In India, Catholic ascetic nun helps Hindus understand religion of Jesus' Gospel
Sr. Prasanna Devi says she badly misses the company of mongooses for evening tea in the tranquility of the forest.
The Catholic hermit, who has lived among lions, panthers and other wild animals deep inside a forest in western India for 40 years, emerged to live in human society four years ago, at the request of the local bishop.
"I was very much comfortable and at peace in the company of wild animals and birds," says Devi, who turned 84 on March 13. She agreed to an interview with Global Sisters Report earlier this year from her new residence on the campus of St. Ann's Catholic Church in Junagadh, a town in Gujarat state.
Devi does not belong to a particular religious order. She chose the contemplative life of an ascetic, devoting her life to God and sharing Christian blessings with thousands over four decades, local priests and her bishop say. She is believed to be the only female member of the Syro-Malabar Church to choose such a life.
She did, however, spend time with two religious congregations. When she was 22, she joined the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart, a contemplative order founded by French hermit and martyr Fr. Charles de Foucauld. Devi left without making vows because the congregation wound up its operations in India in 1961 when she was still in the novitiate.
Later, she spent two years with the Benedictine Sisters in Bangalore to observe the congregation and explore the possibility of joining them. She left because she felt the urge to become an ascetic.
In September 1974, she began living deep inside the Girnar mountain range, the only home for Asiatic lions in India. Over the decades, thousands, mostly Hindus, flocked to her from miles away, seeking prayers and blessings.
Bishop Jose Chittooparambil of Rajkot says the Catholic hermit shows "an ideal way" to introduce Christ's message to people in India. "Since she has immersed herself into the Hindu lifestyle, people easily accept and listen to her," the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate prelate explains.
It is a common practice among Hindus to visit holy people in caves or huts on weekends and on special occasions to seek blessings. Hermits are considered to be people of God who do not belong to any culture, religion, caste or creed.
Devi's name in Sanskrit means "goddess with whom God is pleased."
Still, Chittooparambil, impressed by Devi's courage to lead a solitary life in the woods for such a long time, asked her to move to the Junagadh parish house in September 2014. "I was too worried about her health. She had fainted a few times and she had no companion," the bishop told GSR.
So, Devi consented to move to the parish grounds — only 4.5 miles from her hermitage but a world away from her former life.
Many mistake the Catholic nun for a Hindu sanyasi due to her dress and lifestyle. Hindu ascetics lead solitary lives, abstaining from creature comforts and embracing spirituality.
"Even though I look like a Hindu ascetic, I share about my Catholic identity and the love of Jesus Christ with everyone who visits me," explains Devi.
About 80 percent of people in India are Hindu, whereas Christians are just 2.3 percent, according to the 2011 Census. Gujarat is one of the Indian states where religious conversion is restricted through law. The state has been ruled by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party since 1998.
According to Human Rights Watch, "The year began with an unprecedented hate campaign by Hindutva groups and culminated with ten days of nonstop violence against Christian tribals and the destruction of churches and Christian institutions in the southeastern districts at the year's end."
However, the Catholic ascetic has lived peacefully.
The life of a hermit is "very tough," Chittooparambil says.
Priests and nuns traditionally find support from their community and relatives. "But, for Prasanna Devi, the only one to depend on was God and God alone," the bishop says.
Chittooparambil says it was unthinkable 40 years ago for a woman to live alone in a forest without support from anyone. "Only a person with deep faith in God can opt for such a life."
"She has developed oneness with God and lived in perfect harmony with nature and its creatures," he says.
Devi, however, has one exception; she is scared of snakes.
"One day, while preparing tea in the kitchen, I heard a hissing and, to my horror, it was a cobra. As I could not do anything to chase it away, I rushed out of the hut and began to pray to Jesus for help. It left after some time. It came another day and again I prayed to Jesus."
She was surprised to find two mongooses in front of her hut the next day. "They killed many snakes in and around the hut. There was no trouble from snakes after that," she says.
The mongooses came daily and became her friends. "One evening I offered them hot tea on a platter and they drank it. Our fellowship continued until I left the hut," Devi says.
"I miss their company very badly when I have my evening tea here," she says at St. Ann's. "I don't know from where they came, but they guarded me from snakes as long as I was there."
She says she is not scared of other wild animals — lions, panthers or leopards. "They used to come to a stream close to my hut every summer. I used to watch them drink water. They too would look at me and disappear into the forest," she says.
Initially her hut, named "Sneha Deepam" (Lamp of Love), was made of leaves and twigs. Later an asbestos roof was added. Inside are three small rooms in one line — a chapel with tabernacle, a room for visitors and a living room.
Behind her room are the kitchen and an open space where she kept things. A small front porch with a paved courtyard on the bank of the river completes her hermitage. Now, four years later, it is abandoned and in disrepair.
The statue of Mother Mary, installed in a grotto just 10 feet away from the hut, has gone missing, and the hand pump in a 5-foot-deep well is rusty. The plants in her garden have all withered.
These days, her companions are human, and they are drawn to her as well.
"Mataji [which means 'mother'] is an incarnation of Durga Devi [the goddess]," says Arjun Bhai, who cooks meals for Devi in the new place. Durga is a Hindu goddess who followers believe takes on different forms to protect her devotees in distress.
People come to listen to Devi and share their problems with her. She prays with them and blesses them.
She has not found many admirers among Christians, who are confused by her dress, lifestyle and choice to live apart from a religious community.
"Since she does not wear any Christian symbols, such as a cross, crucifix or rosary, Christians mistake her for a Hindu sadhvi" — a person who renounces possessions and lives apart from society, V.O. Ouseph, a parishioner, told GSR.
Bhai regrets that Christians have not understood his mataji. For him, the nun's mere presence brings him peace and tranquility. He waits for her to finish her tea so that he can have his tea from her saucer. "I consider drinking from her saucer as a blessing and privilege," the Hindu man says.
Devi says her saffron dress and Hindu lifestyle do not appeal to Catholics, who are familiar only with nuns in convents. "They have difficulty in understanding this way of religious life," she explains.
Hindu ascetics seldom mix with the public, but Devi always welcomes those who come for counseling and blessings. And people vouch that meeting her has brought positive changes for them.
"My life transformed completely after I met Mataji. She prayed over me," says P. Parula, a middle-aged Hindu woman who works in a private hospital. She visits the nun at least once a day, helps clean her room, washes her clothes and does other chores.
Devi's friends include some Hindu priests who were her neighbors in the forest.
"She is like a caring mother," says Gordhan Bhagat, the priest of Atmeshwar temple that sits a few yards away from the nun's forest hut. "She occasionally shared her food with us," recalls the 60-year-old priest, who says she spent most of her time in meditation.
The start of the journey
"I had an inclination toward religious life from my childhood," said the nun, who was born in 1934, the eldest of three children of Joseph and Mariamma Kunnapallil, in the Karimannur parish of Kerala. Her given name was Annakutty Joseph.
After 10th grade, she stayed home for two years, attending church activities but unsure about her future.
At 22, she joined the Order of the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart, and stayed for five years until the order's only house in India closed.
As uncertainty loomed, she prayed to God to show her a way, she recalls.
She moved to Maharashtra, Gujarat's southern neighbor, where she worked on a poultry farm for three years, then studied fine arts and learned tailoring. On completion, she taught drawing and tailoring.
During this time, a spiritual director, a Jesuit priest and the bishop of Amaravati guided her. On their advice, she lived for a time with the Benedictine Sisters of Our Lady of Grace and Compassion in Bangalore, now Bengaluru.
"I was not happy with that life as I had a strong urge to become a wandering sanyasin [hermit]," she recalls.
After two years, she left the convent and visited Christian, Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage centers, interacting with religious people and traveling across the country, she recalls.
In the Hindu tradition, an ascetic has no possessions other than clothes. They beg to get food to eat, sleep under the trees, in temples or other places, and keep moving.
Her wandering ended in January 1974 when she reached the Girnar mountains. "I wanted to stay only for a week and then move to the Himalayas" in northern India, she says.
"However, my inner voice strongly restrained me from leaving the forest." She meditated in a cave for five months and shifted to a small hut on a hill.
She says she experienced God's providence during her 40 years in the forest. "Thousands of people have visited me seeking blessings. I shared the love of Christ with everyone," she says.
The devotees brought her offerings, which she would distribute to visitors in need.
Until 1978, she walked to the parish church to attend Sunday Mass. Then the bishop allowed her to have Eucharist at her hermitage on Sundays.
Bishop Emeritus Gregory Karotemprel, who declared her the first canonical hermit of the Syro-Malabar Church, codified her way of life in a 42-page book titled Prasanna Devi, A Christian Hermit.
Karotemprel, who is a Carmelites of Mary Immaculate member, says Prasanna Devi's "simple hermit life" preaches the need of living the Gospel as lived by Jesus Christ.
"Prasanna Devi [dedicated] herself, for she loved Jesus greatly and was greatly loved by those whose lives she touched," he told GSR.
Current parish priest Fr. Vinod Kanatt spoke of the nun's popularity among Hindus. "Earlier they flocked to her hut in the forest. Now, they come to our campus," the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate priest says.
Even today, he says, Hindus from faraway places come seeking her blessing. "This is unthinkable in a country where hostility toward Christians is on the rise," he explains.
The priest says Devi introduces Jesus as her "guru" and then explains about Christ. "This helps many to understand Christianity," the priest adds.
[Saji Thomas is a freelance journalist based in Bhopal, a central Indian city. He has worked for several mainstream newspapers such as The Times of India. This article is part of a collaboration between GSR and Matters India, a n ews portal that focuses on religious and social issues in India.]