Tukaram was born in 1608 A.D. at a village called Dehu in Pune district. It is about seven miles from Alandi-the place honoured by the Samadhi of Jnaneshwar-and about three miles from the railway station at Shelarwadi on the railway line running from Bombay to Pune. Tukaram came of a well-to-do Sudra family belonging to the tradesman class called Moray. The family had established itself at Dehu for a long time. They had accepted Vithoba of Pandharpur for worship and they had also constructed a temple of their own dedicated to Vithoba. The family members, since many generations, had also accepted the ‘Wari’ of Pandharpur, i.e., the annual pilgrimages to Pandharpur on the eleventh day of the month of Ashadh (June-July) and again on the eleventh day of the month of Kartik (October-November). The childhood of Tukaram was almost uneventful.
As a consequence of the many misfortunes, Tukaram was so much disgusted with life that he left his house and village and disappeared into the Bhamnath forest nearby. For fifteen days he stayed there concentrating on the Almighty without food, water or sleep. After the fifteenth day, he realised his Supreme self and Vithoba visited him in His true form.
Tukaram now began to spend his life more and more in devotional practices, study of the poems and works of Jnanadev, Namdev and Ekanath, gita, Bhagavata, etc., with the result that slowly, but unconsciously, he began to make poems. Then one day, he had a dream in which Namdev appeared with Pandurang, woke him and advised him to make devotional songs. They would not hear of any excuses. Pandurang gave him the necessary inspiration and Namdev told him to complete the one hundred crores of poems which he had intended to make and of which he had completed ninety-four crores and forty lakhs, leaving a balance of five crores and sixty lakhs for Tukaram. The divine art of making poems came naturally to Tukaram and as they were of the nature of Bhakti, the people began to be more and more attracted to Tukaram-more so as he did not seek anything materially for himself or for his own worldly welfare.
Whenever Tukaram began to perform bhajan or Kirtan, people began to flock to the place, and with very few exceptions, people of all classes began to consider him as a saint and treat him with respect. This was of course resented by a small number of people and they tried their best to discredit him; and having failed in this, they sent a report against Tukaram to Rameshwar Shastri who was regarded as a learned Brahmin of the time.
Tukaram tried to convince the Shastri that he was a very innocent person. But Rameshwar was adamant and would not listen to any argument. He told Tukaram finally that he saw, in the poems of Tukaram, a deliberate attempt to explain the principles of the Srutis which Tukaram, as a Sudra by caste, had no right to do; he must therefore stop making poems of that sort in future, and as for the poems he had already made, they should be drowned in the Indrayani river.
Tukaram held all Brahmins in great reverence, and therefore, he immediately brought out of his home all the poems, bound them together, tied a big syone round the bundle, and threw it into the river. Tukaram’s traducers, who were jealous of him, were greatly pleased. Tukaram did not mind their taunts, but he was worried. Here he was, merely singing the praise of God in his poems, and that was not the monopoly only of the Vedas and the Srutis. Moreover, he had been commanded by Panduranga Himself to spread Bhakti among the people through the poems.
Tukaram then sat on the bank of the river Indrayani in constant prayer to Pandurang to show him the correct path. For thirteen days he thus sat unmoved, without water, food or sleep. On the last day, one of Tukaram’s followers, in a dream, saw Pandurang coming to him and telling him, “Go to the river; there you will find the poems of Tukaram floating on the surface intact”. At once the man went to the river and brought to the bank the bundle of poems. Tukaram was moved by the mercy of god and delivered five poems blaming himself for doubting the world of God and for putting Him to so much trouble of having to preserve the poems in water for thirteen days. This, however, was not sufficient for Tukaram who always held the word of a Brahmin as worthly of respect as that of the Holy Scriptures and he had the orders of Rameshwar Shastri not to make poems any more.
Soon after this event, Rameshwar one day passed through the village of Vagholi and came to a village where a Muslim Fakir by name Anagadshah was staying. In Anagadshah’s compound, there was a big fountain throwing cool water all round. Rameashwar, seeing that fountain, was tempted to take a bath in the waters. Anagadshah was annoyed to see a stranger trespassing into his compound and cursed him that all his body should feel a burning sensation inwardly. Immediately Rameshwar began to suffer from the effects of the curse. All his efforts to make his body cool failed, and in despair, unable to bear the pangs, he went to Alandi and sat before the Samadhi of Jnaneshwar and prayed to him to relieve him of the burning sensation in his body. At night he saw Jnaneshwar in a dream. Jnaneshwar addressed him: “You entertain hatred in your mind towards Tukaram, who is the greatest devotee of Vithoba. Go and surrender to Tukaram; all your bodily pains will vanish”. Rameshwar, however, was afraid to go in person to Tukaram. He knew by that time all that had taken place at Dehu and he had come to recognize the greatness of Tukaram and therefore was afraid that Tukaram might curse him. So he sent a letter to Tukaram apologizing and asking for forgiveness. Tukaram had nothing but supreme love towards everybody, towards even his persecutors. On receiving the letter, he sent a reply to Rameshwar in the following verse:
“If the mind is pure, even your enemies become your friends; you have no danger from cruel animals like tigers or serpents. Even poison becomes as beneficial to you as the nectar of heaven. All unhappiness will be converted into happiness and even suffering due to the burning of the body will vanish. You will come to love all creatures as you love yourself; you will entertain equal towards all. Tuka says, ‘Narayan has showered His mercy on me. That is why I feel like this towards all beings’.”
As Rameshwar read the reply and came to the words, “and even suffering due to the burning of the body will vanish”, his body became free of all suffering and thus it was firmly impressed on him that he had done great injustice to Tukaram. From that time Rameshwar became a great admirer and an ardent follower of Tukaram.
By this incident, Tukaram’s name and fame spread far and wide; but he himself remained poor. He was always doing bhajan and Kirtan and he earned nothing. The burden of maintaining the family consisting of himself, wife and children fell on his poor wife. Tukaram was so absorbed in his Bhajan that generally he forgot about his dinner. His wife had to take his food, search for him and serve him wherever he was to be found. Mostly he was found on the Bhamgiri hill. Tukaram’s wife had to undergo many difficulties in maintaining the family; but she was a good though she was apt to lose her temper sometimes. Before his death, Tukaram himself acknowledged her devotion and purity.
Shivaji was a great admirer of Tukram and sent him a large number of costly presents and also invited him to his court. Tukaram refused both the presents and the invitation, saying that he had nothing to do with earthly kings. Then Shivaji himself came to Tukaram and stayed with him for several days and pressed him to accept some presents which Tukaram steadily refused. One day, Shivaji was so much impressed and moved by the praises, songs and bhajan of Tukaram that he, for the moment, wanted to give up his kingdom and take to Bhajan and follow Tukaram. But Tukaram dissuaded him from doing so. He reminded Shivaji of his duty to his subjects, to Hindu religion and to Dharma and finally advised him thus: “In order to realise God, it is not necessary to give up food or water and go to a forest. If the worldly pleasures come to you of themselves, enjoy them by all means, but only in the name of god who dwells in all of us. Do not desire anything and do not give up anything. This is my simple and only advice to you”. Shivaji returned to his court a happier and a more contented man.
He prayed to the Lord that he might be taken away soon to His lotus feet where he could remain worshipping Him continuously forever and anon. When Tukaram’s end was near, he told his friends that he would be going away in a few days. The night before his departure, Tukaram performed a Kirtan which was memorable in many respects. The subject was Harikatha. Tukaram said, “Harikatha is like the union of three holy rivers-God, the devotee and His Name. By listening to it, all one’s sins are burnt off and one is purified. Even the pebbleslying around become holy and fit to be worshipped. Those among you who wish to be fit for heaven should take the holy Prasad. This is the easiest way to attain heaven”. The next morning Tukaram said to his wife, “You will soon get a son called ‘Narayan’ and he will make you happy.
“Though you all bear the responsibilities or family life, never forget Pandurang never forget to worship Him and sing his praises. Pandharpur is very near you. It is the Vaikuntha on this earth. Go and worship the Lord there. It is my experience that the Name of the Lord alone will save you at the time of death. All of you have protected and maintained me in your midst for such a long time.
I can never repay you and I am very grateful to you. I shall ever pray to Vithoba to bless you all and take you all to heaven after this life. This is my goodbye to you all and this is my advice to you. I prostrate before you and beseech you with tears never to forget the Name of the Lord. Always do Kirtan and Bhajan of Lord Narayana. Do not be anxious about your material welfare. The lord will look to it. This is all ephemeral. The Lord’s Name is eternal. Depend on it only. Ever sing the praises of the lord. Do Japa of Ramakrishna Hari and He will always save you? This is my last request and advice”.
Thus passed away one of the great saints of Maharashtra with God’s Name on his lips, singing praises of Him. Tukaram left this world in the year 1649 when he was forty-one years old. It is believed that Lord Vishnu sent His own chariot and servants to take Tukaram to His abode.
Dr. Vishwanath Bite