My husband Jaya and I served at Ananda Sangha India in the city of Pune for about seven years. Pune is located in the state of Maharashtra, which also includes Mumbai (Bombay). The local language spoken there is Marathi.
One morning, planning to do some shopping, I flagged down a rickshaw.
“Madam, are you sure you want to go to that district today? You know that there will be many traffic diversions because of the palkhi (procession) and it may take us a long time to get there.”
The driver and I came to a compromise. We went to a different district, but on the way we passed large crowds of people (mostly barefoot) carrying flags and all moving in one direction. The men wore the traditional Maharastran dress of white pants, shirt, and Nehru hat, and the women were dressed in colorful saris. I was curious about the procession but because the rickshaw-driver’s English was limited, I wasn’t able to get a very good description of what was going on.
But, when I got home I read all about it in the newspaper: What we had passed in the rickshaw was a procession with a thousand-year-old history that honors two patron saints of Pune, Dnyaneshwar and Tukaram.
Dnyaneshwar and the practice of devotion
Dnyaneshwar, who is known to us as Gyandev and who was possibly liberated, lived in the 13th century, and is well known for his commentary, completed before his 15th birthday, on the Bhagavad Gita in the Marathi language.
At the age of 21, Dnyaneshwar made a pilgrimage to northern India with Namdev and other saints. After completing this pilgrimage he expressed his intention to leave his body because he felt that the mission of his life was complete. Dnyaneshwar then entered into a permanent state of samadhi at Alandi, near Pune, by having himself walled up into a cave.
The bhakti movement, begun during Dnyaneshwar’s lifetime, is the practice of devotion guided by knowledge. It was during this time that the worship of Krishna and Rama began in northern India. Dnyaneshwar, along with other well-known saints – Kabir, Chaitanya, Mira Bai, Tulsidas and Tukaram, was instrumental in spreading the bhakti movement throughout central and north India.
The bhakti movement rejected the exclusive spirit of caste domination and asserted the dignity of the human soul. Bhaktis emphasized that faith and devotional love were superior to other forms of worship, such as the performance of rites and ceremonies. They addressed the people in their own native language, and recognized the essential truth of all religions.
Tukaram: The peak of the bhakti movement
The Marathi poet-saint, Tukaram, was born and lived most of his life near Pune during the 17h century. Although he was of the farmer caste, he continued in the tradition of the bhakti movement, denying caste hierarchy in Hinduism.
After the deaths of his wife, mother and son, Tukaram realized that it is only through devotion that one is delivered from the misery and disappointments of the earthly plane. He is said to have taken the bhakti movement to its peak level by the continuous chanting of God’s name and through his devotional poems about love for God.* He taught that devotional chanting was the best way to transcend the suffering of the world and the transient nature of human affairs.
Today, the Varkaris, (pilgrims) practice living in the world while seeking God, living a simple life of God consciousness, and practicing virtues like tolerance and compassion. Both monastics and householders are welcome, regardless of caste or social position. Their form of worship follows the example of Tukaram and Dnyaneshwar, with devotion expressed in chanting God’s name.
The annual trek to Pandharpur
Each year in June, some thousands of pilgrims make the trek from Alandi in North Pune, where Dnyaneshwar left his body, to Pandharpur in the south of Pune, near Tukaram’s birthplace. Silver images of the feet of the two saints are placed in flower covered palanquins (litters) which are pulled by bullocks freshly bathed and decorated with garlands.
The pilgrims go in two groups, one for Dnyaneshwar and one for Tukaram. They meet in the center of the city, and continue their journey together, trekking on foot from fifteen to twenty days. As they pass through the city of Pune, chanting and dancing, traffic swirls around them and others, even Westerners, join from time to time. The pilgrims stop to offer their respects at shrines on their route and spend the night in the city of Pune, resuming their trek the following day.
Throughout their journey, the pilgrims camp together, eat together, and chant the names of God and the saints, finally arriving at the city of Pandharpur, where they are welcomed by the citizens.
Although India is racing to adopt the material efficiency of the West, many of the old traditions live on. Businessmen and women, doctors, servants and laborers set aside their work and take this time to honor these loved and revered saints. This undercurrent of devotion is what helps make Indians who they are – proud of their accomplishments, yet humble before God. Although my husband and I were sent to India to teach, we were often the “students,” learning more about what our Guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, called the “spiritual efficiency” of the East.