A brief survey of Tukaram's life and his circumstances give us an idea of
the universality of his experience at this-worldly level which, in his poetry,
acquires other worldly dimensions.
Tukaram was the second son of his parents, Bolhoba Ambile ( or More) and
Kankai. Bolhoba had inherited the office of the village Mahajan from his
forefathers. Mahajans were a reputed family of traders in a village, kasba or
city appointed to supervise certain classes of traders and collect revenue from
them. Tukaram's family owned a comparatively large piece of prime agricultural
land on the bank of the river Indrayani in Dehu. Several generations of
Tukaram's ancestors had farmed this land and sold its produce as
merchant-farmers. Though, technically regarded as Shudras by Brahmins, they were
by no means socially or culturally backward. being traders by profession, they
learned to read and write as to maintain accounts of financial transactions.
This was presumably the kind of education Tukaram had. The rest was his own
learning from whatever sources he had access to. Considering the situation of
the small village of Dehu, it is exciting to speculate on the sources of
Tukaram's wealth of information and the depth of his learning.
The early death of his parents and the renunciation of worldly life by
his elder brother thrust upon Tukaram the role of the head of his extended Hindu
family at a fairly young age. As mentioned earlier in another context, Tukaram
was married a second time as his first wife was chronically ill. He had six
children and had to raise a younger brother as well.
Before he was twenty-one, Tukaram had to witness a series of deaths from
amongst his loved ones including his mother, his father, his first wife, and
children. The famine of 1629, during which he lost his wife, was a devastating
experience for Tukaram. The horror of the human condition that Tukaram speaks of
comes from this experience. After the famine, Tukaram lost all urge to lead a
householder's life. He showed no interest in farming or the family's trade.
Presumably the famine, but also some other circumstance of which we have no
details, seems to have reduced Tukaram first to penury and then to final
humiliation of bankruptcy. He was unable to repay debts he had incurred and the
village council stripped him of his position as Mahajan and passed strictures
against him. He incurred the displeasure of the village Patil(Headman).
Tukaram became totally withdrawn. He started to shun the company of the
people. He began to sit alone in a corner and brood. Soon, he started going off
into wilderness for long spells. Meanwhile, his wife had to fend for herself and
the children as Tukaram paid little attention to his household responsibilities.
The Ambiles (Mores) of Dehu had been devoted Varkaris for several
generations before Tukaram. Lord Vithoba of Pandharpur was their family deity.
There was a shrine of Vitthal built by an ancestor of Tukaram on land owned by
the family in Dehu. A series of traumatic events in his personal life not only
made Tukaram introspective but also made him turn his attention to the deity in
whom his forefathers had placed their unswerving faith. Their ancestral shrine
of Vitthal happened to be in a state of disrepair at this time and Tukaram
restored this shrine even though his immediate family was reduced to abject
He now began to spend most of his time in the shrine of Vitthal or its
precincts, singing songs composed by earlier poet-saints in praise of the deity.
He totally disregarded the pleas of his wife and the counsel of his friends and
virtually stopped working for a living. He became a dropout and perhaps an
object of pity or contempt among many of his fellow-villagers. His wife and some
of his fellow-villagers saw this as a form of madness because Tukaram was lost
to the world and had broken away from its routines and practical bonds. However,
his total devotion to Vitthal and his compassion for everybody and all forms of
life slowly won him the admiration of people.
Some time at this juncture, Tukaram had a revelatory dream in which the
great saint-poet Namdeo and Tukaram's deity Vitthal appeared and initiated
Tukaram into poetry, informing Tukaram that his mission in life was "to make
poems". "Poems" of course meant "abhangs" to be sung in praise of Vithoba as
Namdeo himself had done. The dream made reference to a pledge made by Namdeo to
Vitthal that he would compose "one billion abhangs" in His praise. Namdeo had
obviously been unable to achieve this steep target in his lifetime and he
therefore asked Tukaram to complete the task. This dream or revelation which he
saw while in state of trance was so vivid that Tukaram was convinced of its
"reality". This changed his life. He had found his true vocation.
The divine revelation that he was a poet did not cause Tukaram to go into
ecstasy. Instead, he began to suffer from anxiety, doubt and pangs of
conscience. One of Tukaram's characteristics was his absolute honesty and
accountability to himself. He would not tell a lie even in a poem. The knowledge
that his task in life was to write poems in praise of Vitthal made Tukaram a
restless and troubled soul. He had never experienced God. How was he going to
praise some –thing he had never experienced himself? He had been a honest
trader. He vouched for the quality of every item he sold. He bought goods only
after critically testing them. He did not cheat anyone in any transaction. Nor
would he allow himself to be cheated. Tukaram treated poetry as a serious
business from the outset. To him, all poetry was empirical and so was religion.
Experience or "realization" was the crucial test. In one of his poems,
presumably written at this juncture, Tukaram says in effect, "Whereof I have no
experience, thereof I cannot sing. How can I write of You, O Vitthal, when I
have not personally experienced Your being?"
Yearning for an experience of God became the chief theme of poetry for
Tukaram in his first major phase of work. Meanwhile, he continued to record his
poems the human conditions as witnessed by him and also his experiences just
prior to his realization that he was to be a poet of God.
Having become a
poet, Tukaram continued to go off for long periods of time, away from the
hub of human life and society, to meditate and seek enlightenment.
Bhandara Hill Cave
Two hills in the
vicinity of Dehu were his favourite retreats. The first is the Bhandara hill,
where, in a small cave which is a relic of Buddhist times, he composed many of
his abhangs. The second is the Bhamchandra hill, where, some years later, he
meditated for a full fifteen days before experiencing mystical illumination and
beatitude. This event is distinct from another instance of initiation by a guru
during a trance that Tukaram has described elsewhere. In this latter event,
Tukaram was dreaming that he was going to a
river for a dip when he wassuddenly confronted by a holy man who placed
his hand on Tukaram's head and gave him the mantra, "Ram Krishna Hari" to
chant. This holy man told
Tukaram that his
name was "Babaji" and that he was a lineal spiritual descendant of the gurus
Raghav Chaitanya and Keshav Chaitanya. When Tukaram was given this mantra, he
felt his entire being come alive. He experienced a fullness of being he had
never before felt.
Tukaram himself has described these experiences in his poems and there is no
ambiguity about them. Unfortunately, the chronology of these events is difficult
to determine except in a broad way. Tukaram must have been thirty years old or
more by the time the latter of these experiences occurred. A prominent modern
biographer of Tukaram, the late V.S. Bendre, has laid great emphasis on
Tukaram's dream initiation by "Babaji" and the guru-lineage it signifies. I
suspect that Bhakti has roots in folk-religion and therefore Brahmin and caste
Hindu people always try to "upgrade" a Bhakta by presenting him as a "yogi" or
an "initiate" of some esoteric order or another. Bendre appears to me to have
been attempting to "Brahminize" Tukaram through "yogic" and "mantric"
initiation rites performed by a "proper" guru. This seems to be an attempt to
authenticate a natural and self-made Bhakta. But to me the meaning of these
stories is almost the opposite: to a "Shudra" the guru can appear only in a
"dream" or a trance.
Now the last and the most spectacular decade in Tukaram's life begins.
Though Tukaram was only about thirty years old at this time, he had been writing
poetry for nearly ten years. In his poetry, Tukaram had depicted with great
honesty his own past life and his anguished search for God. With his recent
mystical enlightment, his poetry acquired a magical quality. His songs began to
attract people from distant places. The younger poetess Bahinabai came to Dehu
all the way from Kolhapur just to witness Tukaram's divine performance of his
poetry in front of the image of Vitthal in the shrine near his ancestral house.
Though Bahinabai's account of her visit to Dehu refers to a period just a few
years before Tukaram's disappearance, from her description we get some idea of
the charismatic influence of Tukaram upon his contemporaries throughout
Maharashtra. The water-ordeal that has been referred to earlier had already
taken place before Bahinabai's visit to Dehu. The miraculous restoration of his
manuscripts that had been consigned to the river for thirteen days was surely a
major factor contributing to the legendary status which Tukaram acquired in, his
lifetime. Bahinabai has described Tukaram singing his abhangs as "Lord Pandurang
incarnate". "Whatever Tukaram writes is God," says Bahinabai.
Tukaram disappeared at the age of forty-one. Varkaris believe that
Vitthal Himself carried Tukaram away to heaven in a "chariot of light". Some
people believe that Tukaram just vanished into thin air while singing his poetry
in front of an ecstatic audience on the bank of the river Indrayani in Dehu.
Some others as I have said, speculate that he was murdered by his enemies. Still
others think that he ended his own life by drowning himself into the very river
where his poems had been sunk earlier. Reading his farewell poems, however, one
is inclined to imagine that Tukaram bade a proper farewell to his close friends
and fellow-devotees and left his native village for some unknown destination
with no intention of returning. He asked them to return home after their having
walked a certain distance with him. He told them that they would never see him
again as he was "going home for good". He told them that from then on only "talk
about Tuka" would remain in "this world".
This, in short, is the story of Tukaram's life as it emerges from his
own poems. One can see from it that from absolutely ordinary origins and after
having gone through experiences accessible to average human beings anywhere.
Tukaram went on an extraordinary voyage of self-discovery while continuing to
record every stage of it in detail in his poetry. His poetry is a unique
document in human history, impeccably centered in the fundamental problems of
being and defining poetry as both the being of language and the language of
being: the human truth.