For all those who equate organised religion to dharma and who, due to their narrow mind set, are compelled to box pluralistic saints like Kabir and Shirdi Sai baba into Hindu/Muslim categories, for them, Sant Eknath is an enigma, an embarrassment. His Guru – Swami Janardan, is claimed, by some scholars, to be a Sufi. Many of his bharuds (devotional songs) are in Hindustani and can often be mistaken to be written by a Sufi. He spoke of finding parallels in Hinduism and Islam, his followers belonged to different castes and creeds and according to one legend he even led Muslim armies on one occasion. Little wonder then that recent Marathi writers, have tried to recast him as a savior of Hinduism from Islam although available literature proves something altogether different!!
The story of sant Eknath is a story of a scholarly Brahmin whose compassion and wisdom allowed him to rise above caste distinction and even engage Muslims in his spiritual dialogues.
Sant Eknath (1533-99 C.E.) was born to a Brahmin family in the holy city of Paithan, known as the Benaras of Maharashtra, which stands on the banks of Godavari. He was the grandson of Sant Bhanudas- a devout Warkari sant who is credited with returning the idol of Vithobha from Hampi to Pandharpur, its original home. It had been taken from Pandharpur by Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagar in 1951. Spiritually inclined from a very early age, Sant Eknath was allowed by his guru, Swami Janardhan to lead a life of a house holder. Sant Eknath carried forward the tradition of social reform of Sant Gyaneshwar and Sant Namdev by rejecting all distinctions of caste and creed and the relevance of ritual and rites. For this he won many opponents among the high caste Hindus.
He composed numerous religious songs in Marathi called abhangs, owees and bharuds. He wrote a commentary in Marathi on the Bhagvad Purana known as Eknath Bhagwat and also began writing Rukimini Swayamvara which, after his death, was later completed by one of his disciples. His works brought the highest of religious truths and moral guidance to the common people. He was a renowned kirtankaar giving birth to a unique style of Marathi kirtan singing called Eknath kirtan. He collected all the versions of Gyaneshwar’s Gyaneshwari and produced a critical edition of it.
Sant Eknath’s abhang recited by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi:
However his unusual contribution to Marathi Bhakti literature is his empathy with the dalits. Out of the three hundred bharuds (drama poems) that he has written, about fifty are from the perspective of a Dalit. In forty seven of which the protagonist is a Mahar and in one a Mang is the central character. Both these castes are considered among the ‘lowest’ in Maharshtra and elsewhere in India. These characters in Eknath’s drama poems, preach morality, the righteous path, the importance of a Guru and how the Bhakti marg liberates us from the cycle of death and rebirth. He mocks at the so-called learned Brahmins and fake gurus in the following Bharud:
“They say ‘we have become saints’
They put on garlands and sandal paste.
Taking a lamp in their hands
They cry udo,udo….. !
They do kirtan for the sake of their stomachs
They teach the ‘meaning of all’ to the people.
They cheat their ignorant devotees.
They do not know the meaning of kirtan…….
Do the one kind of Bhakti.
Don’t wait for anything else.
Good and bad come in their own way.
They are the proof of past deeds…..”
Like his predecessors of the Warkari Bhakti movement, Eknath, in his following Bharud preaches that all humans can experience nearness to God irrespective of caste and creed:
God baked pots with Gora
drove cattle with Chokha
cut grass with Savata Mali
wove garments with Kabir
dyed hide with Ramdas
sold meat with butcher Sajana
melted gold with Narhari
carried cow dung with Jana Bai
and even became the Mahar messenger of Damaji
There are numerous stories of Eknath being ostracised and punished by the Brahmins for his proximity and social interactions with the so called ‘untouchables’.
Eknath is also credited with contributing to the religio-cultural pluralism of the Deccan in the sixteenth century. He lived during the rule of Ahmednagar Sultanate. Apart from being an ancient capital, the sixteenth century Paithan was a major trading center and Eknath had the opportunity to interact with people of all castes as well as Indian Muslims and Arabs.
His guru, Janardhan Swami, was a saint as well as in charge of the Daulatabad fort. Janardahan Swami was the disciple of Chand Bodale, also known as Chandrabhat, who was a Vaishnav and yet a follower of the Kadri or Qadarriya Sufi path and dressed like a faqir. At one time, it is believed, Eknath took his guru’s place to lead the Muslim army when the fort was attacked, as his guru was in deep meditation at this time!! According to Rigopoulos (p.160) Eknath disguised himself as his guru and in the process acquired all his strength and defeated the attacking army. This phenomenon of the disciple (murid) completely absorbing himself into the personality of his master (shaykh) is known as fana-fi-sh’shaykh among Sufis.
The Sufi influence on Eknath is further indicated by the number of Persian and Arabic words found in his Bharuds. While recently many right wing ideologist have tried to cast Sant Eknath as a saviour of Hinduism from the ‘hated’ Muslim tide, numerous scholars, both Hindu and Muslim, concur that medieval India was an era of tolerance, participation of Hindu subjects in the Islamic government and cultural interaction and influence among the two communities. Eknath’s bharud titled, Hindu-Turk Samvad sums up the situation aptly:
Eknath: The goal is one, the ways of worship are different.
Listen to the dialogue between these two!
The Turk calls the Hindu ‘Kafir’!
The Hindu answers: ‘I will be polluted, get away!’
A quarrel broke out between the two,
A great controversy began.
Muslim: O Brahman! Listen to what I have to say:
Your scripture is a mystery to everyone,
God has hands and feet, you say.
This is really impossible!
Hindu: Listen you great fool of a Turk!
See God in all living things.
You haven’t grasped this point
And so you have become a nihilist…….
At that moment that saluted each other.
With great respect, they embraced.
Both became content, happy.
‘You and I quarreled to open up the knowledge of high truth,
In order to enlighten the very ignorant.
In place of karma-awakening!!’
- Pemmaraju G. The Mystic Circle: Sufis, Sants & the Songs of the Deccan
- Ahmend S A. 2011. A Comprehensive History of Medieval India: From the Twelfth to the Mid-Eighteenth Century. Dorling Kindersley. New Delhi .
- Prasoon S. 2009.Indian Saints and Sages.Hindology Books. Pustaka Mahal, Delhi.
- Novetzke C L. 2008. Religion and Public Memory: A Cultural History of Saint Namdev in India. Columbia University Press. New York
- Sadangi H C. 2008.Emancipation of Dalits and Freedom Struggle. Isha Books. Delhi
- Rigopoulos A. 1998. Dattatreya: The Immortal Guru, Yogin, and Avatara: A Study of the Transformative and Inclusive Character of a Multi-Faceted Hindu Deity. State University of New York Press. New York.