In Sanatan Dharma, no barrier of age or gender exists for one who earnestly desires spiritual perfection. Men and women, young and old, alike, have reached these sublime heights. Gauribai’s life is a shining example of how sincere devotion to Paramatma leads one to the peaks of spiritual experience. Sadhus, mystics and poets, being of a humble disposition, generally do not encourage their followers to pen down details of their personal lives. In Gauribai’s case, the poetess–sadhvi of Gujarat, we are not too far removed from her period and so we are able to procure reliable information about her life and work. When her biography was written in the 20th century, two members of her family were alive, who supplied facts about their saintly ancestor.
Gauribai was born in Samvat 1815 (1759 CE) in Giripur, also known as Dungarpur, on the border between Gujarat and Rajputana. She was a Vadnagar Nagar Brahmin. This community boasted one hundred per cent literacy, even among the womenfolk.
Gauribai was married (betrothed) at the age of about six, as was the custom then. A week later, her husband contracted a mysterious illness and died within hours. When family members grieved and pitied her for her husband’s loss, she replied philosophically, “Bhagwan is my Lord and I have dedicated my life to Him.” As custom demanded, she stayed with her parents.
She then spent her time in worshipping the family dieties (kuldevata), singing bhajans and reading shastras. She also composed a few bhajans praising Bhagwan.
As she grew up her fame spread. Raja Shivasinhji of Giripur heard of her purity and visited her for darshan. He discussed spiritual lore with her and was impressed by her knowledge and disposition. He therefore built a new mandir in her honour, together with an almshouse and constructed a step–well next to it. Gauribai then left her home, taking the murtis with her, which she consecrated in the mandir in Samvat 1836 (1780 CE). She was then 21–years–old. Soon the mandir’s fame spread. Pilgrims, sadhus and pandits flocked here, inducing Gauribai to hold spiritual discourses. This further increased her spiritual knowledge and boosted her poetic gift.
Once, a learned sadhu arrived. He noted Gauribai’s spiritual status and devotional yearning. He revealed to her, “You are Mirabai’s incarnation. Though she was an ardent devotee, she did not possess as much knowledge as behoves a mystic. You are born to correct that defect. I will impart that extra knowledge.” He then taught her Brahmajnan and atmajnan. Revealing the correct path of sadhuhood, he blessed her. He also presented her with a murti of Balmukund (the infant Shri Krishna) and then left.
As Gauribai’s knowledge increased, so did her vairagya (detachment) from worldly affairs. It is said that she would attain samadhi which, at times, lasted a fortnight. Hariyan, an old female relative staying with her, once decided to check the nature of her samadhi. She pricked needles into her body. However, Gauribai never winced. Hariyan fled leaving the needles in place. Soon she was afflicted with leprosy. Realising that this was a punishment for her cruelty, she fell at Gauribai’s feet begging for forgiveness. Gauribai forgave her and the disease disappeared.
After one such samadhi, Gauribai lived on milk alone. Later, she decided to go to Gokul and Vrundavan. When Shivasinhji heard of this he tried to dissuade her and offered expensive gifts, which she refused. Entrusting the worship of the main murti to a sadhu, she left for Vrundavan with her personal murtis.
When she arrived in Jaipur, the royalty came to have her darshan. The queen offered her 500 gold coins, which she declined to keep and donated them to Brahmins. This impressed the king. Yet he wished to test her proximity to Paramatma. He therefore ordered for the murti in his private shrine to be exquisitely decorated and then had the doors closed. He then invited Gauribai to the shrine on the pretext of listening to the Bhagvatam’s katha. After the katha, he requested her to describe the murti, a test similar to Surdas’s (see p.186). A trifle unnerved, she informed the king that she was just a lay devotee. But she would pray to Bhagwan to help her. She then meditated and composed and sang a prayer. She described the adornments and added, “The only flaw is the absence of the crown on the head.” This astonished the king, for Shri Krishna’s murti is never without a crown. When the doors opened, everyone present realised Gauribai’s exalted status; the adornments were exactly as described and the crown had slipped off because the pujari had not placed it securely. The king was mortified and asked her to forgive him. She did. He then offered her the part of the palace where she was staying and requested her to live in Jaipur as his permanent guest. As before she declined, for she craved to live in Paramatma’s sacred land. When the king persisted, she agreed to leave Paramatma’s murti, which she worshipped daily, in the palace.
She lived in Gokul, Mathura and Vrundavan for a while. She then visited Kashi (Banaras). Maharaja Sundersinh, who had heard of her saintly disposition, offered her hospitality. He too was gifted in composing bhajans. And so the sadhvi–poetess and the king often composed bhajans together. She showed him how to meditate and he accepted her as his guru. He offered her 50,000 rupees. From this she used 20,000 to settle a community dispute and the rest she gave away in charity when she visited Jagannath Puri.
From Puri she returned to Kashi. Once, after remaining in samadhi for a week, she revealed to her disciples that her end was near. She wished to forsake her body on the banks of the Yamuna where Dhruv, the child devotee, had performed austerities. She prophesied that she would pass away on Ramnavmi. Raja Sundersinh arranged to send her there. After remaining in samadhi for a few days, she departed, on Ramnavmi, in Samvat 1865 (1809 CE) at the age of 50.
Her bhajans number in the thousands, the majority of which are in Gujarati, though many contain Rajasthani words. She composed a few in Hindi, the result of her stay in Vraj Bhumi and Banaras.