My Life with Sri Ramakrishna & Lessons on the Motherliness of God
My Life with Sri Ramakrishna & Lessons on the Motherliness of God
by the Reverend Mother Sudha Puri
Since 1995, Reverend Mother Sudha Puri has been the first Western woman spiritual leader at both the Ananda Ashrama in La Crescenta, CA and the Vedanta Centre in Cohasset, MA. Introduced to spirituality and Hinduism at the age of 14, she chose a monastic life and was accepted into an Episcopal order at the age of 17. All that changed in her thirties when she met, Mother Gayatri Devi, a Hindu teacher in the Ramakrishna Vedanta tradition.
The lineage of this order goes back to Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886), who revolutionized the teaching of Vedanta for the Indians of his time, for women, and for Western culture. One of his most notable students, Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) set many precedents by coming to the United States to speak at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893 and is credited with raising interfaith awareness. In 1906, Swami Paramananda (1884-1940), his youngest monastic disciple, was sent to New York City to assist at the first Vedanta Society in this country.
Like his teacher, Vivekananda, Swami Paramananda traveled and taught throughout the USA, Asia and Europe. He established four centers—two in America and two in Calcutta, India—all of which are still thriving today. In 1926, Paramananda brought his student Gayatri Devi (1906-1995) from India to the states as his assistant and, ultimately, his successor.
In 1940, Gayatri Devi became the first Indian woman to be ordained to succeed a swami as the spiritual head of the American ashramas. For 55 years, she worked closely with many great teachers from many faith traditions, including Father Thomas Keating, founder of the Snowmass Group and pioneer in interfaith dialogue, Pema Chödrön, Roshi Tetsugen Bernie Glassman, Imam Bilal Hyde, Grandfather Gerald Red Elk, and Rabbi Rami Shapiro. She chose her student and assistant, Sudha Puri, as her successor.
In this reflection, The Reverend Mother Sudha Puri shares her story and experiences with the Ramakrishna Brahmavadin tradition and shares valuable teachings on the motherliness of God and the equality of women.
I had taken three years of Spanish in high school, and in my senior year, our wonderful teacher introduced us to the poetry of Saint Teresa of Avila in Spanish. I don’t know if they could be read in public schools now, but I’m so glad that we could do it then. I fell in love with her mystical poetry in Spanish. Saint Teresa of Avila—the great Spanish mystic, saint, and reformer—became my patron saint. During that period of time, I had a vision of her face. I’m not sure whether it was imaginary or not, but the image to me was the face of Saint Teresa. I thought, “I’ll just hold it as an ideal as I go through life.”
Around Easter time in 1980, I was teaching at a junior high school near the Ananda Ashrama in La Crescenta, California—a spiritual retreat founded in 1923 by Swami Paramananda and based on the universal teachings of Vedanta as expounded by India’s 19th century prophet, Sri Ramakrishna.
I had recently seen the wonderful movie, “Jesus of Nazareth,” by Franco Zeffirelli on television and considered what it would it be like to meet Jesus and to follow him or another such soul with complete surrender, leaving everything behind. It was just before Holy Week, and I thought, “I’ve been meditating, and I have had a spiritual practice for a long time, but I’d like to be more deeply moved.” This was an impetus to visit a couple of places during Holy Week. Many of them didn’t do it for me. So, I thought I’d find out if the ashrama had a meditation group. I called them, and they said, “Yes, every Thursday evening at 8 o’clock.”
They said, “Come on up, and by the way, our spiritual teacher will be here from Boston.” Their spiritual teacher from Boston didn’t make any difference to me at that time. It was just the meditation group that was important. So on Holy Thursday, I went up. The temple was beautiful. At the beginning of the service, the spiritual leader came down the aisle, went up onto the platform, and made her obeisance to the shrine. When she turned, her face was the same face I had seen as Teresa of Avila when I was a teenager. It was an unbelievable feeling; it was as if all my spiritual aspirations had come to fruition in some remarkable way, and I had found my teacher.
After the service, I naturally spoke with her, and there was mutual recognition. She knew that I was someone who was important to her as well. She never typically spoke to people on Good Friday, but after the Good Friday service, she met with me. It was a life-transforming event, and that moment began my time at the ashrama. I was still working, and I didn’t come to live there until two years later because I needed my father’s blessing. When I moved in, I became a resident and brahmacharini, a novice, a religious sister in this work.
My teacher, Mother Gayatri Devi or “Mataji,” became very important to me. She had so many of the same qualities and approaches that I had read of Saint Teresa of Avila in Marcelle Auclaire’s wonderful biography of her—it was a synchronicity of spirit for me to meet her. This is not to say that being her disciple was an easy thing because she certainly put all of her disciples through the fire. With her, I was able to find expression for this tremendous realization that there was something bigger and much greater than I had certainly ever previously conceived of.
Mother Gayatri Devi has said: “The first principle a lover of man must follow is this: to accept mankind as it is. Expect the best from it, but if it fails, do not be disappointed. Herein lies the true expression of the impersonal life.”
Mataji loved and accepted every single soul who came into her life. She accepted us all at whatever level we were at in any given time. She never asked that difficulties would be taken from us but always prayed that we would have the strength to endure, to go within, and to handle them. She was always going within. “Go within, go within,” she would say. She wasn’t one of those gurus whom you could ask what kind of dog to buy next or whether you should buy a house. “Go inside and get your guidance. You will know,” she would say. She never gave us answers to anything and only taught spiritual principles. Her example was the biggest lesson. When someone was really off the beam, she would always pray that their soul, the guide within, the God within, would guide them. With her, it was never a matter of talking to somebody and pointing out their faults and limitations or their misbehaviors. She knew it only created defense mechanisms and resistance and that it takes life itself and the lessons that come from it to awaken one to a different way of being.
When she talked about the impersonal life, it was about having a detachment from expectations. Expectations—especially if they’re unrealistic expectations about how people or things ought to be—cause disappointment all the time. Her embodied teaching was to accept people as they are, knowing that they are not going to change simply because we expect them to or ask them to. We all have to change from within.
Mataji was a little like the sun. Sometimes you wanted her to love you in a special way because you were you, but she wasn’t like that—she was the sun that shines on everyone, even the person who’s driving you nuts. You could never get from her any kind of secret favoritism or the feeling that this one was somehow less loved or less respected or cared for than someone else.
She lived the impersonal life in these ways—a life detached from the illusion of personal attraction and the suffering that goes with it. She wanted our highest good and greatest happiness, and whatever that required along the way, she was there to support and pray and to embody the teachings.
The impersonal life is not a life without feeling or emotion. I asked her once about detachment. Is it just sort of a neutral, grey feeling? She said, “No. When something is there, enjoy it. When it isn’t there, accept it.” In my 15 years of living with her, being trained by her, I can tell you with every cell of my being that she was the real deal. She followed the principles that she preached on Sundays and in classes, and, as her teacher, Swami Paramananda said, “she did it.” She came to the realization that the three most important things to her were: 1. to em- brace our undeniable relationship with the Divine, 2. to practice the presence of the Divine in whatever we do, and 3. to pray without ceasing. When she was really ill toward the end of her life, her lips were still moving as she was praying.
Mataji’s teachings—and those of her teacher, Swami Paramananda, and those of his teacher, Swami Vivekananda—are based upon the teachings of the prophet Sri Ramakrishna. Some of his contemporaries declared that Sri Ramakrishna was an Incarnation or avatar. He did achieve complete Self-realization or oneness with the Divine within his own path as an orthodox Brahmin. He was curious about other different schools of Hinduism, so he studied and immersed himself in them and, in doing so, he achieved the same realization.
Over time, he became interested in Islam. He studied and practiced under a Sufi teacher, and not only did he have a visionary experience of Mohammed, saying what a wise and beautiful soul he was, but he also experienced his oneness with Allah. He similarly began a study and practice of Christianity and experienced oneness with God in this path as well. In Calcutta at the time, so many of the young people were throwing out Hinduism and accepting British ways. They had begun to look at Hinduism as a very archaic superstitious amalgam of stuff that had been created over the millennia and they were tossing it out. Ramakrishna, based on his practice and immersion, gave a new direction—a new opening—for Hinduism during this era. He taught that these ancient Vedic principles—what might be called universal laws—have something tremendous to offer to all people.
Ramakrishna—based on his own direct spiritual experience within these traditions and not simply a study of comparative religions—found the Divine fully present at the core of each religion. One of his primary teachings is that all the world religions, followed in sincerity, achieve the same goal: unity with the Divine. Many people considered him, during his lifetime, the reincarnation of Jesus or Rama or Krishna or Buddha, these great incarnations who came, as the Bhagavad Gita says, to reestablish the Dharma and to refocus our attention on what’s real in the moments when we wander off the beam. We have so much sectarian violence, not just with weapons but also in our own minds with our own prejudices and bigotry. It seems to me, for this age, the understanding that each of these religions has aspects of the truth is important. God is infinite. There are infinite paths to him.
Sri Ramakrishna said that his wife, who was his first disciple, Sarada Devi, manifested God’s motherliness. The marriage was never consummated in the physical sense, but they were spiritual partners, par excellence. She was much younger than he was, so when he passed away at the age of 50 years old he said, “I’m leaving her behind to manifest God’s motherliness.” She was also an orthodox Brahmin, but all who called her mother were received as her children. In those days, caste restrictions didn’t allow people of lower caste to come anywhere near a high caste Brahmin. Sarada Devi embraced rich and poor. It didn’t matter what religious tradition; it didn’t matter what caste; it didn’t matter what race. Each and every one who came to her felt unconditionally loved by her. And so this is the expression of what the Divine thinks is important: goodwill towards all living beings, compassion, and lovingkindness.
When Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna’s great disciple, came to the United States, many orthodox Hindus believed he had lost caste by crossing the ocean and eating with untouchables—that is, us Westerners. But he was led to speak at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and he did to great effect. He introduced Hinduism and Yoga to the United States in 1893.
When Swami Paramananda founded the Vedanta Centre of Boston in 1909, he laid three important principles down. First is the equality of Indians and Westerners—one culture was not superior to another in any way. Second is equality between men and women, and as a result women have always been in the leadership of our work. And third is equality between householders and monastics because in many cultures monastics have been considered a cut above householders because they obviously dedicate their whole lives to the Divine. But, after all, who has the more difficult role—a householder who holds these principles and keeps a spiritual practice going while being a parent and working to support a family or a monastic? It’s much easier to become a monastic in some ways.
Swami Paramananda, in particular, wanted all of his monastics to really follow the example of Holy Mother Sarada Devi. She was considered to be what Vedanta looks like embodied; what Vedanta principles look like in daily life. She was both a nun and a householder. When they were married and she came to live with Ramakrishna after he had gone through years of the most difficult spiritual practices, he said, “You have every right to have a claim on me as a husband. What is your desire?” She said, “I desire only to come and learn and to serve. I only desire to help you achieve your spiritual goal.” So, that was her role always. She never had children of her own, and he said, “Don’t worry about it. You’ll get so tired of hearing the name mother, you just can’t even imagine it. So many people will be coming.”
As a matter of fact, she had almost 2,000 initiated disciples. Thousands of people came to her for her blessing. She never gave a public lecture. She never wrote a book. She took care of her family and all of the family of devotees that surrounded Ramakrishna. She was very wise and very progressive.
A mother once came to her absolutely frantic because was worried about arranging dowries and arranging good marriages for her five daughters. It was considered the duty of parents to arrange marriages for their children. Holy Mother said something very progressive to her: “Don’t worry. If it doesn’t work out easily, send them to school so they don’t have to be dependent upon a man and so they can also contribute greatly to society and culture. School will open up a whole new world to them.”
She herself never had an education. It wasn’t part of village life in those days. She learned to read but didn’t write very well.
Inspired by Sri Ramakrishna’s direction, Swami Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Order in 1897. The monks looked to her forspiritual guidance. Whenever there was a big question about what direction the Order should go, they always went to Holy Mother for direction. So, when Swami Vivekananda was invited to come to the United States, breaking the barriers of caste, he went to her, and she gave her blessing.
One of the gifts that Hinduism gives us in the West is the concept that God could be motherly as well as fatherly. The truth that the Divine is both masculine and feminine as spirit allows us to realize the inclusiveness of the Divine. The ancient rishis, or sages, refer to the Divine as Tat, which means that. How do you describe the indescribable? The minute you start describing it, you’re putting it in a shoebox and limiting it. It’s wonderful that Hinduism has given us the tradition of actually being able to worship the Divine as Mother.
In my discipleship, I learned what it meant that Swami Paramananda wanted all of us to aspire to the type of motherliness that Holy Mother had embodied. Sarada Devi herself often walked the 68 miles back and forth between Calcutta and her village in Jayrambati. Devotees had to walk, too, in order to visit her. No matter what time of day disciples came, she would get up and make chapattis. When disciples arrived she would say, “I’m your mother. I’m your real mother. I care about you as a real mother.”
The British encouraged a village of poor Muslims near Jayrambati to raise silk worms, but they couldn’t compete with the silk manufacturing that was going on in other places. So, the Muslim community was getting more and more impoverished—they had no food, and there was a drought. They would come to Holy Mother and beg for food, and she would take care of them, giving them money and clothes. She was not rich herself, but people gave her offerings.
The Hindus in the village were afraid of them because they turned to banditry to feed their families, but Holy Mother would hire members of the Muslim community to come and fix the thatch on her house or make other repairs so they would have jobs, and then she would say, “Aren’t you hungry for lunch?” One time she brought them to her house and laid down the banana leaves they were going to eat on. Her niece, in serving the food, threw it at them, letting the food go flying across the room because she didn’t want to come near them and lose caste. Holy Mother said, “How can anyone enjoy a meal if you give it to them with such disdain?” So, she sat with them herself, fed them, talked to them, and cleaned up after them. They said, “Aren’t you afraid of losing caste?” She said, “We’re human beings.” She broke taboos to present a different way of being.
Our Mataji lived this way herself. She very much embodied the Holy Mother’s essence and way of being with this inclusiveness and non-judgmental quality. She loved unconditionally, and she transformed the lives of many through her love. People would often tell me, “You know, I know how much she loves me.”
Ramakrishna said that lust, anger, and greed are the main fetters that we have to examine and eliminate from our lives. As we eliminate them from our own lives, we eliminate them from our larger family life, and this influences the whole, all living beings. Ramakrishna taught that the main spiritual practice for this age is truth. Truthfulness is vital. We should be men and women of truthfulness, honesty, and integrity. If we have things to hide, eliminate them so that we can be transparent. Swami Paramananda would say that each of us has to become the standard for the world. How do we wish others to be and to act in this world? We mustn’t add more hatred to the reservoir of hatred that is already in the world; we must overcome our own prejudices, bigotry, and our lack of understanding. Whatever unkindness and ignorance we overcome in ourselves is like adding yeast to the bread, the whole thing rises. What we do affects all living beings. This, again, is an aspect of God’s motherliness. §
Rev. Mother Sudha Puri is the spiritual leader and minister who guides the work of the Vedanta Center in Cohasset, MA. She divides her time between Ananda Ashrama and Vedanta Centre. She entered the monastic community of the Ramakrishna tradition in 1980 as Dr. Susan Schrager, an educational psychologist and teacher.