After taking up Sanyas and renouncing the household life, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu spent his time in Puri, the abode of Lord Sri Jagannath. He spread the love of Krishna by chanting, singing and dancing. Day and night he immersed himself in the transcendental and blissful songs and verses from Krishna Karnamrita, Gita-Govinda, Shrimad-Bhagavatam and Jagannatha-Vallabha-Nataka. Being separated from Sri Krishna, Shri Chaitanya was continuously overwhelmed, day and night. He would visit the Jagannath Temple for darshan as he saw Krishna in Jagannath. One day he went into the innermost chamber near the Ratna Singhasana, the bejeweled throne, the lotus shaped rostrum. That darshan revealed a marvelous aspect of Mahaprabhu, unknown to many. He stood in his usual place looking on fondly, immersed in his love when suddenly there evoked a strong desire to have darshan up close. Absorbed in this mood he started walking towards the throne oblivious of the people around. During that period, devotees were not allowed into the sanctum sanctorum. The pratihari, guard at the door, was none other than Sri Ananta Gochhikar. He came running, shouting, and stopped Mahaprabhu. Pratihari Ananta was known for his strength and valour. It is said that he once tamed an intoxicated elephant by grabbing his tusks. So, his lineage is known as ‘Mattagaja Pratihari’.
But Mahaprabhu was in trance. No mortal had the strength to stop him. Ananta Pratihari went up to him and caught hold of his hand. Mahaprabhu brushed him aside with one hand and he got thrown far away. It was Kartik Shukla Dasami, the tenth day of waxing moon in the month of Kartik. The priests let out a cry. Mahaprabhu waded his way through the crowd like an intoxicated elephant and arrived at the Ratna Singhasana, got the Prasad from the Lord’s lotus feet and walked back satiated.
Pratihari exclaimed, “How could this be possible? He must be the Lord Himself.”
He became the disciple of Sri Chaitanya and wearing the tulsi bead necklace, he anointed himself with the tilak.
After that incident Mahaprabhu always stood on the left side of Garuda Stambha, his right hand resting on the pillar, in the mood of Radharani. When one stands at this position and looks ahead, only Lord Jagannath can be seen. Lord Balabhadra remains out of sight.
Then came the auspicious day of Akshaya Tritiya, third day of Shukla paksha of the month of Vaisakh, the day that brings the promise of never ending success, prosperity, hope, and joy. The Sri Mandira was crowded with devotees pressed against each other, no space to drop a grain. The area around the Garuda stambha was bursting and becoming claustrophobic. Everyone waited excitedly for the evening aarti, their unabated eyes fixed on the ratna singhasana. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, surrounded by his devotees, was also eagerly waiting for the darshan of his most cherished one, to experience Madhava in Sri Jagannath. In Sri Jagannnath, he sees the most attractive form of Madhava. He sees the one with peacock feather tucked on His hair, holding the divine flute. He waited patiently but the time seemed to stretch. The bells started ringing, the conches started blowing, the drums and the cymbals started roaring, the devotees assembled started chanting loudly ‘Jaya Jagannath’ and ‘Haribol’, the atmosphere reverberated with all the auspicious sounds declaring that the wait had come to an end. People had raised their immersed in devotion as they watched the aarti. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was watching fervently with his eyes fixed on the form of Sri Jagannath. Untamed tears flowed down soaking his garments, his teary eyes hardly able to focus anymore. His body fell down, hugging the ground, prostrating before the Lord.
That day an ardent devotee of Lord Jagannath, a devadasi named Lavanya was also witnessing the aarti, mesmerized. The devotees all around had raised their hands high up and Lavanya devadasi was unable to get a glimpse of the Lord. In her excitement to see the Lord and unable to control her rapture of emotions, Lavanya moved forwand and stepped on Mahaprabhu, who lay prostrated in front of the Lord. Lost in the mood of devotion, oblivious of the surrounding, she kept singing the Gita Govinda, “Chandana charchita neela kalebara pita vasana Banamali…”
(O Radha! Dressed in yellow, pitambara, and a garland of forest flowers, vanamala, with sandalwood paste smeared upon his blue limbs, Hari is elated as he enjoys with the Gopis who are captivated by him, in the forest of Vrindavana.)
“Dekhi Govinda asta byaste stree ku barjila,Tare na jaite Prabhu nishedhila.
Adibashya ei stree lokera na kara barjana, karuka jatheshta Jagannatha darshana.”
- Chaitanya Charitamrita
- Govinda, one of Mahaprabhu’s disciple who stood beside him, ran forward to ask her to step down but Mahaprabhu dissuaded him by signaling him not to disturb the devadasi.
Since the lady was an ‘Adibashya’, one who has first offered herself completely to the Lord, she shouldn’t be disturbed. The devadasis get married to Lord Jagannath. Mahari are the devadasis that have surrendered, offered themselves to Sri Jagannath. They serve the Lord as their wedded spouse.
The service of the devadasis comes under an ancient tradition called ‘Sampradaya Niyoga.’ Devoted ladies, who are attractive and learned serve as ‘devadasis’. The Niyoga is of three types: Gayika, Nartaki and Bahara Gauni.
The devadasis who sing during the Bada Singhar, while decorating the Lord before putting Him to sleep, are called Bhitara Gayani. During Bada Singhar, a garment with the name of Sri Radha in Gita Govinda written on it, is wrapped around Mahaprabhu Jagannath and the devadasis sing the amorous pastimes of Sri Radha and Krishna in their melodious voices. In the Jagamohana, the devadasis sing and dance to the verses of Sri Gita Govinda and traditional Odia Rasa Sangeet. Lavanya was one such devadasi in the service of Lord Jagannath.
When Lavanya came back to her senses and looked around, she understood that she had committed an unpardonable crime. She hurriedly stepped down and begged to be forgiven, again and again, like a sinner. She fell meekly at the feet of Sri Chaitanya and prayed, “O Lord! I am one of the greatest sinners. Please forgive me; grant me freedom, grant me liberation. Please acquit this ignorant sinner of her crimes.” Came the soulful, stirring reply of Sri Chaitanya Dev, “Who are you, O gracious lady!? You are fortunate. Oblivious of the outside world, you are the jewel of the clan of devadasis. Today, gone is the pride that I bore deep within of being a stern Sanyasi, away from a woman’s touch.”
From that day onwards, Lavanya used to watch Sri Chaitanya from afar and return home from temple only after Sri Chaitanya left after darshan. She would go to the place where Mahaprabhu stood, collect the soil and smear on her head. She didn’t get initiated but wore a tulsi bead necklace around her neck and applied the Hari Mandir tilak on her forehead. All the devadasis followed this tradition and they remained devoted to Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Ramananda Ray, a great statesman, poet and scholar of that period, who was a minister of King Prataprudra, after listening to Lavanya’s story, declared her as the greatest ‘dasi’ of the clan.
Sanyasis should stay away from women. By this leela, Mahaprabhu showed that for a devotee, there is no distinction between a man and a woman. Mahaprabhu considered the sin that the devadasi committed unwittingly an act of greatness. The sin committed by this devotee bound by the love of the Lord, immersed in divine raptures of joy, oblivious of the outside world, is a display of her devotion and it should be her pride. Mahaprabhu with utmost respect for this surrendered devotee didn’t wish to break her mood. Though proximity with a woman is barred for a sanyasi, Mahaprabhu accepted this offence and with it was washed away the pride he bore of being a stern sanyasi.
Lavanya was fortunate to have darshan of Mahaprabhu when she breathed her last. Knowing that her end was near, one day, Lavanya sat meditating on the lotus feet of Lord Jagannath in the Nrusingha Ballava Udyan and singing Gita Govinda. Absorbed in Nama Sankirtana, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and his followers passed by that garden on their way to a place called Tota Gopinath. Suddenly he heard the verses of Gita Govinda sung so melodiously, “Sa virahe taba dina….” and unable to move a step forward, he stopped. Who was rendering such a heartfelt divine offering, voice soaked with love for Krishna? He listened keenly till the singing was over. He then entered the Nrusingha Ballava groove. On seeing Mahaprabhu in front of her, Lavanya left her body. Mahaprabhu declared, “She is no ordinary mortal. This pure devotee needs to be cremated in Swargadwara.” Sri Kanhai Khuntia, the landlord, took the responsibility and arranged for the cremation. Lavanya devadasi merged in the lotus feet of Lord Jagannath.
antakale cha mam eva smaran muktva kalevaram
yaḥ prayati sa mad-bhavam yati nastyatra sanshayaḥ
- Srimad Bhagavad Gita
(Those who relinquish the body while remembering Me at the moment of death will come to Me. There is certainly no doubt about this.)
Inspired by Krishnapriya Mohanty’s essay ‘Lavanya Devadasi.’
Source: Chaitanya Chakada
Image Credit: Shreyan Nayak