The path of a Sevadasi: the life of Sakhi Dasi

“Bhojo Shri Krishno Chaitanya Prabhu Nityananda

Japo Hare krishno, Hare Ram, Shri Radha Gobinda”

(Pray to Krishna, Chaitanya and the Lord Nityananda,

I repeat your holy name in every breath – Hare Krishna, Hare Ram, Shri Radha and Govinda)

She smiles boldly while swaying with joy to the kortal beat. Shanti Ghosh, who was renamed Sakhi Dasi Bairagi by her Guru, Guru Gourango Bairagya of Krishnanagar (Bardhman), came to Baul master Shashanka Goshai some 20 years ago, and is now the primary care taker of his Ashram in Maglishpur, Bazarshau, along with Madan Das Baul.

“In the beginning I was reluctant to come here,” she admits shyly, “But when Ma (Shashanka Goshai’s wife) came in search of me and asked me herself to come and take care of her and Goshai, I couldn’t say no”. I ask her if she has ever regretted the decision, and she takes a moment to answer – “regretted, no, but wished it wouldn’t be so misunderstood, definitely, yes, many times”. She goes on to explain how the role of a Sevadasi is one of great honor and responsibility but is also burdened with misinterpretation.

“When I moved in this ashram in the beginning, I was a young widow taking care of two older masters (Shashanka Goshai and his wife) and a young adept (Madan Dad Baul). I soon became the target of gossip and unwarranted attention. The thing is, not many people understand the path of the divine. And because they don’t understand it, they fear it, and their fear manifests in untrue, often degrading, stories and gossip,” she says this while serving Guru Purnima Prasad on several plates to be sent to the same families that had misunderstood her once.

“Back then, I cried and complained to Goshai. but he only told me to do my duty with a clean heart and forget what people said. He said that if I left the ashram and went back because of the gossip, then I would be silently confessing to a guilt that I had no reason to harness. And look how right he was! Today those same people come to the ashram and pay their respects,” she remembers with a bittersweet smile.

Sakhi Ma, as she is lovingly called now, was born in Gangapur, into a large family of 11 siblings – 6 sisters and 5 brothers, of whom 2 brothers are no more. She recalls that from childhood, she had an inclination towards the spiritual path and after the early death of her husband, she decided to dedicate her life to the service of the divine.

“At first, people thought I wanted to take the path of Bairagya out of Ragya (anger). It was hard for them to understand why a young girl would want to dedicate her life to austerity. But my father never questioned my decision, on the contrary, he told all my siblings to always take care of me and never trouble me in any way. He proudly said that it is good if my daughter wants to become an ascetic or a Baul. Do any of you know the true meaning of Baul? If you did, you would never question her,” she recalls these words of her father when I ask her what she remembers most about her life prior to initiation.

She was initiated by her Guru at the age of 30, after being tested by him for one month. She still fondly recalls the evening when he left his physical form at the age of 108. “His head was on my left arm when I felt his soul departing with his last breath. At that moment I remember expecting sorrow to hit me but being overwhelmed with joy – Joy for the liberation of his soul, and joy to have been blessed enough to be able to serve him and hold him in his last moments of this mortal life. Can a shishya ever ask for anything more?”

When I ask her if her family still visits her, she laughs and says “Of course my family still visits me, aren’t you sitting here in front of me as an answer to that question?” To clear the crease of confusion forming on my temple, she elaborates, “When service of the divine is your religion, then the world is your family. Not just the human beings in the world but every living organism, plants, even tiny insects – they are all part of you and you part of them. But to subdue you curiosity, I will answer your question also. My sisters by blood do still visit me sometimes, but we don’t have much to talk about as our paths are so different, yet the love is very much there, just the language has changed,” she says this while separating the pebbles from rice.

The next thing I ask her makes her give me a scoffing look. My query was if there was any bad experience that anyone had put her through that she remembers in particular. Looking at me with a mixture of love and strictness she tells me to always remember that the mouth that is pledged to the name of the divine, can never speak ill of anybody as Hari resides in all beings and everything that happens is done with his will. Her answers perplex me. The clarity that she has about service being her religion, the joy of giving without any expectation, and the true meaning of the term ‘Sevadasi’ are slowly sinking in. To make the conversation a little light I ask her what she enjoys most, she promptly answers “feeding people” with a smile as bright as the overhead sun. I laugh as she goes into a series of questions about what she should cook for me, what I’d like to have now, and complains about how children today do not eat as much as they should.

My conversation with her flows effortlessly and merges with her daily chores to nurture a safe space of dialogue. Being a Sevadasi essentially means to be in service of the Lord, the ashram and the residents of the ashram. Her daily routine includes singing bhajans, praying, and doing the rituals for the central temple. She then goes out of the house with a cloth bag to do Madhukori in different houses of the village (asking for alms in exchange for spiritual songs). She also takes care of the children who come to spend time in the ashram, and tells them stories of great saints. Her favourite chore is cooking, as she believes that with her food, she is able to feed the Hari in all of us. “True service is to love and give unconditionally, without any filters.”

Unconditionally – this word stays with me and continues ringing in my brain. I become aware that I am constantly trying to colour her words with my own ideas and theoretical conditioning. Are there really no conditions attached to the service of the divine? The decision to become a Sevadasi, is it not a result of the social construct that is primarily directed by Patriarchy? And in that case is her current life really her choice? Before these questions give me a migraine, I decide to confront her with them. She smiles and replies, “Our mind is like a double-edged knife. we have to sharpen it with knowledge, but also be careful of how we store it and use it so as to not inflict injury to the self with it. What I have never seen, I will never desire. But of all that I have seen, I have understood that desire is endless. So what is the need to see everything when it will only result in more desires? To know the self is the only truth for that is what we came with and that is what we will take with us – the Atman. It is the search of that self that I seek through service.” I stand contemplating silently at the wisdom she has loaded on me while casually peeling a cucumber .

While I am lost in my thoughts, she puts a plate of cut fruits before me and picks up the Kortal again. She starts with a slow beat bhajan and gestures me to join her. This is the bhajan that she sings most when she goes for madhukori. She tells me stories of how Guru Ma used to remember songs by heart, and correct students whenever they sang wrong. “She would whisper scoldings while cooking food, and would be so attentive, that the adept wouldn’t even have finished the word before she would correct them from whichever part of the ashram she was in.” I ask her if she misses Guru ma and she smiles reminiscently. “Of course I miss her physical presence but in spirit she is always in the ashram. She knew when her time had come, she cleansed her body completely, requesting that I make all her favorite food like ‘taaler boda’ (a kind of cutlet made from Taal fruit) and sending Madan and me to a nearby village for Madhukori. Then, silently, she departed, not causing  anyone any trouble.”

Continuing the tales of comradeship with other women devotees, she tells me about all the nights that she spent talking to Parvathy Baul  when she first came to the ashram. “Parvathy loves me a lot. Whenever she visits, she enquires about my health and asks me if the ashram needs anything. Even now, we spend the first  night of her visit talking till dawn. I can talk to her about everything – my troubles, news of joy, any distraction in my sadhana or just simply about the vegetable growing in the garden. She also advices me about certain things as do I for her. I like listening to her talk. She’s  my sister in spirit, which is more than blood relations,” she speaks fondly of her guru bon, all while playing the Kortal skilfully.

Her fingers do not falter for a single second as she changes the beat to a faster rhythm. “I like playing the Kortal the most, I feel it is fearless and strong, a lot like me”, she says and carries on with the holy name of Radha and Krishna,

Hare Radhe, Hare Radhe, Radhe Radhe, bolo Radhe.

Hare Krishno, Krishno Krishno, bolo Krishno, Hare Krishno”

By: Nikita Teresa Sarkar (Vinayaki)

A graduate of the NSD, Nikita is working on the Indian traditional art forms of Kudiyattam and Baul, to explore her methodology of performance making. A practitioner of sound healing, she has been using Tibetan instruments to facilitate trauma handling workshops in juvinille correction centres and life skill workshops for young adults. She has had the good fortune of training under exceptional Gurus like Venu G and Parvathy Baul. As a personal venture, she is now developing her own process of harnessing sound energy to manifest into healing performances in collaboration with other artists, through a study of the ritualistic origin of the first sounds uttered and the eternal hum of the universe.

Photographs by Ravi Gopalan Nair, Smriti Chanchani and Nikita Teresa Sarkar