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The Warkari Movement I : Sant Dnyaneshwar-Beyond Brahmanical Tryranny

A warkari on his way from Alandi to Pandharpur. Photo credit: Wikipedia
A warkari on his way from Alandi to Pandharpur. Photo credit: Wikipedia

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.

Sant Dnyaneshwar, image credits: Wikipedia
Sant Dnyaneshwar, image credits: Wikipedia

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”

References:

  1. Sadarangani, N M. 2004. Bhakti Poetry in Medieval India: Its Inception, Cultural Encounter and Impact. Sarup & Sons. New Delhi
  1. Jnanadeva and the Warkari Movement by Prof. Fred Dallmayr, Ph.D.

(http://www.here-now4u.de/eng/jnanadeva_and_the_warkari_move.htm)

  1. Thatte, R. 2012. A Miraculous Rendering on the Bhagwat Geeta by Sant Dnyaneshwa. Shree Book Center, Mumbai, India
  1. Bahirat, B.P. 1956. The Philosophy of Jnandeva. Pandharpur Research Society, Pandharpur, Maharashtra, India.
  2. Schomer, Karine. W H McLeod. 1987. The Sants: Studies in a Devotional Tradition of India. Motilal Banarasidas. Delhi.

2010 in review

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A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 2,500 times in 2010. That’s about 6 full 747s.

In 2010, there was 1 new post, growing the total archive of this blog to 19 posts. There was 1 picture uploaded, taking a total of 23kb.

The busiest day of the year was July 7th with 33 views. The most popular post that day was Bhakti poets – Premanand, the Manbhatt of Gujarat.

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The top referring sites in 2010 were en.wordpress.com, google.co.in, search.conduit.com, mail.yahoo.com, and ashodara.blogspot.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for amir khusro, saint poets of india, guru nanak, raman maharishi, and amir khusrow.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

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Bhakti poets – Premanand, the Manbhatt of Gujarat April 2008
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The Baha’i Faith and Sufism June 2008
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Quotes: Stillness, silence and the present moment August 2008
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Bhakti Saint Poets of India June 2008
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Raman Maharishi: The Silent Seer of Arunachala February 2009
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Haven on Earth

The mighty Kanchendzonga
The mighty Kanchendzonga

 

In the year 1592, when men in power were still God fearing and honored their word, a sacred covenant between the Lepchas – the indigenous people of Sikkim, and the Tibetan Bhutias was solemnized. This historical event took place near Gangtok, the present capital of Sikkim. A bull was sacrificed to the Gods and an oath was sworn over its blood that the Lepchas and Bhutias would never fight and live as blood brothers in peace and harmony. Who ever broke the sacred oath would be cursed along with his descendents. From then on, on the 15th of every ninth month of the Tibetan calendar, the people of this region would make an offering of food and drink to their God to celebrate this sacred covenant. However the Tibetan rulers of the Sikkim could not keep their word for long and broke the sacred oath, inviting the wrath of the curse on themselves. The Namgyal dynasty that ruled over Sikkim from 1642-1975, came to an end on  16th May 1975 and Sikkim became the 22nd State of India. However during my recent trip to the eastern Himalays I realized that while the rulers of this region broke the sacred oath of peace the people of this region continue to follow the sacred covenant.

 

Our Bhutia driver with his Lepcha friend
Our Bhutia driver with his Lepcha friend

 

 

Kalimpong was my first experience of the eastern Himalayas. We arrived by road from Bagdogra at night, occasionally stopping on the way for tea at some roadside dhaba. It was a different world – the silence, the hills and the trees breathing refreshingly moist cold air, the narrow winding roads fading into a foggy corners, the simple rural folk, the place seemed so romantically remote and away from the everyday absurdities of city life.

 

The next day, a local Bhutia driver took us around Kalimpong, telling us a little bit about all the major land marks. He was a gentle and friendly man and would greet every third person on the road as we drove around the town. When I commented on his popularity among the locals, his response was simple – “since we do not know how long we are going to live, we might as well live with friendship and love while we are still alive !”

 

A church at Grahams home, Kalimpong
A church at Graham's home, Kalimpong

 

 

Kalimpong, as well as the rest of the region of eastern Himalayas, is home to people of different tribes and faiths. There are Nepali Hindus, Lepchas and Bhutias who are mostly Buddhist and a small Christian and a Tibetan Muslim population. The Lepchas, meaning ‘ravine folk’ are believed to be the original inhabitants of Sikkim. They are the people who lived with and worshiped nature – they venerated the spirits of rivers and mountains before adopting Buddhism or Christianity. Their closeness to nature is reflected in their language, which though not well developed, is rich in vocabulary related to the plants and animals of this region. The Bhutias are of Tibetan origin who migrated from Tibetan to Sikkim, Himalayan West Bengal and Bhutan after the 15th century. They follow Nyingmapa and Kagyupa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Majority of Nepalis here are Hindus, except the Sherpas and Tamangs, who are Buddhist.

 

The Jame Masjid, Kalimpong
The Jame Masjid, Kalimpong

 

 

Few outsiders are aware of the fact Tibet had, and perhaps still has, pockets of Muslims entrenched within its borders. Tibetan Muslims trace their origin to immigrants from China, Kashmir, Ladakh and Nepal. Islamic influence in Tibet also came from Persia and Turkestan.

After 1959, during the Chinese aggression, quite a few Tibetan Muslims managed to escape out of Tibet into the border towns of Gangtok, Kalimpong and Darjeeling. A large number of them moved to Kashmir. However, according to one report, about 50 Tibetan Muslim families still reside in the Kalimpong-Darjeeling region. Tibetan Muslims in Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Nepal have a joint Tibetan Muslim Welfare Association based in Kalimpong. I met some of them outside the Jame Masjid in Kalimpong. When I asked one of them if there was any friction among the different communities, he seemed to be taken by surprise, ‘What is there to fight about?’ he wondered. ‘We are simple folks, and our only concern is to earn a living and save for our children’s future’ he added. That moment all the petty politics of hate and communalization over the Jamia Nagar encounter and Malegaon blast come to my mind and I felt a bit ashamed of myself. The rest of India broke its sacred covenant of brotherhood long time ago and God knows how many of our future generations will face the wrath of the curse.

 

It was in Kalimpong where a Buddhist taxi driver and a pious namaazi taught me the refreshingly simple philosophy of peaceful co-existence. It was in Kalimpong, too, that I got my first glimpse of eastern Himalayas and Kanchendzonga, the highest mountain peak of India. The serene landscape of hills rolling into the far horizon with the mighty Kanchendzonga rising far above the clouds reminded me of what Pir Inanyat Khan, the great musician and Sufi, once wrote – the spiritual centre of a region lies at its highest point.

To see some more photos of this beautiful  region please check my flickr account at :

http://www.flickr.com/photos/naqaash/ 

 

Derasar and Dargah co-exist in Gandhi’s Gujarat

To the uninitiated, no two religions could be as far apart as Jainism and Islam. The former, carries the principals of non-violence to the extreme, wherein even the lowest life forms such as insects are not to be harmed; while in the latter consumption of certain birds and animals for food is a part of everyday life. But life style and diet do not make up a religion. Nor do rites and rituals. These are mere symbols to remind us of a higher Reality and tools to make us more receptive to this Reality. One has to rise above them in order to discern the common threads that run through all religions.

Perhaps Angar Pir, a sufi saint knew this when he protected these Derasars from the attack of Allauddin Khilji ; and so did Akbar when he granted the sacred Shetrunjaya Hill, in Palitana Gujarat, to the Jain muni Hiravijaya Suri to continue the construction of what was to become one of the largest complex of Jain temples (Derasar).

According to Shvetambara canonical books, Shetrunjaya was already a famous tirtha by the fifth century. Today, the entire summit of majestic mount Shatrunjaya is crowned with about 900 temples and shrines. The peak is a little over 3 km climb of about 3500 steps from the base. The Jains put all their devotional passion and considerable wealth into the creation of the most ornate marble temples; with exquisitely detailed relief carvings covering every inch of this temple complex. The entire complex was built and rebuilt over a span of 900 years. The act of ascending a path to reach a place of pilgrimage is a part of the Hindu and Jain consciousness, this is the reason why many of their holiest temples are located along hills and mountain ranges.

The Jains have five separate hill locations for their holiest clusters of temples and Shetrunjaya Hill in Palitana is considered the most important among them. Every devout Jain aspires to climb atop Shetrunjaya at least once in a lifetime, akin to the Haj of the Muslims, and as he makes this pilgrim bare footed, the Jain devout with a white coloured seamless cotton cloth wrapped around his body could be easily mistaken for a Haj pilgrim in an irham!!

Next to the Derasars, lies the Dargah of sufi saint Angaar Pir. Lured by the great wealth of the temple complex, Allauddin Khilji attacked these temples around 14th century and according to legend, Angaar Pir rose to the protection of these temples, and with the power of his prayer he hurled heavenly fire on Khilji’s army. Today, childless women visit the Pir’s Dargah to be blessed with a child. They offer miniature cradles to the Pir.

It is noteworthy that both Islam and certain sects among the Jains are against idol worship. The Jains are divided into two major sects, the Svetambar and the Digambar. Some sub sects among the Svetambar are apposed to idol worship and believe in internalization of the faith. Shri Mahavir, who was the twenty fourth and last Tirthankara (one who has attained enlightenment and shows the way to others) of the Jains, was himself against idol worship.

Both Jainism and Islam came in close contact with each other during historic times and influenced each others architecture and painting. This is apparent in a number of Masjids in Gujarat such as the Jami Masjid in Champaner.
During Akbar’s reign many Jain munis were invited to his court. Apart from Padmasundar, who is believed to be the first Jain monk to meet Akbar, we have a continuous flow of distinguished Jain saints to the court of Akbar and his successor Jahangir. The most famous Jain visitor to Akbar was Hiravijaya Suri who met him in 1582 C E.
Akbar was so impressed by Hiravijaya Suri that he conferred upon him the title of “Jagad Guru” or “the preceptor of the world.” The faith of the Jain community in Akbar and the Mughal polity was strengthened when the ruler issued orders prohibiting the killing of animals on certain days sacred to the Jains. When Hiravijaya Suri left the court, he asked Bhanuchandra and his disciple Siddhichandra to stay back. They lived under the patronage of the royal court even after Akbar’s death, and Siddhichandra who had also learnt Persian, wrote “Bhanuchandra Gani Charit” a biography of his master.
There is yet another instance in Indian history when these two faiths came even closer. The Navayath community of coastal Karnataka are believed to be the descendents of Arab men and Jain women. Visiting Arab traders would marry the daughters of local Jain traders. Many of the Arabs would then continue on with their maritime trade travels living the women and children behind. As a result, the children grew up under a strong Jain influence of the mother, and the community today has retained many Jain customs like eating before sunset, dominance of vegetarian food and the dress and jewellery of the women of this community are similar to the Hindu-Jain traditions. This community has a unique language called Navayathi which is basically Konkani with a preponderance of Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, and Marathi words and the script used is Urdu. The Navayaths claim that their Arab ancestors were of the Shaafi sects who were traditionally a trading sect like the Jains, and were peace loving, diplomatic and friendly. According to some scholars the abundance of Persian words in Navayathi indicates that some of their ancestors may be from Iran while some historians trace their origin to South Yemen.
The rest of Gujarat and India could learn a lesson or two from the Jains, for when flames of hatred were unleashed in Gujarat after the Godhra carnage, the Angar Pir Dargah at Palitana remained untouched and the credit for this goes to the Jain community of Gujarat.