There was a resplendent galaxy of poet saints in
Maharashtra from the 13th to the 17th century, from
Jnandev (1275-'96) down to Turkaram (1608-'90). Altogether this was a time
of great national vitality, covering the Maratha struggle for independence
of the Mughal Empire and its final achievement under Shivaji. On the
whole, however, the poet-saints showed no concern with such matters.
They were a strong, rugged, outspoken dynasty drawn from all social classes. Jnandev was a Brahmin, but there were also Namdev, a tailor; Gora, a potter; Savanta, a gardener; Chokha, a sweeper; and Tukaram, a tradesman. There were women too among them: Jnandev's sister Muktabai, Namdev's servant Jani, and Chokha's wife Soyara. Their outstanding quality is the beautiful fusion of Bhakti (devotion) with Jnana (knowledge). They worshipped and merged into Oneness with the God they worshipped. This is especially was prominent in Tukaram.
Jnandev, his sister Muktabai and his two brothers were all poet-saints. Jnandev, the greatest of them, is better known as Jnaneshwara, the 'Lord of Wisdom'. His great work, the Jnaneshwari is a monumental verse commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. Apart from this there are also his Anubhavamrita or 'Elixir of Experience'. At the age of 22 he declared that his life's work was finished and ceremoniously entered into Samadhi in a specially prepared crypt, having given instruction that it was to be bricked up. This was in the village of Alandi in Poona district.
Namdev, who arose next, wrote in Hindi as well as in Marathi (two sister languages both derived from Sanskrit, as are most of those of North India), and it is interesting to note that some of his Hindi songs are included in the Granth Sahib, the scripture of the Sikhs, which their founder, Guru Nanak, partly wrote and partly compiled. He travelled all over Maharashtra with Sant Dnyaneshwar and taught people deep devotion to God. He instilled in them the desire to protect their religion. Namdev died in 1350. He desired his ashes to be buried under the doorstep to the main entrance of the temple of Vitobha at Pandharpur so that all devotees who went there might bless him with their holy feet.
The next great saint of this galaxy was Eknaath (1533-'99).
He taught that Bhakti and Jnana are like flower and fruit, inconceivable
in separation. He carried on the tradition of Jnaneshwar and Namdev. The
text of the Jnaneshwari had become corrupted, so he re-edited it. He was
both scholar and poet, and his verse exposition of chapter XI of the
Bhagavata is as illuminating and as popular as the Jnaneshwari.
He preached that the way to reach God was through devotion - 'Bhaktimarg'. He wrote numerous religious songs - 'Abhangas', 'Owees' and 'Bharuds'. His advice to the people was not to accept any distinction of high and low. He made friends with the poor and the downtrodden and taught them devotion to God. His love extended even to dumb animals. He exhorted the people to love all living beings and practiced what he preached.
The next great figure in this dynasty, Tukaram, (1608-'50)
was a peasant trader by profession but ranks as the crown of Maratha
sainthood after Jnaneshwara. The secret lies in the rustic simplicity and
utter frankness on self-revelation in his songs together with their
profound understanding and ardent devotion. He wrote devotional songs -
'Abhangas' and performed 'Keertans'. Thousands flocked to listen to him.
He is one of those rare saints who have disappeared bodily at the end of life. Since there was no body to entomb there is no shrine to him to which pilgrims can repair. Instead they go to the spot on the riverbank where his poems were washed ashore.
Apart from this fraternity of saints centered around Pandharpur, there were two other contemporaries of Tukaram who were eminent Marathi poet-saints. One of them was a Muslim faqir, Sheikh Muhammed, whose tomb at Ahmednagar became a place of pilgrimage for Muslims and Hindus alike. The other was Samartha Ramdas, the powerful inspirer of Shivaji, whose shrine is at Sajjangad in Satara District.
Sheikh Muhammed is chiefly remembered today for his Yoga-Sangrama, a long allegory in songs describing the spiritual struggle as a 'battle of yoga'.
Samartha Ramdas became the Guru of Shivaji and inspired the freedom struggle against Aurangzeb. His "Das-Bodha" is a Marathi classic of rare merit. Though composed in the ovi metre, it has the terseness and forthrightness of vigorous prose. Its pragmatism is impregnated with the highest spiritual values. It inculcates Vedanta in practical terms of work-a-day life. Its code of enlightened conduct covers all social classes and applies to both ruler and ruled.The message and mission of Ramdas were summed up in the meaningful phrase 'Maharashtra Dharma'.
His work contained that mixture of realism and intuition,
which are so characteristic of Maharashtra through the ages. In fact his
Das-Bodha with Tukaram's Gatha or Book of Songs and the Jnaneshwari can be
looked upon as the 'Triple Veda' of Maharashtra down to this day.
Their appeal is both to the head and heart. They are couched in a form which some might consider more like rythmical prose than verse. But they are all alike embodiments of "Satyam-Sivam-Sundaram" - 'Truth, Purity, Beauty'. The truth must be experienced, and these had experienced it and could indicate it for others to experience.
The work of these saints brought about a great awakening among the people. Religion once again became a thing to be respected and a spirit of self-reliance was born. People regained their lost confidence. This great awakening amongst the people brought about by the saints helped Shivaji in his fight for Swaraj.