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Coming Home to Mother

A Visit to Sri Sri Saradeshwari Ashram
Calcutta, India. January 15, 1998
By 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 harmonious.

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 of being.

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