Vamaksepa, more than any other teacher in this group of biographies, could best be characterized as a "mad saint". He was throughout his life continually violating the normative rules of society and religious practice.
He was born in 1837, in the village of Atla near Tarapura (or Tarapith) in Birbhum, West Bengal, India. He was named Bamacara by his father, a religious man named Sarvananda Chatterji. He was the second son and had a sister who was later widowed. Because of his sister's religious zeal, she was called ksepsi, or madwoman.
As a child, Bama (or Vama in Hindi pronunciation) was subject to tantrums: when the Kali (goddess) image would not answer his prayers, he would roll on the ground screaming and crying. Thus, even as a child he was considered mad Bama, or Bama Kepsa.
He had little interest in studies, and the family was too poor to afford schooling for him. His father was a professional singer, and Bama would often sing songs with him. Bama's father was an ecstatic, falling into states of bhava (strong religious emotion) while he sang. While singing, he would sometimes forget who and where he was. Even when not performing, he spent so much time in bhava that his wife would beg him to pay some attention to his physical circumstances so they would not starve.
Bama described his father as a yogi. When Bama would role on the ground shouting "Jaya Tara" (victory to the goddess Tara) his mother became upset, but his father only smiled. His father also took Bama for his first visit to the burning ground (a place sacred to the goddess Tara) at Tarapith.
Bama took initiation from his family guru and had his sacred thread ceremony when he was sixteen years of age. His father died soon afterwards and his mother asked him to get work, to keep the family from poverty. However, he was absent-minded, and indifferent towards work and found it difficult to keep a job. He spent much of his time at Tarapith, the great burning ground and shrine of the goddess Tara. He spent days and nights there singing before the goddess' image.
In 1864, Brajabasi Kailaspati came to Tarapith as a monk (sannyasi) wearing sacred tulsi beads, and the red cloth of a renunciant. He violated traditional purity rules by eating with dogs and jackals. People thought him to be a powerful monk who practiced black magic (pisaca siddha). When Bama began to follow him and do as he did, the villagers began to refer to him as one without caste (he lost his Brahman priest status in their eyes and became an "outcaste").
Kailasapati was rumored to have brought a dead tulsi tree to life, walked on the flood-waters of the Dvaraka river, lived under water and flown in the sky. He was also said to have instructed ghosts and demons. Bama often saw ghosts and spirits assembled who would jump into trees and disappear into the dark when he was with his companion. Kailaspati explained that they had done meditation in this graveyard during their time on earth, but had died afraid and would come to him seeking advice.
Bama's actions became upsetting to the villagers. He saw a boy on the road who claimed to be the Narayana deity of one of the nearby houses. The boy asked Bama to take him with him and give him a drink. Bama dipped the stone idol given him by the boy into the river. Then he went back to the village collecting all the roadside statues of deities and took them with him installing all of them on a sand altar at the river's edge. The villagers were furious that their statues had disappeared, including a deity that had been inside a house. Bama hid in a hut, and blamed it on Narayana (the boy-deity he had met). Kailaspati returned the statues to the villagers who watched their statues more carefully after that.
Bama's mother tried to have him locked up, as she thought him mad, but he escaped to Kailaspati. She feared Kailaspati and only watched from a distance. Bama called her "small mother" and the goddess Tara "big mother".
Bama took initiation from Kailaspati and saw a great light condensed into the form of the Tara mantra, which was his personal mantra. He saw a demoness with long teeth and fiery eyes, and later the environment was transformed- the bushes turned into mythical divine figures, and he heard the voice of Tara, who told him she lived forever in the "salmoni" tree, and that she would be its fiery light. The tree shot forth flames and he saw a blue light which took on Tara's form. Wearing a Tiger's skin, she stood on a corpse with four arms, matted hair, three eyes, and a protruding tongue. She wore snake ornaments, and an erect snake on her head. She embraced him and vanished at dawn. Some accounts say that this experience was preceded by a vision of Kailaspati walking on water in the form of Bhairava. Bama also learned about religion from Vedagya Moksyananda, who taught him religious texts - the Vedas, Puranas, and Tantras.
Bama was subject to mood swings, alternating emotional love and exhilaration, with anger and hatred. He would curse the Goddess Tara and her ancestors, throw bones and skulls, and frighten away visitors. He would call Tara stri meaning earthy women or prostitute, and said that she was a demoness who had harmed him and that he would have his revenge by calling down a thunderbolt upon her. He would rage and then sink into a trance.
She dreamt that the stone image of Mother Tara was leaving the temple at Tarapith and going to Kailasa. Tara Ma looked very sad, and tears were flowing down her face, and she wore no mark on her forehead. She was bewildered and emaciated. Her back was bleeding and full of cuts, and vultures and jackals followed behind her, lapping the blood from her wounds.
In fear, the Rani asked, "O Ma, why do you show me these terrible things, and why are you leaving us?"
The goddess answered, "My child, 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. See how my back is bleeding, I am in great pain ... 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 ... My child, 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. If not, I will leave there permanently.
Bama got his priest job back, and people began to visit him, to come as devotees, or simply to see him.
He performed worship after this, and a crowd gathered to see it. Bama did not follow the traditional rituals; he sat before the image and said laughingly, "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?" He then ate all the food that was to be offered to the goddess and asked an assistant to sacrifice a goat- again without the traditional rites. He did not say any Sanskrit mantras, only a few in Bengali. He threw some leftover food to the image saying "there Ma, take that."
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. He wet the flowers with his tears. Although the flowers were thrown with an attitude of abuse instead of reverence using mantras, they arranged themselves into a neat and beautiful garland around the goddess' neck, and the observers were amazed at the mantraless form of worship of the madman. He then went into trance which continued all day, and he emerged from it on the following day. He was not a priest who followed schedules- often the time for worship would have passed and no one could find Bama anywhere. He would later be seen in trance under a Hibiscus tree, on in the jungle, having arguments with the goddess.
Nilamadhava, a villager, wished to know if Bama was a saint, so he hired the prostitute Sundari to seduce Bama. On seeing her, Bama said, "Ma, you have come." He then began to suck her breast so vigorously that blood came out. In pain, Sundari began to shout, "Save me!" His devotees were shocked to see a prostitute there and told her to leave.
A variety of stories about Vamaksepa are told by Bengali Shakta devotees. They say that he drank liquor and ate human flesh from corpses, that he had supernatural powers, that he was in a continuous state of bhavavesa for his entire life. Perhaps the story most often repeated was his unique worship of the image in the Tara temple, when he took his own urine in his hand and threw it at the image, saying, "This is the holy water of the Ganges".
Alternative stories say that he answered a crowd's protests in response to his actions by saying:
"When a child urinates or defecates while sitting on the Mother's lap, is she defiled? Can a mother think that she has been defiled by her loving child?"
Another story told by many informants describes his mother's death ceremony:
Bamdeb was in the Tarapith burning ground, amid rain and thunder, meditating. Eight miles away, over the river Daroga, his mother died. Bamdeb knew instantly, for he heard her voice as she died. He swam the river during the storm to get her body and swam back with her body to get her cremated at Tarapith, a holy place. The family and relatives objected, but he would not listen and shoved them aside, taking the body. Ten days after her death, there were last rites and food for hundreds of people. Rain clouds gathered, and a storm broke. But Bamdeb made a circle with a bone, and no rain fell inside that circle. All around was pouring rain, but in the circle all was dry.
Because of his continuous bhava, normal etiquette could be rejected. He would share the food offered to him with dogs, jackals, crows, and low-caste people, all from the same leaf, and would eat temple offerings on the burning grounds, sharing them with whoever or whatever wished to eat. He would drink liquor from the broken neck of the bottle, or from a skull. Yet he became highly respected, and was called Sri Sri Baba Vamaksepa. It was believed that he had gained spiritual perfection, and had regained all memories from previous lives.
He was harsh to disciples who did not appear sufficiently dedicated:
One person came and asked for initiation, saying that he wanted to renounce the world. Bama told him to bathe in the river. When he returned, Bama gave him a kick and told him angrily to leave and never come back. Bama's disciples protested, and he told them that this man was still thinking of his business in Calcutta while taking his ritual bath.
He also had unique curing techniques; these stories, too, were told by several Shakta informants:
A person came to Bamdeb with a swollen scrotum. He had no money and said, "I am in great pain because of this". Bamdeb stared at him and then kicked him in the scrotum. At first the man doubled over in pain, but then he was cured.... When a devotee was bitten by a snake, Bamdeb took the poison into himself, and he turned blue in trance. He cured another patient by squeezing his throat, although it looked to his devotees as if he were trying to murder him.
His rituals were famous for their sacrilegious (ashstriya) character, but as they were done in a state of bhava, they nevertheless had great power- to cure illness, to stop epidemics and natural disasters, to affect the mood of crowds.
At the Calcutta Kalighat temple, while in a state of bhava, he tried to lift the statue of the Mother and take her on his lap. When stopped by the priests, he shouted, "I do not want your black Kali! She looks like a demoness coming to devour [someone]. My Tara Ma is beautiful, with small feet. I do not want your black Kali- my Akasa Tara is good enough for me." People would call on him, asking him to pray to their household images, to enliven them with his bhava. He would fall into trance when he visited their statues, and often he performed neither worship nor chanting of mantras. He would loudly call into the air for the Mother, and many observers saw the statue appear to take the form of a human being. He could create such a powerful mood that even sarcastic people who came to laugh at him found the scene impressive.
Bama, who practiced a form of kundalini yoga, was interviewed by Promode Chatterji. The author tells some of Bama's ideas in his book of interviews with saints: Tantrabhilasir Sadhu-sangha:
Ma (the Mother goddess) is asleep in the muladhara chakra and should be awakened- if she is not awake, who is there to give one liberation? Only she can do this.... The first sign of the awakening of Kundalini is that the person does not feel satisfied with the ordinary state of life- one gets a great urge within to get over this confinement. The awakening of Kundalini gives men great pleasure, a kind of pleasure that ordinary men never attain ... as you pass through and move from one chakra to another, you feel the manifestations of the varied bhavas of Kundalini Sakti. But what is important, as a result of kundalini Shakti's functions in every chakra, is the kind of bhava it creates, a different bhava in each place, and the feeling of these bhavas brings such a state of bliss that it cannot be described.
He felt that the soul departs the body through the spinal channel at death, through an aperture in the skull, and it enters a state of emptiness and peace, nirvikalpa samadhi. This is the home of Tara Ma, which is beyond the material world, the heaven worlds, and the home of Kali. Tara's grace is necessary to reach this state.
Even in later life, he retained the madness of his youth. He would walk through monsoon rain and thunder, calling on the Mother or cursing her. At one point, he gathered all the warm clothes and shawls that he could find, which had been donated by his devotees, and set fire to them. As the flames rose high up in the air, he began shouting happily, "See how bright is Tara Ma’s image in the flames." His followers tried to stop him, but he told them that he was performing the ritual offering fire (homa) with clothes.
Once a person visited him and told him that he did not know anything about the greatness of Tantrik sadhana and that a Tantrik once visited his neighbor but he developed hatred towards him just by merely looking at him. Vamakshepa told him that "you are a worldly person and cannot understand the matters concerned with an Aghori."
Vamakshepa kept a dog with him, whom he named Kalu. Once it was raining very heavily continuously for the last few days. In the evening after the Aarti, Vamakshepa returned to his hut, where he had collected many skulls, which were looking frightening in the dark thundering night. Vamakshepa started singing and dancing in the name of Maa Tara and entered into an ecstasy. Kalu was barking loudly and biting Vamakshepa. He stroked the dog many a times with affection but the dog kept on biting him so much so that Vamakshepa started bleeding. Just then someone entered the hut and prostrated before Vamakshepa. Vamakshepa asked him also to sing and he started singing a Bhajan composed by Sakta saint Ramprasad. Both of them entered a divine state of ecstasy.
Once a landlord was offering prayers at the bank of the river. Vamakshepa threw some water at him. On his objection Vamakshepa told him that you are offering prayers only outwardly as your mind is engaged in planning to buy shoes of Moor Company. The landlord was surprised that Vamakshepa could read his mind.
Shortly before his death, he became withdrawn and spent most of his time in trance and meditation. He ceased to talk with his disciples, speaking only rarely about death and Tara Ma. His love-hate relationship with her continued until his death in 1911.
Bamaksepa was a Shakta with strong shamanic tendencies, who became the symbol of devotion for millions of Bengali Saktas. Divine madness was present in him from childhood, when he would have tantrums because the stone image of the goddess would not speak to him. He was associated with impurity (sharing food with jackals, eating the flesh of corpses, refusing to bathe, using urine in ritual, performing corpse rituals, and daily consuming wine and hashish) and shamanic powers (reading minds, acquiring knowledge at a distance, perceiving ghosts, spirits, dakinis, and yoginis, having skill in nature-magic and healing). His healings often incorporated aggressive acts: one patient was cured by being kicked in the scrotum, another by being strangled. His techniques of' worship also included aggressive elements: he would curse both goddess and devotees, and set fires in which to have visions. Yet he is the saint seen by many Saktas as the ideal child of the Mother, more faithful to his goddess than any other devotee.
Westerners may find it difficult to understand Indian devotional traditions where devotion creates both powerful positive and negative emotions. However from the Indian standpoint, true surrender to the god means total involvement and dependence on him or her for everything. The acceptance of negative emotions in devotion along with the positive ones leads to a kind of obsession where the concentration on the god becomes almost yogic. This same intense concentration is cultivated by the yogic practitioner but without the strong emotional component that is normally part of the path of devotion.
The erratic behavior can be interpreted in two ways from a tantric standpoint. The second or "hero" stage of Tantra where one has passed beyond normal human desires strives to break free of the moral conventions of society by ritually performing the five forbidden actions. Such ritual action is normally highly controlled and disciplined involving concentrated use of mantra and visualization. However, the mad saint dispenses with the "ritual" performance, and chaotically violates society's norms in order to break free of the conventional nature of normal human awareness to encounter the divine reality. Such strange behavior also has the added advantage of scaring away unwanted attention from the curious which leaves much time for spiritual practice.
A second interpretation is that the mad saint has entered the third stage of tantric development (divine bhava) where he is identified with the divine reality and therefore is beyond the human realm altogether. His behavior therefore obeys no law or pattern, and appears chaotic to outsiders. Clearly both stages are dangerous when looked at from the standpoint of societal norms.
The last point that might help outsiders make sense of the actions of a saint such as Bama is understanding of the primary goal of Tantra. Contrary to many western writers who believe that Tantra is mostly concerned with sexuality and sexual ritual, the more important goal of Tantra is to face up to the greatest spiritual challenge in life- the fear of death. Sexuality is a passion that tantrics become detached from by spiritualizing sexual activity through complex ritual behavior. In the same way, the powerful passion of fear whose root is fear of death can also be controlled through tantric ritual.
This is why so many tantrikas in West Bengal spend time at burning grounds meditating on corpses, sitting on cadavers at midnight, worshiping liminal goddesses of life and death (Kali and Tara), and communicating with ghosts. The constant involvement with death reduces and even eliminates the fear of death. It also concentrates the tantrika's mind on the fleeting nature of life, and motivates the tantricka to seek a state of consciousness that is beyond life and death, and beyond duality itself.
Bamaksepa embodies the unorthodox (sometimes referred to as left-handed) path of Tantra in Bengal. It is a chaotic path that combines the extremes of passion, and the union of the opposites of hatred and devotion, sacred and sacrilegious, and life and death.