Three Women and Four Destinies : Rereading the Life of Mrinalini Devi by Sachidananda Mohanty

Followers of Sri Aurobindo know that Mrinalini Devi who was preparing to come to Pondicherry, following the consent of Sri Aurobindo in 1918, fell a victim to the widespread influenza that was raging then in Bengal. We also know from the letter of Mrinalini’s father Bhupal Chandra Bose that, after Sri Aurobindo’s departure for Pondicherry, she had become a close disciple of Sri Sarada Devi, the Holy Mother, who addressed her affectionately as Bau-Ma (daughter-in-law in Bengali) since the Holy Mother regarded ‘Sri Aurobindo as her son’.

                                                Sri Aurobindo with his wife Mrinalini Devi

The sad and sudden passing away of Mrinalini Devi before her time in the 32nd year of her life on 17 December 1918, will always strike us as a particularly cruel blow delivered by the hands of destiny. She was a companion who doted on her husband, admired his steadfast sacrifice and dedication to the cause of the nation. She spent brief but memorable periods with him at various places: Baroda, Nainital and Calcutta, among others. She was blessed to have correspondence with Sri Aurobindo that revealed the inner working of his mind and consciousness. But for her, we would not have come to know of the ‘madnesses’ [1] as spelt out in his letters to her.

Mrinalini’s father, Bhupal Chandra Bose (born 1861) graduated from Calcutta University in 1881 and, going by his own account, received an agricultural training as a State scholar at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, England.   He entered Government service in 1888 and served as an Agricultural Officer for 28 years in Bengal and Assam before retiring in 1916. He settled down at Ranchi after his retirement.

Mrinalini was born on 6 March 1887 in Calcutta, and spent her childhood there. She received her early education from a private tutor, and after her father’s transfer to Shillong was sent the Brahmo School at Calcutta where she lived as a boarder until the time of her marriage. At the school she became a close friend of Miss Swarnalata Das, several years her senior in age. Mrinalini’s second close friend, in later life, was Miss Sudhira Bose, later known as Sister Sudhira in the Sri Ramakrishna Circles, who worked as a teacher at the Sister Nivedita School, Calcutta.

As Bhupal Chandra Bose recounts in his ‘Reminiscences,’ Sri Aurobindo first met Mrinalini at the house her uncle Sj. Girish Chandra Bose in Calcutta. The marriage took place in April 1901. She spent time with Sri Aurobindo at Baroda, and later with his maternal relatives at Deoghar, [now in Jharkhand], and with her parents at Shillong [now in Meghalaya]. She was present with her husband at the time of his arrest at 48, Grey Street in May 1908 and always aspired to join Sri Aurobindo at Pondicherry. Alas, that was not to be. Fate willed otherwise.

After her passing, following her wish, her mentor at Calcutta, Sister Sudhira disposed of her ornaments. The proceeds of roughly 2000 Rupees, with Sri Aurobindo’s permission were made into a trust for the education of poor and destitute girls. Some items, intimate in nature, were sent to Sri Aurobindo at Pondicherry.

Mrinalini who shares the same name as that of the spouse of Tagore, remains for her qualities of the head and heart, and her sense of unflinching dedication, a highly revered figure in the Aurobindonean circles. This is not to minimise the world of human sorrow, longing and loss that must have been her constant companion in life. After all, even the Avatars go through human ordeals of pain and suffering as the inescapable part of the human condition.

To understand Mrinalini Devi better we need to turn our attention to three small books that I would like to recommend to fellow seekers. These are: Nivedita: As I Saw Her by Saralabala Sarkar, first published in 1914, rpt.1999; Sister Nivedita Girls’ School, Kolkata, Secondly, Sri Sarada Devi: The Holy Mother Life and Teachings by Swami Tapasyananda, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, and finally, Sister Sudhira by Pravrajika Prabuddhaprana. All three personalities played a crucial role in the life of Mrinalini Devi. They were mentors who were a source of inspiration to her. By the ideals they cherished and by the conduct of their daily life, they sustained Mrinalini as she must have battled her aloneness and longings steadfastly. Nivedita and Sarada Devi certainly offer us the example of the ideal servitor. Outstanding women as both were, though perhaps not of the same ranking, both took inspiration from Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda and carved out a path for themselves.

                                                       Sri Sarada Devi: The Holy Mother

We learn from Swami Tapasyananda’s book that Sarada Devi was born on 22 December 1853 in a poor but cultured Brahmin family of Bengal in the village of Jayarambati in the Bankura district, situated about sixty miles to the west of Calcutta. [2] She was the eldest daughter of Ramachandra Mukherjee and Shyamsundari Devi. She had no formal schooling and taught herself to read and write Bengali in later years. She got married to Gadadhar, as Ramakrishna was known then. A child bride, she grew up in the village and at the age of eighteen, accompanied by her father in March 1872, travelled to Dakshineswar Temple at Calcutta to meet the ailing Sri Ramakrishna. Barring brief intervals; she remained by his side till the Master passed away in 1886. Swami Tapasyananda sums up her character thus:

‘The type of personality into which she was shaped through that training was one characterised by inexhaustible patience and peace, extreme simplicity combined with dignity, a non-turbulent but compelling spiritual fervor, a loving temperament that knew no distinction between friend and foe, and a maternal attitude of a spontaneous type towards all that charmed and brought under her influence everyone who came near her.’ [3]

She lived in ‘a small room in the northern side of the temple compound,’ with a clear view of that of Ramakrishna. It was a ‘small low–roofed room of about nine and half feet by eight with a verandah four and quarter feet wide surrounding it. Besides being her living room, it served as her provision store, kitchen and reception room as well.’ [4]

We go through several sections of the book such as ‘Spiritual and Secular Training’, ‘The Mother as a True Sahadharmini,’ ‘The Shodosi Pooja’.‘Relationship of Mutual Love and Respect,’ ‘Pilgrimage to Brindavan’ [after the Master’s passing], ‘Life at Kamarpukur and After,’ ‘The Exalted State of the Mother’s Mind’, ‘Pilgrimage to Rameswaram,’ and see the remarkable manner in which Sarada Devi led her life in a selfless manner, gave succor and initiation to the many who sought her out as their Guru and mentor. It is this heavenly personality that gave spiritual succor to Mrinalini Devi at the time of her needs.

                                                                         Sister Nivedita

Next comes Nivedita As I Saw Her by Saralabala Sarkar, translated into English by Probhati Mukherjee. The book was earlier published in Samvit, the journal of Sri Sarada Math and is closely associated with the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission Sister Nivedita Girls’ School. Saralabala had close contacts with Sister Nivedita on account of her association with the School founded by her mentor.She had in this book presented, in her own words an intimate portrait of the Sister’s life.

Saralabala writes that right from the time Nivedita came to India in January 1898 till 13 October 1911 when she left the world, her one purpose life was to take care of the poor, needy and the destitute. Her compassionate self knew that no progress of India was possible without the welfare and upliftment of the Indian women. One of the main tasks she took up was to see that young girls and women grew up with ‘truth, friendliness and noble ideals.’ She took up a vow of renunciation and completely abandoned all sense of self. Aptly named as ‘Nivedita,’ (the Dedicated One), she started a small school in Bosepara Lane. She lived here with Sister Christine and carried out her mission.

Nivedita identified principally four sets of people who stood for the transformation of India: ‘social progressives’ who seek ‘the destruction of ancient social customs’, ‘political activists’ who advocate the ‘adoption of a western political system’, the third who believe in the need to ‘revitalise the various religious centres’ and the fourth who enunciate the removal of economic grievances from the body politic. Nivedita suggests that beyond all the four lay the question of the resurgence of the Indian culture, a new renaissance that is all-inclusive and would embrace all sections of Indian society. Two things, she said, were necessary to carry this out: an intense love for the mother land and or love for every Indian irrespective of caste, creed or community. Next came the importance of education that seeks ‘the enhancement of our innate abilities through self–effort’, and through sacrifice without a sense of egoism or desire. She wrote: ‘For the person on whose heart knowledge reigns, education is no longer a process of acquiring external information; it becomes an inner experience of that which was previously not experienced.’ [5] Nivedita was convinced that her school would be the nucleus for the right kind of education for Indian women. She welcomed girls of all background.’

Nivedita’s views are well captured in two of her books, The Web of Indian Life and The Master as I Saw Him. She ran the school with Sister Christine and Sudhira Devi. She gave preference to the running of the school and minimised all personal expenses. This took a toll on her and she became anemic day by day. The school faced a financial crunch and when no funds came despite her best efforts and despite pubic appeals in the press, she was finally forced to close it down. Rabindranath Tagore wrote in his article, ‘Sister Nivedita’ that ‘she did not maintain the school on funds received either from the public or from excess money. It was run completely on her sacrificing her own means of existence.’ [6]

Art, Mathematics, history, flower painting, alpana, clay modeling — Nivedita taught all these with devotion to the young girls. Her classroom addresses were direct and inspired. As Saralabala recalls:

‘How often have we seen Nivedita in deep absorption at some thought! If any talk of India rose, she would become deeply meditative and say to the girls, Bharat Varsha! Bharat Varsha! Bharat Varsha! Mother! Mother! Mother! India’s young girls, you must all repeat, Bharat Varsha! Bharat Varsha! Bharat Varsha! Ma! Ma! Ma! That India was the soul of her soul, the heart of her heart, even so dear and sacred to her, cannot be expressed in mere words.’ [7]

Nivedita was fond of the Bengali language. One day she asked the student to state the word, ‘line’ in Bengali. She was disappointed when none could reply until one came forward with the word ‘rekha’. Her joy knew no bounds. She started repeating the word over and over again, ‘rekha, rekha, rekha’. [8] She took the students on excursion to nearby places including to the Kali temple at Dakshineswar and the museums. She narrated to them the stories of her visit to pilgrim places like Badrinath and Kedarnath.

Although Nivedita spoke of the importance of conjugal love and the responsibility of the wife, she underlined the fact that the devoted wife Gandhari never compromised with ethical principles. Gandhari did not say to Duryodhana, “May you be victorious my son.” Instead, she said, “Where there is dharma, there is victory.” Nivedita signed her name invariably as ‘Nivedita of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda.’

When Sarada Devi came to visit the Udbodhan House in Bagh Bazar, Calcutta, Nivedita used to be overjoyed. Visits by the Holy Mother to her school were special occasions that drew the best in her. With the passing of Nivedita, Sister Christine managed the affairs of the school and continued to face a great deal of hardships. The latter passed away on 27 March 1930 in New York.

                                                                          Sister Sudhira

At the instance of Sister Nivedita and Swami Vivekananda, the ‘Ramakrishna School for Girls’ was opened at No.16, Bosepara Lane, near Sarada Devi’s residence near Bagh Bazar.

The daughter of Ashutosh Bose and Elokshi Devi of aristocratic background, Sudhira had three sisters and two brothers, her eldest brother Devabrata became a revolutionary and later became a disciple of Sarada Devi. He edited the Bengali monthly, Udbodhan for a few years. He later joined the Advaita Ashram of Mayavati in the Himalayas and became the editor of Prabuddha Bharata, the official journal of the Ramakrishna order. He encouraged Sudhira to be an independent and self-respecting girl. Not interested in marriage, she joined the Nivedita School near Bagh Bazar in Calcutta in 1906 when she was about sixteen or seventeen.

From Advaita Ashram at Calcutta he wrote to his sister:

‘You need a lot of patience and faith in yourself. You have to nourish love. How? Making your heart vast by faith and patience, always and everywhere, make a strong inward resolution that in any case ‘I will love’ whether or not I receive, I will give it. When going about my daily work with every breath, I will love, come what may. Don’t pay attention to whether anything happens as a result, from all you hear about. Power or Samadhi or self-knowledge, love is the only thing that matters. Love is the only thing to get.’ [9]

The revolutionaries were inspired by the Ramakrishna Vivekananda order. Many of them including Jivantara, Nalinikanta Kar, Devabrata and others received the spiritual sustenance for carrying out nationalist activities from the Ramakrishna Mission.

Sudhira had a special relationship with the Holy Mother: Sarada Devi always enquired about Sudhira’s welfare as she did of Mrinalini. Sudhira did her best to earn extra money by giving singing lessons to rich households. Thus she spent the money for the upkeep of her girls in the school. Speaking of Sarada Devi, Sudhira wrote in a letter:

‘How can I tell you who Holy Mother is? Thinking of her one feels as though one has entered heaven. When we are Mother’s daughters, what have we to fear? Her strength is working in us. We are fortunate that we have got a place at her holy feet. Yogis and devotees do so many austerities to get her Darshan; while we just by her grace have come to be known as her daughter. Indeed, it is only by her grace that we have become worthy of being her daughters.’ [10]

Sudhira’s association with Mrinalini Devi forms a significant chapter in her life. She knew Mrinalini as her neighbor in her childhood days at Hatibagan. At the time of Sri Aurobindo’s arrest by the police, it was Sudhira who came to Mrinalini’s rescue in 1908. Sudhira would take Mrinalini to the Nivedita’s school and she would be treated very well by the children as the revered wife of  Sri Aurobindo.

Introduced to Sarada Devi, Mrinalini was welcomed most enthusiastically by the Holy Mother. She said to Mrinalini:

‘Do not be restless my child; it is no use being anxious. Your husband has totally taken refuge in God. By Thakur’s blessings he will be out [from jail] since he will be found not guilty. But don’t insist him to have a family life. That small mindedness is not for him.’ [11]

Sarada Devi advised her to always read The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna and visit her regularly. She thought that no initiation was necessary since Mrinalini was already under the guidance of Aurobindo.

Mrinalini visited Sri Aurobindo in jail in the company of her father. The letters that Sudhira exchanged with Mrinalini throw light on their close bonding and the importance both attached to spiritual guidance in life.

In her letter dated 30 July 1910, for instance, addressed to Menu (Mrinalini) after Aurobindo had reached Pondicherry, Sudhira reflects upon the need to set upon Ashram under the guidance of Sarada Devi for spiritual-minded women. A letter written from Benares, speaks of her own spiritual growth and advises Menu to be in constant touch with Holy Mother in a spirit of surrender. [12] Sudhira helped many young women like Parul to escape from their painful lives of being child brides and to seek refuge in the Nivedita School.

Sudhira and Christina developed some differences with Nivedita regarding the running of the school. On 13 April 1911, Christina left for Mayavati in the Himalayas. [13] Despite Nivedita’s entreaties, Sudhira did not return to the school as can be made out from Nivedita’s diary noting dated 18 July and 1 September1911. Soon Nivedita left for Darjeeling to improve her health. In October 1911, succumbing to her illness, she passed away at Darjeeling. Full of remorse, Sudhira fell ill. Sarada Devi took personal care to see that Sudhira recovered and travelled to Benaras, Mathura and Brindavan on pilgrimage. All the while, she remained true to Sri Ramakrishna. Later she travelled to Shimla and stayed for a while with her brother Priyavrata.

In 1914, with the support of the trustees of the Belur Math, a boarding house for women called the Matri Mandir was set up in 1914 at a rented building at 68/2, Ramakanta Bose Street. The boarding was home to young women who wished to dedicate their lives for the spiritual cause. Sarada Devi stayed here for a month in a room upstairs. The building was an attempt to build a Math for women.

In 1917, Sudhira took the initiative for setting up an old Women’s section at the Ramakrishna Mission Home of Service in Benares. In 1918, Nivedita’s school became a part of what came to be known as the Ramakrishna Mission Sister Nivedita Girls’ School. In 1919, Sudhira was asked to start a girls’ school in Conulla in East Bengal. Similar schools were set up in Hatibagan and Bally in Hooghly. These became the nucleus for the future Sarada Math of the Ramakrishna order.

In 1918, Sudhira lost two of her closest friends: Devabrata and Mrinalini. Devabrata passed away at the young age of 39. Mrinalini was given permission by Sri Aurobindo in 1918 to come to Pondicherry, when she suddenly fell ill. Realising that her end was near, she handed over her jewellery to Sudhira for the creation of a trust for girls’ scholarship to a poor student of the Nivedita Girls’ School. Meanwhile, Sarada Devi too fell ill and passed away on 21 July 1920. Holy Mother’s departure was a big loss for Sudhira. On a journey to Benares, the latter met with an accident and fell from the train. Despite the best medical treatment at the Ramakrishna Mission Home of Service at Benares, she left the earthly abode at the age of 32.

                                                                             Epilogue

Thus, the lives and destinies of three outstanding women in colonial Bengal intertwined with each other through divine dispensation. Sri Sarada Devi, Sister Nivedita and Sister Sudhira were three iconic women who carved out paths for themselves in the field of education, women’s emancipation and spirituality in colonial Bengal. As has been noticed, each of them also played a pivotal role in the life of Mrinalini Devi. Through the example of their lives and through their teachings, they inspired Mrinalini to live a life of courage and fortitude. Rereading Mrinalini’s life through the prism of the three narratives thus gives us insights hitherto unavailable; they add new meaning to the lives of outstanding spiritual women.

                                                                           _______________

About the author : Sachidananda  Mohanty  was formerly  Professor  and Head, Department of English, University of Hyderabad  and  Vice Chancellor of the Central University of Orissa at Koraput. Currently, he is a Member of the Governing Board of Auroville Foundation.

He is the recipient of several national and international awards including those from the British Council, the Salzburg, the Katha and the Fulbright. He has to his credit 27 books in English and in Oriya including D.H. Lawrence Studies in India, Writers’ Workshop,1990; Lawrence’s Leadership Politics and the Defeat of Fascism, Academic Foundation,1992; Understanding Cultural Exchange, Vision Books 1997; Literature and Culture, Prestige, 2000; Travel Writing and the Empire, Katha, 2002;rpt. 2003, Early Women’s writing in Orissa, 1898-1950: A Lost Tradition, Sage Publications,2005; Gender and Cultural Identity in Colonial Orissa, Orient Longman 2008; Sri Aurobindo: A Contemporary Reader, Routledge India,2008; rpt.2009;2010 ; Sarala Devi, Central Sahitya Akademi,2011; The Tale of My Exile : Twelve Years in the Andamans,  Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publications, 2012, and Cosmopolitan Modernity in Early Twentieth Century India, Routledge India, 2015, revised  second  south  Asian and Global editions 2018. Dr. Mohanty’s essays and articles have appeared in some of the leading journals and forums in the country  and elsewhere including India Today, The Hindu, The Indian Express, The New Quest, The Toronto South Asian Review, The Indian Literature, The Book Review , Economic and Political Weekly, the South Asia Review and the Seminar Magazine. He has lectured at a number of leading Universities in India and abroad including the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Cornell University, Pittsburgh University, the City University of New York , California State University, University of New Mexico at Taos, Loyola University at Chicago, Australia National University, Canberra  and the National  University of Singapore.

He is a contributing Editor to the web journal www.museindia and can be reached at sachimohanty@yahoo.co.in

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[1] A reference to a letter by Sri Aurobindo (30 August, 1905) in which he refers to his three madnesses: 1) “I firmly believe that the accomplishments, genius, higher education and learning and wealth that God has given me are His. I have a right to spend for my own purposes only what is needed for the maintenance of the family and is otherwise absolutely essential. The rest must be returned to God.” 2) “. . . by whatever means I must have the direct vision of God.” 3) “. . . while others look upon their country as an inert piece of matter –  a few meadows and fields, forests and hills and rivers – I look upon my country as the Mother. I adore Her; I worship Her as the Mother. What would a son do if a demon sat on his mother’s breast and started sucking her blood? Would he quietly sit down to his dinner, amuse himself with his wife and children, or would he rush out to deliver his mother? I know I have the strength to deliver this fallen race.”

[2] Swami Tapasyananda. Sri Sarala Devi: The Holy Mother: Life and Teachings, p.1. Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2009

[3] Ibid., p.6

[4] Ibid., p.7

[5] Saralabala Sarkar. Nivedita as I saw her (Translated into English by Probhati Mukherjee) p.15. Calcutta: Sister Nivedita Girls’School,1999.

[6] Ibid., p. 22

[7] Ibid., p. 29

[8] Sister Sudhira, p. 31

[9] Some of the page references are not given in the book.

[10] Pravrajika Prabudha Prana. Sister Sudhira, p.39. Calcutta: Sri Sarada Math, 2012.

[11] Ibid., p. 41

[12] Ibid., pp. 45-46

[13] Ibid., p. 56

Acknowledgement : Readers will benefit greatly by reading Nirodbaran’s excellent address (later published in the book form: Mrinalini Devi: A Talk) delivered on the occasion of Mrinalini Devi’s Birth Centenary. Sincere thanks to the Principal of the Sister Nivedita School, Kolkata for gifting me the book on sister Sudhira; to Anurag Banerjee of the Overman Foundation, Kolkata and Anuradha of the The Gnostic Centre, New Delhi for going through the text and making useful suggestions.

7 thoughts on “Three Women and Four Destinies : Rereading the Life of Mrinalini Devi by Sachidananda Mohanty

  1. Dear Anurag, Dr. Mohanty:
    This post brought to me the four lights from the Eternal Feminine that glowed in India so brilliantly and touched innumerable lives.Mother Sarada Devi, Sister Sudhira, Mrinalini Devi, Sister Nivedita: they have all been a part of my consciousness, and the mere mention of these names makes me do namaskar to their memory in gratitude for they have given us self-confidence, taught us humility and always helped us face the challenges of life with an unfailing faith in the Divine. Thank you once again for this posting.Regards Prema.

  2. How true you are Prema ji. You have yourself set an example in terms of your life and life values: spiritual scholarship of the highest order and a life completely dedicated to the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, just like your late father, Professor K.R.Srinivasa Iyengar.

    The legacy of the four women is indeed a perennial source of inspiration for all of us today. I was deeply moved when I did the research on the four outstanding women of colonial Bengal. Sri Saradamani used to refer to Mrinalini Devi as Bou Ma[ an endearing way of addressing a daughter-in- law]. Women like Sister Nivedita and Sister Sudhira are extremely rare in terms of their dedication and devotion. Same with Mrinalini Devi. I am grateful to dear Anurag for bringing this article to the notice of our community.

  3. ” Three Women and Four destinies: “Rereading the life of Mrinalini Devi ” is just not rereading but profoundly revealing to an amazing degree the great and silent life of Mrinalini Devi by Dr. Sachidananda Mohanty – These were just not women of supernal substance but a living sparkS of blazing divinities who came down for special mission and departed fulifilling their goal and ordained task – the scholarly writer brings in a great deal of understanding and appreciation of the era in which these goddess – like figures lived – I was one of the fortunate ones to have listened to the wonderful talk on ” Mrinalini Devi ” delivered so touchingly by Nirod – da one memorable evening in the playground – It was relayed across to the packed audience with great sensitivity and devotion – each word and turn of expression brought vibrantly alive the innate greatness of “Mrinalini Devi ” – there was a nostalgic sweetness and poignant fervour in the reading of the talk – Thank you , Dr.Mohanty for connecting us to that magic of golden era through your portraits when one knew only these words – Self – Sacrifice and Total Self – Abnegation ” – Surendra s chouhan – SAICE ’69

  4. Marriage ceremony of Sri Aurobindo and Mrinalini Devi took place at a house of Hatkhola’s Duttas at Baithakkhana Road, a place in central Calcutta broadly in between Amherst St & Circular Rd. Among attendance were Jagadish Bose and Lord Sinha.

  5. Lovely post detailing life of all four Respected ladies of the past.Little is known @Respected Mrinalini Devi to the present generation.
    My pranam to all these Four Ladies of the past.My thanks again for sharing these details.
    Regards

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