Shabari – the Gifted Healer – Liberated by Lord Rama

21 April 2024
18 mins read

Shabari – the Chieftain’s Daughter

Shramana sat on the floor under the tiny window of her room. She hugged her knees, her head was bent, her tear-ridden face hidden in the folds of her skirt. She could hear people discussing her marriage.

“The only reason my son agreed to marry Shramana is that she is your daughter, Chief.” The voice reeking of boastful arrogance was that of her prospective father-in-law, an important member of the Shabari clan. 

Despite being the chief, her father stood in subdued deference at the mocking tone because it was his burden to get his dark, average-looking, vegetarian daughter married in a manner befitting the royal of a hunter community.

“Tell me what more you need to complete the wedding rituals, and I will happily do your bidding,” he almost grovelled. Shramana wanted to rush outside and rebuke her father for his behaviour. But she knew it would be futile because he wanted this badly. He wanted to transfer the burden of his daughter to someone else, and for this, he was more than willing to eat humble pie.

“I want a thousand goats and sheep slaughtered for the wedding feast. I want to be made your second-in-command, a post which should become an inherited legacy for the future generations of my family,” said the prospective father-in-law. 

“Oh! What a price to pay for giving birth to this accursed child!” Her father wailed. “She is so useless in this tribe. She doesn’t hunt, she refuses to cook or eat meat. All she does is serve wandering sages as if that were her life’s purpose! How will she fit in?”

Her father had no choice but to agree to all the terms and conditions set forth by the only man who was willing to marry his son to Shramana. Tears of humiliation streamed down Shramana’s face as she heard the date of her wedding announced by the tribal priest after the trading nitty-gritty was discussed and agreed upon by both parties. 

“I don’t want to be married. I want to become a hermit. I want to sing the praises of God and serve His devotees. I want nothing more in life. Why is it difficult for anyone to understand me?” She had tried explaining her state of mind to her parents many times before but to no avail. 

Shramana was born into a Nishada or hunter community called the Shabari tribe. Killing animals was her tribe’s profession and meat was their staple diet. Yet strangely, she hated hunting and didn’t eat or cook meat. 

She did everything to save animals from her people. She would often create loud distractions when her friends used little animals and birds for target practice. Once, she had even released all the animals that were to be killed for her sister’s wedding. It took a lot of effort to recapture the released animals. Shramana was not invited for any marriage after that. 

When it was time for her to get married, she was told in no uncertain terms that being the chief’s daughter, she had no choice but to marry a man from the tribe and be a faithful wife. Nothing more, nothing less.

Shabari’s Wedding Day

The hordes of animals were wonderfully decorated with garlands of sweet-smelling flowers around their necks and their foreheads adorned with red- and yellow-coloured vermillion. 

They looked resplendent as if they were going on a celebration. Shramana’s heart went out to them because she knew they were being taken to be slaughtered for her wedding feast. She wanted to hug and hold every animal close to her bosom and console them.

She wanted to say, “Don’t worry! I will not allow you to die for my sake. I will not be the cause of your deaths.”

The night before the wedding, when everyone was asleep, Shramana ran away. She thought to herself, “Not only will the lives of the animals be spared but also, it is time for me to take a leap of faith and start on my spiritual journey, something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time. How often I have been intrigued by saints and seers who passed through the forest, their matted locks and eyes blazing with divine light, reflecting their struggle to find wisdom. I want to do the same. And this moment when I’m unwanted by my community is perfect to begin my new journey.” Strangely, she bore no grudge. As her father said, she simply knew she didn’t fit in.

While her tribe mocked her for her lack of hunting skills, Shramana was grudgingly revered for her outstanding medicinal knowledge of herbs, roots, fruits, and vegetables. She knew how to cure sicknesses and diseases. She loved plants and trees and they seemed to love her back. 

Once, when Shramana was just four years old, a young boy in her tribe was bitten by a cobra. Almost all her tribespeople had basic medicinal skills, thanks to the fact that the jungle was their home and wild animals and poisonous creatures were their neighbours. However, giving an antidote for cobra venom was an advanced technique that only the master physician of the tribe was trained for. Shramana had watched the physician do it earlier, and she had learnt what needed to be done. She was able to revive the boy in the absence of the physician who was out on some errand.  

The people watched in awe as her little hands worked magically, bringing together seemingly common-looking herbs and roots to create a powerful antidote that got rid of the cobra poison from the boy’s body almost instantaneously. After this incident, Shramana apprenticed with the physician, and soon, she became better than him in dealing with the medicinal effects of plants, herbs, and tree produce. 

Shabari – the Seeker

When she left home that night, she didn’t look back. She was used to the darkness of the jungle; the eerie sounds of the wild did not scare her. On the contrary, she felt a deep sense of relief now that she didn’t have to conform to a life that didn’t suit her. She walked for days living on berries and fruits. She slept on the grass. The bites of insects didn’t bother her at all. 

After a few days of walking, she reached the ashram of Sage Matanga. For many days, she hid among the trees and watched the sages and students go about their daily work. Many of them seemed to radiate a strange aura of peace and calm, and she felt a deep urge to do something for them. 

She approached one of the younger students and asked deferentially, “Can I join the ashram and devote my life to the service of the people here?” The raw, young man was in the throes of arrogance as he was still on the lower rungs of the ladder of wisdom. Humility was a lesson he was yet to learn. 

He replied haughtily, “First of all, you are a woman and you cannot really be in an ashram for men. Second, you seem to belong to a lower caste, am I right?”

Shramana responded meekly, “I was born into a Nishada tribe.”

The young sage flinched, jumped back a few feet and exclaimed, “Then how dare you try to gain entry into the ashram? Go away from here!”

Shramana turned and walked away, tears streaming down her face. She felt utterly alone and desolate. She was unwanted by the people to whom she was related by birth because they found her habits strange and unusual. She was unwanted by those she felt connected to through her heart and spirit because of her “wrong” birth. 

Where was she to go? Was she the only one having such a problem? Weren’t there other Nishada women who had such conflicts in their lives? She had no one to turn to so that she could find some consoling answers to her questions. 

Despite the rudeness of the young sage, Shramana was committed to doing something for the inmates of Sage Matanga’s ashrama. Also, she realized this was the behaviour she was likely to receive wherever she went. So, she hit upon a novel idea. 

Every night, after the sages retired to bed, she swept the pathways leading to the river ensuring they were free from dust and thorns. She swept and cleaned the areas around the hermitage. She watered the plants and shrubs regularly. She plucked fresh flowers and fruits for the daily rituals and yagnas and placed them at the ashram’s entrance.

The sages were intrigued by the appearance of fruits and flowers and the sight of their tidy ashram and its surroundings. There were no more cries of pain from pricking thorns as they walked down the clean pathways to the river for their daily bath. The ashram inmates didn’t think too much about it initially. They thought perhaps some helpful wayfarers did the good deed. However, when they saw that it was happening for many months, their intrigue deepened, especially that of Sage Matanga.  

One day, he decided to find out the truth. He stayed awake that night and waited to see what happened when they slept. Shramana came around midnight and worked until dawn to finish her chores. Before she could disappear. Sage Matanga approached Shramana and wanted to know why she was doing this service.

It didn’t take a lot of cajoling for Shramana to speak her mind. The gentle, wise sage was touched by her story and allowed her to remain in his ashram so that she could serve with dignity and without having to hide. Some of the other inmates tried to dissuade him citing her “low birth.” However, Sage Matanga was an enlightened, revered being. It didn’t take him long to convince everyone of Shramana’s purity of thought and soul. While most of the sages agreed, some were angry at Sage Matanga for his unconventional approach. But they kept quiet because they didn’t have the moral temerity to counter the wise sage’s sensible, compassionate arguments. 

Sage Matanga also changed Shramana’s name to Shabari, the name of her Nishada clan. And so, Shabari with her new identity made the ashram her home, doing everything possible to ease the lives of the sages living and visiting there. Everyone who came in contact with her went away humbled and cleansed by her purity. Her power of healing with herbs also found use here as many sick people were brought for treatment to her. 

Sage Matanga could sense that Shabari’s moksha (freedom from the unending cycles of birth and death) was due in this birth, driven by the noble karmas of her multiple previous births. 

When it was his time to pass on from this world, he called Shabari to his side and said, “You are destined for moksha in this life. Just live as happily as you can because at the end of this life, you will be liberated. And know that your knowledge and skills will not go unnoticed by the world. There will come a man who not only will see your spiritual and moral strength and power but also be influential enough to cast your name in the annals of this country’s history.”

The sage further continued, “Also, know that after my passing, your life will become difficult, considering many of this ashram’s inmates are waiting to throw you out, thanks to limiting conventions that they haven’t been able to break. Don’t worry. Keep yourself safe and continue doing the good work you are doing. Your day of reckoning will come.”

Shabari felt a deep sense of peace and calm when she heard these words. It seemed as if her body and mind melted away into nothingness. She achieved enlightenment in an instant. 

Shabari – the Healer

As the sage had rightly pointed out, without his protection, Shabari became vulnerable to the other inmates’ discriminatory taunts and hurtful words. Very soon, she was thrown out of the ashram. Strangely, this time too, Shabari bore no grudge. Instead, she felt liberated. 

She built herself a little hut in a clearing near a large lake and lived there, peacefully and contentedly. The discrimination against her didn’t stop, however. She was not allowed to use the water from the lake. She didn’t protest against this injustice. She just looked around and found a little spring not easily visible to everyone from where she got water for her daily needs.

Many sick people came to her to be treated, most of them at night when no one would be there to see them approach a lower caste person, and a woman at that, for treatment. When morning came, the same people who were treated and healed by her mocked and taunted her if she tried to talk to them.

Shabari had gone beyond these petty thoughts and ideas. Her sole aim in life was to increase her knowledge about medicinal herbs and plants and help as many people as she could. Like water off a duck’s back, she brushed aside everything and focused on doing her job well and living as happily as she could.  

One day, after a few years of Sage Matanga’s passing, Shabari noticed a strange kind of plant growing on the bank of the lake. At night, when no one was looking, she investigated and realized that the plant was poisonous and was spreading rapidly. If it was not nipped in the bud, the plant could poison the entire lake which was used by many villages and ashrams in the surroundings. She had recently been hearing that people were falling sick quite often. Now she realized the cause of that sickness was the poison was slowly spreading across the lake. 

With her medicinal skills, Shabari created an antidote for the poisonous plant. She approached the lake at night and was just about to spread the antidote all over the lake when a few passing villagers saw her and started screaming at her for trying to use the lake water. 

She tried explaining why she was there but to no avail. One of the more violent villagers threw a big stone at her. It struck her forehead with force and she soon started bleeding heavily. Her blood flowed into the lake, and for some strange, inexplicable reason, it spread across the entire span of the vast lake turning the water red!

After this incident, no one used the water from this lake. People cursed her for polluting the lake with her blood. Their taunts and mockery increased, she was ostracised even more than before. If someone’s blood could pollute a big lake, then how evil must she be! 

Yet, she lived as happily as she could. She knew why the lake turned red. It was the effect of the poisonous plant mixed with human blood. Soon, the red water became a dark, dirty brown. She didn’t try to explain it to the people. Not only was she tired of trying to teach those who didn’t want to learn, but also because all she wanted was to keep them safe from being poisoned. People had stopped using the lake, and her intention was achieved. 

So, she kept quiet and lived her life as before. A few children whose minds were still free from the shackles of societal pressures, and a few old, wise people who learned humility and wisdom from their life experiences came often to keep her company whenever they could. They also ferried medicines to the village whenever someone was sick or hurt. 


Then came a time when water scarcity hit the forest and the surrounding villages. The forbidden red lake continued to remain unusable, thanks to the ignorant fear of the people.  Shabari had become an old, frail lady. But her eyes shone with humility and knowledge. She forsook none who sought her help. 

She wanted nothing more than to use her water-purifying antidote so that the lake water would become potable again. It would be such a boon in these times of water scarcity, she thought. But the villagers guarded the lake at all times, and she was not allowed to go anywhere near it. Shabari prayed with all her heart for a miracle.

And the miracle happened. Rama, the exiled prince of Ayodhya, showed up. He was on his way southwards in search of his beloved wife, Sita, who was kidnapped by Ravana, the Lanka King. The tales of Rama’s sacrifice, gentle nature, and courage preceded him wherever he went. People were in worshipful awe of his personality. 

How can anyone happily give up a life of luxury and his rightful claim over the throne of one of the most powerful and prosperous kingdoms in the country, only so that his father could keep his promise to his mother, Kaikeyi? She was not even his birth mother? She was the second wife of his father, King Dasharatha. 

Kaikeyi had used emotional blackmail to get Rama exiled for 14 years and to get the throne of Ayodhya to her birth son, Bharatha. Rama’s wife, Sita, and his brother, Lakshmana chose to accompany him to the forest. Everything was going fine until the fateful day when Sita was kidnapped by Ravana. The brothers were now on a mission to rescue Sita.

When the Ayodhya princes reached Shabari’s forest, people welcomed them with respect and love. It was impossible for anyone not to be affected by Rama’s affection which he showered on everyone unconditionally. Wherever he went, he helped people in distress. Despite his personal anguish, he never lost an opportunity to help those in need.

So, when the villagers came to him with the problem of the lake, he happily consented to go visit it and see what could be done about it. On the way to the lake, he heard the story of Shabari and the curse of her blood on the lake. Rama was intrigued by her story. He wanted to meet her. The people roared in protest.

“No! No! She is so cursed that you should not even lay your eyes on her!”

“Her blood polluted the lake!”

Rama noticed something strange amidst all this clamour against Shabari. All the children and a few elderly had their faces down. They didn’t join the protest. But, they also didn’t raise a word against the protesters. Rama could sense the conflicting turmoil in their hearts and minds.

He gently beckoned a little boy who walked towards him hesitatingly, although his face was full of pride that he was being singled out by this wonderful, handsome prince. Rama asked the boy, “What is your name? Do you know Shabari?”

“My name is Dhara, and yes, I know her. She lives in a hut alone by herself?”

“Can you take me to her hut?”

The boy’s eyes lit up with joy. He couldn’t believe someone as grand as Prince Rama wanted to meet with Shabari. He couldn’t stop himself from blabbering, “Yes, I can. She is the most loving person I know.” And suddenly, all the children and the few elderly whose heads were down looked up and said, “We can take you there, Prince Rama. She is the kindest person we have ever met.”

There was an incredible hush among the protestors. They were befuddled. No one had been brave enough to stand up for that outcast woman until now. There was something magical about Rama’s charismatic presence. It was powerful enough for the weak to find the strength to stand up for the truth. With no more protests to stall them, Rama and Lakshmana were led by a motley group of children and the elderly towards Shabari’s hut.

She was going about her daily chores. She had heard about Rama’s arrival and was curious about him. She hid behind trees to listen to his talks, for the last couple of days. She was deeply drawn to his beautiful eyes. They radiated hope and love. She was so deeply affected by him that she had to do everything in her willpower not to run and fall at his feet. 

Was he the miracle she had prayed for? Was he the person Sage Matanga had told her about many decades ago? Was he the one she had been unwittingly waiting for? Will he help her achieve her dreams? 

These thoughts raked her mind. She lost all the peace she had known until now. It was as if a storm had taken hold of her life, and she had no way of getting out of it. Today, she chose to stay away from him. She needed a break from the power of his influence.

Suddenly, she heard a commotion close by, and out of the blue, just like that, he appeared through the dense bushes into the little clearing that housed her hut. She gaped in total stupefaction. She could sense he was not alone, and that there was a hoard of people surrounding him. But she had eyes only for him.

His smile was enigmatic. She stood rooted, unable to move for a long time. His gentle voice broke into her reverie. “Dhara was telling me how you healed the wounds he got from a wild boar. Other children also spoke of how wonderfully you treated them with your medicines when they were hurt or sick. Where did you learn your art?”

She stammered, not being used to talking to handsome princes. He put her at ease like a son would his mother, and soon, Shabari was giving Rama her entire life story, right from her days as a tribal girl till now. Rama said, his voice filled with amazement, “So you know how to clear the lake of its poison and make it potable?”

“Yes, my dear prince.”

“Then why didn’t you do it already?”

In response, Shabari looked towards the people who had followed Rama to her home. The protesters now had their heads down.

Understanding the situation, Rama continued, “Bring your antidote and let’s go to the lake right away.”

Shabari was waiting for this opportunity for decades now. She quickly rushed inside her hut and emerged with a pot filled with a black gooey liquid. 

“This is made with the sap of four different trees and many herbs. One drop of it can clear all kinds of impurities in a large pot of water. We need to empty this entire pot into the lake. I have more if this is not enough.”

“Let’s get to work immediately, then. But before doing that, I’m hungry, Mother Shabari. Can you give me something to eat?” There was a gasp of surprise from the crowd behind Rama. One of the elders came forward, “My dear Prince, she belongs to a hunting clan. She is impure and you should not partake of her food.”

Rama turned to the elder and his eyes blazed with anger. “If she is an outcast, so am I. I am roaming the jungles as much as she is. If the food she offers is impure, she should have died too. And if her touch could kill, then she wouldn’t have healed thousands. She is not an outcast. Shabari is a gifted healer! And no one will dare stop me from eating the food she offers me.”

Shabari was at once aghast and thrilled. The words of her guru, Sage Matanga, rang in her ears. She realized Rama was the man who had come to redeem her and give her the identity she deserved. He was her God! She bowed in humility and tongue-tied rushed into her hut. She took a while to return and when she did, she had a plate full of half-eaten fruits, nuts, and berries. 

Lakshman was shocked and couldn’t stop himself despite his brother’s earlier tirade about discriminating against Shabari. “My dear brother, she is giving you half-eaten fruits. How can you eat what she has bitten?”

“Dear Lakshman, you don’t understand Shabari. She has the purest intentions in her heart. She only wants the best for the people she loves and cares for. I feel honoured to be included in that list. What she has brought is a collection of the juiciest and choicest fruits available in this forest. She has bitten into and tasted every fruit to ensure it meets her exacting standards.”

Rama walked towards Shabari, took the half-eaten fruits from her, sat cross-legged on the ground, and polished off the entire plate. The villagers stood staring in stunned silence. Shabari believed the purpose of her life was served. 

She had always wanted to find a place where all kinds of differences would dissolve and every human being would respect every other human being, regardless of societal status, caste, and gender. Then, she corrected her thoughts. “No, not just human beings but every form of life. After all, don’t we all come from this same indivisible source!”

No one dared protest against Shabari now that Rama had given his categorical approval to her powers, skills, and goodness. Everyone trooped down to the lake. Dhara carried the pot of antidote. 

It was then taken by three able-bodied men who swam to the middle of the lake and emptied its contents into the water. The ensuing scene was nothing short of magical. The redness of the lake slowly but clearly began to dissipate. Within an hour, the entire lake was clear and beautiful. 

Shabari got another pot of the antidote poured along the skirting of the lake ensuring the effects of the poisonous plants were completely removed. “Let us wait for a couple of days more for the medicine to finish its work properly,” she said. 

After a couple of days, she took a sip of the water and waited for another day before she allowed others to drink it. The entire village was drinking the water from the hitherto forbidden lake. The villagers repented for their rude behaviour and begged for forgiveness. They bowed to her in humble gratitude.

Shabari’s eyes sparkled with unshed tears. She had a kind smile on her face as she hugged all the children who rushed to her. That night Shabari passed away peacefully in her sleep. She merged with the One. Rama performed her last rites and went his way knowing another pure soul had gone back to its origins. 

Picture create using Bing Copilot 


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Ratna Prabha

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