Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Dastangoi and the Tales that Bind

A modest looking middle age man, dressed in white walked gently on to the stage. The stage, like the man, was frugal: no props, no music, no elaborate lighting. Just a small platform covered with white sheets and white pillows. At one corner of the platform were placed two steel water bowls for the artist to moisten his palate after a non-stop verbal performance and a peek daan.

This was Mahmood Farooqui, a man determined to bring back to life and popularity the lost art of Dastangoi, storytelling based on medieval Urdu tales, and to pass this ancient art form on to future generations.
Today he was performing ‘Dastan-e Karn Az Mahabharata’ with the focus on Karna, the underdog of Mahabharat.
Karna, in this composition, is showcased as the underdog who is discriminated against because of his so called ‘low birth’. In spite of a life of suffering and discrimination, this warrior hero, stays firm on his ideals and honor. Thus when breathing his last on the battlefield of Mahabharat, with his head resting in Shri Krishna’s lap, when he asks Krishna whether he would be as famous as Arjuna, Krishna replies that Karna’s fame would last longer than Arjuna’s.

Mahmood Farooqui’s version of Dastangoi is a class in itself. It draws on syncretic traditions, seamlessly weaving age-old issues of dharma, caste discrimination, power struggle, dirty politics played by the rulers for the acquisition of power and wealth- issues which are still relevant and perhaps more so in the current socio-political scenario.
Farooqui draws from oral traditions of Mahabharat, extracts of poetry in Hindi, Urdu and even Persian, Sanskrit shlokas and Quranic ayaats to reflect on the human condition and the issues related to Dharma and Karma. His composition is the mirror of a pluralistic art form where the barriers of religion and language break down to reveal a seamless weave of tapestry that is India.
His delivery is flawless, it flows on waves of passion, rising and ebbing with the content in a seasoned voice, the likes of which are heard only among senior classical and qawwali singers !!
Using only his oratory skills, Farooqui held the audience spell bound for ninety minutes, quite an achievement in these times of short attention span !!
Farooqui’s rendition of ‘ Dastan-e Karn Az Mahabharata‘, proves that the idea and idol of India as secular nation embracing all levels of diversity in its fold, as envisioned by the founders of our Constitution, existed long before our country’s Independence. It was always there in its pluralistic traditions, art and culture.
Photo Credits: Rupa Abdi
Detailed information about the Dastangoi’s team and future performances can be found on their face book page:
Mahmood Farooqui’s blog :

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The Warkari Movement III - Namdeva: The pioneer of Nirguna Bhakti

एक अनेक बिआपक पूरक जत देखउ तत सोई ॥
माइआ चित्र बचित्र बिमोहित बिरला बूझै कोई ॥

One is in all and all is in One,
Wherever I look there is One
Enchanting is the world of Maya
Only the wise know, they are the only one

सभु गोबिंदु है सभु गोबिंदु है गोबिंद बिनु नही कोई ॥
सूतु एकु मणि सत सहंस जैसे ओति पोति प्रभु सोई ॥

All is Govind,** in all is Govind
Without Govind there is nothing
Like one thread that pierces all beads
God traverses all beings

जल तरंग अरु फेन बुदबुदा जल ते भिंन न होई ॥
इहु परपंचु पारब्रह्म की लीला बिचरत आन न होई ॥

Waves, foam, bubbles from water are not apart
Think and you will see,
the world is an illusion
of the Lord, they are all a play and part

मिथिआ भरमु अरु सुपन मनोरथ सति पदार्थु जानिआ ॥
सुक्रित मनसा गुर उपदेसी जागत ही मनु मानिआ ॥

You desire false illusions and dream objects
Real and true to the mind they appeareth
At Gurus counsel the desire for good deeds
in the a mind awaketh

कहत नामदेउ हरि की रचना देखहु रिदै बीचारी ॥
घट घट अंतरि सरब निरंतरि केवल एक मुरारी ॥

Says Namdev gazing at Lords creation my heart decides
the One and only Murari** in every pore, the Eternal resides
(Namdev’s Bani in Guru Granth Sahib,Ang 485,21934-21941)1

(All English trans. Myself)

Namdeva stands in the company of courageous revolutionary poets like Kabir, Raidas and Nanak, who apart from being saints were also radical reformers who stood above caste and organised religion, broke the bonds of ritual and ceremonies, denounced idolatry and brushed aside the authority of religious scriptures. Being a Shudra, Namdeva had to face the contempt of the Brahmins. He was also one of the pillars of the Warkari movement. He walks among the few in the world who rose from the pits of sin to the realisation of the highest principals of Nirguna bhakti and Advaita

Between the 13th and 17th century a religious and literary renaissance flooded the region of Maharashtra. It was a spiritual awakening, the kind of which was never seen before or after. It scarcely left a soul untouched.

Some even believe that this movement whose basis was Bhakti, which later came to be known as the Warkari movement, was far more powerful than its counterpart in northern and central India. In Maharashtra, this religious revival spanned over 500 years during which more than 50 saints breathed life into it and left their mark. These saints came from all walks of life: Marathas, kunbis, tailors, gardeners, potters, gold smiths, reformed prostitutes and Muslims. 2p45

Sant Namdeva was one of the saints under whose guidance the Warkari movement gathered extraordinary saints in its fold. But apart from being one of the stalwarts of the Warkari movement Namdeva is also known as the first major saint poet of Nirguna Bhakti. A ‘Chimpi’ or variously interpreted as a tailor, dyer-cloth printer by caste, he also stands among those few saints who rose from the pit of evil doers 3p.16;4p.85 to a Saguna bhakti saint and ultimately reached the unfathomable heights of Nirguna bhakti. The sixty one hymns of Namdeva, which are included in the Guru Granth Sahib, pertain to the period when he had achieved enlightenment through devotion to the formless Absolute – Nirguna Bhakti. This change in the nature of his devotion and perception, from being a passionate devotee of Vithoba of Pandharpur to a nirgunibhakta who considered Vithoba to be a symbol of the supreme Soul that pervades the Universe is apparent in his Abhangs. Namadeva’s guru, Shri Visoba Kechar, who himself was a disciple of Gyanadeva, is believed to have shown the path of Nirguna bhakti to Namadeva4p.120. In Namdeva's Abhangs one can see the synthesis of knowledge and devotion.

Namadeva’s contribution to Bhakti literature is significant. Apart from bhajans (devotional songs set to music), he is believed to have written over 2500 abhangs(a form of devotional poetry sung in Marathi in the praise of Vithoba during pilgrimage to the temples of Pandharpur, the centre of Warkari movement) and about 250 padavalis – simple passionate lyrics in Hindi. These padavalis are beautiful syncretic lyrics in which Namadeva used various dialects of northern India that he came across during his travels. These include Khadi boli, Brajabhasha, Purvi Hindi, Punjabi, Arabic and Persian. In these Padvalis we get a glimpse of this saint and his beliefs.
He ridiculed idol worship:

एकै पाथर कीजै भाउ ॥
दूजै पाथर धरीऐ पाउ ॥
जे ओहु देउ त ओहु भी देवा ॥
कहि नामदेउ हम हरि की सेवा ॥४॥१॥

One stone is worshiped while the other is trodden upon
If one is god why the other is not?
Says Namdeva I worship Hari** none other ought
(Namdev’s Bani in Guru Granth Sahib,Ang 525,23502-2194)1

He was of the opinion that saguna bhakti i.e. the worship of God with attributes with its rituals is only a ladder to be discarded once the goal of Nirgun bhakti, the worship and oneness with the Formless Reality is achieved:

तीरथ ब्रत जगत की आस। फोकट कीजै बिन बिसवास।।
एकादसी जगत की करनीं। पाया महल तब तजी निसरनीं।।
               भणंत नामदेवतुम्हारै सरणां। मुझा मनवां तुझा चरणां।।2p.283-84,Pad56

In pilgrimages and fast the world’s hope lies
Without true faith useless they lie
The ladder of fasts and outward rituals
Once the divine palace is attained it is of no use
Says Namdev he seeks Your shelter,
my heart lies at your feet’s shelter

He was brutal in his criticism of the hypocrisy and facade among Hindus and Muslims alike:

ब्रह्मा पढ़ि गुंनि बैद सुनावै मन की भ्रांति  न जाइ रे
करम करै सौ सूझै नांहीं बहुतक करम कराइ रे
मास दिवस लग रोजा साधै कलमां  बंग पुकारैं रे
मन मैं काती जीव बाधारैं नांव अलह का सारैं रे
केवल ब्रह्म सती करि जांनैंसहज सुंनि मैं ध्याया रे
             प्रणवंत नांमदेव गुर परसादैं पाया तिनिहीं लुकाया रे 2 Pad 64, p291

They read Brahma, Veda yet deluded they remain
Offer endless rituals yet ignorance they gain
They observe the month long Ramzan fast
by the muezzin a call for prayer is requested
recite the name of Allah
yet with violent minds they are afflicted
Only those who know the One Brahma
can dwell effortlessly in the Formless
To the grace of guru Namdev bows
keeps it hidden he who knows

हिन्दू अन्हा तुरक काणा दुहां ते गिआनी सिआणा
हिन्दू पूजे देहुरा मुसलमाणु मसीत
नामे सोई सेविया जह देहुरा न मसीत 2 pad 208,p.367

The Hindu is blind and the Muslim is half-blind
None has true knowledge
In the temple worships the Hindu, the Muslim in Masjid
Namdev worships Him who is neither in temple nor Masjid

It is obvious from Namdeva’s  Padvalis that like, Kabir after him,  Namdeva was well versed in  the ways of the Sahaj, Nath and Advaita panths:

चंद सूर दोउ समि करि राषौं मन पवन डीढ डांडी
सहजैं सुषमन  तारा मंडल इहि बिधि त्रिस्नां षांडी
बैठा रहूं न फिरूं न डोलूं  भूषां रहूं न षाऊं
मरूं न जीऊंअहि निसि भूगतौं नहीं आऊं नहीं जांऊं
गगन मंडल मैं रहनी हमारी सहज सुनिं ग्रीह मेला
अंतरधुनि मैं मन बिलमा ऊंकोई जोगी गंमि लहैला
पाती तोड़ि न पूजौं देवा  देवलि देव न होई
नांमां कहै मैं हरि की सरना पुनरपि जनम न होई 2p.292.Pad 65

The sky resounds with the music of the flute
The sound of Anhad every where
Ignorant of his Self, O Lord, the fool wanders
here and there, nowhere
United the Sun and the Moon with ease
Held firm the mind the breath and the spine
Rose I through the subtle to the star constellation
Thereby all desires I cease
Neither stay still nor move nor vacillate I
Neither hungry nor satiated am I
Neither live nor die nor suffer do I
Neither come or go
My home I have made  in the cosmic skies
Dwell I effortlessly in the Void within
Enrapt is my mind with the music within
Rare is a Yogi who can hear such a hymn
I gather no leaves for the Deva in the temple
No God dwells in the idol
Only in Hari, in Hari I have lain
Never to be born again

According to the tradition available, Namdeva (1270-1350) was a close companion of Sant Jnanesvar also known as Gyanadeva, another great Marathi saint and the author of Gyaneshvari.2p.43  Namdeva was a householder and a married man. After Gyanadeva’s death, Namdeva moved to north India and settled in Punjab in a village called Ghuman in Gurdaspur. Here he spent 20 years of his life spreading the message of devotion. However, some scholars question whether Namdev was a contemporary of Gyanadeva and whether the two came in contact with each other at all3p18.

While Gyanadeva’s influence was limited to Maharashtra, Namdeva along with Ramananda*** spread a more evolved form of Bhakti in North and Central India and laid ground for future Nirguna saint poets like Kabir, Nanak and Raidas.

*All English translations of the poetic compositions are by the author,  Rupa Abdi
** Govind, Hari, Murari, Ram etc. are various names, avatars and attributes of Vishnu, however in case of Namdeva, they are the various names by which he addressed the Ultimate Reality.
***A 14th century Bhakti saint who founded a new school of Vaishnavism based on love and devotion

References and further reading:
  2. Sadarangani N.M. 2004.Bhakti Poetry in Medieval India: Its Inception, Cultural Encounter and Impact. Sarup and Sons. New Delhi
  3. MacNicole, N.1919.The Heritage of India: Psalms of Maratha Saints. Association Press. Calcutta
  4. S.K. 1972. हिंदी निर्गुणी काव्य का प्रारम्भ और नामदेवकी हिन्दी कविता. Rachana Prakashan. Allahabad
  5. Callewaert, Winand M & Mukund Lath. 1989. The Hindi Padavali of Namdev. Motilal Banarasidass Publishers Pvt.Ltd. Delhi


Majnu Shah

‘Yes Majnu Shah’, nodded Cherag Fakir. ‘Only he can make the Sahibs run in fear.’ Asif had of course heard about Majnu Shah and his heroic battles with the British. Villagers often talked about Majnu Shah’s soldiers who came down the hills to loot the British offices….

From: The Tattooed Fakir by Biman Nath

Very little is known about his early life of this Sufi warrior except that he was born in the Mewat region of Haryana. He succeeded Shah Sultan Hasan Suriya Burhana to the leadership of the Bihar based Deewanagan Madaria sufi order in the mid-eighteenth century. He was an organizer of great ability, great commander in chief who travelled in Bengal and Bihar to inspire people to join the rebellion and fight against the superior forces of the British in the second half of the 18th century.  It was his Pir, Hamiuddin who motivated him to take up arms against the British:

There was a mazar of dervish Hamid
In the domain of Assadusman
There in the Khanaqa of the old Pir Khadim
Came Majnu Fakir to offer his Salam
Khadim urged Majnu in despair
Lakhs of people are dying in famine
Try to save their lives!
The company’s agents and landlords
Torture artisans and peasants
For exorbitant revenue
And people are deserting villages
Take up arms…
Distribute all provisions among the starved
And drive out the English
As no alternative is left.

-Majnu Shaher Hakikat by Jamiruddin Dafadar

Majnu Shah became a legend in the literature and folklore of undivided Bengal. The lines mentioned below refer to the united Hindu-Muslim revolt against the British known as the Fakir Sanyasi Rebellion which engulfed most districts of northern and eastern undivided Bengal and parts of Bihar during the early part of the British colonial rule in India. According to some historians this movement represented an early war for India’s independence. Whatever little popular imagination that exists about this rebellion, largely stems from the film ‘Anandmath’ which is based on a novel of the same name by Bakim Chandra Chaterjee. This novel was published in 1882, a century after the events actually happened. Notwithstanding its literary significance, the novel has overtones of Hindu revivalism and attitude of co-existence with the British rule which is a major departure from the actual incidents of this movement. There are official records documented by British officers of at least three incidents where the Fakirs and Sanyasis together fought against the East India Company.
Majnu calls out Bhabhani Sanyasi
Catch the Whites and hang them straight
Bhabhani roars and the Giris flash swords
They dispatch the Whites to Yama’s doors
-Khwabnama, Elias

This movement, which the British, in their arrogance, refused to call nothing more than a law and order situation, turned into a fifty thousand strong rebellion of Muslim fakirs and Hindu sanyasis, along with peasants, poor artisans, disbanded soldiers of the Nawabs and Mughal army and dispossessed zamindars that would traumatise the British occupiers for the last three decades of the 18th century (1767-1800). These bands of Fakirs and Sanyasis were very familiar with territories bounded by Brahmaputra in the north and Ganges in the south. Using the riverine paths and the forest covered hills, they out smarted the East India Company troops, waging a guerrilla war on them and plundering the Company’s treasuries and factories, intercepting the Company’s revenue in transit and snatching the possessions of the new landlords and Company’s agents with weapons and ammunition looted from the British themselves !!

It all began in the second half of the 18th century when popular resentment against the East India Company had begun to grow. For over a century the Madari Fakirs and  Dasnami sanyasis (also known as Giris )  used to travel to their places of pilgrims in north Bengal and on the way collect alms and land grants from both Hindu and Muslim Zamindars, which was given willingly. However the situation changed after the East India Company took over the diwani of Bihar and Bengal. The British   increased the land tax, the lands of many Zamindars were also confiscated, and many restrictions were placed on the movements of the Fakirs and Sanyasis because the British considered them thugs and looters. Moreover the   unfair trade policies of the Company which consisted of one-way trading export of raw material, resulted in the crumbling of cottage industries like silk, muslin and handloom.  This, combined with natural disasters and crop failure and the consequent Bengal famine of 1770-71, which killed one-third of the population, all contributed to the popular resentment against the British and their agents.

In the 18th century many Fakirs and Sanyasis had recruited themselves as soldiers under the Mughal administration in Bengal. When The East India Company began to gradually dismantle the armed forces of the Nawabs and erstwhile Mughal provincial administration, the disgruntled soldiers joined the Fakir Sanyasi rebellion.

This movement also had the support of dispossessed zamindars like Maharani Bhawani of Natore and Assad Usman Khan – the Nawab of Birbhum.

By the end of 1760 the extraordinary leadership qualities of Majnu Shah brought the Muslim Fakirs and Hindu Sanyasis under a common platform in their struggle against the British.  Bhavani Pathak and Devi Choudhrani were two prominent leaders of the Sanyasis who supported Majnu Shah. Other prominent leaders of this movement were Musa Shah, Chirag Ali, Shobhan Shah, Parigullah Shah, Karim Shah, Mohan Giri and Ganesh Giri.

Majnu Shah Bridge in Bangladesh (photo credit: vsgoi.blogspot)

Majnu Shah build a fort in 1776 behind an ancient dargah at Mahasthangarh in Bogra. Here he made make- shift barracks, where he would retreat with his forces to regain strength and discuss their next strategy. Majnu Shah enjoyed the good will and support of the locals and he would station his spies among them to inform him of the Company’s movements. He made constant efforts to keep unity among the Fakirs and Sanyasis and to avoid confrontations among them. One such conflict was sparked off in 1777 but was amicably resolved due to Majnu’s efforts. He was shot at and wounded on December 8, 1786 in a battle at Kaleshwar, he managed to dodge the British and reach Makanpur where he was given shelter by ancestors of local landlord Mir Syed Hasan. The injury however proved fatal and he died on January 26, 1787.  After him, his lieutenants, Musa Shah and Chirag Ali led the rebellion.

Although this rebellion of Sufis and Sanyasis could not achieve its ultimate goal, it left a blazing trail for others to follow. In Bangladesh, Majnu Shah is acknowledged among the first martyrs of India’s early resistance to the formation of the British Empire. His relentless struggle against the British is still preserved in Bangladeshi literature and folklore. A feature film based on this martyr was made by the Bangladeshi actor and Darashika titled ‘Fakir Majnu Shah’.  Several years ago, the Bangladeshi government paid tribute to this brave heart by dedicating a bridge in his name. But in India, Majnu Shah has been forgotten and the grave of this great son of India lies in utter neglect in some forlorn corner of Makanpur in Kanpur district.

Dilapidated grave of Majnu Shah at Makanpur (photo credit:

  1. Nath, B. 2012. The Tattooed Fakir, Pan Macmillan, India
  2. Khwabnama (Tale of Dreams). 1996. Akhteruzzaman Elias, Naya Udyog, Kolkata
  3. Dasgupta, A. 1982. The Fakir and Sanyasi Rebellion. Social Scientist. Vol. 10, No. 1 (Jan., 1982), pp. 44-55
  1. Khan, Muazzam Hussain 2012. Majnu Shah. Banglapedia: National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh(Second ed.).Asiatic Society of Bangladesh

Friday, 15 January 2016

LIVING TOGETHER: 17TH Century Maratha Empire, an Attempt at Harmonious Coexistence

While we Indians pride ourselves over the rich diversity of communities, race and religion that our country has, it also means dealing with differences and contradictions in the way we live, eat and pray. However there has always been a sense of, not just tolerance, but respect for these differences. This appears to be an intrinsic factor of Indian cultural ethos. Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘we must respect other religions, as we respect our own. Mere tolerance is not enough’. There have been times when this sentiment could not hold up against hatered and violence however there were other times too when this sentiment flowered against heavy odds.  Seventeenth century Maratha society was one such period in the history of this great nation.
It is a myth to presume that a society at confrontation with itself cannot find ways to co-exist peacefully. The Medieval period in the Maratha Empire saw three apparently conflicting forces at work, especially during the seventeenth century: there was religious as well as political conflicts among the Bahamani kingdom, the Mughals and the Marathas.  With the consolidation of Maratha power in this century, the Hindu and Muslim communities of the Maratha society found innovative ways of co-existing with mutual respect and peaceful tolerance. There were instances of hate and intolerance, no doubt, but these were offset by numerous examples to the contrary.  The people and the rulers, in their wisdom knew that the only way for a peaceful society was respecting and giving space to the ‘other religion’. Marathi writers and historian have cited numerous instances of this as depicted in the daily lives of administrators and rulers. Examples from which our present day society could learn a lesson or two.
Bahmani Sultanate 1347-1527 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saraswati Gangadhar, author of Gurucharitra, a poetic work of the fourteenth century, mentions that Alauddin II (1435-57), of the Bahamani dynasty which ruled over much of Deccan India, including parts of present day Maharashtra between the 13th and 16th century, held great respect for Narsimha Saraswati, the hero of Gurucharitra.  
Ibrahim Adil Shah II (1490-1510) another Bahmani ruler, tried to create cultural harmony among Shias, Sunnis and Hindus through the medium of Art. According to Chitnis (p48) he was a worshipper of Allah and a Hindu goddess. Both the Mandir and the Masjid were sacred to him. His official documents would begin with the words Az-puja-i Shri Saraswati. He built a temple at Bijapur dedicated to Lord Narsimha. He bestowed liberal grants to temples and safeguarded the rights of pujaris. Little wonder that he came to be known as Jagadguru.
The Mahanbhav Matha of Otur (Pune) received land grants from the Nizam Shahi rulers who ruled over large parts of Deccan (1490-1633) with their capital at Ahmednagar in present day Maharashtra. Chand bibi, the regent of Ahmednagar (1596-99) and sister of Hussain Nizam Shah I, sent a note to her officers to respect all such grants to Hindus and Brahmans. The priest of Pedgaon (Ahmednagar) too received land grant from Malik Amber (1549-1626) who was a very popular Siddi Prime Minister in the Ahmednagar Sultanate (Kulkarni p. 113).
Maratha Empire 1674-1818 (photo credit: Wikipedia)
Among the rulers of the Maratha Empire (1674-1818), Shivaji’s grandfather, Maloji Bhonsale was a disciple of the legendary Muslim saint-poet, Shaikh Muhammad, and when Maloji shifted to Nizamshahi (in Ahmednagar district) he brought Shaikh Muhammad along with him (Kulkarni p.110). Maloji also gave 12 bigha land to Shaikh Muhammad and built a math (hermitage) for him at Shrigonde (Dhere, p60). Ramdas, the great saint poet of 17th century, was a strong critic of the Muslim rule but a great admirer of Shaikh Muhammad (Chitnis, p110). Sant Ramdas was Shivaji’s guru.
Maloji Bhaonsale’s wife and Shivaji’s grandmother, Umabai, took a vow to Shah Sharif of Ahmednagar for a child and when she gave birth to two sons, they were named after this Pir : Shahaji and Sharifji, in gratitude for his blessings (Dhere, p.60). The dargah of Shah Sharif enjoyed two villages, Eklare and Konosi under the Marathas (Bendre). Mir Sayyid Sadi of Nasik and Mulla Hussaini Mosque of Rannebennur (Dharwad) received inam lands from Shahaji (Kulkarni p. 112). Shivaji held great respect for Baba Yakut of Utambar village near Kelashi (Ratnagiri) and Sambhaji undertook the construction of his dargah which eventually remained incomplete. Numerous Muslim holy men received allowances for maintenance and illumination of mosques from Shivaji, including the Pir of Sayyid Sadat Hazrat (Pune region). The Kazi of Indapur and the khidmatgar of the Bhambavade mosque received land and allowances from Shivaji. Many believe that Shivaji’s son, Sambhaji was victorious against the Portuguese due to the blessings of Pir Abdullah Khan and in return the Prime Minsiter, Kavi Kailash granted the Pir certain allowances. Shivaji’s grandson, Shahuji gave an entire village in grant to the Muslim saint Sayyid Ata-ullah of Shakarkoti of Loni in Pune. The Peshwas too were equally generous and benevolent towards Muslim holy men: Pirs Sayyid Sada and Shaikh Salah received grants from Peshwas for construction purposes. Even the dispute among them regarding who would lead the Muharram procession was settled by the Peshwas.  Dargah of Shaikh Salah and Takiya of Angad Shah received one sher of rice and one paisa for Frankincense every day from the royal palace.
The village councils were called gotsabhas and enjoyed supreme positon in the society and state and it decided cases that effected the whole society. The Kazi and the Maulana had a seat in the gotsabha and in every village Got, the proportion of Muslim members was usually proportional to the Muslim population in that village. Both the Hindus and Muslims sat together in the temple village and settled disputes irrespective of caste or religion. Mulansara, a kind of tax originally introduced by the Muslim rulers for the maintenance of the village Maulana continued under the Marathas. Muslim Patils were not unheard of under the Marathas (Kulkarni p.115).
Both the Bhakti and Sufi movements were at their peak during this period, both sought to bring about socio-religious reforms in their communities. With their message of universal love and brotherhood, they placed the service of fellow humans above religious rituals.  Muslims learnt Sanskrit and also studied the sacred poetry of Bhakti saints. The study of the ‘other’ religion promoted a better understanding of each other and helped in eradication of religious prejudices. The well-known Marathi saint poet of this period, Sant Eknath wrote his famous gatha – Hindu Turk Samvad which consisted of a dialogue between a Hindu and a Muslim (Turk) who, at the end of a lengthy dialogue, end up respecting each other as creations of Khuda. Sufis at this time made valuable contributions to devotional literature in Marathi. Shaikh Muhammad, the Muslim saint poet wrote Yoga Sangram (1645), Nishkalanka Prabodh, Pavan Vijaya and 300 abhangas (devotional poetry sung in the praise of the Lord Vitthal) in Marathi. Another Muslim saint of this period, Husain Ambakhan, who was a devotee of Lord Ganesh, wrote a Marathi commentary on the Bhagvatgita. Shah Muntoji Bhahmani, a Muslim saint of the seventeenth century, who hailed from the royal family of Bidar (Bahmani Rulers) was initiated into the Bhakti cult by a Hindu saint – Sahajanand Swami of Kalyan (Bijapur). Shah Muntoji wrote Panchikaran in Dakhani Hindi, outlining the common fundamental concepts in Hindu and Muslim scriptures. His contemporary, Shah Muni, a Muslim saint, lamented that the enmity between Hindus and Muslims was due to the absence of proper understanding of their respective faiths (Kulkarni p.111).
Time and again the people, the mystics and the leaders have proved that the essence of this land is peace and harmony in spite of differences and diversity. Let us sow the seeds of love again in the consciousness of this sub-continent.

References and Extra Reading:

  • Bendre, V S. Ed. Maharashtr etihasachi Sadhane, vols.1-3: part II vol II: 314,315
  • Chitnis, Krishnaji Nageshrao.2003. Medieval Indian History. Atlantic Publishers and Distributes. New Delhi
  • Dhere, R C. 1967. Musalman Marathi Sant Kavi. Padyagandha Prakashan. Pune.
  • Kularni A R. 1999. Social Relations in Medieval Maharashtra: Experiments in Living Together. In: We Lived Together. Eds. S Settar and P K V Kaimal. 1999. Pragati Publications. Delhi
  • Parasnis, D B (ed.). 1917. Peshwe Daftaratil Sanadpatratil Mahiti, Bombay
  • Potdar, D V. (Introduction) Aitihasik Samkeerna Sahitya, BISM Publication, Pune vol. 8 (ASS Vol.)
  • Rajwade, V K (ed.). 1908. Marathyanchya Itihasachi Sadhane. Vol.15. Kolhapur.
  • Shivacharitra Sahitya, 1930.vol.II. 94. Bharat Itihas Samshodhak Mandal, Dutto Waman PotdarPune

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

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

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 saviour 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 sung 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 centre 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.)

Monday, 4 May 2015

The Warkari Movement I : Sant Dnyaneshwar- Beyond Brahmanical Tryranny

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 on wards 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 outcaste 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
 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 were enjoying a wide reputation nearly four of five centuries before Dnyaneshwar. Dnyaneshwar’s father and grandfather were regular visitors to Pandharpur. 

Dnyaneshwar is 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, 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 Brahmins. The priests and Brahmins, 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 . 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 wisedom 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"


1.Jnanadeva and the Warkari Movement by Prof. Fred Dallmayr, Ph.D.


2. Thatte, R. 2012. A Miraculous Rendering on the Bhagwat Geeta by Sant Dnyaneshwa. Shree Book Center, Mumbai, India

3. Bahirat, B.P. 1956, The Philosophy of Jnandeva. Pandharpur Research Society, Pandharpur, Maharashtra, India.

4. Schomer, Karine, W. H. McLeod. 1987. The Sants: Studies in a Devotional Tradition of India. Motilal Banarasidas. Delhi.