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Faith : September 23, 2001
Entering the landscape of a saint-poet
What impels us to go on a pilgrimage, even when we know that the outer journey is only an analogue of the more important journey through strange psychological realms that we must undertake, to come to terms with ourselves? For the devout, pilgrimages begin in faith. But for those of us who are not blessed with uncritical devotion, they begin in conversation, in curiosity, in the need to test the limits of our strength and our scepticism.
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That, more or less, is how I set out for Dehu on an April day in 1994, on the trail of Tukaram, the celebrated saint-poet of the bhagvat sampradaya, who lived in this village near Pune in the 17th Century. Our little expedition was led by Dilip Chitre, and no one could have wished for a more authoritative guide: poet, translator and film-maker, Chitre has been bringing Tukaram's abhangas over from Marathi into English since 1956.
Like many other villages that have grown unwittingly into small towns, Dehu is afflicted by the blare of Hindi film music, the raw seductions of the video parlour and the dish antenna. Tukaram's world has exploded like a supernova, but its light still reaches us faintly, across the traffic, the smell of the sewer-poisoned river, the ripeness of sugarcane fields that suck the water from the earth.
But Tukaram is more than a saint-poet in Dehu. He is a climatic condition, his signature endorses the locale. Or else the turmeric-yellow pagoda would be a mere steeple, not the commandment that it is. Remember, it says, this is where Vishnu's solar eagle swooped down on the snaking Indrayani river to spirit Tukaram away.
Then the last zinc-roofed sheds are behind us, and the scrubland opens out, offering no relief until the Bhandara hill rears up to fill the windscreen. The cave where Tukaram retreated to meditate and compose his poems is halfway up its steep slope, and the best - if riskiest - way to reach it is by getting to the top and clambering down.
We negotiate the slope, seeking purchase from leap to leap. Great shadows of clouds swim across the acid plain below; the way back is barred by a fusillade of wild grasses, and a chameleon streaks across the rocks to the scrawny shade of the oleanders. A dog that has been sleeping at the entrance to the cave wakes up, and a prickle along the spine tells us that we have stepped into a sanctuary.
When Tukaram came here - dunned by creditors, his land sequestered, his children hungry - he had given himself over to an absorption in Vithoba. "Vruksha-vali amha soyari vanachare": trees, creepers and forest animals kept him company, he says in one of his abhangas, as he ignored the rain's blitzkrieg and the scorn of neighbours to bear witness to the healing presence of the blue god.
Like Tukaram, we are cocooned beyond radar range of communal pieties and factional hostilities here, and Chitre begins to recite an abhanga in honour of the moment. The cadence is picked up immediately and the abhanga completed by a voice within the cave. It is a factory worker who spends his lunch hour meditating in the cave. A human archive, this varkari has effortlessly zeroed in on one poem from the more than 4,000 Tukaram compositions preserved in the oral tradition. No search engine could have performed better or faster; no CD-ROM could possibly replace his pithy wisdom, besides.
Back in Dehu, standing at the water's edge where Tukaram sank his poems and fasted till the river goddess dredged them up, I ask myself what we had hoped to find here. Had this been a field trip, or an attempt to reopen lines of transmission that have been jammed over the years?
What the pilgrimage does, perhaps, is to slip into your bloodstream an awareness of possibilities that you would never find in the crusted beehive of words. On the pilgrimage, you test yourself and are subtly transformed in the testing. You risk the self you were before you started, move closer to a light that destroys even as it regenerates. The pilgrimage is a teertha, a crossing, and the bridge can be as sharp as a razor's edge.
Parchment was an expensive commodity in the 17th Century, and the lines of careful black and red script are packed tightly together on the age-browned manuscript. But the text has been stained by more than age, and the visible evidence suggests that it has clearly spent a stretch of time under water at some point in its history.
We shade our eyes against the afternoon glare and look, with renewed excitement, at the manuscript through the glass in which it is now encased. The scene is not a white-walled, centrally air-conditioned museum in Washington DC or Berlin, but the temple of Vithoba in Dehu; on this early summer day, we are surrounded, not by suave curators and gawking tourists, but by turbanned varkaris pursuing their traditional pilgrimage routes across Maharashtra in a spirit of serene devotion.
Unlike the icon or folio that has been transplanted from its vibrant natural and cultural ethos into the antiseptic environment of a museum, this manuscript carries a deeper resonance by virtue of having remained in the physical context of its origin. For that reason, it prompts the visitor into a vivid awareness of events past, events incised into the landscape around the temple. If these 300-year-old pages record the exaltations and revelations that their writer experienced, they also tell a sad tale of the jealousy and fear that he aroused among those who held power in his society.
For this is the bhijki vahi, the legendary "immersed book" of Tukaram - the transcript of his abhangas, which the saint-poet was forced to sink in the Indrayani at the behest of a Brahmin orthodoxy terrified by his direct approach to the Divine, his defiance of the ritual-maker's monopoly on mediating between the gods and their human supplicants. As Mahipati tells the tale in his Bhakti-lilamrita, Tukaram sat by the bank of the Indrayani, fasting and praying for 13 days until the manuscript was miraculously restored to him from the depths.
Standing at the river's edge as Tukaram must have done several centuries ago, looking out across the tarnished silver surface of the water, we are reminded of the various miracles associated with this compelling figure. The restoration of the "immersed book" was not the only marvellous event to have taken place in Tukaram's life. It is believed that he once lost a harvest that he was supposed to have been minding, because he had been absorbed in a trance while the birds made away with the ripening corn - but Vithoba came to his rescue, multiplying the yield at harvest-time.
It is believed, also, that a celestial craft, a chariot of light descended to earth to conduct Tukaram to heaven at the end of his life. The faithful also hold that every year, at a certain moment on the day celebrated as Tukaram-bij, the imposing tree which marks the site of the saint-poet's departure shakes as though it had been seized up by a great wind.
And so we find ourselves wondering about the place of the miracle in our mental lives. Such things simply do not happen, we say to ourselves; they were probably invented by fabulists who came on the scene years after the event. Or perhaps it was the saint-poet's followers who set these tales in circulation, to add a further degree of lustre to the nimbus around his memory. Is the miracle to be dismissed as a collective hallucination? Or can we find reasons to explain the miracle as a tear in the fabric of space, time and logic?
Whatever the answers to these questions, the real miracle to which a symbol like the bhijki vahi bears testimony is the endurance of a questor's faith even in the face of the most adverse circumstances. While it speaks, conceptually, of a faith that survived social sanction and doctrinal proscription, its material form dramatises the dialectic between the transient and the eternal, between that which is subject to decay and that which is beyond the defilement of time.
To visionaries like Tukaram, the world was a maze of forms arising from the contest between kshara and akshara, the perishable and the imperishable. And the way out of the maze is the way of piety and grace, along which the questor is guided by the akshara made manifest in such a luminous image as that of Vithoba.
Taking his place in this contest of principles, the saint-poet bore witness to the enduring and the imperishable even as he negotiated with the perishable ephemera of life. Not for nothing is akshara the Sanskrit word for "letter" or "syllable": for language is the continuing echo of the first sound, the sound of the primal explosion with which the universe came into being. As we join the unending procession of varkaris marking the stations of their journey through the sacred landscape, we pay homage to the real miracle - which, on the evidence of Tukaram's bhijki vahi, is that the word, carrying the charge of its distant origin, survives its oppressors.
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