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A Pilgrim’s Journey: The Warkaris Of Maharashtra


For a long time, religious and philosophical discourse in India was confined to those who were well versed in the devabhasa Sanskrit. While the efficacy of Sanskrit as a medium of spiritual and artistic convention is not in doubt, yet the flip side of this trend was to leave a significant section of Indians incapable of benefiting directly from our rich wealth of shastric guidance. Then in the later half of 13th century, a young boy was born to a deeply religious Maharastrian couple Vithal and Rakhumabai, in small town of Apegaon near Paithan, on the banks of the river Godavari.

Vithal had taken Sanyasa, leaving his wife and went to Kashi to live near his Guru Sri Ramanand Swami. The story goes that one day the Guru found out about Vithal’s marital status and commanded him to go back to his wife and live as a couple. In that era, unlike today, Sanyasa was a serious business. Once someone takes to renunciation, he was supposed to adhere to the strict rules of that mode of life, and literally, have no connection to his previous existence. Consequently coming back to a family life after having been ordained into the order of Sanyasis was unthinkable in that era. We see in the life of Adi Shankaracharya too how he faced criticism for returning to cremate his mother after becoming a Sansyasi. Vithal’s actions were construed as severe heresy by the learned people in his village. Some texts mention he and his wife were socially ostracized, and that they were not allowed to draw water from the common source. In time Vithal and Rukhumabai had 4 four children – three sons and a daughter, but the discrimination did not stop. The children were barred from a vedic upanayanam ceremony and therefore denied the right to learn the Vedas, which was the normal educational trajectory for a Brahmin in that era.

Unable to bear this constant indignity, Vithalpath left for Nasik and later Alandi, asking the orthodox for a way to atone for his ‘sin’ when he was advised that the only option left for him was to willfully commit suicide. And so Vithalpath and his wife Rakhumabai jumped into the Indrayani river and gave up their lives, in the hope that their children would thus get a life free from the persecution.

Nivrutti, Dhyaneshwar, Sopan and Muktabai were 10 years old when their parents died. Inspite of being denied a formal religious education, their knowledge, depth and spirituality flowered effortlessly and they soon became famous in the area. That was also the time when the legendary Nath Yogis roamed around Northern India inspiring and initiating different sects and paths which have left an indelible mark on the progression of various branches of Yoga. Nivrutti – whose name means one whose senses are drawn inwards – while still a boy, was initiated into this Nath sampradaya by Ganahinath, who was a direct disciple of Gorakshanath. Nirvrutti in turn initiated his siblings, specially Jnaneshwara, into the mysteries of Yoga and the disciple excelled so quickly that he was regarded no less than a living deity.

Jnaneshwari/Dhyaneshwari

Now, ‘O’ God, The entire Cosmos Divine | Be pleased with this pious word offering of mine ||
Grant me in good will benign | Your Benevolent Grace Divine ||1||

May the evil minded, their wickedness shed | May their intellect turn to pious and good deeds
instead ||
May all living beings find themselves bonded | By friendly ties of soul companionship ||2||

Having experienced the atrocities of a rigid orthodoxy and caste rules, at the age of 13, Jnaneswara decided to compose a commentary on the Bhagwad Gita but deviating from the normal trend of Sanskritic commentary, he choose proto-Marathi as the language of his book. The original text was known as Bhavartha Deepika but soon became more popularly known as Jnaneshwari from the name of the prodigiously spiritual author.

While the Gita had 700 verses, the Jnaneshwari expanded to 9999 Marathi verses in a specific rhyming scheme called “Ovi”. The text is written in a dramatic style where Jnandeva is sitting with his Guru Nivrittinath on the banks of the Godavari river and engaging in a spiritual discourse on the subject of the Gita, while a scribe named Satchidananda writes down the whole conversation. During this exposition Jnaneswara assumes the tone of all the participants on the original Gita – Arjuna, Sanjaya, Dhritarastra etc, but the one with whom he self-identifies in the most sanguine manner is when speaking the word of Lord Krsna who is projected as the Universal and Unchanging Lord of all aspects of Time, who stands beyond Time, and yet remains involved in the working of this world of men. Interestingly the Jnaneshwari asserts that the real instructions of the Gita ends in the 15th chapter and what comes later is more for the purpose of imparting additional clarity to Arjuna.

Jnana, Bhakti, Karma and all aspects of the a fruitful spiritual life are explained in the Jnaneshwari often employing brilliant metaphors and examples taken from the lives of common people, thus making it easier to relate to. Additionally, Jnaneshwari also speaks of those areas which are not specifically elaborated in the original Gita, like the significance of regular nama japa as a practice, and also brings out secrets of the Nath Siddha tradition. The term Kundalini, for example, is found in the Jnaneshwari for the first time outside of the esoteric Yogic circles of the Nath sampradaya-s. The Supreme, according to Jnanadeva is beyond knowledge and ignorance, or any category. In this sense Jnaneshwara was a non-dualist, but his equal stress on karma yoga along with bhakti and jnana demarcates his path from traditional Adwaita and makes it closer to the core ideas of the Nath Yogis and some variants of Saivism in Kashmir. To compose something so magnificent and rich in philosophy at the age of 13 requires a special kind of literary and spiritual genius. Today the text of Jñānēśvarī remains as one of the most fundamental and revered scripture, and rightly so, of the 800 year old Bhakti tradition of Western India which has inspired millions of people, irrespective of caste, creed or sex, into the path of Dharma.

In spiritual biographies we often encounter stories of miraculous events in the lives of saints, which help to cement the faith of devotees or seekers who follow the guidelines or path established by that specific spiritual figure. Sometimes such stories are meant to be instructive about some fine point in their spiritual outlook. In Jnaneshwara’s life too such incidents were not uncommon, apart from the absolutely stunning achievement of creating a spiritual masterpiece by the age of 13. It is said once when he was stopped from reciting the Vedas in the continuation of persecution his family had faced, Jnaneshwara made a buffalo, which was standing nearby, do the Vedic recitation. This made the pundits in the area realize their mistake and fuility in trying to forbid an authentic spiritual powerhouse like Jnaneshwara from chanting the Vedas. Such stories along with his use of Marathi as the language of choice, has ensured that the Bhagwat Dharma was no more confined only to only some learned men, but became open for everyone, rich or poor, brahmin or shudra, man or woman.

There is another more stunning miracle associated with the divine siblings. A fierce Yogi named Changdeo who was said to have been alive in the same body for 1400 years – such occurrences while rare are not uncommon in Yogic literature – living near the banks of the Tapti river, and who had mastered various complex siddhis, became jealous of Dhyaneshwar’s increasing popularity among masses. Changdev was unsure how to address a 16 year old kid, and so sent a blank note to them. Muktabai, Dhyaneshwar’s sister, wrote back to Changdev that though his age was 1400, his understanding of spirituality was as deficient as the writing in the paper. Infuriated, Changdev decided to demonstrate his abilities and so riding a tiger and using a snake as a whip, he marched to the place where the children were staying. Dhyaneshwar and his siblings were sitting on a masonry wall when the news of Changdev’s pompous approach reached them. Using his own Yogic abilities Dhyaneshwara made the wall carrying the siblings, fly towards Changdev to receive the belligerent opponent. This extraordinary display convinced Changdev that these children were no ordinary mortals and immediately swallowing his pride and ego asked Dhyaneshwar to become his Guru and Dhyaneshwar instructed his 12 year old sister Muktabai to impart spiritual wisdom to the 1400 year old tiger-riding Changdev! Such is the strange play of Siddhas. Among other things, this story is remembered with devotion even today as a clear demonstration of the spiritual truth that attaining an experience of the Self was far more difficult than gathering limited supernatural siddhis, and that in the world of adhyatma, realization and depth is not a function of physical age.

Jnaneshwari was not the only text composed by Jnaneshwara. On the instructions of his Guru Nivruttinath, he also wrote a masterpiece of Upanishadic philosophy of Vedanta dealing with Samkhya, Yoga, Shiva, Shakti, non-duality, and Self known as Amrutanubhava – the experience of bliss. He also composed the “Haripatha,” a song praising the name of Hari (Vishnu). His siblings—two brothers, Nivrittinath and Sopanadev, and particularly his sister, Muktabai—and his four children are also highly respected saints of the Varkari tradition.

Finally the story goes that at the age of 16 Jnaneshwara executed one of the difficult feats of spiritual brilliance, something which texts say only the rarest of Siddhas can perform, when he entered into a state of samadhi in an underground cave in Alandi while still alive and the cave was closed from outside never to be opened. To an ordinary mind this is death, to the world of Yogis this is being alive in an altered state of consciousness for endless periods of time. That place in Alandi is today referred to as the sanjeevani samadhi of Jnaneshwara and remains a focal point of the whole Warkari sampradaya of Maharastra,Northern Karnataka and Gujarat, where countless devotees, seekers, saints and yogis visit to obtain blessings of the one who perhaps was no less than an emperor among Yogis. Given his exceptional poetic and mystical ability, the Shakti he manifested by his divine acts, and the countless people he has inspired directly or indirectly since the last 800 years it is not an unreasonable spiritual assumption that Jnanadeva was an incarnation of the phonetic energy of the Srimad Bhagwad Gita when it appeared in our world from the colloquy in the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

Warkaris

The tradition that started from Jnanadeva carried on producing marvelous spiritual men and women over centuries galvanizing the faith into a living tradition. Its uniqueness and hallmark rests on the fact that not only men but women like Muktabai, Janabai, etc who became spiritually advanced were also accorded the reverence due to a Guru. Equally, many of the Gurus were from lower castes too like Chokhamela, Gora Kumbhar, etc. The Varkari sampradaya emphasizes a moral and ethical life, performing one’s duties in society, equal respect for all men and women irrespective of the birth status or caste, while also engaging in ceaseless remembrance of god’s name through constant nama-japa. They stick to a lacto-vegeterian diet, fast on Ekadasi tithis, follow the rules of brahmacharya as appropriate for their marital status, and in their free time engage in singing kirtans, doing Haripath or Dhyaneshwari parayana. Their primary deity is Lord Vithala, identified with Krishna, residing in the ancient temple of Pandharpur. A yearly pilgrimage to the temple culminating on the ekadasi day in the Hindu month of Ashada is the peak religious occasion for the warkari sampradaya. The warkari sampradaya has single handedly kept the Bhakti Yoga and its traditions alive and pouring oil in the divinity every year till today. Their faith and motivation continues to grow and the Pandharpur pilgrimage for every Ashadhi Ekadashi is one of the most spell-bounding movements in all religions.

Of all the saints of this tradition Sant Tukaram stands out as one of the biggest names. Born in mid-17th century in the town of Dehu, near Pune, to a family of money lenders, Tukaram became an orphan at a young age. After the death of his first wife and son in a famine that swept across Maharastra in 1630 AD, Tukaram became withdrawn and contemplative, spending a large part of his time meditating in the Sahyadri mountains in the Western Ghats. This produced a tremendous transformation inside him and also brought him in contact with his Guru, who by some accounts, initiated him with a mantra in dreams. According to some scholars Chaitanya was himself a highly revered saint who traced his own guru parampara right upto Jnanadeva. In his numerous and beautiful abhangs or spiritual poetry, Tukaram often made references to Namdev, Jnaneshwara, Kabir and Eknath as inspirations in his own spiritual quest. It is also believed that Tukaram was instrumental in introducing Chatrapati Shivaji to his Guru Samarth Ramdas, thus in an indirect way helping and supporting the military resistance initiated by Marathas under the indomitable leadership of Shivaji, whose reverence for authentic saints is well documented, towards the excesses of medieval Muslim rule.

Tukaram’s poetry was soulful, direct and lyrical in nature with strong elements and imagery borrowed from the folk traditions of rural Maharastra. During the 41 years of his life the poet-seer composed of 5000 songs on topics inspired by his own life and his devotion to God. Some apocryphal stories mention that Tuka’s increasing popularity among masses invited the ire of the orthodox pundits, specially because in some places the poet appears to have challenged conventional ideas. His writings were thrown into the Indrayani river, but, in what is now deemed to be a miracle, the spirit of the river refused to submerge the text and brought it back to the surface. And like the river gave back his poems to the world, their purity, simplicity and devotional attraction has remained perfectly untarnished by the march of time. They are as inspirational and popular today it was during the lifetime of this great saint.

Pandharpur

Standing on the banks of the Bhima or Chandrabhaga river in the Solapur district of Maharastra, is a temple dedicated to Vithala and his consort Rukhimi. The sthala mahima or purana of the temple states that once a devotee named Pundalik was serving his parents when Visnu and his consort appeared at the door. Instead of leaving the work he was engaged in, Pundalik gave a brick on which he asked Vishnu to wait until he finished serving his parents so that he could then offer his respect to the god. Vithala stood on the brick with hands folded at the sides, in a waiting posture. That strange iconography of god waiting for his devotee became enshrined as the vigraha inside the temple. Since then the devata became known as vithala – vit meaning brick.

While scholars have various theories about the origin of the temple and the accurate identification of the deity within, for example some have speculated that this may have been a temple of Buddha, or Shiva, given that the name Panduranga suggest white complexion which is Shiva’s natural color as opposed to Krshna’s dark-blue ,or in some accounts Vithala is even considered as an early personification of the Upanishadic Brahman, however, since at least the last 1000 years the deity has been identified with Lord Krshna and accordingly worshiped. Inside the temple complex there are shrines dedicated to Ganesha, Garuda, Hanuman, as well as Mahalakshmi, Venkateshwara, Satyabhama and other Gopikas of Lord Krshna. Most of these shires have come up later.

Jnaneshwara, during his lifetime started a padayatra from his hometown to this temple every year during the month of Asada (June-July) accompanied by the singing of devotional songs. Soon common people started joining him in this journey and it took a magnificent life of its own and became a renowned pilgrimage for all who followed the Bhagwata Dharma propagated by the young saint of Alandi or anyone who held the saints and their tradition in deep reverence. Overtime other great saints of the warkari tradition including Namdev and Tukaram made Panduranga as the singular object of their devotion through songs and stories, and some of them even spend the last days of their lives in or around this temple of Vithala.

In remembrance of that ancient event, every year during the ekadasi tithi of Asadha, palkis are taken out from Jnanadeva’s samadhi in Alandi and Tukaram’s samadhi in Dehu, carried by millions of devotees from across Maharashtra and Northern Karnataka. They undertake this pilgrimage of faith and devotion to the abode of Panduranga in Pandharpur like many rivers traversing a course through different terrains yet finally merging into the vastness of the ocean of faith and purity.

The Shakti inherent inside a sampradaya within the fold of Sanatana Dharma is best gauged by the number of saintly men and women it produces over time. Dharma, like character, is not a matter of textual knowledge, neither can it be taught by class rooms and theoretical exegesis but by living examples through the lives of great men and women who imbibe the essence of the path and stand out as shining examples in a stormy world of corruption and decadence. In this the warkaris of Maharastra stand tall, for inspite of hostile political regimes, occasional resistance from the “kupamanduka” orthodoxy, it has neither made the path narrow-minded and reactionary, nor have they lost sight of their cherish ideals, and most importantly, they have kept churning out some of the finest poets and saints whose lives and words and deeds inspire innumerable ordinary people towards a life of dharma and adhyatma even today. Like the warkaris, every man is a pilgrim going through life waiting for our chance to make the one life-altering journey to the house of the Divine.

First He looked confused
I could not lie anymore so I started to call my dog “God.”
First he looked confused,
then he started smiling, then he even danced.
I kept at it: now he doesn’t even bite.
I am wondering if this might work on
people?
How Could a Lover Fall?
What could have caused your grip to weaken
that allowed creation to be?
How could a lover fall to his death
from the arms of infinite strength?

How active you are in the mind sustaining such a great wall
that the sun can cast a frightening shadow the world believes.

No one has ever really known sadness. No real God
would ever allow pain.

How then can a heart feel it is broken and in need
If we are held in the arms of infinite compassion and strength?

The mirror you (God) stand before –
we need to gaze into it also.

That  name/ you called Beloved
as I fell from your lips –

I suffer because I did not quite
hear it;

so tell me again dear One
so clear:
I am you.

– Sant Tukaram.


Rajarshi Nandy
Rajarshi runs Adhyatmika portal. His tweets can be followed at @TheRajarshi

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