Sri Anandamayi Ma (Bengali: শ্রী আনন্দময়ী মা) (30 April 1896 - 27 August 1982) was an Indian spiritual personality from Bengal.
Anandamayi Ma was born Nirmala Sundari (নির্মলা সুন্দরী; Nirmôla Shundori, English: "Immaculate, Beautiful") on 30 April 1896 to Bipinbihari Bhattacharya and Mokshada Sundari Devi in Kheora, Brahmanbaria District, British India, in what is now Bangladesh. Her father, originally from Vidyakut in Tripura, was a Vaishnavite singer known for his devotion. He would rise at 3 AM and sing songs, and was given to wandering for long periods. His wife would go searching for him and bring him back home. On one occasion, during a storm, the roof blew off the house and he continued singing in the rain.
Anandamayi's mother, Moksada Sundari Devi, was also known for her states of bhava or religious emotion. She was visited by avatars and deities who shown with light as she performed her household duties. While pregnant with Nirmala (Anandamayi's given name), she would see visions of sages and statues of deities which would appear, and then suddenly disappear. She later took vows and became a female renunciant.
Anandamayi Ma 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.
They lived in poverty. Nirmala attended the village school for approximately two years. Although her teachers were pleased with her ability, her family thought she was dullminded because of her indifference and constantly happy demeanor. When her mother once fell seriously ill, relatives remarked with puzzlement about the child remaining apparently unaffected. Her education was very limited and her writing skills were minimal.
In 1908 at the age of thirteen, in keeping with the rural custom at the time, she was married to Ramani Mohan Chakrabarti of Vikramapura, whom she would later rename Bholanath. She spent five years after her marriage at her brother-in-law's home, where she was in a withdrawn meditative state much of the time. In 1916, she became ill and moved back to her parent's home in Vadyakuta. In 1918 she and her husband moved to Bajitpur, (where they stayed until 1924) where she began to do Shaivite and Vaisnavite spiritual practices. Inner voices would tell her what actions to perform and which images to visualize. Her yogic practices (kryias) were spontaneous and she described them as occurring much like a factory where the various machines all worked automatically and in perfect sequence to produce a product.
Anandamayi would shed profuse tears, laugh for hours, 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. She would also fast for long periods and at other times consume enough food for eight or nine people.
In the history of Indian devotional traditions, changes in bodily structure and state are considered to be spontaneous expressions of religious emotion. Anandamayi's changes were more extreme than these more common sattvika bhavas(sweating, fainting, crying, change in skin color, hair standing on end, etc.) which also normally indicate strong religious emotion. Some respected Indian saints of the past were described as having had similar bodily changes.
It was here that a devout neighbour considered insane, Harakumar, developed a habit of addressing her as "Ma", and prostrated before her morning and evening in reverence. When Nirmala was about seventeen, she went to live with her husband in Ashtagram. It was a celibate marriage—whenever thoughts of sexuality occurred to Ramani, Nirmala's body would take on the qualities of death. On the full moon night of August 1922, at midnight, twenty-six-year old Nirmala enacted her own spiritual initiation. She explained that the ceremony and its rites were being revealed to her spontaneously as and when they were called for. She later stated, "As the master (guru) I revealed the mantra; as the disciple (shishya) I accepted it and started to recite it."
Nirmala moved to Shahbag with her husband in 1924, where he had been appointed caretaker of the gardens of the Nawab of Dhaka. During this period Nirmala went into ecstasies at kirtans in a manner similar to that of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Nirmala continued to perform household tasks, and also continued to practice silence, and was in a withdrawn state of ecstasy much of the time. These states began to interfere with her daily work. In 1926, she set up a Kali temple in the Siddheshwari area and devoted herself to spiritual practices. Nirmala underwent a mystic experience while praying in the temple one day. In a deep meditative state, she held difficult yogic positions for long periods and spontaneously formed complex tantric hand positions and gestures.
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.
Her husband thought she might be possessed, and took her to exorcists. One physician suggested she was not mad in the conventional sense but instead had a kind of god intoxication - a divine madness for which there was no secular cure.
During the time in Shahbag, more and more people began to be drawn to what they saw to be a living embodiment of the divine. Jyotiscandra Ray, known as "Bhaiji," was an early and close disciple. He was the first to suggest that Nirmala be called Anandamayi Ma, meaning "Joy Permeated Mother", or "Bliss Permeated Mother". He was chiefly responsible for the first ashram built for Anandamayi Ma in 1929 at Ramna, within the precinct of the Ramna Kali Mandir.
Scholars were attracted to Anandamayi Ma's spirituality and teaching, though she called herself "a little unlettered child".Mahamahopadhyay Gopinath Kaviraj, Sanskrit scholar, philosopher, and principal of Sanskrit College in Kolkata and the physician Triguna Sen were among her early followers. Uday Shankar, the famous dance artist, was impressed by Anandamayi Ma's analysis of dance, which she used as a metaphor for the relationship between people and God.
In 1932, Anandamayi Ma moved to Dehradun with her husband. From that time, until her death in 1982, she traveled across the subcontinent, never staying more than two weeks in the same place. Several ashrams and teaching hospitals were established in her name by devotees at Ramna (near Shahbag) and Kheora in Bangladesh, and Benares, Kankhal and other parts of India. Twenty-five ashrams are named after her. She also renovated many dilapidated holy places, including Naimisharanya, where she set up a temple and arranged for the recitation of holy names and the performance of kirtan and other religious rites. During this period many people, such as Arnaud Desjardins, the French producer of spiritual films, Melita Maschmann, the German novelist, and Dr. Colin Turnbull, the English author, became her disciples.
Kamala Nehru, wife of the future Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, became a devotee in 1933. Anandamayi Ma was then staying at a small temple in Dehradun, while Jawarharlal Nehru was incarcerated by the British in Dehradun jail. Later she took Kamala to the Ambika temple in Kajpur to perform a three-day yajna. She gave to her daughter Indira the rosary which Mataji had given her. Mahatma Gandhi came to hear of Anandamayi through Kamala and sent his aid, Jamnalal Bajaj, to see her. He in turn became a devotee. After the unexpected death of Bajaj, she went to Wardha to console Mahatma Gandhi.
She was known for her siddhis or yogic powers where she could read her devotee's thoughts and emotions at a distance, make her body shrink and expand, and cure the sick. One disciple claimed that she was saved from death after a car accident when Anandamayi grasped her "life substance" and brought it back into her dead body.
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.
She sometimes ascribed her actions to a personal though unnamed god:
I have no sense of pleasure or pain, and I stay as I have always been. Sometimes He draws me outside, and sometimes He takes me inside and I am completely withdrawn. I am nobody, all of my actions are done by him and not by me.
Gopinath Kaviraj, Sri Sri Ma Anandamayi: Upadesa O Prasnottara (Calcutta: Pasyant Prakasani, 1382 B.S.), p. 1
She also sometimes described herself as completely empty with no sense of the "I am" remaining. She was lost in the great void (mahasunya) which was responsible for her actions. The action that emanated from this void was often chaotic and incoherent. Her view was that a universal state of chaos arises due to spontaneous eruptions of the divine will which arise out of this nothingness. But she also talked in theological terms stating that her bhavas or expressions were the play of the Lord (Bhagavan) acting through her body.
Anandamayi considered individual identity to be a kind of spiritual disease. She called it bhava roga, or the disease of feeling where every person looks at him or herself as a separate individual. When some of her disciples complained about the large crowds of people that would sometimes follow her, she responded,
As you do not feel the weight of your head, of hands, and of feet ... so do I feel that these persons are all organic members of THIS BODY; so I don't feel their pressure or find their worries weighing on me. Their joys and sorrows, problems and their solutions, I feel to be vitally mine ... I have no ego sense nor conception of separateness.
Gopinath Kaviraj, ed., Mother as Seen by Her Devotees (Varanasi: Shree Shree Anandamayee Sangha, 1967), p. 94
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.
When Paramahansa Yogananda met Anandamayi Ma and asked her about her life, she answered:
"Father, there is little to tell." She spread her graceful hands in a deprecatory gesture. "My consciousness has never associated itself with this temporary body. Before I came on this earth, Father, 'I was the same.' As a little girl, 'I was the same.' I grew into womanhood, but still 'I was the same.' When the family in which I had been born made arrangements to have this body married, 'I was the same.' ...
And, Father, in front of you now, 'I am the same.' Ever afterward, though the dance of creation change[s] around me in the hall of eternity, 'I shall be the same.'"
Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi, (New York, Philosophical Library in New York City, 1946), Chapter 46
Anandamayi Ma would sometimes 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 Krishna, she could not be placed in any definite tradition. An ecstatic child of ecstatic parents, she became a famous saint who like many other female Indian saints stood on the edge of several religious traditions, and in the midst of none. She influenced the spirituality of thousands of people who came to see her throughout her long life, and died in 1982.
Swami Sivananda (Divine Life Society) described her as "the most perfect flower the Indian soil has produced." Precognition, healing and other miracles were attributed to her by her followers. Paramhansa Yogananda translates Anandamayi as "joy-permeated". This name was given to her by her devotees in the 1920s to describe what they saw as her habitual state of divine joy and bliss.
She died on 27 August 1982 in Dehradun, and subsequently on 29 August 1982 was given Samadhi in the courtyard of her Kankhal ashram, situated in Haridwar in North India, a shrine was later erected over the samadhi, now known as the “Ananda Jyoti Peetham”.