Category Archives: Bhakti poets

The Warkari Movement II: EKNATH- A Brahmin Saint and a Sufi’s Disciple who Embraced Dalits

Artist's version of Sant Eknath. Picture credit: Shri Eknath Maharaja Mission
Artist’s version of Sant Eknath. Picture credit: Shri Eknath Maharaja Mission

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 stood 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.

Quiet, calm.

‘You and I quarrelled to open up the knowledge of high truth,

In order to enlighten the very ignorant.

In place of karma-awakening!!’

(Note: References for any information cited in the article may be obtained on request from the writer of this blog.)

Bhakti poets – Premanand, the Manbhatt of Gujarat – II

Premananda

The Bhakti movement has its inception  in the  8th century  Tamil Nadu. By the 10th century it had spread to Karnataka and Maharashtra and finally by the  16th century,  it had established itself in North , West and East of India . This era saw the rebel-mystic-poets who in their spiritual poetry spoke against the orthodox Brahmins, the caste system and the irrelevance of mindless rituals. For them Divinity dwelt within the heart of Man and could be experienced with Love and surrender. They insisted on the personal experience of God.

In its initial stages it was nurtured by Shaiva and Vaishnava Bhakti cults in Tamil Nadu and by Lingayats of Karnataka in 11th and 12th century followed by the Warkari panth of Maharashtra in the 13th century. In the 14th century Central and North India saw the initiation of Nirguna Bhakti by Ramananda’s school and the Chaitanya school of Saguna Vaishnava Bhakti and Bengal and Orissa. There was a parallel stream of Saguna Bhakti running in Gujarat (Sadarangani: Bhakti Poetry in Medieval India, 2004).

The Vaishnava Bhakti school was born at the time when Buddhism and Jainism were on the decline. This movement found acceptability among the so called lower castes who had been sidelined by mainstream Hinduism.

Premanand Bhatt was a 17th century bhakti poet (1649-1714), who mastered the art of akhyan: a form of story telling popular during the middle ages. The first clear notion of Gujarati language developed in the 17th and 18th centuries in the work of Premanand. The stories were usually taken from the Puranas. The episodes were modified depending on the theme; for entertainment or edification. The narration was split into units called kadavans. The narration was dramatized giving a detailed description of the characters, their emotional states, the seasons and scenes etc. The narrator who presented the tale before an audience was called a bhatt, who produced beats  on a copper pot hitting it with metal rings on his fingers. The pot was  called mann, .

Premananda was the supreme akhynkara. His akhyans were based on Puranic themes, the life of Narsinha and lilas of Shri Krishna. He was a master of language and melodious verse. Akhyans were offshoots of Bhakti poems  and their stories celebrate the infinite lila of the Divine.

To listen to an Akhyan please check the following link :

http://www.yourepeat.com/watch/?v=Hg_Yw-y0Vjw

Bhakti Saint Poets of India

tukaram

They belonged to various castes and communities, spoke  varied language and dialects and came from different professions. We had Kabir the weaver, Namdev the tailor, Akho the goldsmith, Goro the potter and Chokhmela the mahar who rebelled against the exploitative caste system and exclusiveness of organised religions. While Eknath and Gyanadev, the Brahmin,  from Maharashtra, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu from Bengal, and Shankardev from Assam strove for bringing about reform and transformation in religion. Namdev, Tukaram and Chokhamela from Maharashtra, the Lingayat Basavanna, Akka Mahadevi and Allamaprabhu from Karnataka spoke of a novel tradition based on equality of all mankind. Then there was Mirabai and Narasinh Mehta – who, intoxicated with the love of God, overcame pain and suffering by singing and dancing to their beloved Lord. They belonged to no one religion or tradition. They belonged to this country and its people. They did not write high philosophies in Sanskrit, but preached and sang in the common dialect and their poetry survived hundreds of years of oral tradition. The Santvani (song of the saints) of this land still vibrates in its air and ether, if we could only tune in…..

These saint poets were the harbingers of the Bhakti movement which rose in the southern part of India and from there surged upwards into east, west and northern parts of the country. Its philosophy was guided by a humanizing multiculturalism, an passionate fervor and a thirst for the the Beloved – the Divine essence, and experience.

The Bhakti movement was a unique attempt, a first of its kind, at decentralizing the rigid class and caste hierarchy imposed by the Brahmins and the elite. The saint poets used the language of the masses – the marginalized part of the society i.e. the vernacular languages of the common people and their folk idioms  motifs in their poetry.

The Bhakti movement began in the 8th century Tamilnadu with the Shaiva and Vaishnav Bhakti cults and continued into the 12th century by the Lingayats of Karnataka,  onto the 13th century  Warkari Panth of Maharashtra . From here it flowed into Central and North India where Nirguna Bhakti was initiated in the 14th century by Ramananda’s school along with the Saguna Vaishnava Bhakti of Chaitanya in Bengal and Orissa which had a parallel stream flowing from the Saguna saint poets of  Gujarat.

References:

Sadarangani,N M. 2004. Bhakti Poetry in Medieval India: Its Inception , Cultural Encounter and Impact. Sarup & Sons. New Delhi

Bhakti poets – Premanand, the Manbhatt of Gujarat – I

The tradtion of Brahmins (Bhatt) drumming on earthen or copper pots (mann) with their ringed fingers while narrating akhayans – melodious poetical compositions describing in detail, episodes from epics like Ramayana and Mahabharat is unique to Gujarat.
Born in Vadodara, Gujarat in the 17th century, Kavi Premanand was one such Manbhatt who raised the standard of Gujarati bhakti poetry with his akhayans to new heights. His simple yet vivid compositions reflected the life and culture of common people of Gujarat during the Mughal period. He travelled around Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh with his akhayans, narrating, with unique vivdness, episodes from Mahabharat and Ramayan.
to be continued……

Kabir: the weaver of mystic

Where do you seek me O devout?
I reside neither in the temple nor in the mosque
neither in Kashi nor in Kaba
Neither in rites nor in ceremonies
Neither in Yoga nor in renunciation……
the true seeker shall find me in a moments realisation
for I reside in the very breath of your being….

(translated from the ‘Bijak’ collection of Kabir sayings)

 

Sometime in the 15th century lived a julaha – a ‘low caste’ Muslim weaver, who preached the oneness of all men and all beliefs, the futility of all religions and rituals and the eventual passing away of all that is of flesh or of material in this phenomenal world. His name was Kabir. He claimed no sainthood or a personal philosophy. He taught the religion of love, in a language that could be understood by all –Sadhukhadi, the twilight language of the mystic poets, bhakti saints and sufi poets. Kabir was the first, the first to imbibe a pluralistic tradition in his teachings and poetry, the first to transcend both Hinduism and Islam. Many were to follow in his footsteps….Akbar, Dara Shikoh, Amir Khusro…., but Kabir was the first to win the hearts and souls of the people who mattered – the common people of India. An illiterate, he spoke of the highest esoteric truths in a simple language. A simplicity that the ‘learned’ pundits and maulvis are incapable of. One can see the synretistic reflections of Advaita theology and intense and personal passion of Islamic mysticism in his spontaneous compositions. Indian sufis in Delhi, Agra and Kashmir were reading his poetry during the rule of Jehangir and Shah Jahan. He was a predecessor of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikh religion and the sacred Guru Granth Sahib contains a substantial number of Kabir’s verses. Kabir is believed to have been born around 1398 and died around 1448. Most of his life was spent in the Banaras-Magahar region of present Uttar Pradesh, India. He was a family man and did not retire from the world to pursue a life of contemplation. He lived the simple life of a Julaha and died like one, earning his living at the loom and spurning the company of the ‘learned’ and royalty alike. He believed that the simple and hardworking life of an ordinary man was the world in which the quest for Higher Reality could be fullfilled. According to Kabir, every individual has to find his own Path and seek liberation from this illusory world of Maya. This, he says, can be achieved through unwavering love for the Higher Reality or God and compassion for fellow humans. He compares the individual soul or atman to the Hansa or swan, who will leave the cage of this body and fly away into the vastness of the limitless sky: 

Ud Jayega Huns Akela,

Jug Darshan Ka Mela

Jaise Paat Gire Taruvar Se,

Milna Bahut Duhela

Naa Jane Kidhar Girega,

Lageya Pawan Ka Rela

Jub Howe Umur Puri,

Jab Chute Ga Hukum Huzuri

Jum Ke Doot Bade Mazboot,

Jum Se Pada Jhamela

Das Kabir Har Ke Gun Gawe,

Wah Har Ko Paran Pawe

Guru Ki Karni Guru Jayega,

Chele Ki Karni Chela

 

Which loosely translates as:

 

Alone you shall fly O Swan

 

This world is a brief fanfare

Like a leaf that falls from a tree

where to it will fall,

where to the wind will carry it

no one can tell

once your life is over

servitude and slavery is over

the omens of Yam (Death) are strong

it is Yam (Death) you will encounter

Kabir had immersed himself in the praise of God

and God he will attain

the Guru will reap his karmas

and the desciple his.

 

Kabir’s another composition addresses the Swan thus:

O Swan let us talk of ancient tales

where from have you come

and what dark shores do you seek ?

wake ! arise!

the morning is upon us

follow me

and I will take you to a land

where there is no sorrow

no fear of death

where the wind blows

with the fragrance of

“I am thou”

in Whose nectar the bee of the heart

is deeply immersed

and yearns for no other joy…