attempted my first translation of a Tukaram abhang in 1956 or , more than thirty
years ago. It was the famous abhang describing the image of Vitthal - sundar te
dhyan ubha vitevari. For some reason, at that time I found it comparable to
Rainer Maria Rilke's Archaic Torso of Apollo and felt that the difference
between Vitthal and Apollo described the difference between two artistic
cultures. I was only eighteen then and should therefore be forgiven my immature
and rash cross-comparison. But the fact is that the comparison persisted in my
mind. Through Rilke's poem I reached back to Nietzsche's brilliant early work,
Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. This is where Nietzsche first
proposed the opposition between Dionysius and Apollo and the resolution of this
opposition in Attic Tragedy. I began to look at the iconography of Vitthal to
contemplate its secret meaning for Varkari Bhakta poets and it was worth paying
attention to the unique stance of Vitthal.
The reason I recall this here is because I
kept translating the same abhang periodically and my most recent version of it
was done last year. Each of these versions derive from and point to the same
source text. The same translator has attempted them. But can one say that anyone
of them is more valid or correct or true than any other? Do these translations
exist independently of the source text? Do they exist independently of one
another? Or do they belong to a vast and growing body of Tukaram literature that
now includes many other things in many languages besides the source text of
Tukaram's collected poetry? These issues are fundamental to literary theory and
to the theory of literary translation, if such a theory were possible.
In this connection, I would like to
quote somewhat extensively from my Ajneya Memorial Lecture delivered at the
South Asia Institute of the University of Heidelberg in November 1988. The theme
of my lecture was the life of a translator and more specifically my life as a
translator of Tukaram into a modern European language. Here are some relevant
"Someone has said (and I wish it was me who
first said it) that when we deal with the greatest of writers, the proper
question to ask is not I what we think of them but what they would have thought
of us. What a contemporary European reader thinks of Tukaram is thus a less
proper question to ask than what Tukaram would have thought of a contemporary
European reader. Part of my almost impossible task is to make the reader of my
translations aware that my translations faced a challenge I was unable to meet.
". ..Bhakti, the practice of
devoted awareness, lies in mirroring God here and now. Tukaram was a
Bhakta-poet. To understand God's being, to translate His presence, he
mirrored Him. First, he thought of God, tried to picture Him in various worldly
and other-worldly situations. Then he pined for Him. And finally, "possessed"
by Him, He acted, through language, like God. To read Tukaram's poetry is to
understand this ritual choreography as a whole; for its form is shaped by its
function. Thus, in translating Tukaram, we are not merely transposing poetry but
recreating a dramatic ritual of "possessed" language. This is the only aspect of
Tukaram's work which is multifaceted. But it is a culture-specific aspect of his
idea of the role of poetry in life as Bhakti."
"This imposes comprehensive
constraints upon any would-be translator of Tukaram into any modern European
language. He has to be thoroughly aware of the phenomenon of Tukaram at source,
not only the text but the context as well. For the text is a total cultural
performance which embodies a specific tradition and an individual notion of
poetry, the poet and his audience. When Tukaram claims to be a poet he is also
claiming that his kind of utterance is poetry as distinct from other kinds of
Marathi utterances. He and his tradition in the seventeenth century are innocent
of Europe and its poetry. The source language and its literature, in this case,
have no actual historical nexus with the target language. This does not rule
out, however, an imaginative manipulation of the resources of the target
language and literature, as available in the twentieth century, to put Tukaram's
work across. In fact, our contemporary translation of Tukaram must make his work
appear here and now, yet suggesting also that it is really out there. The
translation must subtly contain its own perspective and imagined laws of
projected perception, so that Tukaram remains a seventeenth century Marathi
Bhakta-poet in English translation, and not a jeans-and-jacket-clad European
talking of mystical illumination in India. ..."
More than three
decades of translating Tukaram have helped me to learn to live with problems
that can only be understood by people who often live in a no-man's land between
two linguistic cultures belonging to two distinct civilizations.
As I have said earlier, traditional editions of Tukaram's collected works have
been compiled from later devotees' versions of orally preserved and transmitted
verses. Some of them are copies of still older copies but what we have in
supposedly Tukaram's own hand- writing is the remaining 250 abhangs from the
hallowed heirloom of a copy in the temple at Dehu. As I have remarked, this
manuscript has been gradually depleting. As a result, there is no canonical text
of Tukaram's collected works. The nearest thing to an authorized version that we
have access to is Tukarambavachya Abhanganchi Gatha collated and critically
edited by Vishnu Parshuram Shastri Pandit with the assistance of Shankar
Pandurang Pandit in 1873. It is significant to note that one of the four
manuscripts used by the Pandits for their critically collated edition was the
"Dehu manuscript obtained from Tukaram's own family and continuing in it as an
heirloom". But according to the editors, "It is said to be in the hand-writing
of Mahadevabava, the eldest son of Tukaram, and so appears to be more than two
hundred years old." However, the present oldest direct lineal descendent of
Tukaram, Mr. Shridharbuva More (Dehukar) informs me that the Dehu manuscript is
in Tukaram's own handwriting and is referred to as the "Bhijki Vahi" or the
Whether the Dehu
manuscript is in Tukaram's own handwriting or not, its antiquity is not in
question. Tukaram's descendants have proudly preserved this copy as an heirloom.
The three other copies consulted by the Pandits for their critical edition are
the Talegava manuscript of Trimbak Kasar, the Pandharpur manuscript, and the
Kadusa manuscript of Gangadhar Mavala. Despite the vigilance of the editors,
interpolations may have gone unnoticed in this otherwise excellent and most
reliable edition. This is the principal source text I have used although I have
occasionally used other Varkari editors' versions such as Jog's, Sakhare's, and
What struck me, as a regular reader
of the collected poems of Tukaram in various editions, was not textual
variations as such but the widely divergent sequencing of the abhangs. Although
there are many distinct groups of abhangs that are linked by narrative or
thematic connections or have subjects and topics that are clearly spelt out,
there is no clue to the chronology of Tukaram's works. They appear in a random
sequence and are often a rather jumbled collection of poems without individual
titles. In short, what the Gatha lacks is a coherent order or an editorial plan,
whether thematic or chronological. Since the Gatha as a whole is largely an
autobiographical work occasionally containing narrative poems, topical poems,
poems on specific themes, odes, epistolary poetry, aphoristic verses, prayers,
poetry using the personae of various characters, allegories and many other types
of poetry, it is difficult to understand it in totality.
Yet I, for one, feel compelled to have a holistic
grasp of Tukaramachi Gatha. Since I perceive it as an autobiography, even if I
cannot suggest a chronological order for the more than 4000 poems before me, I
should be able to relate a majority of these poems to Tukaram's personality and
his concerns, the key events that shaped his life and his development as a
spiritual person through the various transformations his poetry goes through.
This book makes an effort to understand Tukaram as a whole being with certain
characteristic aspects: it is an introduction to Tukaram, the poet, and his
poetry as facets of his being. I have made the same attempt in my Marathi book,
Punha Tukaram, in which I present an identical selection of abhangs in the
original Marathi of Tukaram with an introduction, a sort of running commentary,
and an epilogue. But the Marathi book is addressed to the insider and is meant
to be a critique of Marathi culture, among other things. In the present book, my
bilingualism functions on an altogether different level though the two aspects
are not mutually exclusive. I have tried to introduce my reader in English to
the greatest of Marathi poets, assuming that they are unacquainted with works in
Marathi. One of the greatest rewards of knowing this language is access to
Tukaram's work in the original.
This book has been divided into ten sections:
1. Being A Poet;
2. Being Human;
3. Being A Devotee;
4. Being In Turmoil;
5. Being A Saint;
6. Being A Sage;
7. Being In Time And Place;
8. Being Blessed;
9. Absolutely Being;
10. A Farewell To Being.
These ten aspects or
dimensions of Tukaram's personality are integral to his being as a whole. None
of them exists to the exclusion of any other. None of them can be emphasized at
the expense of another. These aspects cannot be seen in any linear or serial
order, whether chronological or psychological. They are perceived distinctly
only because most of his personal and autobiographical poetry falls into place
if grouped according to these aspects.
Perceived according to this design, Tukaram's
aspects are his inner needs as well as his capabilities. They indicate his
sensitivity. They point to his ethics. They imply an entire world-view. These
ten aspects cover the universe of Tukaram's awareness.
Once I became aware of these ten
facets of Tukaram's life and his poetry, the poems in this book selected
themselves. If I have left out some very well-known abhang from this selection,
the reason could be my self-imposed constraints. I have so far finalized the
translation of about 600 abhangs of Tukaram. In selecting poems for this book,
my guiding principle was the idea of presenting a poetic self-portrait by
Tukaram. There are other ways of looking at his work that is oceanic in its
immensity and this is only one of many possible beginnings.
Tukaram is part of a great
tradition in Marathi literature that started with Jnanadev. Broadly speaking, it
is part of the pan-Indian phenomenon of Bhakti. In Maharashtra, Bhakti took the
form of the cult of Vithoba, the Pandharpur-based deity worshipped by Varkari
pilgrims who make regular journeys to Pandharpur from all over the region.
Jnanadev gave the Varkari movement its own sacred texts in Marathi in the form
of Jnanadevi or Bhavarthadeepika (now better known as Jnaneshwari) Anubhavamrita
and Changdev Pasashti, as well as several lyrical prayers and hymns. His
contemporaries included Namdeo, another great Marathi poet and saint, and a
whole galaxy of brilliant poets and poetesses. These poet-Bhaktas of Vithoba
composed and sang songs on their regular trips to Pandharpur and back from all
parts of Maharashtra. ,In the sixteenth century, the Varkari tradition produced
its next great poet, Eknath and he was followed in the seventeenth century by
Tukaram's younger contemporary,
Bahinabai Sioorkar, has used the metaphor of a temple to describe the Varkari
tradition of Bhakti. She says that Jnanadev laid its foundation, Namdeo built
its walls, Eknath gave it a central pillar, and Tukaram became its "crown" or
"spire". As visualized by Bahinabai, the Varkari tradition was a single
architectural masterpiece produced collectively by these four great poets and
their several talented followers. She rightly views it as a collective work of
art in which parts created in different centuries by different individuals are
integrated into a whole that only the genius of a common tradition could
The achievement of the Marathi Varkari poets is paralleled by only one example I
can think of and that too, incidentally, is from Maharashtra. The frescoes of
Ajanta and the sculptures and architecture of Ellora comprise similar continuous
collective work of superbly integrated art. These were produced by a creative
culture that does not lay too great a stress on individual authorship. It is a
community of the imagination and a synergy of creative inspiration that sustains
such work over several generations.
The secret appears to be the ethos of
The roots of
Bhakti lie more in folk-traditions of worship than in classical Hindu
philosophy. As for the Varkaris, their only philosopher was Jnanadev. Jnanadev
was an ordained member of the esoteric Shaivaite Natha sect. It was novel, to
say the least, for him to embrace the cult of Vithoba and to give it a
philosophical basis on the lines of the Kashmir Shaivagama Acharyas' teachings.
Jnanadev's mind was as brilliant and original as Abhinavgupta's. In
Anubhavamrita - his seminal work in religious philosophy - Jnanadev describes
Bhakti as chidvilasa or "the spontaneous play of creative consciousness".
Tukaram celebrates the legacy of Jnanadev in his poetic world-view. But Tukaram
reaches the ecstatic state of liberated life only after extreme suffering and an
anguished search of a lifetime.
No Marathi reader can read Tukaram
except in the larger context of the tradition of Varkari poetics and practice of
poetry. If readers of Tukaram in translation find him rewarding then they should
go deeper into the Varkari poetic tradition. They will not be disappointed. They
will even discover richer resonances in the same work of Tukaram that they may
have started with.
It may be worthwhile to ask what I myself
have been doing with Tukaram all these years and try to give a candid answer.In retrospect, I have just gone through the vast body of Tukaram's work again
and again, marked its leitmotifs, followed its major thematic strands and the
often invisible but always palpable autobiographical thread. Each time, I have
discovered something new. Some abhang or another that I had not noticed earlier
has regularly exploded in my face. Tukaram's exquisite mastery of his medium has
stunned me again and again.
This is the way I view my source-text with
absolute and unashamed reverence. These are the bases of my present selection
and presentation of translations. No reference to the source-text or to any
other works is necessary for the reader of this book. Quite simply, these are
poems in English worked out by a twentieth century poet who is no relation of
Tukaram. Tukaram himself did not write any of these poems in English, a language
he did not know of in all probability. Translations of poetry are speculations
about missing poets and lost poetry. They are done with dowsing-rods and
non-scientific instruments. But their existence as entities in their own right
cannot be disputed or denied.
A large number of friends and well-wishers have
supported my Tukaram "project" since 1956. I would recall them in a
chronological order, as far as possible, and also name the places where I worked
then. The "support" came in various forms: discussion, advice, suggestions,
references, books, information, criticism, encouragement, and even financial
help whenever I had no income but was working full time on my translations.
In the first phase between 1956 and 1960 in
Bombay, Bandu Vaze and Arun Kolatkar.
In the second phase between 1960 and 1963, Graham
Tayar, Tom Bloor, and George Smythe in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
In the third phase between 1963 and 1970, Damodar
Prabhu, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Sadanand Rege, K. Shri Kumar, A.B. Shah, and G.
V. Karandikar, in Bombay.
In the fourth phase between 1970 and 1975 in
Bombay, Adil Jussawala, who continued to back me all the way, all the time, ever
Between 1975 and the end of 1977 in Iowa
City and other parts of the U.S.A., Daniel Weissbort, Burt Blume, Skip and Bonny
O'Connell, William Brown, Angela Elston, A.K Ramanujan, Eleanor Zelliott,
Margaret Case, Jayanta Mahapatra.
Between 1978 and 1983 in Bombay and parts
of Europe, Gunther D. Sontheimer, Lothar Lutze, Orban Otto, Guy Deleruy.
Between 1983 and 1985, Ashok Vajpeyi,
Shrikant Varma in Bhopal and New Delhi.
Between 1985 and 1990, mostly in Pune except for two
visits to Europe, I brought this book into its present shape with significant
and sustained help from Adil Jussawala, Anne Feldhaus, Gunther D. Sontheimer,
Lothar Lutze, G.M. Pawar, A.V. Datar, Prakash Deshpande, Chandrashekhar
Jahagirdar, Rajan Padval, Namdeo Dhasal, Anil and Meena Kinikar, Philip Engblom,
Shridharbuva More, and Sadanand More in different ways.
I would like to recall here that it was my
maternal grandfather, Kashinath Martand Gupte, who impressed upon my mind the
greatness of Tukaram when I was only a child. My paternal grandmother, Sitabai
Atmaram Chitre, gave me my first insight into Bhakti. My parents my father in
particular, regularly gave me books that were relevant to my work on Tukaram.
My greatest gratitude is towards my wife Viju,
the first critical listener of my ideas as they evolve and of my poetry or
translations. She is also the keeper of all that I possess or produce.
Considering that the smallest scraps of paper with scribbled notes, scrawled
messages, or intriguing squiggles have all been miraculously preserved by her in
a nomadic life spent in three different continents during the last three
decades, she deserves the world's greatest honour that I can personally bestow
This book is the product of the collective goodwill of
all these people. All I own is the errors of omission and commission.