Gopaler Ma (Aghoremani Devi)

The highlights of her life

(This life-story has been excerpted from the book ‘They Lived With God’ by Swami Chetanananda, published by the Vedanta Society of St. Lois. To read the entire studied life, and lives of 27 other intimate disciples, please read this book. )

  1. Born of a Brahmin family about 1822 – at Kamarhati, a northern suburb of Kolkata. Was called Aghoremani Devi.
  1. Married at the age of 9 following the social custom of child marriage. However her husband expired even before her marriage was consummated.
  2. Initiated into spiritual life by her husband’s family guru with the child Krishna as her Chosen Deity.
  3. Sold her jewellery and husband’s property, invested in securities. Out of the 3 or 4 rupees received as interest, she lived a contemplative live devoid of comfort and luxury and filled with spiritual discipline and longing for her Chosen Deity.
  4. Followed a daily routine of austerity and concentration almost without exception for over 30 years – from 1852 – 1883.
  5. Met Sri Ramakrishna in 1884. He recognized her spiritual magnitude like a jeweller recognizes the value of a jewel.
  6. Because of her devotion, and through Sri Ramakrishna’s grace, in spring 1885, had a vision of child Gopala continuously for 2 months, who actually played with her, ate food with her and lived with her for sometime. She recognized Sri Ramakrishna as her own chosen Deity.
  7. In 1903 became seriously ill, and the curtain fell on the divine drama on 8 July 1906.

Her relationship with Thakur and Ma

1.Sri Ramakrishna recognized the spiritual magnitude of both Gopaler-ma and the landlady (who also visited Sri Ramakrishna when Gopaler-ma went to visit him the first time) and, praising them in his sweet manner, he said: ‘Ah! What a beautiful expression on their faces! They are floating in the ocean of bliss and devotion. Their eyes are soaked with divine love’. On another occasion Sri Ramakrishna commented about Gopaler-ma, ‘During Krishna’s incarnation she was a fruit-seller of Vrindaban, and she would feed Gopala the sweet fruits’.

  1. It is an ancient custom that one should not visit God or a holy person empty-handed, so on her way she brought two pennies’ worth of stale sweets, which was all that she could afford. She was confident that he would not eat them, since so many people brought better offerings every day. But no sooner had she arrived at Dakshineswar than Sri Ramakrishna said: ‘Oh, you have come! Give me what you have brought for me’. She was embarrassed, but she reluctantly handed over the stale sweets to him. Like a hungry boy he started to eat them with great relish and said to her: ‘Why do you spend money for sweets? Prepare some sweet coconut balls, and when you visit this place bring one or two of them with you. Or you may bring a little of the ordinary dishes which you cook yourself. I want to eat your cooking’.
    A few days later she came to Dakshineswar on foot, carrying some ordinary curry that she cooked for Sri Ramakrishna. He relished it and said: ‘What a delicacy! It is like nectar’. Tears rolled down Gopaler-ma’s cheeks. She thought the Master appreciated her humble offerings only because she was poor.

During the next three or four months Gopaler-ma visited Dakshineswar several times, always carrying some plain food for the Master. Invariably he asked her to bring some new food on her next visit. Sometimes she would think in disgust: ‘O Gopala, is this the outcome of my prayer? You have brought me to a holy man who only asks for food. I shall not come back again’. But as soon as she returned to Kamarhati, she would again feel the irresistible attraction, and her mind would long to see the Master.

  1. It was the spring of 1885. One morning at three o’clock Gopaler-ma, as usual started to practise japam. After finishing the japam she began pranayama and was about to offer the result of the japam to her Chosen Deity when she noticed that Sri Ramakrishna was seated at her left with his right fist clenched. Startled, she wondered: ‘What is this? How did he come here at this odd hour?’ As she later described:
    I looked at him in amazement and thought, ‘How did he come here?’ Meanwhile Gopala [as she called Sri Ramakrishna] kept on smiling sweetly. As I took courage and grasped his left hand, Sri Ramakrishna’s form disappeared and in place of it appeared the real Gopala – a big child of ten months old.

Gopaler-ma’s ecstacy was boundless. Her vision, conversation and play with her beloved Gopala continued: ‘Here is Gopala in my arms… Now he enters into you [pointing to Sri Ramakrishna]… There, he comes out again… Come, my child, come to your wretched mother’. Thus she became convinced that Sri Ramakrishna was none other than her Gopala.

Only a mystic understands the language and behaviour of another mystic. Sri Ramakrishna was happy to see her ecstacy, but then, in order to calm her, he began to strike her chest and feed her with delicacies. Even while eating, Gopaler-ma said in an ecstatic mood: ‘Gopala, my darling, your wretched mother has led a life of dire poverty. She had to make her living by spinning and selling sacred thread. Is that why you are taking special care of her today?’ From this time on Aghoremani Devi was known as Gopaler-ma.

  1. A few days later Gopaler-ma went to Dakshineswar to visit the Master. After greeting him she went to the nahabat, or concert room, where Sri Ramakrishna’s spiritual consort, known as Holy Mother, lived. It was Gopaler-ma’s habit to practice japam whenever she had time and opportunity. While she was doing japam in the concert room, Sri Ramakrishna came there and said: ‘Why do you practice so much japam now? You have plenty of visions!’

Gopaler-ma replied: ‘Shall I not practice japam any more? Have I attained everything?’
‘Yes, you have attained everything’.
‘Yes, everything’.
‘What do you say? Have I really accomplished everything?’
‘Yes, you have. It is no longer necessary for you to practice japam and austerity for yourself, but if you wish, you may continue these disciplines [pointing to himself] for the welfare of this body’.
Thus assured by Sri Ramakrishna three times, she said: ‘All right. Whatever I do henceforth will be for you’.

  1. Those who carry the Lord in their hearts always enjoy festivity. They never get bored or pass a single dull moment. (Towards the end), the body of Gopaler-ma was deteriorating day by day, but her mind was floating in bliss. When Holy Mother went to see her, Gopaler-ma sighed: ‘Gopal, you have come. Look, you have sat on my lap all these days; now you take me on your lap’, Holy Mother took Gopaler-ma’s head on her lap and caressed her affectionately

Some aspects of her personality

  1. Gopaler-ma’s mind, was always God-centered. Just as the needle of the compass always points to the north, so also her mind was always directed towards God. Mercilessly she would drive away all distracting thoughts. Swami Ramakrishnananda related the following incident:

One day, after Sri Ramakrishna had passed away, some of his disciples went to see her and found her room full of mosquitoes and other troublesome creatures. Although she did not appear to mind them and kept on repeating the Name of the Lord, it distressed them to see her in such discomfort, so the next day one of the disciples brought her a mosquito curtain. That night when she sat down to repeat the Name, she found her mind constantly wandering to the curtain, thinking whether a cockroach or a rat might not be eating off a corner of it. Seeing this she said, ‘What! This wretched curtain takes my mind away from my Gopala!’ and without ado she made it up into a bundle and sat down again to her devotions with the mosquitoes all about her.

The next morning we were just getting up at the Math when Gopaler-ma appeared. She had walked all the way [at least five miles] and must have started at three o’clock. She laid the bundle down.

‘What is it?’ someone asked.

‘It is the curtain you gave me yesterday. It takes my mind away from God. I don’t want it’, was her answer; and nothing could persuade her to take it back.

  1. To see God in everything is the culmination of vedantic experience. Gopaler-ma had a pet cat in whom she used to see Gopala. One day it was lying peacefully on Nivedita’s lap when Kusum came and pushed it away. Immediately Gopaler-ma cried out: ‘What have you done? What have you done? Gopala is going away – he’s gone’.
  2. ‘I feel thrilled’, Nivedita wrote in a letter at that time, ‘When I am with Gopaler-ma. The words of saint Elizabeth sound in my ears, “What is this to me, the Mother my Lord should visit me?” For I believe that in Gopaler-ma is sainthood as great as that of a paramahamsa – a soul fully free. I feel that if I can only worship her enough, blessings will descend on all whom I love, through her. Could more be said?

More details of her life story

It is hard to believe how the infinite God assumes a finite human form and plays with human beings. But this play was actually enacted in the life of a woman devotee of Sri Ramakrishna. She was known as Gopaler-ma, or ‘Gopala’s mother’. Gopala, or cowherd boy, is an epithet of the child Krishna. Gopaler-ma’s given name was Aghoremani Devi, but she came to be called Gopaler-ma because of her fervent devotion to the infant Krishna, which culminated in Lord Krishna appearing before her as a child of seemingly solid physical form. Aghoremani attained this high mystic experience by living a life of austerity and renunciation, and through her steadfast love for her Chosen Deity, Gopala.

Aghoremani Devi was born of a Brahmin family about the year 1822 at Kamarhati, a northern suburb of Calcutta. Following the social custom of child marriage, she was married at the age of nine. Her wedding was the first and last time she saw her husband, for he died before the marriage was consummated, leaving her a widow of fourteen years of age. However, she was initiated into spiritual life by her husband’s family guru and, with the child Krishna as her Chosen Deity, she was given the ‘Gopala mantram’. Since a Hindu brahmin widow does not remarry, the love and energy that Aghoremani would have given her husband and children were diverted towards her beloved Gopala. It was Divine Providence that her one-pointed devotion was to make her a saint instead of a faithful housewife.

The tiny room, where Gopaler-ma spent the greater portion of her life, was at the southwest corner of the building. It had three windows on the southern side through which she could see the Ganga. Inside the room were large earthen pots containing rice, lentils, spices, and other things, which she purchased in quantities to last for six months. Fresh vegetables were bought once a week at the local market. She kept her few articles of clothing in a tin trunk, and her cooking pots and pans were neatly stacked in one corner. Both her inner life and her outer life were well organized. This is a sigh of a yogi.

Gopaler-ma arose at two o’clock in the morning, washed her face and hands, then started her japam, which continued until eight o’clock. Next, she cleaned the Radha-Krishna temple, washed the worship vessels, picked flowers, and made garlands and sandal paste. She was neat, clean, and meticulous. She would bathe twice a day, mornings in the Ganga and evenings in the pond. After bathing in the Ganga, she meditated for some time under a vilwa tree in the temple garden. Next, she collected dry wood and leaves for her cooking fire. She usually cooked rice, dal, bitter squash, and potato. Her food offering to Baby Gopala was worth seeing. She would place a wooden seat on the floor for Gopala and offer cooked food on a banana leaf-plate, which she set before him. Afterwards she would partake of the prasad and then rest for a while. She practiced japam again hen until evening, when she would attend the vesper service of Radha-Krishna and listen to devotional singing. Her supper was always very simple, usually consisting of a fewer offered coconut balls and a little milk. Again she would start her japam, which continued until midnight. With rare exception, she followed this routine daily for over thirty years – from 1852 to 1883. Perhaps the only break of any consequence in her routine came when she went on a pilgrimage with her landlady to Gaya, Varanasi, Allahabad, Mathura, and Vrindaban.

Swami Ramakrishnananda mentioned an incident which happened shortly before Gopaler-ma met Sri Ramakrishna:

One day she was cooking as usual, but the fire would not burn, the wood was heavy with moisture, and there was an adverse wind which blew the smoke into her eyes. Finally when the bit of rice and curry was done and she was about to pour it out on the leaf, the same adverse wind blew away the leaf. Then she began to scold God for making everything so bad for Gopala. As she was talking, a little boy brought back the leaf, held it out flat on the ground until she had put the food on it and then disappeared. She began to feed her Gopala; but suddenly she began to ask herself who that little boy was and she realized that it was Gopala himself. From that moment she became mad. All day and night she kept crying, ‘Where is my Gopala? Where is my Gopala?’ She could not sleep or eat. Only at night would she prepare a little food for Gopala, and everyone thought that she had really become mad.

A few days later, while she was practicing japam, her desire to see him became so intense that she immediately left for Dakshineswar by herself.

Sri Ramakrishna stayed in Calcutta for a few days and then left for Dakshineswar by boat. Some of the devotees, including Gopaler-ma, accompanied him. Balaram’s family had lovingly given Gopaler-ma some necessary items of clothing and utensils in a bundle which she was carrying on the boat. The Master came to know from other devotees what was in the bundle. Immediately he became grace, and without directly referring to the items, he began to speak about renunciation. He said: ‘Only a man of renunciation realizes God. The devotee who is simply satisfied with another man’s hospitality and returns empty-handed, sits very close to God’. He did not say single word to her, but he kept looking at her bundle. Gopaler-ma understood.

The Master always watched over his devotees so that they might not deviate from the path of nonattachment. He could be as soft as a flower, and again as strong as a thunderbolt. His superhuman love conquered the hearts of the devotees, so a little indifference from him would give them unbearable pain. Gopaler-ma was stung with remorse and thought of throwing the bundle away. But she kept it, and when she reached Dakshineswar she related everything to Holy Mother. She was ready to give all the items away, but Holy Mother stopped her and said: ‘Let the Master say what he wants. There is no one to give you gifts, and moreover, you have been given some things which you need’. Nevertheless Gopaler-ma gave some of the things away. Then she cooked some curries for the Master and carried the tray of food to him. Seeing her repentance, he behaved with her in his usual manner. She returned to Kamarhati feeling much relieved.

From time to time she would visit the Master, and whatever visions she had during meditation she would relate to him. Once he said to her, ‘One should not disclose one’s visions to others, because it stops further visions’.

One day however, Gopaler-ma and Swami Vivekananda (then called Narendranath) chanced to be present at Dakshineswar at the same time. Gopaler-ma was uneducated, unsophisticated, simple, and a devout worshipper of God with form; Narendranath, on the other hand, was learned, sophisticated, intelligent, and a staunch believer in the formless God. As a member of the Brahmo Samaj, he looked down on worship of God with form. Sri Ramakrishna had a tremendous sense of humour, so he engaged these two devotees, with their opposing points of view, in a discussion by requesting Gopaler-ma to relate her visions to Narendranath. ‘But will there not be harm in telling them?’ she asked. Assured by him that it would be all right, she related all her visions in detail to Narendranath with overwhelming joy and tears.

Devotion is contagious. Narendranath, in spite of his manly exterior and faith in rationalism, could not control his tears. His heart was filled with love and religious fervour. The old lady now and then interrupted her story to say: ‘My son, you are learned and intelligent, and I am a poor, illiterate widow. I don’t understand anything. Please tell me, are these visions true?’

‘Yes, Mother, whatever you have seen is all true’, Narendranath assured her.

After the passing away of Sri Ramakrishna, Gopaler-ma was grief-stricken and for a long time lived in seclusion. After a while, however, repeated visions of the Master consoled her bereaved heart. Once she went to attend the Car Festival of Jagannath in Mahesh, on the other side of Ganga. There she had the cosmic vision of the Lord. She saw her beloved Gopala not only in the image of Jagannath in the chariot, but also in the pilgrims who were pulling the chariot. ‘I was then not myself’, she said, ‘I danced and laughed and created a commotion there’.

As her health grew worse, the disciples of Sri Ramakrishna arranged for her to be moved Balarama’s house in Calcutta. But Sister Nivedita expressed her desire to serve the saintly woman, so Gopaler-ma was taken to her residence. A cook was appointed, and Kusum, one of Gopaler-ma’s disciples, attended to her personal needs. In return Gopaler-ma gave Nivedita maternal affection and support. Her presence in the house created an atmosphere of spiritual serenity.

The end came on July 8, 1906. Gopaler-ma was carried to the Ganga, where she breathed her last at dawn, touching the holy water of the river. A monk went over her and whispered in her ear the words that the Hindu loves to hear in his last hour: ‘Om Ganga Narayana! Om Ganga Narayana Brahma!’
Thus the curtain fell on the divine drama of Gopaler-ma. The monks went to her room and found her two most precious possessions, the rosary, which had passed through her fingers millions and millions of time and a picture of Sri Ramakrishna, who had appeared before her as Gopala. Nivedita took the rosary, and the picture was sent to Belur Mutt, where it still rests on the altar of Holy Mother’s temple.

Once, being asked for some advice from a disciple, Gopaler-ma said: ‘asked advice from Gopala. He is within you. No one can give better advice than him. This is the truth. Cry with a longing heart and you will reach him’.