Establishing a Permanent Foundation
AS THE ASHRAM EXPANDED, it frequently moved to new locations, but it was not possible to extend the work in rented quarters as much as Gauri Ma would have liked. The foundations of the institution were not stable, and each month there was the problem of rent. Well-wishers became keenly aware of the necessity for Saradeshwari Ashram to have its own premises. Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi encouraged Gauri Ma to consider purchasing land. Gauri Ma used to say, "If Mother is worrying about the ashram, then what need is there for me to worry?"
Gradually, efforts were made to acquire land, but the ashram had no arrangements for money. Depending entirely on Bhagavan Sri Ramakrishna. Gauri Ma prepared herself to shoulder this task. After visiting many prospective locations, she finally selected a spot on Maharani Hemanta Kumari Street in Shyambazaar. Partly on her own responsibility and partly with the help of many kind people, she purchased this land for a total of 12,000 rupees. At Gauri Ma's entreaties, Holy Mother visited the ashram and was very pleased. "There will be a good ashram in this place, and the women will be very happy here," she said. Possessing the treasure of Mother's blessings, Gauri Ma's enthusiasm multiplied a hundredfold.
Once the land was purchased, Gauri Ma had to erect a building that was useful and suitable for her plans. But an enormous sum of money was required. Where would it come from? Gauri Ma decided to beg from house to house to raise money, but how could the work be completed in this way? Until a large sum of money materialized, it was not possible even to start the actual construction of the building.
While the convent was still at the rented house, one evening a gentle and unassuming woman came to visit the place. Her dress was simple – no glamour or ostentation of any kind – and she attracted all the residents by her simple and loving behavior. Entering the ashram, she said, "Holy Mother has sent me here. She said that a talk with Gauri Ma would give me peace of mind." Nobody knows exactly what transpired between her and Gauri Ma on that first visit, but given the events that subsequently transpired, one might assume she found what she was looking for.
At the time of leave-taking, one of the ashram women said to the visitor, "We are very happy to meet you. Please write a letter now and then."
"That would be my good fortune," she replied, agreeing to write.
"But what is your address?" asked the resident.
The devotee humbly replied, "Sarojbala Devi, Gauripur. Assam. If you write just that, I will receive the letter."
The resident was puzzled. "Who are you?" she asked in confusion.
This unassuming and kindly devotee was none other than the Maharani of Gauripur, a princely state in Assam.
While Gauri Ma was going from door to door to raise money for the construction of the ashram building, there arrived one day a check for 10,000 rupees addressed to her and signed by Sarojbala Devi, the Maharani of Gauripur. Seeing this play of the Lord, everybody's hearts overflowed with unbounded enthusiasm. Thus, in 1924 on an auspicious day, the foundation stone of the ashram was laid. It is on this same site that Sri Saradeshwari Ashram is still situated.
Despite her advancing age, Gauri Ma had to work extremely hard to raise funds for the ashram's construction. There were many days when she would leave the ashram soon after morning worship to seek funds by begging and return late in the evening, having had nothing to eat or drink all day. Some people would give financial help, some would offer only sympathy, while still others would not even do that. Whether she received nectar or poison, Gauri Ma accepted everything cheerfully, gladly wandering from door to door for days without end in the service of women.
Parivrajikacharya Srimat Swami Bholananda Giri had seen Gauri Ma practice intense austerity in the Himalayas and had also seen her hard life during those days. One day he exclaimed to one of her devotees. The intense and difficult spiritual austerities that she has practiced – you cannot understand them while sitting in this house in Calcutta. Don't ever think that she is an ordinary person."
Once, when the famed scientist Profulla Chandra Ray visited Saradeshwari Ashram, one of the residents presented him with a hand-spun and handwoven coat that had been made there. Professor Ray was surprised to see and hear that Gauri Ma had encouraged handloom fabrics long before the Swadeshi Movement had begun. (This was a political movement initiated by Mahatma Gandhl to boycott foreign goods.)
One day a well-known solicitor and a respected high court judge were discussing Gauri Ma's ashram. "For a woman," said the solicitor, "the work done by Gauri Ma is truly amazing. When she first told me about the land she had purchased. I would never have believed that one day there would be such an ashram on that land."
At this the judge remarked, "Why do you say 'for a woman'? How many men are there who could do this work by themselves?"
The sannyasini's ideals and principles were often severely tested. She proved a hundred percent true to her ideals each time, and because of this, her work continued to flourish.
As a way to raise funds for the building construction, a very large public meeting was held at an institute at Calcutta University. At the gathering one gentleman announced he intended to ask for 50,000 rupees from a rich gentleman he knew. When Gauri Ma was told about it, she did not immediately agree to accept this offer of money; she wanted to know more about the donor. When she learned more about him, she only said, "That kind of money! Why 50,000? Even if it were 500,000, I would not touch it."
Later, it again happened that a wealthy person expressed a desire to donate several thousand rupees in memory of his father. For some unknown reason, Gauri Ma again felt doubtful about the donation, so she asked that inquiries be made about the donor. It turned out that he had cheated his widowed sister-in-law and acquired all her wealth. On hearing this, Gauri Ma said, "I will not accept money from a swindler. You can give him this message from me: Whatever money he was planning to donate to the ashram, he should return to his widowed sister-in- law, for only in such an act will there be service to the ashram, and he too will be benefited."
Sri Sharat Chandra Bose, the older brother of the renowned patriot Subhas Chandra Bose, once expressed a desire to see Gauri Ma. When a well-wisher learned of his desire, he came to Gauri Ma and said, "Sharat Babu is very generous: each month he donates a substantial sum of money to the needy. If you ask him to help the ashram, he will definitely do so. When you meet him, don't forget to mention it."
At an appointed time, Sharat Babu came to Saradeshwari Ashram with his wife and his mother. As soon as Gauri Ma heard they had arrived, she went out to meet them and immediately said, "Baba, this old mother of yours" (referring to herself) "has to look after many orphaned women. You will have to accept the responsibility for two such women."
Without a moment's hesitation, Sharat Babu agreed to the request of this sannyasini who had vowed to serve others. He merely asked a devotee of the ashram, "What would be the cost of maintaining two women at the ashram?"
"Thirty rupees a month." was the reply.
After that Sharat Babu had a long conversation about Sri Ramakrishna with Gauri Ma. When Sharat Babu had departed, one of the devotees came to Gaurl Ma and asked. "Mother, right away you asked him about money! What must he have thought?"
Gauri Ma replied in her straightforward way, "What must he have thought? He must have thought that this lady does not know how to talk diplomatically." For many years to come, not only did Sharat Babu regularly send thirty rupees a month to the ashram, but he also tried to get others to help as much as possible.
To raise funds, Gauri Ma had to visit many people. At such times, if she were asked to talk about spiritual things, she would get so carried away by the joy of such conversation that she would completely forget about the ashram and its problems. On one such occasion, a discussion began about God, and Gauri Ma told the group about the pure life of Sri Ramakrishna. Somebody from the audience asked, "What is the essence of the Gita?"
In reply she quoted a verse from the Gita and followed it up by an appropriate explanation. "'Abandon everything else and surrender yourself to me.' That is the essence and the ultimate message of the Gita." While she was talking of complete surrender and self-sacrifice, streams of tears flowed from the eyes of this scholar.
All those present were deeply moved by her devotion and knowledge. One man could not control himself. Overcome with emotion, his voice trembled as he declared, "How blessed is this day' We have had the good fortune to hear about such great things. We are truly blessed."
On another occasion, when a judge was having a discussion with Gauri Ma, the topic soon turned to devotion and spiritual experiences. The judge asked her, "Can we truly see the Lord?"
Gauri Ma replied, "Yes, Sir, we can truly see the Lord. But to see him we need to practice sadhana, austerity. A person may try to send a letter without postage, but how can it reach its destination? If you love Him with all your heart, you will be able to see Him face to face."
Those who were fortunate enough actually to see Gauri Ma working could not help but notice her deep interest in the management and financial affairs of the ashram. At the very next moment, however, she would talk about spiritual matters and God. At such times, the great, well-founded, rapidly growing work would be forgotten. Her mind, which was always on a higher plane – in the realm of the Lord – was completely detached from the flurry of worldly activity, just as a drop of water on the lotus leaf remains unattached to the lotus. To those who had served her closely, this fact was daily manifest.
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.