Sant DNYANESHWAR Pioneer of the Bhakti Movement

  • Know about the life and thoughts of Sant Dynaneshwar, lived only 21 years, his works and philosophy. He added Bhakti as the fifth aim of human life.

Sant Jnanesvara, called also Jnanadeva, Dnyanadeo and Dnyanoba (1275-1296) was the pioneer of Bhakti movement in Maharashtra.


Born at Alandi (district Pune) in 1275, the son of Vitthalpant Kulkarni of Apegaon, a village near Paithan on the banks of the Godavari, and his wife Rakhumabai (Rukmini), he hailed from a family of devouts. His great grandfather Tryambakapant and his grandparents, Govindpant and Nirabai were initiated into the Natha sect by Guru Gorakshanatha and Guru Gahininatha respectively. His father, Vitthalpant, after getting married went to Banaras and took to sannyasa without the knowledge of his preceptor, Ramasrama, who on learning about this fact, directed him to return to the life of a householder, which he did. But the orthodox brahmins of Alandi excommunicated him and asked him to atone for his sins by giving up his life at Prayaga (Allahabad), the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and Sarasvati (now extinct). Vitthalpant obeyed the directive leaving behind his three sons, Nivruttinath (1273-1297), Jnanesvara (1275-1296), Sopanadeva (1277-1296) and, daughter Muktabai (1279-1297), in utter isolation.


To remove the blot of apostasy, Jnanesvara along with his brothers and sister moved to Paithan (district Aurangabad) to plead their case with the learned Brahmins. Tradition says that when he was rebuffed, he confounded the Jury by his spiritual erudition and by performing miracles such as making a buffalo chant the Vedic hymns, and, thereafter, received due recognition. On his way back to Alandi he halted at Nevase in Ahmadnagar district where, in a small temple on the banks of the river Pravera, (Prawara) he dictated to Sacchidananda Baba, a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita in Marathi in 9000 ovis. It was completed in 1290 CE as mentioned in the work itself. A stone pillar stands at the site of dictation. The work remained in manuscript form for three centuries till Sant Ekanatha (1533-1599) prepared an authentic text to safeguard it from interpolations.


First published in Journal of Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan.


After returning to Alandi on the left bank of the Indrayani, Jnanesvara eclipsed the yogi Changadeva, known for his supernatural feats. As per tradition when the Yogi approached him by riding a tiger with a snake for a whip, Jnanesvara made the wall on which he was seated, move in his direction, and humbled his pride. The wall was rebuilt in stone in 1898, and is the object of worship to this day.


Sometime in 1293, Jnanesvara visited Pandharpur where he came into contact with Sant Namadeva (Namdeo) and developed spiritual affinity with him. Together, they went on pilgrimage to Banaras and other holy cities in the north, meeting people, holding congregations and performing kirtana - the rendering of devotional songs with musical instruments. Many holy personages like Goroba, the potter, Savata; the gardener, Chokha (Chokhamela; Chokhoba), the pariah, Narahari; the goldsmith and Parisa Bhgavata, the Brahmin, besides Jnanesvara’s kin, accompanied the religious group.


After returning to Pandharpur on the bright eleventh (ekadashi) of Kartika in 1296, Jnanesvara observed the religious festivities of the Varakaris on the full-moon day. Thereafter, he had an intuitive feeling that his mission in life was complete. He came back to Alandi along with his fellow-saints and took the sanjivana samadhi in which one volunteers to entomb oneself alive in a meditative state. It was the thirteenth day of the dark half of Kartika in 1296. Thousands of people from all over India visit the site annually in the months of Ashadha (July-August) and Kartika (November-December) to pay respectful homage to the saint who was knowledge and bliss incarnate.

Varkaris singing Bhajans, enroute to Pandharpur. 2015. 

Jnanesvara’s brothers and sister died less than two years after his death but they left a deep mark on the life of people in Maharashtra and created a niche for themselves in religious circles. Sopanadeva (Sopandeo) was the first to leave his mortal coil followed by Muktabai and Nivruttinatha. Their samadhis which are thronged by devotees to this day lie respectively at Sasavada (district Pune), Edalabada (district Jalgaon) and Trymbakesvara (district Nasik).


Nivruttinatha who had learnt the fundamentals of the Natha sect from Guru Gahininatha at Brahmagiri (near Nasik in Maharashtra) initiated Jnanesvara, Sopnadeva and Muktabai. They, in turn, set the tone for the spread of Bhakti movement by composing religious ballads (abhangas), popularising devotional singing, the kirtana, and initiating others. Sopanadeva provided spiritual guidance to Visoba Khechara, the preceptor of Sant Namadeva. Muktabai taught the Way Divine to the yogi Changadeva after he had been humbled by her brother, Jnanesvara, who is acclaimed as the first saint and prophet of Maharashtra.



An intellectual mystic, the ideas of Jnanesvara were shaped by the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Vasistha, the Siva Sutras and the Advaita philosophy of Sankaracharya and he blended them all in the light of his own spiritual explorations to produce his magnum opus, the Jnanesvari (Dnyanesvari) and other works namely the Amritanubhava, Changadeva-Pasasthi, Haripatha, Namana and abhangas.


Jnanadevi and Bhavartha-Dipika, ranks among the world’s finest mystical outpourings. It harmonises the paths of Karma (action), Jnana (knowledge of the self) and Bhakti (devotion to the supreme) employing similes and metaphors to explain moot philosophical points. ‘By this attempt of mine’, he wrote, ‘let the want of self-knowledge be removed. Let the need of everyone who wants to experience this infinite store of spiritual joy, be met’. He stated that the Vedas savoured by the twice-born embodied themselves again in the form of the Bhagavad Gita so that even an ordinary person could quench his spiritual thirst (Jnanesvari XIII-11-55; XVIII-1447- 50). The Jnanesvari continues to have a universal appeal due to its high literary quality, homely style, philosophical depth, catholicity and devotional content. 


In Amritanubhava, ‘experience of the nectar’, Jnanesvara delves on the oneness of Siva and Sakti and of Vishnu (Hara) and Shiva (hari) comparing them to the sun and its motion or gold and its lustre (I, 25.41; IX.62). He refutes Ajnanavada, the doctrine of unawareness, explains the secrets of natural devotion and exhorts people to feel oneness with the Supreme Being. ‘The bloom of youth resides in a damsel but it blossoms forth when she is united with her beloved’ (x.22). Changadeva-Pasashti, the sixty-five verses addressed to Yogi 


Changadeva dilate on the non-dualistic philosophy in which the triad of knowledge, knower and the known are identical. Haripatha comprising twenty-eight verses explains the significance of remembering the Name of the Lord Hari. Namana, containing one hundred and eight verses reflects on the power of prayer. The abhangas of Jnanesvara, about one thousand in number, explore a number of philosophical subjects besides glorifying the god Vithal, and are sung by the Varakaris with filial devotion to this day. The insinuation of some scholars that the authors of Jnanesvari and the abhangas are different persons cannot be substantiated.

Centre of pic is Sant Dynaneshwar, Pandharpur. 2015


Jnanesvara breathed fresh life into the decadent dharma of his time by combining the doctrine of Advaita (monism) with that of Bhakti saturated with mystical insights. His devotional monism was not pedagogical but the result of a deep religious experience. While in search of the Reality he came to embody the Reality himself and, thenceforth, spoke and wrote from a state of heightened consciousness to enlighten humanity. In Amritanubhava (X.3-4) he says, “Was it for the moon’s sake that the nectar was given to her? Or did the sea grant water to the clouds for their own use? The expanse of the sky is for the sake of the whole world.” 


To Jnanesvara, the Ultimate Reality is one; finite selves are also the Universal Self and free from birth and death. The individual suffers on account of his identification with the body. ‘The senses that rub their mouths on the barren land of sensual objects, cannot taste the sweetness in the Atman’, he wrote (Amritanubhava, VII.111) 


Jnanesvara saw the play of the pure intelligent Atman all over the Universe and refuted the concept of Maya so ably propounded by Shankaracharya. He held that God contains his own being within himself. God is the Absolute Truth. The pure Intelligence underlies varied forms and sights, yet its unity is not lost. The world is His sport and He plays happily with Himself as ‘the eternal perceiver’ and ‘the eternally perceived’. There is no difference between the Absolute Reality and the world of phenomena. All that exists is illuminated by His light. “The sun sees everything. But is it possible for him to witness the beauty of his own rising and setting,” he asks and then provides a philosophic answer, “Being the vision itself, He does not know seeing and not seeing. He himself is the cause of both.” (Amritanubhava, VII.135, 157,195,197) Jnanesvara thus expounded the concept of sphurtivada which regards existence as a luminous appearance.


Jnanesvara saw no dichotomy between knowledge (Jnana) and ignorance (ajnana) as he argued that both are destroyed in the process of giving them separate meaning. If the knowledge requires the aid of another knowledge, it is nothing but ignorance (Amritanubhava, IV 23). Ignorance is a product of maya which in the sense of illusion, can neither coexist with knowledge nor can stand of its own. Maya is not a separate entity but the creative power of the Lord. Avidya (nescience) being non-existent, cannot be dispelled nor does Atma, being self-evident, require any proof. Jnanesvara gives many examples to prove his point. “If the hand is stretched out to gather the ripples it gets nothing but water. The parts that appear in the sugarcane are all contained in the juice; the full moon has all its lustre....... If the moon tried to gather the moonlight then who has gathered what?” (Amritanubhava, IX.13.18.26) 


Jnanesvara held that the Ultimately Reality cannot be fully described as it transcends the orbit of linguistics. In Amritanubhava (V1.91) he asks, “The tip of the tongue is expert in tasting the different flavours. But can it taste itself?” Even the enlightened ones fall short of words. ‘How can words describe the Reality where the Supreme Speech itself disappears and no trace is found of any sound?’ (V.63). In a mystic experience of union with the Divine, God himself becomes, the devotee; the destination becomes the path and, the speech becomes the deepest silence. Who meets whom? He asks, “How can the eyesight be opened when even the unity is dissolved?” Thenceforth, image-worship initially required for concentration on the divine loses its meaning. “Do they plough the field when there is the harvest?” (X.35,17,VII.122,V.65). 


To the list of traditionally prescribed aims of human life (purushartha) namely Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha, Jnanesvara added a fifth-Bhakti. He regarded the chanting of God’s name and singing His praises as the royal road to realisation. It gives one spiritual insight and a sense of fulfilment. Yet God is not the other but the true self of a devotee. The sign of true devotion is to understand God as He really is. 

Vitthal of Pandharpur. Pranams. 

Wordly knowledge is of no meaning without the knowledge of the Self, and the best way to acquire it is through unswerving devotion to the only ontological reality. Bhakti is a matter of love (prema) and love is God himself. It is the quality of love to express itself and the cosmos is nothing but its veritable expression. Jnanesvara regarded Vitthal as the supreme symbol of love, the embodiment of Existence, Knowledge and Bliss. He is both ‘with attributes’ (saguna) and ‘without attributes’ (nirguna). The summum bonum of man’s life is not emancipation (mukti) from the bondages of the world but the experience of the divine bliss. But Bhakti is not something external; it is the very essence of man. And man is god himself. ‘So not only he worships while worshipping, but also does the same while not worshipping.’ (Amritanumbhava IX.49). 


He who knows the Reality loves others as his own selves. Love breeds in him equanimity and fellow feeling and releases him from the sense of ‘I’ and ‘myness’. The glory of God is the glory of man. Guru or the preceptor alone shows the way Divine. He turns bondage into liberation. Both in the Jnanesvari (viz chapters I, VI, X, XVI) and in the Amritanubhava (Chapter II), Jnanesvara praises his spiritual teacher and elder brother, Nivrittinatha by whose grace he experienced the supreme bliss. 


Sant Jnanesvara was a prophet of Bhakti who brought about a spiritual renaissance in Maharashtra. He has also been called the father of Marathi literature and of Marathi nationalism although he neither aspired nor claimed to be so and remained a true and humble devotee of the lord during his short life-span of about 22 years, attributing his extraordinary spiritual and mental powers to the self-luminous divinity


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, February 28, 2017 issue. This article is courtesy and copyri ght Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.


To read all articles by Dr Satish K Kapoor


Also read

1. About Swami Ram Tirtha

2. Ramanuja

3. Ekanath the Reformer 16th century

4. Rajrishi Bhagyachandra and Bhakti of Manipur

5. Life of Sant Tulsidas

6. Lives of Indian Saints

7. About Agastya Muni

8. Vithoba of Pandharpur

9. Pandharpur Wari album

10. Another article on Sant Dynaneshwar

11. Asha Ekadasi and the Warkari Movement  


Receive Site Updates