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.