public. Much of her time at Dakshineswar Temple was spent in in the Nahabat, cooking for her husband and his disciples, and watching them sing and dance through a small hole in the bamboo barrier that cut her off from the daily goings-on of the temple. She also had problems with some of the people who surrounded her husband. Nevertheless, she recounted those days fondly:
Mother: You have seen the Nahabat. Have you not? I used to stay in the lower room of that Nahabat. Under the stairs I cooked.
Sister Sudhira: Even now, the stairs on the front side are walled over with matting. Under the stairs there is a hearth. And the baskets of the fisherwomen are left there in that same verandah of yours… Well, Mother, how could you live in that room? Did you not have problems?
Mother: The problem was only regarding the morning ablutions and bath. The want of proper toilet arrangements was another. It affected my health. And those fisherwomen were my companions. They came to bathe in the Ganga, and keeping their baskets in the verandah, would get into the water. How much they used to chat with me!… I used to hear the fishermen sing while catching fish at night. How many devotees used to come to the Master! How much singing! … The Holy Mother looked at Yogin-Ma and said, “How blissful it was then, Yogin!” Saying this, she became a little absent-minded. Yogin-Ma now remarked, “What an intense bliss it was – can it be described in words? The soul is thrilled to think of it even today.”
For all the joys of conversations with fisherwomen and the songs of fishermen, there would also be the smell of fish from the baskets left on her veranda. But the conversation also shows what little regard Sarada had for caste – as a Brahmin woman, she had no problem with calling low-caste fisherwomen her companions, the same fisherwomen (and fishermen) who benefited from the compassion shown on them by the Widow Rasmani who built the temple complex that became Sarada and Ramakrishna’s home.
Sarada stayed in the background while Ramakrishna was alive, performing her own religious devotions in private. But Ramakrishna found time to prepare her to continue his work after he died by teaching her mantras and spiritual disciplines. In time, she also took on some of his divine madness. Yogin-Ma, a female disciple of Ramakrishna and dear companion of Sarada, gave this account of the time Sarada experienced samadhi:
A few days after I had become acquainted with the Mother, she said to me, “Please tell him that I would like to experience a little of spiritual ecstasy. I don’t find him alone to speak about this matter myself.” …The next morning when I went to his room the Master was seated alone on his bed. After saluting him I informed him of the Mother’s request. He listened without replying and became grave. When he was in such a serious mood, no one dared utter a word. So I left the room after sitting there quietly for a while. Returning to the Nahabat, I found the Mother seated for her daily worship. I opened the door a little and peeped in and found her laughing. Now she was laughing, and now weeping. Tears were streaming from her eyes. After a while she gradually became still. I knew she was in Samadhi. So I closed the door and came away. After a long while I again went to her room. She asked me, “Are you just returning from the Master’s room?” I said, “How is it, Mother, that you say you never experience high spiritual moods?” An abashed Mother began to smile.
This story not only illustrates the spiritual connection between husband and wife, it also shows how Sarada was at times so isolated from her husband that she had to ask Yogin-Ma to speak to him for her.
For much of the time when they were together, Sarada was Ramakrishna’s servant and was considered as such by his disciples. One might be tempted to say that Sarada’s story is that of a woman who had no identity that was not assigned to her by her husband, be it as his cook, his nurse, his student, her (Ramakrishna’s feminine persona) intimate female friend, and his Divine Mother. After those first eight months, he appears to have been distant from her, except when she was feeding him or when he was ill, until he was in the terminal stages of throat cancer.
One identity, however, was her own. “Sarada” is one of the names of the goddess Saraswati, patroness of learning and music, who is portrayed wearing gold jewelry from head to foot. The following quote from the Holy Mother describes Ramakrishna as a caring husband: “He used to say [about me], ‘Her name is Sarada. She is Saraswati… That is why she loves to adorn herself.’ He had told Hriday, ‘See how much money is there in your box. Have a pair of nice gold armlets made for her.’” As a saint who had renounced kamini-kanchan, “women and gold,” he could not touch money because it caused him physical pain. But Ramakrishna embraced both femininity and gold jewelry in the person of his wife and in his own spiritual practice:
He divined her [Sarada’s] liking to wear ornaments and spent three hundred rupees to have a pair of bracelets made for her… Yogin-Ma, describing her appearance in those early days, says: “She wore a piece of cloth with broad red borders and put vermilion at the parting of her hair. Her thick black tresses almost touched her knees. She wore a gold necklace, a big nose ling [sic], earrings and bracelets. Most of these were what Mathur Babu made for the Master when he practised spiritual disciplines assuming the role of a handmaid of the Divine Mother.”
By acknowledging her as Sarada/Saraswati, Ramakrishna recognized her as his true wife and as an individual worthy of respect. He knew the bangles would make her happy, so he got them for her, perhaps to also make up for the sorrow she felt as a child when her bridal splendor was taken from her. In many ways, her personhood and the love her husband had for her were encapsulated in her gold bracelets.
His Death, Her Limbo and Rebirth
Sarada lost her husband in 1886 when she was thirty-two years old. Accounts describe how she had prepared herself to live as a proper Bengali Brahmin widow with shaved head, a plain white sari, and no jewelry. But Ramakrishna stopped her:
The Master’s demise brought about a drastic change in the Holy Mother’s life. She reacted to his passing with extreme fortitude, exclaiming, “O Mother Kali! Have you left me!” She shed no tears, though her heart was heavy with the sorrow of separation. Soon after the cremation, she was removing her gold bracelets and tearing off the red border of her wearing cloth in order to be dressed in the pattern of a Hindu widow. Immediately she had a vision of the Master, telling her, “What are you doing? I have not gone away. I have only passed from one room to another.” …All through life she wore her bracelets and a thin-bordered cloth in acceptance of the assurance of her experience that her Lord and Master is the Eternal Being, who never dies.
The second black-and-white photograph ever taken of Sarada Devi, the one that my own colorized picture is based on, shows her with long hair, but not so long that it almost reached her knees. There is a border on her sari (presumably red); it is very thin, not broad at all. Her bracelets, however, are thick and attractive with a twisting rope pattern. They are the only visible signs of feminine luxury in her apparel.
For about a year after Ramakrishna died, Sarada and some of Ramakrishna’s disciples went on pilgrimage. The year following her pilgrimage was very difficult for her. Money her husband had set aside for her welfare was denied her, and her reputation suffered because she did not follow the rules for a Bengali Brahmin widow, which may have led her to stop wearing her gold bangles for a time. She was destitute and had no one to look out for her on a consistent basis. But these times were also liberating because she was without status as wife or mother. She had no responsibilities for looking after either husband or offspring. As a liminal being, neither this nor that, she could rewrite who she was. No longer was she confined to the Nahabat. Ramakrishna’s mother had already passed away, so there was no mother-in-law to demand she behave in accordance with all the rules of widowhood. Since she had no biological children, there would be no pressure for her to conform for their sake when they sought a spouse.
Eventually, things changed in her favor:
Ramlal, Sri Ramakrishna’s nephew, who was legally her guardian, left her in utter neglect. It is said that he even positively contributed to her sufferings… To add to the misery that neglect and loneliness caused, she became the butt of criticism of the village die-hards who vilified her as a “merry widow” because she put on a red bordered cloth which custom strictly prohibited for widows. In the midst of these depressing influences, there were two factors that sustained her. One was the sympathy and support she got from Prasannamayi, an aged lady of the Laha family and a friend of Sri Ramakrishna when he was the boy Gadadhar of Kamarpukur. The other was the vision of the Great Master which she got now and then in difficult situations and the mood of spiritual exaltation in which she lived.
Like Sarada, Prasannamayi Laha was a widow. Unlike Sarada, Prasannamayi was wealthy. Just as the rich widow Rani Rasmani aided Ramakrishna, Prasannamayi helped Sarada out financially and encouraged her to live with her husband’s ascetic male followers:
[Sarada Devi:] After the Master’s passing away, I was at Kamarpukur. I was to come here to Calcutta, but many people began to object, “Oh dear, will you go and stay among those youthful boys!” …So I asked many people. Some began to say, “Certainly you can go. They are all your disciples.” I merely listened. There was an old widow (Prasannamayi of the Lahas) in our village. People used to respect her as a wise and pious person. Later I went and asked her opinion. She replied, “Why, you may certainly go. They are your disciples, like your own children. What is there in this to ask? Of course you can go.” Hearing that all approved of my moving to Calcutta.
Vivekananda, Ramakrishna’s heir apparent, enthusiastically supported notions of women’s equality that he had heard about from Western-influenced Hindu movements, then saw for himself when he met progressive women in Britain and America. Encouraged by Vivekananda, the disciples accepted Sarada as their mother, and her status shifted from improper widow to Shri Ma (Holy Mother, also a title of Kali). She became something new in the spiritual universe of Bengal: a married woman (with a deceased husband, yet not a widow) and Goddess incarnate who rejected restrictions placed upon women of her status.
A Theology of Truth
At the beginning of this chapter, I described Sarada’s declaration against her widowhood as an act invoking spiritual power that could transform reality. Some explanation is in order.
In Hinduism and Buddhism, there are stories of satyakriya or act of truth, a declaration of fact that can cause the physical world to transform according to the wishes of the person who makes the declaration: a hunter invokes the truth to capture a nymph, a king to regain his plucked-out eyes, a queen to cross a river by foot, a quail to turn back a forest fire, a fish to make it rain, a dragon to curse a false monk, a cow to turn a man into a donkey, a woman tending oxen to ease the pains of childbirth of an elephant, a mother to cure her son from poison, a wife to cure her husband from leprosy, and a low-caste female sex worker to make the Ganges River flow backward. Although this action technically involves recitation of a special prayer or charm, many of the stories have the person performing the act by simply stating their truth.
There are differences between the act of truth as satyakriya and Sarada’s eventual success after declaring that she was not a widow. She is not depicted as reciting a prayer or charm to change the social reality of her presumed widowhood. Also, when an act of truth is performed, transformation of reality is immediate, while recognition of her marriage as unaffected by the mortal death of her immortal God-husband took months of living in abject poverty and community censure before she was acknowledged as wife rather than widow. In this sense, Sarada’s declaration presaged Mohandas Gandhi’s spiritual-political strategy of satyagraha, which Gandhi describes as follows: “Satyagraha is literally holding on to Truth and it means, therefore, Truth-force.” Like satyakriya, Gandhi sees satyagraha as irresistible, but unlike satyakriya, it is not immediate: “It [satyagraha] proceeds on the assumption of the ultimate triumph of truth [my emphasis].”
Whether we situate Sarada’s declaration as satyakriya or a harbinger of Gandhi’s satyagraha, the details of her narrative reflect the power of truth as a spiritual force in Hindu theology. Sarada’s act of truth is connected to her experience of communitas when she lost status, then established new status for herself based on Ramakrishna’s own communitas as a divine madman, unfettered by societal restrictions that got in his way as he sought the bliss of Brahman, then extended that bliss to his wife and his disciples.
A Theology of Burning
Despite support from the progressive Vivekananda, Sarada lived in the area around Kolkata, not Chicago or London. There was only so far she could go in her feminine declaration of independence. In addition to toning down her non-widow appearance, Sarada performed the panchatapa, a severe purification ritual in which the devotee sits outdoors surrounded by four fires and exposed to the sun all day. She did this for seven days to demonstrate that she was not just a worldly, immoral woman:
Convinced that her husband was not dead but was ever present, “she always wore bangles and red-bordered sārī’”… Yet she was concerned to live up to the culturally sanctioned image of an ascetic widow. Hence she performed the fire ritual of Paṅcatapā for seven days during which she sat within a circle of lighted mounds of cow dung cakes [ghuṅṭé] doing japa [silent repetition of sacred words] while enduring the heat further accentuated by blazing sun above. She undertook this penance [vrata] with a view to avoiding the most notorious stigma for a widow: “Why, she eats, drinks, and lives just like any other person.”
The Panchatapa was a poignant echo of a time that, not so long before, pious widows were expected to kill themselves. Before it was outlawed by the British Raj, sati (the custom of a widow throwing herself, or being thrown, on her husband’s funeral pyre) was practiced in Bengal and other places in India. Bengal, in fact, is prominent in nineteenth century accounts of sati, especially between the years of 1815-1817, because so many immolations occurred there. Sati was officially banned in British-controlled India in 1829, less than sixty years before Ramakrishna died, but the practice continued into the twentieth century. Panchatapa as penance chosen by Sarada can be seen as her symbolic expression of sati: a ritualized death-and-cremation ceremony from which she emerged purified.
Being burned alive is a continuing theme in Sarada’s life after Ramakrishna. When sinful or suffering people touched her feet (a traditional sign of reverence), she said she felt as if she were on fire: “There are some people whose very touch creates a burning sensation in the body. It is so painful. Therefore I wash my hands and feet after they touch me,” she said. She also indicated that the sensation never really went away: “I am burning day and night with the pain and misery of others,” she said, as if by staying alive she were constantly undergoing sati. The years of her ascendancy as the venerable Holy Mother should have been easier than the time she lived as a servant unto her husband, but they are not portrayed as such. She burned constantly, and her interminable suffering plays the same role as the Panchatapa: it shows that she was no merry widow.
The phenomenon of her incessant pain has theological significance beyond appeasing cultural mores concerning widowhood. “Sri Ramakrishna used to say that all sorts of people would come with their ailments, afflictions, sins and troubles and touch him, and all those things would take refuge in his body,” she said. “It is true, my child; it may be the same case with me.” Suffering is what she, her husband, and indeed all holy people are supposed to do for the benefit of others:
One day at the Koalpara monastery, as a distinguished devotee went to salute the Mother, he said to me, “Since touching her feet in salutation causes much suffering to the Mother, we should rather avoid it.” The Mother heard this and said, “No, my child, we are here for this purpose only. If we do not accept others’ sins and sorrows and digest them, who else will? Who else will bear the responsibility for sinners and sufferers?.”
Sarada was also constantly worrying about her mentally disturbed and abusive niece, Radha. Her attachment to Radha, she said, was something Ramakrishna ordered her to do to keep her tethered to this world. Otherwise, she would have quickly passed away out of grief for having lost him, once again echoing the theme of sati and the widow who willingly dies once her husband is dead:
One evening, after talking about diverse matters, the Holy Mother said, “Look, I suppose everybody says that I am restless with the thought of Radhu, that I am inordinately attached to her. If this little attachment were not there, do you know, this body could not have survived after the Master’s passing away. It is for his work that he has generated this attachment for Radhu and detained this body. When my mind withdraws from her, this body will not remain anymore.”
Counter-Narrative: The Laughing Mother
Intermingled with stories about Sarada’s suffering are moments of laughter and jesting, much like humorous stories of Ramakrishna who was renowned for his sense of humor. In Sarada’s discourse, however, she was not portrayed as particularly humorous before she was publicly recognized as Holy Mother, while Ramakrishna is characterized as a jester since childhood.
Humor and laughter are regular features in Hindu stories about the goddesses and gods. Elephant-headed Ganesh holds a special place in the hearts of Hindus for the merriment he brings. Krishna is likewise mischievous – his exploits are meant to elicit laughter. When Ganesh’s mother Parvati, the gentle side of the bloodthirsty Kali, was teased for wanting to marry ash-covered, bull-riding Shiva, she laughed at the suggestion she was being foolish. One might imagine that Parvati’s laughter would resonate with the lived experience of Sarada, who was initially unsure about the wisdom of marrying a divine madman.
Stories of Sarada-as-guru reveal a teacher with an appreciation for comedy, even during sacred ritual:
On the day of the Vijaya Dasami, when the image [of Durga] was being taken away on a boat for immersion in the Ganga, Dr.Kanjilal had danced, gesticulated, and made faces at the image like a child, that had sent all roaring with laughter. One Brahmacharin, who held puritanical views, was much annoyed at those gestures and postures. The Mother was watching the whole scene from her residence and enjoying it. Later I told the Mother about the critical reaction of the Brahmacharin. She said, “No, no! It is perfectly all right. The Goddess has to be entertained in every way through music, fun and frolic.
She had a wry sense of humor that bordered on impropriety:
When a devotee jestingly wondered what would happen if the temple of the goddess of Kamarpukur (meaning Ramakrishna‟s home) were gutted in fire, she yelled: “Fine— fine! That would then be a cremation ground [śmaśan] just as the Master would have preferred.” She then burst into a peal of laughter [aṭṭahāsi]: “Hah, hah, hah!” The unsuspecting devotee stared at her struck dumb.
She was also not above teasing strangers:
The Mother was then seated on one side of the verandah, while Golap-Ma [her disciple] and others sat on the other. Seeing Golap-Ma, who appeared older and possessed an imposing personality, one of the visitors mistook her for the Holy Mother and saluted her. As she was about to say something, Golap-Ma saw the mistake and said, “There sits the Holy Mother.” Seeing the simple appearance of the Holy Mother, she thought that the “Holy Mother” (actually Golap-Ma) was just making fun. But when Golap-Ma repeated what she had said, the woman went towards the Holy Mother to salute her. The Mother too smilingly said, “No, no. She indeed is the Holy Mother!”‘ The woman was now in a fix! Golap-Ma and the Mother, both were pointing to each other saying-”There! She is the Holy Mother!” We were watching all this fun.
Sarada and Spiritual Independence
After the hard months that followed the death of her husband and her refusal to follow all the restrictions assigned widows, Sarada became her own spiritual authority. She worshipped an image of herself as well as an image of her husband, and performed the role of guru according to her own rules without seeking the approval of others. She also told young widows that they could follow her example and disregard restrictions placed upon them. When asked about her unorthodox behavior, her typical response was either that Ramakrishna appeared to her and told her to do so, or that he never told her not to. As with Julian of Norwich, no one could gainsay the Holy Mother since she was the lone witness to her visions. She would also explain any social conventions that she broke as the result of her desire a good mother who disregarded trifling details when serving her family: “I can do everything for the welfare of my children.”
She initiated hundreds, perhaps thousands of people upon request, which inspired her disciple Visweswaranda to correct her:
“Mother, you give initiation to so many people, but you never enquire about them. You don’t even give a thought about what is happening to them. A Guru keeps a keen eye on his disciple, seeing whether he is developing spiritually. It would be better if you did not give initiation to so many people. You should initiate only as many as you can keep touch with.” The Mother replied, “But the Master never forbade me to do so. He explained so many things to me. Could he not have told me something about this as well? I entrust the Master with their responsibility. I pray to him every day, ‘Please look after them wherever they may be.’ Besides, do you know that the Master himself taught me these Mantras [sacred words or syllables given to devotees as part of their initiation]? He gave me Mantras possessing great power.”
Among the followers of Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi is considered the Holy Mother of all, unable to turn away anyone who seeks her maternal care. There are, however, accounts of Sarada turning people away, requiring some of them not to touch her, and then complaining about a few of them when they left:
During the noon time a hot-headed man had come to the Holy Mother and created a row. Referring to this, she said, “The Master did not let anybody know of my existence. He protected me always with infinite care. Now the thing has gone to the other extreme; they are advertising me as if by a beat of drum in a market-place… Why should they always bother me about initiation?”
Sufism and the Samadhi of the Holy Mother
Song, dance, and trance during kirtan played significant roles in the spiritual expression of Ramakrishna and his disciples. Since many of Sarada’s spiritual practices originated with her husband, she in turn perpetuated that same Sufi-Hindu chain of communitas with the joy inherent in her worship. But Sarada was not known for actively participating in kirtan. There are stories about her singing, but I could find none that describes her ever dancing. Nevertheless, avidly watching her man and his disciples reveling in the holy dance is in itself is participation in kirtan, albeit passive. To discount kirtan from the spirituality of Sarada Devi would be the same as saying that a wheelchair-bound devotee at a spirit-filled Evangelical church cannot participate in the service. One account has Ramakrishna telling her not to sing and dance in a secular fashion, but such an admonition need not have applied to spiritual expression. She may have refrained from dancing after he died due to health issues she incurred when she lived in the Nahabat.
Sarada shared with Ramakrishna a love for devotional music. Husband and wife could enter trance when they listened to it. But Ramakrishna would also enter samadhi when confronted with a potentially erotic situation with women, which occurred when the Bhairavi Brahmani attempted to initiate him into Tantra sexual practice, when he was enticed by female sex workers (in one instance, by a room full of them), and when he was lying in bed with his young wife. These kinds of triggers are not found in the stories about Sarada Devi, but she had her own peculiarities. More than one account of her in trance has her weeping and laughing (as she did when Yogin-Ma had informed Ramakrishna that Sarada wanted to experience samadhi) or just laughing:
One night somebody began to play on the flute. At the sound of the flute, the Mother entered into a high spiritual mood, and she laughed every now and then… After a long while the Mother came back to the normal state.
Sarada also held to one of Sufism’s basic tenets (and a central doctrine of Rabi’a, a female Sufi from Bazra) that is shared with Bhakti Hinduism: the utter dependency of the soul on the Beloved, as seen in another conversation with Visweswarananda in The Gospel of the Holy Mother:
Another day at Jayrambati I asked the Mother, “How can one realize God?-through worship, Japa or meditation?”
Mother: By none of these.
Disciple: Then how?
Mother: God is realized only through His grace.
The Fruits of Communitas
Victor Turner was inspired to come up with communitas after he was a conscientious objector during World War II. For Julian of Norwich, communitas can be found in her experience of becoming sick unto death as a means to understand the suffering of Christ. In Sarada Devi’s narrative, it is situated in her liminal status after the death of Ramakrishna. Sarada came out of the ordeal reborn and, with the help of widows around her, redefined the role of widowhood for her followers.
The community of believers under Ramakrishna’s leadership suffered at his passing – initially, they had no funding to establish an organization in his name. Once they were able to pull themselves out of poverty, they were then in a position to aid Sarada, but the obstacle of her status as a young widow was a serious one. It was the efforts of fellow widow Prasannamayi Laha that got her the approval of the people around her to move in with the male devotees.
Widows such as Laha played an important role in helping Sarada become an icon. As mentioned earlier, Rasmani rejected the restrictions placed upon a lower-caste woman in order to build Ramakrishna and Sarada’s first home together, and Laha rejected the condemnation sent Sarada’s way. In addition to Rasmani and Laha, there was Ramakrishna’s devotee, Shyamasundari Mitra. While he was alive, Ramakrishna praised the Widow Mitra, who wore gold bangles and red trim because she considered herself married to Lord Krishna after her husband died. This example would have given Sarada a clear precedent for her own decision to continue to wear her gold bangles, although Sarada did something different: she did not replace her own mortal husband with a divine one as Shyamasundari had done.
Among the disciples that Ramakrishna left behind were the close female companions of Sarada, all of them without husbands: Gauri Ma, Yogin Ma, and Golap Ma. All three were upper-caste (Gauri and Golap were Brahmins;Yogin Ma was Kayastha, an upper level of the Kshatriya caste), and all three had chosen Ramakrishna as their guru in the latter years of his life (Gauri in 1882, Yogin in 1883, and Golap in 1885; Ramakrishna died in 1886). All three were fiercely loyal to Sarada and independent of mortal men. Yogin had been married as a child bride at seven, but left her husband years later with their daughter in tow after he proved unfaithful. Golap devoted herself to Ramakrishna and Sarada after the death of her daughter (her husband and son had died before that point). Nevertheless, these bold women were not feminists in the Western sense. Gauri, Yogin, and Golap were able to achieve a degree of independence from patriarchal authority (and a measure of respect from that same authority) by renouncing the world, dedicating themselves to masculine gods and to their dead guru, and dedicating themselves to the Universal Goddess and to Sarada, the Holy Mother.
Gauri was crucial to creating and preserving the legacy of the Holy Mother by setting up institutions in Sarada’s name. The personal details of Gauri’s life reveal a woman who kept her own counsel. Sent to a school founded by an Anglican bishop for upper-class Brahmin girls, Mridani (Gauri’s name at birth) accepted the Hindu religion of her mother but rejected attempts to marry her off at thirteen. She left home, traveled throughout India dressed as a male ascetic, and settled down for three years as a disciple of Ramakrishna, who initiated her as a sannyasini (nun) and gave her the name of “Gauri Ananda.” He then commissioned her to serve the women of India, and she did so by founding a school for women and girls as well as a nunnery and a home for widows after he died. Gauri opened the Sri Sri Saradeswari (Holy Holy Divine Lady Sarada) Ashram and Free Girls’ School. in 1894, less than ten years after Sarada had been abandoned and reduced to nought.
The initiation of Gauri as sannyasini by Ramakrishna appears to be a bone of contention between Belur Math (headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission) and Gauri’s Saradeswari Ashram. Belur Math does not recognize Gauri as a nun in the Ramakrishna Order. In 1954, Belur Math founded Sri Sarada Math, a convent of the Ramakrishna Order for nuns initiated by monks of the Ramakrishna Order – nuns at Sarada Math shave their heads and dress in clothing the same orange color as the monks. Nuns at Saradeswari Ashram, however, trace their lineage in an all-female line going back to Sarada Devi and Gauri-Ma; they keep their hair long, wear bangles, and dress in light red saris with a dark red trim.
Compassion for Young Widows
A major concern for Sarada and her companions was the situation faced by young widows. Sarada was critical of restrictions, as seen in the following conversation with her disciple Susheela Mazumdar:
Disciple: Mother, I have been surprised to find young widows here taking fish. In our part of the country it is prohibited by society.
Mother: Do you know what this is? This is but local and regional custom. In our part, young widows are allowed to take fish and wear bordered saris and jewellery.They naturally harbour these desires. If they are restricted from eating fish, they will take it stealthily.
The Holy Mother dismissed the customs for widows as no longer applicable to young women in the area in which she lived, completely ignoring her own situation as a young widow when she was criticized for not following the rules. Perhaps she felt that, after she successfully challenged the status quo (along with the precedent set by the Widow Mitra and perhaps others), they were not applicable to any young widow since then. Most likely, though, she was once again flouting convention at will (and in this case, rewriting it) because “I can do everything for the welfare of my children.”
The companions of Sarada appear to have felt the same way. The following conversation with Kshirobdala Roy, a low-caste woman who was married at ten and widowed at fifteen, illustrates the disapproval Gauri and Golap (herself a widow) had for social conventions forcing young women into a life of penance:
Golap-Ma said, “Though she is a mere child, she has spoiled her health by fasting and practising other austerities.” Gauri-Ma said, “Dear, why have you cut off your hair?” I said, “Widows in our part of the country do not grow their hair.” She replied, “Without hair one’s eyesight deteriorates. Since you have dedicated your body to Sri Krishna, how does your hair belong to you, dear?” …But the Mother said, “You have done well. Keeping one’s hair gives rise to a feeling of fashionableness to some extent; for one has to take care of it. So what you have done is right. You have overcome the craze for luxuriant locks, and you have also come here. You have now achieved that for which you lived so austerely. Now, I say, don’t indulge in such austerities any longer.
Why did Sarada not extend that same freedom to older widows? When reading her interactions with the women who came to hear her advice, two things stand out. The first was her insistence that the spiritual path was the best thing anyone, man or woman, married or not, could choose. She saw marriage as a bad bargain and held disdain for women who bore lots of children. Such fecundity indicated lack of discipline resulting in being bound even tighter to the worries of this world; more children meant less time for devotion and meditation. Those who were advanced in years should set their minds on God, so an older widow renouncing worldly things was exactly what older people should do. Sarada did not appear to believe that widows should remarry, which makes sense since Sarada was critical of marriage to begin with.
The second thing was that she took care not to criticize the austerities people had already undertaken. What she found objectionable was forcing a young woman to submit to restrictions without having been able to enjoy the world in modest ways, a situation with which Sarada was intimately familiar. This also explains the necessity for Sarada to undergo the Panchatapa, and why her narrative describes her in a constant state of suffering for the good of humanity. She could only advance her agenda of compassion for young widows if she were taken seriously as a holy woman. Like Julian of Norwich, Sarada’s voluntary suffering gave her spiritual authority.
Nevertheless, she did not give up her fabulous gold bracelets, the physical evidence of her husband’s affection. In that one act of rebellion, Ramakrishna’s beloved Saraswati would have her way. Perhaps the bangles on her wrist gave young widows hope that all was not lost with the death of a husband, that a widow still had personhood.
Expanding the Mother’s Embrace: Queer Resonance
When Jeffrey Kripal published Kali’s Child, a psychoanalysis of Ramakrishna’s sexual orientation, many Hindu leaders accused Kripal of calling Ramakrishna “gay,” and they strongly condemned Kripal’s analysis. What Kripal had actually done was to analyse the discourse on Ramakrishna and postulate that the texts portrayed Ramakrishna as a man who felt same-sex attraction. For Kripal’s critics, that was the same thing as associating Ramakrishna with the worldwide gay liberation movement with its drag queens, leathermen in buttless chaps, and topless lesbians – and many conservative Hindus were having none of it.
The reality of the twenty-first century is, however, that various facets of the LGBT community are emerging across the globe, that the LGBT community is denied basic rights in many countries, and that LGBT people are demanding equality, just like women and members of the lower castes have been doing in India in the last few decades. The spiritual descendants of Ramakrishna and Sarada have worked to end caste discrimination and establish equality for women. It is well within the spirit of reform that, in the twenty-first century, they include the LGBT community as well. The problem lies in how to do so in India, a country that is so conservative in matters of sexuality and gender. One solution is the generation of a new counter-narrative that does not seek to queer Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi, or their followers as its goal, but rather to highlight elements in their stories with which Queer people can resonate. Jeffrey Kripal claims in his book, Kali’s Child, that cross-dressing for Ramakrishna was an aspect of his homoerotic-romantic desires. But it does not function that way in the official narratives about him. He crossdresses to become Radha and Kali’s handmaid so that he can achieve spiritual transcendence. A similar phenomenon arises with Ramakrishna’s female initiate Gauri, who crossdressed as a male ascetic, although in her case it may have been more for protection than identifying as a man.
The crossdressing stories about Ramakrishna (and perhaps Gauri as well), can be seen as examples of spiritual transgender identities, which make sense within a theology that sees God as beyond feminine and masculine, and whose powerful and popular male gods, Vishnu and Shiva, transform from male to female at various times. In different legends, Vishnu transforms himself into the irresistible seductress Mohini, one time to save the world from demons, another time to seduce Shiva, and a third time to sexually reward a hero who was to be sacrificed the next day. There is also a legend of Shiva being transformed into a woman by Parvati as he pleasured her, and one where he becomes Radha when Parvati becomes Krishna, providing an example of a goddess becoming male as well.
When Vishnu, Shiva, and Parvati take on transgender identities, sexual attraction (including same-sex erotic-romantic attraction), is found in some of the legends. Feminine/female Mohini is a seductress, but when she changes back to masculine/male Vishnu right at the moment Shiva is attempting to make love to her/him, Shiva does not stop, neither does the love-play between Shiva and Parvati cease when Shiva becomes female. Such spiritual transgender identities for mortals, however, are asexual. Ramakrishna-as-Radha may be physically aroused at the thought of Krishna, but the pleasure resulting from such play is samadhi, the ecstasy of the soul merging with God, not same-sex love-making. This is also true with Gauri: whether she dressed like a man because she felt masculine or because she simply wanted to avoid being harassed, there is no evidence of doing so in order to attract a mortal lover of either sex or gender.
That being said, crossdressing was nevertheless scandalous in nineteenth century Bengal (and in Ramakrishna’s case, humorous to the point of appearing campy). Sarada did not seem to have a problem with her husband’s history of crossdressing, nor did she criticize Gauri for dressing like a man. In fact, Sarada found it admirable in Gauri’s case:
After the initiation was over, Annapurna’s mother began to talk about the girl and said, “She is not an ordinary girl. After reading about Sri Ramakrishna, she became eager for practising spiritual austerities. She cut her long hair, dressed herself as a man and set out on a pilgrimage.” …The Mother heard these words in silence and then remarked: “Ah! What devotion!”
From Sarada Devi’s narrative emerges a counter-narrative for inclusion of not only all people, regardless of caste, but also the LGBT community. Although the narratives of Ramakrishna, Sarada, and their disciples are devoid of same-sex orientation and transgender identities as understood in Western discourse, there are nevertheless plenty of stories that resonate with India’s increasingly visible lesbian, gay male, bisexual, and transgender people because those narratives suggest, overtly or covertly, same-sex orientation and transgender identities. One could argue that Ramakrishna’s spiritual transgender identities as Radha, Kali’s handmaiden, and Kali herself do not have to signify that he felt he was a woman trapped in a man’s body. They can, however, be means for attracting transpeople to his salvific message, and his homoerotic attachment to his disciples can inspire openly-Gay men to follow him, just s they are. Likewise, the stories about Gauri-Ma as an independent woman who was not afraid to dress as a man and who championed women’s causes would attract lesbians and transmen. Sarada’s acceptance of her husband’s (and Gauri’s) gender-bending ways could inspire LGBT people to seek refuge in her, and inspire others to accept the Holy Mother’s LGBT children, just as they are, and furthering her legacy as Mother of all people.