“Drill right into me… you’ll find nothing there.”
Shri Shri Bama Khepa (Bam Dev) of Tarapith was born in 1837 in the village of Atla near Tarapith in Birbhum district of West Bengal.
He was born to a poor Brahmin family. His father, Sarvananda Chatterjee, was described as being a very pious and religious man, as was his mother. Bama Khepa had one other brother and a sister. His sister also displayed great religious zeal, and was called ksepsi, madwoman.
Bama Khepa was given the name Bamacara by his father at birth. But even as a child, he was considered ‘mad’ Bama, and thus the name Bama Khepa arose. It should be noted that this use of khepa meant, not mad in the ordinary sense, but was a term used by Tantrics to denote one who was divinely mad, one who was a great soul.
Bama would have tantrums and erratic moods from the youngest age, often screaming and crying and rolling on the floor when the image of Kali Maa would not answer his prayers. He had other peculiar habits in his childhood too, as described by Elizabeth Usha Harding in Kali: the Black Goddess of Dakshineswar (Nicolas-Hays, York Beach, 1993):
At the dead of night, he liked to steal into his neighbors’ houses, take their images of Gods and Goddesses and carry them to a riverbank some distance away. There he worshipped the images all night long. When, in the morning, the villagers couldn’t find their family deities, they would make a big scene. Bamakhepa was discovered as the culprit but, no matter how severely his parents scolded him, they could not prevent him from taking the images.
Bama Khepa’s father was a singer by profession, but he also showed the signs of being an ecstatic. Often when he sang he would fall into intense bhavas (states of strong spiritual emotion). It is said that he even forgot who and where he was when he entered such states. And these bhavas would descend upon him when not singing too. His wife despaired of it, begging him to pay more attention to his physical situation so the family would be provided for and not go hungry.
It’s not surprising then, that Bam Dev referred to his father as a Yogi. It was Sarvananda Chatterjee who first took Bama Khepa to the Mahasamshan cremation grounds at Tarapith, that sacred place beloved of Maa Tara.
Since being from a Brahmin family, Bamacara was initiated by the family guru, and he received the sacred thread ceremony at age sixteen as was the tradition. This was in 1853. Bama’s father died not long after this.
Bamakhepa as a child had not shown a great interest in studying, and since they were a poor family they hadn’t been able to afford to send him to school. Now that his father had died, Bamakhepa’s mother urged him to find work so that the family would not fall into poverty. But he wasn’t much enamoured with the world of work either, and struggled to keep even the simplest of jobs for very long.
He much preferred to spend his time at Tarapith, at the shrine of his beloved goddess Maa Tara, and at the Mahasamshan burning grounds there. He is said to have spent his days and nights sitting before Tara’s image, singing songs of devotion to her.
Then, in 1864, a Shakta Tantric came to Tarapith. He was wearing sacred tulsi beads and the red robes of a renunciate. The wandering ascetic was feared by the local community, who believed him to be a powerful siddha who practiced black magic (pisaca siddha). His name was Brajabasi Kailaspati.
Kailaspati was regarded as having great powers. There were stories of him having brought a dead tree back to life, of walking on the waters of the nearby Dvaraka river when it flooded, of him having lived under water, and being able to fly.
The wandering Baba caused consternation among the people of Tarapith. He had no regard for normal rules of purity, violating them by eating with the dogs and jackals at the cremation grounds. Bama Khepa began to follow him, and to do as he did. The villagers then began to refer to Bam Dev as one without caste; in their eyes he had lost his Brahmin status and became an outcaste.
Bamakhepa’s strange and erratic behaviour continued. Once he saw a boy at the roadside claiming to be the Narayana deity from one of the nearby houses. The boy asked Bama to give him a drink, offering a stone idol to him. Bama took the stone idol down to the river and dipped it into the water so it could drink. He then went back to the village and collected all of the other statues of deities from the villagers’ houses. He set them all up on a sand altar at the river’s edge. When the villagers found out, they were furious. Bama ran away and hid in a hut, blaming it on Narayana.
On another occasion he had a dream where Maa Tara appeared to him and told him to set fire to the rice paddy next to the village. This he did, seeing a vision of himself as Hanuman (the Monkey God) setting fire to Lanka (as in the epic tale, the Ramayana). The fire took hold and spread throughout the village, and took an age for the villagers to put it out again.
To try to make amends to the villagers for it, he said he would jump into the fire. This he did, yelling “Jaya Tara!” (victory to Tara) as he jumped. No-one could find his body after that. Then later he was seen running into Kailaspati’s hut. The villagers weren’t sure whether they had seen a ghost, or whether he was actually alive, whether he had learnt some magic which had kept him protected from the flames. Bama Khepa later told his disciples that he had felt Tara’s hands lift him up out of the fire and throw him into the forest.
Bama Khepa took Diksha (initiation) from Kailaspati. The story that is told about this moment is incredible. He saw a great light which condensed into the form of the personal mantra he had received, the Tara mantra. He saw a great demoness with long teeth and fiery eyes. All around him the environment was transformed, with bushes turning into mythical and divine figures. He heard Maa Tara’s voice telling him that she lived forever in the ‘salmoni’ tree and that she would be its fiery light. Then flames shot forth from the tree. A great blue light emerged, and it took the form of the Goddess Tara. She wore a tiger skin and stood upon a corpse. She had four arms, matted hair, three eyes and a protruding tongue. All over her body she wore snake ornaments, and an erect snake stood atop her head. She embraced him, then vanished. Other accounts of the story add that, preceding this vision, Bama had a vision of Kailasphati walking on water in the form of Bhairava.
Bamakhepa completed all the tantric rites and sadhanas under the guidance of his guru, Kailaspati, and the Tantric master Mokshananda, and in accordance with all the Tantric Shastras (scriptures). When his spiritual guides saw that he had attained perfection, they installed him in the role of Temple Priest at Tarapith, then left.
Even this role was not enough to shake him from his unconventional ways. His disregard for orthodoxy and rules of purity remained. He continued to roam the cremation grounds, making friends with dogs, naming them, and sharing his food with them. He would share any food that had been offered to him with dogs, jackals, crows and low-caste people – offering it too them all from the same leaf. He would eat the temple offerings at the burning grounds too, sharing them with whoever or whatever wished to eat.
He would also eat the food at the temple being offered to Goddess Tara, before the puja worship had been completed. This made the temple caretakers angry, and one day they beat him severely for it. Bama Khepa insisted that Maa Tara had told him to take the food in this way.
After a few days, the temple owner received a dream, in which she saw the stone image of Maa Tara from the temple leaving and going to Kailasa. The image was beaten and bloodied and emaciated, with tears rolling down her face. When the temple owner asked her why she was leaving, Maa Tara replied:
‘I have been in this sacred place (mahapitha) for ages. Now your priests have beaten my dear mad son, and as a mother I have taken these blows upon myself… For four days I have been starving because they have not allowed my mad son to eat my ritual food. So for four days I have refused to take their offerings of food … How can a mother take food before feeding her child? You must arrange for food to be offered to my son, before it is offered to me, at the temple. Otherwise I will leave permanently.’
So Bama was reinstated as temple priest, and wasn’t hindered from taking the prasad before Tara again. But the experience didn’t change his mode of worship, and he continued to refuse to follow the traditional rules and orthodox ways of puja.
He would sit before Tara’s image and say: “So girl, you are having great fun, you will enjoy a great feast today. But you are just a piece of stone without life, how can you eat food?” Then he would eat all the food which was to be offered to the goddess and asked an assistant to sacrifice a goat to her. Even the sacrifice would be made without the traditional rites and mantras. He didn’t say any Sanskrit mantras at all. Sometimes he would say a few mantras in Bengali, but mainly his worship would be spontaneous and unorthodox, coming as they were from his very deep bhava.
One time it is said he took a handful of flowers marked with sandal paste and stood before the goddess. He cursed her and threw the flowers at the statue in an aggressive manner, having wetted them with his tears. Despite them being thrown with an attitude of abuse not reverence, they fell about in a neat and beautiful garland around Maa’s neck.
Bama Khepa often went into deep trances for a day or more on end. So he didn’t follow the usual regular schedule of pujas one would expect at a temple. When time came for ritual to be conducted, no-one could find the mad saint anywhere. Later he would be found meditating under a Hibiscus tree, or wandering in the jungle arguing with his beloved Goddess.
Yet despite all this, he became highly respected. He was called Shri Shri Baba Vamaksepa (or Bamakhepa). Many believed him to have achieved spiritual perfection and regained all memories from his previous lives.
There are stories of his unorthodox methods of healing people too. One man came to him suffering with a painfully swollen scrotum. Bama Khepa cursed him and kicked him hard in the groin. Of course, the man doubled over in pain, but then he was completely cured.
Once when a devotee was bitten by a snake, Bam Dev took the poison into himself. He turned blue and went into a trance, but his devotee was fine. Another man was healed by Bama in a most unconventional manner – by having his throat tightly squeezed. It looked like he was trying to strangle him, but again, the man was cured of his illness.
Both his methods of conducting rituals, and his ways of healing, were of an unorthodox or sacrilegious (ashstriya) nature. Nonetheless, they had great power due to the great bhava (spiritual mood) Bama Khepa was continuously in while performing them. Many of his devotees took his curses as blessings as a result of this.
Bama Khepa left this world, entering Mahasamadhi (final liberation,) in 1911. Shortly before his death, he became withdrawn. He spent a great deal of time in trance and meditation, and stopped talking with his disciples. He rarely spoke at all then about either death or Maa Tara. The Mahasamadhi shrine of Bama Khepa is located near the Tara Temple at Tarapith, and one can still visit it today.
Bama Khepa was a Shakta Tantric Master which many have come to regard as the greatest Tantric of our Modern Era. He became the symbol of devotion for millions of Bengali Shaktas, and is the saint seen by many Shaktas as the ideal child of the Mother, more faithful to his beloved Maa than any other devotee.