Prayer begins at home

Updated: Jun 14, 2020, 08:14 IST | Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre | Mumbai

Maharashtra's saint poetry - Saint Tukaram's abhangs, Janabai's ovis, Gadge Maharaj's kirtans - works as an apt rationalist tool to popularise low-key festivities

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Sumedha Raikar-MhatreWhen 17th century saint-poet Tukaram was once unable to take on the annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur, he wrote a letter of regret to his favourite deity Vithoba. As the myth goes, Lord Vitthal, touched by the honesty, blessed him with a darshan. Hundreds of Pratipandharpur temples (replicas) dotting Maharashtra's length and breadth, further speak of the Lord's accommodating nature. He is not insistent on worship tailored to rigid geographical-physical parameters. In fact, 13th century saint Savata Mali, a cultivator by caste who lived in Aranbhend village, mere 12 km from Pandharpur, never joined a Wari because of his daily chores. Ultimately, the Lord appeared in his farm and helped him till the land. No wonder, the saint's world famous line locates Lord Vitthal in "Kanda Mula Bhaji."

Maharashtra's saint poetry is suffused with references that endorse Bhakti sans religious protocol or public display. In the post-lockdown emergent context, when people's congregations are to be avoided, could there be a more apt philosophy? Saint Tukaram's call for an immersive prayer: "Thaeech baisoni kara ekchitta (attain concentration by sitting at one place)" transports the devotees automatically to their desired deity. Such a prayer applies not just to the Pandharpur pilgrimage, but to the slew of festivals in the remainder of 2020—Janmashtami, Ganpati, Navratri, Dussehra, Sai Baba Palkhi and Diwali. At a time when Maharashtra's administration has appealed to people to practise social distancing during the upcoming festive season, the re-reading of saints can help in arriving at the right social posture.

Every year, dozens of Dindis (seven major groupings) are kicked off by mid-June. Lakhs of barefoot Warkaris, carrying the padukas (footprints of venerated saints) later unite at Pandharpur on Ashadi Ekadasi day, which is on July 1 this year. But, the COVID-19 outbreak has impacted this tradition. Padukas will be flown directly into the temple city, in order to avoid mass gatherings on the streets. The consensus over tweaking a set pattern is welcome.

Interestingly, none of the Warkari sect saints prescribe a template for Vitthal worship. Thirteenth century female saint Janabai says, "Dalita kandita tuz gaeen Ananta." This means she chants the God's name while grinding flour; she is a house help and doesn't have the luxury of a defined slot for pooja. Similarly, another saint from the same century, Narhari Sonar, who was a goldsmith by profession, sees the Lord in his daily handling of a metal. "Man buddhichi katari, ramnaam sone chori." Calling God his customer, the saint utilises his intelligence to amass the gold of devotion. Sena Maharaj (1357), a barber by caste, alludes to his profession in explaining his oneness with the Lord. He says the art of shaving, perceived as ordinary hajamat, provides him and his clients a tranquillity that is close to Godliness. It shows the mirror to the customer, punches his ego, massages the head and cuts the nails of anger-passion. What a blessed vocation.

Finding God in daily life (karme ishu bhajava) is at the root of saint teachings, reminds Chaitanya Maharaj Kabir, one of the progressive voices from Alandi, who has currently supported the scaling down of rituals in the wake of COVID-19. "Whether it is Ashadhi or other festivities, it should be rooted in the current reality." He cites saint Tukaram's advice: "Yukta ahaar vihaar, nem indriyansi saar" i.e. human actions should befit the demands of the moment. For instance, the Dahi Handi human pyramids on Janmashtami (August 11) are premised on physical proximity, and therefore, such intimate celebrations are best avoided in public interest. Fortunately, one of the main organisers of Mumbai's Dahi Handi blitzkrieg, MLA Pratap Sarnaik, has declared a voluntary ban on this year's celebrations. He says the efforts that went into the three-month national lockdown will be frittered away if adequate caution isn't maintained throughout the year. In fact, he recalls the 2009 swine flu outbreak when Dahi Handi was suspended; and Lord Krishna didn't mind a one-year break.

If we observe attentively, festivals have been reinvented in the last few years because of convenience. The flooding of Mumbai and littering of its beaches motivated devotees to avoid mega-sized Ganpati immersions; use of eco-friendly clay to make the idol is another step. This year, the greater Mumbai body governing Ganesh Mandals has shown readiness to do away with huge decorated pandals, so as to contain celebrations in domestic settings. It is indeed healthy that devotion to the Lord is not being equated with an outer superstructure. Similarly, Navratri enthusiasts who dance in the city's open spaces for nine days also seem prepared to shift the Devi Pooja to the private realm, so as to avoid the possibility of spreading the virus. Milind Vaidya, former Mumbai mayor and the main force behind Mahim's celebrated garba event, says he has spread the word about social responsibility of having a toned down garba. "Although Navratri falls in October, I have started my Mumbaiwide sensitisation drive. Awareness is never too early, especially when people have to be reminded to keep things simple."

Saint poetry has perpetually underscored simplicity. Scores of abhangs and ovis advocate naamsmaran (chanting of God's name) as the easiest accessible form of worship. Poet-philosopher Dnyāneshwar Mauli (1275-96) disapproves "yog yaag vidhi." He feels rites and rituals promote false pride and showmanship. Similarly, saint Visoba Khechar, who is the yogi-guru of Namdev Maharaj, categorically denounced idol worship. The myth is that he placed his feet on the Shiv ling and told Namdev not to arrest the Almighty in a stone-carved figure. One of his lines sound radically rationalist by today's standards: Pashan Devachi Kariti Je Bhakti/ Sarvasva Mukati Moodhpane. Those who worship a stone idol, miss out on every bit of reality. As Warkari scholar, Dr Shrirang Gaikwad points out, the saint's words in the 13th century are super fearless, especially when compared to the cautious critiques of modern-day social scientists/historians, who are forever conscious of the fear of hurting religious sentiments. "Name one chronicler of today's times in Maharashtra who has questioned the rituals in such fierce terms," he asks.

Maharashtra has been relatively fortunate in its saints—for Gadge Maharaj (1876-1956) cleanliness was above all godly virtues and Tukdoji Maharaj's (1909-68) Gramgeeta spells out an ideal village development model. Gadge Maharaj refused to bow before Lord Vithal, but donated his Pandharpur hostel building to the People's Education Society founded by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. He was among the fiercest voices supporting free entry to the Pandharpur temple precinct. Similarly, Tukdoji Maharaj didn't pay heed to the British while endorsing the Quit India movement. His definition of devotion extended to causes as diverse as the Bengal famine (1945) and Konya earthquake (1965). None of the actions were tailored to popular views of the moment; neither did they toe any political line. In fact, they followed Saint Tukaram's "satya amha mani/ navho gabalache dhani" which means "truth resides in our hearts; we cannot be fooled."

For a secular sovereign country, as religiously diverse as India, it is understandably difficult to thrash out matters of faith. Whichever dispensation is at the centre, a religious issue is handled with kid gloves. That's why even in a severe pandemic situation, the government fears a lack of consensus on social distancing in religious festivities. I feel this vacillation is because of the multiple faith-based streams flowing in our collective DNA.

At a personal level, I know what it means to deal with varying perspectives in faith-based matters. Born to an atheist father and a believer mother, I was taught to decide my own orientation, especially if I wanted faith to drive my life, and if there were areas where reason would precede. Introduced to both Abraham Kovoor and Shegaon's Gajanan Maharaj at a critical pre-teen junction by two temperamentally different parents, I recall my adolescent attempts of trying to marry these offerings in one meaningful life. As we—Indian people faced by a life-threatening pandemic—realign our post-lockdown lives, hopefully we will nimbly deconflict faith and reason for our own good.

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at

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