By Indu Nair
At a time when women in search of their self break out of the confines of home and family, a small movement in south India paying allegiance to Rama Devi, exalts the householder life as a woman’s ideal spiritual practice.
Do not think that your children or guests at home disturb you in your meditation. Your own worldly thoughts disturb your meditation. You are not all-renouncing recluses, who have no other duty other than exclusive meditation on God. You have to rule your homes and bring up your children. You have to be in peace and harmony with society, and welcome your guests hospitably. On such occasions, think that God, whom you have been meditating upon, has come to you in the form of your child, or as a guest to your home. This will keep your mind in undisturbed poise.’ – Rama Devi
It’s considered unfashionable, even retrogressive, to preach family values to women today. For too long the patriarchal system has used such concepts to restrict woman to the confines of her house and home. With increasing educational qualifications and economic independence, many women are breaking free and asserting their right to their own choices. And yet, this rising self-determination is at a price. Marriages are breaking up, divorces are on the rise, children are traumatized. Is there a way to link a woman’s right to self-respect and self-worth with a happy and harmonious family life?
Rama Devi (1911-1978), a little-known saint in South India, says yes.
The Rama Devi movement is based on complete surrender and devotion to the family as a way of spiritual life. Founded by her in the 1940s, it is centered on developing the spiritual side of seekers through fulfilling their household responsibilities. Born into a devout family of Gowd Saraswat Brahmins, Rama Devi showed indications of a deeply spiritual nature right from her childhood. She would sit for hours in meditation at the shrine of the goddess in her home, and recite verses from the Bhagavad Gita. She was susceptible to spiritual trances and had divine visions of herself blessing sages deep in meditation, or riding a lion and fighting with demons.
As a child, she looked upon her parents, teachers and elders as embodiments of the divine. Married at the age of 14 to Shri Krishna Bhagat, she perceived her husband as the divine manifested in her life and considered it her sacred duty to serve him and the family. She lived an austere life, whilst discharging her domestic responsibilities.
Several Indian women over centuries have been admired and honored as ideals of Indian femininity for their deep devotion to their husbands and families. Apart from the ubiquitous Sitas and Savitris, legends in Tamil Nadu celebrate Vasuki, wife of the poet Thiruvalluvar, who developed divine powers as the result of her chastity and single-minded devotion to her husband. Once when she dropped a pail of water while hastening to answer the call of her husband, it is alleged that the pail stood suspended in mid-air waiting for her. The Mahabharata relates the story of a housewife who was spiritually more advanced than a hermit who came to beg for alms at her door. The hermit possessed powers by which he burnt a crane that disturbed him during his penance. The lady was serving her husband food when the hermit visited her home. When the hermit got annoyed with her as she delayed his bhiksha, she calmly replied that she was not a crane, knowing his thoughts by virtue of her chastity.
It is this perception of divinity in duty that reflects in Rama Devi’s teachings of deference to the traditional framework and seeking the divine from within boundaries normally regarded as obstacles on the path to realisation. To quote from Home is Heaven, a collection of her talks, ‘Rama Devi exemplified the ideal of Indian pouranic womanhood distinguished by pativrata dharma. She abided by the will of her husband. Service to her husband was her highest tapasya, the highest yoga, the highest worship and the highest form of dynamic meditation.’ Rama Devi stressed that grihastashram, the ashram of the householder, is meant to be transformed into a haven of spiritual peace. In Home is Heaven, the concept of grihasthashram takes on manifold meanings. Who is a grihastha? Literally, one who abides at home. From the spiritual point of view, home stands for the kingdom of heaven, the ultimate goal. So, a grihastha is one who has realized his true self, who dwells in God’s consciousness, in the heavenly home.
Rama Devi is considered as an embodiment of Parashakti, the divine female principle who looked upon her husband as Shiva. She asked her disciples to practice this attitude in their everyday lives, with the husband and wife as complementary entities corresponding to the divine matter and energy (Shiva and Shakti) principles. Her vision was getting seekers to realize the highest goal not by renouncing the worldly life, but rather by living it, by transforming worldly ties of family life into a sacred communion of two souls, in which the husband and wife look upon each other as an embodiment of the Divine and an object of love, adoration and service.
She focused especially on teachings for women, whom she exalted as personifications of the Universal Spirit with the added attribute of holy motherhood. A female seeker can live in absolute freedom with her family responsibilities as wife and mother focused on the ultimate goal in life. In Home is Heaven, she refers to the incident when Jiva Goswami, a disciple of Sri Chaitanya, refused audience to Mirabai saying that an ascetic could not receive a woman into his presence. Mirabai replied that Sri Krishna was the only man in Vrindaban, and all others were women, indicating the relation between the supreme soul and the individual consciousness. The Supreme Consciousness is the universal bridegroom, and the individual consciousness of a thinking mind is the bride. With the advent of realisation, the individual soul realizes that it is no different from the Universal Soul. Until then, it adores the Universal Soul as an entity in relation to it, as father, mother, husband or master. Seeing the Universal Soul in one’s family and especially in the spouse is the ideal grihasthashram visualized by Rama Devi.
Her teachings are elementary and yet, profound in their universal appeal. She emphasized that women are the central figures in each home, and that they alone have the power to create a heaven within the walls of the home. ‘You are the queens of your home. Remain in your dharma of loyalty to your husband and dedicate yourself to the service of the divine in him. By practicing this communion with the divinity in your husband, you will eventually realize your identity with the Universal Consciousness. This is the yoga of a housewife, which sanctifies matrimony and home-life,’ she tells her women disciples. Feminists likely to quibble with this view could look at the overall vision of Rama Devi who said that if the husband is the woman’s God, she in turn formed the basis of his divinity. The pati (husband) is Parameshwar; at the same time the wife is Shakti, the source of all his strength. She expounded the message that this balanced state in nature was enough to edify householders to exalted spiritual awareness.
She initiated a number of disciples and did atma pratisthas in four mandirs across the country, in simple ceremonies that did not stress on rituals. The atma pratishtas were unique ceremonies, in which an enlightened saint directly invoked her consciousness into the idols. The sadhana she devised for her disciples is a simple form of meditation, combined with chanting and regular satsangs. But the greatest sadhana lies in conforming to the sacred duties of home and the family. Before she got the experience of nirvikalpa samadhi for the first time, it is said that she had visions of Jesus Christ, Buddha, Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Chaitanya, the Hindu Trinity and various other forms of the Divine. She also had a vision of God manifested as the divine mother of the universe, which subsequently formed the basis of her teachings.
Disciples who have taken direct initiation from her, remember her as a deeply spiritual presence who would often go into samadhi amidst her discourses. Lalitha Nair, a devotee who stays opposite the Rama Devi Mandir at Trivandrum, reminisces about the saint’s discourses, ‘She advised us like a loving mother, yet so steeped was she in God consciousness that she used to go into samadhi at the very mention of the word.’ Lalitha’s sister Shantha Nair talks about how staying on the grihastashram path helped her overcome a troubled marriage. She says, ‘My early married life was very difficult as my husband had a violent temper. It was my deep faith in Rama Devi Amma’s words, the conviction that maintaining the household shrine was my spiritual practice and my dharma that gave me the patience to make my marriage work. My husband too became a devotee of Rama Devi and had a vision of her just before he passed away.’
Mr Ravi Vallathol, award-winning TV actor, is another staunch devotee. He talks about the tough time his family faced when his mother passed away. ‘I was in the first year of college, and was so disconsolate that I thought of renouncing the world and taking sanyas. But Rama Devi Amma’s path gave me the strength to turn right back into the world and I took on the responsibility of consoling my father and siblings. Today, my wife and I have dedicated our lives to spreading the message of Rama Devi Amma. She is an avatar, the Divine personified. By living her knowledge, I have found bliss that is beyond the cycles of birth and death, beyond even a seeker’s craving for enlightenment.’
Six generations of the Nair family have taken initiation from the saint. ‘This unique spiritual path has been guiding our lives throughout. We are fortunate to have had the best of both spiritual and material worlds,’ says she. Her daughter-in-law Dr. Rejitha Nair adds, ‘The atmosphere at our home is serene, like an ashram. My husband has never seen his parents arguing. This sense of peace and security is one of the best gifts parents can give their children.’ A home that the family looks upon as a sanctified place of worship, where the husband and wife see each other as God sounds like a panacea to the increasing number of broken relationships and divorces prevalent in present times.
Before going into the final samadhi, Rama Devi passed on a mantra for her future disciples. Seekers are now given this common mantra: Charanam sharanam Ramambike charanam sharanam trayambake and believers say that they have found peace and have had visions of the saint while chanting it. The Rama Sakti mission has temples in several parts of the country, with the headquarters at Mangalore, where the samadhi of Rama Devi is located. The mission also runs schools and a charitable hospital. Ms. Nair says, ‘Unlike other spiritual masters, Rama Devi Amma’s teachings have not spread much as the majority of her direct disciples like us, are householders with careers and responsibilities that leave us little time to carry her message beyond the circle of our family and friends.’
The Trivandrum temple exudes an aura of peace. The householder disciples of Rama Devi gather there in the mornings and evenings to chant the Lalita sahasranama, and meditate. Photo-graphs of the saint adorn the walls of the large meditation hall. Gita classes and satsangs are conducted at the mandir on weekends. There is a priest to perform the pujas at the shrine but women devotees in the Trivandrum mandir usually do it themselves. The main ritual involved in the puja is a simple offering of flowers at the feet of the idol of Rama Devi. A form of worship that seems befitting to a guru who envisioned realisation for seekers right in the heaven of their respective homes.
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