The `BHAKTI MOVEMENT` of Maharashtra and Karnataka

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This  is a long story but I am going to enjoy telling it to everyone  through this blog because it is so joyful and beautiful! I do believe  that no other country has such a rich basket of stories which are  linked intricately with reality that I wonder at the devotion of  generations that have kept each narrative alive and shining in our  hearts…

When  religion becomes ‘business’ and a few hold the strings in their  hands, divinity brings about a sweeping change through the birth of a  special person who will set the world right. This is the promise of  the Bhagwad Geeta. In this feature, there are many such special  persons, whose personality and teachings brought unimaginable changes  to Indian society from the 12th  century onwards to the present time.

Many  supremely-blessed men and women, belonging to various strata of  society, rich and well-to-do or working in lowly professions and  considered low caste people, have found  great inspiration and divine  grace in the personality of a history-changer who infused new power,  faith and joy into the lives of all sufferers of social  discrimination…The ‘Bhakti’ Movement of Maharashtra’ starting  with the illuminating work of Sant Dnyaneshwar (1275-1296) –  especially the holy Dnyaneshari –   changed the very basic culture  and story of Maharashtra. There was a new, vibrating energy, a new  hope for the future and a new dream of equality among the millions…In  the same way, the work of Purandaradasa, the poet at the court of  Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagar, inspired millions in peninsular  India.

Chaturmas  or the four holy months of the Indian calendar are those that bring  the welcome showers of the Monsoon to a summer-parched land. With the  rains, so essential for the agriculture of India, come vast green  fields and plenty of fruits, vegetables and food grains. The period  of these months is called Chaturmas or four holy months which  traditionally begin with the 11th  day of the month of Ashadh and end with the 11th  day of Kartik.

The  Ashadh Ekadashi or the starting day of the four holy months is called  Devashayani Ekadashi because having provided the rains and thus  created plenitude to the farms, orchards. Forests and plantations,  the gods go to rest. In many temples and sculptures, Lord Vishnu, the  preserver of the universe, is seen peacefully sleeping.

On  Kartik Ekadashi, which is called Prabodhini Ekadashi, the gods wake  up and all devotees thank and welcome them with great celebrations at  temples. Many fast during these four months on chosen days and  finally walk from their home towns to Pandharpur to be there on the  Ekadashi day and to bathe in the Chandrbhaga River in Pandharpur.  These devotees are called Varkaris and they are seen carrying the Tulsi planter on their heads as they  walk to the temple. Tulsi is considered a holy plant and is used in  the worship of Lord Vishnu and Krishna in all sacraments.

Similarly  people crowd at the Vithala temple in the Hampi heritage site in  Karnataka to offer worship to Vithala there too. The Hampi temple of  Vithala is associated with Purandaradasa, the court poet of the  Vijayanagar empire and he is a wonderful part of the Bhakti Movement  of India. The temple also has a wonderful architectural detail. Every  carved and decorated pillar in this temple when knocked produces  musical notes which are delightful. Purandaradasa heads the Bhakti  Movement of Karnataka, a neighbor of the state of Maharashtra.

The  social importance of these annual celebrations at the temples  increases manifold when we learn that they have been a wonderful part  of the great, sweeping Bhakti Movement of not only Maharashtra and  Karnataka but the whole of India in various forms.

India,  in the medieval ages, had a strict caste system where the Brahmins or  the members of the higher caste were educated and held great power  and perhaps most of the wealth of the nation. They used their power  to demean the lower caste people who were often not allowed into  temples or to touch rivers or water sources to ‘contaminate’  them. The time had come for a sweeping change and it came in the form  of saints – both men and women – who not only preached a religion  of love and joy but also wrote beautiful songs, books, paintings and  built temples which were open to all. Each state of India produced  geniuses whose work – writings and songs as well as stories – are  an inspiration to India as also the whole world.

Just  to give a quick count, there was Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in Bengal,  Jayadeva in Orissa, Meerabai in Rajasthan, Tulsidas and Kabir in  Uttar Pradesh, Narsinh  Mehta in Gujarat and innumerable others in  the Southern states, who taught the simple religion of love and  kindness to millions of people who were waiting for a monumental  change in society. All these saints and poets left behind a huge  literary heritage for India.

The  difference was that in the northern states like Rajasthan, Orissa and  some others, the relationship of god and man was promoted as that of  lovers who expect nothing from each other. Theirs was an  unconditional total surrender love. The most prominent example of  this movement is the work of Jayadeva,  a poet who is known worldwide for writing the Geet Govind, an  immortal work of literary art which has inspired miniature paintings  and dance ballet performances all over the world. The Odissi style of  dancing is almost entirely based on this literary work.

The Ashta  Nayika’  theme of Indian dance which has been extensively used in the Geet  Govind, was created by the great writer of the Natyashastra, Bharata,  who depicted the eight  moods of love of a maiden depicted in  all arts.   Indian painting, literature, poetry, music and sculpture used this  theme copiously.  Jayadeva’s Geeta Covina,, converted the eight  heroines (or Ashta Nayikas) into one entity, showing the Nayika as  Radha, the lover of Lord Krishna, who displays these moods for her  beloved.

Geet  Govind describes the love of Radha for Krishna and presented them as  lovers.  Jayadeva used the ‘Ashta Nayikas’ theme to suit his  narrative. He also wrote explicitly about the love of Radha and  Krishna – which showed that the lovers in essence are only one:  That the love of god and devotee is complete surrender, no  expectations and joy. The names of the Ashtanayikas are also  indicative of the content of this great poem written in the 12th  century. The names of the heroines are: Khandita, Vipralabdha,  Vasakasajja, Abhisarika, Proshitabhartruka, Swadhinapatika,  Kalahantarita, and Virahotkanthita. These moods of a woman have been  used extensively in many artistic works of the medieval age.

However,  the Bhakti Movement – called “Madhurabhakti’ – then moved to  Peninsular India and changed dramatically as it spread in South  India.  Here, Vaishnav saints like Vallabhacharya saw in Krishna a  glorious child-like personality. It is said that he started a totally  new way of looking at Krishna for those who followed Vaishnavism. One  of the great temples built by him is the beautiful marvel in  Nathdwara, on the border of Rajasthan and Gujatat. There is a  beautiful story of how Shrinathji came to this town from his abode in  Gokul and became the darling of millions. Andal, the only woman   saint in the Tamilian Alwar heritage, ‘married’ Krishna and wrote  beautiful songs about him.

The  south produced a new idea in the Bhakti Movement. Here in all  temples, Krishna – in his form as Vithala – and Vishnu in his  incarnations, were the ‘worshipped’ and their devotees accepted  him as the ‘mother’ with the qualities of love, forgiveness,  understanding and grace. So the poet saints who headed the Bhakti  Movement looked upon Vithala as a mother and addressed him as Maai or  Aai in the Marathi language. Vithala became Krishnai or Vithai Mauli  – where all words mean Mother.

Most  songs written by a galaxy of saint poets in these centuries are in  Marathi and are simple like letters written to a mother by her child.  These songs are called Abhangs and have been sung by great vocalists  like Bhimsen Joshi and Sanjeev Abhyankar among others... To a large  extent, the strata of society that accepted this path of Bhakti were  from the non-Brahmin classes. They were potters, tanners, housewives,  farmers, tailors, clerks, grocers, gardeners and came from a plethora  of castes and communities.  To them, Vithala, Vithu or Vithoba was a  deity to be adored and praised without any demand, simply for love.  These poets too, wrote and left behind a treasure of songs of praise  called Abhangs.

Indeed  the entire movement, which began with the work of Sant Dnyaneshwar  and his siblings Nivrutti, Sopan and Mukta.  By writing the most  important work of his life – namely the Dnyaneshwari, a  transliteration of the Bhagwad Geeta – Dnyaneshwar, at a very young  age, gave Maharashtra a wonderful new life. A saying in Marathi says  that “Dnyaneshwar put the foundation of the temple of Bhakti and  Tukaram, some centuries later, became the Kalash, Shikhar or the  spire of the temple! In Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra too,  saints of all languages wrote a huge number of songs in praise of  Krishna and other deities. Tukaram’s Gatha, Dnyaneshwar’s other  tomes like Amritanubhav, Changdev Pasashti, Haripath etc are like  bibles of the Bhakti Movement.

Did  you know?

An  interesting story about Vithala of Pandharpur is that the Lord had a  devotee named Pundalik. His love and dedication to Vithala was total.  On one occasion, when he was looking after his aged sick parents,  Vithala himself came to see him. But Pundalik threw a brick for him  to stand on and wait for him to be free. Vithala never went back. He  still waits, arms akimbo – on that brick. The idol of Vithala is  unique in this way.

Another  interesting story is of Kanakadasa, a devotee from Udipi, Karnataka,  Udipi is famous for its Krishna temple and is visited by huge crowds  year round. Kanakadasa was of a low caste and was therefore not  allowed entry to the temple for a Darshan. The idol of Krishna, it is  said, turned around and faced the little window in the wall to face  Kanakadasa as he gazed in wonder at his beloved deity. Even today,  that tiny window is called ‘Kanakana Kindi’ in Kannada.

The  Bhakti Movement thus united India in the magic spell of these stories  and the love songs that brought God to everyone. The devotional  content of the songs was full of love and adoration and brought joy  to millions. All the saints wrote great works of Bhakti literature  and created immortal compositions which are sung in most homes even  today by folk singers as well as famous classical vocalists. Millions  of followers of this movement travel to Pandharpur each Chaturmas to  see their beloved Vithala and to worship his consort Rukhmai. The  Samadhi of Dnyaneshwar stands in Alandi near Pune whereas that of  Tukaram is in Dehu nearby.

The  temple where this historic movement began stands in Pandharpur, in  the Sholapur District of Maharashtra. Shri Uddhav Thackeray has  created a beautiful book of photographs taken by him in the Varkari  processions and the huge crowds of devotees who go to Pandharpur,  walking through villages and forests.

Purandaradas’s  Vithala temple stands in the Hampi-Vijayanagar heritage site in  Karnataka.


Purandaradas's Vithal Temple in Hampi, Karnataka


Varkaris going to Pandharpur for the Ekadashi celebrations


Vithala temple on the Chandrabhaga river in Maharashtra


Vithoba Rakhumai in the Pandharpur temple. Note the arms akimbo as per Pundalik's story in the article


Sant Dnyaneshwar is referred to as Mauli means mother. He is called Gyanoba Mauli

Also  see
1. Pics of Vithala Temple Hampi
2. Pandharpur Wari
3. Pandharpur Ringan