Home to Mother
A Visit to Sri
Sri Saradeshwari Ashram
Calcutta, India. January 15, 1998
Ruth Harring, Ph.D.
Taken from the Mothers Trust Inaugural Booklet
published in 1998.
When we go home to see our mother, we undertake a certain planning
and preparation, and in this process, we build up an anticipation.
Certain memories arise, routine thoughts bred in the familiarity
of going home. We anticipate certain things about the trip home,
be it near or far - how we will travel, what we will take along.
Many things go into building up our expectations. Under the best
of circumstances we anticipate our mother's loving greeting at
the door, her patient listening, her approving responses. Or,
to the contrary, we may anticipate problems in our going home
to our mother - the obligatory sense of duty to visit, arguments
and cross words, disapproval, a feeling of regret and an overall
dissatisfaction with the relationship. But, chances are that,
for most of us, going home to our mother is a mixed experience;
we derive some degree of satisfaction but also experience disappointments.
Despite the circumstances of our going home, and despite the
nature of our relationship - be it good or problematic, pleasing
or displeasing - an undeniable and indestructible bond exists
between us. Moreover, when we go home, intent is there; anticipation
and expectations are there; ego and possessiveness may be there;
likes and dislikes are there, and often disappointment follows.
Our past memories, both positive and negative, have a grip upon
us - we have nurtured expectations which may neither necessarily
nor unconditionally be met. In such a case, we are going home
to see our mother rather than coming home to The Mother.
Our ordinary experience of going home to our mothers is recognizable
to a degree in coming home to The Mother, although, in the latter,
the transcendent qualities predominate. She is the mother we have
always longed for, the one we often expected. But when our mother
failed to meet this lofty expectation, we experienced disappointment.
By contrast, coming home to The Mother cannot be anticipated;
it cannot be planned. Rather, this special homecoming unfolds
- without our intent, without anticipation or expectation; everything
which arises does so spontaneously. Ego dissolves as one can neither
possess nor encompass so great a Mother. As there is no comparable
experience on this occasion, our storehouse of memories - those
past experiences of disappointment and gratification - cease to
have an influence upon us. Nor are we capable of fully expressing
the experience; words abandon one at that moment. Paradoxically,
one simply arrives - at a still point, confronts being rather
than expecting. Thoughts withdraw, evaporate. Only awareness remains.
Rather than going home to one's personal mother, one has come
home to the Universal Mother who abides within, without, everywhere
and with everyone, equally. Such is an experience of coming home
to Sri Sri Saradeshwari Ashram, Calcutta, India--to Sri Sarada
Devi, Gauri Ma, Durga Ma, Subrata Ma, Vandana Ma, Nandita Ma and
the Universal Mother who abides therein.
Somewhere within five minutes walking distance of the Shyambazaar
Metro station in north-central Calcutta, stands the Sri Sri Saradeshwari
Ashram which my husband, Richard, and I visited in mid-January
1998. We had an appointment to meet with Mataji Vandana Ma to
deliver a photo album from their "sister" ashram in
Ganges Township, Michigan, the Sri Sri Sarada Mata Ashram, commonly
known to friends and visitors as Mother's Trust / Mother's Place.
We were simply on an errand for our friends from Mother's Trust
/ Mother's Place and had no particular investment in the day,
no special feeling or motive. Yet, the morning of our visit began
in almost a dream - like atmosphere, as if a veil of serenity
enveloped us. Nothing occurred out of sync; from the moment of
our awakening, every nuance, every act, every utterance seemed
We began our day about 5:15 a.m. with meditation and took our
time getting ready as we weren't expected at Sri Sri Saradeshwari
Ashram before 11 :30 that morning. We had nothing else scheduled
except the visit to the ashram. We thought that, perhaps, upon
our return, we would visit Keddleston Hall, the former Calcutta
residence of Lord Curzon during his reign as Viceroy. We set out
from the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture in the south-east
quadrant of Calcutta and took the subway, known colloquially as
"the metro," up to Shyambazaar, a point nearest our
destination. Although we had received several sets of instructions
on how to find our way to the ashram, once we disembarked from
the metro, we abandoned all these and relied upon our intuition.
To our surprise, within a few minutes, we stood before the several
story "mansion" - the home of Sri Sri Sardeshwari Ashram.
The ashram is impressively painted with that indescribable "sannyas"
color - a pinkish-orange hue (or perhaps one could say ochre)
trimmed in a deeper tone of the same hue, the same colors as the
saris the sannyasinis residing within it wear. The ashram stood
on the corner of a pleasant, though typical, Calcutta street,
wall to wall with other buildings, complete with a broad side
walk and with a lane wide enough for two small Marutis-the most
common vehicle in India nowadays - to pass one another unscathed.
As we had arrived an hour earlier than our appointed time, I posed
for a photograph just outside a decorative side entrance, the
entrance accessed by male devotees (women ordinarily use the front
entrance). In fact, men are not allowed to enter the ashram beyond
the entry and waiting room.
The idea of being a privileged gender, in itself, took some getting
used to - especially in India where men often seem privileged,
and women, for the most part, passively adjust to their relative
position. As I posed, the doors flung wide open, and Nandita Ma
appeared, smiling and welcoming us with her arms outstretched.
Everything from that moment onward was enveloped in total spontaneity.
We entered the ante-room, feeling warmly welcomed but not realizing
whom we had just met, and sat down upon the bench before an enclosed
cabinet-shrine. The shrine contains the photographs of Sri Ramakrishna,
Sri Sarada Devi, Mataji Gauri Ma, founder of the ashram and the
only woman to be given sannyas by Sri Ramakrishna himself. It
also holds photographs of Gauri Ma's successor, Durga Ma (who
happens to be the only woman initiated into sannyas by Holy Mother)
and a photo of Subrata Puri Devi, the spiritual successor of Durga
Ma. It was Subrata Puri Devi who inspired the work of Mother's
Trust / Mother's Place in Michigan. Inside one of the cabinet
doors stands a tall painting of Lord Krishna and Lord Chaitanya.
At first, as we entered, I sat down beside Richard on the long,
narrow bench to wait for Mataji Vandana Ma to arrive so that we
could pay our respects and deliver the photo album. But, in an
instant, I was instructed to follow Nandita Ma into the ashram
while Richard was to remain where he presently sat. Several different
sannyasinis led me through a series of winding stairways, each
one joining and departing from the procession, taking turns, it
seemed, at each new flight of stairs. The staircases spiraled
to the top of the ashram where two shrines to Holy Mother were
located. Dizzied by the rarefied atmosphere and the ethereal women
whose feet barely seemed to touch the ground, I offered my pranams
at each of the shrines. Other ethereal sannyasinis in traditional
saris came and went, peering, it seemed, at the Western visitor
who was somewhat of a spectacle, dressed in a bright blue Punjabi
suit and carrying a mustard-colored Kulu shawl.
I felt an impulse to sit in meditation in front of the shrines,
but events occurred too quickly. Mataji Vandana Ma appeared at
the doorway near the top of the staircase, and I felt an overwhelming
surge, an inner crying, arise, subside and vanish in rapid succession
in her presence. All subsequent ability to think, along with my
ability to speak, vanished in a moment's time. Mataji seemed startled
at my presence; and I felt entirely conspicuous, like an intruder
in this ethereal realm of spiritualized women. I offered my pranam
at the feet of this Holy Mother and felt the "heaviness"
of my presence as she stepped aback slightly.
I followed, nonplussed, behind Mataji Vandana Ma as she took
me on a private tour of the building with various rooms dedicated
as shrines to the holy women of this lineage. Though we made several
verbal exchanges, I remained largely incapable of coherent thought
and my verbal expression was limited to brief utterances. Finally,
in response to one of Mataji Vandana Ma's inquiries, I managed
to utter the simple phrase, "I can't talk"- a unique
admission for someone who teaches at a university. Mataji mercifully
led me to a shrine in a lower level where I sat in meditation
for a while.
Afterwards, Nandita Ma oversaw my slow consumption of the generously
portioned dishes of prasad which they had specially prepared that
day for us. Meanwhile, Richard remained seated in the corner ''waiting"
room for men - a space equally special, as this is where Gauri
Ma had once done her tapasya prior to the encroachment of a sprawling
city when the grounds were still an open field. He, too, was being
offered prasad while Mataji Vandana Ma spoke informally with him.
I finally regrouped and gathered the presence of mind to deliver
the photo album and requested permission to take a few photographs.
Having been given a sweet prasad to take along, we made our departure.
Before leaving, Mataji Vandana Ma inquired, "Are you going
straight home?" As soon as I replied, "Perhaps not,"
I realized that her words were more directive than interrogatory.
Still in a bit of a daze, I ventured forth with Richard from the
ashram onto the street. To stabilize myself, I took his arm. Nandita
Ma's sweet intonation rang across the lane from the ashram door
where "...may Mother always be kind to you," echoing
in my mind as we ambled down the lane disappearing into the metro
to return to the Ramakrishna Mission Cultural Institute - without
our intended stop at Keddleston Hall.
I spent the remaining portion of the day leisurely editing the
American edition of a text on meditation by Swami Bodhananda with
whom I had been working in New Delhi. And later on, I went for
the evening arati and meditation in the universal "silent
meditation room on the third floor of the Cultural Institute.
Thus, the day ended as it began thoroughly and completely in serenity.
Although the exterior events of the days have primarily been
recounted here, the inner experience still remains both mysterious
and inexpressible to me. The day unfolded as a descent of grace.
And I have only this to say: that when we abandon our conditioning,
our psychological accouterments, our likes and dislikes, our expectations,
possessiveness, memories, hurts, anxieties, desires, and leave
all else behind, we fall, like a ripened fruit, into the lap of
the Universal Mother. Returning to our mother is forever altered.
A shadow has fallen away, and in her we see a reflection of The
Mother. And, I suspect, from this experience, that another veil
lifts, and we realize that we are never going nor coming, arriving
nor returning, and that home is not merely a place but a state