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Katha Series: Niralamba Tapasvini – Part 1


This is the story of the great Tapasvini, Kunigargee from Teertha Yatra Parva of Mahabharata. She was the daughter of the great Sage Kungigarga who was performing severe austerities in his Ashram on the banks of River Saraswatee in what maps to today’s Haryana, after the region of Kurukshetra towards the Shivalik Parvata-s. She continued her penance all alone after the Sage left his body for the greater loka-s. Her penance took her through many challenges. This story is about how she measures up to them and achieves the ultimate. We begin our #KathaSeries with this beautiful story from Srilakshmi Peddada-ji


It all started with a gentle breeze in the midafternoon and by evening it was raining continuously. Animals in the ashram ran for shelter under the trees while the birds were huddled up in their nests. The Ashram was quiet and desolate, for there was hardly anyone living in the ashram.  Kuni-gargee stepped out of the room and walked towards the divine Shiva Linga that her father had consecrated many years back. The maha mantra chanting of Om namah shivaya followed by rudraabhisekam often reverberated in the early mornings, every day. Her penance was unique. She was drawn to tapas and sadhana like a child is drawn to her mother instinctively. But now she sought kaivalya mukti. She looked serene and peaceful as she lay down and prostrated before Shankara, the Adhokhaaja and softly called out Ishwara Mahanubhava Pahimam! She lay there never to get up. 

‘You are the Amrita Bindu of my life, my child” said the Maharshi, Kuni-gargya affectionately to his daughter, who came to be known as Kuni-gargee after her father. Maharshi was extraordinary. His ashram was on the banks of river Saraswati. Since there were several tirthas along the bank of the river, many learned people visited the celebrated ascetic Kuni-gargya. He was known not only for his immense tapas shakti but also for his fearlessness. People revered this courageous but gentle sage. He performed tapas of great magnitude, following many austerities and disciplines. His tapas was both austere and passionate which people talked about how he magically materialized things.  

One day, the illustrious Maharshi created a manas putri, with his immense power. She was an exceedingly beautiful child born with arched brows for which she was well known which pleased her father greatly. Seeing her, the Maharshi experienced the bliss of fatherhood. She grew to be a virtuous and conscientious girl devoted to her father. She was inclined to sit for tapas at a very early age. Maharshi’s daughter joined him in all his daily rituals. Wherever he went, be it to perform his daily austerities, nitya pooja or even while doing the elaborate panca homam, she followed him. She observed all the activities very closely with deep interest and happily engaged herself in the ashram practices. The Maharshi watched his growing child with pride and his heart swelled with happiness. His daughter was as gentle as a lamb but she had a deep determination that shaped her character and personality. She moved around the ashram with great enthusiasm and energy looking after the visitors who poured in to meet her father even at unusual times. While she played around happily with the other young children and romped in and around the ashram, she had her eyes constantly on her father. 

People often thought of her as a true kalyani, a “beautiful and auspicious” kanya who brought cheer to all the people around. Her illustrious father however wished to see his daughter married well and so looked for suitors. While he was keen to find a husband for his daughter, she showed no inclination to any of the proposals he suggested. 

One evening, Maharshi Kuni-gargya called his daughter and bid her sit next to him. He said, “My child, you know that I had been doing tapas much before you were born. I undertook penance and austerities following the path of dharma.  But it is in seeing you my child and your ways that gave me anand and bliss which I had sought in my tapas. However, my penance did not bring me closer to experience Universal Consciousness. My dear child, it is only after you were born, that a whole divine experience of sat chit anandam engulfed my consciousness. Yama Niyamas certainly helped me but your birth has given me an insight to truth’, said Kuni-gargya, to his puzzled daughter, not comprehending her role in his spiritual progression. 

‘Listen to this my child, “True Knowledge ultimately leads to oneness and this is the liberating insight I received, since your birth. Now it’s time for me to leave this body, putri”.  His daughter, steeped in tapas herself received the news with admirable equanimity. She came closer to her father and said, “is there anything that you wish me to do? She felt awkward when she asked the question, for she knew it was a meaningless enquiry but she could not help asking. She saw Maharshi’s peaceful smile and tears of joy flowed from his eyes as he departed from his body. 

Kuni-gargee had to fend for herself after Maharshi’s departure. Most often she was all alone. In her solitude, she often recalled fondly how her saintly father in pursuit of atma jnanam, wanted his daughter happily married. She mused over her father’s gentle ways of showing his affection. She missed his physical presence, his resonating voice reciting the mantras, his aura that pervaded the whole ashram.  

She chose to concentrate on following the rigorous path of penance. She offered oblations to devas and pitru devatas practicing austerities. She was disinclined towards any temptations and luxuries and so subjected her body to rigid practices. As time passed by, she found herself settled and content in her tapascharya. She relied on her innate strength and became independent in her spiritual attainment. People wondered why a young and beautiful girl practiced austerities of such severity, when most women would wish to marry and settle down. ‘She is the Niralamba tapasvini indeed’, people said after meeting her. 

She remained unmarried not by design or intent. She neither found a man worthy of her nor was she ever attracted to anyone. There were many young men who sought her hand in marriage. She recalled incidents where her suitors were either taken in by her beauty or tried to impress her with their scholarly arrogance. She neither regretted nor celebrated her decision. 

When she was not engaged in penance, she served people in the forest and the travelers who stopped by in the ashram. 

That day the heat was unbearable. Kuni-gargee had undertaken a vrat and she felt the heat exhausting her. Grishma ritu had come with a bang without any forewarning. Kuni-gargee came out of the ashram for some respite from the heat and looked expectantly around for relief. Not a leaf stirred. Life was in suspended animation. Kuni-gargee walked towards the outer enclosed yard and checked on her plants. She hoped that they were sufficiently hydrated, and as she leaned forward to get a better view, she caught a whiff of fresh champaka flowers. The sensation was so pleasant and compelling that she instantly turned in the direction from where the aroma reached her. 

 She was startled to see a regal looking woman come in a flash, and walk towards the mango grove. It was unusual for visitors to come to the ashram in such sweltering heat. Kuni-gargee hurried to receive the noble looking visitor with water and bowed to her with reverence. She had the most serene smile that Kuni-gargee had ever seen. ‘You are surprised to see me’, she said with a smile, as she settled comfortably under the shade of the sweet-smelling mango tree. She invited her to sit next to her with a smile and for the first time Kuni-gargee felt like a stranger in her own ashram. 

Kuni-gargee sat down quietly but with apprehension. She noticed that her guest looked at her as if she knew her before. Adorned with beautiful garments and jewelry she looked like a divine being. Her flowing red garments had a shimmering golden border. As she shifted her position her bracelets and colorful bangles made the most delightful sounds. Once she was nicely ensconced on her seat, she looked at Kuni-gargee and asked, ‘You are the young Kuni-gargee sadhvi aren’t you?’  

Kuni-gargee barely heard her for she was awestruck by this divine being. She wondered if she was Mata Sarasvati or Ma Durga, the divine mother herself who had come to bless her. She quickly dismissed her thoughts as being presumptuous and vain. She was vaguely conscious that she was being asked questions but she was too distracted. ‘Chaitra Navratri Vrat has ended. What is it you are doing now, young putri’? asked her visitor. 

‘I see you are so young, beautiful and energetic. Why are you subjecting your body to all these austerities? Are you doing penance so that you may be granted a good husband?  

Kuni-gargee, blushed listening to this question that was hurled at her and felt rather awkward.  

‘No, not at all mother’, she replied hurriedly in a quiet voice. 

‘Oh! then you are seeking riches or some special powers? continued the unusual visitor relentlessly pursuing her interrogation.      

Kuni-gargee, paused for a moment before she answered. In fact, she never asked this question of herself, though she was engaged in tapas for a long time now. She always felt it was the most natural thing to do and she felt joyous in following her vrat and tapas. But before she could articulate her response, her demanding visitor was talking over her and interrupting her thought process. 

‘I have heard that the Maharshi Kuni-Gargya performed fierce penance for many years. Now that he has left for his heavenly abode, are you following your father’s spiritual practice? Let me tell you my dear, a young woman like you must pursue a different path of dharma. Besides, you seem to be burdened with a sense of obligation to continue and follow your father’s path. Perhaps you may not be aware, it is not your dharma as a daughter. Why are you wasting away your precious life and youth in tapas, without getting married? Grihashtrashrama is the perfect tapas for a woman, not a solitary life like this in this desolate part of the world’.   

Matay! you say these words because I am young or because I am a young girl? 

asked Kuni-gargee, gathering all her courage.

‘Oh! both, don’t you see my child. All beings have some roles in the world to fulfill and if you spend your youthful times in meditation and austere vratam, who will look after the old and the young? What will happen to society then? As they say there is a time for everything. Time to learn, time to serve and a time to relinquish. How can one build a good community without acara and dharma if women don’t see their core obligation to society?    

Kuni-gargee who lived a solitary independent life was not used to vada or debates. She responded from her own inner voice of truth, so she simply said ‘the truth is Matay, I know no other way to ‘Be’. What is it to ‘Be’ then? 

The blemish less Devi smiled indulgently at her and said, ‘look around and you will know the most magnificent and manifested truth’. She picked the multicolored leaf that was lying on the ground and pointed at the intricate patterns on it. Then she took out the fragrant champaka flower tucked in her hair and said ‘see how it mesmerizes your senses’. She paused to study Kuni-gargee’s reaction and found her listening with keen attention. The mysterious devi rose to reach out for the low lying luscious amraphal and said ‘Oh young sadhvi, here relish this and know the ras of the amraphalam, its essence.  Why are you going after the unknowable unmanifest reality when you can feel, touch, see and taste the divinity in its opulence and resplendence in totality? Is it not foolish to hanker after something when you can feel the divine throb pulsating all around you? Do you see now what I mean when I say, don’t be burdened by obligations and sentiments of your great father. ‘Lead the life of a virtuous householder and pursue your dedication’ said the mysterious visitor.    

‘Yes Matay! I am often amazed seeing the cosmic beauty, in all its myriad forms. From the roar of the lion to the tweets of the birds, the picturesque snow-capped mountains of Himalayas to the sweltering heat of the Summer. I submit to the cosmic creation and its bountiful blessings in reverence every moment’. 

‘The sweetness in the water, the sweetness of the amraphal are exquisite. I often wondered about these feelings and sensations. I often asked myself, is it just my senses or is it something beyond? Who could be this being, knowing, experiencing all this? Is this me or some other being, outside me or inside? I often wondered while enjoying all these divine experiences, Matay!’ said the overwhelmed Kuni-gargee.  

‘That is ‘you’ Kuni-gargya Putri, why are you so baffled, that is ‘you’, said the wise mother in a gentle caressing tone.

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