The incident of Shabari in the epic Rāmāyana which I have chosen to illustrate here occurs during the course of the 14 years of Rama’s exile to the forest. Shabari, a tribal, Bhil woman, has been a devotee of Rāma over a number of years. In her heart, Rāma is constantly present and her most ardent desire is to meet him someday in person. Now, she is old, her hair is all white, but her devotion to Rāma is as young as ever.
One day, she hears that Rāma is likely to pass through the village where she lives. And this excites her no end. She can neither eat, drink nor sleep. Her mind is effused with the thought that she will finally see the delight of her soul, her beloved Rāma. She turns into a bundle of eager anticipation. Suddenly it strikes her that when Rāma truly does come, what in the world will she offer him? She would certainly want to welcome him with some offering, but what? She neither has wealth nor possessions and nothing that would be worthy of being offered to, Rāma. Just then her eyes fall on the ripe, juicy berries hanging on the tree before her and she is inspired! She runs to the trees and begins plucking the fruit. But, what if they are sour, her mind whispers. What if appearances are deceptive and they turn out to be rotten from the inside? That would never do! And she begins to bite into and taste each berry. She throws the ones not fit to be offered and keeps aside the ones which are as sweet and pure as nectar. Now she is at peace—she can now be sure that when Rāma partakes of her offering he will receive the best there is!
And Rāma comes. She offers him the half-bitten and from our point of view, infected and soiled berries. It does not take long for Rāma to see through these half-eaten berries straight to the intention of Shabari. He realises the essence of her offering: Shabari’s total absorption in her devotion to himself. And he begins to savour them, one by one, with great relish. Laxmana is shocked. He is outraged with Shabari’s effrontery and then to witness Rāma enjoying the fruits with such relish!. Rāma then enlightens him, makes him see the ‘bhāva’, the sentiment behind Shabari’s action and clears Laxmana’s confusion.
Comment: The intention of the poet seer behind this little episode is to create an appropriate body, or form through words, sound, rhythm and meter; a form which is capable of carrying the intended content and reaching it to the depths of the listener. The content, if we summarize it, is the nature of the devotion which pervades Shabari’s state of being, the oneness in body, mind and spirit which she has been able to achieve with Rāma. She no longer sees her own self and that of Rāma as separate, they have overlapped. No discrimination or distinction remains, no boundaries divide into I and You. And because this has happened, the only way for her to be absolutely sure of the worthiness of her offering is to taste the fruits herself. The nature of the content is the nature of love, one of the manifestations of love.
Location: Pan India
Story collected by: Bharti Kapadia
Story told by: Grandmother
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Devotee Sabari offering fruits to Lord Rama (Statues at Simhachalam, Andhra Pradesh)