Women Revive Lost Art of Vedic Priestess
India Ashram Trains Women Ascetics in Homa Sciences
In 1922 Sakori was a small village in Pune, India, when Shri Upasani Baba Maharaj settled there to live in the burial grounds to continue his spiritual sadhana. He was 52-years-old and had just completed several years of hard penance under the guidance of the great saint, Sai Baba of Shirdi. He lived and breathed the Vedas and wanted to re-establish the right of women to perform all Vedic rites in Sanskrit as was done in ancient times according to scriptural injunction. But in 1922 performance of Vedic rites was the domain of men only, and he received horrendous opposition from the Brahmin community. He built a bamboo cage and confine himself in it for 15 months, saying, "I have undertaken this bondage to liberate my devotees," and he became famous for mastering the siddhi of being present at different, distant places at the same time. Throngs of devotees offer namaskaram to him. He persisted against vehement opposition and founded the Upasani Kanya Kumari Sthan as an ascetic order for kanyas or maiden brahmacharinis to serve as Vedic priestesses. Upasani Baba trained them to use Sanskrit as the common language for daily communication and to perform all Hindu rites including the ceremonies of name-giving, sacred thread initiation, marriage and funeral. They also maintained a small farm with many cows which were treated with the utmost love and care.
In 1924, a 10-year-old girl named Godawari arrived in Sakori with her mother and received a garland and special blessing from Baba. Godawari was among his first disciples, and when she was just 18, Baba took her into the ashram's inner sanctum and removed a Rudraksha mala from his neck and put it on her, gave her mantra diksha and spoke about her spiritual destiny as his successor, saying that she had been a great saint in her previous life. She became known as Sati Godawari Mataji. In 1941 Upasani Baba visited Satana, his birth place, for the last time and installed twelve Jyotirlingas with his own hands. He soon laid down clear instructions for the future work of his Kanya Kumaristhan, then attained Mahasamadhi in December 1941 and was entombed at the ashram.
Mataji took her guru's reins at the tender age of 27, and the ashram blossomed under her spiritual tutelage. Most kanyas came with the consent of their parents, and Mataji admitted them to the ashram with mantra diksha and bound them with the threefold, lifetime vow of physical purity, strict celebacy and daily worship. At the height of the ashram's success, there were 150 brahmacharinis there. Fifty-eight of them received formal initiation, 23 by Baba and 35 by Mataji.
There are now 48 kanyas at the ashram. The present ashram chief, Devital, a disciple of Upasani, was seriously ill as a child and could not be helped by any medicinal treatment. She was cured with the mystic Angara or holy ash given by Baba received his diksha at the age of 13 and devoted herself to the work of the ashram. Another 60-year-old kanya, Suniti, came to the ashram at age 23. She knew Sanskrit and set the Sanskrit sutras on musical notes for easy recitation. Fifty-three-year-old Yamuna came to the ashram at age 20. She explained that all the brahmacharinis wear brown and saffron-colored garments, and that they don't have liking for flowers, scents, jewelry or anythings to physically adorn themselves. Though provided all available modern facilities, these kanyas are naturally inclined from within toward their guru, ashram and something beyond.
The ashram is surrounded by a sturdy compound, and no one is permitted to visit the brahmacharinis, not even relatives. They wake up at 5 A.M., observe silence until 9 A.M., and do the daily work of the ashram such as sweeping, cleaning and laying rangoli drawing in front of temples. They are vegetarians and prepare their own food. Everyone knows the other person's job, and they are trained to do everything and anything, whether it is sweeping, washing, cooking, feeding the poor, singing or chanting, cattle-house cleaning, giving spiritual discourses or attending to village problems, including distribution of free homeopathic medicines and rendering all human services with a missionary spirit.
Although these kanyas come from various states, castes and creeds, their conduct and worship is common to all. They are quite expert in performing the srauta ritual and the Ganesha, Vishnu, Rama, Guru, Chandra, Surya and Rudra yagas. The materials for rituals are produced and preserved at the ashram, and the sacred fire is kept ablaze at the yagasala around the clock. A number of followers of Upasani Baba and Mataji often visit the ashram, and the resident kanyas perform Purohitya rites for also paid to teach Vedic mantras and ride bicycles to religious events in the village for this purpose. They are expert in Samagama and are invited from all over India in cities like Pune, Hydrabad, Kolhapur and Banaras. All dakshina or fees received go to the ashram.
Sakori has become sanctified by the presence of Upasani Baba, Godavari Mataji and their kanyas and is now a sacred pilgrimage site as is the nearby village of Shirdi which Sai Baba made famous. The physical spots that attract pilgrims to Sakori are the Samadhi shrines of the Upasani Baba and Godavari Mataji, the bamboo cage in which Baba did his sadhana and the yagnasala where the kanyas perform yagas. As the sanctity of every famous temple in India is kept alive by the daily round of pujas performed by skilled and kanyas. All this is dramatic testimony to the efficacy of Baba's and Mataji's inspired vision for the spiritual upliftment of women serving selflessly as brahamacharinis, and also to the respectful awe and obesience that these kanyas receive from devotees of Maharashtra.
For information, contact: V.L. Manjul, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune 411 004, India.
Article copyright Himalayan Academy.
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