There was a resplendent galaxy of poet saints in Maharashtra from the 13th to the 17th Century, from Jnandev (1275-'96) down to Turkaram (1608-'90). Altogether this was a time of great national vitality, covering the Maratha struggle for independence of the Moghul Empire and its final achievement under Shivaji. On the whole, however, the poet-saints showed no concern with such matters.
They were a strong, rugged, outspoken dynasty drawn from all social classes. Jnandev was a Brahmin, but there were also Namdev, a tailor; Gora, a potter; Savanta, a gardener; Chokha, a sweeper; and Tukaram, a tradesman. There were women too among them: Jnandev's sister Muktabai, Namdev's servant Jani, Chokha's wife Soyara. Their outstanding quality is a beautiful fusing of bhakti (devotion) with Jnana (knowledge). They worshipped and merged into Oneness with the God they worshipped. This is especially prominent in Tukaram. He declares for instance, "When I meditate on the Lord of Pandhari the body becomes transformed together with the mind. Where is there room for speech then? My I-ness is become Hari (God). With the mind merging in Divine Conciousness all creation looks divine. Tukaram says: 'how shall I put it? All at once I became lost in God-conciousness." And again, "The glory of the bhaktas is known only to themselves. It is hard for others to understand. In order to increase the happiness of love in this world they display duality without actually dividing. This is understood only by those who have experienced Unity through faith."
Jnandev with his sister Muktabai and his two brothers, all four of them poet-saints, had an unhappy childhood. Their father, after living the life of an ascetic, returned to married life, and on that account the orthodox Brahmins ostracised the whole family. They were orphaned young and their genius blazed forth while still in their teens. Jnandev, the greatest of them, is better known as Jnaneshwara, the 'Lord of Wisdom'. His great work, the Jnaneshwari is a monumental verse commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. Apart from this there are also his Anubhavamrita or 'Elixir of Experience'. Having himself attained this elixir, he says,
"The distinction between liberated, aspirant and bound subsists only so long as this Elixir of Experience is unknown to one. The enjoyer and the enjoyed, the seer and the seen, are merged in the non-dual, which is indivisible. The devotee has become God, the Goal has become God, the Goal has become the path; this indeed is solitude in the universe.'
This magnificent achievement was completed by the age of 22, when he declared that his life's work was finished and ceremoniously entered into samadhi in a specially prepared crypt, having given instruction that it was to be bricked up. This was in the village of Alandi in Poona district. There is a beautiful atmosphere of sanctity and serenity there. It contains a tree under which an unending chain of recitation of the Jnaneshwari has gone until the present day. Jnaneshwara has remained a perrenial fount of inspiration for Maharashtra. He was at once the foundation and crown of this amazing dynasty.
Namdev, who arose next, described the three brothers as manifestations of Para-Brahmin and spoke of them as shining suns. In his youth he had been a thief and murderer, until one day, hearing a young mother explain to her fatherless child that they had to live in penury because his father had been killed, he realised with sudden horror that it was he who was the killer, and with a violent revulsion of feeling he rushed to the nearby temple to take his own life. He was prevented, however, and he devoted the rest of his life to penance and worship. He wrote in Hindi as well as Marathi (two sister languages both derived from sanskrit, as are most of those of North India), and it is interesting to note that some of his Hindi songs are included in the Granth Sahib, the scripture of the Sikhs, which their founder, Guru Nanak, partly wrote and partly compiled.
While he was still a simple devotee of God in the form of Vithoba it was Jnaneshwara's sister Muktabai who awoke him to deeper understanding. when he met her she astonished him:
What if you have become a devotee of the Lord?
The Inner Refuge is beyond your ken;
Never have you turned your gaze Spiritward!
What use is your godly talk till then?
Your Self you have never found;
I-ness has you in its iron grip.
Yet, unmindful of your own failure,
You question us about our roots.
She also wrote for him:
All form is forever permeated with formlessness.
Shape it has none, but enveloped in Maya
The devotee does with form endow
The all-pervading Boundless That within.
Such was the celestial group of which one, the sweeper Chokha proclaimed:
'God neither has form nor is without form.'
Another, the servant-girl Janabai, felt that she 'ate God, drank God, slept on God and carried on all her activities with God.'
Namdev died in 1350. He desired his ashes to be buried under the doorstep to the main entrance of the temple of Vitobha at Pandharpur so that all devotees who went there might bless him with their holy feet.
The next great saint of this galaxy was Eknath (1533-'99). He taught that bhakti and jnana are like flower and fruit, inconcievable in seperation. He carried on the tradition of Jnaneshwar and Namdev. The text of the Jnashwari had become corrupted, so he re-edited it, and his recension has remained current to the present day. He was both scholar and poet, and his verse exposition of chapter XI of the Bhagavata is as illuminating and as popular as the Jnaneshwari. His copious and varied compositions (including folk-songs called 'Bharudas') have enriched Marathi literature with their unique quality.
Eknath had a contemporary, Father Stephens, an English Jesuit from Oxford, living in Goa who composed a Christa Purana in Marathi distinctlyreminiscent of Eknath's Bhagavata.
There are many sayings that bring out the pure advaitic understanding of Eknath. "My body is Pandhari" (a place of pilgrimage) he says, and Atma is Vitthala (God) therein." And again: "When I bathe in the river the water is liquid conciousness!"
He was famed for his never-ending patience as well as for his tolerance and compassion. He was carrying holy water for his worship but gave it to a thirsty donkey. On the anniversary of his ancestors he called an untouchable for food and gave him the consecrated dishes prepared for the Brahmins.
The next great figure in this dynasty, Tukaram, (1608-'50) was a peasant trader by profession but ranks as the crown of Maratha sainthood after Jnaneshwara. The woman poet Bahinabai speaks of him as the steeple or pinnacle of the edifice whose foundation Jnaneshwara had laid. Rameshwar, a contemporary disciple, declaired that " in jnana, bhakti and vairagya (dispassion) there was no one to match Tukaram". Even today his songs sway our emotions as they did his contemporaries.
The secret lies in the rustic simplicity and utter frankness on self-revelationin his songs together with their profound understanding and ardent devotion. He had not an easy life. He could not get up any interest in trade, with the result that he and his family often went hungry,and his wife developed into a scold, as well as she might. The local Brahmins declared that, being of low caste, he had no right to compose poems and ordered him to throw them into the river flowing through the town. Obediently he did so, but the waters washed them ashore undamaged. Abashed by this, his critics allowed them to be kept. He rose above body-conciousness while still in the body. In a well known poem he declares; "I witnessed with my own eyes my bodily death. That was indeed a unique sacrament!" He started (like his prototype Namdev) as an ordinary devotee of God as Vitthala but attained transcendent experience "I went to see God and there stood transfigured into God'" he says.
He is one of those rare saints who have disappeared bodily at the end of life. Since there was no body to entomb there is no shrine to him to which pilgrims can repair. Instead they go to the spot on the river bank where his poems were washed ashore. There is a beautiful atmosphere there.
Apart from this fraternity of saints centred around Pandharpur, there were two other contemporaries of Tukaram who were eminent Marathi poet-saints. One of them was a Muslim faqir , Sheikh Muhammed, whose tomb at Ahmednagar became a place of pilgrimage for Muslims and Hindus alike. The other was Samartha Ramdas, the powerful inspirer of Shivaji, whose shrine is at Sajjangad in Satara District.
Sheikh Muhammed is chiefly remembered today for his Yoga-sangrama, a long allegory in songs describing the spiritual struggle as a 'battle of yoga'. He confesses: "I do not know refined speech. Cultured pandits may laugh at my uncouth expression. But look into the core and understand my soul." Like Kabir he understood the basic unanimity of the religions and he could have said with Kabir: " Ram and Rahim, Ishwar and Allah are all the same." He regarded all sadhus as the same and not other than the Absolute, whatever their external forms or religions. "The peel of the jackfruit is rough and prickly but the pulp inside is sweet. The shell of the coconut is hard and rough, but the milk and kernel inside are delicious." He also said: "There is no difference between Paramatma (universal spirit) and saint. They are essentially the same although they appear different." Tukaram said in almost the same words: "All saints are the same. They appear different only in externals, just as milk is all the same though it comes from cows of different colour."
Samartha Ramdas also said the same: "Sadhus look different, but, merged in Self, they are all manifestations of the One Real." What distinguished him from the Pandharpur group of saints was that, unlike them, he was interested in the national life also. He became the Guru of Shivaji and inspired the freedom struggle against Aurangzeb. His Das-Bodha is a Marathi classic of rare merit. Though composed in the ovi metre, it has the terseness and forthrightness of vigorous prose. Its pragmatism is impregnated with the highest spiritual values. It inculcates Vedanta in practical terms of work-a-day life. Its code of enlightened conduct covers all social classes and applies to both ruler and ruled.
The message and mission of Ramdas were summed up in the meaningful phrase 'Maharashtra Dharma'. His work contained that mixture of realism and intuition which are so characteristic of Maharashtra through the ages. In fact his Das-Bodha with Tukaram's Gatha or Book of Songs and the Jnaneshwari can be looked upon as the 'Triple Veda' of Maharashtra down to this day. Their appeal is both to the head and heart. They are couched in a form which some might consider more like rythmical prose than verse. But they are all alike embodiments of Satyam-Sivam-Sundaram - 'Truth, Purity, Beauty'. The truth must be experienced, and these had experienced it and could indicate it for others to experience.
From the Mountain Path