When the mind is calm, serene and pure, it is contemplative. This contemplation gives birth to Rama in you, the Reality. – Chinmaya
Treta Yuga was in progress. In those days, the caste system was strictly followed in society. In the forest of Dandakaranya, the chanting of the Veda mantras reverberated the Ashrams and the clouds of smoke arising from the sacrificial fires enveloped the sky. A lady born to a low caste lived all alone in that forest. Her name was Shabari.
Seeing the ascetics engaged in Vedic rituals, Shabari longed to serve them. She firmly believed that serving these mahatmas was a sure way to bless oneself. But she was also scared that the service of a low-born woman would not be acceptable for these ascetics.
Hence she decided to serve them without their knowledge. She made a small hut for herself not far from the Ashrams of the Rishis. She would get up early in the morning and sweep and clean the path in the jungle and the Ashram premises. She would collect the dry sticks and neatly arrange them in bundles near the sacrificial place.
Every day, early in the morning, when the ascetics saw cleanliness everywhere and the sacrificial wood arranged neatly for their ritual, they were amazed. Remaining awake during the wee hours, they finally caught Shabari coming to clean the Ashram. She was taken to Matanga Rishi.
As Shabari trembled in fear, Matanga Rishi asked, “Who are you? Why do you do this?”
Shabari said: “O Lord! My name is Shabari. As I am well aware that, being born in a low caste, I am unfit for any other service to the mahatmas like you, I have taken up this task. It is only to gain your grace and blessings that I do this. Please forgive my transgression.”
Seeing her humility, faith and devotion, Matanga Muni’s heart melted in compassion. He said to her: “Noble lady, you have a pure heart. You may stay here in the Ashram without any fear. Chant the name of the Lord uninterruptedly and make your service itself a worship of the Lord.”
Thus Shabari stayed in the ashram serving all in constant remembrance of the Lord.
Many of the ascetics did not like this. They made it clear to Matanga Rishi, “You have given place for a low caste woman. Hence we don’t want to have any relationship with this Ashram.”
Matanga Rishi did not pay any attention to these criticisms. On the other hand, seeing the surrender and humility of Shabari, he wholeheartedly encouraged and guided her in her spiritual sadhana.
Many years passed by. Matanga Rishi, who had by then grown very old, was on his death bed. When he decided to leave the body, his disciples gathered around him. Shabari was inconsolable. With tear-filled eyes, she said: “O Lord! I can’t even think of staying in this world without you. Please allow me to come with you.”
The compassionate Rishi said: “Shabari, give up this sorrow and insistence. The Supreme Lord, the Self of all beings, has taken Avatar as Shree Ramchandraji in Ayodhya and He is at present in Chitrakoot. He is the Lord Himself in human form. Chant His name and wait for Him. He will bless you with the ultimate State of liberation.”
Thus blessing Shabari, Matanga Rishi left his body. Shabari spent her time constantly chanting the name of the Lord as instructed by her Guru. As the days passed by, her longing to meet the Lord became very intense. She thought of nothing but the Lord alone. The mind was so much occupied with the Lord that even the slightest sound, say, the sound of a dry leaf falling from a tree, was enough for her to rush out of her hut. She would ask the creepers and the trees, the plants, the birds and the animals: “Have any of you seen my Lord, Shree Rama? Is He on the way? When will my eyes be blessed with His vision?”
She would sweep the path every day fearing that the Lord should not hurt His lotus feet due to stones and thorns.
She would plaster the house and the surroundings with cow dung to welcome the Lord in the best possible way. She would separate the best fruits – the juicy, sweet, and the fresh ones – and would keep them aside for the Lord.
One day, some children came running to her hut and shouted in joy: “Amma! Lord Rama is coming!”
Shabari could not believe her ears! She ran to bring water from the nearby river. In hurry, she unknowingly touched an ascetic who was returning from the river after his bath. The ascetic fumed in anger. He retorted: “Untouchable one! How dare you defile us! May you be ruined!”
But Shabari was hardly aware of what was happening around her. She took water from the river in her pot and returned in haste.
Cursing the lady all along, the ascetic returned to the river to purify himself with a second bath. As soon as he entered the river, it became filled with worms and blood-red in colour.
Here, to everyone’s surprise, the Lord went straight to the hut of Shabari. While walking, the Lord said to Lakshmana, “Brother, I am being pulled towards this direction by an unknown force. I have no control over myself!”
The ascetics who were proud of their intense austerities and who were expecting the Lord to enter their Ashrams first were disappointed by this gesture of the Lord.
Seeing the Lord coming to her hut, Shabari could not contain her joy. She danced and sang in ecstasy. She was so immersed in her dance that she was not even aware that her upper garment had fallen in the process. The Lord was touched seeing her devotion.
After some time, Lakshmana interrupted and said: “Shabari! The Lord is standing for such a long time and you are going on dancing! Won’t you receive the Lord, make Him sit and serve Him?”
Shabari came back to her senses. She fell at His feet and made the Lord sit on a beautiful seat. Then she washed their feet with great devotion and sprinkled that water on herself. She then worshipped the Lord according to the scriptural injunctions, offering sweet-smelling flowers at His feet.
Then she offered the choicest nectar-like fruits to the Lord.
In Padma Purana Bhagavan Veda Vyasa writes:
फलानि च सुपक्वानि मूलानि मधुराणि च । स्वयमास्वाद्य माधुर्यं परीक्ष्य परिभक्ष्य च ॥
पश्चान्निवेदयामास राघवाभ्यां दृढव्रता । फलान्यास्वाद्य काकुस्थ: तस्यै मुक्तिं परां ददौ॥
Shabari tasted the ripe sweet fruits herself and gave the best ones to the Lord. The Lord enjoyed eating those fruits and blessed her with liberation.
With folded palms, looking at the Lord with extreme devotion, Shabari said: “O Lord! I am an ignorant and a low-born woman. I have not the qualification to be the servant of Your servants at the hundredth remove. What then to speak of my qualification to serve You! I am not even able to praise You with a hymn. What am I to do?”
The Lord said: “O noble lady! Listen to Me. I only believe in one relationship – the relationship of love. The one who loves Me, I am his, and he is Mine. A person may have all these – intelligence, wealth, beauty, virtues, high caste and noble family – but if he does not have devotion, then he is like the clouds without water.”
यज्ञदानतपोभिर्वा वेदाध्ययनकर्मभि: । नैव द्रष्टुमहं शक्यो मद्भक्तिविमुखै: सदा ॥
“Through rituals, charity, austerity and the study of the scriptures, a person cannot attain Me if he does not have devotion for Me.”
The Lord said: “Now I will tell you the nine steps through which devotion can be developed towards Me.
“The first and foremost of these is the association with holy men. The second is the recital of accounts of Me. The third is the singing of My glories. The fourth is the hearing and exposition of My teachings. The fifth is the sincere and devoted service of the teacher seeing Me in him. The sixth is the cultivation of noble virtues, the control of the inner senses, the observance of external rules of purity and devoted ceremonial worship of Me. The seventh, chanting My name devotedly. The eight, serving all, seeing My presence in all beings. The ninth, the contemplation upon My nature as one’s own Self.”
The Lord continued: “Whoever is endowed with these disciplines, whether it be woman, man or brute creation, that person will have Bhakti characterised by intense love. When such Bhakti is generated, the truth about My nature will dawn upon him. Realising Me in that way, as one’s own Self, one attains Mukti in this very birth. Shabari, you have practised all these disciplines perfectly. Hence you are the dearest to Me.”
The ascetics who had gathered there were astonished by these words of praise of the Lord for Shabari. They could not believe that this low-born untouchable ignorant woman had reached that highest state which the celestials and ascetics could only dream about.
Someone complained: “O Lord! The water in the river has become bloody in colour and has been infested with worms. Please bless us.”
Lakshmana laughed and said:
मातङ्गमुनिविद्वेषात् रामभक्तावमानत: । जलमेतादृशं जातं भवतामभिमानत: ॥
“You have hatred feelings towards the great Rishi Matanga, you have insulted a great devotee like Shabari and you have the ego of knowledge. Because of all these reasons, the river has become polluted. This noble lady Shabari alone can bring the river back to its pure state.”
And lo! When Shabari touched the river water, it became pure as before! The ascetics sincerely apologised for all their misdeeds and recognising the divinity of Shabari, prostrated to her.
In total humility, Shabari said: “O Lord, You have become one with me as my own Self. Now I find Your presence alone in me. Please allow me to cast off this old dilapidated body, as the purpose of this instrument has been served.”
With the permission of the Lord, Shabari burnt her body into ashes in the fire of Yoga as the ascetics watched on with disbelief and wonderment.
O M T A T S A T
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