“How would the lives of Western women have been different if they had been raised to believe that God was a Mother, all loving and all powerful?” It is with this thought-provoking question that Lisa “Prajna” Hallstrom opens her book Mother of Bliss on the life of the Bengali woman saint, Anandmayi Ma(1896-1982). Hallstrom, through this book, sought to understand the phenomenon of female spiritual Gurus in India. (See her website)
The book is based on recorded Q&A sessions as well as interviews with 42 devotees (24 householders and 14 renunciants, 25 women and 17 men) and an additional 7 other people who were in close contact with Anandamayi Ma. This article, which is derived from the book, discusses the versatile manner in which Anandmayi Ma functioned as a Guru to her innumerable followers. It is instructive to examine such Guru-disciple interactions so that we may mould our lives accordingly (rather than gather mold!).
Calibrating the technique to the individual
Individuals come to the spiritual path in all shapes and sizes. Some are drawn to Divine in beatific forms, while others contemplate on the formless; Some are intellectually accomplished and others may be devotional in nature. Consequently, a good Guru has to tailor the spiritual techniques to the Swadharma(law of being or psychic orientation) of every individual. The Buddha denotes this capacity of the Guru as upaya kaushalya(skill in means) and Hinduism in general calls it Adhikara-Bheda(adapting to varying capacity). With her enlightened consciousness, Anandamayi Ma would assess the capacities of every individual, singling out a few for intensive practice while allowing the rest to focus their entire practice on her as their ishta devata (cherished deity), by surrendering their ego to her. She encouraged each individual to be true to their ashrama (stage in life) – be it ascetic or householder. Some were admitted to her Ashram as renunciants and others were expected to live pious lives as householders. In this way, she created an esoteric core of disciples within the larger community of devotees.
The spiritual practice centered around mantra-chanting, meditation, ritual worship(puja), and devotional singing (bhajan) as well as reading and imbibing the message of the Bhagavad Gita and other sacred texts drawn from the Bengali Vaishnava and Shakta tradition. Some individuals were prescribed meditation, others chanting and yet others were prescribed ritual worship or some combination thereof based on the basic orientation of their personality. In some cases, husband and wife were asked to worship together at some pre-selected time of the day.
Once an overwhelmed young housewife who received instructions for her practice asked Ma, “How will I do all this?”. Ma replied, “Why ten minutes is not such a big thing!”. Ma then told her that if she tried to sit for longer, she would only be thinking about boiling milk. “Later,” Ma said, “you can chant the name in your mind when you’re working.”
While some were asked to undertake rigorous askesis, those who were prescribed the path of surrender were asked to simply become conscious of their ego and surrender to the Divine will. She told them:
Where complete self-effacement is the sadhana(practice), no other mantra or tantra is required. Try to become as a little child and without any other effort on your part, the Great Mother of the World will take you in Her arms. But, if on the contrary, you wish to be guided by your own intelligence, you will have yourself to shoulder the entire responsibility for your uplift. Are you not weary of the play of your reason, have you not tasted enough of victory and defeat? Now is the moment to throw yourself into the Mercy of the Almighty as one without shelter and support. Leap into His embrace and you will be released from cares. Remember that it is the pure fool who shall find God.
Her meeting with two merchants illustrates the consummate flair with which she assessed and awakened people:
I met two seths(merchants), rich people [on a train]. I asked them to give bhiksha (alms), saying, “What can you give?”. They were afraid. They thought I was asking for money. They said, “We want to leave right now.” I said, “But you said that you want to hear something spiritual from me. I did not ask you to come here. You have come on your own. You asked me to speak and I started speaking. You said you will do as I say. Now when I started talking about alms you are talking of leaving.” Both were looking dumbstruck. They were caught in their own words…. “What do you want?” one of them asked, “Beans, rice, flour? Whatever you need I shall give you.” I explained, “Remember Him who has created you. That is the only alms I want from you.” Then he listened to me with great attention and interest and said after listening to me, “I shall surely do as you say. The truth is that we are rich people and we are engaged twenty-four hours a day in these things alone.” I said, “At least take off fifteen minutes for Him a day.” I thought, “Everybody is busy with this world alone. There should be some efforts to return to their real home.”
Be my friend!
Those who are drawn to the spiritual path are often confronted with the knotty question of marriage and a suitable partner. Here too, Anandamayi Ma provided guidance based on the Swadharma(law of being or psychic orientation) of each individual.
Certain individuals whom she considered mature enough to lead an ascetic life were encouraged to remain celibate. One individual, when he was about fifteen, went to see Ma in Brindavan with his grandmother. Ma said to him, “Aaj se hum bandhu,” or “From today we are friends.” Ma’s friends were her celibate, renunciant disciples. Although she called all children bandhu(friends), if she said, “From today we are friends,” it was considered a command to live a celibate life.
Another case concerned a woman who was about to leave for study in America. Ma shocked her by saying, “You are going. I have given you permission to go, but you be careful. You don’t mix with boys or don’t go into some action that is not proper in a life of a kumari (a virgin girl).” The next advice she gave her was, “You are my friend. I call unmarried boys and girls my friends. Be my friend all your life. Don’t get married ever.” That was a very point-blank instruction given to a very modern smart girl who had all hopes for a future career and life.
For householders, the overall directive was to fulfill the ashrama(stage of life) to perfection, to be a sadgrihasta, a true householder. According to one devotee, this meant living a dharmic or controlled life. Hallstrom asked the householder devotees if Ma expected them to be celibate in their marriages. The answer was a resounding “No.” One woman replied, “No, I’ll tell you. It’s that you do not have or you do not even think about having extra-marital sex. Within the rules of the shastras, if you and your husband cleave to each other, then you are as good as someone who is celibate. Ma always said, ‘Celibacy is of the mind. If you are celibate with your body and in your mind you are lusting after somebody else, then that is not celibacy.’”
Anandamayi Ma lived in a simpler time where she did not have to deal with hookup sex, friends with benefits, open marriage, serial polygamy, prenuptial agreements, divorce, child custody disputes, abandonment issues and other contemporary innovations and awful complications. Despite all that, her suggestions should not be considered outdated because they were driven not by the culture of the age but by timeless insights into the austerities that are needed to unveil the effulgent soul which sits within each individual. The takeaway lesson for those who wish to progress inwardly is that, irrespective of the age you live in, it is always beneficial to seek a relationship which is long-term rather than short-term, and especially one which is centered around a higher spiritual ideal. Attention expended on fickle temporary partners eventually exhausts the vitality and can even leave traumatic memories, which in turn create deeper subconscious weaknesses (i.e. Karma) which have to be overcome.
Leave not thy goal to follow a beautiful face.
Only when thou hast climbed above thy mind
And liv’st in the calm vastness of the One
Can love be eternal in the eternal Bliss
And love divine replace the human tie.
(Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, Book VI, Canto I)
Two wings of the bird : effort and grace
As Hallstrom perceptively points out, there is parallel tension between the philosophical schools of jnana yoga and the Vaishnava and Shakta schools of bhakti yoga, which is the tension between self-effort and grace and their relative importance. Schools that emphasize jnana, tend to emphasize self-effort; schools that emphasize bhakti tend to emphasize grace (kripa), and surrender (prapatti). The reconciliation between these differences lies in the fact that irrespective of whether Ma asked someone to follow the path of knowledge, the path of yoga, or the path of devotion, it was ultimately the path of turning within, or introversion, called nivritti. While pravritti is looking to the materialistic world for enjoyment, nivritti is looking within for the truth, for God. In a talk Ma gave, she expatiated that each individual is required to put in some effort, according to his or her capacity, in order to qualify for Grace:
So, it is your duty to prepare your spiritual field to receive the rains of aurhetu kripa (undeserved grace) in time. Had it not been your responsibility, what was the use of coming over here and doing all this sadhana? What was the necessity of doing this action (kriya)? To think that “He will shower his grace and everything will be all right” is totally wrong. Why do you not rely on his grace for eating and drinking? Why do you do business and have these big factories? Do you not use your hands and minds for these worldly things? Then why do you not use your mind in spiritual realm also? He is very kind, there is no doubt about it. He has given you these hands and this mind only because He is kind. So use them for His work. Then automatically your mind will be ready to receive the rains of His beautiful, ever-raining Grace. How many avaranas (veils) are over your mind. Remove those veils. Then your vessel, which is not straight, will become right. But this will be done by a person’s own power, not by the Grace of God. No doubt His power will help you because without Him no one will succeed in his efforts.
One individual, Subodh Chattaraj, undertook rigorous austerities and had certain experiences, but later as he continued the same practices, the experiences did not repeat. He asked Ma why he wasn’t getting anything although he was trying so hard. She replied, “Those things cannot be earned by practice. It comes with the higher grace. It comes sometimes.”
On the other hand, there were people who would often ask Ma’s Grace to help them obtain good fortune, children, and other worldly comforts. Ma would reply, “Don’t waste time in this way. Ask for something great.” One Swami praised Swami Jnanananda: “He has taken whatever Ma wanted to give; we have taken only worldly things. Ma can give the spiritual world, but we were interested only in good living and good food.”
The following anecdote from the book concerns an individual who had a dream in which Anandamayi Ma encouraged her to keep up the effort:
Ma came in my dream. There was a narrow path going along a hill, dimly lit. I am just about able to see Ma. Then she comes up to me and she says, “See, you have come up this path. It looks very difficult. But I am telling everyone, ‘It won’t be difficult if you carry me on your back.’ “Those were her words. She means if you take her with you always. But she told me, “Nobody’s willing to do it!” She said this. She said, ”I’m telling everybody. ‘Don’t be put off by the path. You just have to carry Me with you. It will be made easy!’ But they are not willing to do it. “Then I tell her”–(of course, this looks like a little bit of ego)— “Ma, I think I will do it.” She says, “Oh, will you do it, will you?” She seems so pleased in the dream! So, Ma was the manifestation of love and compassion. She wants us to pick it up and manifest it, too. The guru expects you to be like him.
Grace and self-effort are called the two wings of the bird, and the seeker who maintains a perfect balance between them eventually reaches liberation (soul awakening). It is incumbent, therefore, to persevere while being patient.
- Lisa Hallstrom, Mother of Bliss: Anandamayi Ma, (NY : Oxford University Press, 2008) pp 142-143.
- How does a Guru act?
- Stages in the spiritual journey (Anandamayi Ma)
- Identifying the signs of spiritual progress
- Some disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother
- Signs of spiritual apitude
- Signs of readiness for the spiritual path
- Modalities of the Initiation process (Diksha)
- Are Indians more spiritual?
- The foundation of spiritual relationships
- Developing one’s own spiritual atmosphere (Gita 3:17)
- Developing discernment on which actions are spiritual
- The spiritual aptitude (adhikara) needed for Yoga