Thursday 4 August 2011

Sant Tukaram

He Touched the Souls of All Humans Sant Tukaram (1577-1650), the eminent saint-poet (santa-kavi) of Maharashtra, provided a vigorous impetus to the Varkari movement by his passionate devotion to Vitthal whom he regarded as the embodiment of the Impersonal Reality. He presented a supreme example of intense spirituality which matched with the best in the mystic heritage of mankind. The fire of devotion burnt in him constantly and its cinders gushed out spontaneously through lyrical verses (abhangas), providing both light and warmth to human souls in search of God.
He spoke in the language of the people, using innovative yet simple metaphors and similies, to explain the summum bonum of life, which was not to seek the pleasures of the world but to experience divinity. To him Vitthal was the plenum of being, consciousness and bliss; the Supreme among deities; the fulfilment of man’s spiritual quest and his way to salvation.
As he says in a mystic way: ‘Only once did Tuka go to Pandhari : He has not been born ever since.’
To speak only Vitthal
To see only Vitthal,
To make Vitthal
My life and  soul,
My mind has gone to him   Never to return
Vitthal its own soul.
 – Says Tuka, Pp. 196
Tuka described the Varkaris who regularly visit the Lord of Pandhari in His temple at Padharpur (Maharashtra) on the great elevenths (ekadasis) of Hindu lunar months, ashadha and Kartika, as the ‘pilgrims of eternity’. Adorning their bodies with white clay, emitting sandalwood-odour, and tulasi-bead necklaces, and waving banners, they sing and dance to the cosmic rhythm which descends on them as they unfold their hearts to Vitthal. Tuka held that Vitthal could be realised neither by knowledge nor by sacrificial rites and penances (karma-kanda) but by deep devotion. He mitigated sufferings if one became worthy of His love. In moments of desperation, one could hear the whispers of eternity, goading one to have faith in oneself.
When he comes out of the   blue
A meteroite shattering your   home,
Be sure God is visiting you.
When you are beyond all   hope
When you are robbed of the   whole world
and your voice becomes   eloquent
Be sure God is visiting you.
– Says Tuka, Pp. 95-96
Tuka was illiterate in the conventional sense of the term yet, his understanding of religion and spirituality was superb as it was derived from direct experience of God. He moved without inhibition, through streets, with lute (vina) and cymbals (tala) in his hands, singing the praises of god and dancing in ecstasy. Such was the intensity of his feeling that he would sometime quarrel with Vitthal, call Him names, doubt His existence or mock at His hide-and-seek nature. In exasperation, when he was humiliated by his relatives, neighbours or detractors or when he was in low moods for being unable to connect with Him, he would give expression to his annoyance.
You are a lizard, a toad and a   tiger.
And at times, you are a   coward,
Frantically covering your   own arse.
When you face a stronger-  willed
You just turn tail.
You attack only the weak and   run away....
You trick me into serving   you....
For you made me eloquent   only to praise yourself....
Look! I am a grocer by   profession
You cannot cheat me at a   bargain....
You rob everyone of his last   strip of clothing
Says Tuka, O hoodlum, you   are nobody’s chum.
–Says Tuka, pp. 100, 104.
When the grace of Vitthal descended on Tuka, he gained equilibrium on the path of spirituality. He saw God in everything and everything in God, and learnt what the Indian mystical tradition calls “the art of dying (to the world of phenomena) while living”.
I have seen my death with my   own eyes
O what an incomparable   festival it was....
 –Says Tuka, Pp. 183
Filled with God’s presence Tuka would see himself shining like the Immense Being (Virata) who pervades all. Streaks of Advaita Vedanta figure in his Abhangas after he attained the state of a Jivanamukta i.e. one who achieves salvation in life. He echoed the voice of the Vedic sages (Rishis) who spoke: ‘tat tvam asi’ (‘That thou art’) or aham brahmasmi (‘I am Brahman’), as can be observed from his following verse.
Too scarce to occupy an atom,
Tuka is vast as the sky
I swallowed my death, gave   up the corpse.
I have dissolved God, the self   and the world,
To become one luminous   being.
Says Tuka, now I remain here
Only to oblige
 – Says Tuka Pp. 183
And again
Tuka has descended into Tuka
Heaven, earth, hell watch in   wonder.....
   – Says Tuka, Pp. 186
Tuka was opposed to hypocrisy in the name of religion, and held that none could monopolise the truth. The true saint was not one with sacred marks, ashes over his body, begging bowl and a sounding gourd; one who remembered scriptures verbatim, could sing, dance, or speak well, who had visited holy spots and performed complex religious rites, but one who was above mundane desires, treasured the divine name in his heart, and regarded mankind as one. The true saint remained calm in the vicissitudes of life, did not crave for name and fame, or performed miracles of his own volition.
Tuka held that the seeker must adhere to moral values; he should be free from lust, greed, vanity, anger, attachment and other human vices, rise above pleasure of the senses and contemplate on God alone. He should partake of the company of saints, and develop the habit of constantly repeating the Divine Name.
He preferred the path of pure devotion (bhakti-marga) to the path of knowledge (Jnana-marga). By Jnana he meant knowledge of the self, not metaphysical subtleties, He did not want to break the bond between bhakta (devotee) and Bhagavan (god) to gain lasting release (shashvata mukti) from the cycle of birth and death.
In his view, ceremonial bath was good if it cleaned mind and body both. External yajna in which one burnt sesamum seeds, rice, etc was not of use till one burnt the grains of passion and greed within. True enemies of a seeker were his inner vices. Salvation lay in conquering oneself by surrendering to the Supreme Will and gaining equanimity in joy and sorrow.
Tuka stressed spiritual experience not scriptural pedagogy and argued that even blind faith in God was better than futile reasoning about his whereabouts. God being the source of love and compassion, one could be free from worldly sorrows only by living on the plane of the spirit.
To hold that Tuka was a mere bhakta (devotee) always engaged in making fervent calls to his personal god and not a serious inquirer of truth, is not correct. Though his abhangas are imbued with devotion, they also contain great spiritual truths about the nature of the Supreme Reality, world of phenomena, destiny of human beings, path of liberation, etc. The metaphysics and ethics of the Bhagavata, and the iconoclasm of his predecessor-saints with regard to religious obscurantism, are conspicuous in his literary output which remains the best in Marathi devotional literature.
His flight of imagination and richness of ideas remind one of Khalil Gibran (1683-1931). His simple words, devoid of ornate expression, carry timeless wisdom.
Don’t crush a flower
To posses its fragrance.
Don’t eat a body
Because you love it.
Don’t break a musical   instrument
To find out its sound.
Don’t covet the reward
for doing your own duty.
 – Says Tuka, Pp. 135
Tuka’s views neither blindly confirm nor blatantly reject the social or religious beliefs of his time as they swing between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, theism and pantheism traditionalism and reform. He seems to have lived half-way between the life of a householder and the life of an ascetic trying to reconcile the two, sometime dancing in ecstacy and at other times, expressing pain, confusion or restlessness.
He observed that one who claimed to have realised god was a fool but made similar observations in his abhangas. He described the reviler of the Vedas as a cantala, but disapproved of yajna, sacrifices, and other rites. He quarrelled with Vitthal and yet described himself as ‘a dog at thy door’, ‘a beggar before thy mansion’, etc.
He was conscious of the decadence of the caste system yet he stuck to the Brahmin ideal and observed that a born Brahmin even through he falls from the pedestal of virtue must yet be respected. In fact, he condemned priesthood, not brahmanatva, the qualities of a true Brahmin, and observed that even an outcaste could become a Brahmin by realising God. He described caste and class distinctions as irrelevant to spiritual growth, but did not reject the varnashrama dharma based on the allocation of duties to individuals as per their mental disposition.
He longed for a union with the Divine (ekatmata) but delighted in his self (atmarati) and, preferred service to his personal god to the mere mental realisation of the Impersonal Reality without form or attributes (nirguna). He wished to be born again to see and serve Lord Vitthal.
Far from being contradictory, Tuka’s verses reflect his mind, at different periods of his life. From a man of the world, he became a man of God passing through a number of stages during his spiritual journey, each stage marked by experiences, ranging from aversion to almost complete withdrawal from wordly affairs, from faith enveloped by doubt to a total conviction in god’s existence as a result of mystical insights. He stressed pure devotion to God but disapproved of blind and sentimental worship.
He regarded knowledge (Jnana) as auxiliary to bhakti, not vice versa. To him Maya was not illusion, but world of diversity and multiplicity, with God as its basis. He held that acts of charity (dana) even when performed without anasakti or nonattachment to fruits of action, could not, by themselves, lead to bliss. Nama-smarana and kirtana were the shortest routes to God. Hearing, chanting, singing, repeating or recollecting His name saved one from evil company, curbed the ego and brought one closer to Him. Congregational chanting (kirtana) raised the consciousness of a multitude of souls.
Information about the early life of Tuka is both scanty and apocryphal. The main sources which can be interlaced to produce a near authentic version of his life and activities are: his autobiographical poems (abhangas), lyrics of his detractor turned brahmin disciple, Ramesvara Bhatta, compositions of his female Brahmin disciple, Bahinabai Sioorkar (1629-1700), a sketchy biography by his great grandson, Gopal Buwa, written long after his death, a pontifical work on Kesava Caitanya sect by one Vairagi and, the legendary works of the poet-saint, Mahipati (1715-1790), namely, Bhaktavijaya and Bhaktalilamrita.
Born in 1608 in Dehu (district Pune) lying on the banks of river Indrayani, Tukaram, the son of Bolhoba (father) and Kanakai (mother), belonging to Ambile (More) class of Maratha origin, grew up as an innocent child completely oblivious of the ways of the world and the afflictions of life. He was married to Rakhumai (Rakhmbai) at an early age, bore children, took over family business after his elder brother, Savaji became a renunciate (sannyasi), married a second time to Avali (jijabai) after his first wife became seriously ill, had children again and, led an active life till he became a victim of circumstances and could bear no more.
The untimely demise of his parents put family burden on his shoulders which he bore with his characteristic patience. The devastating famine of 1629 ruined his grain-selling business, destroyed his cattle, made him a bankrupt and deprived him of his position of a Mahajan or revenue collector, which he had inherited from his father. His first wife, Rakhumai and his eldest son, Santoba whom he deeply loved, died of starvation. His relatives and friends chided him for mishandling business and household matters.
Although a Shudra kunbi, as he described himself, Tuka saw prosperity in his early life but fate turned him into a pauper. The financial support of his father-in-law proved to be of little use as he gave priority to humanitarian work and, on one occasion, donated his earnings to relieve a person of his debt so as to save him from imprisonment. Finally, he turned to his family deity, Vitthala (Vithoba) beseeching divine intervention and help.
Tuka meditated for months together in the serene and secluded environment of the hilltops of Bhamanatha and Bhandara, near Dehu, and saw flashes of illumination. As per his testimony, he merged into the Lord ‘as camphor into fire’ (Gatha, 4354). On another occasion, while going for a dip in river Indrayani he perceived the effulgent appearance of one Babaji Caitanya (in the spiritual lineage of Kesava Caitanya and Raghava Caitanya) who gave him the mystic formula (guru-mantra), ‘Rama Katha Hari’. The supersensuous experiences continued and, in one of his visions, he saw Lord Vitthal and Sant Namadeva. The latter commanded him to complete his unfinished task of composing one billion abhangas.
Gradually, Tuka lost interest in day-to-day business and gave half the share of his family property to his younger brother, Kanhya throwing the deeds and documens of his own share in the Indrayani. He spent most of his time in Vitthal temple which his ancestors had built at Dehu, and sang the glories of God He composed Abhangas in inspired moments and danced in ecstasy during kirtana sessions, attracting devotees (bhaktas) from near and far.
According to Mahipati’s account, Chatrapati Shivaji, the great Maratha king, visited him twice with costly presents and gold coins, which he distributed among Brahmins. Tuka’s fame as poet-saint was resented by the orthodox who once forced him to throw his manuscript of devotional lyrics into the Indrayani. But, as tradition says, it was retrieved thirteen days after the incident when he resorted to fast and made soulful prayer to Vitthal .
Tuka faced his critics and opponents with deep humility and sense of forgiveness. He bore with spiritual fortitude, the iniquities heaped on him by many: Mambaji Gosavi, a religious mendicant of Dehu, who beat him mercilessly with a thorny stick, after his buffalo strayed into his field, unnoticed by his wife; Ramesvara Bhatta, brahmin scholar, who masterminded the abortive attempt to destroy his anthology of abhangas; the spouse of his disciple, Gangarama Mavla, who splashed hot water on him for misguiding her husband, and; Avadi, his wife, who reprimanded him, in private and in public, for ignoring her and the family. 
Tuka’s Abhangas enjoy the authority of revealed verses but their exact number and authenticity continues to be a matter of debate. In the absence of a single, cohesive and signed manuscript of his devotional lyrics, and possible interpolation in the existing ones, it is difficult to arrive at a commonly acceptable conclusion. The Bhijji vahi (‘soaked book’) in possession of the descendants of Tuka is said to contain about 250 verses, not all. Pandharpur, Talegava or Kadusa manuscripts are also not complete in themselves. Popular abhangas of Tuka sung by Varkaris seem to have undergone ‘here a little there a little’ change of words without much notice.
The first collection of Tuka’s poems in Marathi was funded by the Bombay Government (Indu Prakash Press, 1873) and has been reprinted a few times. Shri Tukaram Babachi Gatha (popular in its abbreviated form as Gatha) by P. M. Lad (ed.) published by Government of Maharashtra (1973) is an authentic work and widely in use. Many more translations of Tukas poems have appeared from time to time including the collected Tukaram by J. Nelson Fraser and K. B. Marathe (Christian Literature Society, Madras, 1909-1915) Nicol Macnicol, Psalms of Maratha Saints (London: Oxford University Press, 1919) and Dilip Chitre’s Says Tuka (Penguin, 1991).
Article by : Satish Kapoor
Source: Bhavan's Journal 31 March 2010
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