Swami Sivananda of the Divine Life Society described Sri Anandamayi Ma as “the most perfect flower the Indian soil has produced.”
When Paramahansa Yogananda met Sri Anandamayi Ma and asked her about her life, she answered: “Father, there is little to tell.” She spread her hands gracefully in a deprecatory gesture, “My consciousness has never associated itself with this temporary body.”
“Before I came to this earth Father, ‘I’ was the same. As a little girl, ‘I’ was the same. I grew to womanhood but still ‘I’ was the same. When the family I was born to arranged this body’s marriage, ‘I’ was the same. And Father, in front of you now, ‘I’ am the same. Even afterwards, though the dance of creation changes around me in the hall of eternity, ‘I’ shall be the same.”
HE ALONE KNOWS
to whom He will reveal Himself
under which form.
By what path and in what manner
He attracts any particular man to Himself
with great force is incomprehensible
to the human intellect.
The path differs indeed for different pilgrims.
India is a country which is fortunate to have witnessed her daughters rise to be great mystics. A person strives to learn the intricacies of religion, practices it diligently and then after many years may reach the zenith of spirituality. But there are some individuals who are born with all the prerequisites, a great mind and a high level of consciousness.
Anandamayi Ma was one such evolved woman. Anandamayi Ma was born in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in 1896. Her father, Bipin Behari Bhattacarya sang Vaishnava songs, often appearing intoxicated. He would rise early in the morning and sing songs; he was given to wandering around for long periods. His wife would have to go looking for him to bring him back home. Once during a storm the roof of his house blew off but he continued to sing in the rain, oblivious of what had happened!
Anandamayi’s mother Moksada Sundari Devi was known for her states of bhava or religious emotion. As she performed her household duties, she was visited by avatars and deities who shone with light. While pregnant with Nirmala – Anandamayi’s given name – she would see visions of sages and deities which would appear and then suddenly disappear. Later on she took her vows and became a ascetic.
The sound of religious chanting would make Nirmala ecstatic. In temples she would see deities emerging from their idols and then re-entering them. She was often distracted and would gaze into space – her eyes not focused on any worldly object. Her education was limited and her writing skills minimal.
At the age of thirteen she was married to Ramani Mohan Cakravarti or Bholanath as he was more popularly known. She spent a few years living in her brother-in-law’s house – most of them in a trance. She was a hard worker but sometimes had difficulty concentrating on housework. Her relatives assumed that the trances were due to overwork. When her brother-in-law died she went to live with her husband. At that time she was eighteen years old. Here she met a young man who was impressed by her quiet and gentle ways and he started calling her ‘mother’ (Ma in Bengali). This young man predicted that one day the entire world would address her in the same manner.
She was lost in a great void… The Maha Shunya
Hers was an unconsummated marriage, though not by her husband’s choice. When thoughts of sexuality occurred to Bholanath, Anandamayi’s body would take on the qualities of death and she would grow faint. He had to chant mantras to bring her back to consciousness. Sometimes in such situations her body would become contorted or it would stiffen. She would later say that she gave her husband spontaneous electric shocks when he touched her in a wrongful way. Bholanath thought the situation was temporary but it proved to be permanent. His relatives said he should remarry but he did not follow their advice. Later Bholanath was initiated by her and he accepted Anandamayi as his guru.
[I took this photo of her and her husband while visiting her house in India.]
While living in Dacca, people came to recognize her spiritual qualities. At the sound of religious chanting she would become stiff and even fall to the ground in a faint. Sometimes her body became contorted during these episodes. At times she would stretch her body and at times shrink it; sometimes her limbs would go into seemingly impossible positions – as if her skeletal structure had changed shape under her skin. She would hold difficult yogic postures (asanas) for long periods of time and spontaneously form complex tantric hand positions (mudras).
Her husband thought she was possessed and took her to exorcists. One physician said that she was not mad in the conventional sense but may have a kind of god intoxication – a divine madness for which there was no known cure.
In 1916 she became ill and moved back to her parent’s home in Vadyakuta. In 1918 she and her husband moved to Bajitpur where she began Shaivite and Vaisnavite spiritual practices. Inner voices would tell her what actions to perform and which images to visualize. Her yogic practices (kriyas) were spontaneous and she described them as occurring automatically – much like a factory where the various machines worked together in perfect coordination to produce a product.
Anandamayi would weep profusely, laugh for hours, and talk at tremendous speed in a Sanskrit-like language. Other unusual actions included rolling in the dust and dancing for long periods whirling like a leaf in the wind. She would also fast for long periods and at other times consume enough food for eight or nine people.
In Indian devotional tradition, changes in body structure and state are considered spontaneous expressions of religious emotion. Anandamayi’s changes were more extreme than the common sattvika bhavas. Some respected Indian saints of the past are said to have had similar bodily changes.
Anandamayi went on various pilgrimages traveling throughout India, staying in ashrams and attending religious festivals. In Dacca her disciples built a temple to her but she left the day it was completed. She traveled to Dehradun where she lived in an abandoned Shiva temple for almost a year, with no money and often in freezing temperatures without blankets.
Anandamayi Ma was known for her siddhis or yogic powers wherein she could read her devotee’s thoughts and emotions from a distance, make her body shrink and expand and cure the sick.
She was known for her siddhis or yogic powers wherein she could read her devotee’s thoughts and emotions from a distance, make her body shrink and expand and cure the sick. One disciple claimed that she was saved from death in a car accident when Anandamayi grasped her ‘life substance’ and brought it back to her dead body.
Anandamayi was sensitive to environmental influences. Once as she passed by a Muslim tomb, she began reciting portions of the Quran and performing the Namaz (Muslim prayers). This and other similar acts showed that Anandamayi was always in a trance -moving through a variety of psychic and religious states, each one expressing itself through her. She often objectified her body by describing her actions with phrases like ‘this body did this’ or ‘this body went there’.
She believed her chaotic actions were expressions of the divine will.
Sometimes she ascribed her actions to a personal though unnamed god:
“I have no sense of pleasure or pain, I stay as I have always been. Sometimes He draws me outside and sometimes He takes me inside and I am completely withdrawn. I am nobody, all of my actions are done by him and not by me.”
At times she described herself as completely empty with no sense of the ‘I’ remaining. She was lost in a great void – the mahashunya – which was responsible for her actions. The actions that emanated from this void were often chaotic and incoherent. Her view was that a universal state of chaos arises due to spontaneous expressions of the divine will which arises out of this nothingness. But she also talked in theological terms stating that her bhavas or expressions were the play of the Lord acting through her body.
Anandamayi considered individual identity to be a kind of spiritual disease. She called it bhava roga or the disease in which a person sees himself as a separate individual. When some of her disciples complained about the large crowds of people that would follow her she would say, “As you do not feel the weight of your head, of your hands and feet … so do I feel that these people are organic members of ‘this body’; so I don’t feel any pressure nor find their worries weighing on me. Their joys and sorrows, problems and solutions, I feel to be vitally mine … I have no ego sense nor concept of separateness.”
Though she was never formally initiated by a guru, one evening she spontaneously performed her own initiation visualizing both the ritual scene and the movements. Spontaneously she heard the chanting of initiatory sacred mantras within herself.
She explained that there were four stages in her spiritual evolution. In the first the mind was ‘dried’ of desire and passion so it could ignite the fire of spiritual knowledge easily. Next the body became still and the mind was drawn inwards as religious emotions flowed in her heart like a stream. Thirdly her personal identity was absorbed by an individual deity, but some distinction between form and formlessness still remained. Lastly there was a melting away of all duality. Here the mind was completely free of all movement of thought. There was full consciousness even in what is normally characterized as the dream state.
When speaking of spiritual evolution she also maintained that her spiritual identity had not changed since early childhood. She claimed that all the outer changes in her life were for the benefit of her disciples.
Anandamayi Ma would sometimes assay a variety of roles and later explain that this was a performance staged to teach someone present a lesson. However such acts were not a function of her will and occurred without planning or intent.
Anandamayi was a holy woman – without formal religious training or initiation – whose status was entirely due to her ecstatic trances. She did not have a worldly guru though she did hear voices that told her what religious and meditative practices to perform. She emphasized the importance of religious devotion and of detachment from the world. She also encouraged her devotees to serve others. She traveled and wandered a great deal, at times refusing to stay in the ashrams her devotees arranged for. While her parents worshiped Krishna, she could not be placed in any definite tradition.
An ecstatic child of ecstatic parents, she became a famous saint who like many other female Indian saints stood on the edge of several religious traditions yet in the midst of none. Throughout her long life till she died in 1981, she influenced the spirituality of thousands of people who came to see her. She never initiated people or considered herself a guru to anyone, yet there were throngs of seekers who learned a lot from her and their spiritual journey began only because of her silent presence.