Skip to content

Women Mystics Series – Sarada Devi and the Role of Tradition

July 9, 2020

Sarada Devi – so serious! But it was customary not to smile in photos at the time

I had planned to write about Sarada Devi as an addition to my Women’s Mystics series way back in March for Women’s History month, but then the world went sideways. Like many of us I was struggling to manage work with kids at home, and provide the best help I could to clients struggling with increased challenges brought on by sheltering in place, economic anxiety, social justice issues, and related trauma triggering. Returning to blogging now, I contemplated the relevance of writing about Sarada Devi – what value could learning about a 19th century woman in India betrothed through an arranged marriage as a young girl to a famous guru, and most well-known for selflessly serving him and his disciples, have to offer me (or you?)

On the surface, very little. I have in fact hesitated to write about her in the past, favoring mystic rebels and groundbreakers. In many ways, Sarada’s life story represents the worst of the patriarchy as it has applied to enlightened teachings and the cultures they largely developed within – she was selected as Ramakrishna’s bride as a young girl in order to serve and ‘anchor’ him, as he was already showing a tendency for high states of meditation that often left him unable to care for himself. He did not openly teach women, so she was not allowed to attend his formal teachings. The house was often filled with young male students, all of whom she was expected to serve. As Ramakrishna and his disciples meditated, sang and danced in blissful ecstasy she was in the kitchen cooking for them all. When they finally went home to sleep, she cleaned up after them. This all left very little time for her own spiritual practice, to which she was, nevertheless, devoted. After his passing, she largely lived in poverty until some of his students realized this and managed to do what they could to care for her. She was the quintessential ‘spiritual wife’ – serving behind the scenes, revered for her ‘purity’ (code word for chastity) and never publicly teaching in her own right.

And yet, I had a profound meditation experience related to Sarada Devi almost thirty-three years ago soon after I first began meditating, and this initiated a lifelong reverence for her within me. She spontaneously appeared in my mind as I practiced, and I felt and saw a powerful flow of gold light transmit from her heart into mine. At the time I had only recently learned about her, and her well-known husband Sri Ramakrishna, through a book I was reading by one of Sri Ramakrishna’s most famous students, Swami Vivekananda. Vivekananda was the first Indian yogi to travel to the United States, to speak at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. He spoke on the unity of all world religions there, a message far before its time, and his speeches and travels throughout the United States played an important role in planting the seeds for the later flourishing of yoga, meditation, energy healing, and the New Age/Human Potential movement.

As all of these have since transformed from counter-culture to Big Business in the West, it occurs to me that in fact looking at Sarada’s life opens up a lot of questions relevant to those of us in this spiritual/energy healing ‘space’ at this time in history. Questions like: How do we separate the patriarchal/sexist history of the traditions from which some of these teachings have come from the teachings themselves? Can they even be separated? Can a culture ‘own’ certain teachings, and if so, what authorizes someone to utilize or adapt them? Where does lineage transmission end and cultural appropriation begin? What, if anything, transcends culture and history as universally human on the spiritual level, and thus is owned by no one (or rather, is the birthright of everyone?)

Sarada herself was born in 1853 in a small Indian village to a poor but high-caste family. Little is known of her life as a child, but at the age of 5 she was betrothed to Ramakrishna, who was 17 years older than her, and was married to him in her teens. According to biographers, the marriage was never consummated, as Ramakrishna wished for a ‘spiritual marriage’, and within his tradition spirituality and sexuality were not linked. In fact, Ramakrishna spoke often to his young male followers of the dangers of ‘women and gold’. While he had many disciples with families, he encouraged them to practice chastity except for procreation. He wished them to preserve their energy for spiritual practice – devotional meditation for long periods of time. He was himself well-known for his high states of bliss, and in his presence many reported themselves transported, their spiritual longings awakened.

Ramakrishna taught at a pivotal time in India’s history. Most of his young students were educated in British-style schools, and studying with him was frowned upon by their families. He was himself illiterate, and to these affluent families, many of whom had benefited materially under British rule, Ramakrishna represented outdated superstitions and nostalgia for India’s past. Despite this, although Ramakrishna only lived to the age of 50, his impact on India’s history through his students was profound. In addition to Vivekananda’s influence by bringing Eastern teachings to the West and asserting the universality of religion, several other of Ramakrishna’s students became prominent supporters of Mahatma Gandhi, their studies with Ramakrishna having fueled their pride in India’s native culture and beliefs, which became a bedrock of Gandhi’s movement to oust the British.

But all of this happened later. While they were young men, Ramakrishna’s students spent hours with him, and Sarada was expected to serve them. While Ramakrishna did not openly teach women, there were several, including Sarada, whom he privately initiated into meditation instruction. She awoke at 3am every morning to meditate before her duties began, and witnesses describe feeling an overwhelming peace emanating from her as she did so. According to one story, a kitchen worker dropped a heavy metal pan on a tile floor while she meditated nearby, and she was so deep in meditation she did not even flinch. When asked about it later, she remembered a wave of vibration had entered her awareness, but it was subsumed by the larger vibration of the states she was experiencing.

In Ramakrishna’s final months Sarada nursed him tirelessly through throat cancer, and some of his senior students came to revere her as the ‘Divine Mother’ – an embodiment of the feminine energies of the universe. When later asked if she was sorry not to have had her own children, she often answered that she loved all the world’s children as her own, and that Ramakrishna’s students were in fact her first children, and the ones to awaken this greater universal love within her. After his passing, when many were bereft with grief, she herself held them together (as woman so often do) while helping arrange the funeral services. As she went to remove her bracelets (as traditional for widows) she saw a vision of Ramakrishna telling her to keep hers on throughout her life, as he had only ‘moved from one room to another.’ She felt a deep spiritual connection to him throughout the rest of her life.

Sarada later in life, one of my favorite photos of her

After his death Sarada quietly devoted herself to spiritual practice, saying to others, ‘practice meditation, and by and by your mind will be so calm and fixed that you will find it hard to keep away from meditation.’ As a widow she had no means of livelihood or even worth within Indian society, and though she moved to her husband’s village as was customary, she fell into poverty. It was Ramakrishna’s disciples who heard of this and moved her to Calcutta where they were forming a new monastic order. Although she never took on a formal teaching role, she did initiate several of the young monks into monkhood, and some of the monks revered her throughout her life. Vivekananda is reported to have said that he could not be in her presence for more than a few minutes, as he would be transported into such states of spiritual bliss that he could not function.

Although she didn’t formerly teach she did lead a small group of women, mostly widows and some of whom had also been initiated into meditation by Ramakrishna. She also devoted herself to service to the poor, and advocated the monks to engage in this service too. She consistently advocated for service to others as a spiritual path, and to this day she is revered within Ramakrishna spiritual centers around the world for her selfless service. Some of the Western women who Vivekananda met on his travels travelled to India to visit and meditate with her, and at her suggestion helped to fund a girls school in India. She passed away in 1920, just as Ghandi, and the many changes he would initiate, gained momentum. Her final words are reported to have been “I tell you one thing—if you want peace of mind, do not find fault with others. Rather see your own faults. Learn to make the whole world your own. No one is a stranger my child: this whole world is your own.”

To me Sarada represents the value of discipline, humility, and compassion in action. While I have often focused here on women mystics who represent the ‘wild’ or ‘fierce’ feminine, the qualities Sarada represents are no less a part of the spiritual journey, and in fact have often been overlooked or even denigrated within contemporary spirituality as we all seek to ‘own our feminine power.’ While her life is not an example of rebellion against patriarchy, and in fact she was only able to receive teachings at all because of her role as a guru’s wife, by all accounts she achieved a high state of realization, and utilized it throughout her life to aid others. And based on my own meditation experience, and those others have shared over the years, she continues to do so from another realm.

As her own final statement conveys, she was also a universalist (like Vivekananda) in the sense of believing ‘the whole world is your own.’ This was in its own way radical at the time, counter to the traditional Indian caste system. Vivekananda, who actually would not come to the United Stated until she blessed his journey, continued this message through his teachings in the West. He believed it was imperative meditation and enlightened teachings travel to the West, and devoted his life to this.

Like so many women before her, Sarada Devi chose to work within the system she was given, and did what good she could. While I have not fully come to peace with her history, and all it represents, I feel looking at her life, and those of many women like her, is just as important as looking at the life of the mystic rebels throughout history. Paraphrasing the famous quote, if we do not look at and understand the past we are destined to repeat it. At a time when we are questioning much about religion, cultural appropriation, sexism and racism in larger society, we also need to look honestly at these same issues within spiritual traditions, including the contemporary New Age movement, in order to assure we are truly creating something ‘new’, and not just packaging the past in a new form.

May you feel the blessings of Sarada’s grace and may it help you navigate these challenging times.

P.S. Please check out my upcoming online events and intensive healing sessions. 

6 Comments leave one →
  1. robinmkinggmailcom permalink
    July 10, 2020 12:23 am

    This is a wonderful post!! 💕

  2. July 10, 2020 12:58 am

    Fascinating, thank you for sharing this.

  3. July 10, 2020 9:05 am

    This is truly an exclusive post… So often we read about great beings like Sri RamaKrishna and their teachings, thinking or knowing little about the people who helped them through out life without desiring anything in return ….. Thank you so much for writing this….

  4. July 10, 2020 5:36 pm

    Glad you liked it:-)

  5. July 10, 2020 5:36 pm

    Thank you Alethea, glad you like it.

  6. July 10, 2020 5:37 pm

    Exactly reikinenergyhealing, this is why I write these historical posts, helps us flesh out the truth around these legends, which helps us reframe our present too. Thanks for commenting.

I love to hear from you...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: