“Ours was a holy mission,” Swamiji writes in A Festival of Light. “You charged us to learn great lessons from life: to be fruitful in the gifts You had given us; to expand and multiply them. Alas, we abandoned our mission. Instead, we hoarded selfishly. Nor did wisdom come to us when, repeatedly, we lost everything we had.” God’s saints alone have understood our holy mission — to learn life’s lessons, to share God’s blessings with all — even when, especially when, they too lose everything they have.
The great Maharashtra saint Tukaram lived near Pune in the first half of the seventeenth century. Born into the Sudra caste, he was a successful merchant, a grocer, married with family, and possessed of more of the world’s goods than he and his family needed for what the world would call a good life. Strictly honest in all his dealings, generous to those less fortunate, caring little for body and possessions, his thought was always of God.
Then came a divine test for Tukaram, and for all the people of the region: drought, and with drought, crop failure, widespread hunger, and desperation. All Tukaram’s stored grain, all saved money were used up simply keeping the family alive. Where before, in days of prosperity, Tukaram had been treated with respect, now that he was destitute, his relatives turned away scornfully. Stripped of all forms of worldly success, Tukaram saw intuitively the great lesson of life — to turn away from every earthly attachment, to seek within, in the Inner Self, that he might, in the words of the Festival, “emerge at last into infinite light — into perfect joy!”
Thus with loss came not despair but perfect vairagya—even-mindedness in the face of all worldly opposites: joy and sorrow, and a thousand more. With a strength welling up from divine surrender, Tukaram rebuilt a fallen-down, dilapidated temple dedicated to Krishna as Panduranga. There he faithfully, “with entire devotion,” celebrated Ekadashi, the blessed eleventh day of each fortnight.
Attaching himself to anyone singing kirtan, memorizing the sayings of great saints, Tukaram’s inner tranquility blossomed into compassion, the true yogi’s desireless desire to serve the needs of others: Travelers he lodged in the restored temple; the hungry he fed — and if he had nothing to give, he would seek till he found — to the thirsty he gave water to drink; the travel-weary he massaged; those carrying heavy burdens he relieved of their load, that they might rest; to the ill he gave medicine and food easy to digest; old, weak, and abandoned cows and bullocks he stroked, and nourished with fodder and water; before bhaktas of Vishnu he prostrated himself, reverently washing their feet and drinking the water made sacred by the washing.
Ever seeking ways to absorb himself in God, Tukaram accepted a job protecting a field of corn from foraging birds. So great was his compassion toward all God’s creatures that his heart ached for the hungry birds frightened away by his presence. In only a little while the birds felt his friendship and flew in to feed freely. The outraged owner of the field hauled Tukaram before the village headman, who — despite Tukaram’s protestations of man’s duty to care for all of God’s creatures — required him to sign a promissory note for any shortfall in the coming harvest. When the harvest was in, to the owner’s amazement, the yield was double the normal amount. Humbled and spiritually awakened, the owner gave Tukaram half the harvest, all the grain in excess of expectation. To (by this time) no one’s surprise, Tukaram joyfully distributed all that he received among the poor of the district.
One day into Tukaram’s awareness came the plight of a haridas: an itinerant singer and leader of kirtans, a devotee who needed to earn enough to pay for his son’s wedding yet was shy of doing so within Tukaram’s sphere of influence — for here the God-intoxicated bhaktas would be oblivious to a haridas’s hope to earn money from his kirtan. Tukaram urged the people to take up a subscription, each to give according to his ability, to help this stranger among them fulfill his fatherly duty. Tukaram saw the people give rightly, and even more than he had suggested, but he also saw that there was a certain pride in their giving.
To help the people in their understanding, Tukaram sent the bhaktas to the one villager they had deliberately not sought out — a very poor weaver, a man considered to be a “reviler, a villain, and very wicked.” The weaver, true to form, rudely spurned the bhaktas’ request, even ignoring the normal courtesy of a clean seat for those coming as visitors. Only when his long-suffering wife berated him for his miserliness and lack of respect did the weaver grudgingly (and angrily) order her to bring him an old and little-used water pot. The good wife lovingly and carefully cleaned the pot before handing it to her husband. The weaver, in giving the pot to the bhaktas, deliberately used his left hand as an expression of his ill will. Receiving the pot, Tukaram smiled in joyful gratitude. For the richness of their gifts, he thanked the bhaktas; but it was for the absent weaver that he reserved his highest praise: “The weaver is very generous. He has subscribed largely.”
Tested in the fire, the pot proved to be of pure gold. The bhaktas, who were sincere devotees, understood that their master was in this way teaching them that their own giving still had need of purification in the fire of inner, spiritual transformation. They understood too that so great was Tukaram’s compassion that even the weaver’s old brass pot, so ungraciously given, had somehow been purified of all dross.
Tukaram, who looked always to the soul imprisoned beneath the outer coverings of egoism and worldliness, had seen through the weaver’s widely condemned selfishness to the tiny spark of his divinity. With divine love he had nursed that spark into the fire that transmuted the weaver’s poor gift into perfect, pure gold. He had seen that for one so sunk in depravity as the weaver, even his bitterly begrudged gift was a true spiritual victory, was the tiny ray of light which, carefully nurtured and encouraged, would in the end lead this benighted soul into his home in God. “The least gift that we give to God,” Swamiji writes, “will return to us, in divine blessings, a thousandfold.”
In divine friendship,