The Brahmo Samaj
The Arya Samaj
The Sathya Sai Baba Cult
The Ramakrishna Order
The Theosophical Society
The Divine Life Society
To her devotees, Anandamayi Ma, was not just considered a highly spiritual woman but a true incarnation of a deity or God. Anandamayi Ma was born on April 30, 1896, to a devoted Vaishnava Brahman family, in Kheora, Bengal (present day Bangladesh). At birth she was named Nirmala Sundari, and would not be called Anandamayi Ma until much later (Hallstrom 23). According to accounts of her devotees, everything about Ma, in her early years was spiritually auspicious. One instance of her future greatness was when she was nine or ten months old, a holy man visited Ma’s family. He was seated close to little Ma and she crawled up like she was intimately familiar with him. He then picked up Ma and, “placed her feet reverently on his shoulder, head and other parts of his body in an extraordinary show of devotion and veneration and then sat her on his lap.” After seating her in front of him, “he began to perform puja or worship to her, bowing down before her.” He then said to her mother,
“This whom you are seeing before you, this is Ma [the Divine Mother]
and is so not [only of] men and women but also as permeating and
transcending the universe. You will certainly not be able to keep her
bound to family ties. She will definitely not remain here.” (Hallstrom 25)
Despite receiving religious instruction only from her parents, “she displayed an uncanny knowledge of religious matters,” (Hallstrom 25) and often was witnessed in bhava, a state of ecstasy or trancelike states, which were described as supernatural in nature. One particular form of worship, kirtan, devotional songs, would put her into a state of pure spiritual ecstasy. She was known to often wander off, singing devotional songs. Her states could last a short time but as she became older, these instances lengthened. Some relatives felt that when they were around Ma during these instances, they experienced a loss of body consciousness (Hallstrom 28).
At the age of twelve, her marriage was arranged to a man named Ramani Mohan Chakaravart from a distinguished Brahman Bharadwaj family. An auspicious day, February 7, 1909, was picked and they married. Ma remained with her family until she was fourteen, and then she went to live with Ramani Mohan’s family, entering the household stage of her life. Ramani Mohan’s parents had died, so Ma was placed in the instruction of Ramani Mohan’s eldest brother’s wife, Dadamahashaya. Ma excelled at housework and became a pleasant, hardworking wife in her brother-in-law’s house, where she was very well liked. Ma often fell in states of Samadhi, but they believed the states were just bouts of extreme exhaustion or absentmindedness (Hallstrom 32). She stayed with her husband’s family until she joined her husband in Ashtagrama, in East Bengal, in 1914. This was the first instance that Ma and Ramani Mohan were around each other for a substantial period of time since their marriage. Devotees point out that Ramani Mohan was unaware of Ma’s extraordinary state. He assumed he had married an ordinary illiterate village woman, but he quickly became aware of her spiritual power. The first time her tried to approach her sexually, “he supposedly received such a violent electric shock that he put for the time being all thought of a physical relationship out of his mind” (Lipski 6). He thought that it was because Ma was so young and that she would become “normal” in time, but their marriage was never consummated; sexual desire never arose again in their marriage (Lipski 6). Despite the lack of sexual relationship, Ramani Mohan cared for Ma, loved her very dearly, and accepted their unconventional marriage.
It was also in Ashtagrama, where Ma was first recognized as a “spiritually exalted woman” and received the name Ma given to her by a man named Harkumar. He became the one to bring attention to the “ecstatic states or bhavavastha of Anandamayi Man”(Hallstrom 34). He arranged a kirtan, where Ma was first publicly observed in a state of bhava. For those around her, her state of bhava was a frightening experience, as she either fell to the floor in convulsions or sat motionless, “her face and eyes bathed in a radiant glow” (Hallstrom 34). At subsequent kirtans, Ma experienced similar state of bhava.
Between 1918 and 1924, Ma began experiencing her most spiritual activities. It was also at this time that Ma became more centered on her spiritual life and moved away from her household duties. In 1922, Ramani Mohan was advised to get Ma initiated by the family guru as soon as possible. On August 3, 1922, Ma experienced self-initiation, a feat not experienced before, especially as a woman. At this time, Ma began so display siddhis, or spiritual powers (Hallstrom 38-40). Five months later, on January 3, 1923, Ma initiated her husband and she changed his name to Bholanath, a name for Shiva. Later that month, Ma entered into a three-year silence or mauna. (Hallstrom 41) Their initiations marked the transition of their marriage into a complex relationship. Ma remained an obedient wife, always asking Bholanath’s permission before any undertaking, but she was not bound by his decisions, and always found ways to persuade him for approval. On the other hand, Bholanath was spiritually inferior to Ma, who also became his guru (Lipski 7).
By 1924, Ma began to gather devotees while living at Shasbagh Gardens. Many people were invited by Bholanath to see the extraordinary spiritual powers of his wife. She warned him not to invite so many people, stating, “You must think twice before opening the doors to the world in this manner. Remember that you will not be able to stem the tide when it becomes overwhelming” (Hallstrom 43). Many devotees believed Ma, was an incarnation of Kali and called her Manusha Kali, or “Kali in human form,” others believed she was “a self-realized being of extraordinary spiritual power” (Hallstrom 43). In 1926, devotees witnessed Ma’s inability to feed her self, as her hands would no longer work as they used to, leaving the task to Bholanath and her closest devotees, who fed her until her death (Hallstrom 46). On her thirty-first birthday, a special kirtan and puja was performed in her honor and again on her thirty-second. 1928 also marked the year Ma began her years of travels and transition to the Renouncer stage.
Throughout the next ten years, Ma traveled extensively throughout Bengal and India. Bholanath followed her transition and entered into a period of silence and pilgrimage under Ma’s instruction. Many time he asked her not to travel without him, but she warned that she would leave her body if he refused her. In the years after 1933, Ma, Bholanath, and many of her devotees made many spontaneous pilgrimages, full of religious festivals, kirtans and satsangas. On April 23, 1938, Ma predicted that Bholanath would become seriously ill. True to her word, Bholanath died fifteen days later on Mar 7, 1938 of smallpox (Hallstrom 51).
After the death of her husband, Ma’s life experienced little change. She continued her constant traveling, until the number of devotees swelled to huge numbers, which reduced her spontaneous travel. Ashrams were built throughout the country and a central administrative organization was created, the Shree Shree Anandamayee Sangha, in February 1950. The Sangha was able to establish two Sanskrit schools, a hospital and a periodical called Ananda Varta (Hallstrom 52). By 1973, there were twenty seven ashrams around India. Ma had no involvement in the Sangha or subsequent administrative organizations; however she founded the annual Samyam Varta, a week-long retreat, held in a different place every year. During the week, Ma and her close devotees would instruct devotees in spiritual practices (Hallstrom 52).
On July 11, 1982, Ma gave her last public darshan. Her health had begun to deteriorate seriously; she asked to be moved to her Kishenpur ashram where Bholanath had died in 1938. It was on August 27, 1982, Ma died, in the room directly above where her husband had died. According to her wishes, Anandamayi Ma was buried and a shrine was erected, which has become a place of worship and pilgrimage, known for its spiritual power (Hallstrom 52).
Anandamayi Ma’s greatest influence on Hinduism was the creation of a way women could become important figures of worship. According to female devotees, they believed Ma was incarnated in the form of a woman to give them spiritual equality to men. They were able to experience an intimate closeness with Ma which her male devotees could not experience. According to her male devotees, they longed for an intimate relationship, but cultural norms prevented this. Ma, being a woman, benefited and inspired all women. This gave Ma’s female devotees the chance to be close to God, which they had little chance, because of the male domination of the Hindu religion. Ma also provided a motherly loving relationship to women which they might not have had after their marriage, living with their husband’s family. The feeling of loss of a biological mother was lessened for Ma’s devotees, because she became their spiritual mother (Hallstrom 204). Ma’s female devotees ranged from her closes followers who willingly devoted their whole lives to Ma, to women and men in their householder stage. Ma’s most devout follower, other then Bholanath was, Gurupriya Devi, or Didi, as she was affectionately called. Didi was one of Ma’s brahmacharini devotees who chose to live a celibate life and was able to have a lifelong relationship with both her biological and spiritual mothers. Devotees claimed Ma provided a safe and prideful life for unmarried daughters, who would have been an embarrassment to her family (Hallstrom 204). Ma’s followers, who were in the householder stage, could also have a close relationship with her. Despite Ma’s unorthodox position in her marriage to Bholanath, she held many orthodox views on how women should like their lives as wives (Hallstrom 210). She believed women should fulfill their duties, but could still participate in spiritual activities, such as kirtans. Ma often held these for her women devotees in Decca, a radical idea at the time, but made sure the kirtans were held at night, as not to disrupt their daily duties (Hallstrom 211).
Ma was said to have been very beautiful women that had a radiating presence that attracted people to her. She was always kind, with a contagious laugh and emanation of God’s divine power. The intimate relationship she had with her female devotees allowed greater access to Ma, therefore, greater access to God (Hallstrom 203). She will always be remembered as a true women guru and saint.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Hallstrom, Lisa Lassell (1999) Mother of Bliss: Anandamayi Ma 1896-1982. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Lipski, Alexander (1988) Life and Teaching of Sri Anandamayi Ma. Delhi: Morilal
Murkerji, Bithika (1980) From the Life of Sri Anandamayi Ma, Volume One. Calcutta:
Shree Shree Anandamayee Charitable Society.
Murkerji, Bithika (1981) From the Life of Sri Anandamayi Ma, Volume Two. Calcutta:
Shree Shree Anandamayee Charitable Society.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Shree Shree Anandamayee Sangha
Anandamayi Ma as a saint
Anandamayi Ma incarnation as a woman
Anandamayi Ma’s rejection of castes
Anandamayi Ma’s renouncer life
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Written by Stephanie Ralph (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.
As the nineteenth century dawned, Western economic and religious ideals began to impact India as the British spread throughout the country. The establishment of the East Indian Trading Company by the British, as well as the spread of Christian missionaries throughout India, provided many Hindus contact with European education, religion and economics (Leneman 22). Although Christian missionaries were adamant in pushing the Christian religion upon those in India, there were many Hindus that opposed such attempts at conversion. They desired to remain loyal to their Hindu faith despite verbal persecution by the British (Leneman 22) [Many did not agree with the Western idea of an all encompassing law, as dharma and the belief in karma are the only real laws in traditional Hinduism. See Leneman (1980)]. Many individuals began to speak of reshaping their Hindu beliefs and political ideals to create greater economic advantage as well as social and religious comfort (Bhatt 24, Leneman 22). Among these individuals was Ram Mohun Roy, who was born a Rarhi Brahmin from Bengal (Killingley 5) [Many different spellings of the name Ram Mohun Roy occur due to translation differences. See Killingley (1993)]. Roy believed that India could develop only through learning from the Europeans, and consequently he looked to reform Hinduism (Kopf 313). The Brahmo Samaj is an Indian religious movement started by Roy in Calcutta in 1828 based on this idea of reformation that he saw as being necessary (Bhatt 24, O’Malley 224).
Ram Mohun Roy was born a Rarhi Brahmin in 1774 in Bengali in a Vaisnava family. Many of his ancestors held positions of high esteem among the Mughal rulers in Bengal (Killingley 5) [See Killingley (1993) for more on the debate as to the year Roy was born]. Little is known about Roy’s early life except that he was educated in a number of languages, both Indian and European, and opposed aspects of the Hindu faith such as Idolatry (Leneman 22) [Due to his opposition to idolatry and other Hindu practices, Roy was not allowed into his own house for four years from age sixteen to twenty. See Leneman (1980)]. He traveled through much of the area near Calcutta and Bengal where he first came into contact with the British through the East Indian Trading Company (Killingley 6). Roy was considered a political liberal, and opposed the East Indian Trading Company economic ideals as he favored free trade (Killingley 8). Although he opposed the East Indian Trading Company, Roy was receptive to Western ideas and incorporated them into his beliefs (Killingley 57). He became outspoken in the political world and was desirous to more fully empower the upper class of India by pushing European education and striving to get the East Indian Trading Company to grant privileges to Indians (Bhatt 24).
Although Roy turned primarily to the Hindu Vedic scriptures for his belief, he incorporated much of Christian and Islamic thought. He said that he would borrow books and ideas from other religions to “purify Hinduism” (Killingley 59). His primary belief was in the worship of the God of Nature who was the only true God and creator of the universe. He formed a small group in Calcutta based on this belief called the Atmiya Sabha, who in 1828 changed their name to the Brahmo Samaj (Killingley 10, O’Malley 224) [Brahmo Samaj has been translated as “House of God,” “society of the believer,” and “society of the worshippers of the One True God.” See O’Malley (1935), Bhatt (1968) and Leneman (1980)]. The Brahmo Samaj stated their objective as: “The worship and adoration of the eternal unsearcheable, and immutable Being who is the Author and Preserver of the Universe” (O’Malley 224). They believed that God was a father figure and that all humans were in fact brother and sister (O’Malley 224). It was open to any who wished to join, no matter their caste, skin color, or previous religious beliefs, and attempted to strengthen the relationship between people of all religions (Bhatt 24, Leneman 23).
Although the beliefs of Roy and the Brahmo Smaj were predominantly based on the Hindu religion, they opposed many traditional Hindu beliefs and practices such as reincarnation, animal sacrifice, and sati [The practice of sati involves a widow throwing herself on the cremation fire of her husband, allowing herself to be consumed by the flames, and thus freeing her husband from his sins and moving on into eternity together]. The Brahmo Samaj believed that salvation was obtained through worship of God and that a person could have direct communion with God (O’Malley 225). In a type of afterlife, an individual’s soul would be punished or rewarded for their dealings in this life, although the traditional Hindu view regarding the transmigration of souls was not incorporated into the belief (Killingley 46-47, O’Malley 225). In his first writing, Tuhfat al-Muwahhidin, Roy speaks about that afterlife of the soul and the punishments and rewards received (Killingley 46-47) [For more on the teachings of the Tuhfat al-Muwahhidin, see Killingley (1993)]. Roy also became extremely vocal in his opposition to the practice of sati, and his persistence lead to the practice becoming illegal in 1829 (Leneman 23). Roy was also very concerned with the education and increased economic opportunities granted to women and this carried through to the beliefs of the Brahmo Samaj (Kopf 314, O’Malley 226).
Among the traditional Hindu practices that were most opposed by Roy and the Brahmo Samaj, was that of polytheism and the practice of idol worship (O’Malley 224). Roy argued that idol practice was extremely inappropriate because it gave God a visible form. As Roy and the Brahmo Samaj believed in the spiritual, yet unseen existence of God, this contradicted their belief (Killingley 74). Roy used the Upanisads, which he had previously translated into English, to validate his belief and opposition to idolatry (Killingley 74). He taught that one should turn to contemplation of the Eternal Being as the proper way of worship. This would lead to actions of charity, morality and virtue leading to salvation (O’Malley 224).
Upon the death of Ram Mohun Roy in 1833, the Brahmo Samaj which had flourished in Bengal began to decline. In 1843, Devendranath Tagore, who previously had adopted the beliefs of Roy, added further aspects of Orthodox Hinduism and Christianity to the Brahmo Samaj which led to resurgence in the movement (Leneman 23). A number of years later Keshab Chunder Sen joined the movement and aided Tagore in this resurgence. Sen was influenced by Christianity a great deal in his younger years and brought many of his Christian beliefs with him when he joined the movement. In 1867, Tagore felt that Sen had become radical and extreme in his Christian influences and a split in the Brahmo Samaj occurred (Leneman 23). Tagore held on to the more traditional aspects of Hinduism and started the Adi Brahmo Samaj, while Sen took his Christian influences and started the Brahmo Samaj of India (Bhatt 24-25, Leneman 23). The younger generation, who had grown up with heavy Western influence followed Sen, while others in the movement who could not give up the majority of traditional Hindu beliefs remained with Tagore (Leneman 23). Under Sen, the Brahmo Samaj of India turned to radical social reform, considered Christ an ideal Hindu Yogi, and held Sen in a type of deity status (Bhatt 25). Sen eventually adopted a greater belief in Christ and this led to a split in the Brahmo Samaj of India. This split led to the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, started by those who opposed Sen and the adoption of a belief in Christ as more than a yogi. Sen, and his followers founded the Church of the New Dispensation (Leneman 24).
Today, the Brahmo Samaj and the various branches that occurred through these divisions are considered to be more of a religious movement than a sect or group (O’Malley 225). It has mostly been confined to Bengal, and has never obtained full status throughout India (Bhatt 26). The political beliefs voiced by members of the Brahmo Samaj as well as the changes to the traditional Hindu religion have led many to believe that Brahmo Samaj is a socio-political movement that acted as a force in Indian nationalism (Bhatt 24, Leneman 30). Ram Mohun Roy and the Brahmo Samaj defended aspects of Hinduism while reforming other aspects that they felt would benefit India (Leneman 30). Although not popular throughout India today, the Brahmo Samaj and the work of Ram Mohun Roy were instrumental in Hindu Renaissance and reform in Bengal during the nineteenth century (Kopf 313).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Bhatt, Gauri Shankar (1968) Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, and the Church-Sect Typology.
Review of Religious Research, Fall 68 Volume 10.
Ghose, Jegendra Chunder (eds.) (1982) The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.
Killingley, Dermont (1993) Rammohun Roy in Hindu and Christian Tradition. Newcastle: Grevatt and Gravatt.
Kopf, David (1979) The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Leneman, Leah (1980) “The Hindu Renaissance of the Late 19th Century.” History Today, May 1980 Volume 30.
O’Malley, L.S.S. (1935) Popular Hinduism: The Religion of the Masses. Cambridge University Press.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Adi Brahmo Samaj
Brahmo Samaj of India
Church of the New Dispensation
Keshub Chunder Sen
Sadharan Brahmo Samaj
Article written by Brett Steed (March 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.
Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa
Sri Aurobindo Ghose
Satya Sai Baba
Swami Sivananda Saraswati