Monday, 2 July 2012

Neo-Viashnavism and Social harmony in Assam.

 Neo-Viashnavism and Social harmony in Assam.

Points covered-
1.      Concept of Bhakti
2.      Medieval Bhakti Movement.
3.      Sankardeva and Neo Viashnavism in Assam.
4.      Practices of Neo-Viashnavism.
5.      Neo-Vaishnavism and unification of different races.
6.      Neo-Vaishnavism and Caste system.
7.      Neo-Vaishnavism and Women.
8.      Limitations of the Neo-Viashnavism.
9.      How far the message of Sankardeva is relevant today?

         Bhakti, i.e. devotion to God is inherent in the growth of every religion, though we may call it by different names, like Sufis in Islam calls it ‘Tassawuf’.  When human mind fails to solve the intricacies of life, we turn to God, either to help us in our mundane affairs or to find solace.
        Like any other religion, the feeling of devotion is prevalent in Indian religious tradition since antiquity. But ‘Bhakti’ or devotion as a means of salvation had assumed special significance in the medieval period of the Indian History. It had brought many changes in the socio-religious life of the Indian people and so it is termed as ‘Bhakti Movement’.
        When we use the term ‘Bhakti’ movement in general, we should be also conscious that it was neither a homogeneous nor unified movement having same philosophy and practices all over the country, but there were many variations in it and, even at a time contradictions. Yet, by and large they had contributed towards reducing the discrimination purported towards the lower caste, improved the position of women and encouraged literary and creative activities.
          The ‘Bhakti’ movement had engulfed almost whole of India during the medieval period and also reached Assam with Sankardeva in the 15th century. It gradually gathered the strength and became an important factor in the socio-cultural changes in Assam. Main focus of the Bhakti was religion, but one aspect of human life has a spill-over effect on the other aspect, so we cannot entirely separate religious and social life. By trying to create relatively harmonious individuals, the Bhakti saints had contributed towards creating a relatively harmonious society. Having a perfectly harmonious society is probably a utopian dream. But after all it is a dreamer who dares to challenge the stereotype and initiate reforms. Without the dream of Martin Luther King, the condition of the Blacks probably would have not been as good as it is today and without Mahatma Gandhi, there would have been more bloodshed in the world. Bhakti saints were also such dreamer-visionary, who profoundly influenced the socio-religious practices of the Medieval India including Assam. This paper is an attempt of analyzing the contribution of one such dreamer-visionary, Sankardeva towards Assamese society as it stands today.
       Sankardeva and Neo-Viashnavism- Sankardeva was born in the middle of the 15th century and his father was a landlord called ‘Bhuyas’ and belonged to the ‘Kayastha’ caste.
      Sankardeva showed the qualities of genius since his childhood. But it was demise of his wife that made him introspective and he became more inclined towards God. It is an irony that a man turns to God when he goes through suffering in his personal life. It may be that when God selects someone to shower his bounty, he himself snatches away those things from his devotees which are likely to create attachments with the material world. Tukaram, the 17th century Maharashtrain saint says,
             ‘Bail meli mukt zali/deve maya sodvili’ (Marathi) 1   
{My wife had died and got liberation and God had made me also free from ‘Maya’ (illusion).} (Translation by author)
     So when material possession and the people who create bound with the world had gone we feel increasingly drawn towards God.
      Sankardeva’s first wife had died and after that he went for a long pilgrimage. According to ‘Katha Guru Carita’2, he visited important places of pilgrimage spread across the country. During his tour he was influenced by the ongoing wave of the ‘Bhakti’ movement throughout the length and breadth of the country. After coming back he started preaching worship of Narayana (Vishnu) and established ‘Satras’ (places of prayer) at different places. His disciples Madhavadeva also played an important role in the spread of Viashnavism in Assam.
      Viashnavism forms the major part of ‘Bhakti’ movement of the mediaeval period. Worship of Vishnu was prevalent in Assam earlier also, but Viashnavism that was introduced by Sankardeva brought in the wake, lot of churning in the society and affected almost all aspect of life in Assam; Social, cultural and political. So, this came to be known as Neo- Viashnavism.
Practices of Neo-Viashnavism-The rituals of Neo-Viashnavism are centered around ‘Satra’, the prayer house. The word had originated from the Sanskrit word ‘Sattra‘, which means a sacrifice lasting from a few days to a year or more.3
     ‘Satra’ is a complex, which is the centre of religious activity of Neo-Viashnavism. It consists of main prayer hall in which a religious scripture is kept. This is called ‘Kirtan Ghar’. ‘Kirtan Ghar’ does not have an idol. Only religious scripture like ‘Dasama4 of Sankardeva is kept in the ‘Kirtan Ghar’.
     There are four important scriptures of Neo-Vaishnavism.  ‘Dasama’ (a commentary on the tenth chapter of Bhagavata) and ‘Kirtana-ghosa’ of Sankardeva and ‘Nama-ghosa’ and ‘Bhakti-ratnavali’ of Madhavadeva.
       Some of the ‘Satras’ are having idols, which are kept in a separate room adjutants to the ‘Kirtan Ghar’. Surrounding to this ‘Kirtan Ghar’ is row of rooms in which the people who had devoted themselves to the service of the ‘Satra’ stays. These are celibate and called ‘Kavaliya’.
       Women are allowed in the ‘Satra’ during daytime only. They are not allowed to become ‘Kavaliya’ i.e. monk.
     Sankardeva preached ‘Dasya-Bhakti’ in Assam. In ‘Dasya-Bhakti’, the relation between God and the devotee is like master and the servant.
Neo-Viashnavism and caste system- Caste system is one of the most discriminatory practices and had done a lot of harm to the Indian society. One bold act that Sankardeva had initiated was that he appointed some non-Brahmins also as head of the some of the ‘Satras’ and he did not seem to have encountered opposition to this.
      Assam, being on the border of the ‘Aryavarta’, the influence and rigidity of the caste system is relatively on the lesser side. ‘Bhakti’ saints in many other parts of the country had not shown similar courage like Sankardeva. Even many of them showered undue praise on the Brahmins, almost bordering on the servility. Bhakti saints in general had a very high opinion about the Brahmins, Tulsidasa, whose ‘Ramchritmanasa’ have a profound influence on the North India says,
            “Pujiya Bipra Shil Guna Hina,
            Shudra na Guna Gyan Pravina”  (Hindi)
                               (Ramcharitmanas, Aryankand)
(A Brahmin without character and qualities should be worshipped, but not a Shudra with all the good qualities and knowledge) (Translation by author).
    However, In the domain of religion, the Bhakti saints rejected the discrimination based on the castes, like Madhabdeva says,
“The impurest of all castes attains salvation,
With but the utterance of lord Rama’s name.”5
     This is very similar to what Ramananda preached in the North India,
Jat Pat na Puche Koi
Hari Ko Bhaje so Hari Ka Hoi” (Hindi)
(Nobody should inquire about the caste, Anyone who worship Hari, will be accepted by Hari)(Translation by author)
     However Bhakti sants did not systematically attempted to do away with the discrimination practiced in the society. This attitude of giving equality to the lower caste in Bhakti and treating them as inferior in social practices does not go down well with the rational mind. This undue importance given to the person born as a Brahmin and discrimination against the lower castes is one of the important causes of the lower castes walking away from the fold of Hinduism and embracing Buddhism, Islam and Christianity throughout the Indian history.
     With due respect to the genius of the many Bhakti saints, I feel that many of them were a half-hearted or confused reformers. They were pained at the discrimination but they could not rise above the prevailing social practices and assert equality of all. It is also difficult for the privileged section of the society to introduce the radical changes which may challenge their own privileged position. Many luminaries of the Bhakti movement like Gyneshwara and Tulsidasa were born in the Brahmin family and could not imagine a society without a regulating mechanism of ‘Chaturvarna’ system. Being themselves Brahmins, they were probably also reluctant to let the privileges go from the hands of the Brahmins. In comparison Buddha appears to be more courageous, who out rightly rejected the caste system. Similar courageous spirit we also find in Kabir. However it may be mentioned that Buddha and Kabir, both were non-Brahmins.
      Sankardeva, being born in the low caste ‘Kayastha’and working away from the centers of orthodox Brahmanism like Kashi was relatively bolder than his counterpart in other parts of the country. He did not show servility towards the Brahmins like Tulsidasa, on the other hand as already referred; he appointed non-Brahmins also as head of the Satras. But at the same time it may also be mentioned that he also did not initiate any radical reforms in the social practices of the Hindu society of Assam. That was not his basic motive. His main focus was to preach the ‘Bhakti’ of Narayana. Other things came as a complimentary. Unusual domination of the Brahmins, their superiority based on the birth continued. In ‘Satras’ higher and lower castes mingled together, but once they stepped out, the old way of life continued. This duality of practicing semblance of equality during prayer and continuation of the discrimination after it is one of the glaring lacunas in the ‘Bhakti’ movement. This is true of the Bhakti movement not only in Assam but in other parts of the country as well. Rather it was more glaring in the other parts of the country.
           The caste system had taken such a hold of Hindu psyche for centuries together that the attempts of reformers starting from Buddha to B.R. Ambedkar had made a very little dent in it. Bhakti saints in general had also refrained from any attempt of demolishing it. Yet they must be given credit that they contributed towards reducing the intensity of discrimination towards lower castes. Gyaneshwara, who, like Tulsidasa had a very high opinion about the Brahmins also, says that,
Bhakti ga ath sare, Jati aprman’  ---(Marathi)(Gyneshwari Ch.IX)
(Devotion is everything and castes are irreverent) (Translation by author.)
      Sankardeva is even bolder to say in his ‘Dasama
“A Chandala who remembers God with heart and soul is superior to a Brahmin observing religious vow”     
       It is also possible that even though the Bhakti saints wanted to eradicate the discrimination based on the birth, they were cautious that they should not make the powerful Brahmin lobby hostile. We see in case of Sankardeva, he encountered the hostility of the Brahmins and the Brahmins taking advantage of their proximity to the kings instigated the royalty and Sankardeva and his disciples had to suffer. He was compelled to leave the Ahom kingdom and seek shelter in Koc kingdom. His son-in-law was executed and Madhabdeva was imprisoned. If this was a situation in Assam, which was relatively new in the fold of Brahminism and was surrounded by the Non-Aryan,  Non-Brahminical tribes, one can imagine the influence that the Brahmins might have had in other parts of the country, where the orthodox Brahaminism had taken deeper roots. Eknatha, the 16th century Maharashtrian Sant had written a Marathi commentary on the eleventh chapter of the Bahgavata. For this crime he was censored and had to travel to Kashi to explain his position. His own son, who was a Sanskrit Pundit, also rebelled against him. While contemporizing the historical events, the prevailing situations of that time should also be kept in the mind.  
     The network of the ‘Satras’ and ‘Namghars’ spread in the Brahmaputra valley. ‘Namghar’ is a place of Worship in village similar to ‘Satra’ but on a smaller scale. The population belonging to different tribes and communities found a common place to come together and satisfy their spiritual thrust. Out of these gatherings the common identity as Vaishnavas began to develop. Religious practices are one of the important unifying factors. The attempts of neo-Vaishnavism to bring the different tribes together is obvious from the sayings of Madhavdeva,
“By uttering O Rama,
One attains salvation including
The Miris, the Ahoms and the Kacharis.”6
       The ‘Neo-Vaishanvism’ had also given freedom to the people from the tyranny of the Brahmin priest and complicated, costly rituals and also from the heinous practices of the prevailing ‘Shakta’ cult.  
.    Coming to ‘Satra’ or ‘Namghar’ and singing the praise of God Narayana became new rituals in Assam. These rituals were simpler and were accessible to everyone in comparisons to the complicated and costly rituals of the ‘Shakta’ and orthodox Brahmins.
Neo-Vaishnavism and Women- There cannot be social harmony in a society where half of the population is discriminated against. The women had been always at the receiving end in the male dominated society. Men thought about their own emancipation and looked upon women as distraction from the spiritual path. It is always easy to externalize the problem and blame someone. One who is not strong enough to protest generally becomes scapegoat. Sankardeva like many other Bhakti saints also discriminated against the women. In the ‘Neo-Viashnavism’ women are not allowed to enter in the main prayer hall i.e. ‘Kirtan Ghar’. They cannot become ‘Kavaliya’ i.e. monk. Sankardeva says,
    “The dire illusions created by women-the most hideous of all illusions”7
         Bhakti Movement and Hinduism in general do not treat women equally. Probably they overemphasized the sexual aspect of women, which possibly distract the men and strengthens the bonds with this world. Religion generally tries to break us away from the world.
     In comparison to Bhakti saints, Buddha was more liberal towards women. Though he initially hesitated, but later accepted women as Buddhist ‘Bhikuni’(women monk) in the Buddhist ‘Sangha’. However this proved disastrous. Young unmarried boys and girls staying together in the ‘Sangha’ (monastery) led to moral degradation and subsequent decline of Buddhism. But purely from the humanistic perspective, barring half of the population for the sake of the other half is not justified. But probably this experiment of Buddha and tantric practices of ‘Shaktas’ involving women had contributed towards shaping this attitude of the Bhakti saints towards women. They thought it is better for the men to maintain safe distance from the women. Nevertheless, the fact remains that no alternative method like having a separate dwelling quarters for the women monks or allowing them to  enter in the ‘Kirtan Ghar’ during a specific period exclusively kept for the women was not thought about.
          However the women did come to the ‘Satras’ during day time. Allowing the women to become monk is also fraught with the danger. As monks had to travel, there was always fear of violence against the women. One can also imagine the condition nearly 500 years before, when the life was relatively unsafe. The number of women coming forward to participate in the rituals of Satra must be considerably on the lower side.
           In spite of this discrimination, Kanaklata , the grand daughter in law of Sankardeva played an important role in managing the ‘Satras’. Women in other parts of the country got avenues through the medium of the ‘Bhakti Movement’ to give vent to their creativity and satisfy their spiritual thirst. But in my reading so far, I have not come across the name of any women Bhakti poetess of Assam.      
         Neo-Vaishnavism did not advocate the life of celibacy. Shankardeva himself married twice. Though his disciple, Madhavadeva, who played an important role in the spread of Neo-Vaishnavism was a celibate. But he also did not encourage others to remain unmarried.

Limitations of Neo-Viashnavism-
     Hinduism is not based on one particular scripture and do not subscribe to any rigid ideology and practices. There are many variations. The process of assimilation of the different ideas and practices is a continuous process. This process does have advantage and disadvantages both. Advantage is that in this process of assimilation and churning whatever is best will survive with the progress of civilization. It can also satisfy the people who had diverse orientations. When we all are so different from each others, how one ideology can satisfy everybody? At the same time many times many undesirable practices gets assimilated and the degeneration sets in.
        The history of Hinduism is a very big Puzzle as it is a religion which had grown out of the churning of the centuries. It accommodates not only diverse but contradictory views as well. It was through this process of retrospection and Introspection that our philosophers reached a conclusion that,
     “Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanati
(Truth i.e. God is only one but the learned call it by the different names)
  However the Neo-Vaishnavism did not propagate these ideas, which have the potential to unite the divergent view and practices. Sankardeva’s standpoint seems to be rigid as he rejects the worship of any Gods other than Narayana. Madhavadeva, who became the head of the Neo-Vaishnavism after Sankardeva says in his ‘Nama Ghosha’, which is a collection of his devotional poetry, says,
“Those vile and foolish person who try
To compare Thee, Krsna
The crowned head of all Gods, with other Gods,
Suffer in hell”8
        Probably it was the prevailing heinous practices and superstitious of the ‘Tantrism’ and ‘Shakta’ that prevailed in Assam before the spread of Viashnavism that Sankardeva had taken extra care to keep his newly founded creed pure and away from the degraded practices. That is the reason that he gave supreme place to only one God, Narayana and looked down upon the worship of any other God. Madhavdeva even expelled one of his disciples for worshiping Kali.    
       But due to this rigidity the appeals of Neo-Viashnavism had remained confined to the plain people of Brahmaputra Valley and could not spread in the hilly areas of the North East India. The geographical factors and other racial and socio-cultural differences further resisted the attempt of unification and assimilation.
      Sankardeva did have some disciples among the tribal and there was a Muslim disciple as well. Though these examples are often quoted in support of the exercise of the nation building. The fact nevertheless remains that Neo- Viashnavism have failed to bring any fundamental changes in the socio-cultural and religious practices of the Hill people in  the North East. It remained mainly confined to the plains of Brahmaputra valley. Tribes by and large continued to practice their animism with some influence of superstitious Tantrik practices. In the plains also, the tribal and non tribal differences continued as usual. Even on the plain people also the influence appears to be very thin as obvious by the popularity of ‘Kamkhya’ the Shakta goddess and continuation of the worship of numerous other Gods by the Hindu population of Assam. 
     During the British period of the Indian History the gulf between the Hill and plain people in the North East of India has widened further as British restricted the movement between plains and hills of the North East. It suited them that the hill people should not be influenced by the ongoing anti-British movement for independence. Conversation of the tribes to Christianity further increased the gulf between the hill and plain people.
       In post Independence period, political and economic dimensions were further added to the socio-cultural differences. Now we see the tribes of the North-East of India underlining their separate identify vis-à-vis that of the non tribals. Whatever the influence of the Hinduism they might have had in the past; there is a tendency to reject that. They try to either go back to their pre-Neo-Viashnavism, pre-Hinduism practices or try to become westernized in their manners and dress, to assert their separate identity.
       This gulf between Tribal and Non-Tribal many times culminates into the violent conflicts as we see Bodos, Dimasas ,Karbis and other tribes of Assam taking up arms against the domination of the non-tribal and also fighting among themselves. Different Religious practices and beliefs by itself do not give rise to the violence but it does contribute in the process of polarization and more so, in a country like India, where inter-faith dialogue is missing.  
      Bhakti literature in general is dominated by the fatalist and escapist tendencies. It proclaims that everything happens according to the will of the God and human endeavor are futile. These tendencies are having advantage and disadvantage both. Advantage is that it helps us to cope up with the drudgery of the life. But the meek submission also adversely affects the industrious spirit. Bhakti movement had not attempted to create rational thinking and the religion of the masses continued to be the religion of superstitious beliefs, only the rituals had become simpler and less violent due to the influence of Neo-Vaishnavism.  
       The simple, innocent and unquestionable faith in God Narayana that Neo-Viashnavism had tried to popularize may not appeal to the modern rational mind. In their attempt to popularize Bhakti, the Saints had many times gone really overboard. Like there is a story of Ajamil, the Brahmin in the Bhagavata. The story had also found its place in the ‘Bhakti Ratnavali’ of Madhabdeva (Ch.5). As the story goes, the Brahmin Ajamil had committed all the possible sins during his life. At the time of his death he called out to his son ‘Narayana, Narayana’ as his son was named Narayana. The lord Narayana heard this and came running and emancipated him. Does this indicate that only by mechanical repetition of the name of the God without any devotional feelings is enough? There are many things like this in Bhakti literature which may provide temporary solace to the person who had committed sins, but it may also percolate the idea that whatever you do good or bad does not really matter, so long you take the name of the God. The spread of this idea may encourage the people to be hypocritical, like the traditional Hindi saying goes,
Muh me Ram, Bagal me Churi
 (Name of the Rama on the lips, but dagger hidden in the armpit)
       The idea also does not stand the scrutiny of rationality.
How far the message is relevant today?
       Bhakti movement of Assam and in other parts of the country as well tried reduce discrimination and injustice done to lower caste on the name of religion. Yet the injustice and discrimination continues even today. They tried to purify religion, yet the superstitious and degenerating practices still continues. Shall we conclude that their efforts had been all wasted?
       Probably there cannot be a simple answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to this question. The progress of civilization and development of philosophy and socio-cultural changes are very slow process. It takes centuries for the mindset to change. But the beginning has to made, as Seneca, the 1st century Roman Philosopher said,
      “Knowledge will be unfolded through long successive ages. There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not knew things that are so plain to them”9
             Our predecessors like Shankardeva, Gyneshwara, Kabir, Vivekananda and Mahtma Gandhi had taken couple of steps towards building up of a civilization and this seminar is also a small step towards it. This is small step as we progress from material civilization to intellectual civilization, from intellectual to Philosophical and from Philosophical to spiritual civilization.
     The socio-cultural situation in Assam and in India would have been worse than today without the efforts of the Bhakti saints of making religion relatively simple. The division and conflict that we see around us would have been probably sharper without them.
      By reducing the complications within the individuals and purifying the life of the individuals, Bhakti saints had tried to create harmonious individuals. Harmonious individuals makes Harmonious and peaceful society. The disharmony and conflict that we witness around us are but extensions of the disharmony and conflict that we carry within us. If the inside is purged, the outside will become pure as well.
       In a pluralist society like India, inclusion of religion in school and college curriculum have its own difficulties. But we are creating the generations whose spiritual aspect remains underdeveloped. The crises of values and rampant corruption is probably fall out of this. What qualities the Bhakti saints had tried to inculcate among the devotees is obvious from the following verse of ‘Uddhava Gita’ which is a part of the Bhagavata.
       “Pure, genial by nature, sweet and a source of imparting holiness to men, the sage-resembling water-purifies all, being seen, touched and praised by them” (Uddhava Gita, Ch.II)
       Instead of bringing out any radical social reforms the practicing ethical behavior and moral values were more important to the Bhakti Saints.
      In a pluralist society and in the time of the rapid globalization, one particular creed may not satisfy the spiritual need of the humanity. Any attempt of doing that is bound to fail and give rise to the conflict. But through interfaith dialogue we should try to reach what Dalai Lama calls the ‘core’ of the religious tradition i.e. love and compassion.


Specific References-
1.      Vinoba Bhave ‘Tukaramchi Bajane’ (Marathi), (‘Devotional songs of Tukaram’) (Devotional songs are known as ‘Bhajan’ in Marathi and Hindi as well.)
2.      An 18th century important work about the Neo-Vaishnavism in Assam.
3.      Dr. Sarma S.N. ‘The Neo-Vaisnavite Movement and the Satra institution of Assam’, Lawyer’s Book Stall, Panbazar, Guwahati, 1999, P.143.
4.       Commentary of Sankardeva on the 10th Chapter of the ‘Bhagvata’.
5.      Pathak Pranabananda, ‘Nama Ghosa’ Promilla &Co. Publishers, New Delhi, 2005. P.125.
6.      Pathak Pranabananda, ‘Nama Ghosa.’ Promilla &Co. Publishers, New Delhi, 2005. P.131.
7.      Devgoswami Ranjit Kumar(Ed.), ‘Essays on Sankardeva’ LBS publication,Guwahati,2005. P.50
8.      Pathak Pranabananda, ‘Nama Ghosa.’ Promilla &Co. Publishers, New Delhi, 2005. P.23.
9.      Times of India, Delhi Edition, May 3,2004.

General References-
 1. Vinoba Bhave ‘Gyandevachi Bajane’ (Marathi), (‘Devotional songs of Gyandeva’)
2. Tulsidasa ‘Ramcharitmanas’(Hindi), Gita Press, Gorakhpur.
        3. Swami Madhavananda, ‘Uddhava Gita’, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, 2003.
4. A.N. Deshpande, ‘Prachin Marathi Wangmayacha Itihas’ (Marathi) (History of ancient Marathi literature)
5. Maheswar Neog ‘Sankardeva and His Times’, LBS publication,Guwahati,2008.
10.  Sir Edward Gait, ‘A history of Assam’ Bina Library, Guwahati, 2008.
11.  S.L. Baruah‘A Comprehensive History of Assam’ Munshiram Manoharlal,2007.
12.  The Dalai Lama, ‘The power of compassion’, HarperCollins,2001.
13.  Pathak Pranabananda, ‘Bhakti Ratnavali.’ Promilla &Co. Publishers, New Delhi, 2009.


 Submitted By-
                                                       Dr. Ravi Khangai
                                                                        Asst. Prof. & HOD                                                                                                                    
                                                                 Department of History
                                                         Ambedkar College, Fatikroy
                                                          Dist- North Tripura-799290
                                                                    Ph- 9402168854                                                         



Abstract- Medieval Bhakti movement had brought some important changes in the Indian Society. By its liberal attitude towards caste system, it had provided opportunity for the marginalised lower caste to air their grievances. Chokhamela, the lower caste Bhakti saint of Maharashtra in 14th century narrates his grievances against discrimination. He also asserts his spiritual progress through his poetry. By using vernacular and simple language, the Bhakti saints had made the high philosophy of the scripture accessible to the masses.
Key words- devotion, Marginalised, platform, liberal, orthodox, saguna, nirguna.
Chokha  donga per bhav nohe donga”
(Chokha  may be inferior but not his devotion)
                                                                 - Chokhamela
Medieval Bhakti movement had given platform to many marginalised people like lower caste Chokhamela to assert them. It had also provided platform to articulate their grievances.
What is Bhakti?-Tracing the root of Bhakti is difficult. Bhakti as a feeling of surrendering to God is inherent in the growth of any religion. Pursuit of supernatural is an inseparable part of human nature since beginning. Only method of pursuing goes on changing from time to time and place to place. When human mind fails to solve intricacies of life, it turns towards some superior power. We want to become complacent by shifting our worries and burden on the shoulder of someone who is superior. When that superior person is some supernatural being then the feeling becomes Ishwar Bhakti, i.e. devotion to God.(Dinkar,p.311).
The word ‘Bhakti’ is derived from the word ‘Bhaj’ meaning to love and adore.(Sharma, p.40). The feeling of ‘Bhakti’ is a universal phenomena and it forms an important part of the Hindu religion. Bhakti is understood as a religious devotion in a general sense. Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita,
“Those who casting all their action on me. Making me their all in all worship me with meditation of undivided devotion. Of such, whose thoughts are centred on me. Partha I became ere long the deliverer from the ocean of this world of death” (Gandhi, p.229)
The concept of ‘Bhakti’ or devotion is very old in the Indian religious tradition. As quoted above, Bhagavad Gita mentions it as one of the way of attaining Moksha i.e. liberation from the cycle of birth and death. However during medieval period, ‘Bhakti’ had assumed a new significance and brought many changes in the Indian society. Contemporary Maharashtra was also profoundly affected by the wave of Bhakti from 13th to 18th century. Bhakti and its manifestation in different forms is still a very significant force in Maharashtra.
Bhakti Movement and Caste System-Post-colonial literature produced in Maharashtra have a very strong tradition of Dalit literature, but the root of articulation of the grievances of the downtrodden in Marathi goes long back in History, at least to 13th -14th century, the period of Chokhmela. In a way Chokhmela was probably the first recorded Dalit poet.
Bhakti saints at different places and in different languages preached importance of ‘Bhakti’ or sincere and simple devotion in place of complicated and costly rituals. Though their teachings had variations from place to place, yet many of them raised their voice against discrimination and unjustified caste system. As the Bhakti saints preached in vernacular, their message had widespread effect on the population.
Indian religious tradition is a very complex phenomenon. The same is applicable to Bhakti movement as well. On the one side it have a very liberating voice like Kabir, who wanted to do way with the cast discrimination altogether, and on the other hand it also have Tulsidasa, the composer of ‘Ramcharitmanas’ and the upholder of Cahturtvarna1. This duality and conflict seems to be internalised in the personality of many Bhakti saints. Jnaneshwara, who is considered as a pioneer of the Bhakti movement in Maharashtra also seems to be giving conflicting message. In ‘Jnaneshwari’2, which is Jnaneshwara’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, Jnaneshwara says,
                        “Bhakti ga eth sare jati apraman” (Sakhre, p.388)
             (Devotion alone counts and not caste) (Translation mine)
 But immediately while explaining the next verse he gives a very high position to the Brahmins and calls them
‘Varnamaji Chatrchamar, Swarg Jayache Agarhar’ (Sakhre, p.390)
(Brahmins are at the pinnacle of Varnas and their natural dwelling place is heaven) (Translation mine)
Though this dichotomy existed in the Bhakti movement and within the individuals related to Bhakti movement, still the Bhakti movement of Maharashtra had given chance to many underprivileged to come forward and articulate their grievances. Inspired by the liberal voice of Bhakti movement many of them came forward to articulate their grievances. Probably the conflict between orthodox heritage and liberal values is eternal.
Chokhamela- Chokhamela, born in a Mahar3 caste lived at a village called Mangalvhede near Phandarpur. He was associated with Namdeva, Janabai4.  and other Bhakti saints of the ongoing Phandarpur Movement5 It is difficult to ascertain his year of birth in the absence of any evidence, but he died in A.D. 1338.
The orthodox elements of the Hindu society hated the lower caste saints like Chokhamela and Janabai. Influenced by the ideas of religious equality propagated by the liberal saints like Namdeva, the lower caste saints started asserting their spiritual progress. Because of their growing self confidence as a devotee and their growing popularity among the masses, the lower caste saints in the Bhakti movement became an eyesore for the orthodox elements. The likes of Chokhamela had to face lot of harassment. The poetry of Chokhamela gives us an insight into his sad heart as well as reflects his spiritual accomplishment.
The lower castes were not only denied respect in the society, but also lived in an abject poverty. Chokhamela complains to God about the injustice that some people are enjoying prosperity and some even do not get enough food. He says,
“Somebody is having a high comfortable seat to sit and comfortable bed to sleep. But some people do not have clothes to cover their body.
Some people enjoy all delicious food and some people had to beg for a coarse meal.
Somebody is respected and have a high place like a king and somebody moves all over the place begging. What kind of justice is this O God at your home? My fate itself seems to be bad” (Deshpande, Part II, p.139) (translation mine)
Chokhamela says that humiliation, poverty and depressed state of mind also prevents him from concentrating on God. He regrets that he is unable to serve his lord.
“When I think about sitting peacefully and mediate on God’s name, I am unable to concentrate. When I want to give away something in charity, I do not have wealth. I am a beggar throughout my life. How unfortunate I am!” (Deshpande, part II, p.139) (Translation mine)
Choikahmela’s wife Soyarabai, Son Karmamela, Sister Nirmala and brother-in-law Banka were also influenced by the devotion of Chokahamela and ongoing spread of Bhakti ideas. All of them have composed poetry of high degree. The sadness and the anger at the injustice done to them also reflects in their poetry, Karmamela complains to God,
“We are low born O God!
We never get sweet delicious food
And we are always ashamed of ourselves” (Deshpande, Part II, p.139) (translation mine)
But even downtrodden and sad, Chokhamela had desired to reassert himself and says,
“The sugarcane may appear to be dirty from outside, but its juice is sweet,
I am from the lower caste, but my devotion is not from the lower caste.
And one should not be misled by the appearance only” (Deshpande, Part II, p.137) (translation mine)
Though Chokhoba, as Chokhamela was fondly called, asserts himself and complains about injustice, he never speaks about revolting against injustice. On the other hand, when he sees no way out he consoles himself by saying that it is his fate and must be the consequences of his misdeeds in the previous life.
“I am a Mahar without caste,
I was Nil6 in my previous birth.
I am born as a Mahar because,
I had criticised Krishna” (Deshpande, Part II, p.137) (translation mine)
This was a kind of psychological ‘Defence Mechanism’ that he is using to come to the terms with the sad reality in his life.
Chokhamela realizing that his position in society cannot be changed, submits to fate and says that whatever is written in fate will happen and there is no use of complaining. (Deshpande, Part II, p.139)
Chokhmela realises that he cannot go against well established social norms. Even though he did not believe that the God will be polluted by his touch, he accepts his humble position outside the temple and feels satisfied that he has the pleasure of looking at God’s feet from outside the main door. He says,
“I am prostrating at your feet o lord! But from outside the entrance of the temple” (Deshpande, Part II, p.139) (translation mine)
Chokhamela was doing the duty of cleaning the village. That was a hereditary work assigned to people belonging to Mahar community. Even though engaged in removing waste, Chokhamela was maintaining high standard of personal cleanliness. He was highly respected among the saint community of Phandarpur. Yet after returning to his village Mangalvedhe, he had to live among his lower caste community members. Due to the restrictions imposed on them and poverty, the lower caste people could not acquire education and cultural progress. In general they led a degraded life and used indecent language. Chokhamela feels uneasy in unhygienic circumstances and feels sad about their deplorable conditions. He says,
“I am living among the indecent people. I do not feel comfortable in their company. They eat flesh and drink liquor. They use foul language. I feel piety for them. I am trapped in the situation and how long I will have to bear it” (Deshpande, Part II, p.137) (translation mine)
Chokahmela faced a lot of humiliation due to his lower caste. During those days even a touch of Shudra’s shadow was considered as impure. Even a  person like Jnaneshwara, who is lovingly called Mauli i.e. mother7,  could not totally rise above the prejudice of his age. He says,
“One has to remove a corpse out of the house or avoid a low-caste person by sweet talk” (Yardi, p.565)
Chokahmela says that everyone is born out of impurity and there is no one beyond this. He says that he is surprised that some people consider themselves beyond impurity. (Deshpande,Part II, p.138)
 He ridicules the belief that God will be polluted by the touch of a Shudra. He says God is beyond purity and impurity. (Deshpande, part II, p.138)
Chokhamela feels sad about the injustice done to the lower caste. He sees no hope that the people will treat him equally. His only hope lies with Vitthala, who do not discriminate. He says,
“You do not discriminate between high and low and gives place to everyone including women and Shudras at your feet” (Deshpande, Part II, p.138) (translation mine)
Not only that, Chokhamela says that Bhakti can purify crooks. Like many of his contemporary Bhakti saints, Chokhamela do not believe in rituals but say only repeating God’s name is enough.
With spiritual progress, Chokha8 realised the unity of Saguna and Nirguna9. He says Saghuna form is only a manifestation of one Guna (Aspect, quality ), of Nirguna, in fact God is without form and is present everywhere.
Chokhoba says that we all are same, but look different which is an illusion. As pots are made of earth may look different but after breaking they became the part of same earth. Similarly we may appear different, but this difference is temporary and we all will mingle in the same earth from which we are made. (Deshpande, Part II p.144). Chokhoba and many Bhakti saints made high philosophical, spiritual knowledge enshrined in the Scriptures accessible to masses by using simple language.  
Chokhamela criticizes hypocrisy and showing off of spirituality. He also dislikes the begging of alms on the pretext of religion. Criticizing those hypocritical Sadhus, He says,
“They wear necklace or other symbols to show-off their spirituality, they also pollute their stomach, by begging from door to door. Who will call these hypocrites a saint” (Modi, p.63)
Chokhamela says that if a person do not have compassion and piety in his heart all his talks about spiritual knowledge is useless” (Modi, p.63)
Bhakti had sublimated Chokahmela’s mind to a very high level and he had reached a state where all desires have become extinct. He even does not desire Moksha, but wants to remain at the feet of Vitthala. (Modi, p.136)
In spite of being humiliated repeatedly and leading a life of deprivation, Chokhamela realizes the futility of remaining sad and gloomy. He tries to cheer himself up and imagine Lord Vitthala advising him.
“Do not consider this world and its responsibilities as a burden. Whatever has to happen will happen. And one should not be unduly sad about it” (Modi, p.119)
Chokhamela makes numerous references to the Hindu mythological stories, like stories about Krishna, Vidura, Prahalad and Ahilya. This is surprising because as a Shudra he was not expected to have an access to religious scriptures. Nor we expect him to be able to read and write.
Probably he must have listened to those mythological stories while he came in contact with the saints at Phandarpur. Chokha must have been a person of amazing intellect. He had listened to these stories, memorised them and made references to them at proper place while composing his devotional poetry.
By his devotion, saintly character, intellect and poetry of high literary merit, Chokha had acquired a position of respect among the saint community. Namdeva, his spiritual Guru had a high regard for Chokhamela. He says.
“Chokha is my soul, Chokha is my devotion.
Chokha is my God, what I shall say about his Bhakti and his power (Spiritual)” (Kharat, p.36)
According to Janabai, a Brahmin named Anant Bhatt volunteered to become a writer for Chokhamela to note down his Abhangas (a devotional poems)
However, because of this respectable position, he became an eyesore for the high caste priest community of Phandarpour and they hatched a conspiracy against him. (Deshpande,part II p.141). He was accused of stealing God’s ornament and was beaten.
Even though highly accomplished and respected, Chokhmela could not escape the forced labour that the feudal government was forcing the lower caste people to do during those days. During one of similar work of constructing a boundary wall for the village Mangalvede, Chokhamela died accidently. The wall which was under construction fell and many workers died, Chokhamela was among them.
Namdeva brought his remains at Phandarpur and constructed a Smadhi for him in front of the Vitthala’s temple. According to tradition Chokhmela’s bones were also repeating VItthal’s name.
Conclusion-One of the important contribution of Bhakti movement that it gave likes of Chokhmela an identity to live with dignity. Because of the idea of equality spread by Bhakti saints that Chokhmela could assert himself.
The pain as reflected in Chokhmela’s poetry is a consequence of the feeling that he is also a human being like others and what is practiced is unjustified. The realization has come because his self respect was aroused by Bhakti movement.
Bhakti movement could not eradicate evils of caste system and establish social equality, but it had provided avenues to the likes of Chokhamela where they could give vent to their grievances. This was a first step towards a better, more egalitarian society, a society of equal rights to all.
Bhakti movement with its emphasis on equality, simple devotion, non-acceptance of rituals, and use of vernaculars had raised the spiritual aspirations of the downtrodden. They started feeling that realization of divine is possible for them also! Earlier God, who understood and spoke Sanskrit with the Brahmin priests and could be pleased by the costly rituals, appeared to be very inaccessible. Spiritual awakening and meditation also tickled the creative instinct of the likes of Chokhmela and Janabai, who apparently illiterate, had composed poetry of high literary merit containing high philosophical ideas. With increased confidence Chokhamela claimed his right over Vitthala and say with pride that he is a lower caste servant of Vitthala.
“Vithu Patlacha Mahar, Choka Melayach Johar” (Modi, p.125)
( I am a Mahar of Vitthala, accept my greetings)
However the orthodox elements in general failed to realise the need of time. They discouraged the intellectual growth of the lower caste and tried to maintain the supremacy of the Brahmin, thus perpetuating injustice. The Bhakti saints like Ramdas had desire to maintain the supremacy of the Brahmins. He says,
“Brahmin is Guru to all even if he is ineffective” (Deshpande, Part-V, p.494)
Had the upper caste people accepted the Shudra’s right of living with dignity, Hinduism could have been more cohesive force. But it did not happen and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar separated from the Hinduism along with his large number of followers to embarrass Buddhism. It may be noted that he was also born in the same caste as that of Chokhamela i.e. Mahar. But he was fortunate to be born nearly 650 years after Chokhamela, when the political system and social set up was different. Chokhamela, though complained against injustice, finally submitted meekly, but Ambedkar complained initially and realizing that the roots of caste system and discrimination are too strong for him to uproot, departed from the Hinduism.
We cannot change the past, but we can learn lesson from it A society which discriminate and tyrannize its own people will always remain fragmented.
There are few examples like Chokhamela among the lower castes, who became part and parcel of Warkari movement. Brahmin community also by and large remained aloof from it as it had challenged their privileged position in the society. However, it spread rapidly among those communities in Maharashtra, who roughly represent the Vaishya Varna like cultivators, shopkeepers and goldsmith.
Ideas of equality, propagated by the Bhakti saints, though mainly confined to religious aspect of society, had a spill over effect and it modified the attitude of those who came under its spell. It contributed towards reducing social friction and enmity between different castes.
The equal treatment given to all while on pilgrimage to Phandarpur must have acted as a safety valve, consoling the anger of the lower caste people. In lord Vitthala, a common man found everybody’s God, to whom they can complain about the injustice done to them by mere mortals. Chokhamela says,
“Hin Mazi Yati Deva, Kaisi Ghade Thuzi Seva.
Maz Dur Dur Ho Mahanati, Tuz Bhetu Kavanyriti” (Deshpande, Part II, p.138)
(I am born in a lower caste, how can I serve you?
Everybody asks me to go away, how shall I meet you?) (Translation mine)
One surprising fact about caste system is that reformers who altogether rejected the caste system did not find much acceptance among the Indian masses. Buddhism rejected the caste system. Though it became widespread, it finally lost ground to Hinduism. In Maharashtra, Mahanubhav Samradaya of Swami Chakardhar also rejected the caste system, but failed to win many followers. Whatever influence it had was lost in the wave of spread of Bhakti movement.
Survival of unjustified caste system, even among the educated is a strange phenomenon. Probably it is difficult to comprehend the intricacies of human life!
Explanatory Notes-
1.      Chaturvarna- division of Indian Hindu society in four Varnas with Brahmins at the highest.
2.      Jnaneshwari- The Marathi commentary on Bhagavad Gita by Jananeshwara. The original name of this commentary was Bhavartha Dipika, but more popularly it is known as Jnaneshwari.
3.      Mahar- It was one among many Sudra castes in Maharashtra.
4.      Namdeva, Janabai- The contemporaries of Chokhmela and important Saints in the Bhakti movement of Maharashtra. Namdeva was a tailor by caste and Janabai was his maid. Both of them also faced discriminations at the hands of the orthodox elements.
5.      Phandarpur Movement- Lord Vitthala, the deity at Phandarpur town in Western Maharashtra was the important rallying point of the Bhakti movement of Maharashtra. So the Saints, practices and social mobalization surrounding the deity at Phandarpur are also called Phandarpur Movement in the academic circle. Though average Maharashtrian do not call it so. The people associated with this prefer to call themselves as Warkari. Wari means periodical pilgrimage that a devotee is obliged to undertake to holy place. The Warkaris are expected to make annual pilgrimage i.e. Wari to Phandarpur and so he is called Warkari, i.e. someone who undertakes a Wari. The movement is also known as Warkari movement.
6.      A mythical character.
7.      This a rare example of a male saint being called Mauli i.e. Mother. Signifying that  love that Jnaneshwara had for the humanity cannot be compared with any other love than the love of a mother for her child. The Bhakti movement of Maharashtra is having a dominating influence of Vatslaya Bhakti. In this type of Bhakti, the relation between the God and devotee is regarded like a relation between the mother and her child. There are different types of Bhakti.  Like in Madhura Bhakti the relation between the God and devotee is like a relation between lover and beloved. In Dasya Bhakti, the relations are like master and servant. Under the influence of Vatslaya Bhakti, Lord Vittahala, the deity at Phandarpur was also many times referred as Vithoba Mauli, i.e. Vittahala, the mother.
8.      Chokhmela is sometimes fondly called Chokha or Chokhoba. Making some alteration in the name seems to be a usual practice among the Maharashtrains. Lord Vittahala is also refereed as Vithoba or Vithu. Jnaneshwara is also referred as Jnanoba. 
9.      Saguna, i.e. with Guna (quality) or with physical form and  Nirguna, i.e. without form. In academic circle the difference is made between the Saguna Bhakti tradition and Nirguna Bhakti tradition. Saguna Bhakt like Tulsidasa worshipped the manifest form of God i.e. Rama. Kabir and Nanak worshipped unmanifest Brahma, i.e. Nirguna. But in Maharashtrian Bhakti tradition, one cannot make this kind of distinction. Bhakti saints Jnaneshwara, Eknataha and Chokhmela seems to be aware that Saguna and Nirguna are not different but one. They speak about Saguna and Nirguna in the same breath. Like Jnaneshwara says,
    “Tuz Saguna mahnu ki  Nirguna re”  ( should I call you a manifest or unmanifest, you are both.)
There seems to be awareness among the saints that Saguna is a stepping stone for the realization of the Nirguna. Ramdasa says,
“Sagunacheni Adhare, Nirgun Pavije Nirdhare” (By taking help of Saguna, one will realize Nirguna) (Gosawi, p.118)
1.      Deshpande A.N. ‘Prachin Marathi Vangmayacha Itihas’ part II & part V.      (History of ancient Marathi Literature) , Vinus Publication, Pune,1995.(Marathi)
2.      Dinkar Ramdharisingha ‘Sanskritike Char Adhaya’, Lokbharati Prakashan, Illahabad, 2009 (Hindi)
  1. Gandhi M.K., ‘ The Bhagavad Gita’, Orient Paperback, New Delhi, 1993.
  2. Gosawi R.R., ‘ Sri Samarth ani Samarth Samprydaya’, Vinus Prakashan, Pune, 1981.
5.      Kharat S., ‘Chokhobacha Vidroha’, Sugava Prakashan, Pune, 2002. (Marathi)
6.      Dr. Modi R. ‘ Saint Chokhobache Abhang’, Vijay Prakashan, Nagpur, 2002. (Marathi)
7.      Sakhre, Sri Nanamharaj, ‘Sarth Sri Jnaneshwari’, Sarathi Prakashan, Pune, 2001. (Marathi)
8.      Yardi M.R. ‘ The Jnaneshwari’, Bharitya Vidya Bhavan, Pune Kendra,2002.
9.      Sharma K., ‘Bhakti and Bhakti Movement; A new prespective’, Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, 1987.

Submitted By-   Dr. Ravi Khangai, Asst. Prof.,                                                               Department of History, Ambedkar College, Fatikroy,                                                                    Dist- Unakoti,Tripura-799290
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 M- 9402168854, 9862799912.

Bio-data of the author
Working as Assistant Professor (History), at Ambedkar College, Fatikroy, Unakoti, Tripura-799290.
 Graduation from Punjab University, Chandigarh, M.A., Ph.D. and B.Ed from Jiwaji university, Gwalior (M.P.).
Ph.D. topic, ‘Bhakti Movement of Maharashtra’