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Following is an article written by K. Ganesh Kumar that appeared in the magazine
"One India One People" May 2001 issue.

Music of the masses

A true example of national integration can be found in the Namsankirtana Sampradaya founded by Sant Namdev of Maharashtra, which can hold thousands spellbound whether in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu or Delhi.

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Music that blends forms, styles, instrumentation across culture, regions and human races is what Indian music is all about. Indian music has always been allying influence so intricately interwoven with people’s lives and styles - a sustained process of experimentation. A good example is the Namsankirtana tradition originating in Maharashtra and in later times, which spread its influence to south India and Punjab.

The Lord of Pandharpur

Like the people in India, the gods of India too spring from diverse sources: in their nomenclature and iconography, we see embodied in 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 cherished object of devotion.

To the bhakti, it is the presence of the deity as enshrined in traditional practice is all 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, accordingly, form one of the bhakta's principal demonstrations of veneration. They are also a mode of dialogue between the worshiper and the object of worship, a means by which the worshipper slips from his ordinary consciousness 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 abhangs or poems of devotion that he wrote in the course of a short life. Vithal, affectionately spoken as Vithoba, is the Lord of Pandharpur, accompanied by his consort Rakhumabai he has been worshipped for almost eight centuries through out Maharashtra, parts of north Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, especially by the members of Varkari panth. Vithal is clearly a composite deity, a local god who has become absorbed over time into the wider network of Vishnu worship. One of Tukaram’s best-known poems of devotion beginning with the words "Sundara te dhyana ubhe vite vari", is dedicated to the figure of Vithal.

Ecstatic iconographer that he is, Tukaram pours his devotional energies into the symbolism of Vithal, invoking the 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 a 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 heads graces his neck; Tukaram invests him with the Kaustubha jewel and the yellow silk garment, which are intimately associated with Vishnu.

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 activities that has encrusted itself around every centre of worship and pilgrimage in India.

For the enduring appeal of bhakti is explained, finally, by the intimate relationship between the worshipper and the divine that it promises. Tukaram phrases this possibility of dialogue between the seeker as normal consciousness and the sought as awakened consciousness.

Namsankirtana Sampradaya

It was about 800 years ago (1200 AD) Sant Dnyaneshwar and Sant Namdev pioneered the "Bhakti Sampradaya" and "Namsankirtana Sampradaya" in Maharashtra.

This was the time when only the knowledge of Sanskrit and Gyan, it was believed, could one attains godliness. Also, rituals, which only the upper caste could follow and perform, held the centre stage to attain godliness. The masses were cut off from the religion and the religion was dominated by the high caste brahmins. In the meantime the Mughals were dominating the political scene.

Sant Dnyaneshwar wrote "Dnyaneshwari" — a commentary on Srimad Bhagvat Geeta in Prakrit (Marathi) a Language, which could be understood by the masses. Both Sant Dnyaneshwar and Sant Namdev through their works, devotion and bhakti could initiate a Sampradaya, which did not attach importance to caste or creed but only devotion to the Lord. This was the birth of "Bhakti Sampradaya". The enchanted masses could attain Godliness merely through bhakti or devotion. Also, this format of chorus singing 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 Namsankirtana cult and Varkari Sampradaya.

Sant dnyaneshwar

Their contemporaries Sant Chokhamela, Janabai, Sawta Mali, Narahari Sonar, Gora Kumbhar and many other Sants also wrote and sung hundreds of abhangs. The central ideology of the Varkari Namsankirtana Sampradaya was chanting of Namsankirtana daily. It attached least importance to the position or status of the person in the society. All this happened around places like Paithan, Pandharpur, Mangal Veda, Alandi and slowly spread to the entire Maharashtra, Punjab and so on.

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Sant Namdev influenced hundreds into this fold. He also wrote the "Sant Dnyaneshwar Samadhi Sohla" which is a narration of events during Sant Dnyaneshwar's Jeevan Samadhi. It is mentioned that Lord Vithala himself participated in the event with his consort Rukmayee along with hundreds of bhaktas.

A few centuries later, Sant Tukaram (Dehu Road) and Sant Eknath (Paithan) through their abhangs further reinforced the Varkari and Namsankirtana Sampradaya.

Abhang would mean a + bhang — that which can not be destroyed.

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 Namsankirtana to Tanjavur (South India).

Thereafter, it is known that saints of South India like Maruthanallur Sadguru Swamigal and others integrated the abhangs into the South Indian bhajana paddhati or divyanama Sampradaya.

Brahmanand, Meerabai, Kabir, Tulsidas, Surdas from the north, Jayadeva, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu of the east, Sadguru Swamigal, Bodendra Swamigal, Annamacharya, Purandaradasa of the south and many more have all greatly contributed to this rich tradition.

In recent times Swami Swaroopanand of Pawas (near Ratnagiri, Maharashtra) wrote several hundreds of bhakti geet which are very popular in Maharashtra and elsewhere. Swami Haridas Giri of the south has spread Namsankirtana tradition to many places in India and abroad.

Rendering of Namsankirtana attaches a great importance to "Nama", the Bhava and chorus singing. Even today, one can see thousands thronging to the venues where Namsankirtana is held whether in Maharashtra or Delhi or Tamil Nadu. One will also witness a great mingling. Maharashtra abhangs rendered with great fervour in the remotest village of south India for example.

This is true national integration.

K Ganesh Kumar

K Ganesh Kumar is a businessman who is Vice President of the Fine Arts Society of Chembur, Mumbai. He is an avid cultural buff who gives Namsankirtana performances


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