Part I of IV - By Dilip
| Tukaram was born in 1608 and
vanished without a trace in 1650.What little we know of
his life is a reconstruction from his own autobiographical
poems, the contemporary poetess Bahinabai's memoirs in verse,
and the latest biographer of Marathi poet-saints, Mahipati's
account. The rest is all folklore , though it cannot be
dismissed on those grounds alone. Modern scholars such as
the late V.S.Bendre have made arduous efforts to collate
evidence from disparate contemporary sources to establish
a well-researched biography of Tukaram. But even this is
| There is a similar mystery
about Tukaram's manuscripts. The Vithoba temple in Tukaram's
native village, Dehu, has a manuscript on display that is
claimed to be in Tukaram's own handwriting. What is more
important is the claim that this manuscript is part of the
collection Tukaram was forced to sink in the local river
Indrayani and which was miraculously restored after he undertook
a fast-unto-death. The present manuscript is in a somewhat
precarious condition and contains only about 250 poems.
At the beginning of this century the same manuscript was
recorded as having about 700 poems and a copy of it is still
found in Pandharpur. Obviously, the present manuscript has
been vandalized in recent times, presumably by scholars
who borrowed it from unsuspecting trustees of the temple.
It is important to stress that the claim that this manuscript
is in Tukaram's own handwriting is not seriously disputed.
It is an heirloom handed down to Tukaram's present descendants
by their forefathers.
Tukaram had many contemporary followers.
According to the Warkari pilgrims' tradition , fourteen
accompanists supported Tukaram whenever he sang in public.
Manuscripts attributed to some of these are among the
chief sources from which the present editions of Tukaram's
collected poetry derive. some scholars believe Tukaram's
available work to be in the region of about 8000 poems.
This is a subject still open to research. The standard
edition of the collected poetry of Tukaram is still the
one "printed and published under the patronage of
the Bombay Government by the proprietors of the Indu-Prakash
Press" in 1873. This was reprinted with a new critical
introduction in 1950 on the occasion of the tri-centennial
of Tukaram's departure and has been reprinted at regular
intervals ever since by the Government of Maharashtra.
This collection contains 4607 poems in a certain numbered
In sum the situation is :
i. We do not have a single complete
manuscript of the collected poems of Tukaram in the poet's
ii . We have some contemporary
versions but they do not tally.
iii. We have many other versions
on the oldest texts and occasionally, poems that are not
The various versions of Tukaram's collected
poems are transcriptions made from the oral tradition
of the Varkaris and/or copies of the original collection
or contemporary "editions " thereof.
This is a tangled issue best left to the
experts. The point to be noted is that every existing
edition of Tukaram's collected works is by and large a
massive jumbled collection of randomly scattered poems
of which only a few are in clearly linked sequences and
thematic units. There is no chronological sequence among
them. Nor, for that matter, is there an attempt to seek
thematic coherence beyond the obvious and broad traditional
divisions made by each anonymous "editor" of
the traditional texts.
One of the obvious reasons why Tukaram's
life is shrouded in mystery and why his work has not been
preserved in its original form is because he was born
a Shudra, at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. In Tukaram's
time in Maharashtra, orthodox Brahmins held that members
all varnas other than themselves were Shudras. Shivaji
established a Maratha kingdom for the first time only
after Tukaram's disappearance. It was only after Shivaji's
rise that the two-tier caste structure in Maharashtra
was modified to accommodate the new class of kings and
warrior chieftains as well as the clans from which they
came as proper Kshatriyas.
For a Shudra like Tukaram to write poetry
on religious themes in colloquial Marathi was a double
encroachment on Brahmin monopoly. Brahmins alone were
allowed to learn Sanskrit, the language of the gods"
and to read religious scriptures and discourses. Although
since the thirteenth century poet-saint Jnandev, there
had been a dissident Varkari tradition of using their
native Marathi language for religious self-expression,
this had always been in the teeth of orthodox opposition.
Tukaram's first offence was to write in Marathi. His second,
and infinitely worse offence, was that he was born in
a caste that had no right to high, Brahminical religion,
or for that matter to any opinion on that religion. Tukaram's
writing of poetry on religious themes was seen by the
Brahmins as an act of heresy and of the defiance of the
caste system itself.
In his own lifetime Tukaram had to brave
the wrath of orthodox Brahmins. He was eventually forced
to throw all his manuscripts into the local Indrayani
river at Dehu, his native village, and was presumably
told by his mocking detractors that if indeed he were
a true devotee of God, then God would restore his sunken
notebooks. Tukaram then undertook a fast-unto-death praying
to God for the restoration of his work of a lifetime.
After thirteen days of fasting,. Tukaram's sunken reappeared
from the river. They were undamaged.
This ordeal-by-water and the miraculous
restoration of his manuscripts is the pivotal point in
Tukaram's career as a poet and a saint. It seems that
after this episode his detractors were silenced , at least
for some time.
But Tukaram and his miraculously restored
manuscript collection both disappeared after this. Some
modern writers speculate on the possibility that Tukaram
could have been murdered and his work sought to be destroyed.
However, Tukaram was phenomenally popular during his lifetime
and was hailed as "Lord Pandurang incarnate"
by contemporary devotees like the poetess Bahinabai. Any
attack on his person, let alone a successful attempt on
his life, would not have escaped the keen and constant
attention of his numerous followers. Therefore, such speculations
seem wild and sensational.
Shivaji was born nineteen years before
the disappearance of Tukaram. The Maratha kingdom was
yet to be founded when Tukaram departed from this world.
At this juncture, the whole Deccan region was in the throes
of a political upheaval. Trampled by rival armies and
ravaged by internecine warfare, small farmers in the village
of Maharashtra faced harrowing times.
Around 1629, there was a terrible famine
followed by waves of epidemic diseases. Tukaram's first
wife, Rakhma, was an asthmatic, and probably also a consumptive
woman. Though he had been married to his second wife Jija
while Rakhma was still alive, Tukaram loved Rakhma very
dearly. Rakhma starved to death during the famine while
Tukaram watched in helpless horror.
Shivaji was born within a year of the
terrible famine that ruined Tukaram's family as it did
thousands of others. Even after Shivaji's rise a few years
later, things could not have been better for the average
farmer in the villages of Maharashtra. Though Shivaji's
brief reign was popular by all accounts, he was battling
the might of the Mughal military machine, waging a constant
Relative peace and stability returned
to Maharashtra only about a century after Tukaram. While
it had tenaciously survived the political turmoil surrounding
it, the Varkari religious movement witnessed a revival
only after the situation became more settled. Tukram's
great grandson, Gopalbuwa, played an important role in
this revival. Otherwise, for four generations the history
of Tukaram tradition remained obscure even though increasing
numbers of people claimed to have become Tukaram's followers.