Published on 20th March, 2016, in the Mumbai Mirror.
Pandharpur is the centre of a bhakti movement that began over eight centuries ago, and gave birth to Marathi literature. For centuries, every year, just before the rains, thousands of pilgrims known as Varkari, followers of Haripath (path of God who is Krishna-Vishnu) travel long distances from rural Maharashtra and Karnataka to Pandharpur. Known as Dindi, this pilgrimage is a sight to behold, with long lines of fluttering flags against the summer sky, majestic flower-bedecked bullock carts and palanquins, men dressed in white, anointed with sandal paste, wearing strings of tulsi beads, carrying lutes and cymbals, singing traditional songs, and women in colourful nine yard saris balancing Tulsi plants on their head in brass pots. They travel to pay obeisance to Krishna known locally as Panduranga Vitthala. Devotees, taking their cue from the poets, affectionately address him as Vittha-ai, which means Mother Krishna, attributing to him boundless maternal wisdom, bypassing all gender rigidities.
The word Vitthala has a mysterious etymology. A corruption of Vishnu, Vithu? Based on Vit, which is Marathi for brick, on which he stands? Or maybe Veda? It’s even more confusing that a dark-complexioned Krishna is called Panduranga, the fair-complexioned. But details of complexions do not matter to the devotee. What matters is that Krishna came to this region to meet a devotee called Pundalik who was too busy taking care of his old parents to turn around and pay attention to his divine guest. So he pushed a brick in Krishna’s direction and told him to wait while he completed his duties. So Krishna waited, arm akimbo, and is still waiting, for the archetypal devotee to turn around. Thus, through temporal household drama, the lofty divine connects with the devotee. Information on the complex anthropological and sociological layers of the shrine can be found in RC Dhere’s brilliant book (finally translated in English) on this subject.
My connection with Vitthala of Pandharpur began with brilliant black and white Marathi films produced in the 1930s and 1940s, telecast on Doordarshan, that I watched as a child. They told stories of various bhakti saints including Dnyaneshwar, Tukaram, Eknath, Sakhubai, Chokha Mela, and Gora Kumbhar. I remember noticing how they came from diverse backgrounds: men and women who were farmers, potters, cobblers, and priests. Today I realise that in these films produced at the time of India’s independence, the filmmakers were intertwining the devotion with politics, as it had been those centuries ago. They were speaking of social reformation not through anger, agitation and violence that is so fashionable today, but through a gentle, loving nudging, born of faith and patience, even in the face of horrific miseries.
Take for example the story of the 13th century poet-saint Dnyaneshwar and his siblings. Their father had become a hermit but returned to household life on orders of his guru who learned he had abandoned his wife. The Brahmin community did not appreciate this return, ostracised the couple. Their children were thus raised outside the Brahmin fold, though in the Brahmin way. This could change, the parents were told, if the parents killed themselves as ‘penance’ for their sin. The parents killed themselves to secure their children’s lives, but sadly the orphans were still denied caste status. So they remained outsiders. Raised by the ‘low caste’ Mahars? We can only speculate. Such children should have been bitter and angry but they were not. In their songs there is only love, a yearning for the mother, which is why Krishna becomes Mother Krishna. Such is the power of bhakti, which is often translated as devotion, evoking a rather feudal sentiment, when in fact it is also affection, like that of a mother for her child.
But Dnyaneshwar did lead a love filled rebellion when he translated, or rather re-interpreted the Bhagavad Gita, and made it accessible in the local language of Marathi. This had never been done before. The language of the gods, Sanskrit, was thus replaced by the language of the people. Known as Bhavartha Dipika, it became popular as Dnyaneshwari. It inspired many more people around India to communicate the wisdom of India in regional languages.
This practice of getting the word of God to the masses through songs in local languages became widely popular. They are known as abhangas, songs that reverse the disruption (bhanga) between our human and divine nature. My favourite song remains Tukaram’s ‘Vriksha Valli Amha Soyari’ composed in the 17th century. Here the poet speaks of how when he wanders in solitude in the forest, enjoying the company of birds and animals, the earth beneath his feet, and the sky above, nourished by tales of Krishna, he realises how his best conversations and worst arguments are with his own mind. Thus devotion to God enables self-reflection and self-realisation.
In tales of Tukaram, are the passionate arguments offered by his longsuffering pragmatic wife, who would rather he feed her starving children than be immersed in God. In other words, Poto-ba (god of the stomach) is more important than Vitho-ba (god of the soul). This tension between the hermit’s idealistic approach to things and the householder’s practical approach to things is present even in the songs composed by Mukta-bai, sister of Dnyaneshwar, who insists that her brother open the door of the chamber where he is meditating and help her cook food.
The legends, and films based on those legends, tell us that Dnyaneshwar took ‘samadhi’ and voluntarily left his mortal body, and that Tukaram was lifted by Vishnu himself on his eagle, Garuda, and taken to Vaikuntha. What does this mean? Historians and rationalists are of the opinion Tukaram was killed by Brahmins and that Dnyaneshwar committed ritual suicide, a view violently opposed by devotees. Perhaps we do not want such harsh narratives to further sour our lives. When we realise equality is not possible, we all yearn for liberation. Some call it denial. Others call it moving on, moving forward, on the pilgrim’s path.