In 1629-30, a terrible famine struck what is present-day Maharashtra. As one account put it, “Life was offered for a loaf, but none would buy; rank was to be sold for a cake, but none cared for it." Indeed, so desperate were things that “the flesh of a son" came to be “preferred to his love". The cream of society could, as usual, survive these privations. But so bad were conditions even a step or two below them that in the middle ranks too there was utter despair. Add to this political turmoil, and the year went down quickly as one of dreadful public misery.
There lived in Dehu during this troubled time a grocer and merchant called Tukaram. Only in his early 20s, he had already lost his parents, and now watched in horror as his senior wife died amid cries of “give me food". Shortly after her, his eldest son Santoba also followed. Where once his family was well-off, now his business folded. “I was so troubled," the future saint wrote later, “that I lost all interest in my household." Turning his attention “to an old broken-down temple" in his village, he began, instead, to give “musical discourses on the eleventh day of every month".
Tukaram—now one of the most holy names in the varkari tradition of Maharashtra’s Bhakti movement —was not made for business. But before he surrendered himself to spiritual pursuits, he tried his best to succeed at his family trade. In Mahipati’s 18th century hagiography, we hear how he “carried bags of grain on bullock backs" and “paid no attention to cold or heat". He borrowed money to resurrect his business, only to go bankrupt. Future devotees would blame his essential goodness: Even when he knew he was being cheated, he did not object. It was another matter that his family had to endure the consequences. “My husband has gone crazy," cried his younger wife. “He carries on his trade but meets with no success."
This failure as a householder, in fact, marked Tukaram’s life. Later chroniclers embellished his memory with tales of miracles—of God paying his debts in human form, of idols drinking from his hand—but failure and depression afflicted him throughout. His answer at first was to immerse himself in “the good sayings of saints" and to repeat them for public benefit. But one day, after the 14th century saint Namdev spoke to him in a dream, Tukaram also began to compose verses of his own. It was a moment of transformation, and, by the end of his career, the ex-grocer would leave thousands of abhangas to be recited generations down the line.
Tukaram was a Shudra and did not directly challenge caste. But the sheer act of one of his rank preaching religion upset the establishment. One Brahmin is said to have personally assaulted him (although this was partly provoked by Tukaram’s buffalo making a meal of the former’s plants). Another filed an official complaint that so tormented our poet that the latter went up to the Brahmin’s village and apologized. “You are a Sudra by caste," announced this antagonist in return, one who had no right to discuss God. Asked what Tukaram should do with his existing writings then, the man ordered him to throw the whole collection into the Indrayani river.
Tukaram obeyed, and then went on a fast. But 13 days later, his books reappeared magically on the river “as a gourd floats on water". The news spread and, chastened, the Brahmin set out to apologize. Receiving a premonition of this, the saint met the man halfway, accepting his regret but also himself reiterating his “low caste" and position as “a sinner".
Indeed, Tukaram did not question the concept of the Brahmin itself. “The she-ass may give ample milk," he declared, “but that does not make her a cow." So, too, a monkey “bathed and daubed in sandal" could not become a Brahmin—that was a birthright and even “if the Brahmin is a fallen one…he is (still) great in (all) three worlds".
What Tukaram did challenge, however, was the claim that only the Brahmin might realize God. Or that scriptural excess compensated for sincere devotion. “By cramming a lot," he declared, “they accumulate ego; their knowledge is little, (but) their pride, great." Such hypocrites, he added, “should be beaten in the face".
On the contrary, to him, there were many examples of those who knew little of the great texts but whose love of God was unparalleled: “Gora the potter, Rohidasa the shoemaker, Kabira the Muslim, Sena the barber, Kanhopatra the concubine…Janabai the maid." So, while the Brahmin deserved respect, the lowest too could seek the divine—that was Tukaram’s message.
In some ways, Tukaram’s thought seems contradictory, but, in another perspective, it reflects evolution too—as the years elapsed, many were the trials he endured and numerous were the lessons he learnt. At one point, he openly suggests devotion as a superior alternative to ritual and philosophy. “As long as you are attached to the hair tuft and the sacred thread, you are a slave of the Book," he wrote. “If you break any law…you will fall and be doomed."
But if one forgot the books altogether and pursued plain, honest love without the shackles of ceremony, “you will have no restrictions". This way too, he argued, “you can really reach Brahmanhood".
In the end, ironically, Tukaram was weighed down by fame. By the 1640s, his name had spread, and many came to pay him their respects. He had written once that to the true devotee of God, riches and poverty were equally inconsequential. Now that he was saddled with worldly honour and affection, the saint thought all this an encumbrance. Hagiographers said he ascended a chariot and rose skyward in a blaze of heavenly light. But all we know for sure is that in 1649, the man called Tukaram disappeared, leaving behind a memory that is still alive.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).
He tweets at @UnamPillai