The Varkari movement's contribution to Maharashtra: tolerance, accommodation, and democracy
The Varkari movement's contribution to Maharashtra: tolerance, accommodation, and democracy

Maharashtra is more than just a territorial entity, within itself it embodies a set of progressive ideas. What we now understand as “Maharashtra Dharma” is not based on the whims of an individual scholar, saint, or any single intellectual. Many have contributed, layer by layer, over centuries. A group I wish to highlight, who have influenced me and the fabric of Maharashtra greatly, are the Varkaris.

Every year on the day of Ashadhi Ekadashi, lakhs of Varkaris gather in Pandharpur to seek blessings of their beloved deity Vithoba. A tradition that goes back to the 13th century has been altered by the novel coronavirus.

This year the annual pilgrimage yatra, known widely as Dindi, carried out by the Varkaris particularly from Alandi to Pandharpur, will have only 20 people. The Dindi that witnessed participation of over 5 lakh devotees last year, mostly on foot, will be carried out by a bus this time.

While the Dindi has a significance of its own which cannot be belittled, it is perhaps more important for Maharashtra and the world, to inculcate and carry forward the social, cultural, and religious significance of the Varkari movement.

The annual Dindi is just a page in the magnanimous canon of Varkari literature. Founded by great Bhakti saints like Dnyaneshwar, Tukaram, Namdev, the Varkari movement responded to the dominant narrative of its times. In Maharashtra, as we know today, the movement took a cue from the Bhakti and Sufi saints who were reacting to the religious orthodoxies in their respective religions.

The idea was to make God accessible to people of all castes and religions, as evident from Sant Namdev’s Abhang “His reassuring words brought together all people, high and low, rich and poor, wise and ignorant under one umbrella.”

While entry to religious or caste groups is still a function of birth or involves an elaborate process of conversion, no esoteric ceremony is required to become a Varkari. The community prescribes a way of life that is all-encompassing and based on three major tenets; opposition to narrow-minded religious practices, egalitarianism in spiritual matters, and family-centered life.

This democratised nature of spiritual and social life has had a widespread impact on the fabric of Maharashtra till date. What amuses me about the community is that the saints who stitched the Varkari movement belonged to different castes. While Dnyaneshwar was a Brahmin, Tukaram–a farmer, Namdev–a tailor, Narhari Sonar–a goldsmith, Savtoba–a gardener, Gora–a potter, and so on. None sought to create their hegemony in the movement.

The idea was simple, all are equal in the eyes of Vitthal. The tolerance and inclusiveness of the movement were not just restricted to members belonging to different caste groups, but also towards women. The comparison of Vitthal to a mother. ‘Vithu Mauli’, and the contribution of saint poets like Muktabai, Janabai, and Bahinabai, reflects the equal if not a special position enjoyed by women in the movement.

Dindi is integral to a Varkari, which is undertaken to fulfill a happy promise rather than an obligation. Moreover, there are no strings or sanctions attached to those who do not undertake the yatra. The annual pilgrimage culminates in Pandharpur, on the 11th day of the waxing moon period in the month of Ashadh.

The Varkaris begin Dindi depending on their distance from Pandharpur, to reach the banks of river Chandrabhaga before the Ashadhi Ekadashi. They are organised in various groups, accompanied by a palanquin. The most prominent Dindi is of Dnyaneshwar’s, which begins from Alandi, Pune. To take their teachings and messages to a wider audience, like the Bhakti and Sufi saints, Varkaris popularised several Bhajans, Abhangs and Kirtans, that are an integral part of each and every Dindi enroute Pandharpur.

These Abhangs are intrinsic to a Maharashtrian singer and performer's repertoire even today. I am especially reminded of the Abhang “Maajhe Maher Pandhari”; immortalized by Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, exalts Panduranga and Rakhumai as the devotees' parents and the river Chandrabhaga as their sister.

I strongly believe that the world is going through a massive transformation, not just our way of life but several principles we consider sacred are under threat. There is a greater need today than ever before to strengthen our resolve towards reclaiming the ideals of peaceful coexistence, harmony, tolerance, that are bestowed upon us by the Varkaris. It gives me immense pain that a devotee cannot go on a pilgrimage to see his beloved Vithoba, but there is little we can do except to pray from our homes, for a world free of all evils and viruses.

Let's take this opportunity to acknowledge the efforts of Varkaris that have bestowed Maharashtra with a culture of tolerance, accommodation, and democracy.

(Jayant R Patil is the Minister of Irrigation & Water Resources, Maharashtra)

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