Sri Saradeshwari Ashram
ONE DAY DURING her wanderings Gauri Ma stopped at Halishahar on the banks of the Ganges River. At this beautiful place, the birthplace of the renowned poet Ramprasad, she became absorbed in deep meditation. In a meditative mood she began chanting the Durga Saptashati.
Hearing her melodious and devotional chant, many people gathered around her. As the chant ended, a prominent boatman named Suchiram came forward to salute her, and he politely asked who she was. When he learned that she liked Halishahar, he said to her, "Mother, if you like the Ganges here, then you should go to Kapaleshwar near Barrackpur. I have no doubt you will like that place even more."
Pleased by the simple, guileless nature of the boatman, Gauri Ma went to Kapaleshwar. Because she liked it very much, Suchiram and his friends urged her to stay there. She couldn't resist their sincere, heartfelt request, so she decided to stay.
For a nun, however, there should be a convent. In accordance with the wonderful will of the Lord, slowly things began to take shape. First, two bighas of land were purchased. Then, with the permission and blessings of Holy Mother and with the help of Suchiram and others, Gauri Ma established the Sri Saradeshwari Ashram in 1895 on the banks of the Ganges River at Barrackpur.
In the beginning Saradeshwari Ashram was very small. But gradually, with the help and encouragement of the local people and devotees from Calcutta, it began to expand in every possible way. Slowly, new sisters began to arrive, one after another. Soon there was a total of about twenty-five women – some unmarried, some separated. and some widowed – who began to dwell in the village atmosphere of that holy cottage. All the ashram residents would arise early for meditation. Then, after a period of reading scriptures, they would begin the daily housework. In the afternoon, classes were held under verandahs and nearby trees. At that time, girls would come from the village to be taught by Gauri Ma herself. To the older women she gave scriptural discourses, and she played with the little ones.
In the early years the sisters naturally had to face difficult times and privations. Even so, they found joy, peace, and satisfaction in living a convent life. Hardships did not seem like hardships to any of the ashram's residents. With Gauri Ma's unstinting efforts, the ideals of ancient India began to take shape in that pure and peaceful atmosphere. Seeing this, many people began to come forward and lend a helping hand in this great task.
A special feature of this institution designed mainly to serve women was the fact that from the beginning most of the sympathy, help, and financial support came from women. In fact. because of their sympathy and support, this institution became renowned.
Several of Sri Ramakrishna's dearest disciples – Vivekananda, Brahmananda, and Shivananda – came to visit the ashram. When Swami Vivekananda saw the convent, he felt inspired and had long discussions with Gauri Ma about its future functions. Hearing of Gauri Ma's plans and ideas for women's education, he was filled with joy. He said, 'The education should be such that, once more, we will see women like Gargis. Maitreyis, and Arundhati in this land. I have great hope that women greater than these will come forth from this place."
In 1900 in Calcutta – five years after Saradeshwari Ashram had been founded – there was a large gathering for a conference on women, Matrisabha Adhibeshan, which many women attended. Gauri Ma spoke to the audience about the ideals of Hindu women, the goals of her ashram, and the way women could help work toward these goals. The sannyasini's glowing words, vast knowledge of the scriptures, high goals and ideals, and natural presentation deeply impressed the women at the conference. She called for self-sacrifice in the service of women and thus tried to awaken enthusiasm in the women present. Her speech established Gauri Ma as a great orator.
Ever engaged In spreading her ideas, managing the ashram, and performing other such duties, Gauri Ma put her whole heart and soul into molding the lives of the women with whom she came in contact, for she truly saw them as living emblems of the Divine Mother.
At the Panchavati in the Barrackpur ashram one evening at the peaceful hour of dusk, Gauri Ma caught hold of the branch of a nearby tree and softly began singing a song she had composed:
Your lotus feet – Oh, Goddess! –
As she sang, tears rolled incessantly from her eyes. Twilight gradually faded, and the darkness became dense as night advanced. The stars twinkled in the night. There was the gentle swishing of the Ganges brushing the nearby shore....In that heavenly calm in the Panchavati ashram, Sri Ramakrishna's beloved Gauri stood still in profoundly deep samadhi.
The ashram residents had never before seen Gauri Ma in this state. They did not dare speak to her or touch her. The long night passed thus.
Gradually, the pure light of dawn spread over the landscape – and Gauri Ma was still in that high state. Early in the morning, as the villagers returned from their bath in the Ganges and came to worship Shiva at the Panchavati, they were amazed to see Gauri Ma standing like a goddess, completely unaware of the outer world: speechless, motionless, a divine glow on her face! The news spread and many people came to see her....Only gradually did she return to outer consciousness.
From the many such glorious incidents impelled by and indicative of Gauri Ma's divine inner life, it is clear that her disinterested zeal and incessant activity – undertaken at the request of and inspired by Bhagavan Sri Ramakrishna – were infused with spiritual conviction. Her work truly was service offered at the feet of the Divine Mother, not springing from the secular motivations that so often prompt the social, political, and humanitarian deeds of men and women, known or unknown.
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.