Significance of Tukaram Jayanti

via V.N. Gopalakrishnan published on March 4, 2010

Sant Tukaram Jayanti or Tukaram Beej is being celebrated on March 12. It is believed to be the day when Sant Tukaram left for his heavenly abode. Tukaram (1608-1649) is one of the greatest poets in Marathi language and poetry as a genre is incomplete without him. His devotional songs are an invaluable contribution to Marathi spiritual literature. His stature in Marathi literature is comparable to that of Shakespeare in English or Goethe in German. A collection of 4,500 bhangs known as the Gatha is attributed to him. His abhangas or ‘unbroken’ hymns are among the most famous Indian poems. Like Namdev, Janabai and Eknath, Tukaram wrote in archaic Marathi. Mantra Gita, a Marathi translation in abhanga form of Bhagava Gita is also attributed to him.

Tukaram was born and performed his divine deeds in Dehu village near Pune. It is “an abode of live divinity”, as Lord Vithoba himself is believed to reside here. A temple of Lord Vithoba adorns the bank of the river Indrayani. Vishwambhar, Tukaram’s ancestor lived in Dehu and the whole family owed its allegiance to Lord Vithoba. The family in which Tukaram was born belonged to the Kshatriya caste and were very pious. They owned farmland and engaged in money lending and trade. Tukaram was the son of a shop keeper and was orphaned in childhood. Failing in business and family life, he renounced the world and became an itinerant ascetic.

Tukaram’s poems encompass the entire gamut of Marathi culture. He related and sang stories of the gods. Tukaram’s abhangas mostly deal with topics such as the Puranas, lives of saints, laudatory descriptions of Pandharpur; moral instruction and defense of his religious principles. He emphasized liberation through devotion to God and service to mankind, rather than through rituals and sacrifices. He did not favour elaborate rituals, or preoccupation with austerities, saying, “even dogs come in saffron color, and bears have matted fur. If living in caves is being spiritual, then rats who inhabit caves must be doing spiritual practice.”

Sant Tukaram opposed the acquisition of spiritual attainments, viewing them as obstructions to sadhana. He appealed his listeners to cast away the ‘clothes of traditions’ and exhorted them to see God in all. He encountered difficulties with astonishing patience. He even refused diamonds and opals offered by Shivaji Maharaj himself.

Sant Tukaram’s discourses focussed on the behavior of human beings, and he stressed that the true expression of religion was in a person’s love for his fellow beings rather than in ritualistic observance of religious orthodoxy. Sikh gurus recognised the state of enlightenment of Sant Tukaram and hence his poetry was included in Guru Granth Sahib.
The British Government gave Tukaram the unique honour of officially publishing the first authoritative collection of 4,607 of his abhanga works in 1873. The complete translation of Tukaramachi Gatha comprises of 3,721 poems into English was done by J. Nelson Fraser and K.B. Marathe and was published by the Christian Literature Society, Madras. Justin E. Abbott’s 11-volume Poet-Saints of Maharashtra and Nicol Macnicol’s Psalms of Maratha Saints are other works which throw light on Sant Tukaram. Arun Kolatkar, the Anglo-Marathi poet has published 9 translations of Tukaram’s poems. Dilip Chitre has translated the writings of Tukaram into English titled Says Tuka which was later translated into other languages. R.D. Ranade in Mysticism in India:The Poet-Saints of Maharastra pointed out that “Tukaram a pilgrim who was wandering in a lonely and helpless world… it was not until he saw God that his words could be words of certainty and reality for himself, and of assurance and comfort for others.”

Tukaram’s dramatic misadventures as an unworldly man are a favorite topic for story tellers. After being visited in a dream by Namdev, and Lord Vitthal himself, Tukaram began to write abhangas (religious poetry). His religious activities antagonized the Brahmins, who persecuted him. Tukaram emphasized a life of devotion to God and loving service to mankind over the performance of religious rites and ceremonies.

The Jnaneshwari of Sant Jnaneshwar and the Bhagwat of Sant Ekanath formed the basis of Tukaram’s poetry. The depth of his knowledge of the world is evident from the topics he dealt with in his abhangas. He was unrivaled in the use of this poetic device. As was the tradition, he added his signature, Tuka Mhane or “Tuka Says,” at the end of each verse. Besides the abhangas, Tukaram wrote verses in a variety of forms including some in Hindi, such as shlok, arati and gaulani. Tukaram’s poetry has remained popular until this day. No other Marathi poet, medieval or modern, has been so universally appreciated and several of his lines have become household sayings. Tukaram firmly believed that his verse was not his own, that his mouth was merely a vehicle for God.

Tukaram, arguably the greatest poet in the Marathi language. Tukaram’s genius partly lies in his ability to transform the external world into its spiritual analogue. He could be called the quintessential Marathi poet reflecting the genius or the language as well as its characteristic literary culture.

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

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