Sant Tukaram

Introduction

Between the years 500 BC to 1000 AD the cultural history of the Indian sub continent was rich and uplifting with an upsurge in the field of science, education and philosophy. There was prosperity in every aspect of society with trade relations with countries like China, Greece and Iran. But after 1000 AD social evils like untouchability and caste system were practised extensively and were used as tools by the upper classes to dominate society. Foreign invasions too began subjugating the religious minds of the people and it was during this time that the Bhakti movement began to take shape throughout the country. One of the most prominent saints of the Bhakti movement was Sant Tukaram, the poet saint of Maharashtra.

Birth and Early Living

Tukaram was born in a small village named Dehu close to Pune in Maharashtra in the year 1608 to parents Bolhoba and Kanakai and they belonged to the Kunbi Maratha or agricultural tillage caste which came under the lower caste in the social hierarchy. They were a well to do family and enjoyed a good social status in the village. Tukaram had two brothers, one elder and the other younger. Soon Tukaram was married to a young girl named Rakhumabai. Unfortunately his parents died when he was very young. This was followed by the death of his elder brother’s wife. His elder brother lost all interest in life and left on a pilgrimage. Suddenly Tukaram found himself bereft of four of his family members. With fortitude and determination he began rebuilding his life. Unfortunately soon the entire land was caught in the grip of famine and drought. His wife and son died in the famine. He remarried again to Jijabai or Avali. Folklore mentions many stories on the exasperation and despair of Jijabai at Tukaram’s total dispassion to worldly life and absorption in the Lord.

His Spiritual Journey

It is said that the sufferings and deaths that Tukaram saw slowly turned his mind towards the Godward path. He realised the impermanence of human relationships and began the quest for eternal values. He is said to have set out to the Bhamnath mountain in search of truth. Inspite of the fear of wild animals and reptiles Tukaram remained undeterred and on the fifteenth day his perseverance was rewarded and he is said to have had the vision of Lord Vithoba. Tukaram returned to his village with the Lord enshrined in his heart. He decided to renovate the temple which was on the bank of the Indrayani River. He perused the works of other saints like Namdev, Jnaneshwar and Kabir in solitude among the trees, birds and creepers. It is said that Lord Vithoba appeared before him and exhorted him to sing his glories in verse form and compile them. Namdev too is said to persuaded him in this venture.

His Works and the Lord’s miracle

Abhangs encapsulating the essence of the scriptures began gushing forth from his mouth which he attributed solely to the grace of the Lord. He began singing his Kirtans at Alandi at Sant Jnaneshwar’s abode. Rameshwar Bhat was a great scholar of those times and one day as he was passing by, he was amazed to hear the Bhagavad Gita and the Shrimad Bhagwat being sung in a lucid and simple language. Scandalised that the essence of the Vedas were being sung by a low caste, he asked him as to who had given him permission to undertake such an enterprise. Tukaram said that it was the Lord who was the undertaker and he was merely the instrument. But Rameshwar Bhat was enraged and informed the village headman (Patil) and the other people of the village who too were very angry. Rameshwar Bhat then ordered Tukaram to throw his verses in the river and told him that if Lord Vithoba truly wished it, he would save it. Having no other choice Tukaram tied a heavy stone to his collection of abhang books and consigned it to the Indrayani River. The books sank and the people began to ridicule Tukaram’s claim of divine order. To prove the veracity of his words, Tukaram with great determination then began steadfast prayers in front of the temple. Days passed and finally on the thirteenth night the Lord took the form of a child and informed Tukaram that he had safeguarded the books underwater and they would resurface the very next day. All the people gathered on the banks of the Indrayani River and were surprised to see the books floating on the river. They retrieved it and were amazed to see them intact. It is said that Rameshwar Bhat contracted an ailment which was cured by Tukaram when he begged forgiveness. The local King Angadshah too was transformed by Tukaram’s devotion proving that knowledge and power were no match for the Lord’s grace.

Later Years

Now Tukaram began to sing kirtans and deliver discourses with renewed vigour and fervour. Legends state that a number of miraculous incidents occurred and even high caste Brahmins were said to have been transformed on hearing the Abhangs.

Tukaram and Shivaji Maharaj

Shivaji Maharaj was said to have been a contemporary of Tukaram. Impressed by his works, Shivaji sent him gifts which were refused by Tukaram. Humbled by his spirit of renunciation he came in person to meet him and was overwhelmed by his devotion and sincerity. Tukaram blessed him with words of courage and Shivaji embraced the saint’s counsel using it to rule his kingdom wisely.

 

Tukaram’s teachings

Tukaram exhorted people to make God a part of their daily life whether householder or saint. He said that reciting the Lord’s name while occupying the hands in work was the best form of Sadhana which was taken up by Mahatma Gandhi in his motto ‘Dil Me Ram Haath Me Kaam’. Divine love brought about unity and equality in society. He asked people to avoid bad company and keep the company of saintly people who would guide society on the right path. He said that honesty and detachment in dealings were the prerequisites of a noble society.

Tukaram and his disciples

Tukaram had fourteen main accompanists and the most famous among them was Bahinabai Sioorkar(1629-1700). She was a poet saint who though married and belonging to a high caste Brahmin family attended his kirtans and it was her biography with vivid descriptions of the village Dehu, the life of Tukaram and his abhangs which gave a glimpse of the greatness of Sant Tukaram as a contemporary eye witness account that is available for posterity.

Tukaram’s departure from the world

On the Kartik Ekadashi day Tukaram accompanied by his fourteen accompanists and hundreds of his followers went to the banks of the river Indrayani. Bidding farewell to all he said that the time to leave for the Lord’s abode had arrived and he is said to have disappeared into the Lord. Folklore says that the Lord sent his Pushpak Vimana and Sant Tukaram departed in it to the heavenly abode of Vaikunth.

Some of his Abhangs

  1. A donkey that is made to have bath in a sacred river does not become a horse. He who does not have a pure mind, does not listen to any good advice. Even if sweet juice is fed to a snake, there won’t be any reduction in its poison. Tuka says, humility is the greatest virtue. When a river is flooded even the mightiest of the trees falls by its force. But the humble grass on its shores remains intact.
  2.  Nothing will accompany you when you depart from this world even if wealth in crores is accumulated. However comfortable your bed may be the last resting place will only be on the bare ground. You keep your mouth fresh by chewing mouth fresheners. But on the last day, the mouth will be dry. Being away from truth is always a cause of agony. Pandavas were sent to exile in the woods but they held God in their hearts. Prahlad was tortured by his father but still he meditated on Narayana all the time. Sudama, a brahmin, was afflicted by poverty but he did not forget Narayana. Tuka says, O God may I not forget you even when burdened by a mountain of miseries.

Books and Movies on Sant Tukaram

Mahipati was a Marathi language biographer in the 17th century who wrote on the life of many saints. His books Bhakti Vijay and Bhakti Leelamrut contain the life history of Sant Tukaram. Dilip Chitre, a Sahitya Natak Academy Award winner has translated the works of Sant Tukaram into English named ‘Says Tuka’ which has been translated into various languages. There have been movies too made in various languages on the life and works of Tukaram.

Conclusion

Sant Tukaram denied caste hierarchy and opposed rituals and expressed his ideas in the form of Abhangs which had themes on ecology, equality, brotherhood and love of God. He was considered one of the greatest poets in the Marathi language. His genius was reflected in the style and method in which he composed his abhangs which was easily understood by the masses as it was in common Marathi and indicated his sensitivity and sense of ethics. Some of his works were even translated by Mahatma Gandhi who was greatly impressed by him. Tukaram firmly believed that he was merely a vehicle for Lord Vittal (Vithoba) and all the verses he uttered were actually the Lord’s words. Inspite of never making any conscious attempt to compose strictly according to the science of poems, his powerful compositions automatically became the highest kind of genuine poetry. His songs evoke his sense of deep anguish and love for the Lord and are sung by millions all over the world even to this day.