The Ideal Devotee
There is nothing to equal the part my mother played in shaping my
mind. I have spent time in the company of many good men; I have read
the books of many of the great, filled with the wisdom of
experience. But if I were to put all that in one pan of the scales,
and in the other what I learned from my mother of practical
devotion, that second pan would carry the greater weight of value.
Mother was a really great devotee. She would serve everyone in the
house with their food, and finish all her other household work, and
then before eating her own meal she would seat herself before the
Lord and carry out the ritual of worship, offering the lights and
flowers in the customary way, just like everyone else. But the
devotion in her heart was revealed when she made her obeisance to
the Lord at the end of the puja. Bowing before him she would grasp
both her ears1 and pray aloud: ‘O Lord of this bound- less universe,
forgive me my faults,’ while tears filled her eyes and ran down her
cheeks. Such tears are not produced at will; they can come only from
a heart overflowing with devotion. Of course it is common enough for
us ordinary folk to shed tears on special occasions such as
Ramanavami or Krishnashtami,2 as we contemplate the divine image we
have installed for the festival. But I have watched the tears
flowing every day, at the ordinary daily puja, in a way impossible
without a heart-devotion. Of all my treasured memories of Mother
this is the most precious.
Mother was an ordinary housewife, busy all day long with her work,
but her mind dwelt continually on the Lord. She was in the world,
but the world was not in her mind or on her lips, and we never heard
her utter a harsh word. From the moment she rose in the morning she
would be repeating the Name; as she sat grinding the grain she would
sing hymns to the Lord. All her songs were songs of worship, and she
sang them with wonderful love and devotion. She had a very sweet
voice, and she would become completely absorbed in her singing.
I said to her once: ‘Mother, you must sing a new song every day—it
won’t do to have yesterday’s song today or today’s song tomorrow !’
So for six months she sang a new song for me every day, so many did
she know. She was from Karnataka where her family still lived, and
she knew Kannada songs also, besides Marathi.
Whatever Mother was doing, whether bathing or cooking, she would be
inwardly absorbed in some devo- tional chorus or other, so much so
that one of the dishes occasionally got salted twice over. She
herself would never eat until everyone else had finished and she had
completed her puja. I was usually the first to sit down to the meal,
but I paid very little attention to the food: I simply ate whatever
was set before me and then went off. Then my father would come and
say that there was too much salt in the vegetables. In the evening
Mother would tackle me: ‘Why didn’t you tell me that the vegetables
were over-salted?’ ‘Why didn’t you taste them and find out for
yourself?’ I would reply. But that would never have seemed right to
her. How could she possibly taste food until she had finished her
worship and made her offerings?
Mother had great respect for my father, but she also took a lot of
notice of what I said. For example, she had resolved at one time to
offer to the Lord one hundred thousand grains of rice. Every day as
she made an offering, she took a handful of rice and offered one
grain at a time, counting as she did so. Father saw what she was
doing, and said: ‘Why do you do it in that way? Why not weigh up one
tola3 of rice and count the number of grains in that? Then you can
easily reckon up how many tolas will make one hundred thousand
grains, and you can add an extra half-tola to be sure you have the
full number.’ Mother did not know what to say to this, so when I
came home that evening she asked me about it: ‘Vinya, this is what
your father suggests. What do you think about it?’ I said: ‘Well,
this offering of yours, this hundred thousand grains of rice, isn’t
just a matter of accounts or arithmetic. It’s matter of devotion,
done in the name of God and the saints. With every grain you count
your mind is fixed on the Name, so you should go on counting one by
one, I think.’ Mother was very pleased and told my father about it.
When the Nagapanchami4 festival came round Mother used to offer puja
to the Nag (the snake), and she would ask me to make a drawing of
the Snake-god for her. ‘You can get a beautiful drawing in the
bazaar, Mother,’ I would say. ‘May be,’ she would reply, ‘but I
don’t want their beautiful drawings, I want your drawing.’ Such was
her affection for her son. So I would take a small wooden plank and
draw the Nag on it with red kumkum powder.
Every evening Mother would set the milk for curd, invoking the Lord
as she did so. Where was the need, I once asked her, to bring God
into the business? ‘Look Sonnie,’ she answered, ‘of course we on our
part do everything we can, but all the same it will only set well by
God’s grace.’ She knew that there is a place for both human effort
and divine grace.
The Teacher of Good Conduct
Mother insisted, when I was a child, that I must water the tulsi5
plant every day. One day after my bath I came straight to the
kitchen and sat down for my meal. ‘Have you watered the tulsi?’
asked Mother. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Then go and do it now. I will only give
you your food when it’s done.’ That was her lasting gift to me. She
gave me so much else, milk to drink, food to eat, and stayed up
night after night to care for me when I was sick; but this training
in right human conduct was the greatest gift of all.
There was a jack-tree in our courtyard at Gagode. I was only a small
child then, and as soon as I saw a fruit beginning to grow I would
start asking when I could eat it. When at last it was ripe Mother
would cut it down and fill a lot of leaf-cups with segments of the
fruit. Then she told me to take these as gifts to every house in the
neighbourhood. When they had all been distributed she would seat me
at her side and give me some of the sweet segments to eat. ‘Vinya,’
she would say, ‘we must first give, and afterwards eat.’ She was
teaching me some of the deepest truths of philosophy, but she made
it into a little rhyme:
Giving is God-like,
Hoarding is Hell6
This teaching of hers made such an impression on me that without it,
I must admit, I might never have had the inspiration to start the
If any of our women neighbours fell ill Mother would go to the house
and cook for the family. At such times she would first finish the
cooking for our own household and then go to the other house.
‘That’s selfish, Mother,’ I said one day. ‘You take care of your own
children and your own home first, and the other family comes second
!’ Mother began to laugh. ‘What happens?’ she said. ‘Our food is
cooked too soon, so it gets cold. I want those people to have their
food fresh and hot, so I go there and cook it at the proper time.
That’s not selfish, it’s unselfish !’
When I was little I was afraid of ghosts. Mother explained to me
that ghosts would never harass the devotees of God. ‘But if you feel
frightened just take a lantern with you while going out in the dark
and go on repeating the Name of God. Whatever ghosts happen to be
there will soon run away.’
One night during that time I saw a big shadow on the wall. It was my
own shadow, but I was too little to know it. It seemed terribly
tall, the tallest man I had ever seen. Off I ran to my Mother.
‘There’s no need to worry,’ she said. ‘That fellow is your slave.
Whatever you do, he will do. If you stand up, he will stand up too.
If you sit down, so will he.’ I thought I would try this out and see
what happened. I sat down, he sat; I stood up, and he stood; I
walked along, so did he; I lay down and he lay down too. He was my
slave, I discovered—why be afraid of him? That was how Mother rid me
of fear of ghosts by faith, and fear of shadows by commonsense.
God in Human Form
If a beggar came to our door Mother would never allow him to go away
empty-handed. One day a very sturdy-looking beggar came, and Mother
gave him alms. I protested. ‘Mother,’ I said, ‘that man looks
perfectly fit; to give to such people is to encourage laziness.
Those who give to the undeserving are the worse for it themselves.
Does not the Gita tell us to consider that gift pure which is given
at a fit place and time to a worthy person?’ Mother listened, and
then said very quietly: ‘Vinya, who are we to judge who is worthy
and who is unworthy? All we can do is to regard everyone who comes
to the door as God, and offer what is in our powers. Who am I to
judge him?’ To this argument of my mother’s I have not to this day
been able to find a convincing reply.
My father often had a needy student living with us in the house.
When some food was left over from a previous meal Mother would eat
it herself, and if there was too much for her she would serve some
to me. For the student however she always served fresh hot food.
This went on day after day, and finally I spoke to her about it.
‘Mother,’ I said, ‘you tell us that we ought to regard everyone as
equal, but you are still making distinctions yourself. You never
give that boy left-over food, you always give it to me. You are not
treating us as equals, are you?’
Mother answered at once: ‘Yes, you are right. I do treat you
differently from other people. I am attached to you, I am partial to
you, because I still look upon you as my son, whereas I look upon
that other boy as God in human form. When I can see you too in that
way, these distinctions will disappear.’
There is a custom among the Brahmins to set aside five small
portions of rice at every meal as an offering to God. One day I
omitted to do this, and Mother asked if I had forgotten. ‘No, I’ve
not forgotten, but I’ve been thinking. Five of these portions make
about a quarter tola of rice, so that in a month of thirty days it
adds up to about seven tolas. There are about thirty million
Brahmins in India, and that means that in the course of a year about
thirty million seers7 of rice go to waste. It’s not right to throw
away all that rice when there are so many poor people in the
country.’ ‘All right,’ Mother replied. ‘You are a learned fellow and
I’ve no doubt your calculations are correct. But my way of reckoning
is different. If you put that scrap of rice by the side of your
plate, the flies sit on that and not on the food that you are
eating. The flies get something to eat, it’s a service to other
living creatures.’ I often reflected on the meaning of
One day I was idly swinging a stick, striking the wooden columns of
the veranda. Mother stopped me. ‘Why are you doing that?’ she asked.
‘They are an image of God, why do you hurt them?’ I stopped at once.
In India, the feeling that even a wooden pillar should not be
needlessly hurt is in the very air we breathe. This reverence for
all the creatures of God is something Mother taught me from earliest
As a child I was often sick and under medical treat- ment. When
Mother gave me the medicine she used to make me recite a Sanskrit
verse, and one day I asked her what it meant. She said: ‘It means,
Look upon the doctor as God, and upon his medicine as Ganga water.’
‘Might it not equally well mean that God is the true healer and
Ganga water the true medicine?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘that is
also a correct interpretation, but one has to be fit for it; for the
present, you had better look upon the doctor as God.’ Two
alternative lines of thought, and truth in both of them.
Mother was not well-read but she was familiar with the stories of
the saints in such books as Bhakti-vijay. One day I commented that
saints like these were to be found only in ancient times; there were
none such today. Mother replied that there are saints alive in our
times, but we do not know about them. ‘If there were no saintly
spirits to give the world the strength of their austerities, how
could it survive?’ That was her faith, and on the basis of that
faith she taught me things which have been of value to me throughout
I myself became my Mother’s teacher in reading. One day she was
spelling out the words in a book of hymns, letter by letter, so that
it took her at least fifteen minutes to read one hymn. I was sitting
in the upstairs room, and I could hear her struggling with the
letters. In the end I came down and helped her to finish the hymn.
After that we read together a little each day, and she was able to
finish the whole book.
Mother and the Gita
One early morning I was sitting in the upper room reciting one of
the poems of Wordsworth. Mother heard me. ‘Why that lingo, Vinya, at
this time of day?’ she asked. I told her the meaning of the poem.
‘It is a good book I am reading,’ I said. ‘I know you would never
read anything bad,’ she replied, ‘and even in English some good
things must have been written. You should read English too, there’s
nothing wrong with that. But in the early morning you should read
Sanskrit.’ She meant that while other things might be read at other
times, only Sanskrit was fitting for the sacred early hours.
It was Mother who gave me my enthusiasm for Sanskrit. When I was
about to enter High School there was a discussion at home about
which ‘second language’ I should choose. Father suggested French,
and I agreed. Mother took no part in the discussion but she listened
to it all, and when I came home from school in the evening and sat
down to eat she asked me which language I had chosen. ‘French,’ I
replied. ‘Shouldn’t a Brahmin boy learn Sanskrit?’ she asked. ‘Of
course he would,’ I said, ‘but that doesn’t mean he has to learn it
at school.’ Nevertheless Mother’s words made an indescribably deep
impression on me, and after that I began to study Sanskrit.
About 1915, I think, a man was giving commentaries on the Gita in
Baroda, and Mother would go every night to listen to his discourse.
After a day or two she came and said: ‘Vinya, I can’t follow what he
says; can you please get me a copy of the Gita in Marathi?’ I did
so, but when she opened it and saw that it was in prose, she asked
for a verse translation instead; probably she found the verse easier
to read. I found that Vaman Pandit’s Samashloki Gita (translation
of the Gita verse by verse) was available and got it for her. But in
a few days she said that it was too difficult, she couldn’t
understand it. ‘What’s to be done?’ I asked. ‘There is no simpler
translation.’ Her answer came like a shot: ‘Why shouldn’t you make a
simple translation for me? You could do it !’ It was Mother’s faith
in me which made me write my (Marathi) Gitai.
The Giver of the Ascetic Ideal
As a child I was full of day-dreams. I used to dream of
brahmacharya,8 so I gave up sleeping on a mattress, wearing shoes
and so on. One day Mother remarked: ‘Vinya, you do a lot of playing
at asceticism; if only I were a man I would show you what real
asceticism is.’ The fact is that she felt the slavery of womanhood,
even though in our home Father gave everyone their full freedom. I
feel quite sure that she was capable of doing what she said. Her
three sons all became brahmancharis. ‘Vinya,’ she would say, ‘a
virtuous life as a householder brings salvation to one generation,
but the life of brahmacharya at its highest brings salvation to
forty-two generations.’ When she was thirty-six years old, at her
earnest desire, she and my father took a vow of celibacy, as Father
told me himself after she had died.
Mother died at the age of forty-two on 24 October 1918, at the same
age as Tukaram, whose devotional hymns she so often read. I was with
her when she died, as it seemed to me, in great peace. I had asked,
did she feel at peace? ‘Completely at peace,’ she had replied. ‘For
one thing, you are grown up, and I have no anxiety either about you
or about your brothers, for you will look after them. For another
thing, two months ago I had that darshan of the Lord.’ She was
referring to a visit to the shrine at Dakor two months earlier.
Dakor is only four hours’ journey from Baroda, but because of her
household work she had never previously been able to go during all
her twelve years in Baroda.
When the time came for Mother’s last rites to be performed I said
that I would carry out all the ceremonies myself without bringing in
any Brahmin from outside. The others, however, were against it. ‘Do
you think your mother would have liked it?’ my father asked. ‘I feel
sure that she would,’ I replied. ‘She would prefer me to anyone
else.’ But they didn’t agree; so I absented myself, bathed, and sat
down to study the Vedas. From that day on the Vedas took my mother’s
Some of my mother’s words have had such an influence on me that I
have included them in my book
Vichar-pothi (Random Reflections):
Vinya, don’t ask for much. Remember, Small is Sweet, Much is
A stomachful of food and a cloth to cover the body, that is all we
Give ear to nothing save the words about the wise, the gods and the
When you serve your country, that service shows your devotion to the
Lord, but let there be songs of devotion also.
Mother had the fullest faith in me, her son, and that faith had
moulded me. When I left home my father, thinking it would comfort
her, told her that I would be sure to come back after a little
while. Mother did not agree. ‘When Vinya says something he will not
change,’ she said. ‘See,’ said the neighbours, ‘this is how modern
boys behave; they care nothing for their parents.’ ‘What !’ Mother
retorted. ‘As if my Vinya would ever go off and get into bad ways !
He will never do anything wrong.’ To this day Mother is with me; she
is an abiding part of my life.
O Mother, you have given me what no one else has given, and yet even
you did not give me in your lifetime what you are giving me now,
after your death ! I need no other proof of the immortality of the