November 2019

The Story of Bâsanti Devi


Bâsanti Devi was born in the year 1917  in her maternal grandfather’s village home in  Bengal in the month of Chaitra 1323, Bengali  Era (BE). Six months after his daughter was  born, Naba Kumar Mukhyopadhyaya Sastri left for Benaras  along with his wife, Annakali Devi. Both  Naba Kumar and his wife were devoted to  studies, worship, etc. Naba Kumar had temporarily shifted to Benaras from his ancestral Bengal home in order to study the scriptures.  A Brahmacharya Ashrama was established  with the generous contribution of the king of  Panchkot, and Naba Kumar Sastri was soon  made the head of that institution. Sastri lived  a wonderful life with his wife and daughter,  training novices. He began to teach small Sanskrit verses to his baby daughter now and then and Bâsanti would pick them up with astounding quickness. By the time she was four, Bâsanti had learnt by heart many hymns and verses.  The girl was of such rare calibre that if she ever heard a verse once, it would  become indelibly imprinted in her memory.

Naba Kumar was thrilled to witness the unusual brilliance of Bâsanti. He trained her in Bengali and Sanskrit. Within a very short  time, Bâsanti became a master in the Sanskrit  lexicon Amarakosa, Sanskrit grammar, Muktavali, Sanskrit literature, etc. By the time she was five, Bâsanti had acquired considerable  mastery over the Sanskrit language apart  from her mother tongue, Bengali. And when  she was seven years old, this exceptional girl  had a thorough mastery over such difficult  texts of logic (Nyaya) like Bhasha Pariccheda,  and had also become proficient in Patanjali’s  Yoga Darsana, Samkhya, etc.  The pundits of Benaras of those days did not fail to notice this genius. After thorough  scrutiny, the scholars decided to bestow upon  the girl a unique honour: they presented her  with a citation and conferred upon her the  title ‘Saraswati’. These days titles and degrees  can be had for a few dollars. But when  women’s education was still in its infantile  stage, to decorate a small girl with such high  honour was something unique in history.

Bâsanti Devi Saraswati’s studies continued. By the time she was eight, Bâsanti had  studied many important works in Bengali  and had also learnt English and Hindi. History and mathematics were two other fields  where Bâsanti Devi showed her ingenuity.  These apart, she had read the  Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavata,  and other sacred texts. She could go on repeating hundreds of  verses from any of these books,  and also from the Gita and the  Candi. Her listeners would be surprised at the way she could utter  the exact verse at the exact time.  One day her father quoted a verse from  Chanakya.

 lâlane bahavaḥ doshâḥ  tâdane bahavaḥ gunâḥ

tasmât putrânsca shishyân ca tâdayet na tu lâlayet

 ‘Displaying too much  love and affection can give rise to many faults.  On the contrary, by punishing at the right time, many good qualities grow. So children and disciples should be punished and not  cajoled.’

Naba Kumar told his daughter,  ‘Bâsanti, since this verse says so, if necessary  I must beat you, is it not?’ Little Bâsanti replied:  ‘The verse speaks only of putra (son)  and shishya (disciple). It does not say anything  about daughters. So according to the master  of ethics, Chânakya, a daughter should not be punished.’ Her father smiled and said, ‘But in this verse the word putra is figurative only. It can mean both sons and daughters.’ Bâsanti instantly replied, ‘If that was the case, Chânakya would have used the word apatya (off-spring) instead of putra.’ The father said, ‘If he had done that there would be an extra syllable in the verse. . .’ The tiny girl replied, ‘No, that is wrong. Instead of tasmât putrânsca shishyân ca,  Chânakya could have said, tadapatyanca sishyanca!’ The father accepted defeat before his  young daughter.

Bâsanti Devi was also a devotee. She  would everyday worship Lord Shiva and  then only partake of food. Her Vedic chants  were melodious and clear and the pronunciation perfect. Scholars would visit the  Brahmacharya Ashrama and, after talking to  Bâsanti, would say that she was a Gargi or a  Maitreyi born again. Sri Panchanan  Tarkaratna, the great pundit of yesteryears,  had remarked about her, ‘This little girl is  some goddess who is born on account of a  curse. As soon her karma is exhausted, she will leave.’  Bâsanti’s devoted mother, whom she followed always like a shadow, expired in Benaras. Naba Kumar was extremely pained; all were concerned that this shock would tell  upon Bâsanti’s mind. But Bâsanti was unaffected. Not that Bâsanti did not love her mother. Her respect and regard for her mother was extraordinary. She loved her mother dearly. Yet, when her mother passed on, Bâsanti was as she ever was, calm and cool. This is yet another trait of true learning.

Some days after this incident, Bâsanti’s  father took his little daughter to his native  village. Bâsanti became the darling of her father’s relatives. Hearing about the girl’s extraordinary qualities, people from various  parts of the district started coming to Naba  Kumar’s village home to meet her.  One evening, a relative came and complained to her father, ‘I saw Bâsanti walking on the bank of the lake all alone.’ Her father  told the girl, ‘Why do you go there all alone, Bâsanti? What will happen to me if something  should happen to you?’ Bâsanti smiled and  quoted from the Mohamudgara Stotra of  Sankara and some other related poems,  which teach renunciation. When her father told her to promise not to go to the lake alone again, Bâsanti hit back with some more scriptural passages which said that one should  never make such promises. Later on, Bâsanti brought a book and read out to her father an  entire episode, where Gandhari witnesses the  Kurukshetra tragedy and weeps. Her tone was so full of pathos that Naba Kumar wept bitterly. He asked her after she had completed  the reading: ‘My child, when there are so  many beautiful incidents and episodes in this  book, why did you choose Gandhari’s painful  story?’ In a grave tone, the girl replied, ‘Father, Gandhari was a woman; yet she could somehow withstand the bereavement of her  hundred sons and so many relatives. Remembering this incident, you too can withstand  the pain of my departure.’ Her father was stunned at her words.

That night, Naba Kumar had a strange dream. He saw that he had worshipped some goddess of brilliant splendour. After the worship, he saw that he had immersed the image in the pond behind his house. This dream woke Naba Kumar up. The strange dream had upset him. He somehow managed to take bath, and began his daily worship. After his worship, Bâsanti offered breakfast to him and went back towards the kitchen, reciting a verse aloud, which meant,  ‘Do not be proud of your youth, wealth, and  fame. Time will swallow everything in a moment.’ Then, along with another girl, a relative, she went to bathe in the pond that was behind the house. Both the girls were drowned that minute. The day was 5th Jyestha, 1333 BE (1926). The news of Bâsanti and her relative’s drowning came as a shock to Naba Kumar, his family, and thousands of people. The father remembered his dream with tears and sorrow.