Many Voices, One Song: The Poet Mystics of Maharashtra
By Judith Sankaranarayan
Publisher: Radha Soami Satsang Beas, 2013.
From the twelfth to the seventeenth century, Maharashtra was home to a large number of mystics who practised and taught the path of devotion. Along with hundreds of other mystics throughout India in these centuries, these mystics have become known as ‘bhakti saints,’ in that they taught that the highest and surest means of salvation is that of bhakti (devotion), meaning complete submission to and overwhelming love for God. Many Voices, One Song presents fresh English translations of a selection of their poems.
The mystics of Maharashtra composed their verses in a form called abhang, meaning ‘unbroken’, ‘ceaseless’ or ‘indestructible’. As the introduction to the book explains:
Abhangs are short yet rich with meaning. Straightforward and simple, they can be easily understood by everyone. Abhangs were sung – often to the accompaniment of simple instruments – in temples, at festivals, on the road, by women as they went about their work at home, and by labourers in the fields and towns. As they appealed to the heart as well as the mind and were easily memorized, soon they were on everyone’s tongue.
Even now, centuries later, these abhangs are “still sung in villages and cities throughout the region and across India.”
In many ways the poems speak for themselves and need no explanation. As songs of love and devotion, they seem simply to pour out from an overflowing heart. For these saints the relationship with God was intimate and personal; they lived with him both within and without as their dearest friend and closest confidant. For example, they depict God as “working side by side with them, participating in all their labours.” Janabai (thirteenth century) – an orphan who worked as a maid-servant -experienced the Lord’s presence so intensely that she felt he was not merely helping her with her tasks but had taken on her form, the form of a woman, and was doing her work:
You leave your greatness behind you
to grind and pound with me.
O Lord, you become a woman,
washing me and my soiled clothes.
Proudly you carry the water
and gather cow dung with your own two hands.
Janabai went so far as to say:
I eat God and drink God,
I sleep on God.
I give God and take God –
all my actions are with God only!
The bhakti saints also preached that devotion for the guru is the means to devotion to God. A particularly moving pair of poems conveys this entire teaching. Chokha Mela (thirteenth to fourteenth century) said of his Master Namdev:
Blessed is this golden day, for today I met Namdev.
He has granted me what was mine,
he has delivered to me my heritage,
he has endowed me with the treasure of love divine.
He has unfolded the vision of God within me –
the difference between ‘me’ and ‘you’ has vanished.
And Namdev then spoke of his disciple:
Chokha is my very life –
oh, what devotion he has,
oh, what devotion!
I have come to this world for his sake.
Those who contemplate on my Chokha
are saved from calamity and transgression.
By merging into their Master, saints tell us, they merge into God. Bahinabai (1628-1700) suffered beatings and abuse from her husband for accepting the low-caste Tukaram as her guru. Through devotion to Tukaram she merged with the One:
My master, lord and king – my very life –
I’ll keep my head bowed at his feet,
and he’ll make me remember his Name.
I’ll watch for him within my heart,
and he will appear.
The moment he shows himself to me
two will dissolve into One,
and Maya will know I am lost to her.
Showers of nectar at last – happiness, bliss!
Another theme that runs through these poems is devotion to Nam or the Name of God. Narhari (thirteenth century) used evocative imagery to point out that all else is unreal, only the Name is real:
A painter strokes his brush on a wall –
this is the world, nothing real here.
Children build houses of sand,
then knock them down and go home.
Everyone does their work here –
they love it as their own
so they take it to be true.
f you really want to achieve something real,
just repeat the Name, says Narhari,
and stay close to the mystics.
The bhakti saints of Maharashtra came from different social strata, from Gora Kumbhar who was a potter or Savta a gardener, to Bahinabai and Dnyaneshwara of Brahmin caste. Mankoji Bodhla (1594-1694) was a hunter and a fighter, known for his skill with weaponry, who became gentle and peaceful through contact with his guru. He sings:
The guru –
treasure-house of knowledge, mountain of courage –
he will ferry your boat to freedom
if you practise his simran.
He is the force of life at the core of creation.
Where he is, there is liberation.
The bhakti saints were revolutionary in their time, in teaching that all people regardless of caste were equally able to attain union with the Lord through devotion, and also in writing in the local language Marathi, at a time when the priests taught that only Sanskrit could be used for worship. Eknath argued, “Can we say that God created the Sanskrit language, and that Marathi was created by thieves? In whatever language we praise God, our praise is equally welcome to him, for God is himself the creator of all languages.” A scholar who could write in Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Marathi, Hindi, Telugu, and Kannada, Eknath composed his abhangs using simple imagery any farmer could understand:
The crop of love is ready,
stored so high it touches the sky.
A field was found and judged fit;
only then was the seed sown.
With master’s grace it easily grew.
I’ve been growing love
for my master, says Eknath –
now God is the crop that fills the cosmos.
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