Brief notes on the Bhakti Saints of Maharashtra

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Jnaneswar or Jnanadeva:

One of the earliest Bhakti Saints of Maharashtra Jnaneswar flourished in the 13th century. He wrote the Marathi commentary on the Gita known as Jnaneswari, which deserves to be reckoned among the world’s best mystical compositions. His other works are Amratanubhava and Changadeva- Prasasti.

Namadeva:

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Namadeva was born in a tailor’s family. We are told that as a child he was very wild and in his youth he took to, vagabond life, but certain sudden incidents moved him to the path of spirituality, transforming him to a great saint and a gifted poet.

His Marathi poems have genuine marks of simplicity, devotion and melody. He was suddenly converted to the spiritual life, when he heard the piteous cries and curses of the helpless wife of one of his victims.

He passed the major part of his life at Pandharpur, and was mainly responsible for building up the glorious tradition of the school of thought known as Varakari- sampradaya. He was initiated into mystic life by Visoba Khechara, who convinced Namadeva of the all-pervading nature of God.

He travelled with his younger contemporary, Jnaneswar. Some of his lyrical verses are included in the Granth Sahib. The dominant note of his thoughts is earnest and whole-hearted devotion to God.

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Purification of the heart is possible only through suffering, and God can be realized through pure love. He wrote a number of abhangas to show people the path to God through repetition of His name.

Ekanatha:

He was born at Paithan (Aurangabad). His life was an object-lesson in the reconciliation of practical and spiritual life. He observed no distinction of caste and creed, and once gave to the pariahs the food prepared as an offering to his forefathers.

His sympathies knew no limits; he poured the holy waters of the Godavari (brought from a long distance at the risk of life for the worship of the Lord) into the throat of an ass that was dying of thirst. He published for the first time a reliable edition of the Jnaneswari.

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He was a voluminous writer, and his commentary on four verses of the Bhagavata is famous. It was his custom to sing kirtana (devotional composition) every day, and he observed it to the last day of his life. His mystic experiences are expressed most explicitly in this abhangas. He popularized the Vedanta phi­losophy and the mystic teachings of earlier saints. He passed away in A.D. 1598.

Tukaram:

Tukarama was born in the family of a farmer. He had some cattle and landed property, but lost them all in a great famine, together with his parents, one of his two wives, and a son. He became a bankrupt and got disgusted with his life. His other wife was a shrew, who abused his companion-devotees.

Troubled both at home and outside, Tukarama took to the study of the works of Jnaneswar, Namadeva, and Ekanatha, and began to meditate on God in solitary places on the hills of Bhamhanatha and Bhandara..

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He wrote several abhangas, which embody his teachings and are widely recited in Maharashtra. He was a contemporary of Shivaji and refused to accept the offer of rich presents made by him.

Ramdasa:

He was born in 1608. He wandered throughout India for twelve years and finally settled at Chaphal on the banks of the Krishna where he built a temple. He was the spiritual guide of Shivaji. Ramdasa was born in a period of political upheaval, and could not but be partly affected by it.

But he regarded the realization of God as primary, and politics as only of secondary, importance in life. He was a saint of practical temperament and systemati­cally organized his order. He established his monas­teries throughout Maharashtra to serve as centres of spiritual and practical activities.

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In his monumental work, Dasabodha, be combines his vast knowledge of various sciences and arts with the synthesizing principle of spiritual life. He also wrote many abhangas and some minor works, all of which inspire a deep love for the life of God-realization.

The greatest contribution of the Bhakti movement in Maharashtra was in uniting the people of Maharashtra into a nation, which greatly helped in the rise of the Maratha movement under Shivaji.

The Mahanubhava Panth:

Another religious cult founded in Maharashtra around this time was Mahanubhava Panth. The cult fell into disrepute and incurred unpopularity among the Maharashtrians perhaps because of its alleged disbelief in the caste syste, disregard of the teachings of the Vedas, and I non-adherence to the asrama system.

The leaders and followers of the cult had to carry on their spiritual propaganda and activities under great restraints enforced by the State. All their holy works were, therefore, written in symbolic script, a key todeil pher which was supplied for the first time by V. K. Rajavade.

Govinda Prabhu, a great mystic, was the founder of this cult, and Chakradhara its first apostle. Nagadeva organized the cult on a systematic basis. Bhaskara, Kesavaraja Suri, Damodara Pandita, Visvanatha, and Narayana Pandita were, amongst others, the most learned and important followers of the cult.

Of the women followers, Mahadamba was an advanced mystic and a poetess of no mean order. The Mahanubhavas were, in reality, the follower of the Bhagavata cult. They regarded the Gita, the Bhagvata, and the Sutrapatha (a collection of aphorisms of Chakradhara) as the standard and classical religious works. Sri Krishna and Dattatreya were their prominent deities.

Devotion to Krishna is, in their opinion, the only way to the realization of God. This was, therefore, primarily a cult of Sri Krishna But later they accepted Dattatreya – a trinity in unity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, representing the principles of creation, sustenance, and dissolution of the universe, with emphasis on Vishnu, or Vishnu as Krishna.

Thus the Mahanubhava cult seems to combine the cult of Krishna, represented by the Nathas of Maharashtra, with that of Dattatreya, represented by Narasimha Sarasvati and Janardana Svamin.

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