For three weeks from June to July this year, I embarked upon a personal retreat at the Ramakrishna Mission, Belur Math, in Howrah, West Bengal. These days were fulfilled with meditation and contemplation, tuning to the inner voice of awakened awareness, joining the sangha for evening aarti (prayer), studying and reflecting on the lives and wisdom of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Sri Sarada Devi Ma, Swami Vivekenanda, Saradananda, Brahmananda, Sister Nivedita of North Ireland, and others.
Each day, I walked through the streets of the neighbourhood, on my way to Belur Math for prayer. Howrah in West Bengal, situated near the west bank of the Ganges river, is at least by western standards, a seriously poor - even destitute - neighbourhood of Kolkata. It was poor even in the days long before Swami Vivekananda and other disciples of Sri Ramakrishna established the Mission in 1897, and began to offer charitable community services. After the partition of India in 1947, and the departure of the British Raj, Kolkata also established a Communist nature of government, which lasted for about 40 years.
As a foreigner, unfamiliar with the Bengali language and only slightly familiar with Indian culture, I often felt shocked as I navigated the congestive - cars, motorcycles, rickshaws and bicycles all competing with loudly honking horns - streets lined with piles of decomposing trash on both sides. Passing long lanes of street vendors and decrepit shops, selling strong black chai tea in tiny unfired clay cups, and the simplest nature of food, cooked in air filled with exhaust fumes… and seeing every day, emaciated homeless people begging for a few rupees, and little children showering unattended, at a roadside open water tap, because they are living like gypsies underneath unfinished building construction - struck the chords of my awareness and emotions very deeply.
Many times, the words of Sri Sarada Devi Ma came to soothe the sorrow in my heart: “…if you want peace, my child, see nobody’s faults. See your own faults. Learn to make the world your own. No one is a stranger, my child. The world is yours.”
As an ascetic soul on a unique journey - as each of us is, regardless of our faith or lifestyle - I do not seek to be accepted or indoctrinated into any religious or monastic order. Nor can I truly accept to follow anyone, aside from the voice of Intuition. I believe we each have a unique vision of God, and are each directly connected with Him - it is up to us individually, to sense and embody this connection. In this way, I feel my main task in life is learning to be as one with the inner guidance of the soul, and to study any nature of truth that may arise in the process.
Thus, I can never say that I have total understanding of anyone or anything - except eventually, of my own self, and how that self creates and perpetuates its own version of reality. To understand this mechanism of reproduction, helps one to expand the sphere of one’s awareness - to go beyond the boundaries of the little pond of our existence in this vast universe. At the same time, such understanding allows one to deepen into the channel of universal wisdom - and to sense that each of us is a walking manifestation of a truth of life. Because we all are more similar than we are different - what is truth for one, is inherently an aspect of truth for all. Perspective is personal, while wisdom is universal. So what I am expressing here is from my individual perspective, yet, perhaps you also may find it helpful.
Sri Sarada Devi was born on December 22, 1853, in a small rural village in India, and being a female in that time, she did not receive much formal schooling. When she was still very young, her marriage was arranged with Sri Ramakrishna, a locally-recognized temple priest whose total devotion was for God. Ramakrishna was frequently in prayer and deep state of trance, or attending male students who came seeking guidance. He addressed and honoured his new bride as ‘Ma’ or Divine Mother, and never related with Sarada Devi as typically a young wife might desire or expect.
Although many say that this was how Sri Ramakrishna taught and trained her for the role that God had chosen her to fulfill - a Mother for all beings - one can also imagine how difficult and painful, and even quite odd at times, this experience must have been for the mind and heart of a simple village girl. It was under such nature of compulsion to accept and adapt to unlikely circumstances, that Sri Sarada Devi learned and cultivated the transcendent wisdom and universal compassion that she is so well-regarded for.
So many of us are currently enduring circumstances that we may feel we are being compelled to accept and handle. We often may think: ‘I didn’t ask for this! Why am I having to deal with this? Why is the neighbour always doing such irritating behaviours? Why is the government always making such punitive decisions and laws only for its own advantage? Why is my husband / wife always putting me down or ignoring what I feel?" We are finding it very difficult to understand the nature of the challenge we are facing, and to retrace the path of going forward in our lives with compassion and joyfulness.
In such situations, the wisdom of Sri Sarada Devi Ma may offer us support to step out of self-pity, pain and anger, and enter a broader perspective, encouraging us to embrace our own suffering, and develop empathy for the pain of others.
So far, this study has been helping me to understand, that within the embrace of the soul - Adiatma - the primordial spontaneous fountain of divine wisdom and universal compassion - is the source of everything one has ever sought for, and will ever need, to experience love, joy and peace. Embodying this sense of eternal resourcefulness, one is capable to spontaneously extend compassion and generosity, patience and forgiveness to anyone we may meet along the path.
Sri Sarada Devi Ma and Sri Ramakrishna's place of prayer: Dakshineshwar Kali Temple, Howrah, West Bengal, India. Photo by Aastha, July 2015
Streets of Howrah in the area around Belur Math, the monastery dedicated to the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna & Sri Sarada Devi Ma. Photo by Aastha, July 2017.
Fresh young coconut water, yogurt, and fruits are the best medicine during the relentless heat & humidity of the raining season in Kolkata, India. Here is our little windowsill fruit garden. July 2017.