A shining example
As a glorious link between tradition and modernity, Sarada Devi had an unquestionable influence in the movements for the emancipation of women
According to Aristotle –"The virtue of man is in eloquence and that of women in silence". Well, these words have found truth when women in silence have revolutionised the minds of millions. History bears testimony to the character and conduct of those female individuals, who, by dint of their personality and philosophy epitomised a genre of intellectual movement and made them relevant as modern in the real sense of the term. Nineteenth-century India saw a renaissance and one of the results of that movement was an elevation in the status of women in society. Globally, thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft had set the ball rolling to assert the rights of women. Nineteenth-century Bengal had Sarada Devi, The holy mother as an individual who was almost an unseen silent force in fostering social changes during her times. However modern approach towards analysing her social role reveals her undaunted influence in the movements for women emancipation. More than that Maa Sarada is still our contemporary for she resembles modernity more than many modern activists. What is even more amazing is her propensity for remaining deeply rooted in Indian ethos and spirituality to find a solution to a social malady by unfolding a wider canvass of love and humanity; something not so emotively present in the feminist theories of the western world.
Holy mother Sarada Devi was an unprecedented phenomenon, in as much as she was a wife, a nun, a mother and a teacher all rolled into one. As a glaring example of multi-tasking, in each of these entities, she displays a command bound by affection. The supreme confidence with which she discharges all these roles puts her way ahead of her generation, for she reminds the modern woman in efficiency and determination. Her professionalism in conduct and character would give a lot of modern professional women a run for their money. No wonder individuals like Sister Nivedita had a profound admiration for her. Others like Ole Bull were no less impressed. To quote Sister Nivedita, "I felt such a wonderful freedom in the blessing you gave me, and in your welcome home!". Someone can enjoy freedom in the company of another individual who believes in freedom. Holy mother was such an individual as to believe in the dictum of freedom, particularly for women. That is why she could utter to one of her devotees "Why should you be afraid? What should frighten you?" Now we should ask ourselves- Is it not a shade of feminism? Is it not a ray of modernism? Nineteenth-century western feminist thinkers like Frances Wright advocated for the importance of reason and critical thinking for women. Sarada Devi had already emphasised on it in her discourse to all and sundry that she chanced to meet. One can amaze and yet fall short of accolades to witness the worldly pragmatism and social amiability glowing in the holy mother's timeless counsel –" Do not find fault with others. Rather see your own faults". I suppose this is one of the keynotes to any managerial lesson on confidence-building measures. Anywhere in the world, individual rights and education go hand to hand. Sarada Devi was aware of it and that too at a time when the education of women was almost like a social vice. She did not go to any school but was immensely involved in the foundation of the school set up by Sister Nivedita in Calcutta. When the west was vouching for female literacy as a mark of women liberation, the holy mother was equal to the same disposition. Not only did she speak for the education of women, but she also wanted education for widows for she believed that widows who were already subject to social injustice could use education as a tool to reaffirm their position in the society.
The modern sense of socio-political freedom thrives on the dissolution of social barriers. Poets like Sylvia Plath opined in favour of withering of social constrictions and demarcations as a complement to personal liberty, especially for the females. Maa Sarada epitomised all these features. Her maternal solicitude knew no barriers or bounds. She transcended caste, creed, colour or community in her associations or dealings with others. Her sense of dignity of labour would challenge a modern American cosmopolitan. During the time she lived, nursing was not a dignified profession. But knowing one of her acquaintances involved in the profession, she not only complimented her but also regarded the profession as noble since it involved serving the ailing and sick. Like a true liberator, she supported vocational attainment of women as a means of their self-dignity. Today when we eulogise many female professionals for their leadership in various organisations, how can we forget Sarada Devi for her astounding role in consolidating the organisational set up of Ramakrishna Mission. It was she who tended and guided the Ramakrishna Movement in its incipient stage. The direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, including Swami Vivekananda, looked up to her concurrence for decisions, affecting them both institutionally and individually. Swami Vivekananda aptly adorned her- "making her the nucleus, once more Gargis and Maitreyis be born into the world".
The holy mother was an embodiment of 'shakti' without which emancipation is impossible. According to critics like Vasudha Narayan, western feminism focuses on issues related to rights, equality and liberation. The holy mother stands for that spiritual strength that women need today to achieve the goals of feminism. Her feminism is spiritual feminism where along with equality and liberation, spiritual oneness with all beings, is also a prerogative. Though Sarada Devi was not an activist or a feminist in an academic sense, yet at the same time, she articulated a place for herself in a patriarchal society which could be constituted, in some ways as a feminist. She was psychologically in tandem with the problems of gender- hierarchy. She could also recognise the problem of social inequity pertaining to gender. She did not abide by social conventions in every aspect, for that matter, when during menstruation days women were condemned from domestic activities like cooking and worshipping, Sarada Devi cooked 'Shukto' and 'Jhol' for the troubled stomach of Sri Ramakrishna. This liberalism was the influence of Sri Ramakrishna on her. Maa Sarada would reckon her name as Saradamoni without adding 'Chattopadhyay' which was the surname of her husband. This is a statement in favour of self-identity; an act which is more akin to the modern sense of gender- equality.
Coming in the line of the great women of India, who have shed lustre on womanhood, Sarada Devi brought about a silent revolution in the lives of Indian women without much ado. Time has come to acknowledge this impact which is sustaining in itself and whose sustenance is vital for our psycho-social enrichment. Her ideals and practice emanate a refined sense of feminine liberalism, both materially and psychologically. Maa Sarada stands as a glorious link between tradition and modernity. The observations of Sister Nivedita, though like an epigram, sums up the position of Sarada Devi – "Is she the last of an old order or the beginning of a new one ?"
The writer is an educator. Views expressed are personal