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A Visit to Sri Saradeshwari Ashram

REFLECTIONS ON A VISIT TO SRI SRI SARADESHWARI ASHRAM

By Nilkantha (Neil Feldman)

Here is a veritable palace situated in the city of Calcutta, although you probably wouldn't realize it by looking at its modest exterior. Within its ramparts is a fortress dedicated to truth and intense spiritual discipline. If you spend just a few moments within its walls and encounter its dedicated inhabitants, you will shortly become overwhelmed by its wealth - not any material wealth, but its nobility of purpose and its ample spiritual treasure displayed in abundance.

Here, you can encounter that rarest manifestation - pure, unconditional, all-giving, motherly Love. This is the living legacy bequeathed by Holy Mother herself, and it is practiced to perfection by its sincere women inmates. The Ashram is simply an amazing place, led by wonderful and inspiring personalities in a sacred discipline that has scarcely changed since its inception in 1895.

I believe this place must be a palace--an abode containing the greatest of treasures. How else can one explain its possession of over one hundred of the rarest gems, carefully molded and then finely polished? - for there are the over one hundred dedicated women here living an austere life of self-sacrifice - an unrivaled spiritual treasure, indeed! Highly cloistered, these aspirants follow a very rigorous Iife and orthodox routine. Yet, as part of their intense discipline, each sannyasini is responsible for raising at least six young children. The nuns adeptly shoulder the entire burden of their day - to daily duties. You will not find any hired servants here; all the work of the Ashram is shared amongst the inmates. Even the Revered Mataji Bandana Ma Puri Devi, present head of the Ashram, will be found cleaning the latrines when it is her turn. But, be not deceived - for, if you are lucky, Bandana Ma may also bless you with the most profound spiritual instruction or help you to solve a deep personal dilemma with her gentle grace and wisdom. In yet another encounter, you may hear her testify to the reality of spiritual experiences as you observe heart-rending tears well up in her eyes.

A constant current of unconditional love permeates the entire atmosphere. The room off to the right of the narrow side hallway entrance reserved for male visitors is where Holy Mother first performed the Bhumi Puja before the Ashram was moved to its present location. Beyond that room, no men are allowed into the inner sanctum. Indeed, only in the last few years have any Westerners been granted access here at all. The only women who speak with men are under seven years old or over seventy. Yet, one day, I thought I caught a glimpse of a very familiar face at the side entrance. Was it the benign countenance of Swami Brahmananda's granddaughter living as a sannyasini in the Ashram? I was awe-struck! She looked just like Maharaj (Swami Brahmananda, beloved disciple of Sri Ramakrishna) does in his photographs. For me, this chance encounter inspired a living, breathing link to a world that, until now, had been merely historical and obscure!

 

SRI SRI SARADESHWARI ASHRAM

The Sri Sri Saradeshwari Ashram was established by a most tremendous personage amongst the entourage of Sri Ramakrishna's Lila, known to us today simply and affectionately as "Gauri Ma." Gauri Ma was a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna and a close companion of Sri Sarada Devi. It is a very sad fact that in the west, until now, very little has been spoken about her unique talents, her intense tapasya and boundless love. Gauriananda was the monastic name given to her by Sri Ramakrishna. She displayed a profound talent and proclivity for living a life of hard tapasya. Yet it was Sri Thakur himself who repeatedly requested her to remain in the city of Calcutta and there to begin a work of service to women. He remarked, "Look at the plight of the women in this country; their miseries have no end. Enough of tapasya! You must now be ready to serve them and work for their regeneration!"

Initially, Gauri Ma was quite resistant to his request, but, after some time, she did indeed make a noble sacrifice. She spent her life in service of women and worshipped these women as the living images of the Divine Mother. In 1895, she established her first convent and a women's school on the banks of the Ganges River at Barrackpur, located somewhat north of Calcutta. The Ashram was moved to Calcutta in 1911 , and, thirteen years later, in 1924, the foundation stone of the present site of Sri Sri Saradeshwari was laid. The Ashram was formally opened on this site in December of 1925.

The unique legacy of this Ashram is a vast spiritual storehouse bequeathed by Gauri Ma's intense tapasya. This has been preserved and transmitted from generation to generation. The current head of the Ashram, Revered Mataji Bandana Ma Puri Devi, became Gauri Ma's disciple at the remarkable age of six, Bandana Ma, a highly educated and refined sannyasini, has lived a pure, simple and holy life and is now in her seventies. She remembers the days when the Ashram was so poor that there were no plates for food and the young girls had to eat off the floor. She will tell you, "We have little money. All that we have in the bank is Gauri Ma's tapasya." But note this: the interest accumulated in that unique bank account is paid out in pure, unadulterated motherly affection.
Unfortunately, no written description can adequately convey what kind of true wealth this represents. Revered Nandita Ma Puri Devi, second in charge of the Ashram, readily bestows an unlimited supply of radiant smiles and affectionate glances as she tries her best to convey her deepest experiences and insights to Westerners. Her mother-tongue, Bengali, often mingles with her English as she speaks, but her Love communicates in a language Universal.

In 1893, at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago, Swami Vivekananda first addressed his primarily western audience as "Sisters and brothers of America." He then freely and unconditionally offered the gift of Divine knowledge. Today the holy women of the Sri Sri Saradeshwari Ashram address us as their "Daughters and Sons of America." They nurture the pure, unconditional, universal loving consciousness that was practiced and manifested by Sri Sarada Devi, the Holy Mother. In her, sincere spiritual seekers discover another invaluable gift from the east - the living example of unselfish, sweet and pure Maternal Love. Gauri Ma, the founder of Sri Sri Saradeshwari Ashram, remains as an inspiring direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna as well as a sannyasini of outstanding spiritual and practical accomplishment.

After one hundred years of quiet devotion and seclusion, the holy women of the east are opening their "palace" to Westerners; they know this is Thakur's will. In a profound gesture of grace, kindness, love, and self-sacrifice, they are quietly establishing a new outpost on the Ganges - only this Ganges is located in the State of Michigan. Mother's Trust I Mother's Place, Sri Sri Sarada Mata Ashram located in Ganges, an inconspicuous town on the eastern bank of Lake Michigan - is now to become the first official Western branch of the Sri Sri Saradeshwari Ashram.

Today as we inaugurate the Temple to Holy Mother, Sri Sarada Devi (Sri Sri Ma), and hereafter. let us offer our pranams to the Holy Women of this lineage. May we all enjoy Mother's pure, simple, loving consciousness and thereby realize our highest aspirations. Jai Ma!

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