Significance of Jnaneshwari

published on November 14, 2009
V.N. Gopalakrishnan, Mumbai

Jnaneshwari or Dnyaneshwari is the commentary on Bhagavad Gita written by the Marathi saint and mystical poet Jnanadeva also known as Jnaneshvar (1274-1297). He was born in Alandi near Pune and is worshipped all over Maharashtra as Mauli (Mother) by a large number of devotees. He realised that the Gita’s teachings could be read and understood only by a small Sanskrit-knowing elite. Initiated into the Natha Sampradaya by his elder brother and guru Nivrathinath, disciple of Gahininatha, he rendered a Marathi version of the Gita called Jnaneshwari at the tender age of 16.

The commentary on Bhagavad Gita has been praised not only for its scholarly, but also for its aesthetic value. It brings Vedanta and other spiritual philosophies to the common man. It explains the various paths a person can take for spiritual progress and ultimate liberation. He has explained the Gita not by recourse to rational arguments but by the profuse use of similes, metaphors and illustrations. In Jnaneshwari, he calls the Gita the literary image of Lord Krishna. Jnanadeva expanded the Bhagavad Gita, which consisted of 700 shlokas into around 9999 Marathi verses (ovis). The first line of each Ovi rhymes with the next two, rendering a lyrical quality to the entire work.

The content of Jnaneshwari reflects a detailed knowledge of Kundalini, metaphysics and astrology. The commentary lays importance on God as energy. It emphasizes that although there may be many different living forms, they all breathe oxygen (even fishes under water and reptiles deep inside the earth).They have the same life force within them, which is a part of God, who is energy and intelligence. It states that people can use energy and intelligence to connect with the Supreme and provides methodologies to achieve the same.
Jnaneshwari provides the philosophical basis for the Bhagavata Dharma, a Bhakti sect which had a lasting effect on the history of Maharashtra. It became one of the sacred books (i.e. the Prasthanatrai) along with Ekanath’s Bhagavata and Tukaram’s Gaathaa. It is one of the foundations of the Marathi language and literature, and continues to be widely read in Maharashtra. The Pasayadan or the nine ending verses of the Jnaneshwari are also popular with the masses.
Jnanadeva was a founder of the devotional school of mysticism known as Varakai (Pilgrim), so called because of the emphasis it places on pilgrimages to the shrine of Vithala or Vithobaat Pandharpur. According to Jnanadeva, the omnipresent God is like a thread running through the souls of all beings. Like the Greek philosopher Plato, Jnanadeva very poetically describes God as the sun of reality. Jnanadeva says: “God in truth is immeasurable, indeterminate, immaculate and indescribable. He is not an external reality, existing somewhere in space or time. He is our very self. This identity of the individual self with the Absolute is the ultimate truth.”

Jnanadeva also wrote the Amrutanubhava, a work on Upanishadic philosophy, and a number of devotional and lyrical hymns or the Abhangas giving expressions to his high mystic experiences. He was thoroughly rational in his point of view, and yet expounded his philosophy of life in the most poetic language, with a rare wealth of imagery.  Jnanadeva is reported to have worked many miracles to convince the people of Alandi and Apegaon of his great spiritual powers. One of these was his curing Saccidananda Baba, a native of Nevase, of his dangerous disease, when he was almost on his deathbed.  Saccidananda Baba later became a disciple of Jnanadeva and wrote down the whole of Jnaneshwari as dictated by him, resting against a stone pillar in a temple.

Like Shankaracharya, Jnanadeva was an Advaita-vadin, a non-dualist.  According to him true knowledge consists in knowing God in the non-dual form and that devotion should culminate in Advaita Bhakti. The devotee should realise God as all pervasive; and wherever he casts his eyes, he should see God therein. This shows that Jnanadeva had become a Jnani-Bhakta of the highest order as described in Bhagavat Gita. While talking of the Supreme Self, Jnanadeva employs such terms as omnipresent (vishwarupa), having the form of the universe (vishvakara), and soul of the universe (vishvatman), Lord of the universe (vishwesha), existing in all forms (vishuamurti), pervader of the universe (vishvavyapaka) and the Lord of the goddess of wealth in the form of the universe.

Apart from mythical stories, not much is known about the life of Jnanadeva and his brothers. Judging purely by their writings, they led a hard life. None of his siblings were to enjoy a long worldly life either and passed away within months of Jnanadeva’s Samadhi.

Jnanadeva says that every one should perform his duty as a Yajna and offer his or her actions as flowers at the feet of God. This message is as relevant today as seven hundred years ago, and deserves to be known not only in this country but also all over the world. The doctrine of Jnanadeva is different from the qualified monism, dualism and pure non-dualism which held that the Supreme Self possesses auspicious attributes.

(The author is a social activist and Director, Indo-Gulf Consultancy. He can be contacted on [email protected])

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