The Power in Detail

Sri Sarada Devi and Her Divine Play
by Swami Chetanananda
Vedanta Society of St. Louis; September 2015, 874 pages.

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Reviewed by Jayanti (Pamela Hoye) 

I became mesmerized as Swami Chetanananda told devotees in San Diego about his newest book, Sri Sarada Devi and Her Divine Play. Such detail! What she used to clean her teeth. Really, how could he have found this out? Ah yes! I found it recorded in the reminiscences of her brother Prasanna’s wife, Subasini:

When the Mother was in Calcutta, I sent a container of tooth powder for her, which I made from roasted tobacco leaf and coconut leaf. Later my husband told me that the Mother praised my thoughtful gift.

Another bit of information that I found rather amazing has to do with transportation. Generally, I think of Mother traveling by train, riding in a horse-drawn carriage or bullock cart, and being carried by palanquin or walking on foot. All these are true, and seemed appropriate to my vision of travel in India during the 1800s. Unexpected was the discovery that on February 11, 1911, Mother rode in an automobile. She and her party were driven from the train station to her guest lodgings across from the Ramakrishna Math in Madras. I had known of Mother’s first experiences of electricity and running water. Yet, in my mind at least, the invention of the car is at the forefront of ushering in the modern age. Reading that Mother also rode in a car, I was suddenly keenly aware that, unlike Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, Sri Sarada Devi’s life stretched to 1920, one-fifth of the way into the twentieth century. My awareness of Mother’s living connection with modern life awakened.

In this way, I am finding that reading about Mother in such full and mostly chronological detail gives me new and deeper understanding. I am not always sure whether I’m reading about a newly translated incident from a Bengali source or a story I have forgotten. But even when it is a quote or incident with which I am familiar, the benefit of detail offers me a fresh perspective.

For example, in the chapter on “Holy Mother in the Midst of Her Family,” Swami Chetanananda describes Mother’s role as the head of her extended family. In the following quote, Mother is explaining her dealings with her nieces, each of whom has a different temperament:

I show these girls due respect for their views. Remaining detached, I watch their movements so that they do not go to extremes. One should be humble and give some amount of freedom to all.

I am fairly certain that I had encountered “One should be humble and give some amount of freedom to all” before. But reading this generalized teaching within context, I was struck by a profound insight into parenting. As parents, our task is to encourage our child’s development into an independent being. Child-rearing experts assure us that this happens best in an environment of trust and acceptance, of loving guidance. How is this to be accomplished? Note Mother’s prescription: By “showing due respect for their views” and seeing “that they do not go to extremes.” What attitudes foster good parenting? Detachment and humility. How often do we see parents become angry, fearful, or harshly critical, not so much in response to their child’s actions as from reactions arising within themselves? When we are caught up in our own expectations, judgments, and fears, we cannot see a situation as it is and allow it to unfold. The more we can observe a situation as separate from ourselves, the clearer our role becomes. We can then make better assessments and take more appropriate actions that balance a need to guide and protect the child with an ability to encourage freedom. If, as Mother says, those who are in our care and over whom we might be tempted to feel superior deserve our respect, then it follows that these principles reach into all interpersonal interactions.

The preface to Sri Sarada devi and Her divine Play reads: “Generally, biographers focus on the important events in the lives of great people and skip the insignificant details, but I included both in an attempt to inform the reader of even the smallest aspects of Holy Mother’s life. In the eyes of a lover, everything related to the beloved is sweet and precious.” How is it possible to know what will spark a devotee’s heart? The Swami has done an invaluable service.

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