Eknath’s journey of loss and learning
How do we deal with life-shattering loss? The poignant story of Eknath comes to mind. Eknath was a 16th-century saint-composer of the Marathi bhakti canon.
How do we deal with life-shattering loss? The poignant story of Eknath comes to mind. Eknath was a 16th-century saint-composer of the Marathi bhakti canon. He was born and died in the historic town of Paithan in present-day Maharashtra. Paithan was an important place in the Bhakti landscape. Eknath’s writings are a part of it. He composed a version of the Bhagavata Purana and the Ramayana, and a body of devotional verse. There is a big religious fair held every March even today at Paithan to commemorate Eknath.
Eknath’s mother, Rukmini, told him stories about the life of Sri Krishna, especially about the Lord’s divine childhood, which Eknath loved. Eknath’s father, Suryanarayan, was a Kulkarni or tax accountant working for the government of Paithan. Located on the east bank of the great and beautiful river Godavari, the town was very nice to live in. Eknath loved Goda, as they called Godavari. The family would go on picnics by the river on holidays, spread a cloth under a shady tree, and peacefully eat lunch as they watched the river flow past.
But one year, when Eknath was eight years old, Paithan was struck by cholera. Funeral pyres burned all day long. Both Suryanarayan and Rukmini died in agony, and suddenly Eknath was an orphan.
The morning brought a stern visitor, determined to do his duty. It was his grandfather, Chakrapani, who had been away that week.
“You will live with me, of course,” he told Eknath, who shrank from him. ‘Ajoba’ as he called Chakrapani, meaning ‘grandfather’, was very stern. He was a dour disciplinarian who led an austere life, immersed in his work as a Deshpande or tax collector, and in the study of scriptures.
Poor little Eknath. Chakrapani was bent on bringing up his grandson with the strictest of rules. He allowed only the plainest of food in his house and devised a strict timetable for Eknath more suited to an ascetic than to a bereaved eight-year-old boy.
Ajoba did not believe in affectionate words or praise. Such softness, according to his code, weakened the moral fibre. So, he always spoke sternly, and even harshly to Eknath, caning him for mistakes.
Eknath was overwhelmed by this atmosphere. Not a scrap of affection fell his way now. He silently cried himself to sleep at night. He tried to console himself by remembering the tales of Sri Krishna that his mother had told him, and whispering his mother’s daily prayer to Ekvira Devi, their family goddess.
The only time Ajoba softened was when he spoke of Bhanudas, Eknath’s great-grandfather. Bhanudas had been a great saintly figure. He had gone south to the kingdom of Vijayanagar and with much persuasion brought back the sacred idol of Vithobha (Sri Krishna) to Pandharpur.
“May we go too?” asked Eknath, interested. “You are going to Devagiri to learn the Vedas from a proper teacher, don’t disgrace me when you go there,” said Ajoba curtly.
Janardan Swami, his appointed guru, lived in Devagiri and held religious discourses in the evening. His followers came from all castes and communities. There were even a few Muslims, friends who were attracted by his broadmindedness and powerful storytelling. Eknath felt lonely in the gathering. No one took notice of the solitary boy and he felt awkward and unwelcome.
Janardan Swami began to instruct him in the Rig Veda early in the morning and Eknath struggled to learn the complex old metres and hard-edged words. Janardan Swami could not instruct Eknath all day. He was the killedar or governor of Devagiri fort and had a thousand duties to attend to. He had accepted Eknath as a pupil only out of respect for Bhanudas.
Eknath struggled hard to find his place. His days took on a rhythm but he constantly pined inside for his lost family life and the Godavari.
One day, a band of pilgrims called on Janardan Swami. They sang and danced at the evening gathering about the beauty and kindness of Vithoba. Eknath’s hungry heart lapped it all up and he thought about Sri Krishna more deeply than he ever had.
“Here am I, without anyone to call my own and nobody to love me. And there is Krishna, whom everybody loved even when he was naughty. They say he is everyone’s friend. That means he is mine, too,” he thought.
This realisation transformed Eknath’s life a great deal. From feeling lonely and neglected, he began to feel he had a secret friend in Krishna. He awoke thinking of Krishna. He sat down to study thinking of how Krishna had studied diligently at Rishi Sandipani’s ashram at Ujjain.
He exercised daily, thinking of Krishna and Balaram wrestling for sport on the banks of the Yamuna. He grew very gentle with his playmates, thinking of how Krishna had protected timid Sudama. Eknath’s friends liked him for it and called him home to eat with them.
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He went to sleep thinking of little Krishna’s courage as he faced and destroyed one demon after the other. He ate rice and curds with new relish, for this was the very lunch that Mother Yashoda regularly packed for Krishna when he went to graze the cows. His studies improved with this new cheerfulness and Janardan Swami took note. He took a fresh interest in Eknath and instructed him on important literary and spiritual matters. Several years passed fruitfully like this, but Ekanath could never forget his lost paradise, Paithan.
One day Janardan Swami said, “Your studies with me are complete. You are free to go where you please. You may come back to me any time.”
Eknath took leave gratefully and left Devagiri forever. He lived in Paithan thereafter, teaching a few students for a living. His grandfather had passed away and he had no earthly ties left. Scarred emotionally by his boyhood loss, he never married, choosing the pleasure and peace of study over the unending cycle of attachment and bereavement that went with family life.