In general, the regulative disciplines of bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, are important spiritual tools that shouldn’t be overlooked if one desires to make progress on the path of unconditional loving service.
Just as the systematic practice of music (e.g., scales, chord structure, rhythm, etc.) helps provide the foundational skills required for musicians to freely express themselves musically, the systematic practice of devotion (e.g., austerity, humility, compassion, etc.) helps provide the foundational skills required for devotees to freely express themselves devotionally.
Every now and then, however, there are those whose selfless nature is so innate, so effortless, so in their blood, these skills, unlike most, are already fully developed within them. Inherently inundated by the desire to give, the power of their love can’t help but transcend the fabric of conventional practice, breaking past the confines of societal oppressions, as well as the prejudices of misguided men.
Though a number of such glorious personalities are highlighted throughout Hindu texts, The Ramayana details the telling of one in particular, Shabari, whose unflinching devotion has continued to win her a special place in the hearts of aspirants over the centuries.
While several versions of her narrative have been told throughout the years in varying detail, the account that has become most part of popular imagination comes from Priyadas, an 18th-century saint known for his biographical work on famous devotees.
As presented in his rendering, Shabari’s story began when she learned of her family’s desire for her marriage and their plan to slaughter a large quantity of animals in preparation for the wedding feast. Vehemently against the proposed violence and cruelty, she fled from her home in the middle of the night and sought shelter at the shores of Lake Pampa, where the ashram of a sage named Matanga was situated.
Despite the fact she was inexperienced in the type of formal spiritual training usually undergone by those who lived the ashram life, Shabari longed to serve the sadhus who dwelled there. Keeping out of sight, she thus took up an abode in the vicinity and began spending her nights absorbed in service — secretly sweeping away thorns and pebbles from the path to the lake they regularly tread, and quietly placing bundles of collected firewood outside of their huts.
Curious as to who was behind the ashram’s unexplained fortunes, Matanga instructed his followers one night to stay awake and apprehend the altruistic culprit. Capturing her the moment she appeared to perform her usual routine, they brought her to their guru’s feet, and stood witness to his judgment.
When Matanga looked down at the frightened Shabari, he couldn’t help but feel moved by her sincerity. Discerning her unfathomable devotion, he openly praised her, and formally accepted her as a disciple, officially giving her a place in the ashram to stay.
Unfortunately, Matanga’s other disciples were not so perceptive. Puffed up by the advancement of their own practice, the purpose of which, as they so arrogantly forgot, was to help achieve the very kind of devotion Shabari so naturally exhibited, they showed her little, if any, respect and acknowledgment.
Unconcerned by their reaction, Matanga taught and guided Shabari, treating her with the utmost care and appreciation. And she, immensely grateful for his compassion, reciprocated through her staunch loyalty and service. So dedicated she was to his service, in fact, that when the time came for his departure from the mortal world, she begged to be taken with him.
But Matanga insisted her own time had not yet arrived. One day, he prophesied, Prince Rama, an embodiment of dharma and the Divine, and hence the ultimate goal of her existence, would travel to the ashram. Only after she was blessed by his darshan (auspicious sight), would her life on earth come to completion.
Accepting her guru’s words and the immeasurable pain that followed once he was gone, Shabari faithfully carried on in her services, motivated only by the hope that she would indeed get to see Rama face to face, and subsequently be reunited with Matanga in the afterlife.
One early morning years later, when she was performing her usual task of sweeping the lake path, she accidentally touched an ascetic who was on his way to take a bath. Dismayed by the incident, he fiercely berated her, after which he continued for his ablution. Upon reaching the lake, this dismay grew into horror when he discovered its usual clear water had turned blood red and become infested with vermin — a most inauspicious affliction, he concluded, that must have been due to his contaminating contact with the “spiritually inferior” Shabari.
It was during this time, as news of the occurrence spread among the sadhus, that Rama and his brother Lakshmana finally traveled to the ashram. Divinely aware of his devotees’ love, for which he felt eternally indebted, Rama, to the ascetics’ surprise, inquired, “Where is Shabari? Where is that fortunate woman? My eyes thirst to see her.”
Convinced of her own spiritual ineptitude, Shabari was in hiding when Rama eventually found her. Overwhelmed by his presence, she fell into prostration, only to have him lift her up, dispelling her shame and sorrow. Tears flowing from her eyes, she then bid him be seated and served him pieces of fruit, each of which she first tasted to make sure of their sweetness.
Unfazed by the seemingly sullied offering, Rama, relishing not the sweetness of the fruit but the inconceivable devotion in which it was given, praised what he ate, declaring that it had dissipated the fatigue he incurred from his long journey.
The ascetics meanwhile, confused by Rama’s desire to see Shabari yet more concerned with addressing the pressing issue of the lake’s pollution, approached him for help. Hearing of its condition, he confused them even further, suggesting they dip her feet into its water. Astonished but desperate, they did as they were instructed, and watched as her touch indeed cleansed the lake of its impurities.
Their pride shattered, the ascetics realized the error of their ways. Shabari may not have been on the same spiritual status as them externally, but true spirituality has nothing really to do with externals.
It has only to do with unconditional devotion, the kind that is so powerful, it shatters all forms of normative structures, conquering the hearts of even those who initially opposed it.
The kind displayed by Shabari.
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