Throughout human history, spiritual Masters have come to this world to awaken us to the light of divinity in our own being. Through their teachings and their example, they open our eyes to God’s presence in all creation and guide us to recognize that we, too, can be bearers of light, which we can share with this world through the way we live in it.
Jnaneshvar Maharaj, who lived in Maharashtra, India, in the thirteenth century, was such a being.
Gurumayi Chidvilasananda said of this great soul:
Jnaneshvar is like a radiant sun bursting with joy and inspiration, who wants only to create still more suns.1
These words were in Gurumayi’s blessing at the beginning of Swami Kripananda’s rendering of Jnaneshvar’s great commentary on Shri Bhagavad Gita.
The name Jnaneshvar means Lord of Knowledge. Though he lived only a little more than two decades, Jnaneshvar wrote what is considered one of the most significant spiritual commentaries of India—the Jnaneshvari—as well as two other significant works, the Amritanubhava (verses on the divine savor of the spiritual path) and Changdev Pasashti (sixty-five verses said to convey the essence of Advaita Vedanta philosophy). In so doing, he established Marathi as a respected literary and philosophical language. Before the time of Jnaneshvar, only Sanskrit was used by the scholars and priests of Maharashtra.
Jnaneshvar played a major role in founding the wave of devotional worship that spread through the state of Maharashtra. Along with another young poet-saint, Namdev, he was instrumental in establishing the Varkari tradition, a part of the Bhakti movement, in central India. The Varkaris, worshippers of Lord Vishnu, live by the understanding that God is everywhere and that everyone, regardless of caste or status, is worthy of the highest respect. To this day, tens of thousands of Varkaris continue a practice that Jnaneshvar established and make yearly pilgrimages to the city of Pandharpur, where they honor Lord Vishnu in his form as Vitthal—a spontaneous manifestation of the Lord as a murti, an enlivened holy statue.
In addition, the saint Jnaneshvar was a poet. In the lilting ovi meter that he himself created, Jnaneshvar composed hundreds of abhangas, Marathi devotional songs—songs that conveyed the highest spiritual knowledge in bouncy syncopated rhythms, in catchy melodies, and in the common tongue. These were songs that even uneducated people in Maharashtra could remember and sing as they worked or walked along the road.
The beauty and wisdom of Jnaneshvar’s songs and written teachings have served over the centuries as an inspiration to other great spiritual Masters, such as Eknath Maharaj and Tukaram Maharaj. More recently, Gurumayi and Baba Muktananda have frequently sung his abhangas and quoted his words in their talks and writings.
The story of Jnaneshvar’s brief life, rich in miraculous acts of compassion, portrays the nature of a great being and has inspired generations of seekers.
Jnaneshvar’s Early Life
Jnaneshvar's father was a fervent young Brahmin named Vitthalpant, who lived in the village of Apegaon, near Alandi. Though he longed to take the vows of sannyasa and become a swami, he’d been advised to first lead a householder's life and raise a family. He married a virtuous young woman, Rakhumabai, who was the daughter of an official in the town of Alandi. Years passed, and Rakhumabai bore no children. Finally, Vitthalpant, feeling he’d betrayed his original longing, received his wife’s permission to leave her and become a sannyasin.
He went up to Benares in the north, where he received initiation as a sannyasin from a Guru named Ramananda. Throughout the several years he lived in his Guru’s Ashram, Vitthalpant never informed his teacher that he’d left his wife. When Ramananda discovered the truth, he ordered Vitthalpant to remove his saffron robes, return to his wife, and raise a family.
So Vitthalpant rejoined Rakhumabai, who welcomed him. This time, children came. The first was a boy, Nivritti. Three years later, a second son, Jnaneshvar, was born. Then came another boy, Sopan, and finally a girl, Muktabai. Four beautiful children.
The orthodox Brahmin priests of that community, however, were scandalized that somebody who’d taken vows as a swami had returned to householder life. They declared that the children of Vitthalpant were not legitimate and that his was not a legitimate family. The Brahmins of Alandi treated the six of them with disdain. When it came time for Nivritti to receive the sacred thread ceremony that marks the beginning of religious life for Hindu boys of the Brahmin caste, the head priest said of him, “This is not a Brahmin. This is the son of a sannyasin.”
Thus, Vitthalpant’s family were considered outcastes—not a part of the established order. The children suffered many deprivations, sometimes going without food. Nonetheless, they were rich in wisdom. Their father taught them the Sanskrit language and the sacred mantras and scriptures that he himself had studied.
As it turned out, each of Vitthalpant’s children had entered this world destined to become enlightened.
Jnaneshvar, in his commentary on Shri Bhagavad Gita, writes about how such children come to take birth. In the sixth chapter of the Jnaneshvari, Lord Krishna explains to the warrior Arjuna that if a yogi who strives to attain enlightenment fails to do so within his lifetime, the effort he put forward is not lost. In time such a one is reborn into a righteous family and regains the knowledge he attained in his previous lifetime. Krishna adds:
Although his outer form may appear small, the dawning of Self-knowledge appears in him, just as light precedes the rising of the sun.2
This would explain why Jnaneshvar himself, as well as his brothers and sister, manifested light and wisdom from such an early age. Each had been a sadhaka, a spiritual seeker, in a past life and had entered into the world holding their past attainment.
When Jnaneshvar’s elder brother, Nivritti, was in his teens, he received spiritual initiation from a Guru named Gahininath and was given the name Nivrittinath. The Gurus of the Nath tradition, who traced their lineage back to primordial Shiva, were familiar with the sacred inner power, Kundalini Shakti, and performed yogic practices to awaken the dormant Kundalini.
In a very short time, Nivrittinath regained the knowledge he’d brought with him from previous births, becoming fully enlightened. Then he, himself, had the ability to awaken Jnaneshvar’s inner power, as well as that of Sopan and Muktabai, and to serve as Guru to his brothers and sister.
During this time, however, their parents died, and the siblings’ physical hardship was intensified. When they turned to the Brahmins of their community for refuge, they were advised to first go to the Council of Elders in the city of Paithan to seek certification that they’d been purified of their father’s sin. The young people traveled to Paithan on foot, a distance of more than a hundred miles, and there they so impressed the Brahmins with their spiritual learning that the certificate of purity was granted.
On their journey home, they got as far as the town of Nevasa, where they decided to remain. It was there that Nivrittinath commanded Jnaneshvar to translate the verses of Shri Bhagavad Gita into Marathi and to write a commentary that could be understood by people unschooled in the scriptures.
The year was 1290; Jnaneshvar was fifteen. Without hesitation he began this great work, reciting the rhythmic verses aloud, while a man named Sacchidananda Baba served as his scribe.
What is truly notable is not just that Jnaneshvar undertook this challenge, but also the way that he did it.
Jnaneshvar’s Writing Style
Jnaneshvar took apparent delight in making available to Maharashtrians the sacred teachings they had been unable to hear in their own language—and he did it with youthful exuberance. He wrote:
My language is Marathi, but I will compose this work with such beautiful words and style that it will easily surpass nectar.3
How did the young poet-saint do this? He himself explains:
What can't we do if we have the Guru's grace? Jnanadeva says, I have this in abundance. In the strength of that grace I will speak. In words I will give form to the formless and cause the senses to experience what is beyond their power to know.4
Indeed, Jnaneshvar’s command of the Marathi language was so masterful that learned scholars can hardly contain their enthusiasm as they describe it. For example, one scholar, W. B. Patwardhan, describing the style with which Jnaneshvar wrote the verses of his Jnaneshvari, is himself inspired to do so with rapturous appreciation and eloquence.
The Jnaneshvari is from the literary side so exquisite, so beautiful, so poetic in its metaphors and comparisons, similes and analogical illustrations, so perspicuous and lucid in style, so rich in fantasy, so delightful in its imagery, so lofty in its flights, so sublime in tone, so melodious in word music, so original in its conceits, so pure in taste...that the reader is simply fascinated, floats rapturously on the crest of its flow, is lost in the cadence of its rhythm and its sweet harmonies, till all is thanksgiving and thought is not.5
Yet even while stilling the mind, Jnaneshvar could lead the reader—or listener, as was usually the case in his own lifetime—to touch the state of supreme freedom and joy from which the poet-saint himself is speaking. Look at the way Jnaneshvar invokes this state in chapter 13 of his great commentary:
I will now continue the story of the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna in Marathi in the ovi meter.
I will tell this story with the feeling of tranquility, which is more beautiful than the feeling of love.
I will tell it in the beautiful Marathi language, and it will be an ornament to literature, for it is sweeter than nectar.
In its coolness it will rival the moon, and the beauty of its feeling will even surpass the divine resonance.
On hearing it, streams of purity will spring up even in the heart of an evil spirit, and a good person will experience the joy of deep meditation.
Its eloquence will pour forth and fill the whole world with the meaning of the Gita, and it will raise a canopy of joy over the entire universe.
It will remove any lack of discrimination, the life of the ear and the mind will be renewed, and anyone who wishes it will discover a mine of Self-knowledge.
The eye will have the vision of the highest Truth, the festival of joy will dawn, and the world will enter into the abundance of the knowledge of the Absolute.
Because my holy Guru Nivritti supports me, all this will now come to pass, and I will say it well.6
Imagine what it must have been like for the people of Maharashtra to hear their own language spoken with such ingenuity, fervor, skill, and freedom! And to learn sacred teachings in such a way!
Teachings of the Jnaneshvari
Besides the language itself, Jnaneshvar faithfully followed his Guru’s command to make the wisdom of Shri Bhagavad Gita accessible to ordinary people by delivering the sacred teachings in terms that we could understand in the light of our own everyday lives. For instance, look at how Jnaneshvar teaches us to recognize the kind of person who truly embodies genuine knowledge:
When this knowledge appears in the body, the eyes can perceive it, for it expresses itself through the activities of the sense organs.
Its presence may be recognized in the same way that the coming of spring is noticed by the freshness of the trees.
When water is poured on the roots of a tree, its effect is shown in the sprouting of leaves on the branches.
The softness of the earth is proved by the tender shoots of the plants. A person's noble behavior is evidence of good breeding.
A person’s friendly nature is expressed in his acts of hospitality; and when the mere sight of a person brings comfort, we know that he is good.7
Notice how Jnaneshvar is talking about the person of wisdom in terms of how they live, how they interact with others, how we feel when we see them. There is no reference to scholarly learning. Jnaneshvar is describing the kind of person Baba Muktananda used to call “a true human being.”8
Now, note the way Jnaneshvar eases the hearts of his readers and listeners through the wisdom Lord Krishna imparts to Arjuna on the subject of death:
Those who have experienced union with Me and who have clung to Me in their hearts, worship Me and become one with Me.
If it were necessary for such people to remember Me at the moment of their death and for Me to come to them, what would be the value of their devotion to Me?
If a poor man in his distress were to call pitifully to Me to come to his aid, wouldn’t I hasten to relieve him in his difficulty?
If My devotees were in this same position, who would feel any longing for devotion? So you shouldn’t have this doubt at all.
O Arjuna, I couldn’t bear the thought that I should remember to go to them whenever they turn to Me.
Knowing My debt to them, I repay it by being the servant of My devotees at the hour of their death.
So that My beloved devotees won’t feel that wind of the weakening of the body, I enclose them in a case of Self-realization.
Moreover, I cover this case with the cool shadow of remembrance of Me, and in this way I bring them steadfastness of mind.
Therefore, the distress of death never affects My people, and I bring them joyfully to Myself.9
Think of the great relief the remembrance of this compassionate assurance can bring to a person facing death. Imagine as well the comfort that Jnaneshvar’s words can bring to those who love that person. These are words from the heart of a great being—one who moves through this world bestowing the blessing of fearlessness.
At the age of twenty-one, after traveling with Saint Namdev to Pandharpur and performing a holy rite there, Jnaneshvar communicated to his friend that he had completed what he’d come into this world to do and now wished to leave the world. Jnaneshvar said he had received Nivrittinath’s permission to enter into a permanent state of samadhi, living immersion in supreme Consciousness.
Along with Jnaneshvar’s brothers and sister, Namdev accompanied the saint back to their original home, Alandi. There, after chanting God’s name throughout the night, Jnaneshvar entered the tomb that had been prepared for him, sat in meditation, and passed into the state of samadhi.
His tomb in Alandi continues to be one of the major sites of pilgrimage in India. Both Gurumayi and Baba have frequently visited Alandi, bringing groups of Siddha Yoga students with them. It is widely believed that Jnaneshvar still sits there in meditation, and many visitors to his samadhi shrine attest that they experience his living presence there.
One thing is certain. Jnaneshvar will continue to bestow his blessings upon those living in this world. His compassionate words and enlightened teachings will forever guide and uplift those who embrace them and put them into practice.
The heart of a great being continually wishes for the well-being of this world and the beings that inhabit it. Jnaneshvar Maharaj, in the conclusion of his Jnaneshvari, blesses the world with his prayer, the Pasayadan, saying:
May the Self of the universe be pleased with this sacrifice of words and bestow His grace on me.
May sinners no longer commit evil deeds, may their desire to do good increase, and may all beings live in harmony with one another.
May the darkness of sin disappear, may the world see the rising of the sun of righteousness, and may the desires of all creatures be satisfied.
May everyone keep the company of saints devoted to God, who will shower their blessings on them.
Saints are walking gardens filled with wish-fulfilling trees, and they are living villages of wish-fulfilling gems. Their words are like oceans of nectar.
They are moons without blemish and suns without heat. May these saints be the friends of all people.
May all beings in all the worlds be filled with joy, and may they worship God forever.
May all those for whom this book is their very life be blessed with success in this world and the next.
Then Nivrittinath, the great Master said, this blessing will be granted. This brought great joy to Jnaneshvar.10
With his heartfelt words and abundant teachings from more than seven centuries ago, Jnaneshvar has encouraged, inspired, and uplifted spiritual seekers throughout this world and will continue to do so.