Saints, Teachers, and Seekers in the Indian Tradition
The "Blissful Mother" who was a Channel for Religious Emotion
Anandamayi Ma was born in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in 1896. She was very sensitive to religious ritual as a child, and the sound of religious chanting would bring about ecstatic feelings in her. At temples, she would also see religious figures emerging from religious statues and reentering them. She was often distracted and would be seen gazing into space, her eyes not focused on outer objects. Her education was very limited and her writing skills were minimal.
She married at a young age, and spent a few years living in her brother-in-law's house, most of it apparently in trance. She had a difficult time concentrating on housework. Her brother-in-law died and she went to live with her husband, where she met a young man who was impressed by her quiet way of being. He called her "mother" (Ma in Bengali) and predicted that one day the entire world would address her in that way.
While living in Dacca, others 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. Her body would occasionally become deformed during these events. Sometimes it would lengthen. At others, it would shrink or its limbs would seemingly go into impossible positions as if the skeletal structure had changed shape beneath her skin. She would hold difficult yogic positions (asanas) for long periods and spontaneously form complex tantric hand positions (mudras) and gestures.
Anandamayi would also shed profuse tears, 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.
In the history of Indian devotional traditions, such manifestations are considered to be spontaneous expressions of religious emotion which are more extreme than the more common sattvika bhavas (sweating, crying, change in skin color, hair standing on end, etc.) which also normally indicate strong religious emotion. Some of the most respected saints of the past were believed to have had similar bodily changes.
Anandamayi was sensitive to environmental influences as was demonstrated when she once passed a Muslim tomb. She immediately began to recite portions of the Quran, and to perform the Namaj ritual (Muslim prayers). These and other similar acts showed Anandamayi to be someone always moving through a wide variety of psychic and religious states, each one expressing itself through her. She often objectified her body by describing her actions in phases like "this body did this" or "this body went there". She believed her chaotic actions were expressions of the divine will.
Though she was never formally initiated by a guru, one evening she spontaneously performed her own initiation, visualizing both the ritual scene and movements. Simultaneously, she heard the chanting of initiatory sacred words (mantras) inwardly.
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 catch the fire of spiritual knowledge easily. Next the body became still and the mind was drawn inward, as religious emotion flowed in the 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 from the movement of thought. There was also full consciousness even in what is normally characterized as the dream state.
While sometimes 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. She sometimes would express a variety of roles, and later explain that this was a performance staged to teach one of the people present some lesson. However, such actions 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 based entirely on her ecstatic states. She did not have an outer guru, though she did hear voices that told her what religious and meditative practices to perform. She emphasized the importance of detachment from the world and religious devotion. She also encouraged her devotees to serve others. She did much traveling and wandering, at times refusing to stay at the ashrams her devotees provided for her. While her parents worshiped Vishnu (Krishna), she could not be placed in any definite tradition. She influenced the spirituality of thousands of people who came to see her throughout her long life and died in 1981.
Books on Anandamayi Ma:
Life and Teachings of Sri Anandamayi Ma by Alexander Lipski, Orient Book Distributors, 1983
Mother of Bliss by Lisa Lassell Hallstrom, Oxford University Press, 1999
Some of the above listed books available from:
Blue Dove Press
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