Since the 13th century, Pandharpur in Maharashtra became a birthplace of a religious movement which was born locally but had a universal appeal, going beyond caste and religious identity. This movement was given life to by a saint called Pundalik. According to Bahirat (4 p.6), Pundalik lived before the eighth century A.D. It is believed that in his younger days, soon after his marriage Pundalik began to neglect his parents. However one day, an encounter with the divine, reformed him and he became a devoted son. As the story goes, Lord Krishna and his consort, Rukmini chanced upon Pundalik’s hut in the forest on a rainy day. Pundalik was busy attending to his parents and did not rise immediately to pay his respects to the deity but hurled a brick in His direction for Him to stand on without getting His feet wet. Pleased with Pundalik’s devotion to his parents, Lord Krishna asked Pundalik to worship Him as Vithoba i.e. the one who stood on a brick. At this scene, a form of Krishna arose standing on a brick, around which the temple of Pandharpur was later built.
Interestingly the name ‘Pandharpur’ is derived from Pandurang – one of the many names of Lord Shiva, moreover the temple of Pandharpur, dedicated to Lord Krishan, an incarnation of Vishnu, is surrounded by Shaivite temples. Perhaps an indication that the universal Truth exists beyond all different forms and cults of worship.
Hence from 13th century onwards Pandharpur became place of pilgrimage for the Warkari Bhakti movement. Most Marathi sant poets who worshipped Vithoba (Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu) and all those who followed their teachings form a part of this movement. The Warkaris identify with a succession of over fifty poet saints who lived over a period of five hundred years. Among whom the major four are, the outcast Brahmin- Dnyaneshwar or Jnandev (1275-1296); the tailor Namdeva- (1270-1350), Eknath (1533-1599) who was a householder Brahmin and the editor of Dnyaneshwari; the shudra poet saint- Tukaram (1608-1659); and Ramdas (1608-1681) who is considered as a political saint and teacher of Shivaji.
The Warkaris believe Sant Dnyaneshwar, also known as Jnandeva (1275-1296) to be their founder. However according to Bahirat (4 p.6), Pundalika and his God had been enjoying a wide reputation nearly four of five centuries before Dnyaneshwar. Dnyaneshwar’s father and grandfather were regular visitors to Pandharpur.He was one of the greatest poet saints of medieval India . In a short life span, he produced a stupendous amount of spiritual works which included a major philosophical treatise (the Amritanubhava), a large number of religious poems (called abhangas), and an extensive poetic commentary on the Bhagavad Gita (titled, after his name, Dnyaneshwari).
His works also include Changadeva-Pasashthi (containing sixty-five verses addressed to a Hathayogi called Changadeva), Haripatha(containing a collection of twenty eight Abhangas) and Namana (a hymn containing hundred and eight stanzas in praise to the Lord of the universe ).
Dnyaneshwar was an advocate of Bhakti marga. But bhakti, for him, meant more than sentimental affection, it meant the turning around of the whole being towards the Godhead. Dnyaneshwar’s philosophy and poetry, are rooted in concrete life experience of an ordinary human not given to exotic flights of imagination.
Dnyaneshwar, at a very tender age, became an ‘outcaste Brahmin’ because of his father’s actions. His father was a Brahmin named Vithalpant from Alandi in Maharashtra. Vithalpant left his wife and children to become a sanyasin (ascetic). However after being chided by his guru, Ramanand for abandoning his true ‘dharma’ of looking after his family as a householder, Vithalpant returned to his family. Once back in Alandi, he and his wife were excommunicated by the ruling Brahmin elite who denounced him for mixing up “life stages” and for contaminating sannyasa with worldly family concerns. But the fact was that Vithalpant was no sinner, in fact he had shown the courage and selflessness to return to his family to perform his duties and sacrificed his desire for renunciation. However he became a victim of Brahamanical tyranny. Ultimately Vithalpant and his wife Rukmini committed suicide. At this time Dnyaneshwar was merely eight years old.
Vithalpant’s story proved that the path to God leads through the world, universal love and service of humanity. This path is available to all and is not the exclusive right of Pundits and Brahmans. The priests and Brahmans, in their arrogance, claim to “possess” God by virtue of their Vedic knowledge (jnana) and rituals. In their ignorance they do not know that the divine can never be possessed but can only be pursued through a life of service.
Dnyaneshwar is believed to have befriended the poet-saint Namadeva who was by some five years his senior, when the two first met in Pandharpur . Dnyaneshwar’s meeting with this great Sant was of great significance in shaping his philosophy which was later to become the foundation of the bhakti cult in Maharashtra. While in Pandharpur, Jnanadeva became a devotee of the god Vithoba (an avatar of Shri Krishna) . The two saints went on a pilgrimage together, visiting most of the holy places in northern India, including Benaras and Delhi. Following this journey, they returned to Pandharpur (in 1296) where a great festival was held in their honour. This festival was attended by many contemporary saints like Goroba the potter, Sanvata the gardener, Chokhoba the untouchable, Parisa Bhagavat the Brahmin. At the end of this festival Dnyaneshwar expressed the wish to return to Alandi and to enter sanjivan samadhi.
Dnyaneshwar’s writings are not in Sanskrit but in popular Marathi. They are based on his own life experiences, a life reflectively lived. He was a thinker and a poet as is evident in both his Jnaneshvari and his Amritanubhava – works well known for their searching insights and poetic style. He composed the Amritanubhava, a philosophical poem at the behest of his elder brother and guru, Nivrittinath, at a time when Jnanadeva was probably in his late teens. According to some scholars while the Dnyaneshwari appeals to the masses, the Amritanubhava appeals mainly to the learned. It is more argumentative.
As its title indicates, Amritanubhava is nectar of wisdom derived from direct experience and it gives a glimpse into the nature of ultimate experience. It is meant to serve as a guide to the understanding of “Brahman” or “being” According to Dnyaneshwar, being is not an object of thought, but what allows thought to happen in the first place.
He argues that sense (or sensory) experience only ‘”makes sense” in light of another, deeper understanding; similarly, reason is “rational” only by exceeding itself. For him the truth of experience is not validated or authenticated by scriptures; but scriptures gain their authoritative standing through their agreement with experiential truth. He says that the absolute does not prove or disprove itself with the help of any norms or methods of knowledge….These methods are “like a lamp lit at midday which neither spread light nor dispel darkness.”
He further argues that words to describe the state of Being are not self-contained, each points beyond itself like the symbols of Jung, which stand for something more than their obvious meaning. In Amritanubhava he says, “Being by itself, the absolute, is beyond the ordinary conceptions of existence and non-existence.”…..” Looked at from this angle, the scriptural words appear as “the residues of our thought”; in the light of being itself, “they vanish like the clouds that shower rain, or like the streams that flow into the sea or the paths that reach their goal.” He further adds that “if the situation is such that nothing at all exists, who then knows [and can say] that there is nothing? Hence, the theory of emptiness (as nothing) appears as an “unjust imputation” to being: For, “if the extinguisher of a light is extinguished along with the light, who knows that there is no light?”
Dnyaneshwari was completed in 1290 A.D. It was written in Old Marathi and was initially called Bhavartha-deepika. He wrote it on the instructions of his older brother and Guru Nivruttinath who wanted to bring to the common man the Vedanta philosophy of Upanishads, which till then was available only to the Sanskrit-knowing pundits. Since then Dnyaneshwari, with its anti-Brahmanical overtones, has been a timeless spiritual guide providing knowledge and inspiration to all. It is still the most respected religious text in Maharashtra and has been the foundation of bhakti tradition there: a tradition so old that its exact origin cannot be pin pointed. It is continuous and free flowing like a river and yet without an organised structure.
The Warkari movement or sampraday, is an inner religion of the heart which advocates ethical human behavior and classless values and therefore has a wider appeal than the caste-based organised Hindu religion which has rigid orthodox rules of behavior, is ritual based and requires the mediatory role of Brahmins. While in its earlier form this movement was open to all, both Hindus and non-Hindus, over the years it appears to have lost its pluralistic nature.
Following are a few lines from the English translation of Dnyaneshwari by Dr. Ravin Thatte, it talks about people mired in rituals :
“They quote the scriptures for these acts
Expect the heavens for these acts
Little realizing what are the facts
Pleasure is their only aim
Reward their only game
Rigid rituals again and again
This is religion only in name”
- Sadarangani, N M. 2004. Bhakti Poetry in Medieval India: Its Inception, Cultural Encounter and Impact. Sarup & Sons. New Delhi
- Jnanadeva and the Warkari Movement by Prof. Fred Dallmayr, Ph.D.
- Thatte, R. 2012. A Miraculous Rendering on the Bhagwat Geeta by Sant Dnyaneshwa. Shree Book Center, Mumbai, India
- Bahirat, B.P. 1956. The Philosophy of Jnandeva. Pandharpur Research Society, Pandharpur, Maharashtra, India.
- Schomer, Karine. W H McLeod. 1987. The Sants: Studies in a Devotional Tradition of India. Motilal Banarasidas. Delhi.