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Like the people in India, the gods of India too spring from diverse sources : in their nonmenclature and iconography, we see embodied the complex layering of influences from which our culture has evolved. In the manifestations of Vishnu, for instance, we find both the non-Aryan folk hero and Aryan solar god; in the acts of Shiva, we may discern the moods both of the pre-Aryan yogi and the Aryan storm god. These historical details and the paradoxes they create may, of course, be incidental to the bhakta, the devotee who approaches the formless Divine through a deity who is his cheirshed object of devotion.

To the bhakta, it is the presence of the deity as enshrined in traditional practice that matters; and if that presence is to acquire new dimensions, it does so through the play of the bhakta's imagination, through the evocations of the deity in image, poem, song and festival. Such evocations, acordingly, form one of the bhakta's pricipal demonstrations of veneration; they are also a mode of dialogue between worshiper and object of worship, a means by which the worshipper slips from his ordinary comsciousness into a deeper level of contemplative absorption.

It is in this spirit that the renowned 17th century saint-poet Tukaram, who lived in Dehu near Pune, addressed the focus of his devotion, the god Vithal, in the nearly 5000, abhangas or poems of devotion that he wrote in the course of a short life. Vithal, affecionately spoken of as Vithoba, is the Lord of Pandharpur: accompanied by his consort Rakhumabai, he has been worshipped for seven centuries throughout Maharashtra, parts of north Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, especially by the members of Varkari panth. Vithal is clearly a composite deity, a local god who has become absorbed over time into the woder network of Vishnu worship. One of Tukarams best known poems of devotion, beginning with the words "Sudara te dhyana ubhe vitevari", is dedicated to the figure of Vithal. In Dilip Chitre's translation, this reads:title1.jpg (13338 bytes)

In an exquisite trance
He stands on the Brick
Arms akimbo
Hands on hips
Sweet basil beads
Garland his neck
A yellow silk garment
Girdled around His loins
I love His trance
Crocodile-shaped rings
Gleam at His ears
The Kaustubha stone
Glows at His throat
Says Tuka, for me
This is absolute bliss
The loving eyes are mine
The loved face His

Ecstatic iconographer that he is, Tukaram pours his devotional energies into the symbolism of Vithal, invoking thee perfectly symmetrical figure in black stone, standing with its feet placed close together on a slab known as the Brick, its arms akimbo, its eyes looking straight ahead, at and through the worshipper who stands entranced by the presence. Vithal wears cylindrical or conical crown; he wears rings shaped like the mythical sea animal, the makara, in his ears; a necklace of tulsi or sweet basil beads graces his neck; he holds a lotus in his right hand and a conch in his left hand; Tukaram invests him with the Kaustubha jewel and the yellow silk garment, which are intimately associated with Vishnu. Even as he addresses the stone image of Pandharpur and memorialises it, Tukaram draws upon other lodes of the imagination, generating an invisible yet palpable web of associations around it.

It is this mystery of the icon as token of the transcendent cosmic power that still captivates the mind of the bhakta and engages his spirit, keeping faith alive even in the midst of the ritual commerce that has encrusted itself around every centre of worship and pilgrimage in India. The bhakti tradition may have largely been taken over by priests, preceptors and other religious professionals who grarantee the devout a readymade salvation, but his is an aberrant development.

For the enduring appeal of bhakti is explained, finally, by the intimate relationship between the worshipper and the Divine that it promises. Tukaram (here quoted in Chitre's translation) phrases this possibility of dialogue between the seeker as normal consciousness and the sought as awakened consciousness beautifully in an abhanga, when he says:

I wind up the thread
And send my kite into the sky
I've pawned myself
To preserve my selfhood
My debt is secure with interest
Where there is a seed, there is a sprout;
Preserve its capacity to grow.
Says Tuka, I serve with the certainty
That God isn't other than me.

( a perspective )

gyaneshwar.JPG (72582 bytes)About 800 years ago ( 1200 AD ) Sant Gyaneshwar and his Guru and brother Nivruttinath, Sopandev, Muktabai and Sant Namdev were the pioneers of the " Bhakti Sampradaya" and "Namsankirtana Sampradaya" in Maharashtra.

During this time it was considered necessary to know sanskrit and it was believed one could attain Godliness only thru Knowledge or Gyan. Also there was a stress on rituals which only the upper caste could follow and perform. Therefore it was a period when the masses were cut off from the religion and the religion was dominated by the high caste brahmins. On the other side Mughals were very active in converting Hindus and were dominating the political scene.

Sant Gyaneshwar in a very young age wrote "Gyaneshwari" - a commentary on Srimad Bhagvat Geeta in Prakrit ( Marathi ) a language which could be understood by the masses. Both Sant Gyaneshwar and Sant Namdev through their works, devotion and bhakti couldnamdeomaharaj.JPG (291229 bytes) initiate a sampradaya which did not attach importance to caste or creed but only devotion to Lord Panduranga. This was the birth of "Bhakti Sampradaya" wherein it was possible to attain Godliness merely through Bhakti or devotion. Also this could be easily adopted and practised by the common masses. The womenfolk and children were easily attracted to this new form of worship. Thus was born the Namasankirtana cult and Varkari Sampradaya.

Their contemporaries Sant Chokha Mela, Sant. Janabai, Sant Sawta Mali, Sant Narahari Sonar, Sant Gora Kumbhar and many other sants also wrote and sung hundreds of Abhangs. Thus the Sants could integrate the masses who were an ignored lot all this time into the mainstream. The main ideologies of the Varkari Sampraday was chanting of Namsankirtana daily with no importance to the position or status of the person in the society.

All these happened around places like Paithan, Pandharpur, Mangal Veda, Alandi and slowly spread to the entire Maharashtra, Punjab etc.

Sant Namdev influenced hundreds into this fold and was very close to Sant Gyaneshwar till he attained Jeeva samadhi at the tender age of 34. Sant Namdev also wrote the " Sant. Gyaneshwar Samadhi Sohla " which is a narration of events during Sant Gyaneshwar's Jeevan Samadhi. It is mentioned that Lord Vittala himself participated in the event with his consort Rukmayee alongwith hundreds of Bhaktas.

After many years Sant Tukaram ( Dehu Road ) and Sant. Eknath (Paithan) - Sant Bhanudas's great grandson - through their hundreds of Abhangs further strengthened the Varkari and Namsankirtan Sampradaya.

Only songs created by these great saints are termed as Abhangs meaning A + Bhang - will not be destroyed ( other devotional songs are known as Bhakti Geets )

Sant Ramdas ( Shivaji's Guru ) who wrote many shlokas for daily chanting ( Manache Shlok - Karunashtake etc. ) also took to preaching the Bhakti tradition. He was instrumental in taking this great tradition of Namsankirtan to Tanjavur ( South India ).

vig_small.jpg (2850 bytes)Thereafter it is known that Saints of South India like Maruthanallur Sadguru Swamigal and others integrated the Abhangs into the South Indian Bhajana Padhati / Divyanama Sampradaya. This is one reason why Sant. Ramdas' Abhangs are sung commonly in S. Indian Bhajana Padhati but are not handled in song form in Maharashtra. Also these were not composed in song form by Sant. Ramdas.

In recent times Swami Swaroopanand of Pawas ( near Ratnagiri, Maharshtra ) wrote   several hundreds of  Bhakti Geets which are very popular in Maharashtra and elsewhere.

Our Guru late Sri. Mohan Pai identified some of the best Abhangs and tuned about 125 of them. He has also tuned Kakad Arti ( Daily worship - similar to Dolotsavam ) and Sant Gyaneshwar Samadhi Sohala. He has tuned many Bhakti Geets written by recent saints like Swaroopanand Swami of Pawas ( Ratnagiri ).

He popularised the Abhangs in the last over five decades through his radio, TV and live programmes held in many parts of the Country. After the demise of his dear wife Sarla Pai, Sri. Mohan pai changed the group's name from "Namsankirtan Mandal" to " Sarla Mohan Pai Namsankirtan Society ". Subsequently Sri. Mohan Pai also passed away on 9th January 2001 at Goa.

His group "Sarla Mohan Pai Namsankirtan Society" is now led by his disciple Sri. K. Ganesh Kumar who despite being a Tamilian is a popular singer of Maharashtra Abhangs. All the songs are sung in the typical Varkari style with the " Usi " talam. The solukattu of the accompaniment - Pakhwaj is also distinctly different from the Mridangam. A Dolki or Dolak is never used with Abhang rendering. It is unfortunate that some singers use this as an accompaniment as this is an instrument used for "Lavnis" in Maharashtra which is for Shringara rasa and is diametrically opposite to the Bhakti Rasa required for singing Abhang.

Rendering of Abhangs attaches a great importance to the words, their diction, chorus singing of the Dhruv Pad ( Normally the second line of the Abhang ) and most importantly the Bhava aspect. The Talam - beat is also specific with a Tod ( Thirmanam ).

An attempt is made here to present the history of Namsankirtana Sampradaya as in Maharashtra and list some of the traditional Abhangs which are regularly sung by this group in the Varkari Sampradaya. ( audio clips will be added as and when available )
It is also intended to cover the life histories of many Sants as also commentaries on their works, in due course.

We welcome suggestions and observations. We will also be happy to clarify any aspect of rendering of Abhangs or meaning etc to the best of our ability.

K. Ganesh Kumar
8th February, 2001


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