No one to this day has satisfactorily solved all the questions that crop up in regard to Tukaram’s poetry- questions, for instance, as to what was the total number of Abhangs that he wrote, how many of them are available at present, whether some of the Abhangs that bear the name of Tuka are not really the work of some other person of that name, and so on.
Most biographers seem to believe that the four thousand and a half Abhangs that are found published in a volume called the ‘Traditional Collection’ are all that Tukaram ever wrote, and that everything else must be taken to be spurious! Evidently it has never struck these people that a rapid versifier who could even talk in verse at all times of the day, could have produced no more than such a small quantity during his long career of thirty to forty years. Of course, if all the manuscripts, whether written by Tukaram himself or by his disciples during his life-time, were available today, the question about the quantity would never arise at all. But even as it is, what we know already about Tukaram’s compositions is enough to prove that he must have composed more Abhangs than are to be found in the ‘Traditional Collection’. One of the fourteen cymbal-players of Tukaram, Santaji Teli Jagnade, wrote down several Abhangs of Tukaram; these have been preserved by Santaji’s descendants; and out of them, 1,200 were published without the slightest change, in book form, by the late Mr. V. L. Bhave. These latter contain a large number which are not to be found in the ‘Traditional Collection’ at all! This in itself is sufficient to indicate that Tukaram must have composed a great deal more than four thousand and a half Abhangs.
In 1889 A.D. the late Mr. Tukaram Tatya Padwal, having, with the most commendable zeal and devotion instituted a search from village to village, published a volume containing 8,441 Abhangs, i.e. about four thousand more than those given in the ‘Traditional Collection’, bearing the name ‘Tuka’. Not all of these new ones, however, belong to Tukaram proper, a remark that is equally true of the old collection, for there were other ‘Tukas’ such as Tuka Brahmanand of Satara, a contemporary of the great saint. Again some of the Abhangs, wrongly supposed to bear the name ‘Tuka’ really bear the expression ‘Tukaya Bandhu’, meaning ‘Tuka’s Brother’, a title used for his own Abhangs by the great Tukaram’s brother Kanhoba. In spite of this, however, there still remain hundreds of genuine Abhangs of Tukaram, scattered all over Maharashtra waiting to see the light of day.
The present form of the language of Tukaram’s poetry does not appear to be the original one. The form of the language therein differs considerably from that of the Abhangs printed in the traditional collection, but is the same as that found in the manuscripts written by Tukaram’s cymbal-player Santaji Teli Jagnade. In this original form, the words are not split up, but run into each other; the dental ‘I’ appears through out as lingual ‘I’. The end of the Abhang quarter is marked not by a vertical line, but by a couple of vertical, dots; and finally, not much attention is given to the distinction of short and long vowels. In short, Tukaram himself wrote in his rustic fashion, but, later on Rameshwar Bhatt or some other disciple of Tukaram must have given it the form that is found in the ‘traditional collection’.
The popularity of Tukaram’s poetry has never abated in the least to this day, no bhajan possible without it, and there can be no kirtan but must begin with it and end with it-with the Abhang “Grant just this, 0 Lord !”.Several lines of his have become household words! No other Marathi poet, medieval or modern, has ever had such universal allegiance. Even the British Government in India did him the unique honour of publishing his works officially. The Bombay Government more than sixty years ago, spent Rs. 24,000 in getting a compilation of Tukaram’s Abhangs edited by the Late Mr. Shankar Pandurang Pandit. This was the first authoritative collection of Tukaram’s Abhangs. Before that, the late Mr. Madhav Chandroba Dukle had a considerable number of them lithographed and published through his periodical Sarva-Sangraha(‘the All embracing Collection’).
Since the Government compilation, there have appeared about twenty-five editions of Tukaram’s Abhangs during the last sixty years published by various publishers, the total number of their copies amounting to well-nigh a hundred thousand. Most of these, however, are mere reprints of other collections. The late Mr. Fraser of the Indian Education Department, and the late Mr. Marathe .of the Bombay Judicial Service jointly published an English translation of a number of Abhangs through the Christian Literature Society. A few Abhangs have been rendered into modern Marathi prose by the ‘Tukaram Society’ of Poona. The late Vishnu-buwa Jog of Poona, at prominent Varkari, published a collection also, with a modern Marathi prose rendering. ‘A necklace of the Abhang jewels of Tukaram’ by the late Mr. Shantaram Anant Desai, Professor of Philosophy at the Holkar College, lndore, deserves perusal. An excellent essay, not now available, was written by the late Mr. Balkrishna Malhar Hans, a man of great critical acumen. The late Mr. D. G. Vaidya, Editor of the Prarthana Samaj’s official weekly organ Subodh Patrika, used to publish in that paper, from time to time, a fine dissertation on some of the Abhangs. These dissertations he afterwards collected and reprinted in the volume of his writings published a few years ago.
To review and assess the worth of the poetry of Tukaram would be the height of presumption for any but his compeers like Jnanadev, Namdev, Ekanath, and other saints. The poetry having bubbled forth from the deepest recesses of the saint’s heart cannot be easily valued by an ordinary mortal. The saint’s expression of his ideas is unsparingly outspoken, yet overflowing with love. One critic may regard the language used in certain places as ‘harsh’, another may point to his outspokenness in certain places as ‘indecent’, a third may object that certain words he has used are ‘vulgar’. But these critics must never lose sight of the all-important fact that the mental attitude of the saint in respect of every single word uttered or written by him was one that was described in the words:
“Drowning themselves are these folk - I cannot bear the sight!”
Just as a father, in his anxiety for the welfare of his son, would cajole or threaten or even beat him on occasions, all with a view to bringing him to his senses, even so Tukaram, with his heart pining for the welfare of humanity, used different language to suit different situations, all with a view to bringing mankind to its senses. True it is that on occasions he has made use of some ‘vulgar’ words, but that is partly because he was living in a village and his language is a reflection of the village life of his day. When even such, avowed scholar-poets as Mukteshwar, Vaman and Moropant could not avoid an occasional use of an indecent word, what wonder if Tukaram used a few? “In the heat of sermonizing,” says the late Mr. N. C. Kelkar, in his critical essay on ‘The Problem of Obscene Literature’, “when the preacher forgets himself in his talk, it is possible that the excited state of his mind may let slip an unapproved or jarring word from his lips; but the sense of sacredness there, both of the man and his subject, is so strong that it completely overpowers the sentiment of indecency! But the preacher can have this benefit only in proportion to his status”. Tukaram’s spiritual status was undoubtedly high; so the sentiment of obscenity was entirely absent.
As literature, Tukaram’s poetry is wholly spiritual and introspective and can well be compared and contrasted with the poetry it bears the closest resemblance. The poetical merit of Jnanadev’s work, especially in respect of the Jnaneshwari, is very high, its language also is highly ‘urbane’, that is to say, courteous and elegant. Even when he wants to thrash, Jnanadev does so with a silken string of delicate words, so that the lashes, far from causing smarting pain, only produce a tickling sensation. Not so Tukaram. He has, as it were, a leather strap ready to lay on the backs of people. This difference was natural in away, for while Jnanadev was primarily an author, Tukaram was an out and out preacher, admonishing people face to face! The case of Ekanath was rather different. He was both an author and a preacher, and his language in his moral poems is not as gentle as in his other works. Tukaram’s poetry, however, has one important peculiarity : when it comes to the invoking of Shri Pandurang, its harshness disappears, and it is all a smooth-flowing stream of sweetness and love! Tukaram, on occasions, did not dare to ‘quarrel’ with Pandurang Himself, but the words that he uses there are so ingenious that they were calculated to provoke in the Deity not anger but only a smile! Tukaram’s similes are very expressive and sweet. His language, though somewhat rustic, is both striking and effective. It is apparently very simple, but the meaning of some of the Abhangs is not easy to grasp. The variety of abhangs adds to the difficulty still further.
Tukaram firmly believed that his verse was not his own, that his mouth was merely a vehicle for Shri Pandurang’s utterance. He has expressed this sentiment in several of his Abhangs, but nowhere as beautifully as in the following:
The power of speech is not one’s own;
God’s the friend-the speech is His!
What is a maina to sing sweet tunes!
Else is the Master who makes it sing!
Who, poor me, to speak wise words?
It is that World’s supporter has made me speak.
Who, says Tuka, His art can guage?
He even makes the lame walk without legs!
Tukaram’s Abhangs, barring a few incidental ones, can be roughly classified under the following topics:-
.1. The Puranas (Mythology);
2. Lives of Saints;
3. Panegyric of Shri Pandurang;
4. Laudatory description of Pandharpur;
5. Autobiography and self-scrutiny;
6. Moral instruction;
7. Personal explanation;
9. In defence of his Religious Principles and
10. Bharud (Mixed).
Besides the Abhangs, Tukaram has a considerable quantity of other verse in a variety of forms, such as Shlok, Arati and Gaulani. He has some verse in Hindi also.
The essence of Tukaram’s teaching is “Repeat Hari’s Name”. Along with this, however, he gives an important warning that “Whosoever takes the matra (a strong medicine administered in minute particles) of Vithal, must observe the dietary”. And it is the dietary viz. good conduct, kindness to all living creatures, non-killing, beneficence, acknowledgment of Universal God, etc. that is all in all. Without that dietary the matra can never prove effective, warns Tukaram.
Tukaram lays great stress on pilgrimage to Pandharpur and worship of Pandurang, yet that is not the essence of his teaching. That essence is embodied in such Abhangs as
“(Realizing) the immanence of Vishnu is the religion of Vishnu’s devotees. ...”
“ The secret of the Almighty’s worship is not to bear ill-will towards any living being. ...”
“ The saint is he who befriends the wearied and oppressed: in the company of such saints God resides. ...”
“ Wherever dwells peace, God’s company is there. ...” etc.
His sense of oneness is not limited to mankind, but is wide enough to embrace the whole living and sentient world, as is evidenced by the use of the word ‘being’, instead of ‘man’ in the first of these Abhangs.
Though Tukaram was not a great scholar like Jnanadev, Ekanath, Vaman and others, his reading of books and observation of men and things was, for his time, considerable indeed, as shown by his writings. His formal education had never gone beyond reading and writing; yet, once his mind had turned towards spiritual life, he made large additions to his knowledge by reading several Marathi works on Puranas and philosophy, by getting a number of Sanskrit books explained to him, and by attending performances of kirtan and reading of Puranas. The Jnaneshwari and the Bhagwat of Ekanath formed the solid basis of his poetry. The profundity of his knowledge of the world and of human nature can easily be gauged from the hundreds of topics that he has dealt with, as occasion demanded, in his Abhangs. They give a good deal of information regarding the state of society, religion and country prevailing at the time.
Even as mere poetical compositions, his Abhangs rank high. He never made any conscious attempt at composing in strict conformity with the canons of the science of poetics. But his feelings were so powerful that verses composed by him under their influence would automatically become the highest kind of genuine poetry.