Tree of Knowledge

Sri Saint Tukaram Maharaj

Saint Tukaram (Sri Maharaj) was ardent devotee of Lord Panduranga. Born in 1608, Tukaram spent most of his life in Dehu, near Pune, in Maharashtra. He was a composer of “Abhangas” which are unique in the world of Marathi literature. These abhangas are the feelings that saint Tukaram had towards his beloved Lord Vitthala (Sri Vitthala is a form of Lord Krishna. The Deity is also called Vithobha or Panduranga). Tukaram composed over 5000 abhangas over his lifetime. He lived for 41 years and left for heavenly abode in 1650. Tukaram has an indelible place in the history of Maharashtra.

Traditionaly, this abhanga, or poem, is always rendered at the beginning of every sermon or worship. It is sung in devotional service to Vithhala:
Beautiful, it is the object of my meditation/standing on a brick, hands placed on waist. A garland of “tulsi” leaves adorns his neck/yellow silken cloth, wrapped around his waist. I adore this image, unceasingly. Crocodile shaped earrings, shine brilliantly by his ears/a pearl called “kaustubha” regally adorns the necklace. Tuka says, this is my only happiness/I will visualise, the face of this image with enthusiasm.

There are many symbolic references in these lines of poetry. The first line says that the idol is standing on a brick. The story behind this brick platform goes like this. There lived a devotee of Sri Krishna Pundalika in Pandharpur. His way of worshiping was to serve his parents. Sri Krishna Bhagvan went to visit him. At the time, Pundalika was massaging the feet of his father. Lord Sri Krishna called from the doorstep, asking for permission to enter the house. Pundarika presented the Lord with a brick upon which to stand and asked Him to please wait till he finished his duty. Lord Sri Krishna promised to wait, and Pundalika never abandoned his duties towards society and towards the elders. Till this date, the Lord stands on the brick, waiting for all his devotees to come to him. Thus the Lord is named Vithala – “one who stands on a brick” (in a waiting posture).

Mother Rukmini, Sri Krishna’s wife, and a reincarnation of Goddess Laxmi, got worried because Sri Krishna did not return to Dwarka, his kingdom, as expected. So she followed him to Pandharpur and the amazing story continues like this. There was no place for her on the brick, so she had to go and stand behind the Lord, at some distance and so she too graces the place by waiting along with her husband. Why? Why was there no place for her on the brick? Because the goddess of wealth does not bless all with the same kindness; therefore some are wealthy and some are poor, but Lord Krishna is an incarnate of compassion to all. There is no discrimination, everyone can go and touch his feet and hug him.

This cannot be said of Goddess Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, so she has to stand behind, she has no place on the brick, near universal compassion .Or it can be said that wealth is not absolutely necessary for service and kindness, it has to wait behind true compassion. The word used by Sri Maharaj for brick in Marathi is “wit”. In English, wit means a spontaneous, intuitive response. Here also it is used with same connotation. The Lord within you is your ability to discern, he is at your doorstep, you enter the house, and forget the outside world, forget your duty, towards society by getting lost in pleasures and comforts that the house provides you, you have lost your wits. If instead you balance both your family life and your duties to the elderly and the outside world, your Lord waits upon you till eternity.

The hands of the Lord are placed on his waist. What does it mean? It is an assurance, signalling that the ocean of worldly misery is only waist deep for the Lord’s devotees. If you serve your elders, if work is your worship, you are performing “karma yoga”, you are fulfilling your duties diligently, without any desire for fruits. This is the central theme of the Gita, Sri Krishna’s eternal message.

Sri Krishna is a king, he is in his royal splendour at Pandharpur but he is wearing a garland of Tulsi leaves. It symbolizes that he is totally detached from the riches of royalty. Around his waist there is a silken cloth, a royal garment, but the colour is yellow, again a symbolic renunciation of power. Sri Maharaj is very fond of this image, which symbolises riches coupled with philanthropy, power coupled with the spirit of renunciation.

The crocodile earrings are a reference to another story. There was an elephant called Gajendra. He was a great devotee of Lord Vishnu. One day as he went to quench his thirst, he was caught by a crocodile and dragged deep under water. Seeing his death as imminent, he fervently called on to his Lord, who slew the crocodile with his weapon the “Sudarshan Chakra”. The Lord freed his devotee from the fear of death, but the crocodile also became immortal, because He adopted its shape as His earrings. I may be symbolically the elephant, you could be that elephant, vested with enormous power but helpless in the waters of desires. Lust is the crocodile grip which drags you down into the waters, towards inevitable death. But if I pray fervently, the vision of Lord frees me; this is the proper meaning “Sudarshana” or true vision of the Lord.

In the concluding line, Sri Maharaj emphatically states that this practice of meditation is the only happiness he knows, and he will continue to see and meditate on this vision which will enlighten him. This is the message of this poem to all of us. O human being, with power and doggedness of an elephant, don’t be a slave to your cravings, lest you are caught in a vice. Be detached towards worldly gains of wealth and power. Remember the golden words spoken by Sri Krishna, in the Gita, find the truth in meditation, practice all the virtues the idol symbolises, inculcate these values in your life. This is the only true happiness and none else, so says Tukaram Maharaj. Life, in all its aspects was the subject of such poetry. Tukaram himself believed that he was only a medium of the poetry, saying, “God speaks through me.” This was said in humility and not with the pompous arrogance of a god-man or the smug egoism of a poet laureate.

Dr S.K.K.

(Note: This is the translation of original abhanga in Marathi, known as “Sundar te dhyan, ubhe witevari/kar katawari thevoniya“. It is beautifully rendered by Lata Mangeshkar and is available on Youtube/net).

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