Anandamayi Ma was born in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in 1896. Her father, Bipin Behari Bhattacarya, sang Vaisnava songs often appearing to be intoxicated. 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. Her education was very limited and her writing skills were minimal.
She married at 13 years of age to Ramani Mohan Cakravarti or Bholanath as he was known, and spent a few years living in her brother-in-law’s house, much of it apparently in trance. She was a hard worker but sometimes had a difficult time concentrating on housework. Her relatives assumed that the trances were due to overwork. Her brother-in-law died, and she went to live with her husband at age 18, where she met a young man who was impressed by her quiet way of being. He called her “mother” (Ma in Bengali) and predicted that one day the entire world would address her in that way.
It was a celibate marriage though not by her husband’s choice. When thoughts of sexuality occurred to Bholanath, Anandamayi’s body would take on the qualities of death and she would grow faint. He had to repeat mantras to bring her back to normal consciousness. Sometimes in such situations, her body would become distorted in various ways or it would stiffen. She later said that she had given her husband spontaneous electrical shocks when he touched her the wrong way. Bholanath thought the situation was temporary but it proved to be permanent. His relatives said he should remarry but he did not follow their advice. Later, Bholanath took initiation from her and accepted Anandamayi as his guru.
While living in Dacca, others came to recognize her spiritual qualities. 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.
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 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.
Anandamayi went on various pilgrimages traveling throughout India stopping in ashrams and attending religious festivals. She had a temple built for her by disciples in Dacca but left the day it was completed. She traveled to Dehradun where she lived in an abandoned Shiva temple for almost a year without money and often in freezing temperatures without blankets.
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 1981.