Against religious dogmatism

Published : Sep 02, 2015 12:40 IST

The image of Vitthal in the Pandharpur temple, Maharashtra.

The image of Vitthal in the Pandharpur temple, Maharashtra.

THE Bhakti movement assumed new forms in the central and northern parts of India. An important attempt at creating an alternative community after Basava’s Veerashaiva movement was the Warkari movement of Maharashtra whose creative influence has been felt in a variety of forms by several social and political revolts in India from Chhatrapati Shivaji’s rebellion in the 17th century to Mahatma Gandhi’s in the 20th century. The movement was mostly led and sustained by underprivileged classes and survived trying times by its autonomous, unique and broad-based style of life, thought and expression. The 13th century Mahanubhav movement established by Chakradhar (1194-1276), although led by learned Brahmins, had also disregarded the Vedas, attacked Brahminism, offered equal status to women and Shudras, and was supported by the marginalised sections of society. But after Chakradhar was killed by the supporters of the Brahmin orthodoxy, they could not innovate their technique of organisation and expression. Their esoteric scripts, strange costume and monastic establishments alienated them from the people. Warkaris adopted a more inclusive approach, welcomed people from all sections, had a simple dress code, discouraged sanyasa and jnanamarga , had no fixed establishments that could be destroyed by the rulers, had only small village temples and idols of the tolerant God Vitthal used as a symbol and a connecting emblem, left no documents but only preached and sang and gave opportunities to its members to meet one another during the holy pilgrimage to Pandharpur, sacred to Vitthal. Their saints included Brahmin outcastes humiliated by the orthodoxy like Jnandev and his brothers, liberal Brahmins persecuted for their radical views like Ekanath and Bahinabai and Shudras like Namdev the tailor and Tukaram the pedlar, who was persecuted and tried and had his verses ( abhang s) thrown into the river by the Brahmin priests.

Namdev and the Warkaris

Namdev (1270-1350) seems to be the first revolutionary saint-poet about whose life some information is available. A closer look at his life is necessary, as he was certainly the first to strengthen the expressive techniques of the movement. Son of a Shudra tailor, he was the most respected leader of his time because he organised a whole group of active men from all communities under the banner of the Warkari cult. A widely travelled man, he is believed to have received the new ideas of bhakti from the south, and there is evidence that he spread them in the north in the early 14th century. As the bhakti cult expounded by him was broad in structure, it spread rapidly in the north in the late 14th century, absorbing spontaneously various regional varieties of worship without any conflict. He was a close associate of the pioneers of the Bhakti movement in the north. His ideas even obliterated the border between Hinduism and Islam by pointing out the bigoted character of both these religions, in effect, developing a strategy to criticise the two major fundamentalist enemies. Therefore, he became the most popular literary-religious leader of the downtrodden of his times, cutting across both the rigid faiths. He says in one of his Hindi songs:

The Hindu is blind and the Muslim is cross-eyed.

A saint is certainly better than both of them.

The Hindu worships his temple, the Muslim worships his mosque.

Namdev will worship neither the temple nor the mosque.

In one of the Hindi pada s, he says:

Give up all worship,

All activity.

Give up all distinctions,

Keep your mind on Govind. ( Pada , 63)

He ridiculed those who performed horse-sacrifices, gave gold in charity, offered rice balls in Gaya, lived in sacred Banaras, chanted the Vedas and followed the six Brahmin duties ( yajna, yajana, adhyayana, adhyapana, dana and pratigraha ). To quote him,

These clowns

with their sacred beads

and rosaries

know nothing about truth.

They see nothing

but claim to give insight to others.

Can deception lead to liberation? ( Pada , 64)

Another curt statement goes like this:

I gather no leaves

for ritual offerings.

There is no god

in the shrine ( Pada , 65)

His attitude to the body was similar to that of the Veerashaivas and yet different.

Body is false,

says Namdev.

And yet it is real

if Ram is your lover ( Pada , 73).

He gave up idols when he understood the truth:

I had my faith in iron and copper

I had chains around my feet.

But now, I have no fear of this ocean of sansar ( Pada , 68)

Preaching while singing With this broad foundation, Namdev spread his cult, which did not even have any particular name. His verses were incorporated in the Holy Granth Sahib by the later Sikh leaders. His method of challenging Muslim fanaticism and Brahmin domineering was subtle and full of humility, disarming and apologetic; but at all stages of his activity he was very sure of his means and ends. Most effective in his quiet revolt, he was the first to accept the “untouchable” communities in his liberal sect. A contemporary poet Janabai, a slave-girl, calls him “the Head of a Joint family of saint-poets”. She describes him in another lyric as “a half-naked figure, dancing wildly on the sands of the Chandrabhaga at Pandharpur, singing his lyrics, preaching his radical principles to the crowd”. This is the first reference in Warkari lore to the popularity of the revolutionary style of “preaching while singing”. Namdev himself has said:

We will dance in the Kirtan

and light the lamps of knowledge

in this world.

Namdev advised the common folk to express openly to get over their sorrow, temptation and suffering. This was followed in letter and spirit by his family and followers.

Those were the days when men suffered not only from foreign aggression, war, famine and ruin, but from inner problems which were probably more terrible. In such a society, the poor Warkaris gained confidence on the strength of their expression. Without political support or social status, the poor dumb communities of Shudras suddenly learned that they had a voice. Now they could protest and question. For example, Janabai could say, “Nothing wrong to be a woman, the Saints taught me this.” One of Namdev’s fellow-Warkaris and followers, Chokha Mela (d. 1338), an “untouchable”, would bitterly address Vitthal in his lyric:

I am an Untouchable, how can I worship you?

They drive me out, how can I meet you?

At my slightest touch, they have to purify themselves,

My God Vitthal, I pray for your mercy.

His wife, son and brother also speak of the inhuman conditions forced on the “untouchables”. Despite starvation, humiliation and helplessness, their struggle to breathe in the free air of equality is characteristic of the liberating influence of Bhakti on the outcastes. Chokha’s son Karma Mela, a young man, describes the wretched condition of his community:

We never have good food to eat,

We live disgracefully in this world,

God, you have a good time,

Only misery has come to our lot.

Elsewhere he says, with greater confidence:

God, you have your limitations,

I’ll have to find the way myself.

The moment of Tukaram About three centuries later, Tukaram (1608-1650), whose daily kirtan s at his small village Dehu gathered crowds from distant places, became the most vocal enemy of the Brahmin orthodoxy. “To censure this world has come to my lot”—this was his conviction that enabled him to say fearlessly:

A Brahman who believes in con

tamination is not a Brahman. Suicide is the only expiation for

such a Brahman.

(All the translations are Dilip Chitre’s, from Tuka Says .)

Thus, the Warkari tradition developed in the natural course certain effective means of self-expression and mass education, which were initiated by Namdev. By any measure, Namdev’s revolt was stupendous. He could dissolve the infernal divisions of humanity within the Hindu society by the winning strategies of expression.

Apart from the natural functions of literature, such as entertainment and the preservation and dissemination of knowledge within society, the Warkari literature is also found to be acting as an agent of social change. Thus, the creative use of language as action became a stylistic device with which the saint-poets influenced the larger plane of society. The predominance of oral expression in the Warkari movement has other socio-linguistic dimensions as well, namely, that this verbal expression saved the Warkari leaders from depersonalisation, as it was the only available means for the oppressed people to employ safely. The oral techniques of expression needed to be strengthened. For example, Tukaram glorifies the use of words thus:

We possess the wealth of words,

With weapons of words we will fight

Words are the breath of our life.

We will distribute this wealth of words among the people.

Tuka says, look! the meaning of Word is God,

With word we will extol and worship.

Creative experience made Tukaram feel even superior to the learned Brahmans:

We alone know the real meaning of the Vedas.

Others only bear the burden of it.

Food eaten is not to be compared with food seen....

Tuka says, we have found the root

Of its own the fruit will be in our hands.

Tukaram believed in the spontaneity of his poetry:

I am no guru

I rain like a cloud.

Listen O Saints!

The sound you hear

Is the falling of rain.

It’s baby-talk.

It comes from God,

The beginning of speech.

Tukaram had also a sense of black humour when it came to describing his painful experiences, such as his wife’s quarrels with him, his growing debts, the death of his children, and even his early failures to realise the Lord. He often quarrelled with his God, wept, complained and even abused him, thus proving his God to be all too human:

Whenever I address you,

I find your back turned on me.

That is how I have learned

To understand your feeling for me.


A king may not grant land to the landless.

But wouldn’t he at least ensure

That his subjects get a meal?

After all, a king must protect

The myth of his benevolence.


My wife died:

May she rest in peace.

The Lord has removedMy attachment.

My children died.

So much the better.

The Lord has removed

The last illusion.

My mother died

In front of my eyes.

My worries are all over.

But when it came to attacking hypocrisy, Tukaram was always sharp:

In this Age of Evil poetry is an

infidel’s art.

The world teems with theatrical


They cite Vedic injunctions but

Can do themselves no good

The brahmin who flies into a rage

At the touch of a mahar —That’s

no brahmin.

The only absolution for such a


Is to die for his own sin.

He who refuses to touch a


Has a polluted mind.

Says Tuka, a man is only as chaste

As his own belief.

Or see the way he laughs at the tantrics :

His teaching begins when the

sun goes down.

Drawing mystic squares on the


Decorating them too, he

worships occult designs.

Placing lamps on every comer

and behind curtains

He assumes a posture and

demonstrates tantric gestures.

.. His preaching over, time to

start the feast

.... Committing sacrilege is his

means of livelihood:

He sends his followers into the

bottomless pit.

Elsewhere, he says: “Nobody becomes a saint by making poems ... Being a saint’s kin/A saint is not known by the manner of his dress ... by his family’s name/A saint does not wait for the chance to become a saint/Nobody becomes a saint by carrying a begging bowl.... only by wearing rags.... by delivering songs and sermons.. by telling sacred myths.... by reciting the Vedas ... by performing rites... through penance or pilgrimage.. by living alone in forests... merely wearing beads... merely wearing ashes.”

Later, he says a saint is one “who experiences Cosmic Being, and sees all as equal, covet nothing, violate nothing”. The sense of the sacredness of beings found in Basava’s Vachana s, reappears in Tukaram:

Don’t kill a snake

Before the eyes of a saint

For the saint’s being

Includes all living things

And he’s easily hurt.

A single hair plucked from one’s body

Causes instant pain

And the soul that perceives

Life as a community always suffers…

The Warkari cult has evolved styles, which are best suited to the resources of the underprivileged classes, and, therefore, it never attempted to go beyond the moderate range of social change and preferred to work within the broad Hindu tradition. With these limitations, how far the cult could go towards satisfying the spiritual needs of society as a whole, is itself an independent subject of study.

Kabir the dissenter The sant tradition of north India began to be defined as separate from the Vaishnava tradition only in the mid-19th century. D. Barthwal’s The Nirguna School of Hindi Poetry (1936), Parashuram Chaturvedi’s Uttari Bharat Ki Sant Parampara (1952), and the researches of Charlotte Vaudeville, Karina Schomer, and W.H. McLeod firmly established this differentiation. The earliest saints of the northern Indian parampara are said to have been disciples of Swami Ramanand, the Vaishnava reformer who lived in Banaras in the 14th-15th centuries, and who is said to be a direct descendant of Ramanuja, the great teacher of the southern Sri Vaishnavas, yet had certain disagreements with the sect and founded the more liberal Ramanandi sect. This gave rise to a more conservative school that worshipped the Saguna Ram and Sita represented by Tulsi Das, who accepted the Varna system and Brahmin superiority, and a more radical Sant school which believed in Nirgunabhakti and rejected orthodox practices and caste differences, represented best by Kabir and included Sena, Pipa, Dhanna, Sadhana, Raidas, Guru Nanak and Dadu Dayal besides late medieval saints such as Prannath, Dharanidas, Darya Saheb, Jagjivandas, who revived the Satnami Panth, and 18th-19th century leaders such as Charandas, Paltu Sahib, Tulsi Sahib of Hathras, the exponent of the idea of sant math, and Shiv Dayal Singh, the founder of the modem Radhasoami movement. Kabir, Nanak and Dadu are the pre-eminent figures of the northern Sant tradition. Of them Kabir undoubtedly stands out as a rebel. Kabir’s belief in the fundamental equality of man was based on his belief in the essential unity of God:

Only the One I recognise

those who call Him two will go to hell

For they know not the reality.

All human beings are sustained by the same air and water.

illumined by the same light

All have been formed out of the same dust

And their creator is the same. ( Padavali , 55)

Guru Nanak echoes the same, “Everyone obeys His orders and He is the originator of all. The form, content and colour of everyone, and everything has been determined by Him” ( Nanak Vani , 223). Dadu Dayal asserts that all human beings have the same essence or spirit derived from Brahma. Comparing Brahma to a flowing river, he says the water contained in different pots is the same ( Dadu Vani 29/21). Yari Sahib in the 17th century used the simile of gold, molten and shaped to convey the same message. Darya Sahib says, “All human beings suffer from hunger or thirst, and feel pain or pleasure in the same way.” Kabir made caustic comments against rituals as when he asks, people are such fools that they go to worship stones. Why don’t they worship the grinding stone which grinds for them the flour to eat? ( Loga aise bavare ....) The significance of Word we found expounded by Tukaram finds intense expression in Kabir also:

Find the word, know the word

You are nothing but the word

Word is sky, Word is hell,

Word is in the cell and in the cosmos

Word is man, word is woman

Word is the trinity

Word is the visible and invisible Omkar

Word is the beginning of the creation

Kabir says, you examine the word

word is the Creator, O, brother ( Shabda ko khoji le ..)

Kabir is close to the Upanishads and the Sramana thinkers when he says that “Soul is neither human nor divine”, “It is neither Hindu nor Sheikh, Nobody saw it being born, or dying”. Brahma is described as being “beyond Vedas, beyond differences, beyond sin or virtue, beyond knowledge, beyond meditation, beyond the solid or void.” This led to the equality of religions:

For Turks in mosques and for Hindus in temples

both Khuda and Ram are there;

Where mosque and temple are not

who rules supreme there? ( Gangasagar , 63)

What use fasting and kneeling

What use Haj and going to Kaaba ?

The Brahmin keeps his twenty-four Ekadashi fasts

And the Kazi keeps his Muharram.....

To the East is Hari, to the West Allah’s abode

search thy heart, within the inner core

Ram and Rahman live there.

He was at times a hard realist. “The hungry cannot be devout/please take back this rosary.... I want a half seer of cereal/to fill the belly twice a day/I want a cot to sleep in/ be my pillow a wooden frame...”

Kabir decried caste in the strongest terms. If thou a Brahmin, born of a Brahmin woman, why hast thou not come in another way?” “Whilst dwelling in the womb there is no clan or caste, from the seed of Brahma the whole creation is made”; “Whose art thou, the Brahmin? Whose am I the Soodra, whose blood am l? Whose milk art thou? Kabir says, who reflects on ‘Brahma’, he by me is called a Brahmin”; “There is impurity (pollution) in water, impurity in earth. There is impurity at the time of birth, there is impurity in the hour of death, there is impurity in destruction.”

He declared: “The beads are of wood, the gods of stone, the Ganga and Yamuna are water. Rama and Kishna are dead. The four Vedas are fictions, and, if by immersion in the water salvation can be found, the frogs bathe continually. As the frogs, so are these men: again and again they fall into the womb. Kabir said, the sacrificial fires may or may not bring mukti , but the smoke that they raise certainly blinds vision.” Kabir denounced the show of wealth and every form of indulgence, recommended physical labour to everyone, as did Basava, and did not spare even royal greed and political aggrandizement.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment