(by Dr. Chetana Mandavia)
Source: Nirvana, July 2008. Published by Ramakrishna Mission, Singapore
In the present scientific age, when nothing is accepted as true unless tested in the crucible of sense perception, the story of the hair-raising mystic experiences of Aghormani would sound like a veritable myth to a layman. But to a devotee her life is a splendid revelation that there is a subtle realm which is far beyond the grasp of worldly minds and is open to spiritual gaze of the fortunate few. Aghormani Devi, a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, whom he himself had treated as his mother, was also an intimate, though much elder companion of the Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi. She was more fondly known as Gopaler-Ma, the mother of Gopal (child Krishna). Though an unlettered, simple child-widow, she lived a life of indefatigable devotion, austerity, renunciation, piety, purity and self-abnegation confined in a secluded room, and had experienced unceasing visions of her Chosen Ideal, baby Krishna. Let us peep into the extraordinary life of Gopaler-Ma which exemplifies one-pointed devotion to her Chosen Deity.
Aghormani was born in 1822 in Kamarhati, a northern suburb of Calcutta. As per the prevalent social custom, she was married at the age of nine. Her wedding was the first and the last time she saw her husband - he died before the marriage was consummated, leaving her a widow of fourteen years of age. However, she was initiated by her husband’s family guru and was given the ‘Gopala mantra’, establishing the child Krishna as her Chosen Deity. Since Aghormani was born with natural spiritual tendencies; she plunged whole-heartedly into intense austerities and worship in order to have the vision of her Ishta. Thus, the love and attention that Aghormani would have given to her husband and children were diverted towards her beloved Gopala.
Aghormani lived a sheltered life of a typical Brahmin widow, in the tiny room located in a corner of a temple-complex of Govinda Datta in Kamarhati, on the bank of the Ganga. Her elder brother was a priest of the Radha-Madhav temple. The holy atmosphere of the beautiful temple fascinated her pure mind. This tiny room with bare necessities, where she did intense spiritual practices, was her abode for almost her entire life. She hardly moved from that room - except for a pilgrimage with her landlady. Sister Nivedita wrote about her room, "Her little room was absolutely without comforts. The handful of parched rice and sugarcandy formed her only store. But the place was spotlessly clean, washed constantly by the Ganga water of her own sturdy carrying. And in a niche in near hand, lay an old copy of the Ramayana, and her great horn spectacles, and the little white bag containing her beads. On those beads Gopaler Ma had become a saint! Hour after hour, day after day, for how many years, had she sat, day and night, absorbed in them!"
Thus, placed in an environment which was extremely conducive for leading a life devoted to spiritual pursuits, undisturbed by the din and bustle of the world, her latent devotional sentiments gradually blossomed forth and she plunged into repeating Gopala’s name oblivious of day and night. That tender love, which had so long remained dormant within and had not found any suitable outlet for expression, now welled up in torrents of tears and made her almost sleepless. Her daily routine was a uniform round of prayer and service which she followed with unabated zeal for thirty long years in the solitude of her room. She used to get up at two in the morning and ceaselessly did her japa throughout the day and night with small intervals for meals and rest as well as for the morning and midday services of Sri Radha- Madhava in the temple. She had to face many pecuniary difficulties; so much so that she had to weave sacred threads and sell them to support herself. But no hardships could dissuade her from maintaining the strict routine of her daily spiritual practices. Writes one biographer of Sri Ramakrishna, "Lest her telling of beads get disrupted, she used to use her left hand for cooking while her right hand remained busy with her rosary." Suffering and tenderness, aches and ecstasies of her motherly loving heart were her only companions over all these years.
Meeting with Ramakrishna
The fame of Sri Ramakrishna as a God-intoxicated saint had by 1880’s spread far and wide; hence Aghormani Devi felt an urge to meet him. One autumn afternoon in 1884, accompanied by the devoted widow of Govinda Datta, she went to Dakshineshwar. She was now about sixtytwo, fourteen years older than the Master and had already done severe austerities; therefore, her mind was completely occupied by Gopala, the child Krishna. Sri Ramakrishna welcomed them cordially, made them seated in his room and sang a few devotional songs for them. He could easily gauge the depth of devotion of the two ladies. Later he remarked about them, "Ah! How beautiful is the expression of their face and eyes! They are, as if were floating on the current of the love of God. Their eyes are full of the intense love of God." He saw them off in his characteristic affectionate manner and asked them to come again. It was not a routine courteous invitation. The magnet was pulling the iron to itself. Aghormani felt a strong desire to visit the Master at the earliest opportunity. A few days later she again visited Dakshineshwar with some stale sweets purchased from a wayside shop. With great hesitation, she offered the sweets to the Master who savored them and said, "Well, you need not spend money for sweets. Prepare sweetened coconut balls and vegetable curries cooked by your own hand." Aghormani’s visits to Dakshineshwar now became very frequent. Her fascination for the Master, however, was a little shadowed by the puzzle why the Master talked to her mostly about food and not on spiritual matters. Sometime, she resolved not to go to him again but every time she found herself automatically dragged in the direction of Dakshineshwar. Thus, during the next three or four months she regularly visited Sri Ramakrishna, always carrying some of her culinary preparations, and the Master ate them praising, "Ah, how deliciously cooked! It is, as it were, very nectar." She always returned to Kamarhati with a tingle of joy lingering in her heart with an irresistible yearning for the next visit.
Was Sri Ramakrishna her beloved Gopal?
Time thus rolled on and Aghormani was basking in the soothing presence of the Master. Her ardent longings brought about a spirit of complete self-surrender in her. Slowly, the time to reap the fruits of her intense tapasya was approaching. It was the beautiful morning of the spring of 1885. Following her regular routine, she had just completed her japam, and to her great astonishment, she found Sri Ramakrisha sitting to her left side, smiling sweetly, with his right hand clenched. In utter curiosity, she tried to touch him but found that Sri Ramakrishna’s form had disappeared and in its place appeared the real Gopala - a child ten months old crawling towards her and begging for butter while fixing his bewitching gaze on her! In the words of Aghormani, "I was so surprised! I cried in excess of joy and said to him, ‘Alas! I am a poor widow. Where shall I get butter for you, my child?’ But Gopala would not listen. ‘Give me something to eat,’ he said to me again and again. With tears in my eyes, I got up and brought for him some dry sweetened coconut balls I had. Gopala sat on my lap, snatched my rosary, jumped on my shoulders and moved about in the room, so that all my efforts to carry on further repetition of the mantra were baffled." With the first streak of light the next morning, an inebriated Aghormani started for Dakshineshwar, with Gopala clasped to her bosom, his tiny rosy feet dangling gracefully.
What a blissful experience! She was clasping her Chosen Ideal in flesh and blood! She realized that Sri Ramakishna had granted her this boon, and he was none other than the Gopala she had been meditating upon for the last three decades. Ecstatic, completely oblivious of the outer surroundings, totally absorbed in the thoughts of the Master, she reached his room, crying frantically "Gopala, Gopala." As soon as Aghormani sat down in the Master’s room, the Master, over-powered by Samadhi, readily sat on her lap like an infant. Tears rolled down her cheeks, and she began to feed the Master with the delicacies she had brought with her. After a while the Master regained normal consciousness and returned to his bedstead. The blessed Aghormani began to dance in joy, since she was transported into the realm of Gopala. In that state she said, "Gopala is now on my lap. Oh! Now he has entered your body. Ah! He has come out again. Come my darling; come to your poor mother." Sri Ramakrishna expressed great joy at this wonderful state of Gopaler-Ma, stroked her body and brought her to normal consciousness. He fed her sumptuously and in the evening sent her back to Kamarhati. After this incident, she was addressed by Sri Ramakrishna and others as Gopaler-Ma (Gopala’s mother), as, she actually became the blessed mother of Gopala and enjoyed perennial bliss in mystic communion with the child Krishna.
Visions of Gopala
On her return journey too, she visualized baby Krishna resting in her arms. Reaching her room, she started telling her beads, but her Chosen Deity, for whom she had practised japa and meditation all her life, was playing besides her, pestering and demanding various things and snatching her rosary. To calm him down, she tried to make him sleep by caressing him, but he complained that the pillow was too hard! Gopala also assisted her in collecting the firewood. The mother with a heart overflowing with love, sometimes fondled the child and sometimes rebuked him for his naughtiness. Thus a divine sport continued in the sacred temple- garden of Kamarhati - a phenomenon so rare in this age! Gopaler-Ma’s life is the verification of the Hindu scriptural truth that God can be attained by Vatsalya Bhava, worshiping Him as a child. With a pure mind and one-pointed devotion, she could raise her consciousness to such a state that she could actually feel the living presence of her object of worship. She was convinced and the Master too assented that he was none other than her Gopala.
For about two months Gopaler-Ma had unbroken communion with her Gopala, after which the frequency of her visions decreased. She complained to the Master, who consoled her by assuring that in Kaliyuga, it would be impossible for a person to sustain the body with one’s mind attuned to the highest plane of superconsciousness. Gradually she felt the presence of Gopala in everything and a radical change was observed in this orthodox woman. All the distinction between high and low, the touchable and untouchable and all the scrupulousness in the matter of food and rituals vanished altogether from her mind. Later she could receive a ‘foreigner’ like Nivedita without the least hesitation and even lived with her till her end. Gopaler-Ma was thus transformed into a saint radiating bliss and joy, and she continued to inspire people with her devotion, purity, sweetness and simplicity.
The Guru and the Disciple
Sri Ramakrishna used to praise Gopaler-Ma for her devotion. Once, pointing to her, he said to those present in his room, "Ah! There is nothing inside this body but God. He fills it through and through." On another occasion he commented, "During Krishna’s incarnation she was a fruit-seller of Vrindavan and she would feed Gopala the sweet fruits." One day some milk pudding specially prepared by devotees was brought to the Master. But he had asked for the pudding from market since it used to be thinner and easier to digest. He could not eat the milk pudding, so he gave it to the Holy Mother and instructed her to give it to Gopaler-Ma. He said, "It is a thing given by the devotees. Gopala is there in her heart and her taking it will be the same as my doing so." We see from this episode that the Master saw no difference between himself and Gopaler-Ma. Sri Ramakrishna used to receive sweets, fruits and rock candy from various people, but could not eat all of it, since the food might not be offered with the pure intention of receiving devotion. Instead such people wished worldly prosperity. Consequently, Sri Ramakrishna would give these things to Gopaler-Ma and Swami Vivekananda, because he knew that the minds of these great souls were in such a high realm that they could never be affected by eating such food.
An interesting incident depicts the relationship between the Guru and the disciple. During the Car Festival of Lord Jagannath in 1885, Sri Ramakrishna went to Balaram Basu’s house in Calcutta. Many devotes were assembled there, and to them the Master spoke highly of the God-intoxicated state and the visions of Gopaler-Ma. Then he asked Balaram to send for Gopaler-Ma. Suddenly, in Samadhi, his body assumed the posture of Gopala, crawling on both the knees, one hand resting on ground, his face showing the eagerness of expecting the arrival of someone. Seeing that divine sight, the devotees were amazed. Exactly at that time Gopaler-Ma entered. Looking at Sri Ramakrishna, she said, "My Gopala should laugh and play, walk and run. But what is this? I don’t like to see this sort of Gopala".
Though Sri Ramakrishna treated her as his mother, he also kept a vigilant eye on all her activities. Once he showed his displeasure when Gopaler-Ma had accepted a packet of gifts from Balaram’s family members. He forgave her only when she expressed repentance. Because Gopaler-Ma was a very highly advanced soul, she received correspondingly advanced teachings from Sri Ramakrishna. One day the Master said that Gopaler-Ma had attained so much - visions, devotion, bhavas, the living presence of Gopala - that japa for her own sake was no longer necessary. He then said that she could do japa for ‘this body’, his body, so that it might keep well. The Master once asked her to narrate in detail about her visions to Naren, (later Swami Vivekanada), who was a die-hard rationalist at that time. Nevertheless, after listening to her narration, Naren’s heart was filled with love and devotion, he could not control his tears and assured her, "Yes, Mother, whatever you have seen is all true".
The last days and merging with Gopala
The Mahasamadhi of Sri Ramakrishna in 1886 was a terrible blow to Gopaler-Ma. For a long time she confined herself to her room at Kamarhati and passed her days in contemplation. Her sorrow, however, was assuaged to a great extent by the periodic visions of the Master. During a car festival at a place called Mahesh, she could see Gopala everywhere - in the image of the Deity, the chariot in which the image was placed, as well as in each pilgrim who participated in the festival. With advancing age, she spent the last years of her life in prayer, paying occasional visits to the Ramakrishna Math at Baranagore, where a number of the Master’s devotees had gathered. Since they were aware of her visions and spiritual stature, they began to seek advice about their spiritual problems. An unassuming Alambazar or Belur, and found great pleasure in conversing with the Master’s devotees, lay and monastic, who revered her very much. One day in 1887, Gopaler- Ma went to Balaram Basu’s home Gopaler-Ma said to them, "Look, I am an illiterate woman. What do I know about the scriptures? Why don’t you ask Sarat, Yogin and Tarak? (the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna)." But they persisted, and finally she answered them by consulting her Gopala!
In 1904 Gopaler-Ma was seriously ill and had to be moved to the house of Balaram Basu. Sister Nivedita had been so charmed with her loving nature and spiritual experiences that she took her to her own residence at 17, Bosepara Lane, Baghbazar, and continued to serve her with a daughter’s love until her death. She considered herself fortunate to have the privilege of serving such an illumined soul for a pretty long time. In turn, Gopaler-Ma gave maternal affection and support. The Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi was living in the vicinity and she frequently went to see her. At the time of her passing away, when the Holy Mother sat by her, Gopaler-Ma slowly muttered, "Gopala, have you come? So long you sat on my lap, but today it is your turn to take me in your lap." When her head was placed on the Holy Mother’s lap, the latter lovingly stroked her body. Silence prevailed. Then Gopaler-Ma, who must have seen Gopala in the Holy Mother, said in a nostalgic tone, "So long, O Gopala, you have washed my feet and spread the seat for me. Today you are to put the dust of your feet on my forehead." The attendant fulfilled her wish, and she went into samadhi.
Gopaler-Ma was brought to the bank of the Ganga in an unconscious state. "Without a single want she lay there," writes sister Nivedita, "as she had lived, the face full of the last sweetness and peace." Thus, on 8 July 1906, the curtain fell on the thrilling life of Sri Ramakrishna’s great disciple at an old age. Her life demonstrates that what the scriptures assert continues to be relevant even today and that simple modes like the natural love of a mother for a child can help a spiritual aspirant to attain the Highest. The rustic, uneducated Gopaler-Ma was transformed into a saint and mystic by sheer Vatsalya Bhava. To the devotees of Sri Ramakrishna she was the living example of the glory of the Master’s life and teaching. Sister Nivedita has summed up the significance of Gopaler-Ma in a few jewelled words: "In her was such motherhood that the heart of Sri Ramakrishna became a child to her. Could more be said?"
*First Meetings with Sri Ramakrishna by Swami Prabhananda.
*They Lived With God by Swami Chetanananda.