Earth and Bhakti


- Dilip Chitre


“You cannot split the Earth by drawing boundaries on it.” - Tukaram


We live on a planet that supports life and look for other planets that support life, anywhere in reachable space, in imaginable terms. We try to imagine another Earth and another mirror of life. For, supporting our life, the Earth becomes the very foundation of our awareness, the source of our being.


Our knowledge of ourselves cannot surpass our knowledge of the Earth, of which we are a mere detail. Richly detailed by life, the Earth may be conceived as an evolving art form and this, I suppose, is Tukaram’s perception. However interconnected above or beyond the Earth, all the forms of life that spring from the Earth share it as their origin and their heritage.


James Lovelock’s famous and controversial Gaia Hypothesis has now been around for more than four decades. Simply stated, it proposes that the Earth is alive. Lovelock being an atmospheric chemist---and not a poet, an artist, a mystic, or a philosopher---his hypothesis could not go unnoticed by his scientist colleagues. As in every field of human endeavour, in science too there is a powerful orthodoxy that attempts to control its own domain from what seems heretical and politically dangerous. Once upon a time, the Church controlled science. The position was nearly reversed in a matter of just three centuries. Today, scientists call their colleagues who challenge the status quo heretics much in the same way the Church once did.


Tukaram was a 17th century Marathi poet and arguably the greatest poet in the tradition of Marathi Bhakti poetry founded in the philosophy of the 13th century poet and thinker Jnandev. As a modern translator of Tukaram and other Marathi poet-bhaktas, I have come to believe that their world-view is relevant to our own time as well, and in large measure this is because their faith is rooted in the Earth as a spiritual entity.


The Varkaris are pilgrims vowed to visiting the sacred city of Pandharpur on fixed days in the Hindu lunar calendar: the eleventh day of the bright fortnight in the months of Ashadh and Kartik are the days on which they visit the temple of Vitthal or Pandurang, their deity.
       It is on this day that Vitthal, leaving his legendary abode in Vaikuntha (the residence of Lord Vishnu), visited Pandharpur to meet Pundalik, his devotee; and dazzled by the devotion of Pundalik to his this-worldly obligations, decided to stay on in Pandharpur forever. The story is that when Pandurang came to Pundalik’s door, the latter was engaged in massaging the feet of his aged parents. He motioned Pandurang to stand on a ‘brick’---a stone slab really---while he finished serving his parents. The priority Pundalik gave his parents over his deity impressed Pandurang, the deity.
       The devotion or ‘bhakti’ of Pundalik becomes the symbol of ‘earthly engagement’ for the Varkari. It is the cornerstone of his faith in human life and its eternal cycle of sowing seeds, raising a crop, harvesting the crop, and thanking the Lord for governing this entire process. The Varkari is the farmer worshipping the Earth. He seeks the blessing of Pandurang in Ashadh, when the monsoon rains arrive, for a bountiful crop; and in the autumn month of Kartik he thanks his Lord.This is the earthly version of the cosmic and cyclic process of creation, preservation, and dissolution. It is the expression of faith in life and its meaning in folk terms.


The Vari or the periodic pilgrimage to Pandharpur---is a living tradition of Maharashtra. About half-a-million people participate in it. A unique feature of this pilgrimage is taking the palanquins of ‘sants’ or great devotees of Pandurang to Pandharpur. The youngest son of Tukaram, Narayan, who was born after his father had passed away, started this practice. Narayan placed the sandals (paduka) of his father and carried them from Dehu, his native village, to Pandharpur.Narayan was thoughtful enough to carry the symbolic sandals of Jnandev from Alandi in the same palanquin.
       As they march on foot to Pandharpur, Varkaris chant “Gyanba-Tukaram” or “Jnandev-Tukaram” all the way, as though they were physically carrying their beloved saints to Pandharpur with them. Today, the palanquin of Jnandev leaving from Alandi and the palanquin leaving from Dehu are separate. But “Gyanba-Tukaram” remains the common and universal Varkari chant.


Although all Varkari poet-Bhaktas sing songs that praise the Lord--- Vitthal/Pandurang ---and visualise Him as Vishnu or Krishna in their act of poetic remembrance and verbal expression, their deity dwells only metaphorically in Vaikunth or ‘heaven’. Pandurang, for them, is the cosmic spirit that is present simultaneously within all space and time, and also beyond. He is both Vishnu and Shiva and, according to Jnanadev, the two forms cohere just as Shiva and Shakti cohere to create a cosmic creative resonance. In his interpretation of Shaivism, Shiva or Absolute Being and Shakti, the curiosity, capacity, and will to create many forms to express oneself are indivisible or Advaya. The phenomenal world is not unreal just because it changes; it is not Maya or illusion. It is real. Change is reality, though temporal. It is the expression of the creative, dynamic spirit of the Creator.
       Since human awareness of existence in relation to the constant spirit of the Creator reflected in changing forms to express its creativity, the Creator within every human bhakta shares the spirit of God. The Bhakta is the Shakti of God reflected in a finite form, an earth-bound creature resonating with the cosmic spirit. God may be in heaven, but His feet are rooted in the Earth at Pandharpur where, as Vitthal, he dwells waiting for His Bhaktas ever since the bhakti of Pundalik entranced Him.


For the last eight centuries or more, Varkaris have greeted heaven’s descent on Earth in the form of the arrival of the monsoon to renew the life-cycle of the Earth. At the beginning of the sowing and planting season, they make a pilgrimage to Pandharpur, the earthly dwelling-place of the Cosmic Parents---the male-female spirit of the universe. After reaping their harvest, they return to Pandharpur to celebrate it.
    They find their God in the Earth and its ecology and their faith in the coherence of the cosmic spirit in its resonant relationship with life on the Earth.