ĀNANDAMAYĪ MĀ TIMELINE
1896 (April 30): Nirmāla Sundari was born in Kheora, a very small village in Eastern Bengal, in present-day Bangladesh.
1909 (February): Nirmāla Sundari was married to Shri Ramani Mohan Chakravarti (later called Bholanāth, a name for Śiva, by Nirmāla Sundari).
1918: While Nirmāla Sundari was living in Bajitpur (now in Bangladesh), she undertook an intensive sādhanā (spiritual discipline).
1922 (August): In Bajitpur, Nirmāla Sundari experienced self-dīkṣā (self-initiation) during the full moon.
1924: Bholanāth and Nirmāla Sundari moved to Dhaka in Eastern Bengal (which is now the capital of Bangladesh), where she attracted devotees.
1925: In Dhaka, she was named Ānandamayī Mā by Shri Jyotish Chandra Roy (known as Bhaiji).
1926: The first ashram was built by devotees for Ānandamayī Mā in Dhaka near the Siddheshwari Kali Mandir (temple).
1950: The Shree Shree Anandamayee Sangha (The Śrī Śrī Ānandamayī Community) was founded.
1982 (August 27): Ānandamayī Mā “left her body” at the ashram of Kishenpur in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India.
Ānandamayī Mā was born on April 30, 1896 in the small village of Kheora in East India (on the current eastern border of Bangladesh), to poor Vaiṣṇava Brahmin parents. They named her Nirmāla Sundari, which means “immaculate beauty” or “purity.” Later the surnames of Hasi (smile) and Khusir (the joyous) were also given to her. According to her spiritual biographies, [Image at right] especially the writings of Professor Bithika Mukerji, Nirmāla Sundari proved from her childhood to be a detached child who had little interest in the surrounding environment, so much so that many thought that she was intellectually disabled.
At the age of thirteen, Nirmāla Sundari was married to the much older Ramani Mohan Chakravarti, and at eighteen, she went to live with her husband, whom she later called Bholanāth, one of Śiva’s names. Although she went through with marriage and is described as being the exemplary housewife, the couple actually never consummated their marriage and had no children. She therefore distanced herself from the traditional forms of marriage, [Image at right] going against the ideal of pativrata, the perfect Hindu woman vowed to her husband.
In 1918, Nirmāla and Bholanāth moved to Bajitpur in Eastern Bengal, where she undertook an intensive sādhanā (spiritual discipline). For six years, she is said to have practiced every type of sādhanā. Although she never received any spiritual teaching from a master yogi, she spontaneously was able to perform yogic postures and to perfect mudrās (symbolic or ritual gestures). She called this her “līlā of sādhanā” (līlā meaning play, game) for, as it has always been the same for her, there was nothing to accomplish spiritually. Thus did Ānandamayī Mā later affirm that her state had always been one of spiritual realization and that she never had past lives nor would she have future lives, as she stated:
I am what I was and what I shall be; I am whatever you conceive, think or say. But it is a supreme fact that this body has not come into being to reap the fruits of past karma. Why don’t you take it that this body is the material embodiment of all your thoughts and ideas. You all have wanted it and you have it now. So play with this doll for some time (Bhaiji 2004:6).
Gopinath Kaviraj, a Bengali pandit (Hindu scholar learned in Sanskrit scriptures, philosophy and religion), viewed Ānandamayī Mā similarly: “Samadhi or no Samadhi, She is where She always has been; She knows no change, no modification, no alteration” (Kaviraj and Vibhusana 1967:169). (Samādhi in Hinduism is a term that refers to intense immersion of consciousness in God/dess, the Ultimate. The word samādhi is also used to refer to the tomb of a saint or guru)
During this time, Nirmāla often fell into trances and was believed to be sick or possessed by spirits. Observing this strange behavior, her husband asked exorcists to cure his wife’s madness, but instead of treating her as mad, they eventually saw her as an incarnation of Devī, the Divine Mother. According to historian of religions June McDaniel, Ānandamayī Mā’s divine status is linked to these trancelike states, [Image at right] which are signs of spiritual ecstasy in Hinduism (McDaniel 1989:202). In South Asia, divine madness is seen as a kind of divine intoxication and is one of the criteria for being considered a saint (Kinsley 1974).
Nirmāla Sundari continued her sādhanā by entering a period of silence (mauna) for three years. On August 3, 1922, she eventually performed an initiation (dīkṣā) on herself, becoming at the same time disciple (śiṣya), teacher (guru), and divinity (iṣṭa). [Dīkṣā, or initiation, can be defined as the communication of an energy, of a vibration, of an influx to the initiated, or as the transmission of a spiritual influence that is said to be necessary with regard to the work of spiritual purification. This process of purification refers to the dissolution of the ego. Initiation generally involves the transmission and support of a mantra, whose function is to convey spiritual force (śakti).] In December 1922, Ānandamayī Mā’s husband asked to be initiated by her and by so doing became her first disciple. This practice of self-initiation continues to the present with some female gurus, revealing that personal experience and mystical states rather than succession or lineage frequently determines the recognition of female gurus (Pechilis 2012; Warrier 2005).
In 1924, Bholanāth and Nirmāla left for Dhaka in Eastern Bengal. (Dhaka is now the capital of Bangladesh.) It was during this period that the first disciples began to flock to Nirmāla Sundari, and it was also at Dhaka that one of her closest disciples known as Bhaiji gave her the name Ānandamayī Mā, which means “Mother Full of Bliss,” or “Mother Saturated with Joy.” Little by little, people began to hear about Ānandamayī Mā and her states of ecstasy, and came to meet her. Some saw her as an incarnation of the Divine Mother, a manifestation of the goddess Kālī, from which came the name “Human Kālī” that was given to her. Others envisaged Ānandamayī Mā as a being that had attained the state of perfect realization (jivanmukta, one who is liberated while living) and possessed extraordinary spiritual powers. Among the powers that she was credited with are those of clairvoyance and healing, the latter often being the basis of a saint’s reputation (Keyes 1982:2). Ānandamayī Mā, though, would never attribute these powers and miracles to herself, as she always spoke of the action of God.
At this time Ānandamayī Mā began to take less and less care of her body, and so needed others to look after her. She stated that she could not tell the difference between fire and water and that if others did not look after her body it would be destroyed. In 1926, at the age of thirty, Ānandamayī Mā also stopped eating with her own hands and was instead fed by Didi, one of her closest disciples, and other brahmacārinis (novice nuns).
In the late 1920s, Ānandamayī Mā began to take on the role of guru, or spiritual master, giving dīkṣā to a small circle of devotees, even as she still maintained throughout her life that she was not a guru. She affirmed: “Only God is the Guru. It is a sin to regard the Guru as a human being” (Desjardins 1982:190). The numbers of her devotees, mostly male in the beginning, continued to increase and in 1926 they built the Siddheshwari ashram (retreat center) for Ānandamayī Mā at Dhaka. Despite this, she did not stay at the ashram and began to make pilgrimages all over India, moving around until her death, like “a bird on the wing,” as she liked to call herself. Ānandamayī Mā did not give any indication of where she would be going or when she was going, nor did she ever specify if she would return. She would simply go to the nearest train station, often in the middle of the night, and would take the first departing train. She would follow what she called her kheyāla, or divine inspiration.
During her travels, she met people from all backgrounds. Kings, politicians, and prominent gurus and saints alike also prostrated themselves in front of her. [Image at right] Among these were Swami Shivananda Saraswati (1887–1963), the founder of the Divine Life Society, and the yogi Paramahansa Yogananda (1893–1952), as well as numerous politicians, including the President of the Republic of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad (1884–1963), the Vice-President and philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888–1975), and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964). [Image at right] She also had several meetings with Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948), who viewed her as his daughter.
On August 27, 1982, Ānandamayī Mā “left her body,” to use her devotees’ expression, at the ashram of Kishenpur, in Dehradun, Uttarakand state, 256 kilometers north of Delhi. A procession took place during the day from Dehradun to Kankhal, close to Haridwar on the Ganges River, where Ānandamayī Mā’s samādhi (tomb) is now located, [Image at right] and her body was interred following the rules specific to the Hindu burial of a great spiritual being. Indian dignitaries came to pay tribute to Ānandamayī Mā, including Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1917–1984), daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Ānandamayī Mā’s community of bhaktas (devotees) reflected considerable diversity. Diverse social classes and castes, and even different religions are represented. Still, the predominance of a certain type of devotee was nevertheless fairly apparent, as Ānandamayī Mā’s followers were, for the most part, Hindu, especially from Brahmin castes as she was born as a Brahmin. They were predominantly from Bengal, like she was.
Her devotees also mainly came from urban environments and belonged to the upper levels of society. In this community, it was not rare to meet rich families of industry or political personalities taking refuge at the feet of Ānandamayī Mā. It was so during her lifetime and remains the case today. It is also noteworthy that she counted among her disciples many powerful political figures, such as Kamala Nehru (1899–1936), the wife of Jawaharlal Nehru, and her daughter Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, as well as scholars like Gopinath Kaviraj (1887–1976). Ram Alexander, a disciple of Ānandamayī Mā, describes the rich and educated disciples thusly: “Often these were highly educated people who had to face serious social opprobrium, particularly as it was unheard of to receive such guidance from an uneducated village woman” (Atmananda 2000:23). It is evident that the presence of higher-class devotees, the wealthy and intellectual elites, played some role in the visibility of the worship of Ānandamayī Mā (Babb 1988:170).
Women also represented a large part of the community of devotees, and it seems that their number was greater than that of male devotees. Far from considering Ānandamayī Mā, the Supreme Goddess above all, as a source of empowerment or as a model for women, the presence of so many women devotees may be attributed to the fact that they could have more access to her body than men did (Hallstrom 1999).
There were also foreign devotees, although their numbers were far less than Indian devotees. Among the very close western disciples of Ānandamayī Mā was a Jewish doctor, Abraham Jacob Weintraub, a native of Metz, France and son of the main rabbi of that city. In 1950, he left France for Sri Lanka and India with the intention of staying only two months. Soon after his arrival, he met Ānandamayī Mā and decided to follow her. Later he became a monk (swami) in her organization, taking the name of Swami Vijayānanda (bliss of victory). Swami Vijayānanda never returned to France and spent nearly sixty years in India, including seventeen years as a hermit in the Himalaya mountains. Until his death on April 5, 2010 at the age of ninety-five, he welcomed westerners to Ānandamayī Mā’s ashram in Kankhal. Today Swami Vijayānanda is venerated at his grave in Père Lachaise, the historical cemetery of Paris, by a group of people who knew him or are attracted by his teaching. He serves as a bridge between East and West, as well as a central personage in the worship of Ānandamayī Mā.
Ānandamayī Mā embodied a great degree of universality in her doctrine. Individuals of many religious backgrounds and geographical origins were drawn to her. Her teaching suited each individual and could simply be summarized in her statements that the goal of life is the realization of one’s true nature, of oneness with God. In this regard, she spoke of the quest to know one’s true identity to escape from the world of death:
You study and you pass your exam; you earn money and you enjoy the use of it. But all this is in the realm of death in which you go on life after life, repeating the same thing over and over again. But there is also another path—the path of Immortality, which leads to the knowledge of what you are in reality (Atmananda 2000:41).
While being universal, her teaching nevertheless focused on the ancient Hindu tradition, the sanātana dharma (the eternal religion). Depending on the situation, she could refer to the nondualism of Advaita Vedānta formulated by the eighth-century monk-philosopher Śaṅkara (Shankara) based on the Upaniṣads (Vedānta, scriptures coming at the end of the Vedas); the qualified nondualism of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta formulated by the theologian Rāmānuja (ca. 1077–1157) also based on the Upaniṣads; or the dualism (Dvaita) of bhakti. However, she gave precedence to the monist tradition of Advaita Vedānta. According to Ānandamayī Mā, the real source of suffering (duḥkha) lies in the false perception of duality. She affirmed that darśana, to see and be seen by the deity, the true revelation of the divine (ātmadarśana), is not possible as long as there exists an “I”—“You have not had real darshan as long as the ‘I’ persists” (Atmananda 2000:478).
Ānandamayī Mā expressed her adherence to the doctrine of nonduality in other ways, such as referring to herself in the third person. She often called herself “this body” (Bengali, ehi śarira) or “this little girl.” To someone who requested that she describe her own experience, she said: “It would imply that the experiencer has still remained. This cannot be so here” (Anandamayi Ma 2001:61). (She often referred to herself using the term “here.”)
During her many pilgrimages and wanderings, stressing nonduality, she insisted on her everlasting presence to her devotees: “Why do you say I am going away? I am your little child and am always with you” (Atmananda 2000:496). She also stated:
You may want to banish this body from your mind. But this body won’t leave you for a single day—it does not and never will leave your thought. Whoever has once been drawn to love this body will never succeed in wiping out its impression even despite hundreds of attempts. This body rests and shall remain in memory for all times (Ganguli 1983:170).
These statements reveal Ānandamayī Mā’s understanding regarding her omnipresence beyond time and space and beyond death (mṛtyu) and birth (jāti).
Although Advaita Vedānta was to remain a point of reference in her philosophy, Ānandamayī Mā actually moved beyond it.
“A state exists where the distinction between duality and non-duality has no place. . . . But where the Brahman [unconditioned consciousness] is, the One-without-a-second, nothing else can possibly exist. You separate duality from non-duality because you are identified with the body” (Anandamayi Ma 2001:123).
Ānandamayī Mā’s view, therefore, was an encompassing vision of life, this Ultimate Reality that she defined as Yā tā, which means, “It is that which it is.”
In this regard, Gopinath Kaviraj, her disciple, shows that advaitic thought, which holds that everything is one, is actually itself inexact, in the sense that even unity dissolves when the True One is revealed: “Everything is one, the one is everything. And even this statement is not exact, for the True One is there where the meaning of the Unity no longer exists” (Desjardins 1982:200). Ānandamayī Mā also referred to the idea of totality to express the necessity of moving past ideas of duality and nonduality: “You will have to rise beyond consciousness and unconsciousness. The revelation of That is what is wanted” (Anandamayi Ma 2001:132). Scholar of religion Raimon Panikkar suggests that the term “adualism” rather than “nondualism” be used in order to eliminate this conceptual opposition (Panikkar 1998).
Ānandamayī Mā’s posthumous worship is viewed by devotees as a way to liberate themselves from ceaseless death and rebirth in the cycle of saṃsāra, as a path toward immortality. Expression of devotion to Ānandamayī Mā involves prayer, pilgrimage, and veneration of photos and other objects.
If one may always pray to Ānandamayī Mā, there are nevertheless certain moments of the year during which it is especially beneficial to pray to her. These are the great celebrations such as the anniversary of Ānandamayī Mā’s birth, Gurupūrṇimā, and the religious holiday Durgā Pūjā. These festivals are accompanied by other annual observances, such as Mahāśivarātri, the night celebrating Śiva’s cosmic dance; Holi, celebrating the defeat of evil by righteousness; and Rakṣabandhan, a vrata (vow) when sisters worship to protect their brothers; as well as participation in retreats such as the Samyam Saptah (concentrated meditation for seven days). It was so while Ānandamayī Mā was alive, and it is still the case today.
Pilgrimage is another ritual that devotees perform. Because of her great influence on all layers of Indian society, Ānandamayī Mā also represents one of the few Hindu female gurus to be worshiped in a cult at her tomb [Image at right] (samādhi), in spite of the fact that tombs of holy women are virtually nonexistent in India. With the exception of satīs (widows who reportedly burned themselves in their husband’s funeral pyres out of devotion to their husbands) worshipping a woman after her death is exceptional. However, because Ānandamayī Mā’s body was considered to be pure and sacred, she is being worshipped at her tomb in Kankhal. Her relics have become a site dedicated to the Divine Feminine, a kind of śaktipīṭha, seat of Śaktī (the Goddess and her power).
In addition, photos of Ānandamayī Mā also hold an essential place in her worship, [Image at right] whether among early or contemporary followers. Carried by devotees or placed in their homes, the pictures seem to reactivate the presence of Mā. More so even than her words or eyewitness accounts of her, photographs of Ānandamayī Mā are an essential way to mobilize new devotees. Another important element in her cult is worship by making offerings to images (mūrtis) of Ānandamayī Mā. A small number of western devotees, however, feel somewhat averse towards this type of devotional practice.
Ānandamayī Mā passed a large part of her life moving from sacred space to sacred space. To facilitate these movements, her [Image at right] devotees established ashrams all over India, especially in North India. There are today twenty-six ashrams, of which two are in Bangladesh. Although she never really wanted these ashrams, she nonetheless selected their locations. Far from being insignificant, her choice of ashram locations allows a vast network of sacred geography to become evident. This certainly had some influence on the development of the devotional movement focused on the worship of Ānandamayī Mā.
In 1950, the Shree Shree Anandamayee Sangha (the Śrī Śrī Ānandamayī Community) was established, making Ānandamayī Mā the first woman in India to be the head of such a large structured movement. Although today it is common for female gurus to found their own organizations and have their own ashrams, this institutionalization of the worship of a female guru was inconceivable before her time.
Within Ānandamayī Mā’s sangha traditional rules of purity prevailed and still do, such as the exclusion of menstruating women or the rules concerning pollution tied to the caste system. These are called jhuta or that which is dirty and inappropriate, and have for thousands of years been observed by the brahmanical orthodoxy, serving as a kind of preparation to mystical life. Ānandamayī Mā adopted this orthodoxy, contested by Sufism and Buddhism as well as by Tantric Hinduism, following a meeting she had with the pandit Kaviraj. In the beginning, she did not follow the purity rules, but there was increasing pressure on her to do so. Finally, one day, she said, “Whoever is coming today will decide.” Kaviraj arrived right after she made her statement and told her that rules of caste should be maintained in the Kālī Yuga, the age of decline in morality, to form a barrier against immorality. Though she opted for these rules, she was not attached to a particular system, as she always said, Jo Ho Jay, “Whatever has to happen, will happen.” Nevertheless, the non-observance of these rules of purity would have then constituted a major obstacle for orthodox Brahmins and would have prevented them from coming to Ānandamayī Mā (Lipsky 2005:58; Atmananda 2000:163).
In fact, Ānandamayī Mā did not really respect these rules of purity, allowing herself to transgress them openly. Her Austrian devotee Brahmacharini Atmananda reports what Ānandamayī Mā told her regarding these rules, “What are these rules to me? I have eaten the leavings of a dog” (Atmananda 2000:256). Her personal transgression of the rules of purity and impurity therefore appeared to be a way of affirming Ānandamayī Mā’s authority as spiritual leader, as she was the only person with the power to authorize the observation of these brahmanical rules within her community.
These strict brahmanical rules, however, weighed on the majority of westerners, who could feel excluded by virtue of their status as outcasts or mleccha (foreigners). They had to eat separately from high-caste Indians and be housed outside the ashram, so that Hindus, and especially brahmins, could avoid any polluting contact with them.
One of the major challenges related to Ānandamayī Mā and her worship is what would become of her movement after her death. The movement has been in decline since her departure and the death of her close monks. This diminishment seems to be significantly associated with the decline of its affiliated institution, the Shree Shree Anandamayee Sangha, originally founded to promote and safeguard Ānandamayī Mā’s teaching. As in the case of many other organizations founded by charismatic leaders, such as the SYDA Foundation or the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, this decline can mainly be seen through power struggles, such as the choice of a successor to direct the sangha or in the division of authority between lay people and monks. Thus, the death of the charismatic founding figure represents simultaneously a challenge of and to institutionalization (Miller 1991).
There also exist some tensions within Ānandamayī Mā’s community regarding the preservation of brahmanical rules. These rules, which were described as inhuman by Brahmacharini Atmananda, may have been originally a way to reinvigorate the Hindu tradition, the sanātana dharma. In today’s globalized world, however, with the economic and social transformations that India is experiencing, these rules constitute a major obstacle to the expansion of Ānandamayī Mā’s movement. The attachment to brahmanical rules of purity by a small number of devotees within the Shree Shree Anandamayee Sangha reflects, for a large number of Indian and western devotees, something that keeps potential devotees away.
Ānandamayī Mā’s sangha then is split between two factions. On the one hand, many want to enlarge her movement, notably to an international audience, which necessarily would require both letting go of the brahmanical rules concerned with maintaining the “purity” of the traditionally designated “pure” castes and a rupture with the tradition of the group’s charismatic founder, the object of their worship and devotion. On the other hand, some desire the preservation of brahmanical orthodoxy, which is ineluctably associated with exclusion and which hampers the organization’s expansion. Ānandamayī Mā’s sangha is located in the midst of this dilemma between “authenticity” and “dirtying,” between “atrophy” and “expansion.” The future of her movement seems dependent upon reconciling competing interests with the requirements of Indian modernity.
In conclusion, in her lifetime Ānandamayī Mā became arguably the most famous female religious leader in India, with hundreds of thousands of followers. Due to the extent of her influence and her death in 1982, Ānandamayī Mā is a noteworthy illustration of the posthumous worship of a female Hindu guru, with both devotees who knew her and others who did not.
Through her life, Ānandamayī Mā emerged as a figure of rupture who, by means of her devotees’ perception of her oneness with the divine, dictated the terms of her own sanctity and produced a certain dislocation from the typical gender role for the Indian housewife in several key ways. Her self-initiation and her role as a female guru, as well as her status of avatar (“descent,” an incarnation of God), as Goddess, in a patriarchal society, placed her outside of an established, male-dominated religious order (Cornille 2004:134). Her spiritual position independent of her husband and her refusal to adopt the traditional forms of marriage by following the ideal of pativrata were transgressive. Her reforms promoted women’s equality, such as her introduction of upanayana, the Vedic sacred thread rite of passage as initiation into the student stage of life for high caste women, qualifying them to study Sanskrit and the Vedic scriptures. Finally, the scope of her religious movement and her impressive network of ashrams was something unheard of at the time for an Indian woman. Despite her conservative tendencies in relation to certain aspects of Indian culture, especially with regard to her approval of arranged marriage and her non-condemnation of satī, this ambassador of Hinduism can paradoxically be recognized as a charismatic figure, who represents a radical change in the Hindu religious landscape in regard to women gurus.
Due to her far-reaching influence on Indian society, today Ānandamayī Mā is the object of worship at her tomb, a practice that is usually reserved for male gurus and just a few women, who are worshipped because of their connection with a male guru, for instance Sri Aurobindo (1872–1950) and The Mother (Mirra Blanche Rachel Alfassa (1878–1973). Ānandamayī Mā can thus be viewed as an iconic figure of female religious leadership, highlighting an innovative vision of holiness by revealing a new mode of veneration of female gurus, that of veneration of the teacher regarded as a living presence within her tomb.
Ānandamayī Mā, thus, represents a shift to female leadership in the world of Hindu gurudom, [Image at right] and her tomb, her samādhi, is a symbol of the affirmation of the Divine Feminine. With the growing acceptance of the role of guru for women, it is likely in the future that we will see a far more significant veneration of women gurus in their respective tombs emerge within the Hindu tradition. As such, the study of Ānandamayī Mā’s life and her postmortem worship represents a true milestone in the field of study of women in religions.
Image #1: Nirmāla Sundari at a young age.
Image #2: Nirmāla Sundari with her husband Shri Ramani Mohan Chakravarti (later called Bholanāth, a name for Śiva, by Nirmāla Sundari).
Image #3: Ānandamayī Mā.
Image #4: Ānandamayī Mā with Indira Gandhi and her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of India.
Image #5: Temple housing the samādhi (tomb) of Ānandamayī Mā in Kankhal, Uttarakand, India.
Image #6: Priest standing next to Ānandamayī Mā’s samādhi (tomb) as he performs āratī, waving of lights before her image (murtī).
Image #7: A murtī, an image or statue, of Ānandamayī Mā on an altar that also includes her photo, a framed print depicting her footprints, and pictures depicting other Hindu deities.
Image #8: Ānandamayī Mā.
Image #9: Ānandamayī Mā’s blessing
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13 January 2021