Shree Maa: A Saint Comes to Chicago
By Sharon Steffensen
from YOGAChicago; September – October 1998; Vol. 5, No. 5
Chicago was blessed when Shree Maa came to visit early this summer. Originally from Digboi, India, in the Arunachala Range of the Himalaya Mountains, she has lived in California since 1984 but has begun to travel in the U.S. only since last year. She is a poet, an artist, an excellent singer, and healer. She feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and heals the sick as part of her worship, as a demonstration of her love for God.
Shree Maa teaches that every home is an ashram, a place of worship, that all actions can be service to God and expressions of devotion, and that life itself is worship. Following is a story about Shree Maa’s life with an accompanying message from Maa.
She knew from her birth that she was divine. Her first recollection was the sound of the voice of Ramakrishna, the 19th century Bengali mystic whom she considers to be her guru, saying, “Oh, you came again. Much more needs to be done in this Age of Darkness. You’ve got to show what divine life means, what is spiritual practice, and what is sacrifice.” With that instruction, she began her life’s work.
Shree Maa’s birth was predicted by Swami Bhuvananda Saraswati, a great saint and religious leader from the northeast corner of India where her family lived. She never cried. Her parents never knew when to feed her or change her diapers. At the age of three she began practicing the Sun Salutation, reciting mantras and making offerings.
When she was seven, Shree Maa began to wander into the forests to visit sadhus, seekers who had renounced the material world in pursuit of a spiritual life. By the time she was nine, she knew every tree in the forest and spent most of her free time in meditation.
Shree Maa was loved by all who knew her and was popular with both faculty and fellow students. In her community she became involved with social service organizations, organizing fund-raisers and festivals for worship or celebration.
Throughout her high school and college years, Shree Maa became more and more introspective until her family became concerned that she was spending too much time in meditation. When their pressure became too great, Shree Maa made plans to run away. After writing a note and packing a few belongings, she reached for the door and looked up at a picture of Jesus that hung over the door. Looking into his eyes, she heard a voice deep within her saying, “I am with you always. You don’t need to run away to find me.”
Shree Maa returned to her shrine room and sat in solitude. She looked at the picture of Ramakrishna blessing her from her altar, and suddenly she heard his voice: “You must finish your college education. I have much work that must be done by you, and to accomplish that, you must be educated.”
After college, Shree Maa spent years wandering in the Himalayas, impervious to fear of the pythons, bobcats and Bengal tigers that roamed the area. She had few possessions other than the simple clothing she wore, and sometimes went for days at a time without food. Her body weight reduced to little more than 60 pounds. People who saw her in deep communion with God for hours and days at a time called her the Goddess of the Mountain, the Goddess of the River, or simply Shree Maa, the Respected Holy Mother.
She experienced such deep samadhi, for prolonged periods, that she radiated an aura of illumination. When she returned to the awakened state, often there would be many people from nearby villages who had heard of the meditating yogini in the forest and left their homes and jobs in nearby villages to sit with her.
Stories told by the villagers made Shree Maa famous and her capacity as a spiritual messenger grew. Soon there was a continual stream of politicians, government workers, businessmen, farmers, villagers, and housewives flocking to see her wherever she went.
When she expressed a desire to travel throughout India, her disciples and devotees from the railway colony provided her with a first class railway pass to cover all her expenses. On one of those journeys, she visited The Ramakrishna Mission in Calcutta, where she stayed in the former house of Shree Sarada Maa, Ramakrishna’s wife. There is a striking physical resemblance between the two women, and even their voices are the same. Devotees would gather outside the house to receive Shree Maa’s blessings. In the evenings she would share spiritual inspiration and stories. Often she would sing. Most of the time, however, she would sit with her eyes closed, totally absorbed in her love for God, and others would join her in meditation.
In 1980, she met Swami Satyananda Saraswati, an American who had been living in India for 20 years. They traveled together with Maa’s devotees throughout India, and in 1983, when she received an instruction from Ramakrishna to go to the U.S., Swamiji came with her. They established a temple in Martinez, California, and lived a simple life dedicated to daily worship.
As word spread of Shree Maa’s presence, thousands came to seek her blessings. In 1992, a new home, Devi Mandir, was found for the temple in Napa Valley, California, open to the public on Sundays. When she received instruction again from Ramakrishna to step out from her seclusion and begin sharing her love and wisdom in person throughout the world, she began a tour, which included Chicago this past summer.
Chicago was blessed to have her.