Neeraja believes in the power of chaos, which is why she is always caught up between the elegance of rationality and the beauty of irrationality.
(Author’s note: A lot of information mentioned here can be found on wikipedia and other sources on internet. Some of it comes from marathi film ‘Gajar’ that manages to capture the crowds, the yatra and the events quite well. Janabai’s poetry has been sourced from here)
Varkari is a part of bhakti tradition in Maharashtra. Every year Varkaris walk to the Viththal temple in Pandharpur, gathering there on Aashadhi Ekadashi (the 11th day of the Hindu month of Aashadha). They carry the palakis of the saints associated with the varkari movement. Dnyaneshwar‘s images/palaki is carried from Alandi, Tukaram‘s from Dehu, Eknath’s from Paithan, Nivruttinath’s from Trimbakeshwar, Muktabai’s from Edlabad, Sopan’s from Sasvad and Gajanan Maharaj from Shegaon.
It was Sant Dnyaneshwar, an outcast brahmin, who gave a definitive shape to the varkari tradition in the 12th century. Dnyaneshwar and Namdev broke the existing norms by using Marathi (and not Sanskrit) for conveying their ideas and beliefs, thereby providing a basis for challenging the brahminical claim of monopoly over knowledge.
Sant Dnyaneshwar challenged the idea of brahmin monopoly on knowledge. One of the miracles he is said to have performed relates to his idea of knowledge being accessible to all living beings. During an argument, some brahmins ask him if god resides in all living beings, does this buffalo has god too? Sant replied in the affirmative and started reciting the Vedas. He stopped at a point and then miraculously the buffalo starts reciting the vedas from that point onwards. The buffalo is said to have walked alongside Dnyaneshwar for a while and then at a place near Aalephata it took a samadhi.
While Dyaneshwar and Eknath were brahmins by birth, a lot of other saints associated with the movement were not savarnas. They all challenged the pre-existing notions of knowledge, social and religious practices and stressed on elevating the life and soul while performing one’s worldly duties. Tukaram, one of the most revered saints in varkari tradition, writes:
“He who becomes enraged at the touch of a Mahar is no Brahmin. There is no penance for him even by giving his life. There is the taint of untouchability in him who will not touch a Chandal. Tuka says: A man becomes what he is continually thinking of.” (translated by Mahatma Gandhi while at Yerawada Jail)
“There is no need to renounce day-to-day affairs. There is no need to go to woods or to weld a stick in the hand. Tukaram Maharaj says there is no way other than meditating on the truth to realise God. Who would like to be crucified on a cross of sandalwood? Similarly none would like to remain tied in the chain of gold. Similarly whatever knowledge one gains is a burden if that raises one’s ego.”
The pilgrimage continues to attract people from all castes. Thousands of varkaris of different ages and castes, men and women, from different parts of Maharashtra and outside, walk briskly leaving behind the their homes and worries, and singing and dancing Vitthal Abhangs. Men are mostly dressed in white kurtas and pajamas/dhotis with white gandhi topi or brightly colored turbans on their heads,
women in maharashtrian 9-yard saris – gandh/tilak on their foreheads, carrying instruments like iktara, taal, mridanga, veena with them. The atmosphere is contagiously merry. They sing the abhang written by sants in common tongue.
Tukaram writes the following on worship and rituals:
“The best worship of God can be performed by the mind. There is no need of instruments and implements for performing a puja. The purpose of worship is to understand the mind, to understand the truth. The final benefit or loss will be caused by the mind. Mind is the seed that gives birth to the tree of action.”
Events such as Ringan and Dhava are held during the pilgrimage. During the Ringan, a sacred horse called Maulincha Ashva, who is believed to be the soul of the saint whose idol is being carried in the Palki, runs through the rows of pilgrims who try catching the dust particles kicked off and smear their head with the same. Dhava is another kind of race where everyone wins and it is held to commemorate the manner in which Tukaram first saw the temple at Pandharpur and started running in sheer exhilaration.
Janabai was born into a lower caste family. She worked as a maid servant at Sant Namdev’s household. Janabai’s abhangs are particularly interesting because she treats Vitthala a friend when she demands him to comb and braid her hair, an assistant when she writes:
“Whenever Janabai goes to fetch water
Hrishikesh (Vitthal) follows behind her (to help)
He does not let my feet get wet and
with his own hands carries the water pots
(Vitthal) fills the water jars for me
He even sweeps and cleans the yard with me
He even washes the load of dirty clothes for me
Thus says Janabai, the main servant of Nama”
and a servant like her:
“O Lord you become a woman
washing me and my soiled clothes,
proudly you carry the water
and gather dung with your own two hands.”
She orders Vithhala to be affectionate to his followers:
``If the Ganga ows to the ocean
and the ocean turns her away,
tell me, O Vitthal,
who would hear her complaint?
Can the river reject its fish?
Can the mother spurn her child?
you must accept those
who surrender to you.”
“What will you gain by getting angry with me?
We the devotees are the source of your strength
You have no power of your own.
Hari, haven’t I understood your secret?”
Varkari is a living tradition that is at least 700 years old. While the likes of Shankaracharya try and dictate what constitutes hinduism, people continue to gather in huge numbers to take part in events like these that, through rather simple ideas of bhakti and love, bring together the philosophical/spiritual and the worldly.
Two more beautiful poems by Janabai –
“I caught the thief of Pandhari
by tying a rope around his neck.
I made my heart the prison cell
and locked him up inside.
I bound him firmly with the Word,
I fettered his holy feet,
I thrashed him, whipped him
with the word so’ham
while Vitthal complained bitterly.
Sorry, O Lord,
by my life I will not let you go.”
“Cast off all shame,
and sell yourself
in the marketplace;
can you hope
to reach the Lord.
Cymbals in hand,
a veena upon my shoulder,
I go about;
who dares to stop me?
The pallav of my sari
falls away (A scandal!);
yet will I enter
the crowded marketplace
without a thought.
Jani says, My Lord,
I have become a slut
to reach Your home.”