An Unseen Silent Force

— Swami Vireshananda —

What is the role played by Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi in the social scenario of 20th Century? It has been a matter of discussion among modern scholars for some years. The Holy Mother is in no way considered by them to be a social reformer, but her place and influence in the movements for women’s emancipation are not only recognised but regarded as vital in academic circles. However, Holy Mother’s role in these modern trends is that of an unseen silent force of divine affection and universal love, which inspired hundreds of educated women to find the roots of these reform movements in the spiritual and cultural ethos of India, unlike some scholars who find justification for such movements only in Western values. The Holy Mother, in this regard, stands for spiritual feminism that is inspired by the message of unity of existence and oneness of humanity preached in the Vedāntic tradition of India. Also, it has a wider canvass enveloping the entire humanity because of its universal appeal and contemporary relevance.


Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi stands for the highest kind of feminism, which not only demands and acquires equality and liberation but also finds spiritual oneness with all beings.


The Phases of Feminism

According to Kumari Jayawardena, a Sri Lankan scholar, ‘Feminism can be defined as the consciousness of injustices based on gender hierarchy, and commitment to change. Such injustices arise from the exploitation and oppression of women in male-dominated societies, and the changes envisaged range from the achievement of “equal rights” to “liberation”.’[1] But feminism was not just confined to the consciousness of injustice. It also took a form of socio-political movement in the United States and the United Kingdom. In this regard, ‘feminism is both an intellectual commitment and a political movement that seeks justice for women and the end of sexism in all forms’.[2]

Chroniclers say there are four waves of feminism: The first wave consisted of women’s suffrage movements promoting women’s right to vote in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The second wave was the women’s liberation movement which campaigned for legal and social equality for women in the 1960s. The third wave of 1992 was characterised by its emphasis on individuality and diversity. We find in 2012, the fourth wave of feminism making use of social media to protest against the persecution of women. In recent times, a new movement called ‘Post-feminism’ is prevalent. ‘Post-feminism is a term used to describe a societal perception that many or all of the goals of feminism has already been achieved, thereby making further iterations and expansions of the movement obsolete.’[3] An author Rosalind Gill explains post-feminism as more of a sensibility or an ethos than as a critical movement (ibid).

Feminism in India

Indian feminism emerged in the backdrop of British colonialism and Indian Nationalism. It was an offshoot of social reform movement started in the 19th Century. According to author Maitrayee Chaudhuri, ‘colonial rule, the humiliation of the subject population, the impact of Western education, the role of Christian missionaries, growth of an English speaking Indian middle class all led to an intense and contested debate of the women’s question in the public sphere’.[4] According to her, along with the social reform, there was a reinterpretation of ‘Indian Culture’ and the special role of ‘Indian women’ in it. In the early part of the 20th century, several women’s groups emerged, and many women participated in the political process.

After the Independence of India from the British in 1947, the central Government passed laws for women, which guaranteed them equal rights and opportunities, and also protected from exploitation and persecution. The failure of the Indian state in effectively implementing these laws and increased maltreatment towards women led to the beginning of several women movements in the 1970s and 1980s, which raised several serious issues like land rights, nature of development, political representation, divorce laws, custody, guardianship and harassment at work, alcoholism, and dowry. From the 1990s up to the present time, the interests of countless women in the middle and poor sections and the social disparities in society are also being highlighted with the primary concern towards gender discrimination (ibid.).

Hindu Feminism

Feminism has many realms like religion, society, nation, class, and race. The Hindu feminism focusses on the concepts of feminism in the traditions belonging to the Hindu religion. Mrs Vasudha Narayanan gives a lucid idea of Hindu feminism as follows: ‘Bhakti is devotion and shakti is power. In bhakti there is both surrender and mutual love, in shakti there is vigour and energy; in both, there is potency. Both bhakti and shakti are major components in female religiosity in many Hindu traditions.’[5]

Western feminism according to Mrs Vasudha Narayan, focuses on the issues related to ‘rights’ whereas fundamental word comes up in the Hindu scriptures is dharma or duty which is common to both men and women. Hence she opines that feminism in Hinduism should take into consideration of ‘structural differences due to historical and political contexts, geographic and linguistic boundaries, and community distinctions’ (28). In simple terms, one cannot apply the idea of ‘equality’ and ‘liberation’, which are fundamental to feminism to all traditions and customs of Hinduism uniformly.

‘Shakti’ as the Symbol of Feminism

The Western scholars of the modern era criticise the subjugation of women in Hindu society, which they say, is patriarchal. However, several postmodern scholars question it saying that such a criticism is a colonial stereotype and an artefact of the West. India has its own ingenious Shakti or Goddess inspired feminism, which is asserted by the emerging understanding of the Hindu Shakti tradition and its related texts, along with the empirical studies of women in rural India, who have no exposure to Western thought or education.[6]

In the book Is the Goddess a Feminist? The Politics of South Asian Goddesses, Rita Gross, one of the contributors, states that the powerful Goddess, portrayed by ancient and medieval era Hindu texts is indicative of women’s position and role in society.[7] Cynthia Humes, another author states that the 6th century text of Devī Māhātmyam (popularly called ‘Canḍi’) shares the postmodern exaltation of embodiedness, divinising it as does much of the Western feminist spirituality movement. According to Cynthia Humes, texts of this type are neither theoretical nor they are disconnected from the lives of women in the historic Hindu society, but the verses assert that all ‘women are portions of divine goddess’ (137–9). Another Western scholar Tracy Pintchman notes that the Hindu goddess tradition inspired by these texts has been one of the richest, compelling traditions worldwide and its followers flock villages, towns, and cities all over India.[8]

Rita Gross also questions the general view of the all-pervasiveness of patriarchy in Hindu society. She says that the patriarchal control is real, and the Hindu society admits this of itself, yet the Hindu culture distinguishes between authority which men hold, and power which both men and women hold. Women in the Hindu tradition have the power, and they exercise that power to take control of situations that are important to them. The Goddess theology and humanity in the Hindu texts are a foundation of these values, a form that isn’t feminist by Western definition, but is feminist nevertheless, one with an empowering and self-liberating value structure with an added spiritual dimension that resonates with Hindu (and Buddhist) goddesses.[9]

Kathleen Erndl, another writer says that it is the task of Hindu feminists to rescue Shakti from its patriarchal prison since according to her, patriarchy is neither monolithic nor ossified in Hindu culture. She is of the view that the Shakti concept and associated extensive philosophy in Hindu texts provide a foundation to both spiritual and social liberation (97, 100–1).

But some scholars like Rajeshwari Sundar Rajan point out that Goddess worship does not translate into better life opportunities for women. Nita Kumar in one of her articles says that the world view we see overall in Indian history is matriarchal, which acknowledges and celebrates the value of women, not only as givers and preservers of life, but as active sources of energy. It is a view that acknowledges women’s power. However, she argues that every world view is construed not by traditions but by societies and people. The glorification of Goddess we find in texts like Devī Māhātmyam, celebrates the Goddess as the supreme and autonomous principle in the universe. She continues:

Being powerful, imaginative stories, they continue through history to be interpreted by readers and listeners according to the circumstances of their times. What we need instead, to use a Devi Mahatmya image, is for the goddess Yoganidra to exit and leave us awake and alert. There is an actual social context to our lives. All the demons are not merely within us, but outside as well, to be fought with by more than meditation and chanting. … The case can be made that the Goddess is not a feminist as much as—a potential destroyer of the problematic male-female gender division. She does not stand for womanhood but for the principle of femininity that exists in all. Her value to a modernising and progressive society lies in her very layers of valences that older societies could create and that modernity constantly runs the danger of losing.[10]

The Holy Mother—The Personification of Shakti

What we have enumerated so far in detail is not the orthodox doctrine of Shakti, but a modern articulation of highly educated women writers of both the East and the West. They conceive the immense possibility of the re-interpretation and adoption of Shakti to highlight the inner spiritual potential that women represent and also its ability to make this world free from subjugation and persecution of women. Who can better represent this new ideal of Shakti in flesh and blood other than the Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi in this modern period? Here lies the relevancy of her personality to contemporary society. The current value of the age-old idea of Shakti finds its extraordinary expression and glory in the person of the Holy Mother. As such, she is the real ‘Shakti’ or ‘divine power’, who embodies ‘ultimate spiritual strength’ the women need today in order to achieve ‘equality’ and ‘liberation’, the two goals of feminism.

However, we cannot conceive of the Holy Mother to be a feminist in an academic sense. Trishia Nicole Goulet points out in her doctoral thesis, ‘The Lives of Sarada Devi: Gender, Renunciation, and Hindu Politics in Colonial India’: ‘Sarada, as noted by scholars and as evident in the writings about her, could not be considered feminist, yet at the same time, Sarada certainly articulated a place for herself in a patriarchal society, which could be constituted, at least in some ways, to be feminist.’[11] According to Goulet, the Holy Mother was not an activist of feminism, but we can see in her the traces of underlying feminism. She exhibited this trait especially in the latter part of her life when she recognised the need for girls to receive an education (as noted in her support of the work of Sister Nivedita), suggesting her recognition of injustice as it pertained to gender and also in ways that the Holy Mother rejected the rules of a widow (see ibid.).

 Here we want to address the criticisms of some writers including some feminists who consider Holy Mother as a victim of subjugation. Nita Kumar observes that the Holy Mother was uncomfortable with her ‘deification’ as Goddess and while the machine producing and servicing deification worked away, she maintained an often stubborn silence.[12] Also, one of her biographers Narasimgha P Sil says that ‘the human face of the historical Sarada is hidden behind the … effigy of a goddess … or as the Holy or Divine Mother (Srima) by the devotees of a patriarchal society’.[13]

These criticisms are totally unfounded as the authentic biographies and the faithfully recorded conversations of the Holy Mother clearly reveal her human side as well. The relationship between two great personalities, Holy Mother and Sri Ramakrishna, was on equal terms, as the latter would always treat her with an attitude brimmed with adoration and reverence. The pristine love between them transcended all earthly limitations to become the subject of wonder and amazement of everyone.

The Holy mother reminisces about her days in Dakshineswar in glowing terms:

Ah! How kindly Sri Ramakrishna treated me! Not even one day did he utter a word to wound my feelings. … Ah, my dear! Those were unforgettable days in Dakshineswar! Sri Ramakrishna would sing and I would stand for hours together and watch the scene through the hole in the screen of plaited bamboo chips that surrounded the verandah of the Nahabat. I would salute him with folded hands from afar. Those days were indeed full of bliss! People streamed in throughout the day, and religious talks went on continuously.[14]

I always felt as if a pitcher of bliss was kept in my heart. I cannot convey any idea of how much and in what manner my mind feasted on that steady, unchanging divine joy.[15]

There is not a single incident in Holy Mother’s life or one sentence uttered by her to show that she was subjugated. Also, we find no evidence of attempts by her biographers to dehumanise the Holy Mother as Mr Sil objects. In these biographies, her human nature is given much prominence as it is the groung in which her inherent spiritual potential manifested in its full glory. What we find in her life is the natural expression of that divine aspect rather than any kind of deification by his followers. There are several reliable and authentic incidents recorded, indicative of her awareness of innate divinity. We cite three of them here.

In the conversations recorded by Swami Arupananda, a disciple asks the Holy Mother: ‘Do you ever remember your real nature?’ To this Mother replies: ‘Yes, I recall it now and then. At that time, I say to myself, “What is this that I am doing? What is all this about?” Then I remember the house, buildings and children (pointing with the palm of her hand to the houses) and forget my real self.’[16]

Surendranath Sircar, a devotee, writes in his reminiscences:

I said, ‘Mother, devotees call you Kali, Adyasakti, Bhagavati, etc. In the Gita it is mentioned that the saints Asita, Devala, Vyasa, and others called Sri Krishna as Narayana Himself. Sri Krishna himself told this to Arjuna. By mentioning it himself in the Gita, the idea has been still more emphasized. I believe everything that I have heard about you. Still, if you will please speak of it yourself, my doubts will be dispelled. I want to hear from you directly whether these things are true.’ ‘Yes, true they are,’ said the Mother. After this, I never asked the Mother any question relating to her real nature (224).

Swami Ishanananda records an incident from Mother’s life:

One woman devotee often wrote letters full of praise and glorification of the Holy Mother. I told her its essence. She heard everything and said, ‘Look, many times I wonder, I am but the daughter of Ram Mukherjee, and many women of my age are there at Jayrambati. How do I differ from them? All these devotees come from various places and bow down to me. On asking them I find that some are doctors, some are lawyers. Why do these people come?’ She was silent for a while. A little later I said, ‘Well Mother, do you not then always remember your real nature?’ The Holy Mother replied, ‘Is it possible always? If it were so, can all this work go on? Yet amidst all this work, whenever the desire arises, inspiration comes in a flash upon a little thought and the whole of the play of Mahamaya comes to be understood’ (396). (emphasis added)

Spiritual Feminism

It is true that the Holy Mother had to undergo intense suffering, both physical and mental, and extreme humiliation in her life. However, the biographers have made no attempt to hide them and give a mystical or divine colour to them. What one has to understand is that in spite those limitations and privations, a lady from a rural part of India could rise to such a level that she came to be revered by one and all as the personification of Shakti on earth. The Holy Mother showed that every woman has this inner divine potential—and if she tries hard—she can be liberated from the clutches of persecution and subjugation. In addition, she can aspire not only for liberation and equality, but can also aim for a far superior intellectual and spiritual position that a male member cannot even dream of. This infinite potential and immense human possibilities in a woman to succeed in her life have been demonstrated by the Holy Mother not only to Indian women, but also to the whole feminine fraternity all over the world.

There are some authors who recognised the important role played by the Holy Mother in the women reform movement of India. Shreyoshi Ghosh writes:

India has always been a land of goddess worship (Devi Ma) in various forms—Durga, Kali, Lakshmi, Saraswati, etc. It was no accidental that Sarada Devi was named after the goddess of learning Saraswati and worshipped by the Master (Sri Ramakrishna) as Living Durga. In her was the silent movement of women’s reform and transformation to suit the needs of modern times. However, she has been ignored over decades by so called feminists in the country and abroad as she did not belong to the category of western feminism. Most failed to understand that she was the bridge between the ancient native culture and the sustainable modern society. She was the boundary where all boundaries dissolved and all cultures merged to evolve as the best of everything.

Mother did not initiate any feminist movement, nor was her education comparable to our modern standards for her to take the stand of a feminist. She was a simple under-educated woman from a remote village who happened to land up in Dakshineswar several years after her marriage. She was veiled, spoke in whispers and almost invisible to public eyes busy with daily chores. Her regular life was simply regular with no charm that could attract a modern woman to her. But she lived her life which could serve as a perfect example of how modern women should adapt to the society without rejecting her traditions yet live a life of independence and authority.[17] (emphasis added)

What the Holy Mother stands for is the highest kind of feminism, which not only demands and acquires equality and liberation but also finds spiritual oneness with all beings. This divine identity with the whole humanity finds outward expression in motherly affection and universal compassion in her person. Here feminism transcends its empirical limitations and becomes a royal path for women to grow spiritually into wonderful personalities. This can be achieved even while living in the mundane world getting emancipated from all its evil effects and bringing about a revolution to change the patriarchal system, not by just protesting, but by innate strengths of character and spiritual potential. It also gives them self-confidence and tremendous enthusiasm to stand affirm against all odds and transform themselves into guardians of spiritual values like purity and auspiciousness. Every woman, by following the footsteps of the Holy Mother will evolve into a soldier who protects civility and sanity in the society.

Avijit Pathak in one of his articles put forward the idea of ‘spiritually enriched feminism’ which he describes in glowing terms:

While the love of power retains the duality by trying to make things upside down, the power of love transcends dualities. It unites; it breaks hierarchies, the walls of patriarchy, the logic of objectification, the violence of commodification and possession. This love emanates from a deep spiritual realisation of oneness amidst symmetrical differences, the flowering of the indivisible soul integrating the masculine and the feminine. This love is the ultimate power—the power of reciprocity and union, the power of mutual elevation, the power of dialogue amidst differences in biology and life-choices, the power of spreading the enchanting ethos of androgyny in every sphere of work, be it cooking or gardening, doing physics or acting as the prime minister. Yes, at its highest stage, feminism becomes spiritual in this sense, and hence ecological and communitarian.[18]

We find this ideal exemplified in the life of the Holy Mother.

Conclusion

The relationship between men and women need not be limited to the mundane level. It can raise to such a spiritual height where one loses the sense of gender and feels the bliss of oneness of Ātman, the divine principle, which has no gender. Feminism should not limit itself to achieve just equality with and liberation from men, but it should aim for something far superior that is to make every woman, a spiritually enlightened person. Sri Sarada Devi proves it is feasible, herself being the living manifestation of this supreme ideal. 

References

[1] Kumari Jayawardena, The White Woman’s Other Burden: Western Women and South Asia During British Rule (London: Routledge, 1995), 9.

[2] ‘Feminist Philosophy’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminist-philosophy> accessed 28 September 2020.

[3] CanLit Guides <https://canlitguides.ca/canlit-guides-editorial-team/postfeminism-and-conservative-feminism/postfeminism> accessed 28 September 2020.

[4] Maitrayee Chaudhuri, ‘Feminism in India: The Tale and its Telling’, Cairn.Info <https://www.cairn.info/revue-tiers-monde-2012-1-page-19.htm#> accessed 28 September 2020.

[5] Feminism and World Religions, Ed. Arvind Sharma and Katherine K Young (US: State University of New York, 1999), 25.

[6] See Women in Hinduism, ‘Context: historical and modern developments: Western scholarship’ <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Hinduism#cite_note-erndl91-154> accessed 29 September 2020.

[7] See Rita Gross, Is the Goddess a Feminist?: The Politics of South Asian Goddesses, eds. Alf Hiltebeitel and Kathleen M Erndl (US: New York University Press, 2000) 104–11.

[8] Tracy Pintchman, Seeking Mahādevī: Constructing the Identities of the Hindu Great Goddess (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 1–3.

[9] Is the Goddess a Feminist?, 108–10.

[10] Nita Kumar, ‘Is the Goddess (Still) a Feminist’, 12 October 2018 <https://thewire.in/women/durga-puja-goddess-feminist>  accessed 29 September 2020.

[11]  Trishia Nicole Goulet, ‘The Lives of Sarada Devi: Gender, Renunciation, and Hindu Politics in Colonial India’ (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 2009), 25 <https://mspace.lib.umanitoba.ca/bitstream/handle/1993/3897/goulet%20the%20lives%20of%20Sarada%20Devi.pdf?sequence=1> accessed 29 September 2020.

[12] ‘Is the Goddess (Still) a Feminist’.

[13] Narasingha P Sil, Divine Dowager: Life and Teachings of Saradamani the Holy Mother (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2003), 25.

[14] The Gospel of the Holy Mother (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 60.

[15] Swami Gambhirananda, Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi (Madras: Ramakrishna Math, 2001), 33.

[16] The Gospel of the Holy Mother (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 74.

[17] Shreyoshi Ghosh, Sarada Devi—The Wonder Woman: A Dedication to the Mother of Humanity, 13 <https://www.academia.edu/28201389/Sarada_Devi_The_Wonder_Woman_A_Dedication_to_the_Mother_of_Humanity> accessed 7 October 2020.

[18] Avijit Pathak, ‘In Search of Spiritually-Enriched Feminism’, 8 March 2018 <https://thewire.in/gender/in-search-of-spiritually-enriched-feminism> accessed 29 September 2020.

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