Irreverent devotion: a poem by Tukaram

I posted a couple days ago about a lecture given by Professor Vasudha Narayanan. She ended her talk with a small poem that was so witty and bold, I had to share it.

A little background: Tukaram is one of the most famous poet-saints and social reformers of the Hindu bhakti movement, and is revered by the egalitarian Varkari tradition that is most popular in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Tuka, as he is colloquially called, lived in the seventeenth century, and was born into a family of grain sellers who were Shudras, one of the lower castes in the Hindu caste hierarchy. Through his songs, Tuka protested against the injustice he observed and experienced in his community, while simultaneously exploring religious themes. I’ve actually featured a Tukaram poem on this blog once before: take a look here.

Tukaram composed to his chosen deity, Vithoba/Vitthala, in his mother tongue of Marathi, in a format called abhang (meaning “unbroken”), “a run-on couplet of three and a half feet, with the first three rhyming. He was unrivaled in the use of this poetic device, and others have practically left it alone after him in a tacit acknowledgment that nothing more can be done with it. As was the tradition, he also added his signature, Tuka Mhane (तुका म्हणे) or ‘Tuka Says,’ at the end of each verse.”

“In composing abhangs, Tukaram incurred the wrath of the Brahmins, who believed themselves to be the only true custodians and interpreters of religion. Not only did he dare to impinge upon this prerogative, but he wrote in Marathi rather than Sanskrit.According to legend, the local Brahmins compelled him to throw the manuscripts of his poems into the river Indrayani, and taunted him with the observation that if he were a true devotee of God, the manuscripts would reappear. It is said that Tukaram then commenced a fast-unto-death, invoking the name of God; after thirteen days of his fast, the manuscripts of Tukaram’s poems reappeared, floating on the river. Some of his detractors became his followers; and over the remainder of his life, Tukaram acquired a reputation as a saint.”

Tukaram’s outspoken nature was likely the cause of his early death: “In the forty-eighth year of his life, in 1649, Tukaram disappeared … Some say that he informed his wife early in the day that he was going to Vaikuntha (the Divine Abode), and his wife laughed at him. He went up the hillock and waited for Vithoba. By that time, news had spread around Dehu and people had gathered around the hillock, waiting for the Divine event. From eyewitness accounts, a large vehicle appeared from the skies and Vithoba emerged. Eyewitnesses rushed to Tukaram’s home and informed his wife that Tukaram was on his way to Vaikuntha, the Abode of God. His wife ran toward the hills, only to see him take off in the Viman (flying vehicle). Modern devotees still gather at the hillock and sing his praises. However, Starr offers the suggestion that he was probably murdered because of his successful reformist activity, which had agitated the Brahmins, and that his followers hid the body and spread the rumor that he had gone to heaven in a heavenly chariot.”

“Tukaram used rustic, but striking and effective language, often strongly admonishing his listeners. Critics have sometimes characterized his language as ‘ harsh,’ ‘indecent,’ and ‘vulgar’, but his sincerity and his motivation is not doubted. Tukaram firmly believed that his verse was not his own, that his mouth was merely a vehicle for God … [He] emphasized liberation through devotion to God and loving service to mankind, rather than through rituals and sacrifices. He did not favor elaborate rituals, displays of asceticism or preoccupation with austerities, saying, ‘even dogs come in saffron color, and bears have matted fur. If living in caves is being spiritual, then rats who inhabit caves must be doing sadhana (spiritual practice).'”

According to the New World Encyclopedia, “Tukaram’s poetry has remained popular until this day. No other Marathi poet, medieval or modern, has been so universally appreciated. Several of his lines have become household sayings.” So without further adieu, here’s the poem. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the Marathi original online, so we’ll have to make do with the English translation which Professor Narayanan recited:

That we fell into sin is thy good fortune;
We have bestowed name and form on thee.

Had it not been we,
Who would have asked about thee,
When thou wast lonely, and unembodied?

It’s darkness that makes the light shine;
The setting that gives luster to the gem.

Disease brought to light Dhanvantari [the god of medicine],
Why should a healthy man wish to know him?

It’s poison that confers value on nectar;
Gold and brass are high or lowly only in comparison with each other.

Tuka says: It’s because of us, God,
That you exist.



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