3. Demise of Affectionate Parents


Tukaram was only seventeen when his father and spiritual mentor, Bolhoba, passed away. It was the loss of a veritable protective shield and Tukaram was crestfallen on account of that.
      No sooner had he managed to overcome this grief than his mother, Kanakai, departed from the world the very next year. Tukaram was thrown into a bottomless pit of bereavement.
      Soon thereafter, when Tukaram was still eighteen, the wife of his elder brother, Savji, passed away. As it was, Savji had shown little interest in matters temporal. He left home for pilgrimage after his wife’s death and never came back. That meant that the family was suddenly bereft of four of its important members. His life, which was replete with everything desirable, was suddenly robbed of its mainstay. Nevertheless, Tukaram summoned all the reserves of fortitude at his disposal and began, at the age of twenty, re-building his life afresh. Alas, it was not to be.
      Tukaram was just twenty-one when the whole region found itself in the grip of an unprecedented famine. There was belated rainfall in 1629 and ultimately, crops were lost due to a surfeit of rain. However, people still held on to their hopes. The next year, 1630, was one of drought. Now people became desperate. The prices of essential commodities went up sky-high. Cattle perished by the hundred in the absence of feed and many people died of sheer starvation. Even well-to-do families became impoverished. The cup of people’s woes began overflowing, the next year (1631), which marked the culmination of natural calamity. It was a year of tremendously excessive rainfall, because of which all crops were washed away. Life everywhere was thrown into disarray.
      The family of Tukaram suffered very much in this time of great adversity. He lost all his cattle. The money-lending business was lost. Tukaram’s first wife, Rakhumabai, and his beloved, only son, Santoba, fell prey to the famine.
      It is common knowledge that the people to take the greatest undue advantage of a famine are merchants and money-lenders. Even today we see such people, who achieve their nefarious objects by creating a situation of artificial scarcity.
      However, Tukaram was not a heartless businessman to insist on repayment when people were suffering untold misery. On the contrary, keeping aside his personal grief, he came forward to help the famine-hit population generously. ‘Much had been spent. There was some left, which was given away to Brahmins and alms-seekers,’ he says in a couplet. This, however, should not be construed to mean (as is generally done) that Tukaram allowed himself to become bankrupt. ‘I put a zero in the name of the family, but did this charitable work,’ he says. It was renunciation by choice.
      It was with great courage and resilience that Tukaram faced the bereavement of his near and dear ones and the blows dealt by natural calamities and the family’s dwindling fortunes. He faced them all, did not run away from them. He never was an escapist. He was desirous of conquest in the work-a-day life and also wanted to cull the elixir of it all. All these disasters had made him evaluate money, the human situation and human relationships. The futility of it all had amply been borne in upon him. His quest now was directed towards the permanent values. He began thinking in terms of sailing through all these to reach the shore yonder. He set out for the Bhamnath Mountain in search of truth. No coming back till he found the immortal truth. That was his determination. Wild animals attacked him and reptiles troubled him, but Tukaram remained undeterred. His perseverance reached fruition on the fifteenth day when he encountered Eternal Truth.
     ‘I lived on the Bhamgiri Mountain and concentrated all my faculties on Him
      Snakes, scorpions and tigers attacked me, there was trouble everywhere,
      It was on the fifteenth day that Revelation came, when I met Vithoba.’
It was an encounter void of form or figure (niraakaar). The Lord God gave his benediction to the disciple and gave him much courage.
      Kanhoba, the younger brother of Tukaram, had set out in search of his elder brother ever since Tukaram left home. He had scoured all the hills, valleys and jungles in the vicinity of Dehu. His search eventually led him to the cave on the Bhamnath Mountain and was taken aback by the spectacle that he saw there. The whole body of Tukaram was covered with ants, scorpions and snakes and the Lord God had appeared before him! Kanhoba was spellbound! It was the most memorable day of his life. Both the brothers embraced each other. Kanhoba then arranged a few stones at the place, to mark the spot where his elder brother had the divine visitation and both then returned to the confluence of the Rivers Sudha-Indrayani and bathed there. Tukaram then broke his fifteen day long fast.
      He now asked Kanhoba to bring over all the documents pledged to them by their borrowers. These were the promissory notes taken from the borrowers. Tukaram divided these into two. Half of them he gave back to Kanhoba and consigned the remaining half to the waters of the Indrayani. This was an act of supreme sacrifice on the part of this money-lender, who, by destroying the promissory notes, absolved his borrowers of their bounden responsibility at a time when his own monetary affairs were in great disarray! He showed the world that he had renounced the business of money-lending. It was true socialism!
      Instead of attending to his worldly affairs, Tukaram decided to renovate the temple that had suffered the ravages of famine, thus proclaiming to the world that he had now definitely taken the metaphysical path. The small temple in their residential wada (house) proved insufficient to cope with the rising number of pilgrims during the time of his father, Bolhoba. He had, therefore, built a new temple on the beautiful bank of the Indrayani and shifted the idols there. That temple was now in need of renovation and Tukaram undertook the task himself.
      ‘The temple was in bad disrepair, which inspired me towards renovation,
      So that religious the programme could be held there for the benefit of one and all.’
      Thus, his principal motive in renovating the temple was purely altruistic. He wanted to offer the people a place where religious programmes such as keertan, Harijagaran could be held for all the people, thus paving the way for their salvation.
      ‘I then memorised the (spiritual) answers given by the saints of yore,
      Having first placed my implicit faith in them.’
      Tukaram re-built the temple to do keertan and began going up the Bhandara Mountain to prepare for these discourses in an atmosphere of complete solitude. He would get up early in the morning, offer prayers to Vithoba- Rakhumai, the family deity, and set out for Bhandara.
      ‘In order to master the art of doing keertan, Tuka undertook the study,
      Tuka would study in such a manner as the ocean would welcome the river,
      Whatever was heard was committed to memory and books were also read.’
      He perused in right earnest the Jnanadevi and Amrutanubhav of Jnanadev, Eknath’s criticism of the Bhagawat, Bhavartha Ramayan, Swatmanubhav and the religious compositions of Namdev and Kabir. He memorised the sayings of all these great saints.
      Tukaram partook of this saintly offering, which had given a figure and form to the Eternal Principle essentially devoid of both. He also had recourse to the ancient Puranas and ancient sciences.
      Tukaram was very fond of this atmosphere of solitude, for it offered him a whole new range of near and dear ones in the form of trees, creepers and birds. Hence his famous abhang: Vrikshavalli amha soyare vanachare.
     Tukaram’s wife, Jijabai, would take his lunch to the Bhandara after finishing all her domestic chores in the morning. She would have her own lunch there after Tukaram had his. Jijabai looked after Tukaram with great solicitude during this period of his spiritual quest and therefore, she had an important share in that as well. It was while Tukaram was completely immersed in this spiritual pursuit that Lord Vithoba appeared in his dream along with Namdev and exhorted Tukaram to undertake versification, so that people could be edified. The message was clear: Tukaram had attained salvation himself, now it was time to disseminate this divine benediction among one and all. He was inspired towards versification.
      ‘I was then inspired to versify and in my mind, I put my hands around Lord Vithoba’s feet.’
      Verses (abhang) began gushing forth from his mouth and the fortunate among the people began listening to him. His abhangs encapsulated the essence of ancient shrutis and shastras in a very lucid manner. Tukaram used to do keertan at the gate of Jnanadev’s abode at Alandi. The great scholar Rameshwar Bhat happened to listen to those sweet compositions. He was surprised to find the essence of the Bhagawad-geeta and the Bhagawat in the Prakrit language and with such lucidity! He was scandalised and denounced this novel happening. He said, ‘You are a shudra. Your abhangs elucidate the essence of the Vedas, which is not your right. It is sacrilegious to listen to it from your mouth. Who incited you to undertake such an enterprise?’ Tukaram said, ‘It is not my own speech, it is God speaking through me.’
      ‘You might think these are my verses; but no, this is not my own language,
      Nor is it my own skill; it is God, who makes me talk.’
‘It was Namdev and Lord Vithoba Himself, who ordered me to versify,’ he said.
      However, Rameshwar Bhat was far from mollified. He ordered Tukaram to sink his verses in the river. If indeed these were the outcome of a divine order, God would save them from perishing, he said. He also appraised the village head (Patil) of this ‘misdemeanour’ of Tukaram. The Patil became angry. The people at large also took umbrage.
      ‘Angry is the Patil and angry the villagers, where should I go now and where live?’
Tukaram collected all his abhang books, tied a heavy stone to the bundle and consigned it to the Indrayani, in much the same manner as he had sunk his borrowers’ promissory notes earlier. That was a matter temporal, this time it was matter spiritual.
      Tukaram was now woebegone. People began heaping derision on him, saying there was no divine order or benediction in the first place. It was all a sham! Tukaram then launched a protest in front of the temple with great determination. The do-or-die spirit in him had been fully aroused. Thirteen days passed and yet nothing happened.
      In the meantime, Rameshwar Bhat, who had started from Alandi, having denounced Tukaram, came to the source of the Nagzari (stream) and entered its waters for a bath. While he was bathing, a fakir came there to fetch water. Encountering a stranger in Rameshwar Bhat, he asked the latter who he was and whence he had come. However, Rameshwar Bhat, unwilling to hear the Yavan’s (Muslim) language, put his fingers into his ears and took a deep dip into the water. The fakir was enraged by this. The result was that as soon as Rameshwar Bhat emerged from the water-body, his whole body began smarting with heat. He then draped himself in wet clothes and returned to Alandi to seek expiation from the fakir’s curse.
      Here at Dehu the Lord God paid a visit to Tukaram in a child’s garb on the thirteenth night and told him that He had safeguarded Tukaram’s abhang books underwater for thirteen days and that these would re-surface the very next day. Some of the devout at Dehu also received similar divine messages and accordingly, went to the bank of the Indrayani the next day. Lo and behold, all the books of Tukaram’s verses were seen floating on the water surface! The good swimmers among them immediately plunged into the river and brought all the books ashore. The surprising fact was that all the books were completely untouched by water!
      Tukaram felt that the Lord God was put too much trouble on his account and expressed his regret in an abhang.
      At Alandi, Jnanadev said to Rameshwar Bhat, ‘Your suffering is all due to your denunciation of Tukaram. There is only one way to atone for it. Go to Dehu and meet him.’ Accordingly, Rameshwar Bhat set out for Dehu. When Tukaram came to know of this, he wrote an abhang especially for the scholar and sent it to him with one of his disciples. All his suffering ceased as soon as Rameshwar Bhat read that.
      ‘Even foes become friends if the mind is clean, even wild animals and serpents cannot do anything to such a soul, it is from grief that happiness ensues, even flames become soothing balm.’
      Rameshwar Bhat then came to Dehu to meet Tukaram and stayed on there to listen to the latter’s keertan.
      Angadshah came to know of how Rameshwar Bhat had been rid of his trouble by Tukaram. He was dismayed. He came to Dehu with the intention of harassing Tukaram. He went to Tukaram’s house and asked for alms. Tukaram’s daughter put only a pinch of flour into his bowl, but it enlarged itself within the bowl, which soon overflowed. He realised the spiritual power of Tukaram and called on Tukaram with a sense of devotion. He then stayed on at Dehu to listen to Tukaram’s discourses and keertan.
      Thus it was that knowledge and scholarship bowed their heads before devotion. The news of Tukaram’s books being retrieved unscathed from the river soon spread everywhere. Public disgrace was averted for Tukaram. True to their original meaning, the abhangs proved to be indestructible. The Lord God was seen in his visible form. Tukaram was now free to continue with his discourses and keertan.   


4. The Two Monks