Considered a saint during her own life, Dokka Sitamma (1841-1909 C.E.) spent years feeding the poor and sick in her Indian village. After her death, the holy woman was lauded throughout India as "Apara Annapurna"- an incarnation of the goddess Annapurna.
Excerpted from Wisdom's Blossoms: Tales of the Saints of India with permission of Shambhala Publications.
Everyone in Andhra Pradesh knew Dokka Sitamma, and everyone had an opinion about the elderly widow.
To the superstitious, Sitamma was an omen of bad luck because she, like all widows, was responsible for the death of her husband. To those blinded by caste and custom, she was an impudent old woman for refusing to remain confined to her house as a Brahmin widow should. But to the destitute and the devout, Sitamma was mercy personified, for she unfailingly fed the hungry.
With no children of her own to care for, and a heart overflowing with motherly love, Sitamma adopted the poor as her sons and daughters. "This illiterate moron is doing great harm by inviting those of a lower station into her home," sniffed the orthodox Brahmins, and when their condemnation failed to deter her, they took to humiliating her. Though the calumnies and threats and loneliness stung her, in the end they were little to one whose heart sung of compassion and love.
"Come in! Come in! I have just finished cooking and was hoping that you would join me for dinner tonight." Sitamma would quickly say this to those who came to her in need, thus sparing them the humiliation of having to beg for food.
Because of the chicanery of some unscrupulous neighbors who despised her ministry and prized her fertile fields, she found her large holdings reduced year after year until she was left with a small plot of land. A famine came and still Sitamma never turned away those in need, somehow managing to make her shrinking supplies feed a growing stream of hungry souls. And even when she had little to eat, she remained grateful for the opportunity to serve, for it gave her joy and feeding the poor was her chosen path to salvation.
One night after working in the kitchen for many hours, Sitamma thought: `I have served four decades and now my body has become worn out. I am nearing the end of my life. It is time for me to go to Varanasi. There I may pass away in peace with the Lord's name on my lips.'
For the last few years, Sitamma had dreamed of going to the holy city, for to die there was to be assured of liberation. Every time she set out, however, a desperate arrival or a traveling pilgrim prevented her from leaving. So she would return to her cooking and chanting, putting aside the only desire she had for herself, a desire that daily grew more powerful. But tonight she knew that the hours of her life were few and that only a handful of tomorrows remained.
When morning came, Sitamma gave away her last few possessions so as to bring her charitable works to a close. She hired a bullock cart for the first leg of her journey and set out for Varanasi. Though every rut and rock in the road jarred her old bones, and the sun was unmercifully hot, Sitamma was filled with a happiness that increased with each passing mile, for every turn of the bullock carts' wheels brought her nearer to the end of her earthly sojourn.
At eventide, Sitamma and the bullock-cart driver took shelter in a free roadside inn for traveling pilgrims. The hard day of travel weighed on her and she wearily lay down on a bed of rags. As she began to fall asleep, she was awakened by the cries of young children in the next room.
"I know that you haven't eaten today, but we don't have any food to give you, my love," she heard a father's voice consoling his daughter.
"Can't you ask for some? I'm hungry and my stomach hurts."
"It's not fit for us to beg. It would be better to starve. But don't worry. Tomorrow we will go to the home of Sitamma. She never sends away those who are hungry."
"Why is Sitamma the only one we can ask?"
"Because she treats her guests with respect and never expects anything in return for her charity."
Once the family had fallen asleep, Sitamma began to stir. "Get up, get up!" she whispered to the snoring cart driver. "We must leave right away!"
"What is the rush? If you have waited for 40 years to go Varanasi, you can surely wait one more day," the driver sleepily said. "We can't travel at night anyway. The road is filled with bandits and wild animals."
"I cannot wait." Sitamma firmly replied.
"Grandmother, do you want to die in a ditch tonight or die in Varanasi in a week?"
"Get up this instant! I have paid you to drive me and we are leaving!" And with that, the two travelers stole into the night.
With the first rays of dawn, the starving family awoke and set out eagerly in the direction of Sitamma's village, unaware that the one they were looking for had been lying but a few feet away.
The family traveled the same rough and wild road as Sitamma, the whole way the children crying from hunger, their mother and father struggling to soothe them despite their own wretched condition. By evening they reached Sitamma's village and after a few inquiries found the dirt path that led to her home.
Seeing the darkened little house, the father despaired: `Is that a candle light in the window or is it the reflection of the moon? Do I hear the clanging of a pot or is that the sound of a cowbell?'
The mother feared, `She's not home. If she is, will she receive us? Have we come all this way for my children to die of hunger.'
Before the father could knock on the door and end the family's suspense, it swung open. The fragrant smell of dal and rice greeted them.
"Come in! Come in! I have just finished cooking and was hoping that you would join me tonight," Sitamma cheerfully said.
If they had not tried to conceal their tears of gratitude, the family might have observed that Sitamma's sari was frayed and sullied from the dust of the road. If they were not so fatigued, the family might have noticed that Sitamma was trembling with exhaustion from having spent the night being bounced and bruised in the bullock cart and then having to cook this meal. If they were not so hungry, the family might have seen that Sitamma's cupboard and garden were bare, and that she had taken the shame of begging upon herself from her neighbors so that they could eat.
Sitamma did not die in Varanasi. It was reported, however, that upon her death, a great light burst forth from the roof of her house and shot up into the heavens.