Those who have read Sister Nivedita’s masterpiece The Master as I Saw Him are very familiar with the name of “ Gopaler Ma.” In that fervent style peculiar to herself, the Sister says: “ Gopal’s mother was an old woman. She had already been old, fifteen or twenty years before, when she had first walked over, one day at noon, from her cell at Kamarhatty, by the Ganges-side to see the Master in the garden at Dakshineswar. He received her, so they say, standing at his door, as if he expected her. And she, whose chosen worship had been for many years Gopala, the Babe Krishna, the Christ-child of Hinduism, saw him revealed to her, as in a vision, as she drew near. How true she always was to this 1 Never once through all the years that followed, did she offer salutation to Sri Rarnakrishna, who took her thenceforth as his mother. And never have I known her to speak of our Holy Mother, save as 'My daughter-in-law.’ ”
Sri Ramakrishna used to say: "First obtain Bhakti and all other things shall be added unto .you. Devotion is like a string in the hands of the devotee, binding to him that Sachchidananda which is God.
Of all the types of loving God the Vatsalya Bhava or loving God as one's child looks very peculiar. But this is a discipline to enable one to detach all ideas of power from the concept of God. To conceive God as mighty, glorious and as the Lord of the Universe, this lover docs not care. He loves for love’s sake. He does not want anything in return and so any powers of God do not concern him at all. He cannot ask any favour from Him as he does not ask any from his child. It is to root out the superstitions of awe and fear in relation to God that this idea seems to have been developed in India. Those who are acquainted with the life of Sri Ramakrishna know well his relation to the image Ramlala or the Babe Ram. How he used to love the image as his own child, nay, the Lord, the Incarnation Ramchandra, as his own son ! Gopaler Ma belonged to this type of Bhaktas. She used to worship or, it would be better to say, love the Lord as her own child.
The Gita says that one in a thousand strives for the realisation of God and of those who strive only a fortunate few actually realise God. Many worship God only as an abstract conception but only a very very few persons realise Him as a fact. One may worship God as Father, one may look upon Him as a Babe, or as any other human relation, but how few are those who actually realise Him as tangibly as those earthly representations of human love ! Fortunately for the world such persons may be rare, but not altogether absent. In every religion we hear of persons who have had visions of the forms of
God. To some these visions have come quite unexpected—unsought for. St. Teresa saw the vision of Christ even before she began to love the Son of Man. To modem minds the experience of these visions may sound abnormal, but it cannot be altogether denied that there have been persons who have seen genuine visions of God. Of course there are genuine and spurious visions. When one sees a genuine vision of God, one's whole life is completely metamorphosed; the peace and joy which one then radiates silences even doubting critics. When Swami Vivekananda (then Narendra Nath) challenged the visions Sri Rama-krishna saw, as hallucinations, the latter very naively and touchingly said: “ How can I doubt the visions ? The Divine Mother even talks to me." The Divine Mother was as hard a reality to him as the material objects are to us. To saints God’s forms are not allegorical, they are real.
The fact, is, after sufficient spiritual practices when one’s mind is purified, one lives in a different plane of existence. What one then secs will naturally be different from the experiences of ordinary life. This is greatly exemplified in the life of Gopaler Ma. When one hears of her spiritual experiences, one wonders whether hers was not an abnormal case. But those who would come in personal contact with her would get a rare spiritual uplift and so would bow down their head in reverence to her.
Gopal’s mother, or Aghoremani Devi as she was then called, was married very young. But she lost her husband soon after her marriage;so she used to live in her brother’s house. Her brother Nilmadhav Mukhopadhyaya, was regarded highly by the people of his village Kainarhatty, near Dakshineswar. He was the priest W one Govinda Chandra Dutt who had a temple-house by the side of the Ganges. But Govinda Chandra did not live long in this mortal life. His widowed wife was a devout lady with whom Aghoremani made great friends, so she wanted to live most of her time in their temple-house. Her friend readily agreed to this, and henceforth Aghoremani began to live in the temple-garden of Govinda Babu by the side of the Ganges. The room in which Gopaler Ma used to live within this temple-garden at Kamarhatty was nicely situated. The surroundings were all calm and quiet, and it commanded a beautiful sight of the holy Ganges. Aghoremani would sit in her room alone and enjoy the grand view it presented. She was a great Japaka and would repeat day and night the holy name of her Ishta, the Chosen Ideal. She did not care to meet people and had lived in that room occupied with her meditation, Japa and holy communion with the Lord for thirty long years when she met Sri Ramakrishna for the first time.
Dakshineswar was only two or three miles from Kamarhatty where Gopaler Ma lived. Sri Rama-krishna's fame had then spread far and near, and Aghoremani had heard that Sri Ramakrishna was living at Dakshineswar. So without losing any more time she went one day with the widow of Govinda Babu to see the saint at Dakshineswar.
It was in the year 1884 and in the beginning of the winter season. They went on a boat from Kamarhatty and soon reached the garden-house at Dakshineswar. Sri Ramakrishna received them very kindly, as if they were known to him before this meeting. He took them to his own room and said that Bhakti, or the love of God, was the only thing to be attained in this life, and sang some devotional songs to them. They then took leave of him for that day, and Sri Ramakrishna in his usual way did not forget to request them to come again. They also requested him to come to their temple-house once when he could find the opportunity. Sri Ramakrishna spoke very highly of Gopal's mother that day—of her great devotion and love for Gopal or the Baby Krishna.
From the day 'of her first meeting Aghore-mani felt an unusual attraction for Sri Ramakrishna though she could not imagine at the time that they were eternally associated in spiritual affinity and that her Gopal was embodied in Sri Ramakrishna. However, she went home and passed her days in Tapasya as usual. But many days had not passed when one day she sat in her meditation and a strong, irresistible longing came into her mind to see the saint of Dakshineswar. She could not keep herself from going to see the God-intoxicated man. So she at once got up, bought some stale sweets (for they were the only ones then to be found in the market) for him and went alone to see him at Dakshineswar. As soon as Sri Ramakrishna saw her coming, he said:
' ‘ Well, you have come I Give me what you have brought for me.” Gopal’s mother could not make out what to do ! How to put before him those bad sweets ? How many people offer him so many good things every day ! And what kind of saint was he that as soon as she reached there wanted something to cat from her ? However, with great hesitation Aghorcraani gave him those sweets and he also took them at once and began to eat with joy like a child.
In the presence of Aghoremani Sri Rama-krishna was just like a child and began to behave exactly as a little boy does before his mother— pestering her with indulgent demands for this and that. He told her that he wanted to eat vegetable curry cooked by her own hand. Gopal's mother thought, what kind of a saint was this who instead of talking about God talks only of food ! She was a poor lady, so how could she provide him with food so often ? No, she must not come to see this man again 1 But what an unearthly attraction was this to lead her soul captive? As soon as she crossed the gate of the garden of Dakshineswar, her feet would not allow her to move farther homewards ! However, after some struggle, she was able to return to Kamar-hatty that day. But again many days did not pass before she had to return to Dakshineswar with a bowl of prepared vegetable curry in her hand. And Sri Ramakrishna also as before begged of her that food at once and partook of it with evident joy.
A few months passed in this way; Aghoremani had to go to Dakshineswar every now and then and every time she would go with some food for Sri Ramakrishna. And Sri Ramakrishna would always request her to bring different kinds of vegetable curry prepared by herself. At last one day Go pal’s mother really felt disgusted at his conduct and thought: “O Gopal, what is this? Is it because I always think of you that you compel me to come this way to a Sadhu who always wants only to eat? No, I must not come to him any more ! ’ ’ But again the same irresistible and undefinable attraction worked. As soon as she was away from him, her mind would be filled by the thought of the saint and the thought of going to him again.
In the meantime Sri Ramakrishna also went once to see the temple at Kamarhatty where Aghoremani lived. He sang devotional songs before the image in the temple and took his food there and came back to Dakshineswar. At the time of singing those songs everyone present there was astonished and charmed at his strange way of falling into a trance, or Samadhi as it is called.
Aghoremani used to get up at two in the morning and continue telling her beads till eight or nine. Then she would rise up and work in the temple. Afterwards she cooked food for the Lord and took the sacramental food. Then again after resting a while she would sit to meditate till evening. In the evening she would attend the worship in the temple and then sit in Japa till late at night.
Now on one such day she began to tell her beads as usual in the morning, and before she had finished it, to her utter astonishment it appeared to her as if she found Sri Ramakrishna, sitting by her left side. She saw him as vivid and lifelike as she used to see him at Dakshineswar, and could not understand how it was possible for him to come there at such a time. She was astonished to find Sri Ramakrishna smiling at her. She then mustered courage in her heart, but as soon as she seemed to take hold of his hand, the form of Sri Ramakrishna vanished and a really small babe, about ten months old, seemed to come out of his body. That like Gopal then seemed to crawl on his hands and knees, and lifting one hand and looking at her said, “ Mother, give me cheese.” The state of Aghoreinani’s mind at that time could be better imagined than described. She seemed to have lost all her bearings in life and replied crying, ” O my dear child, I am a poor, unfortunate woman; where shall I get cheese or butter for you?” But that strange Gopal would not listen to all this. He entreated some food from his mother. What could she do but take out some dry sweets she. had in her store and offer them? The child then became satisfied.
She now wanted to sit again in Japa, but her Gopal would not allow it. He must sit on her lap, and would snatch away the beads and play with her. As soon as the morning had dawned, Aghoremani rose up and madly ran towards Dakshineswar, and Gopal also got up in her arms and accompanied her. Throughout the entire way she found the rosy feet of Gopal hanging on her breast, so strange is the play of God with His devotees! Aghoremani reached the temple of Dakshineswar and before she had met Sri Ramakrishna, she cried aloud " Gopal, Gopal.” And Sri Ramakrishna also fell into deep Samadhi when she reached him, and was for the while as a babe resting on her lap. Tears of love began to flow from her eyes and she fed Sri Ramakrishna with the cheese and the butter she had brought with her. After a while he came back to his senses and took his own seat. But Aghoremani did not return to the ordinary plane of consciousness. She was beside herself with joy and danced like a mad woman. She was seeing her Gopal sometimes entering into the body of Sri Ramakrishna and again coming out of his body, sitting on her lap and playing with her. She was talking to Sri Ramakrishna: “Here is Gopal on my lap ! Oh, he is now entering into your body. Ah, again he is coming out! O my dear Gopal, do coinc to your poor mother!” In this way she was going on when Sri Ramakrishna gradually pacified her. From that day on Sri Ramakrishna would address Aghoremani as “ Gopaler Ma ” (Gopal’s Mother), and she also would look upon him as her Gopal (Babe Krishna) and call him as such.
That whole day she stayed at Dakshineswar with Sri Ramakrishna, and just before evening she went away to her own place. Also while returning, on her way she had the distinct vision of Gopal resting in her arms. In the evening again, when she sat down to meditate as usual, Gopal began to disturb her. And what was the need of any more meditation ? For He for whom it was all done was revealed before her and playing with her. Aghoremani at last got up from meditation and laid herself down on her bed with Gopal. But Gopal began to complain of the hard bed, and as there was no second pillow for the head he would not sleep. Gopal’s mother pacified the child, saying that the very next morning she would send for a soft pillow from Calcutta. The next morning when she went to cook for her Gopal, the child also followed her, and began to gambol about her in many ways.
Aghoremani had this constant vision of her Child Krishna continually for two months. She actually lived, moved and had her being twenty-four hours of the day in the Baby Krishna. Such God-vision only the blessed few may have ! Her devotion for Gopal had become so much intensified that God really took the form of Gopal and lived and played with her. After these two months she could not always see Gopal before her, but whenever she liked to see Him she would meditate a little and He would appear before her.
Once she told Sri Ramakrishna in great distress that she did not see Gopal constantly as before and asked him whether it indicated spiritual retrogression. At this the Master replied, “ If one sees God-vision constantly that way, one’s body does not last long: it falls away like a withered leaf in twenty-one days.” Really after her first experience of God-vision for two long months she lived in a continuous ecstatic mood, her daily duties she would do like a lifeless machine.
One day both Gopal’s mother and Narendra Nath came to Dakshineswar. Gopal’s mother was an uneducated, unsophisticated woman and had experiences of God-visions. Narendra Nath wras an educated, modem young man and being still under the influence of Brahmo Samaj believed in God without forms. They met together before Sri Rainakrishna. Sri Ramakrishna with his keen sense of humour did not lose this opportunity to enjoy some fun. He asked Gopal’s mother to narrate her experience of visions to Narendra Nath. At first she hesitated, but on the express wish of the Master she agreed. Then she began to narrate all her experiences of the vision of Babe Krishna to Narendra Nath. As she narrated, she asked Narendra Nath now and then in guileless simplicity: “ You are educated, clever, and intelligent; I am a poor old woman, I know nothing. Please tell me if these visions of mine are true ! ’ ’ With all his rational outlook Narendra Nath had a very soft devotional heart. He assured her that her experiences were true, and his eyes were wet with tears from feelings of devotion.
After the passing away of Sri Ramakrishna, Gopal's mother became very disconsolate and miserable. She would not come out of her room for many days, and only when she began to get visions of Sri Ramakrishna every now and then did she become reconciled. Whenever she was again a little unhappy she used to go to the monastery to sec the disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, and she would sometimes live there with them.
Once Gopal’s mother went to see the Car Festival at a place called Mahcsh on the other side of the Ganges. There she had a strange experience. As the car was being drawn she saw the vision of Gopal in all that was before her—in the vast concourse of people, the car, and in the Deity on the car. Thus she experienced the all-pervasiveness of God and was lost in an ecstasy of joy.
When Swami Vivekananda returned from the West, his Western disciples—Mrs. Sara C. Bull, Miss J. Macleod and Sister Nivedita accompanied him to India. They once went to see Gopal’s mother at Kamarhatty. There she received them very kindly for she saw her Gopal in them. She made them sit on her own mat and served them with pure Indian titbits. She softly touched their chin and kissed them in the Indian matronly fashion, and being asked about her visions related many things to them. Sister Nivedita thus describes this visit: “There, a few of us went, one full-moon night, to visit her. How beautiful was the Ganges, as the little boat crept on .and on ! And how beautiful seemed the long flight of steps rising out of the water and leading up,through its lofty bathing ghat.....to....a little room—built probably in the first plaee for some servant of the great house at' its side— Gopaler Ma had lived and told her beads, for many a year. . . . Her bed was of stone, and her floor of stone, and the piece of matting she offered her guests to sit on, had to be taken down from a shelf and unrolled. The handful of parched rice and sugar candy that formed her only store and were all that she could give in hospitality were taken from an earthen pot that hung from the roof by a few cords....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!" When Swami Vivekananda heard of their visit, he said, “Ah, this is the old India that you have seen, the India of prayers and tears, of vigils and fasts, that is passing away, never to return !”
And really did she represent old India ! For, in India alone even a child knows that God has to be realised in this life and one can have His vision face to face. And Gopaler Ma, a widow already when she was very young, quite ignorant of the ways of the world, had given up all material enjoyments and devoted her life to the service and realisation of God. How strange and wonderful were her realisation and visions of the Lord ! In this age of scepticism she was indeed a pillar of light to us !
Born in the early nineteenth century in a Brahmin family and being a widow early in life, Gopaler Ma was extremely orthodox in her conduct. In the beginning she would not eat food touched even by Sri Ramakrishna. But as she began to frequent Dakshineswar, her rigidity began to relax. So great was her transformation afterwards that she was liberal enough not to object to having a foreigner—Sister Nive-dita—in the house when she lived at the Holy Mother’s place.
In the year 1904 Gopal’s mother fell seriously ill, and she had to be brought to Calcutta to Balaram Babu's house at Baghbazar. Sister Nivedita was so much charmed by her life that she expressed her eager intention to nurse her. Gopal’s mother had no objection to it, for she had realised that her Gopal was in the heart of everybody. So from that time Gopaler Ma lived in the house of Sister Nivedita. In the month of July in 1906, when the time of her passing away from this mortal life came, she was carried to the Ganges and the Sister decorated her body with flowers and garlands. She lived by the side of the Ganges for two more days and then passed away from mortal sight on July 8, at the age of about ninety.