One of the most revered poet-saints of India is Tukaram Maharaj, who lived in the state of Maharashtra in the first half of the seventeenth century. During his short life, Tukaram made the experience of God’s presence accessible to multitudes. And over the centuries that followed, the poems and songs he left behind have continued to inspire and encourage unschooled villagers and educated scholars alike.
On the Siddha Yoga path, we’ve come to know Tukaram mostly through the devotional songs (abhangas) by him that Gurumayi Chidvilasananda and Baba Muktananda have sung during satsangs and Shaktipat Intensives. These songs convey the experiences and teachings of a fully realized master, who, with his words, continues through the centuries to serve the Lord, whom he recognizes in the hearts of all.
Through these songs in his native Marathi, the language of Maharashtra, Tukaram exhorts us to uplift ourselves by singing the names of God and by leading our lives in such a way that we, too, can attain liberation. This great Siddha invites us to experience the tiny Blue Pearl that contains the entire universe. He calls upon us to know for ourselves the bliss that permeates every particle of creation.
In addition to these ecstatic and enlightening songs that our Siddha Yoga Gurus have quoted and sung, Tukaram wrote numerous other abhangas that are unfamiliar to most of us. These are the songs of Tukaram’s early life and sadhana, the ones that he wrote while searching for God in the midst of the harshest difficulties.
As is true for many of India’s saints, the facts of Tukaram’s life have become intertwined with the village tales that accumulated over the centuries following his death. Fortunately, however, Tukaram himself recorded many of his experiences in his abhangas. The State of Maharashtra has published a collection of more than 4,600 of these, many of which have been translated into English and other languages. It is primarily from Tukaram’s own words that I have constructed the following narrative of his early life and sadhana.
During the first years of my own sadhana, reading some of the poems from the most stressful periods of Tukaram’s life strengthened my own resolve to stay the course, no matter what difficulties I was facing. I was encouraged to see how someone going through such intense struggles was not lamenting his fate but, instead, was still reaching for the Lord, calling out to the Lord, not for comfort but for strength. Even during those times when it seemed as if the Lord was not listening, Tukaram never turned his face away from the One to whom he was praying. And, as his later poems attest, his persistent effort bore wondrous fruit, not only for him but also for other seekers throughout the centuries, including ourselves.
Tukaram was born near the beginning of the seventeenth century in the small village of Dehu, which is in the southern part of Maharashtra, India. His ancestors and parents were dedicated Varkaris, a devotional religious movement in the Bhakti tradition that dates back to the thirteenth century and includes the great Maharashtrian poet-saints—Jnaneshvar, Namdev, Janabai, and Eknath, among numerous others.
Varkaris are worshippers of Lord Vitthal (also known as Pandarinatha or Panduranga), a form of Lord Vishnu, the sustainer of the universe. Varkaris practice the understanding that God is everywhere and that everyone, regardless of caste or status, is worthy of the highest respect.
Tukaram’s family, like most in their farming community, belonged to the Shudra caste, the lowest of the four castes in India at the time, consisting mostly of laborers. Tukaram’s father was, however, well-respected. He owned a good tract of farmland along the Indrayani River and made a decent income as a trader. As a young boy, Tukaram received a basic education and, unlike most of the other village children, he was taught to read and write.
In the seventeenth century, it was customary for marriages to take place at a very young age, and when Tukaram was just thirteen, he was married to a girl named Rakhmabai.
For several years, everything went well. Then, when Tukaram was seventeen, the life he knew began to come apart. His father became ill and died soon after. Around the same time, Tukaram’s elder brother, who had been groomed by their father to take over as head of the family, lost his wife. Overwhelmed by these losses, the brother abandoned worldly life, leaving home to become a wandering sadhu.
This left Tukaram in charge of both the family and its business—roles for which he was totally unprepared. Though he worked day and night to keep things together, young Tuka began losing money. When he and his means were exhausted, some family friends came together and set him up again with a little money. Immediately after, however, the region was beset by two consecutive years of drought and a devastating famine. No crops grew, no cattle survived. Tukaram’s family, like hundreds of thousands of others, starved to death. He watched his mother die. He lost his eldest son. And his beloved young wife died, crying for bread.
By the time Tukaram was twenty-one, he was over his head in debt and stricken by confusion, shame, and grief. His life was in ruins.
It was then that Tukaram turned to the God his parents and ancestors had worshipped.
Initiation in a Dream
Seeking solace in solitude, Tukaram would climb the nearby hills to contemplate the teachings of Jnaneshvar Maharaj, Eknath Maharaj, and other saints in the Varkari tradition. Unlike these great souls who lived centuries before him, Tukaram had no spiritual companionship and no teacher to awaken and guide him. Nonetheless, when the time was ripe, a wondrous event took place in a dream. Tukaram describes the dream this way:
सदगुरुराये कृपा मज केली ।
परि नाही घडली सेवा काही ॥१॥
सापडविले वाटे जाता गंगास्नाना ।
मस्तकी तो जाणा ठेविला कर ॥२॥
राघव चैतन्य केशव चैतन्य ।
सांगितली खुण माळिकेची ॥३॥
बाबाजी आपुले सांगितले नाम ।
मंत्र दिला राम कृष्ण हरी ॥४॥
माघ शुद्ध दशमी पाहुनी गुरुवार ।
केला अंगीकार तुका म्हणे ॥५॥
sadagururāye kṛpā maza kelī ।
pari nāhī ghaḍalī sevā kāhī ॥1॥
sāpaḍavile vāṭe zātā gaṅgāsnānā ।
mastakī to zāṇā ṭhevilā kara ॥2॥
rāghava caitanya keśava caitanya ।
sāṅgitalī khuṇa māḷikecī ॥3॥
bābājī āpule sāṅgitale nāma ।
mantra dilā rāma kṛṣṇa harī ॥4॥
māgha śuddha daśamī pāhunī guruvāra ।
kelā aṅgīkāra tukā mhaṇe ॥5॥
A sadguru came to me while I was on my way
to bathe in the river.
Though I didn’t know how to serve him,
he laid his hand on my head and gave me his blessings.
He named the Gurus of his lineage—
Raghava Chaitanya, Keshava Chaitanya.
Then he told me his own name—Baba ji.
He gave me the mantra Rama Krishna Hari.
It was Thursday, the 10th day
in the bright half of the month of Magha.
Tuka says, on this day my Guru accepted me.1
This day, which would have been in January or February by the Gregorian calendar, was truly momentous. By laying his hand on Tukaram’s head and imparting the sacred mantra Rama Krishna Hari, the sadguru who appeared to him in a dream—and whom he never saw again—had awakened Tukaram’s inner being and also launched him on the path he was destined to follow.
Tukaram received this mantra the way a drowning person would take hold of a life raft. As he repeated Rama Krishna Hari over and over, the mantra, alive with his Guru’s grace, began to lead Tukaram out of the bleak inner landscape of darkness and confusion in which he’d been floundering.
On Tukaram’s property, there was an ancient temple to Lord Vitthal that had long ago fallen into ruins. After repeating his mantra for some time, Tukaram felt called to restore this temple. This project made no sense to Tukaram’s second wife, Jijabai, who was convinced that her husband had lost his mind. However, Tukaram begged her to have patience, feeling he had no other choice. He was impelled to rebuild the temple in service to God.
Tukaram Finds His Vocation
As he worked on the temple, Tukaram conceived of the idea of performing kirtans there. A kirtan is a form of satsang that has persisted in Maharashtra since the time of Jnaneshvar, who was himself a famous kirtankar, a leader of kirtans, in the thirteenth century. The essential elements of a kirtan were the singing of abhangas dedicated to Lord Vitthal, with everyone joining in the refrains, and namasankirtanas, a call-and-response chanting of the names of God, often while dancing in ecstasy. These sacred gatherings might also include the telling of inspirational stories from the Shrimad Bhagavatam, an ancient Hindu text that conveys the teachings of the Vedas through stories.
Tukaram didn’t consider the poems he had written up to this point the right kind of material for a kirtan. For this reason, he began memorizing abhangas by Jnaneshvar and Namdev as well as the songs of Saint Kabir.
Once Tukaram had finished renovating and cleaning the temple, he began to conduct many kirtans in which he sang the songs he had learned and chanted the mantra his Guru had given him. And the villagers began to come.
Songs Begin to Flow through Tukaram
Soon thereafter, Tukaram had another dream, one in which Lord Vitthal appeared to him, accompanied by the saint Namdev. Namdev was one of the great Marathi kirtankars who had lived three centuries before Tukaram. In this dream, Namdev said that during his lifetime, he had vowed to write an enormous number of poems in praise of Vitthal—a number that was impossible for him to fulfill. Now, he had come with the Lord to ask Tukaram to help him fulfill this promise.
After this dream, Tukaram began to experience abhangas rising, one after another, spontaneously from within himself. He did not feel that he was composing these songs but that the Lord himself was singing through him. Tukaram now had the courage to begin performing these inspired abhangas in the kirtans he conducted, and more and more people began to flock to the temple he had restored. Though he repeatedly insisted that he himself was not the author of these songs but merely the porter who was carrying them, the villagers attending the kirtans must have felt that Tukaram was simply being humble. They saw Tukaram as a saint within their midst.
Tukaram meanwhile became even more painfully aware of his own lack of experience of the Lord, and because of this, his poems to Vitthal are often full of despair.
जन मानवले वरी बाह्यात्कारी । तैसा मी अंतरीं नाही जालों ॥१॥
म्हणउनी पंढरीनाथा वाटतसें चिंता । प्रगट बोलतां लाज वाटे ॥२॥
संतां ब्रह्मरूप जाले अवघें जन । ते माझे अवगुण न देखती ॥३॥
तुका म्हणे मी तों आपणासी ठावा । आहे बरा देवा जैसा तैसा ॥४॥
jana mānavale varī bāhyātkārī । taisā mī antarī nāhī zālo ॥1॥
mhaṇaunī paṇḍharīnāthā vāṭatase cintā । pragaṭa bolatā lāza vāṭe ॥2॥
santā brahmarūpa zāle avaghe jana । te māzhe avaguṇa na dekhatī ॥3॥
tukā mhaṇe mī to āpaṇāsī ṭhāvā । āhe barā devā zaisā taisā ॥4॥
People look upon me with honor and respect.
They do not know what I am like inside.
O Pandarinatha, I feel uneasy, ashamed to admit this.
These saintly people regard everyone as forms of the Creator
and do not see my faults.
Tuka says, O Lord, you alone know
I am the same as I always was.2
This went on for quite some time, as Tukaram continued to regard himself as imperfect and incomplete, full of defects and desires, and distant from the Lord. Though those who listened to him experienced divine energy pouring through him as he sang, afterward Tukaram would be in anguish, pleading with Lord Vitthal to grant him an experience of his presence.
A Turning Point
Tukaram continued to hold kirtans in service to Vitthal—leading people to sing the names of the Lord—and he continued to think of the Lord incessantly. In these ways, Tukaram was purifying his own mind.
In time, he began to realize that even though he’d felt that Lord Vitthal was withholding his darshan, it was he, Tukaram himself, who had shut himself off from experiencing the Lord’s presence. His own feelings of shame and unworthiness, and his expectations of how Vitthal should manifest to him, had clouded Tukaram’s ability to recognize that the Lord had been with him all along. Although he’d had no visions of Vitthal, now Tukaram understood that surely it must have been the Lord who had summoned Baba ji Chaitanya for that initiation in Tukaram’s dream. It must have been the Lord who had impelled Tukaram to rebuild the temple and to hold kirtans there, and who came with Namdev in a dream to inspire Tukaram to sing his own abhangas. And, indeed, it was the Lord who had been singing through Tukaram and uplifting the spirits of all who heard him.
आळवीन करुणावचनीं । आणीक गोड न लगे मनीं ।
निद्रा जागृती आणि स्वप्नीं । धरिलें ध्यानीं मनीं रूप ॥५॥
आतां भेट न भेटतां आहे । किंवा नाहीं ऐसें विचारूनि पाहें ।
लागला झरा अखंड आहे । तुका म्हणे साहे केलें अंतरीं ॥६॥
āḷavīna karuṇāvacanī । āṇīka goḍa na lage manī ।
nidrā jāgṛtī āṇi svapnī । dharile dhyānī manī rūpa ॥5॥
ātā bheṭa na bheṭatā āhe । kiṁvā nāhī aise vicārūni pāhe ।
lāgalā zharā akhaṇḍa āhe । tukā mhaṇe sāhe kele antarī ॥6॥
Sleeping, waking, and dreaming, I meditate on your form.
Now, whether or not we shall ever meet,
I meet you in my mind.
This constant stream of your remembrance
flows within me day and night.
Tuka says, I have received great help from within.3
Trouble with the Authorities
After having this recognition of God’s role in his life, Tukaram proceeded with greater confidence to offer his service to Lord Vitthal. More and more people were drawn to his kirtans, some coming from great distances to hear him sing his abhangas and to chant the names of God in his inspiring presence. At a time when the common people of Maharashtra were burdened by poverty and disease, by a rigid caste system, and by economic exploitation, Tukaram was inspiring hope and courage among thousands.
कास घालोनि बळकट । झालों कळिकाळावरी नीट ॥
केली पायवाट । भवसिंधूवरूनि ॥
या रे या रे लहान थोर । याति भलते नारी नर ॥
करावा विचार । न लगे चिंता कोणासी ॥
कामी गुंतले रिकामे । जपी तपी येथें जमे ॥
लाविले दमामे । मुक्ता आणि मुमुक्षा ॥
एकंदर शिक्का । पाठविला येही लोका ॥
आलों म्हणे तुका । मी नामाचा धारक ॥
kāsa ghāloni baḷakaṭa । zhālo kaḷikāḷāvarī nīṭa ॥
kelī pāyavāṭa । bhavasindhūvarūni ॥
yā re yā re lahāna thora । yāti bhalate nārī nara ॥
karāvā vicāra । na lage cintā koṇāsī ॥
kāmī guntale rikāme । japī tapī yethe zame ॥
lāvile damāme । muktā āṇi mumukṣā ॥
ekandara śikkā । pāṭhavilā yehī lokā ॥
ālo mhaṇe tukā । mī nāmātsā dhāraka ॥
I have girded up my loins
and am ready to embrace my destiny.
I’ve laid a path for you across the ocean of this world.
O, come all you people, young and old,
women and men of all kinds,
spiritual or worldly, idle or hard-working.
Come! And don’t worry about anything.
Listen! Drums resound to invite you who are liberated
and you who long for liberation.
My Lord has sent me into this world
with the seal of his approval.
Tuka says, I bear with me his Name.4
The orthodox Brahmins in Dehu began to regard Tukaram’s growing popularity as alarming. At this time, only those born into the Brahmin caste were authorized to teach spiritual truths, and they did so only in Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas. For a low-caste Shudra to be inspiring thousands of common villagers with his songs about God in the common Marathi language was seen as an act of heresy as well as a serious threat to the Brahmins’ power.
It was then that the one miracle story of Tukaram’s life occurred that he himself writes of in his own songs. The Brahmins demanded that Tukaram destroy his poems by throwing them into the Indrayani River. Tukaram followed this order, but as he watched his manuscripts sink into the water, he prayed to Lord Vitthal to protect them. Tukaram resolved to stay by the river, praying and fasting, hoping that if the poems were true, the Lord himself would save them.
After thirteen days, townspeople saw Tukaram’s manuscripts floating on the surface of the Indrayani, intact and undamaged.
After this miraculous event, Tukaram became widely known throughout India as a genuine saint in the tradition of the other great Varkaris before him. Great numbers of people traveled long distances to attend his kirtans, and some of the Brahmins who had persecuted Tukaram now became his disciples.
Tukaram himself acknowledged this event in some of his abhangas. However, there are many other abhangas by him, the ones that Gurumayi and Baba have sung to us. These tell of an even greater miracle: the miracle of transformation that had been taking place in Tukaram’s being as he offered his service to Lord Vitthal. Tukaram’s long journey was now complete, his longing fulfilled. He had arrived at the recognition of his oneness with God.
In one abhangas that Baba Muktananda often sang in the midst of his talks and that Gurumayi has set to music and recorded, Tukaram declares:
देव माझा मी देवाचा । हीच माझी सत्य वाचा ॥१॥
देहीं देवाचे देऊळ । आंत बाहेर निर्मळ ॥२॥
देव पहाया मी गेलों । तेथें देवचि होऊनी ठेलों ॥३॥
तुका म्हणे धन्य झालों । आज विठ्ठला भेटलों ॥४॥
deva māzhā mī devātsā । hītsa mājhī satyavācā ॥Refrain॥
dehī devātse deūḷa । āta bāhera nirmaḷa ॥1॥
deva pahāyā mī gelo । tethe devacī hoūnī ṭhelo ॥2॥
tukā mhaṇe dhanya zhālo । āza viṭṭhalā bheṭalo ॥3॥
God is mine, and I am God’s.
I am speaking the truth.
God is mine.
My body is God’s temple,
Utterly pure inside and out.
When I set out to look for God,
I myself became God.
Tukaram says, I am certainly blessed.
Today I met Vitthal.5