The episode of Shabari in the epic Ramayana has been a well known story of devotion and often cited as an example of gods craving for nothing except devotion, irrespective of caste and/or gender. Much has been written and shown when it comes to Shabari. An elaborate version is found in the Indian Vaishanava literature of the 17th and 18th century. Many verses have been devoted by writers to highlight devotion of saints, and one such detailed episode was written by one Priyadas somewhere around 1712.
According to this version, a young Shabari leaves her people, when she learns that her marriage would result in the slaughter of many innocent animals for the wedding feast. She decides to leave her folks and seek shelter in the ashram of sage Matanga. While Shabari desires to serve the sages, she keeps herself away from them as she was conscious of her low birth. She would silently work all night by removing pebbles and thorns from the paths that led to the lake and often deposit bundles of firewood outside the huts of the sages at night. In the morning the sages would wonder who was doing such favours to them.
One night under the instructions of the sage, the ‘thief who was stealing the merits of the sages’ was caught and brought to the sage. A terrified Shabari was at the feet of the sage, but the sage was moved by the devotion of Shabari. Sage Matanga instructed his disciples that she might be a low-born, but none can equal in her devotion and that she would stay in the ashram. This however, didn’t go down well with many of the sages as they see it as an insult to them.
When the sage was about to leave the world, he instructed Shabari to stay back in the ashram and wait for Lord Ram. Distraught at the death of her guru, Shabari had nothing to look forward to except for the arrival of Ram. One night while she was cleaning, she accidentally touched an ascetic who was on his way for his morning ablutions. This angered the ascetic and he berated Shabari before heading for the lake. Shabari fled to her hut in fear, but when the ascetic reached the lake, the clear water of the lake had turned red, and infested with vermin. The ascetic concluded that this was the result of his contact with Shabari.
Shabari meanwhile would collect fruits, especially the jujube fruits, or ber in the local parlance in anticipation of Ram’s arrival. One day, when she finally learns that he was coming, she hides herself in her hut, aware of her low-born status. But that day, Ram came looking for her, asking one and all, “Where was the fortunate woman?” On seeing Ram, she prostrated in front of him and served him all the fruits that she had kept for him, not before tasting each one of them before giving only the sweet ones to Ram.
In the meanwhile the sages were upset about the polluted lake and sought a solution from Ram. They were surprised that Ram should visit Shabari on entering the ashram and not any of the sages. Ram goes on to suggest that they touch Shabari’s feet and take her to the lake and dip her feet into the waters of the lake, and the water would become pure again!
While the Shabari episode in common, the faith entrusted by Sage Matanga in Shabari and the episode of the lake makes the story bring out a very important symbolism. Shabari who is pure from inside is outwardly impure (due to her caste) is put in direct contrast with the sages who are outwardly pure, but defiled with arrogance from inside. It is their arrogance which led to the lake getting polluted and nothing less than honouring Shabari would lead to the removal of such pollution.