How Sant Tukaram turned his failure into success

On the way back, he fell in with a visibly depressed man and being Tuka, asked him his trouble.
Picture credit: P RAVIKUMAR
Picture credit: P RAVIKUMAR

Since some of you have asked for more stories about saints, I would like to retell the story of Sant Tukaram as I know it. He was born in Dehu village near modern-day Pune in the 17th century. There are many myths about him but also factual consensus that he was overcome by tragedies and failure. However, he continues to affect modern Indians deeply.

In the 2005 play Dark Horse by Gowri Ramnarayan about the Marathi poet Arun Kolatkar, a journalist asks Kolatkar if he believes in God. The poet takes time to answer, and finally says, “Well, I know Tukaram, and Tukaram knows God.” The Marathi film Sant Tukaram (1936) was the first Indian film to get international recognition at the Venice film festival. Let us join Tukaram’s story at a pitiful moment:

“I can’t believe how stupid you are!”

“You let your family die. You don’t have a heart.”

Tukaram shrank as the harsh words of his neighbours fell on him like hail. The year was 1630 and a terrible famine had wrecked Maharashtra. Tukaram’s frail first wife Rukma and his eldest son Narayan had just died in it. Tuka had inherited a family shop selling grain, spices and cloth but ran his business into the ground with his soft heart, giving things away freely. He could not buy his family either food or medicine during the famine.

Tuka was only 21 and did not know what to say to his detractors. Tears ran down his face. Satisfied, his tormentors went away.

“Vithoba, Krishna,” he breathed, thinking of the family deity whose temple lay in Pandharpur on the banks of the river Chandrabhaga. Here, in his village, Dehu, by the river Indrayani, Tuka’s heart leapt with sudden longing for Pandharpur. His parents had been fervent devotees of Vithoba and had taken him on their pilgrimages twice a year.

He decided to go there the very next day. Avali, his second wife, silently fed him some cold rice and salted buttermilk. Tuka threw himself down at Vithoba’s feet in Pandharpur. “Vithoba, can I blame Avali for being angry? She was a rich grocer’s daughter. I was forcibly married a second time because Rukma fell ill so often. I have bankrupted my business. How should I go forward now?”

The dark, glowing image of Vithoba on his brick, arms akimbo, seemed to shimmer before Tuka’s eyes. A dancing, singing band of pilgrims entered the shrine just then. By and by, one of them pulled Tuka to his feet.

“Dance with us, brother! Don’t you know that Vithoba joins in when we dance for him? Can you not sense him in our midst?”

As Tuka danced to the energetic rhythm he felt renewed and hopeful.

Tuka went home and found that Avali had pledged her remaining ornaments and raised 250 rupees for him to start a new business with. Tuka set off to Baleghat with a supply of salt to sell. On the way back, he fell in with a visibly depressed man and being Tuka, asked him his trouble. Out came a pathetic story of debtors and Tuka promptly gave the stranger all the money he had.

When he got home, Avali’s rage was nothing compared to the fury of the public. The neighbours declared Tuka insane. They hung a garland of onions on his neck, forcibly seated him on a donkey and paraded him through the village, beating drums and jeering.

This humiliation pushed Tuka to the brink. “I have failed you and now I wish to go away,” he told his family. “Avali, I know your father will welcome you back.”

His family wept but finally accepted his decision. Tuka left home to meditate on the nearby hillside of Bhambhanath. Avali’s suddenly single status was excused by the fact that her husband had turned to saintly pursuits.

Tuka lived out several years in voiceless fury. “I started with everything but was left with nothing because of my foolish, trusting nature. I am a failure as a businessman, a husband and a parent. But was I ever given a choice? It was the world that chose for me and blamed me when I didn’t get it right.” he grieved. “Am I unnatural? I feel much happier alone on the hillside than at home, with its constant clamour, or the shop with its endless petty sums.”

As he progressed from shame to accepting the truth of his feelings, Tukaram began to live in a sort of ecstasy on the hillside. Everybody, he sang, belonged to God, and God in turn belonged to them. You could see Vithoba in every leaf and flower, in every bird and butterfly.

Stopping at first in ones and twos, the shepherds, carpenters, weavers and ploughmen of the area found a strange joy in Tuka’s simple but moving songs. Their hard lives suddenly seemed less hard to them and they became more aware of the beauty of creation, of which they now felt that they were a part. As word spread, people from elsewhere came to listen to the singing saint and noted down his compositions.

The seasons seemed to fly by, unnoticed, and with every year Tuka’s hunger to reach the Lord’s lotus feet grew stronger. One day, at the age of 42, Tuka decided to go. “God, I cannot bear to wait any longer. I am coming to you now, do not refuse me,” he said piteously. He made his way downhill to the Indrayani, trembling in excitement.

“Hari, Hari,” his blood sang in him and the river tugged gently at his limbs as if to say, “Come, I will take you where you want to go.” Tuka waded in chanting Vithoba’s name until the cool waters closed over his head. He smiled in bliss as he sank into the river’s embrace and was never seen again.

But the people remembered and never forgot. Tuka was a success after all, in a way that would have brought his soul peace.

Renuka Narayanan

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