Tukaram

Tukaram (1608–50) was a prominent Varkari saint and spiritual poet of the Bhakti movement in India. Tukaram was a farmer and grocer who lost interest in the material world after losing his first wife and child in a famine. He neglected his worldly duties to his second wife Jijai (Awali) and their two children. He was initiated by his Guru Babaji Caitanya in a dream.


 

Tukaram of Maharasthra
17th century Marathi Poet-Saint
Circa 1598 – 1650

Little is known of the life of Tukaram. Several dates are given for his birth, citing family records and other ancient authorities. It is generally accepted he was born between 1598 – 1608 in the village of Dehu on the banks of the river Indrayani into a low-caste Sudra family. Since it was common in Maharashtra at that time for the Brahmins to refer to all non-Brahmins as “sudras” (lower castes), it is not commonly realised that Tukaram’s family were landowners, farmers, and that they made their living by selling the produce of the land. Tukaram’s father had inherited the position of mahajan, or collector of revenue from traders, from his father, and Tukaram in turn was the mahajan of his village Dehu. At a relatively young age, owing to the death of his parents, Tukaram took charge of the family, and before he was twenty-one years old Tukaram had fathered six children. The devastating famine of 1629 carried away Tukaram’s first wife and one of his children, and Tukaram henceforth lost interest in the life of the householder.

Tukaram now went to Bhambanatha and Bhandara and other places and gave himself up to spiritual reading. He was initiated by his Guru Babaji in a dream. He usually performed Kirtanas (spiritual songs and chants) at Dehu Lohagaoli and Poona. He was hated by a Brahmin by name Ramesvarabhatta, who, however, later became his disciple. He was also scornfully treated by Mambaji Gosavi, who also later repented. Tukaram’s second wife was a Xantippe, who often quarrelled with her husband, told him that he was doing no work to maintain his family, and snarled when Tukaram received all sorts of guests and gave himself to spiritual Kirtanas (spiritual songs and chants). Tukaram suffered all these things in patience. He continued to preach the secret of spiritual life to those who assembled around him. Before he died Tukaram met the King, Shivaji and the King’s ordained Guru, Ramadasa. Shivaji had passed his teens at the time, and had already captured Fort Torana, and was trying to found a Maratha kingdom, which was to later become the state of Maharashtra. Tukaram directed Shivaji to have the spiritual instruction of Ramadasa. Tukaram probably met Ramadasa when the latter had gone to Pandharapur to visit the temple of Vitthala.

In the meantime, Tukaram turned to poetic compositions [abhangs], inspired by his devotion for Lord Vithoba [Vitthal] (an avatar of Vishnu), the family deity. He is said to have been visited in a dream by Namdev, a great poet-saint of the thirteenth century, and Lord Vitthal himself, and apparently was informed that it was his mission to compose spiritual poems, called abhangs. It was his task to finish the undertaking of Namdev, who had vowed to complete one hundred crore abhangs. Those left unnumbered at the passing over of Namdev were to be Tukaram’s responsibility. In so doing, Tukaram incurred the wrath of the Brahmins: not only had he dared to impinge upon the prerogatives of the Brahmins, [behaving out of caste responsibility] (daring to examine and expound upon Vedas and Upanishadic literature) … Brahmins who believed themselves to be the only true custodians, interpreters, and spokesmen of religion, he compounded the offence by writing in Marathi rather than Sanskrit. According to legend, the local Brahmins compelled him to throw the manuscripts of his poems into the river Indrayani, and taunted him with the observation that if he were a true devotee of God, the manuscripts would reappear. Several abhangs retell that Tukaram then commenced a fast-unto-death, invoking the name of God; and after thirteen days of his fast, Vitthal appeared in a beautiful form and returned the manuscripts of Tukaram’s poems by causing them to float on the surface of the river.

Tukaram sings for a Brahmin

Once upon a time it so happened that a Brahmin went to the temple of Dnyaneshwar at Alandi, and sat there in meditation with a desire that he might receive some spiritual illumination from him. After some days, the Brahmin dreamt a dream, in which he was advised by Dnyaneshwar to go to Tukaram, who was living at that time. The Brahmin came to Tukaram and told him what had happened in the dream; whereupon Tukaram composed eleven Abhangs, the substance of which is as follows:

“Do not follow the lore of the learned books.
Take a vow that you would seek the grace of God
by emptying your heart of its innate desires. . . . . .
God will come to your rescue by the power of the Name,
and take you across the ocean of life” (Abg. 3363).

“God does not possess salvation ready-made,
so that He may hand it over to His devotee.
Salvation consists in conquering the senses and mind,
and making them empty of the pursuit of objects”…… (Abg. 3364).

“Invoke the grace of God, asking His compassion on you
and make your mind your onlooker……
Tuka says that God is an ocean of compassion,
and will relieve you of the thraldom of existence
in a moment’s time” (Abg. 3365).

“If you meditate on the name of Govinda,
then you will become Govinda yourself.
There will be no difference between you and God.
The mind will be filled with joy,
and the eyes will shed down tears of love”.(Abg. 3366)

“Why do you become small?
You are really as large as the universe itself.
Take leave of your worldly life, and make haste.
Because you think yourself a small being,
therefore you are merged in darkness, and are grieved” (Abg. 3370).

“The king of learned men, and their spiritual teacher,
you are worthily called Dnyaneshwar.
Why should such a low man as myself be made great.
A shoe on the foot must be placed only on the foot.
Even gods themselves cannot be compared to you.
How would then other people be compared to you.
But I do not know your purpose,
and hence I humbly bend my head before you” (Abg. 3372).

“A child speaks any words it pleases.
It behoves you, great Saint, to excuse its lisping.
I have taken no account of my station.
Keep me near your feet, O Dnyaneshwar,” implores Tuka (Abg. 3373).

Pursuing the Spiritual life vis-a-vis the world
Tukaram began his spiritual career by girding up his loins against the life of sin.

“I have now determined to achieve the end.
I shall never part with the treasure in my possession
Adieu now to all idleness which is the canker of the soul.
Adieu to all forgetfulness which prevents one from harbouring God in his mind.
Adieu to all shame, for it stands in the way of the attainment of God.
Happy am I, that I have determined to find out God” (Abg. 2774).

 

He imposes upon his mind an extreme severity in social relations:

“How long shall I tell my mind not to run after everybody it sees
Idle affection is the cause of sorrow.
Real happiness consists in leading a severe social life.
Care not for praise or blame.
Care not for compassion and affection.
Care not for happiness and sorrow.
Do not those who want to pursue God
sit down at a place with a determined effort to find out God ?
Think about it, my mind, says Tuka, and be as hard as adamant” (Abg. 594).

 

He expresses this same attitude elsewhere when he tells us that he had grown entirely indifferent to the amenities of social life.

“Speak not with me” says Tuka.
“Let people be as they are. My only business with them
is to bid them good-bye as soon as I see them.
Who can ever find time to mix with others?
These people are merged in all sorts of fantastic activities.
At a stroke, says Tuka,
I have come out of the manners of the world” (Abg. 1614).

 

Binding God with Love:
Tukaram seems to have determined to turn his mortal existence to the best account possible. He prays to God to allow his mind to rest on His feet wherever his body may be.

“This is my prayer to Thee, O God.
I place my head on Thy feet.
Let my body be where it likes,
but let my mind always rest on Thy feet.
Let me spend my time in meditating on Thee.
Let me turn away from body, and mind, and wealth,
Cleanse me at the time of death
from such dangers as phlegm, and wind, and bile.
So long as my senses are whole,
I have called upon Thee,
in order that Thou mightest help me ultimately” (Abg. 2430).

 

In the midst of his life’s duties, Tukaram’s one interest was to remember the feet of God.

“I do the duty which has fallen to me,
but I always remember Thy feet.
Why should I give expression to my love?
Thou knowest it already.
I look at Thy form at all times,
and somehow carry on my worldly existence.
I have appointed my speech to sing Thy praise.
My mind is anxious to have a vision of Thee
without any craving for money or wealth.
I am walking my worldly way,
as a man must who has a burden to carry;
but my mind is ever set on Thee. “(Abg. 2050).

 

He says to God that he would never be afraid of Him, provided he can continue to have devotion for him.

“To find out God, I know a remedy.
We need not be afraid of God.
What power can He have?
We should pray to Him in all humility,
and then, we will be able to find Him.
He will then do whatever He likes.
Merely by the power of devotion,
we may be able to attain to Him.
Thus will I bind God by the cords of my love”.(Abg. 543).

 

The same idea Tukaram reiterates in another passage when he says that wherever God may go, He will find spread for Him the omnipresent meshes of Tukaram’s love.

“Wherever Thou mayest go,
Thou shalt see me.
Thus, far and wide shall I spread my love.
There will be no place which Thou canst then call Thine own.
My mind, which is set on Thee,
will watch Thee everywhere.” (Abg. 1064).

 

Tukaram also employs one or two metaphors to describe the manner in which to love God. He tells us in one place that he will enclose God within him, as a tortoise encloses its feet.

“Thy secret I have come to know by the power of my devotion.
I have enclosed Thy form within me, as a tortoise encloses its feet.
I shall never allow Thy form to melt away”, (Abg. 182).

 

Again, Tukaram says that he will be a bird on the creeper of God’s Name.

“The creeper of God’s Name
has spread far and wide,
and has attained to flower and fruit.
On it my mind will be a royal bird
and eat to its satisfaction.
The seed has shown its sweetness.
Why should I not catch hold of the fruit ?
As one allows time to pass by,
one will surely miss the sweetness of the fruit” (Abg. 2401).

 

Tukaram’s Abhangs
Tukaram began to compose abhangs citing the most important help for God-realisation is the company of the saints, and he expressed an earnest desire for the company of those who love God. Tukaram was not so fortunate to win God all at once. The attainment of God involves infinite trouble and a perpetual racking of the soul. Good men face obstacles, opponents, are falsely accused and experience all sorts of sufferings in the name of fidelity to God. The effort of the devotee of God is contrasted with the dark night of the soul. Tukaram earnestly sought the darshan of the Four-Handed Person, namely God. He cites darshan to the Pandavas, the Gopis, that which was shown to Uddhava, Prahlada, Janaka, the grace that saved Drapaudi, all these miraculous instantiations of the hand of God, Tukaram seeks, with intensity. He had extreme restlessness of mind, and was at constant warfare with the world, with his failings and shortcomings, with his own sins. Tukaram was walking the path of the mystic, the devotee who seeks God only, only God:

I have become mad after Thee, O God.
I am vainly looking in the various directions for Thee.
I have left off all Samsara and the worldly manners.
My eyes pine after seeing Thy form, of which my ears have heard.
The very foundations of my life are shaken,
and I pant without Thee as a fish without water” (Abg. 2210).
“Are You engaged elsewhere to attend to a devotee’s call ?
Or, are You fallen asleep?
You may have been caught in the meshes of the Gopis’ devotion,
and may be looking at their faces!
Are You engaged in warding off some dangers of Your devotees?
Or, is the way far off, that You have to cross?
Do You see my faults that You do not come?
Tell me the reason, O God.
My life is really oozing out of my eyes,” says Tuka (Abg. 1019).

“My mind is fixed on Thee, as a beggar’s mind is fixed on rich food.
My heart is set on Thy feet, and my life-principle is dwindling.
As a cat sits looking at a ball of butter ready to pounce upon it,
so do I sit waiting for Thee, my Mother” (Abg. 3018).

“As verily, a young girl,
who is going to her father-in-law’s house,
wistfully casts her glance at her home,
similarly do I look at Thee
and wish to know when I shall meet Thee.
As a child that misses its mother,
or as a fish that comes out of water,
similarly do I pant after Thee,” says Tuka (Abg. 131).

“Shall I ever be fortunate to enjoy Thee without a moment’s respite ?
When, 0 when, shall I enjoy that mental state?
Shall I ever be so fortunate as to reap the divine bliss?
Will ever God be pleased to give it to me?” (Abg. 2377).

“I ask everybody I meet, will God help me?
Will God have compassion on me, and save me from shame?
Verily, I have forgotten everybody,
and my only business is to think about God.
Shall I ever be fortunate to see
one who will be able to tell me when I may meet God?” (Abg. 689).

“Shall I ever be able to reach Thee like the Saints of old?
When I think how the Saints of old have known Thee,
I suffer from extreme restlessness. I am a bondsman of my senses.
They, on the other hand) were filled with happiness.
I cannot curb a single sense. How shall I be able to curb them all?
If Thou leavest me at this stage, I shall be as good as nought” (Abg. 319).

 

Many Paths to Divine Grace

Tukaram goes on and on, describing his own vices, considering how his life has been a perpetual scene of vice and misery. He goes on to discuss the reasons why probably God does not show Himself to Him. He says he probably lacks sufficient endeavour, and the girt of body and mind which alone enables one to reach God. Tukaram’s mind later becomes uncomfortable at the thought of people praising his penitential abhangs and his humility before God. He invites God to disillusion him when he regards himself as a great singer. Tukaram describes with his poetry how he is forever away from God. As a parrot speaks what it is taught, and the happiness of a dream cannot last, so Tukaram’s poetry is not his happiness nor his honour. He steps further, he seeks the aid of the saints in seeking the grace of God, the darshan of God.

Tukaram found that merely living in solitude would not bring him closer to God. He needed very much the company of saints. His life is forlorn, there was no townsman for him in this life. His city was planted in heaven, while everybody who talked to him and met him spoke only of earthly things. So he seeks the company of the saints, and bewails his lot… How may I know God’s secret,? Will my intellect ever be composed? Or will any obstacles come in the way? When shall I reach the end? When shall I be able to throw myself at the feet of God? This is what is filling me with anxiety, day and night, says Tuka. Tukaram tries yet another way. He approaches God direct, and feeling his great impotence in reaching God, requests Him to send down His grace on him. What cannot be done by human endeavour may be accomplished by divine grace.

“Throw me not away,” says Tuka,
“I am a dog at Thy door.
I am sitting like a beggar before Thy house.
Turn me not out of Thy mansion.
I am like an evil thing before Thy presence.
Save me by Thy power, O God” (Abg. 2722).

“Save me,” says Tuka again,
“from these all-encompassing
and never-ending meshes by Thy Divine power.
As I think about it,
I find my mind is uncontrollable,
and runs after sense.
I have taken the bait and cannot throw it out by my own power.
Powerless as I am, I am waiting for Thy vision, O God” (Abg. 1452).

“I have been verily pent up in this Samsara
as a serpent is pent up within a basket by the music of a juggler
… … Save me by Thy power.
I feel I am impotent to go beyond this enchantment.
I have caught the bait like a fish which runs after food,
and then kills itself by it.
I am like a bird which tries to find its young one,
but gets itself caught in a net.
Like a fly sticking in a sweet substance,
the more I shake my wings, the more I get myself inside.
My very life is departing. Save me by Thy power, O God” (Abg. 639).

“I have become wearied my Mother, and can walk no longer.
Lift me up in Thy kindness and love.
Put me to Thy breast, and ward off my hunger
which has continued to give me trouble throughout life.
I am wearied, and cannot even speak” (Abg. 1406).

 

Then, again, Tukaram regards himself as a Chataka bird which is desirous of getting some drops of rain in its beak. It would not partake of any water on earth. It must have water from heaven to satisfy its thirst.

“I feel thirsty like a Chataka bird.
Rain Thy grace on me, O God!
I am directing my sight towards heaven,
and Thou knowest it already.
A sprout can grow into a tree
only when it is watered from above” (Abg. 2863).

“Let me have a vision of Thy feet,
as a man after a long-continued fast may have of food.
Let love spring in me, as it springs
in a child when it sees its mother after a long time.
Let covetousness rise in me about God, as it rises in a stingy man
when he looks at a treasure,” says Tuka (Abg. 1884).

 

Indeed, says Tukaram, there is no need for him to give vent to his thoughts by word of mouth; for God knows his thoughts already. His only business is to ask compassion of God … … His own power is inadequate to reach God, and all sadhanas are useless. We must sacrifice ourselves to God, says Tuka, and cease to think of the end time and again (Abg. 1224). Finally, he invites God to help him, only if his words are a true index to his heart, and if his behaviour does not belie his internal feelings; for God knows all things already.

Having led an intensely spiritual life, Tukaram passed away in 1650 A.D. There is a story told that Tukaram ascended to heaven with his body. This story bears similarities to the ascension of Christ, and may have originated in the fact that there is no Samadhi [tomb or temple with relics] of Tukaram built anywhere. There is a Samadhi of Dhyaneshwar (at Alandi), there is a Samadhi of Ramadasa, there is a Samadhi of Ekanatha, there is a Samadhi of Namdeva, but there is no Samadhi of Tukaram either in Dehu or at any other place. This is probably the reason why Tukaram has been supposed to have ascended bodily to heaven. The philosophical meaning of the story probably is that Tukaram was liberated before death by virtue of his God-vision, or that his very body had become divine in the process of God-contemplation and his perpetual Nagasankeerthan.

It is uncertain how many poems Tukaram composed, but the standard and most frequently used Marathi edition of his poetry, which first appeared in 1873 from the Indu Prakash Press with funding by the Bombay Government, and has often been reprinted, brings together 4,607 poems. Several manuscripts in Marathi exist of his poems, but some poems are found in only one manuscript version; often poems found in several manuscripts show variations; and there is no single manuscript in Tukaram’s own handwriting with all the poems that are attributed to him. Though Tukaram’s place in the history of the development of Marathi is deemed to be inestimable, and he has been credited with being the single most influential figure in the history of Marathi literature. The body of scholarship on Tukaram outside Marathi is rather small, and translations of his work are woefully inadequate. The only nearly complete translation of Tukaram into English, entitled The Collected Tukaram, was attempted by J. Nelson Fraser and K. B. Marathe, and published in Madras by the Christian Literature Society (1909-1915). A more recent translation of a selection of Tukaram’s poetry by Dilip Chitre has been published as Says Tuka (Delhi: Penguin, 1991).

 

 Sant Tukaram of Maharashtra

 

 

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