Sant Tukaram – The Great Poet of the Bhakti Movement

Girish Bhave introduces us to the life and work of the great Marathi Bhakti poet Tukaram, whose birth four hundered years ago is being celebrated this year

Girish Bhave introduces us to the life and work of the great Marathi Bhakti poet Tukaram, whose birth four hundered years ago is being celebrated this year

Tukoba, as he is fondly called by his followers, was born in 1608 and vanished without a trace in 1650. What little we know of his life is a reconstruction from his own autobiographical poems, the contemporary poetess Bahinabai’s memoirs in verse, and the account of the latest biographer of Marathi poet-saints, Mahipati.
In his lifetime, Tukaram wrote more than 4500 poems, called Abhangas.  One of the obvious reasons why Tukaram’s life is shrouded in mystery and why his work has not been preserved in its original form is because he was born a Shudra, at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. 

Tukaram’s family owned a comparatively large piece of prime agricultural land in Dehu. Several generations of Tukaram’s ancestors had farmed this land and sold its produce as merchant-farmers. Though technically regarded as Shudras, they were by no means socially or culturally backward.  Being traders by profession, they learned to read and write so as to maintain accounts of financial transactions. This was presumably the kind of education Tukaram received. The rest was his own learning from whatever sources he had access to. 

The famine of 1629, during which he lost his wife, was a devastating experience for Tukaram. The horror of the human condition that Tukaram speaks of comes from this experience. Some of his biographers have described how Tukoba, unable to bear the horrible condition of people due to famine, opened all his grain godowns for the people.

Just like other saints of the Bhakti movement before him, Tukoba challenged the rigid caste system.  He preached that the caste system had nothing to do with religious beliefs and practices and that the people should not accept it.  Tukoba said –

“Time will submit to slavery,
from illusion’s bonds we’ll be free,
everyone will be powerful and prosperous — Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra and Chandala all have rights,
women, children, male and female and even prostitutes”.

Just like Bhaktas before him, Tukoba also challenged the monopoly of Brahmins over knowledge, which was the basis of the relegation of other castes to inferior roles. Tukoba roared-

He who becomes enraged at the touch of a Mahar is no Brahmin.
There is no penance for him even by giving his life.
There is the taint of untouchability in him who will not touch a Chandal.

Tuka says: A man becomes what he is continually thinking of.

He lashed out at Brahmins who use Vedas to commit all sorts of atrocities on the masses and explained to people that the real merit of a person is determined not by his birth but by his deeds. His discourses focused on day-to-day behavior of human beings, and he emphasised that the true expression of religion was in a person’s love for his fellow human beings rather than in ritualistic observance of religious orthodoxy, including mechanical study of the Vedas.

Tukoba said:
“Merit consists in doing good to others, sin in doing harm to others.
There is no other pair comparable to this.
Truth is the only religion (or freedom); untruth is bondage,
There is no secret like this. God’s name on one’s lips is itself salvation,
Disregard (of the name) know to be perdition.
Companionship of the good is the only heaven, studious indifference is hell".

Tuka says: It is thus clear what is good and what is injurious; let people choose what they will.”
Though he fought fearlessly against Brahmanism, he was not against Brahmins as such. That is why he attracted a huge number of Brahmin devotees not only during his lifetime but to date.

Tukoba chose the language spoken by his people, Marathi, for his compositions.  He believed that only by exchanging experiences amongst each other can the people enrich their understanding of life. For this it was essential to develop the language of the masses.  Like other Bhaktas he made language a form of shared religion and religion a shared language.  This tradition helped to bind the Marathas together against the Mughals.

“Words are the only jewels I possess
Words are the only clothes that I wear
Words are the only food that sustains my life
Words are the only wealth I distribute among people
Says Tuka witness the Word He is God
I worship Him with my Words”

The poetess Bahinabai, a contemporary and a devoted follower of Tukaram, has described how Tuka ram, in a state of trance, chanted his poems while an enraptured audience rocked to their rhythm. The audience consisted of common village-folk, including women and low caste people, thrilled by the heights their own language scaled and stirred by the depths it touched. Bhakti poetry became a phenomenal movement bringing Marathi-speaking people together as never before. This poetry was sung and performed by audiences that joined poet-singers in a chorus.  Bhajan was the new form of singing poetry together and emphasising its key elements by turning chosen lines into a refrain.

Tukaram speaks the Marathi of the common man of rural Maharashtra and not the elite. His language is not something exclusively used by learned priests. It is the language of ordinary men such as farmers, traders, craftsmen, labourers and also the language of the average housewife. His idiom and imagery is moulded from the everyday experience of people though it also contains special information and insights from a variety of sources and contexts. That is why Tukoba’s kirtans influenced millions of people during his times and even today. 

For a Shudra like Tukaram to write poetry on religious themes in colloquial Marathi was a double encroachment on Brahmin monopoly.  Although since the 13th century poet-saint Jnandev there had been a dissident Varkari tradition of using native Marathi language for religious self-expression, this had always been in the teeth of orthodox opposition. Tukaram’s first offence was to write in Marathi. His second, and infinitely worse offence, was that he was born in a caste that had no right to religion, or for that matter to any opinion.  Tukaram’s writing of poetry on religious themes was seen by the orthodoxy of that time as an act of heresy, of defiance against the caste order.

His contribution to the Marathi language is so huge that he is acknowledged as the greatest Marathi poet ever. There is no other Marathi writer who has so deeply and widely influenced Marathi literary culture since Tukaram.  His poetry has shaped the Marathi language. Many lines of his Abhangas are used in the colloquial & literary Marathi, regularly, as very popular ‘Sayings’, without realising that they are from his Abhangas.

Jyotiba Phule used to call him Peasant Saint and extensively used Tukoba’s verses. Tukoba influenced illiterate common masses as well as the most highly educated people. Agarkar, Ranade, Bhandarkar, Moropant, Mardhekar, Sane Guruji … the list is very long. Tilak’s  Geetarahasya starts and ends with Tukoba’s verse.  Dr. Ambedkar chose Tukoba’s Abhanga for his first paper for Dalits, called ‘Mooknayak’.  Tukoba’s ideas also inspired Marathi poets who expressed understanding of Revolt and Revolution. One of them, famous Baburao Bagul, in one of his poems said:

“Either give me my Gun
Or give me Tukoba’s Veena
I will go from village to village…
And sing revolutionary songs on this Veena”.

Tukoba’s ideas continue to inspire all those who are not happy with the state of affairs of our country and are looking to bring forth a revolutionary change.  

The author Girish Bhave is an active member of Lok Raj Sangathan. After completing his postgraduation in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Bombay he has worked in several Indian and multinational companies in the manufacturing sector

For further reading:
Tukaram’s Poetry – By J.R.Ajgaonkar
Hechi Dan Dega Dewa (Marathi) – By Ravindra Bhat
Missing for 350 years, Retracing the Legend of Tukaram – By Dilip Chitre
Tuka Says – By Dilip Chitre
Tukaram Maharaj & Mahatma Gandhi – By Sachin Parab
Manavi Jeewanacha Mahabhashyakar (Marathi) – By Sadanand More
Call Of The Martyers – By Hardial Bains
Also see:         

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