Born into a prestigious but poor Brahmin family in rural Bengal on August 30, 1896, Ma was given the name, Nirmala Sundari Devi, the Goddess of Taintless Beauty. Her father, Shri Bipin Bhattacharya, spent most of his time absorbed in worship and devotional chanting while her mother, Mokshada Sundari Devi, was the epitome of dignity and devotion to her family’s welfare. Nirmala’s birth was preceded by many miraculous signs and visions and she exhibited perfect awareness and consciousness from the day she was born. She never uttered a cry, but was peaceful and radiant, later surprising people by remembering by name people who were present in the immediate time following her birth.
At each stage of life, Ma spontaneously manifested an example of perfection in fulfilling her particular role. Even as a toddler, Nirmala was often seen in states of spiritual ecstasy, especially during kirtan, or devotional singing. As a small girl, she was the embodiment of sweetness and beauty, manifesting no desire of her own, but living to serve others, seeing only the One in All. The traits of absolute obedience, complete guilelessness and perfect purity manifested in all her behavior, along with the mystical quality of absorption in inner yogic states and visions. Her irresistibly cheerful and loving nature made her a favorite among Muslim and Hindu villagers alike and she delighted everyone by fulfilling their desires. On occasion, while playing with her friends, she would become immobile, and with her face shining with inner effulgence and divine mantras would issue from her lips in flawless accents. When listening to kirtan, she would enter into a deep inner state with tears streaming down her face. She took complete joy in nature, always happiest when she was outside where she could commune with animals, plants, and trees as her intimate friends.
According to custom, Nirmala’s marriage was arranged when she was twelve years old to Ramani Mohan Chakravarty. At their marriage ceremony in 1909, a famous village pundit exclaimed to the groom, “Grandson, you will not know what jewel you are taking home. Her shining complexion is becoming visible through her clothing. She is not an ordinary person!”
Anandamayi Ma with Ramani Mohan Chakravarty, later known as Bholanath
Indeed, once Nirmala turned fourteen and began living with her husband and his family, it became apparent that she was an extraordinary being. At her sister-in-law’s house she became both beloved and indispensible by following her mother’s wish that she unquestioningly carry out the orders of her elders. However, Nirmala’s lack of identification with the body and her states of ecstasy began to concern her in-laws. Eventually, even Ramani Mohan began to be concerned about his beautiful wife’s other-worldliness. Yet, he found her wrapped in such an aura of holiness and sanctity, that any thoughts of a normal marital relationship were driven from his mind. Considerably older than she, he came to look on her as a divine child, and himself as her guardian. Later he was to turn to her for spiritual counsel as a guru, and she would mold his life and lead him to the heights of spiritual attainment.
Between the ages of 22 and 28, Nirmala’s devotion to spiritual practices intensified to the point where she was unable to fulfill her duties as a housewife. During this period, which has been called the Lila of Sadhana, or the play of sadhana, Nirmala demonstrated mantras and practices from a variety of spiritual lineages and spent hours a day in samadhi, or spiritual absorption. These practices culminated in her self-initiation in August of 1922, when she spontaneously went through a ritual of initiation exactly according to the scriptures. Later she described that the guru emerged from within, imparting instruction and empowerment, and then absorbed back into her own self. As members of the Bengali community began to experience the power of being in Nirmala’s presence as well as her siddhis, or spiritual powers, Ramani Mohan himself began to fully recognize Nirmala as an extraordinary being. In January, 1923, Ramani Mohan took initiation from his wife, something extremely unusual in the Hindu tradition. Ma gave him the name, Bholanath, a name for the gentle form of Shiva, and launched him on the path to God-realization.
In 1924 a new stage in Ma’s lila began to unfold. Her divine presence began to attract devotees like a bee to a lotus. She and Bholanath had moved to Dhaka where he became the manager of a large garden estate called the Shahbhag Gardens. As people began to spend time with Nirmala and experience both her inward absorption and her ecstasy during kirtan, they began to see her as Ma, the Divine Mother herself. They became enchanted by both her sweetness and her spiritual power. Upon first seeing her, they felt that she could see into their souls, that she had known them forever. People of all backgrounds and social standing gathered around her, drawn to be her children. Worldly people were transformed into devotees and people with no desire for spiritual practice became life-long devotees. Around Ma, the supernatural and the miraculous became the norm. Devotees to this day tell stories of the transformation of their lives in Ma’s presence. Although she never gave formal speeches, she answered everyone’s questions and guided all according to their inner needs.
It was during this period that Ma entered into a state in which she no longer had the will to feed herself. She told those closest to her that, if they wanted her to stay in her body, they would have to take care of it. Thus, for the rest of her life a small group of women devotees cared for Ma, feeding her from their own hands, bathing her, and dressing her. Ma remained unattached to all worldly things throughout her life.
In May 1929, the pattern of Ma’s future life emerged. Although her devotees in Dhaka had built an ashram that included a small cottage for Ma to stay in, at the ceremony to inaugurate the new ashram, Ma announced that she would be leaving Dhaka that day. From that day forward for the next fifty years, she traveled the length and breadth of India without an itinerary, rarely staying in one place longer than two weeks. As the ranks of her devotees grew to include tens of thousands all over India, Ma continued her spontaneous travels. At each destination she gathered devotees and newcomers alike. Holding them spellbound in her presence, she would chant and answer questions, always deferring to great sages and saints, calling herself simply “this little girl” or referring to herself as “this body.” Bholanath traveled with her until his death in 1938, after which time she was accompanied by an entourage of close women devotees and others who had the blessing of being invited to come along.
Anandamayi Ma with devotees
Led only by the needs of the many devotees that surrounded her and the inner call of mankind to manifest spirituality, Ma traveled from place to place giving comfort and guidance to all that came to her. The divine attraction that drew people to her cannot be explained in words. People found a joy and inner awakening in her presence, and felt that she was someone who had known them from eternity.
Anandamayi Ma with Paramahansa Yogananda
There is a wealth of stories of Ma’s guidance and blessing, many accompanied by supernatural manifestations. Although she never gave formal speeches, Ma answered everyone’s questions and guided them according to their inner needs. Although having little formal education, she spoke with the authority of direct perception, and her spontaneous replies won the admiration of scholars and pandits.
Anandamayi Ma with Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi
Over the years, ashrams sprang up in Ma’s name and became centers of spiritual activity as well as service to those in need. Many famous saints and mahatmas realized her divinity and even openly proclaimed it. She was loved and respected by Mahatma Gandhi and Prime Ministers Nehru and Indira Gandhi and was revered as a national spiritual figure.To everyone’s great sadness, Ma’s physical life came to an end on August 27, 1982. Thousands of mourners lined the roads of northern India as her funeral cortege passed by. The Times of India reported, “Anandamayi Ma was the living embodiment of devotion and love. Just with a glimpse of Her, countless problems are solved. She considered service to suffering humanity Her true religion. Her spiritually powerful personality was a source of great guidance for all human beings. I offer my homage to Her!”
Ma’s legacy is very much with us today. We at Children of Ma have been inspired to carry on Ma’s teachings in whatever way we can. Ma taught that each of us is divine, that our purpose as human beings is to see the divine in everything and everyone and to serve without expectation of reward. Our mission is to serve children in India who are without the basic necessities of life—food, shelter, and education. Through establishing schools like Ma Sharanam, we hope to create a new generation of leaders who will grow into live a life of service, having received both an inspiring academic as well as spiritual education.
Lisa Prajna Hallstrom
Prajna serves on the Board of Children of Anandamayi Ma Foundation, and is the author of Mother of Bliss. She is indebted to Acharya Mangalananda and Rajesh Sacideva for their contributions to this biography.