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Eating Hunger: Selections from the Poems of Tukarama,
trans. J. Nelson Fraser and K.B. Marathe


INTRODUCTION

Tukarama, generally called Tuka or Tukaram, was an ascetic monk and one of India's best known and loved Hindu poets. Born to a low-caste family in 1608, he abandoned the world at age twenty to devote his life to contemplative worship, itinerant preaching and religious poetry. Following initial opposition by the local Brahmins, Tuka quickly became immensely popular, and villagers flocked to hear him. By the time he disappeared at forty, in 1649, he had written an estimated 8000 poems, of which over 4000 survive. His writing continues to influence Hindus and Christians in India today.

Tuka's separation from the world began when a famine and epidemic in 1629 took the lives of his first wife and both of his parents, and devastated his grain business. Tuka found himself deeply in debt and responsible to support his second wife, numerous children, and his younger brother. Overwhelmed by grief and guilt, he lost all interest in community and family life and soon abandoned his business. Retreating to the local village shrine, he began to follow the lifestyle of a traditional Hindu holy man: singing sacred songs, meditating, and begging. After Tuka lived for a while in this way, he relates, the god ordered him in a dream to write poems. Expressing inadequacy at such a high call, Tuka nonetheless embarked on a life of astounding and prolific religious composition.

Tuka's religious activities violated traditional caste boundaries, and his poems and growing popularity outraged the local Brahmins. Equally offensive to these critics, Tuka did not compose his poems in Sanscrit, the language of religious texts, but in his colloquial Marathi. In this, Tuka's opposition was similar to that faced by translators in the West, such as Wycliffe and Tyndale, in translating the traditionally Latin Bible into the vernacular. Western texts were banned and burned; Tuka's texts were drowned: the local religious leaders ordered Tuka to throw his books of poetry into the river. He complied, in great distress, and fell into a disturbed sleep. In his sleep, he said, the god appeared to him in a vision, told him his poems were uninjured, and ordered him to take them out of the stream. Tuka retrieved them and found them indeed unharmed. Whatever the explanation of this "miracle," it marked the beginning of local Brahmin tolerance for Tuka as a local holy man and religious poet.

There are three biographical sources for Tuka's life. First, there are his autobiographical poems themselves. Second, a contemporary poetess, Bahinabai, wrote of him in her memoirs. Third, there is the highly hagiographical account written by Mahipati in 1774, over a century after Tuka's disappearance. For an English translation of Mahipati's account see Life of Tukaram: Translation from Mahipati's Bhaktalilamrita, Chapters 25–40, transl. and ed. Justin E. Abbott (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1930, reprinted 1980). The historical verity of all three is highly speculative.

The poems in this volume have been chosen to introduce Tuka to the general reader. Tuka's style is that of the religious apophthegm, a short pithy, often metaphorical saying common in the tradition of religious ascetics or monastic teachers. In his culture these sayings were recited as poetry, often sung. Although the music is gone and the poetic structure lost in translation, the apophthegm retains its original power. The poems included here are those which seem to most vividly depict Tuka's life, his attitude to his society, and his religious worship. A more detailed and scholarly introduction to Tuka's thought and style can be found in Dilip Chitre's Says Tuka: Selected Poetry of Tukaram (New York: Penguin Books, 1991).

Tuka's surviving literary corpus has never been comprehensively organized into an established, "authoritative" collection. The most extensive collection in English is J. Fraser and K.B. Marathe's monumental prose translation of nearly 4000 poems, published between 1909 and 1915. The present volume reprints 200 poems from Fraser and Marathe's collection, along with a short "Life" of Tuka published in 1869. Fraser numbered and categorized the poems according to his own system. The present volume retains Fraser's numbers and his occasional explanatory footnotes, but the poems are here newly reorganized into a smaller number of very general themes entirely unrelated to Fraser's categories. To enable the reader to get around the text more easily, each poem in the present collection has also been given a title, usually a key phrase from the text. These titles are not in the original collection, nor are they in Fraser's translation.

Tuka's poems are rich in the images of village life, and of the body. He draws especially on metaphors of food, eating and hunger, suggesting the profound influence famine had in the religious crisis of this former grain merchant. He often refers to the divine as mother, poignantly yearning for reunion with what he calls "my mother's house." He locates this in the next life and represents it in his poems as Pandhari, the city to which those in his village made pilgrimage. A deeply moral man, Tuka is quick to condemn those who are not sympathetic to his ascetic choices. Tuka's positive view of mother contrasts sharply with his opinions of Jija, his surviving wife. He calls Jija a "scold" and harlot whose purpose, as he sees it, is to disrupt his preaching and meditation. This divinization of the dead mother while demonizing the living wife is a common theme in many religious texts, and Tuka's antipathy reflects a standard textual tension between male ascetics and the women in their lives.

It is difficult to separate fact from fiction in the accounts of Tuka's life. Abbott, discussing Mahipati's biography of Tuka, remarked on this problem in 1930 by concluding that the poet's story is perhaps best appreciated by "divesting ourselves of the troublesome questions of historicity and not caring whether Mahipati gives us facts or legends."

The same might be said of Tuka's poems.


THE LIFE OF TUKARAMA

The poet Tuka was by caste a Sudra, and by occupation a vani or retail dealer in corn. He was born in the little village of Dehu, sixteen miles northwest of Poona, probably in 1608 AD. His father's name was Bolhoji; and from age thirteen Tuka had to undertake the management of the family business. In this he was successful for some time, but a famine brought distress and bankruptcy, and several of his relatives died.

As a result of this he turned seriously to religion. His family had always been distinguished for piety and he, naturally, devoted himself to the family god, Vitthoba of Pandharpura. He continued to remain in Dehu, and a hill named Bhandara is pointed out as a frequent scene of his meditations.

He soon became a well known teacher, and crowds of people were attracted to his Kathas and Bhajanas. He was soon the object of jealousy and enmity, since his success was not welcome to his Brahman contemporaries. Tuka was personally assaulted by one of them, Mumbaji Gosavi, and another, Rameshvara Bhatta, induced the leader of Dehu to expel him from the village. Tuka met these antagonists with submission, and soon obeyed an order of Rameshvara's to throw his poems into the river Indrayani. They were recovered, however, either by a miracle or by the simple process of taking them out again, and Rameshvara Bhatta relented. An abhanga is preserved in which Tuka bestows his forgiveness on his foe.

He also suffered domestic troubles, for his wife was incensed at the poverty which her husband's religious life entailed. Some abhangas are preserved in which her conduct is related and deplored.

Finally, however, Tuka's character and influence were established. Sivaji [the king] himself sent a flattering invitation to visit Raigad. Tuka declined this honor with his usual modesty, but he wrote seven abhangas in which he thanked the king and offered him some advice on public affairs.

The circumstances of his death are unknown. The popular account states that he ascended into heaven in the car of Vishnu. A note on the Dehu manuscript of his poems says that "Tukoba started on pilgrimage" — and was apparently seen no more.

His memory is well preserved in Hindu literature. Brahmans and Sudra alike are familiar with his poems, and there are Varkaris, or regular pilgrims between Dehu, Alandi, and Pandharpura who know thousands of them by heart. Unfortunately they do not always know their meaning, for Tuka's Marathi, now archaic, is often difficult and obscure.

The form of his poems is simple enough: an irregular rhymed meter which in the course of time makes itself felt if not understood by the English ear. They deal little with outward circumstances and much with the inward life of the spirit. Every word of the writer is set down with great force and naiveté. We easily comprehend him for what he is, an unlearned man struggling with the mysteries of faith, by such light as he can find. This light is sometimes reflected from the great Sanskrit classics. It is sometimes borrowed from the traditions of the Krishna worship and the Bhakti school of Bengal. It is always concentrated, however, on the image of Vitthoba at Pandharpura, in which Tuka finds a power actually present to help and save him. It has been conjectured that this was only his early attitude, that this faith in the power of images gradually left him. But there is no foundation for this view that I know of, and we must not support it by any "internal evidence" from the abhangas; we do not know in what order they were composed.

Whatever view we take of Tuka's creed, he was undoubtedly in many ways a man able to discern spiritual things. He appeals to no miracles and no direct vision of any saint or deity. He proclaims the need of man for God's grace, the power of God to bestow it, and the peace and happiness which it brings. He never forgets the duties of morality and, although his code (like all moral codes) is limited, it is clearly conceived and enforced. We may sometimes wish he had faced the world with more resolution, but we shall never find him wanting in honesty.

He has no philosophic system to propound, and he does not open up any paths of mystical intuition. He is a plain man of the people who has set out, in the face of all his limitations, to find a faith sufficient for himself and his countrymen.