In the seventeenth century, the sankirtana movement flourished in Maharashtra thanks to the efforts of this inspired devotee.
By Mahananda Chaitanya Dasa
A seventeenth-century devotee inspired the people of Maharashtra to engage in harinama-sankirtana.
Srila Prabhupada writes, “Tukarama Acharya became very famous in the Maharashtra province, and he spread the sankirtana movement all over the province. The sankirtana party belonging to Tukarama is still very popular in Bombay and throughout the province of Maharashtra, resembling the Gaudiya-Vaishnava sankirtana parties in the chanting of the holy names of the Lord, accompanied by mridangas and karatalas.” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya-lila 9.282, Purport)
Tukarama was born in a Vaishnava family to Bolhoba and his wife, Kanakai, in 1609 in the village of Dehu near Pune in Maharashtra, India. His pious ancestors were worshipers of the deity Lord Viththala, a form of Dvarakadhisha Krishna. His pious and charitable father, barely literate, was a farmer and small trader of grains.
After Tukarama’s first wife died, he married Jijabai (or Awali). His parents died when he was young. His elder brother was not interested in business and worldly matters and left his family to go on pilgrimage. The burden of maintaining the family fell on Tukarama, who had to engage in business from an early age. When he was losing money in one business, he worked hard to raise capital and start a new one. He was very honest with customers and made little profit. He would often give credit to customers who would never pay what they owed him.
Although going through unfavorable conditions, he was exclusively dependent on the Lord. He expressed his feelings in this way: “Krishna is the boat by which I can cross the ocean of material existence. Krishna is my destination. Once I reach Him, I will not desire to come back. This destination shall relieve me of all miseries.”
He renovated the family’s ancestral Viththala temple and set up daily services. His mind was always absorbed in thoughts of the Lord’s lotus feet. Hari’s name was always on his lips, and his actions towards all creatures were compassionate.
The Lord Helps Tukarama Amid Difficulties
One night, Tukarama was passing through a jungle to reach his village. He had sacks of grain loaded on an ox. All his companions went ahead, so he had to walk alone. Suddenly a dreadful storm broke, with heavy wind, rain, and lightning. He had no shelter. There were fearful beasts around. Out of fear and hunger, the ox lost its balance, and the grain sacks fell onto the road.
Tukarama lost all hope of saving the grain in the fierce storm. Suddenly a stranger arrived and offered to clear the road. The sympathetic stranger lifted all the grain sacks in a moment and laid them on the ox. Then He led the way for Tukarama until they arrived at the Indrayani River, which was flowing dangerously. The stranger continued to lead the way, and they crossed the river safely.
Tukarama was amazed at this and suddenly saw in a flash of lightning that his companion was wearing a yellow silk robe. He wore a sparkling Kaustubha jewel and tulasi beads on His neck. Tukarama did not say anything. When they reached Dehu, the stranger suddenly disappeared. Tukarama understood that He was his merciful Lord Viththala.
Tukarama’s financial situation worsened. One day he bought a large quantity of chilies, loaded all the bags on his bullock cart, and started for the city market. On the way, he stopped for a break. As he was singing the names of Viththala, Govinda, and Hari, villagers came to buy chilies. He asked them to pay whatever they wanted, and no one paid him anything. Later the stranger who had helped Tukarama on the stormy night arrived in that village and told the villagers that He was a relative of the chili trader and had come to collect payment for the chilies the villagers had taken. He told them the exact amount each one had to pay. A few goons had carried off whole sacks. Thus all of them were forced to pay despite their incessant denials.
The stranger gave all the money to Tukarama, who thought that the stranger was a watchman from the village. They had a meal together, and Tukarama bade Him farewell. All the villagers came and told Tukarama that the person sent by him had collected money from them. He was astonished because he had not sent anyone. He realized that the stranger was his merciful Lord Hari.
Tukarama prayed to the Lord, “O merciful Keshava, Krishna! Please accept me so that I may become free from the vicious bondage of birth and death.”
The Lord’s Revelations to Tukarama
Tukarama had six children. Like the unlimited waves of the ocean, problems in his material life continued, yet they did not become an obstacle to his devotion. Rather, he lost all interest in worldly pursuits. He would often go in solitude to nearby Bhandara Mountain to chant the holy names of Lord Viththala. He would meditate on the Lord and His pastimes, perform kirtana, and study Srimad-Bhagavatam, the Bhagavad-gita, the Ramayana, and other scriptures. He was not very educated, but after developing exclusive devotion to Viththala, he educated himself by reading all these scriptures.
Jijabai did not like his spiritual aspiration, but she was devoted to him. She would take care of the children and do the household work, and she would walk to Bhandara Mountain to take food to her husband.
Lord Viththala was very pleased with Tukarama’s sincerity, exclusive devotion, simple nature, and detachment from the material world. He revealed Himself to Tukarama on Bhandara Mountain. Later, the Lord appeared in his dream and asked him to compose verses to awaken people spiritually.
In his writings, Tukarama mentions that he was blessed by Raghava Chaitanya Keshava Chaitanya Babaji, who instructed him to chant the holy names “Rama Krishna Hari.”
After Tukarama received blessings from the Lord, his life changed. He composed thousands of abhangas, poetic verses of the Lord’s glorification, teachings, and instructions to society; of pastimes of the Lord; and of prayers to the Lord establishing bhakti as the only way to achieve love for Lord Krishna. His chanting of the Lord’s holy names and his abhangas had widespread influence. People from all walks of life were attracted to Tukarama and started following his instructions and teachings. Their lives transformed, and harinama-sankirtana became a big movement in the area.
Tukarama’s life and teachings were in line with the teachings of Lord Chaitanya, who freely distributed love of Krishna and established harinama-sankirtana as the yuga-dharma, the religion for Kali-yuga, the current age.
Tukarama told householders, “For spiritual life there is no need to renounce the world and go to the forest. You can burn all the sins of many births simply by chanting the holy names Rama, Krishna, Hari, Viththala, and Keshava with a fixed mind. This harinama-sankirtana is the easiest but most effective process. Chant, and the Lord will happily visit your homes. The holy name is the essence of all Vedic scriptures. Even a hunter became Valmiki Muni by simply chanting the holy names of the Lord.”
Tukarama’s Glorifications of Lord Viththala
Tukarama’s abhangas reveal a deep and sweet relationship between Lord Viththala and His devotees. They also bring forth Tukarama’s mood, which perfectly represents the mood of great devotees mentioned in the scriptures. He composed more than five thousand abhangas. These are very heart-touching, and it is inspiring to see his realizations about Lord Krishna, in the form of Viththala. His abhangas are filled with love and affection for the Lord and compassion for ordinary living beings.
Tukarama wonderfully glorified the merciful Lord Viththala through a story.
My Lord, I have remembered Your story. It’s a love story between You and Your devotee. Once, a deer was grazing happily in a lush green forest along with two fawns. A hunter came there with his dogs. He saw the deer and her fawns and set up a trap by putting a net on one side, keeping his dogs on another side, igniting a fire on the third side, and standing on the fourth side.
The deer and fawns saw that they were trapped on all sides and started chanting Your holy names. “Rama! Krishna! Hari! Govinda! Keshava! Please save us, God of gods, O father! In this moment of great difficulty, who will save us but You? We don’t have anyone else to rely on.”
When You heard this, Your heart melted. You immediately ordered the god of rain to extinguish the fire in that forest. Not only that, but a rabbit came from nowhere, and the dogs chased after it. In this way, when two sides were cleared, the deer and its fawns escaped while chanting Your holy names. They thanked You for protecting them. You are so merciful and thus very dear to Your devotees. You are the life and soul of Your devotees. O husband of Rukmini Devi, my heart is full of bliss on glorifying Your divine self.
Lord Krishna Appears as Viththala in Pandharpur
Pandharpur is about 130 miles from Pune. Some call it Bhu (earthly) Vaikuntha. Others call it Dakshina (southern) Dwarka. In Pandarpur resides a five-thousand-year-old self-manifested deity of Lord Viththala. The Padma and Skanda Puranas say that during Dvapara-yuga, the previous age, Pandharpur was known as Dindirvana. Once, Lord Krishna was in Dwarka and Rukmini Devi got angry with Him and went to her parent’s house in Dindirvana. Lord Krishna went there to persuade Rukmini to return to Dwarka. The internal reason for the Lord’s journey was to meet His dedicated and sincere devotee Bhakta Pundalik, who was very poor and was living in a hut in Pandharpur with his old parents.
Lord Krishna visited Pundalik’s hut and called to him, “Pundalik, I have come to meet you. I am very pleased with your devotion.”
Pundalik said, “O my Lord, I am unable to come to see you right now. I am serving my old parents.”
He requested the Lord to wait, and he threw out a brick for Him to rest on. When Pundalik finally saw the Lord, He was standing on the brick. Enchanted by the Lord’s form, Pundalik asked Him to remain there standing on the brick for His devotees to worship Him. He and Rukmini Devi both stayed at Pandharpur to be worshiped as deities.
Tukarama and other devotees would visit Lord Viththala and perform harinama-sankirtana, a tradition still going on. During the annual Pandharpur Wari (wari = pilgrimage) in June, more than a million devotees perform harinama-sankirtana as they make their pilgrimage to Pandharpur from various places in Maharashtra.
After Lord Chaitanya traveled to South India, He visited Pandharpur and stayed for there for eleven or twelve days. There He met Sri Ranga Puri, a disciple of Sri Madhavendra Puri. Lord Chaitanya learned that at Pandharpur, His brother, Vishvarupa, who became Sankararanya upon accepting sannyasa, had attained perfection and entered spiritual world.
Viththala and Rukmini Visit Tukarama
In Jagannath Puri, when King Prataparudra saw Lord Chaitanya and His devotees, He was astonished and said,
kabhu nahi shuni ei madhura kirtana
“Indeed, their effulgence is like the brilliance of a million suns. Nor have I ever heard the Lord’s names chanted so melodiously.” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 11.95)
bhattacharya kahe ei madhura vachana
chaitanyera srishti ei prema-sankirtana
“Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya replied, ‘This sweet transcendental sound is a special creation of the Lord [Chaitanya] known as prema-sankirtana, congregational chanting in love of Godhead.’” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 11.97)
Tukarama was engaged in this prema-sankirtana initiated by Lord Chaitanya. He would tell everyone, “Half of our life is spent in sleep, and the balance of our life is a struggle with disease and old age. Foolish people spend their life searching for happiness, but material happiness is like a grain while miseries are like a mountain. One can escape only by following the instructions of the Lord and His devotees. Simply drink the nectar of His sweet names, and all the knots of your attachment to material life will be destroyed.”
Once, Tukarama was not well and couldn’t join the sankirtana party that regularly went from his village to the temple of Viththala in Pandharpur to celebrate Ekadashi and Dvadashi. Feeling sad, he wrote a letter to Viththala and requested the devotees to hand it to Him. In the letter, he expressed his deep sorrow for not being able to come, urging the Lord not to forget him and not to keep him away.
The devotees reached Pandharpur and handed over the letter to the lotus feet of Lord Viththala, whose heart melted.
He said to Rukmini, “We must go to see My dear devotee.”
Rukmini said, “All the devotees are here to celebrate Ekadashi and Dvadashi. How can we leave all of them and go?”
So the Lord sent His carrier, Garuda, to bring Tukarama from his village. Garuda arrived and asked Tukarama to sit on his back to go to Pandharpur.
“You are the carrier of my Lord,” Tukarama said. “How can I take service from you?”
Very humbly, he sent Garuda back.
After the Dvadashi feast the next day, Lord Viththala and Rukmini were eager to meet Tukarama. Standing outside his village, in a flash Tukarama was amazed to see His Lord and Rukmini Devi arrive in front of him. He felt very guilty that the Lord had to come to meet him.
The Lord hugged Tukarama, who was overwhelmed and requested the Lord to visit his home. Lord Viththala and Rukmini visited his home and accepted the food he offered to them.
The Lord showered his mercy on Tukarama, whose life was a manifestation of this verse: “By showing mercy to all living entities, being satisfied somehow or other and controlling the senses from sense enjoyment, one can very quickly satisfy the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Janardana.” (Bhagavatam 4.31.19)
Instructions to Society
Tukarama wrote, “Always remember Krishna and hear Srimad-Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita.” He instructed everyone to follow Ekadashi vows, worship tulasi, and visit holy places regularly.
He wrote of people who don’t honor Ekadashi, “They shall be affected by the disease of taking birth again and again.” And of people who honor Ekadashi, he wrote, “They are as good as Lord Vishnu.”
In the end, a transcendental flower airplane arrived to take Tukarama to Vaikuntha. He asked his wife and his fellow villagers to join him. But they did not believe him, so he left for Vaikuntha alone while chanting the holy names of Lord.
All glories to Tukarama Maharaja!