Vaishnavism in Western India
BY: SUN STAFF
Dec 11, CANADA (SUN) 'Vaisnavite Movements' from IGNOU curriculum, Part 3.
Maharashtra witnessed a strong bhakti movement from the 13th to 17th century. Most prominent among the bhakti leaders in Maharashtra were Jnanadeva, Namadeva, Eknath and Tukaram. Among various religious sects which were dominant in Maharashtra, the Warkari sect had particular importance. The sect got the name 'Warkari' because of its annual pilgrimage (wari) to Lord Vitthala at Pandharpur, a town on the banks of the Bhima river in Sholapur district.
The Warkaris worship Vishnu in the form of Vitthal and Rukmini. It is said
that the Sanskrit name Vishnu had become Vithu in Kannada and Maratha
languages, and suffixes the ‘ba’ and ‘la’ had been added to indicate tenderness and
Jnanadeva was the first poet saint in Maharashtra in whose religious philosophy the doctrine of Vitthala was at the centre. He composed Bhavartha-dipika, popularly known as Jnanesvari, which is a Marathi commentary upon the Bhagavad-gita. He brought together the Advaitic tradition and the bhakti of the bhagavatas. He emphasized the character of bhakti as spiritual, and to him there is no dichotomy between the absolute and the world. He also talked about gradual spiritual perfection of a devotee towards the realization of ultimate reality. He prescribed extreme love as the way to attain bhakti; guru and his grace helping a devotee to realize the ultimate truth.
Namadeva was a contemporary of Jnanadeva. He expressed through Abhangs his religious yearnings and preached moral ideals. He emphasized the loving dependence on God and advocated for taking the Lord’s name as the real expression of bhakti. According to him, the essence of bhakti lies in being indifferent to worldly life. To preach his ideas he undertook a tour of many countries, and in Punjab where he lived for many years he is venerated as a great saint in Sikh Gurudwaras.
Another medieval bhakti saint in Maharashtra was Ekanatha (1533-99), who spent his life in Paithan. Ekanatha for the first time translated the Ramayana in Marathi and also edited Jnanadeva’s commentary on the Bhagavad-gita. He suggested bhakti as the means of self-realization.
Tukaram, coming from a poor shudra family, became the most revered and popular of the Marathi bhakti poets. His spirituality and longing for Vitthala and rapport with common people made him dear to all.
‘I was born in a Sudra family, thus was set free from all pride. Now it is thou who are my father and mother, O Lord of Pandhari;
I have no authority to study the Vedas; I am helpless in every way, Humble in caste, says Tuka…
Every action should be offered to God; this is the only worship that reaches
Every action is perfected by this rule of conduct, that the worshippers have
union with God.
This is the one secret; this is the message of religion.
Tuka says, It is true; it is true; three times I say it is true’.
(Abhangs of Tukaram, translated by J. Nelson Fraser and K.B. Marathe)
Discussion on bhakti movement in western India remains incomplete if we do not talk about Mirabai (1498-1546). It is said that Mira was the daughter of Raja Rattan Singh and the daughter-in-law of Maharana Sanga of Mewar. Ravidasa, one of the twelve principal followers of Ramananda, initiated Mirabai into the doctrine of pure bhakti. After her husband’s death, she completely devoted herself to Lord Krishna and settled at Dwarka in Gujarat. Through her devotional songs, which were full of emotion and poetic fervour, she expressed her communion with Krishna.
‘That dark dweller in Braj
Is my only refuge.
O my companion,
Worldly comfort is an illusion,
As soon you get it, it goes.
I have chosen the Indestructible for my refuge,
Him whom the snake of death
Will not devour.
My beloved dwells in my heart,
I have actually seen that Abode of Joy,
Mira’s Lord is Hari, the Indestructible.
My Lord, I have taken refuge with Thee,
(Mira Bai’s Song, Translated by A.J. Alston)
Narasimha Mehta was another important philosopher who made a significant contribution in popularizing bhakti in Gujarat. It is believed that Narasimha Mehta was influenced by Jnanadeva and Namadeva. Being influenced by the doctrine of pure bhakti, he composed Padas and Bhajanas which were mainly devotional, philosophical and mystical. Drawing illustrations from Bhagavad-gita, Narasimha Mehta said:
"Taking His name serves the purpose of the boat to cross this unfathomable mundane ocean….What avails it if one takes bath and offer worship? What avails it to sit in the house and give money in charity? What use is it to have studied all the six philosophies? These are but tricks to gain a living… When you forget I and you then alone will the Master help you."
[Edited slightly for readability.]
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