close logo

Aesthetic Brahmananda In The Warkari Kirtan: A Living And Thriving Tradition


My research aims to bring forth the truth, of how one can achieve brahmananda or divine bliss in the Warkari Kirtan. Tadatmya or oneness with Vitthal and love for all pranimatra, through the aesthetics of the Warkari Kirtan is the goal of a Warkari Kirtan. The Warkari Parampara of Maharashtra, is part of the bhakti pantheon of sects. Warkaris undertake annual pilgrimages or Wari to Pandharpur, where their deity Vitthal resides. It is characterized by samuhik or collective worship, through the age old Warkari Kirtan which means chanting of Vitthal naam and naam of the Sants of Maharashtra. The Kirtan includes bhajan or singing of the sacred poetry of the sants and expounding on one abhang with pramanas from sacred Sant Sahitya. The Kirtankar is expected to be learned in the sacred literature of the sants, music and basic tenets of the Warkari Sampradaya, which is virtuous living, daily naam smaran, tadatmya or oneness with the Vitthal in you. He has to be spiritual and have shuddhaacharana. The grooming in music, dance, philosophy of the Sampradaya and oratory, have to aid him in carrying the audience with him to brahmananda. What is sacred is inherently aesthetic. Through my research I intend to draw attention to how the music, dance, oration, beauty of the philosophy together produce the nav rasas inherent in the audience to carry him to Brahmananda, and how samuhikbhakti and naam smaran uplifts the audience morally and spiritually, through which they imbibe a universal, truly modern philosophy of compassion for all mankind.


Through this paper, I will present an insider’s view of the Warkari Sampradaya and the Warkari Kirtan.

I wish to clarify that I have used the pronoun ‘he’ for a Kirtankar for the sake of convenience, but there have been many women Warkarisants, kirtankars and gurus and they are increasing in number by the day.

The meaning of the word ‘War’ means ‘time’ and ‘kari’ means ‘to do’. Thereby Warkari means one who does the PandharpurWari from time to time. A Warkari is expected to visit Pandharpur, take part in bhajan and Kirtan, at least twice during Kartika and Ashadhi Ekadashi.

Kirtan comes from the word Kirt. In Lok Kala, Folk Art, Dr. Anil Sahastrabuddhe describes the Kirtan based on the Narada Bhakti Sutra as a type of Bhakti Kirtan. He calls it Kirtigan, or singing the praises of a great soul.

Kirtan chang Kirtan chang, hoy anga Hari roopa, preme chhande nache dole’. Kirtan is chang or good, because one’s entire being becomes Hari roopa in a Kirtan, says Tukaram Maharaj.

They say that Tukaram Maharaj would go around his hometown Dehu and invite all to partake in Kirtan bhakti, with folded hands. Lagonia paya vinavito tumhala, kare talli bola mukhi naam, Vitthal Vitthal mhana velovela, ha sukh sohala swargi nahi. I humbly beg you to chant Vitthal naam time and again because you will not find such a festival of happiness even in swargaloka.

Kirtan can mean only bhajan or bhajan as well as oratory. The word Kirtan is understood differently by people from various parts of India. There are four types of Kirtan in Maharashtra. The Naradiya Kirtan, the Rashtriya Kirtan, the Haridasi Kirtan and the Warkari Kirtan.

The Naradiya Kirtan is associated primarily with AakhyanKavis or narrative poetry of the puraniks. The Kirtankar presents the Kirtan like a one act play. The katha, story or presentation is more important than the bhajan. It seems the Dashavtara and puranik dramas are founded on this kind of kirtan.

The Ramdasi Kirtan was named after Samarth Ramdas. Here the format is like Naradiya Kirtan, the difference being, that it is based on the poetry by Samarth Ramdas and the stories selected are from the Ramayan. The intermittent chanting, is also dedicated to Lord Ram, glorifying his deeds and bravery. In his well known book ‘Dasbodh’, Samarth Ramdas has explained in detail how a Kirtan should be performed effectively.

Shri Dattopant Patwardhan pioneered the Rashtriya Kirtan, inspired by LokmanyaBal Gangadhar Tilak. It is a form of the Naradiya Kirtan, but differs from it in subject matter. He used the Naradiya format, to create awareness among people about the freedom struggle. In modern times the Rashtriya Kirtan is a means to educate the people about the lives of great people through stories and entertainment.

The Warkari Kirtan, is the most popular of all, and I can only try to describe and convey its beauty to the reader, through my research paper, which is at best a poor substitute for attending a live performance.

In order to understand the Warkari Kirtan, we will need a better understanding of the Warkari Sampradaya.

Dnyaneshwar Maharaj, one of the inheritors of the NathPanth, was a Yogi, and a founder of the Warkari Sampradaya. In his book Warkari Sampradayacha Ugam Ani Vikas, based on his guruSadguru DadaMaharaj Satarkar’s teachings, Shri Bhalachandra P Bahirat says, that in the Dnyaneshwari, DnyaneshwarMaharaj speaks of Karma Marga, Dnyana Marga, Yoga Marga and Bhakti Marga, as the various pathways to God.  Dnyaneshwar Maharaj was a master of all, and yet he unhesitatingly propounded the Bhakti Marga, called the Bhagwat Dharma, which later came to be known as the Warkari Sampradaya. Shri Bahirat goes on to say that the BhaktiSampradaya certainly existed before DnyaneshwarMaharaj, but he founded the Warkari Sampradaya in an informal and natural manner, only by the great pull of his divine, extraordinary and noble persona, and gave it a new meaning.  He certainly knew the greatness and the merit of each, but he was very clear that the bhakti marg or naam marg is not only the most suitable and doable for all, but is the one which takes you to brahmananda. Shri Bahirat goes on to say that in the Dnyaneshwari, DnyaneshwarMaharaj clearly asserts that Bhakti is the sadhan and Bhakti itself is the saadhya. This is the foundation on which the Warkari Sampradaya stands. Dnyaneshwar Maharaj loved attending the Kirtans of his beloved Nama or Namdeo Maharaj. Namdeo and Dnyanadev were contemporaries and shared a deep and strong bond. Shri BhalachandraBahirat rightly describes them as the ‘sangam of dnyana and bhakti’.

Through this presentation, I try to reveal the creativity and nobility of our sants, in the way they simplified and popularized the highest spiritual knowledge from our ancient scriptures, like the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, effortlessly, for those deprived of this aspiration. Learned in the SantSahitya, the most humble of Warkaris feels empowered by his association with the sants. His daily routine        of reading the sacred literature of the sants and naam smaran infuse him with humility, honesty and piety, qualities of the sants he feels compelled to emulate.

Being a Warkari myself, I attempt to impart the unearthly experience of a Warkari Kirtan, through this research paper, with the intention of providing an insider’s view, of the way bhakti is done and bhakti rasa produced, in a Warkari Kirtan.  I begin with the description of one of the perfect settings to experience brahmananda, promised to us by our revered sants.

In Pandharpur on an early wintery evening during the Kartik maas Ekadashi, the Warkari Kirtans are held, on the banks of the Chandrabhaga. This tributary of the river Bhima, symbolically takes on a crescent shape, as she lovingly embraces the holy town of Pandharpur. It is here that the most compassionate god of the Warkaris, Vithoba resides. To be present on this auspicious day and participate in Kirtan bhakti, of a loving, bhakt Kirtankar, who is steeped in the truly noble and humane philosophy of the Warkaris, is indeed a blessing.

It is imperative to reach there early enough, to get a vantage view, so that one can soak in the atmosphere, and avoid the rush. One has to see the huge gathering to believe that so many people can congregate together in such a disciplined manner. As you take your place, you hear the sounds of musicians tuning their instruments and the drone of subdued conversation. The sky above with its changing hues, flocks of homing birds gliding in  V-shaped formations towards their homes and the holy river, lending the gentle music of her ripples to the divine performance she has been witness to for centuries gone by, fills you with anticipation of the beautiful experience you are about to have. The taste of the bhaktirasa one partakes of, a few days in a year, lingers on till the next Wari, when one prepares again, to make the journey, inwards as well as outwards. It’s the circle of life. One has to reach, only in order to start again. Ghein mi janma yajsathi Deva, tujhi charan seva sadhawaya, says Tukaram Maharaj. I will choose rebirth for this, Oh God, so that I can serve at your feet.

The sand banks or Walwant of the Chandrabhaga are a sacred place for Warkaris as they can feel the presence of all the revered Warkari sants who have once danced with the fervour of bhakti here. ‘Khel mandiyela walawanti ghai, nachati Vaishnav bhai re’, says TukaramMaharaj. It is in this pawan or pure and sacred bhoomi that the Warkari experiences sant sahawaas. Sahawaas can be translated as nearness or proximity. Saha means together, but the word waas has a depth of meaning. In Marathi it means smell, lingering fragrance and habitation. The geography and history of the walwanta therefore, makes the place so sacred for the Warkari. This is the place where there is sant sahawaas and sant sajjananchi mandiyalli – a gathering of sajjan or good and saintly people.

In his introduction to the Dnyaneshwari which he has written in simplified, modern Marathi, Shri S.V. Dandekar also mentions the experience of a Kirtan on the Walwant during the Kartik maas as the most adbhut experience. There are many examples of exalted souls who have found their spiritual awakening on these holy sands.

A very unique and interesting aspect of the WarkariSampradaya, is that all the most devout Warkari devotees who regularly make the Wari to Pandharpur, spend the entire Ekadashi day, whether Ashadha or Kartik, participating in bhajans, Kirtans and doing naam smaran. It is said that instead of rushing for a darshana of Panduranga they do what He loves, which is His NaamSankirtan. The long lines for His darshan extend for miles, on the auspicious day of Ekadashi, but a true Warkari remains engrossed in bhajanananda. His beloved Vithu, too will be among the devout Warkari, dancing and singing with His favorite bhaktas. The idea that the deity awaits His bhaktas, and longs for their company is a strong belief among Warkaris. For them He is always with them, but can be experienced with greater intensity, steeped in samuhik or collective Kirtan bhakti.

The Kirtankar is accompanied on stage by one or two accompanist singers and pakhwaaj players, a harmonium and a tabla player. Two chopdars or mace bearers wearing crimson costumes, stand on either side, carrying silver rods on which are inscribed the insignia of the Warkari leader of the parampara, who is most often the Kirtankar, and the leader of his particular group, within the Sampradaya. If the gathering of bhaktas is huge the pakhwaaj players stand on either side, amidst the people. The talkaris or cymbal players, take their place in long rows on either side.

A sudden hustle, indicates the entry of the Kirtankar as he ascends the small stage, wears the Veena around his neck and checks to see if it is tuned to perfection. As he stands, with his back to the river, facing the holy city, a hush descends on the shrotas and the Kirtankar then folds his hands above his head to them in Namaskar. All the preparatory sounds die down and after a split second of complete silence when a hand goes up to indicate the beginning of the soulful rendition of the beej mantra, Jai Jai Ram Krishna Hari, commences, in a deep, sonorous, tone. The chanting continues for ten or even twenty minutes. It creates a mellow mood and the shrota forgets the world outside to concentrate on what he seeks. He is on a journey to discover, that what he seeks is within and not without. The beej mantra has a definite rhythm, but a lot of variation can be given to the composition, depending on the singing abilities of the Kirtankar. The audience is enthralled and led by the Kirtankar, finds itself steeped in bhakti rasa. As Tukaram Maharaj says, Brahmabhoot Kaya hotase Kirtani’, which means that one’s entire being becomes brahmabhoota in a Warkari Kirtan. Sadguru DadaMaharaj Satarkar, a great exponent of the Warkari Sampradaya at the turn of the twentieth century asserted, that until a devotee does the murti sthapana of ShriVitthal in his heart through the beejmantra, it is meaningless to describe it, as is done through the abhang, Sunder te dhyanaubhewitewari which follows the beej mantra.

The shrotas keep rhythm by clapping their hands to the rhythm, with eyes closed and the samuhik or collective sadhana begins. Naad Brahma of the beej mantra produces a spandan or vibration of sound reverberating through the skies and baleful cows grazing on the other side of the river, pause in their act, looking on, participating in this brahmananda. They are perhaps bhaktas of other lifetimes, having danced the Rasa Leela with Sri Krishna or fought alongside Sri Rama. The naad brahma quietens the mind and carries the shrota into a meditative state and a Shanta rasa pervades the atmosphere.

I shall paraphrase what Vrinda Acharyaji says in her video on Non-translatables in Indian Music with Rajiv Malhotraji. She asserts that nada is not sound. Sound can be translated as dhwani but nada is continuous sound. The concept of nada and consequently NadaBrahma does not exist in the West. Sound can be any sound, word or syllable, but nada is deeper. Nada is resonating sound and in Indian music we believe that different kind of nada are produced by different instruments and each has a definite nada which can take you to Brahman and because Brahman is intelligent, so is nada. Great soulful music, divine music therefore produces Nada Brahman. And this is the experience one has when naam smaran creates Nada Brahma in a Warkari Kirtan.

The beej mantra quietens the mind and creates the space for the experience which will follow and the audience settles down.

The tableau looks beautiful from afar in the soft, fading light as all the bhaktas participating in these blessed moments, seek tadatmya or oneness with the Vitthal who resides in them.

The abhang of the day is chosen with care in accordance with the occasion or festival for which the Kirtankar is performing. He holds forth on this abhang in the second half of the Kirtan, by interspersing it liberally with quotes from sacred literature of the Warkari sants, edifying and entertaining stories, nuggets of philosophy and wisdom to live a bhakti filled, virtuous life of a grihasta who can also attain moksha through Kirtan bhakti. Many a times the bhakti rasa overflows in the form of tears from the eyes of the Wakta (orator) as well as shrota (audience or listener). The bhava which is already present in the shrota is triggered by the music, the bhakti in the Kirtankar and all those present there. Bhava is intrinsic to a bhakta. The bhakti rasa is produced by the samuhik naam japa. He is elevated to another plain and the most humble of them to the most exalted, are united as one with each other and with the Vitthal inside them.

The singing of the abhang is followed by the naam japa of VithobaRakhumai, eagerly awaited by all, as it is sung with gusto to a catchy rhythm and the talkaris dance in simple but graceful steps on this bhajan. Just a small step and a skip holds the gaze transfixed. The bhajan begins at a slow rhythm and the laya increases, to rise to a fast pace, to reach a crescendo. An electrifying energy permeates the atmosphere and if one looks around, all one can see are smiling joyful faces and one remembers the abhang of Namdeo Maharaj Anuhata wajati taalaAnukshheer geet rasall, Anubhava tanmay sakall’ So many hands play together, so many sing together, so many experience the sweet music.

If one can connect with each other as human beings at such a divine, elevated level, there can be no place for depression and sadness. The shrotas join in by clapping, singing along and swaying even as they sit, listening as well as participating. The call and response method is used all through the Warkari Kirtan and bhajan parampara. The Kirtankar and his team including the chopdars dance in unison. It is a visual treat to watch them perform and the bhaktas are mesmerized and filled with an unbridled joy. After a short pause, when there’s a minute or two for all to catch their breath, the first few lines of the abhang are sung in a different version of a raag and the brahmarasa continues to flow through all those present there. The visual, the auditory, the kinesthetic are all present in a Warkari Kirtan and enable the shrota or member of the audience to attain  brahmananda.

The Vitthal Vitthal naam japa is chanted with bhaktibhava after the abhang. With eyes closed, the shrotas visualize the murti of ShreeVitthal and do naamsmaran. One can’t help recalling the story of Namdeo Maharaj in relation to this. His relationship with Panduranga was that of a loving parent and child. Panduranga loves to hear his naam being chanted. He used to participate in the brahmarasa in His beloved Nama’s Kirtan. One day it so happened, that as He was dancing in total abandonment, Panduranga forgot himself so completely that he landed himself in a most embarrassing situation. The silk Dhoti he was wearing, slid down from his waist, to the great consternation of all sitting there. Here I shall quote SantJanabai who was a witness to this incident, along with SantKabir and SantDnyaneshwar on that day. ‘Namdeo Kirtan kari pudhe dev nache Panduranga. Nachata nachata devacha gallala pitambara. Sawadh Hoi Deva aisa bole Kabira. Jani mhane Bola Dnyanadeva abhang’. Namdeo performs Kirtan and Panduranga dances along. As He was dancing in abandon Panduranga’s silk dhoti slid down from his waist and Kabirji also present there, cautions Him to collect Himself and then Sant Janabai asks Dnyaneshwar Maharaj to sing the abhang.

This is the mahatmya or greatness of the Vitthal naam japa, which Vitthal himself loves. But Vitthal also loves to hear the name of his beloved bhaktas, therefore the chant of Dnyanoba Tukaram or Dnyaneshwar Mauli, Dnyanaraja Mauli Tukaram is also sung. These are beautiful musical meditations, which transport us to experience bramharasa. ‘Jyachyat naam gheun namacha vistar hoto tyala kirtan mhanave’ which means that, that in which one chants the name of Vitthal and expands it, is a Kirtan, says Sadguru BabaMaharaj Satarkar a well known Kirtankar and exponent of the Warkari Sampradaya. That is why Kirtan is also called Naam Sankirtan in which there is Naam Smaran. Collective chanting of the naam which is the core of bhakti and one of the many pathways to God. Naam is seen to be perhaps the easiest pathway, but that’s a fallacy. A pure heart full of faith is more capable of naamparbhakti and they say that it helps a devotee attain moksha through a Kirtan.

When the Vitthal naam ghosh ends on a high note, a silence descends on the audience before the Kirtankar folds his hands in silent prayer to his gurus, and begins his oration. It signifies the beginning of the second part of the Kirtan, when the Kirtankar takes on the role of a wakta, or orator.

The Warkari Kirtan, draws all kinds of people from different walks of life. It caters to ‘bhinna ruchi lokah‘, which means that every type of shrota differing in taste and liking is welcome. ChokhaMelaMaharaj says ‘Khata nata ya re, shuddha howoni ja re’. All are welcome, the mischievous, the hypocritical —  Come, become a part of the Kirtan and you will be purified. Some attend Kirtan performances because they love the dance or the music, some maybe drawn to the philosophy, others love listening to edifying stories. Kirtankars jokingly say that a pickpocket is welcome too, though his motive is to rob someone among the large numbers that gather there.    Dnyaneshwar Maharaj describes an ideal shrota as Sarvadnya Bhavadrush shrota or all knowing and bhava filled shrota, who inspires the wakta to give off his best. The adhyatmic stirrings a shrota experiences initially, are a result of the attraction to the apparent beauty of a Kirtan.

Rasikas and Bhaktas form     types    of spectators in the larger līlā (play) of devotion. The rasika, as the educated connoisseur of art that can feel the relish of           a fine   tuned rasa       of a performance and the bhakta that can surrender in total emotional love and worship to the devata.’ says Johanna Bennet in ‘Understanding Bhakti through Rasa Sentiment.’  Dnyaneshwar Maharaj refers to the ‘educated connoisseur’, when he says ‘sarvadnya bhavadrush shrote’.

Renowned philosopher J.N .Mohanty in his book ‘Classical Indian Philosophy’ discusses dhvani theory of Anandavardhana. Accordingto him there are eight sthahibhavas. These are love, laughter, sadness, anger, enthusiasm, fear, repugnance and surprise, which get activated upon reading a poem or watching a drama, ‘under appropriate conditions…….A level of cultivation of sensibility is necessary for this actualization, as also possibly, a, community of cultivated minds (sahridaya). The enjoyment of rasa is said to unfold through various stages: other objects disappear from consciousness until rasa alone is left, the particular feeling is universalized (sadharanikaran) into an essence, and finally there is a state of restfulness (visranti). Aesthetic enjoyment then becomes somewhat like the contemplation of the brahman.’ One can certainly experience these stages and attain this vishranti as one gets steeped in Kirtan bhakti. Mohanty goes on to say that, ‘Abhinavagupta placed santarasa as the highest rasa because of its relation to the state of moksha, so that poetic experience may approximate to realization of brahman.’

Moksha Prapti is supposed to be an important goal of Kirtan bhakti. There are several examples of ordinary as well as great people, who have been exposed to the Warkari Kirtan just once, and the experience has been so transformational, that they began a lifelong journey to find the brahmananda in bhakti, which Dnyaneshwar Maharaj described as sadhan as well as the saadhya.

For the wakta, the shrota is supreme. He brings out the best in him. ‘Wakta to wakta navhe shroteniveen’ – a wakta or orator is nothing without the audience or listener. He adds immensely to the Kirtan ranga, or the liveliness and energy of the Kirtan.

The most important aspect of the Warkari Sampradaya is that everyone has the right to seek higher knowledge or paramartha. SadguruDadaMaharaj Satarkar used to say, that one who feels hunger has the right to seek food. The fight that DnyaneshwarMaharaj waged, was against the ahankar or of a few powerful dharma gurus during those times. The right to spirituality was always meant for all, but human nature being what it is, those who had the highest knowledge became possessive of it. Dnyaneshwar Maharaj can be called a reformer or even a revolutionary, for the fight he waged against the powerful and rigid dharma gurus. He was the first divine and learned Yogi who chose to propound the highest philosophy – his commentary on The Bhagwat Geeta – in Prakrit rather than Sanskrit so that all should partake of this nectar of knowledge.  Warkari Kirtan bhakti opened its doors, to everyone for adhyatmic growth. The blend of the music, divine poetry, rhythm, dance, along with kindred souls or sahridaya, where all are welcome and seen to be capable of experiencing the highest philosophy and in a most pleasurable and rasapurna manner, is what makes this such a unique adhyatmic experience.  ‘Stree, Shudra, antyajajan, adi karoni veshyahi‘ – woman, man and even a prostitute have a right to paramartha. This is the seminal tenet of the Warkari Sampradaya. The Kirtan thereby is a cultural, social, religious and spiritual gathering. There is no social discrimination.

An important and unique quality, part of the Hindu Dharma which the Warkari Sampradaya emphasized greatly, is that knowledge without bhakti and compassion for humankind, is empty rhetoric. Dnyanachikari andhare dnyanasi ga says Dnyaneshwar Maharaj – it is knowledge alone which can blind itself. If knowledge is not liberally laced with compassion and love for humankind, the very purpose of seeking knowledge as well as bhakti is defeated. Those who have knowledge, have to share it freely and help all who seek a higher purpose, acquire it. This is the foundation on which the WarkariSampradaya stands. The Warkarisants therefore, who opened the doors of this higher search for all, are revered and worshipped in Maharashtra and indeed all over India. The saadhya is Vitthal but the sadhan are the sants. Without the sants, how could one know Panduranga?  They introduce one to bhakti, therefore they are supreme. It is for this reason, that the sants of Maharashtra are as beloved as Panduranga to the Warkaris.

Most Warkaris, men as well as women, read the sacred literature of the sants. Even those who are nirakshar or illiterate, hear the abhangs being sung and attend pravachans and kirtans and are knowledgeable enough. The oral tradition in India is very strong and accepted. The written word acquired authenticity and value because the West thinks so and we adopted their ideas blindly. But as Indians, we think of anything as proof if it is said by someone we revere. This knowledge is part of our collective memory. Therefore even the unschooled, are learned because they are exposed to the highest philosophy and they learn to live by it. The Warkari eats with Lord Vitthal, sleeps with Him, goes to work with Him. Indeed every act of a true Warkari is infused with a consciousness that he has to live by virtue. He lives by what Dnyaneshwar Maharaj taught, that action has to be infused with dharma and religion without dharma is not possible. For this reason, Warkaris are universally respected and judged by the standards of the sampradaya that they follow. It is the beauty of a Kirtan which draws them to it and results in making them better people. ‘Nachu Kirtanache rangi dnyana deepa lavu jagi’ says Tukaram Maharaj – participating in Kirtan bhakti, helps in acquiring and spreading dnyana or knowledge through the world. Many of them, especially the most humble, live most faithfully by the philosophy of the Sampradaya. Rapid urbanization in the last few decades unfortunately displaced thousands of them, but they carry their cherished culture wherever they go like a prasada in the palm of one’s hand and form small groups around a temple or build one and create their world within the dehumanizing, urban world. Many are musicians, singers and skilled orators. The Sampradaya makes them learned, wise and cultured.

Christian Lee Novetzke in Note to Self: What Marathi Kirtankars’ Notebooks Suggest about Literacy, Performance, and the Travelling Performer in Pre-Colonial Maharashtra’, says, ‘ ………..the religious kind of kirtan ……. is sort of a religious variety show, usually with a clear moral or political theme.’ The cultural divide comes out starkly, through his words when an essentially adhyatmic activity is described as ‘a variety entertainment show’, though he does qualify the phrase by the word ‘religious’, shorn of all that gives it such a special and sacred place in the hearts of Warkaris in particular and people of Maharashtra in general. I would like to argue here that for a Warkari, Kirtan bhakti is Sat, Shiv and Sunder. The Warkari Kirtan seeks truth, goodness and beauty. It is not possible to understand, empathize and fully appreciate the reverence, and status a Kirtan and Kirtankar holds for a shrota, if the Kirtan is viewed with a detached, cold or alien eye. There is then the likelihood of missing the very core, of a WarkariKirtan, which is bhakti. If viewed as a mere stage performance, the very nature and purpose of the Kirtan are lost. In order to understand and appreciate the place a Kirtan has in the lives of the indigenous people, one has to live this tradition. No doubt humor, fun and stories abound in a WarkariKirtan, but it is primarily a spiritual experience to convey the highest truth and profound philosophy of the bhakti sants, and this is never forgotten by the wakta or the shrota. Humor and joy is very much a part of our religion and religiosity. Our gods Ram, Krishna, Vitthal are our sakhas, our friends, so much so that when doing the puja, the sagunmurti of the lord is dressed up according to the season. He is like a revered family member. Laughing with them and at them, is very natural and normal for us. It does not take away from our love and bhakti for them. The witticism and the fun, are part of the aesthetics of a Kirtan. The young and old from all walks of life participate in the Kirtan in the temple or during Harinaam Saptahas. People having different pravrittis and tastes, leave a Kirtan mandapa, with joy in their hearts. It is due to the external sensuous experience of the Kirtan, that the young are drawn to the Kirtan. Over time it becomes the final destination for them. Slowly but surely the inner adhyatmic beauty reveals itself to the seeker and then he finds his highest joy, or brahmananda, here. As said before, bhakti is the sadhan as well as the saadhya.

Recently I heard a Kirtan by SadguruBabaMaharaj Satarkar in which he said that ‘a simple Warkari may not understand tatvadnyan or philosophy, but he lives it’. Dnyaneshwar Maharaj says ‘Sagun nirgun eku govinda re’ i.e. sagun and nirgun together make Govinda. This is very easily applied by a Warkari in his life. He worships all pranimatra or creatures, with the belief that nirgun god is everywhere. Warkaris greet another by touching each other’s feet, in effect, putting into practice the highest philosophy as discussed by Dr. Subhash Kak, in a video by the Infinity Foundation , ‘Can AI Mimic Rasa’ that ‘The core of philosophy is that all are equal….because it’s the same spirit which resides in every human being….. Our interactions are informed by the infinity and by consciousness.’ This gesture symbolizes the acceptance of the omnipresent god and reveals how they live the philosophy of the sants. And yet to experience deep fulfillment, nirgun is not enough. For that a Warkari has to reach Pandharpur, where he lovingly embraces the feet of Vithoba, his compassionate, daivata, or personal god. There is the story of how Namdeo Maharaj was given a lesson of the omnipresence of god, by his guru, Khechar Swami. Once he saw his guru sleeping in a temple with his feet on the Shiva Linga. Horrified, he ran to him and rebuked him. Khechar Swami was well aware of what he was doing. This was going to be the most important lesson his beloved Nama was going to learn. He said he didn’t know where to keep his feet. Namdeo Maharaj was appalled. He lifted his feet, moved them and rested them a little away. But to Nama’s astonishment, again the feet landed on a Shiv Linga. He moved them once again, to the same result. This went on till the whole temple was full of Shiv Lingas and there was no space to keep his guru’s or indeed his own feet, except on a Shiva Linga. That opened Nama’s eyes as to how ‘Vitthal jalli sthalli bharala, ritha thav nahi urala’Vitthal is everywhere, in water and land, there is no place he does not inhabit. These and other such edifying stories full of bhaktibhava, which subtly and in a lively manner convey the profound philosophy of Bhagwat Dharma are told and retold by the Kirtankar.

In Cult of Vithoba G.A. Deleury S.J. says of the Warkaris ‘….although they were great devotees of Krishna, they did not on that account show any contempt or hostility towards devotees of other gods; there seemed to be an eclectic attitude which did not allow esoterism or fanaticism.’ He further says that, ‘Another point that seemed to differentiate it from other sects was that its members had a definitely democratic outlook. Anybody could become a Varkari, and it looked remarkable in the midst of a society organized according to the rules of castes. Hence the Varkari seemed to have a very keen feeling of solidarity which not only tied them closely together, but united them in a spiritual body composed of the departed members as well as the living. Their veneration for the Saints and their faithfulness to their memory gave to their group a very attractive human touch. This group indeed seemed to have been particularly fertile in powerful personalities and creative writers.’

The energy and fervor in the sampradaya is growing rather than receding, as one can see at any Warkarikirtan. In spite of the depth of its philosophy, it is the simplicity, which is responsible for the longevity of the sampradaya. The simplicity draws one and all to it. The ignorant and humble can relate easily to the uncomplicated routine expected of them. The humble also are more faithful and devoted. The intellectual are drawn to it because of its profound philosophy that belies its simplicity. Thus there is something for everyone – the abhangs of the various sants are relatable for any grihasta; the beauty of the poetry and the profundity of SantDnyaneshwar’s Dnyaneshwari makes it the most revered text in Maharashtra, and attracts the connoisseurs, but by that I don’t mean only those who are learned in the worldly sense, but also those who are steeped in the sampradaya; and the Amrutanubhava, his own deep, unique, philosophical pursuit, which he wrote after completing the Dnyaneshwari, for the seriously cerebral.

A Warkari seems no different from any other person in society, except for the tulsi mala around his neck. He becomes a Warkari when he accepts one, from one of the many Warkarigurus who are mostly Kirtankars. Some are carriers of paramparas of hundreds of years. They are made to swear in the name of the revered Warkari Sants that they will do naam smaran and read the Dnyaneshwari daily, abstain from non vegetarian food and liquor and treat a  man or woman other than one’s spouse as Panduranga or Rukhmini, respectively. Vows which automatically make him an ideal grihasti. Indeed as G. A. Deleury says ‘the kind of life led by the ever wandering sanyasi is not held in high esteem by them.’ These important aspects of daily living have to be emphasized by the Kirtankar from time to time through his discourses.

As the Warkari leaves the Kirtan mandapa he carries so much wealth with him, as he quietly and humbly imbibes what he hears. He sings the bhajans at home, many times early in the morning, and the bhajans become evermore poignant, when he is faced with some personal adversity. But a very important point to note here, is that no Kirtankar promises his devotees any kind of material gain or relief from any worldly pain because he has joined the Sampradaya. Vitthal is not a God one can bargain with. There are no false promises made. The Warkari who wants to formally join the sect, is told that this path will make him stronger and help him lead a good, virtuous grihasthi life, as he pursues the adhyatmic path. But he cannot expect that his domestic problems will be solved because he follows the Warkari Sampradaya. This is amply demonstrated by the lives of the sants too.  None of them could escape the pain of human existence. No miraculous cures are offered by them to anyone, nor are miracles endorsed. There is no panacea for all ills. In fact the sants have perhaps suffered more than ordinary human beings, as their biographies reveal. What a devotee hears in the Kirtan is the word of the sants, the compassion of Lord Vitthal and numerous other edifying stories and words of wisdom. ‘To merely remain devoted to God and to acknowledge His undying concern for us is the essence of bhakti. It requires an attitude of loving God purely for his sake.’ The Hindu, newspaper, Faith ssetion, Bhakti rasa defined Sadguru BabaMaharaj Satarkar always says, ‘Don’t do anything for Him, just see what He does for you.’

Warkari Sampradaya also does not endorse any kind of animal sacrifice. Nor does it glorify torture of  the body in any form, by rigorous fasting or abstinence of any kind. Indulge in every bhog, or indulgence, butwithin limits, is the norm. Keeping within one’s limits itself is tyaga or abstinence, according to the Warkari sants. One can say therefore, that there is nothing unnatural or exaggerated that is expected of the Warkari, which makes it so easy for any person of any caste, creed or even religion to become a Warkari. The Sampradaya is flexible and natural. If it becomes exclusive and rigid it will only become another caste, in it’s modern avatar. It’s quite amazing that the Sampradaya has remained true to its original teachings for approximately 800 years and not transformed itself into something different from its original self, which often happens to the teachings of great thought leaders and saints after a certain period of time. The credit for this lies with the greatness of the Warkari sants of Maharashtra and the reverence Warkaris have for them and their teachings. This also could be because the Sampradaya is modern in the truest sense of the term and propagates universal human values, which can never be out of date. If a new spirit has to be infused in it, care will have to be taken to see that the core humane principles of the Sampradaya remain untouched. Many Warkari sants who followed Dnyaneshwar Maharaj did add new energy and personality to the Sampradaya, in their own unique way, without disturbing its basic tenets. That has happened because of the tremendous love and respect they had for each other. Their shared compassion for humanity bound them together forever.

The Kirtankar’s role is primary in Kirtan bhakti and in maintaining and transferring the basic tenets of the Sampradaya from generation to generation. He has to spend years doing shravan, chintan, memorizing the sacred literature of the revered sants, learn music and dance. Most importantly he has to understand and have anubhuti or experience the reality of the words in the abhang.’Ek tari ovi anubhavavi’, – experienceat least one line or sentence from sacred literatureof the sants of Maharashtra. (ovi can be translated as shloka )Says Sena Maharaj.

An experienced, skilled Kirtankar is able to engage the shrota totally. This is the creative beauty of the Kirtan rasa. How good the aesthetics of the Kirtan are, is therefore, directly linked to how effectively the shrotha attains brahmananda, to make him Hari roopa. He has to have the repertoire of an Opera singer and a music conductor at his command. Though Dnyaneshwar Maharaj says ‘Tari Kirtanacheni  nata nache’ the Kirtankar, lives the performance. He is not merely a nata, or actor.  He cannot hide behind the role or act, like an actor.. He has to ‘Be’. He doesn’t shed his garb after the performance. What he says is not scripted by someone else. His entire being should synchronize with what he is saying, and for that he has to connect deeply with himself and give off generously what he has nurtured within. This will trigger a rasa  already existing in the rasika shrotas. An actor uses his entire body for ‘abhinaya’.  For a Kirtankar, what he says appears from the core of his being and his anubhuti. Therefore the words he utters, ring true and strike a chord in the shrota. The moral aspect which he preaches is conveyed through his acharana or moral behavior, together with what he says. If Kirtankars over the centuries had not lived what they expounded, they would not have survived and thrived for so many centuries. The explanations the Kirtankar gives and what he says are a blend of what he has learnt from his guru and his own experience of life and of course through the regular study of the sacred poetry of his sants. As he increases his sadhna, what he says, acquires a depth and a clarity and  every performance is therefore increasingly elevated. All this is happens within the basic tenets of the Warkari Sampradaya. The stories of the lives of the Warkari sants are told and retold with deep emotion by the Kirtankars. Sagun charitre param pavitre sadarvarnavi,  – narrate edifying stories from the biographies of great sants with respect, says Eknath Maharaj. The Kirtankar cannot therefore stray from that path. But in spite of the boundaries, there is a lot of flexibility to sing, dance, laugh, and not to forget, grow spiritually, slowly but surely, everyday, with every sadhana. These are all unspoken rules laid down in various abhangs directly or indirectly by the, Warkari sants. The biographiesof the sants many a times bring tears to all present there and Karuna rasa overflows through the discourse, purifying the listeners and uplifting them.

The Kirtankar is also judged by the standards set by the Warkarisants. If there is a discrepancy between what the wakta says and his general acharana he will never get the respect that is due to his position as a representative of the revered sants. Most Kirtankars are Warkari leaders and gurus and virtuoso performers who are able to be spontaneous in a live performance because of the deep roots they have in their parampara, through their daily abhyasa. Memorizing the sacred poetry of the sants, reading the Dnyaneshwari, daily practice of music, is part of their routine. This gives them the  bhumika or foundation or what is known as the ‘sthahibhava’ or permanent emotion, which is intrinsic.  What is the foundation of the WarkariSampradaya that he stands on? What are those fundamentals which need to be very clear? The compassion of Lord Vitthal and the sants , the respect for all forms of life that the Sampradaya propagates, the simple ethical living that is preached. When the foundation is strong this naturalness flows through every aspect of his performance.

There are gharanas among Warkaris Kirtankars like in classical music. Some are direct descendants of the Warkari Sants. Many Kirtankars are groomed within the families they are born into. Some learn in Warkari Shikshan Sansthans. But it’s not an easy journey. The adhyatmic growth has to happen alongside the grooming, internal and external. The consciousness in Warkaris that they represent the Sants of Maharashtra automatically makes them seek to be virtuous. For a Kirtankar, performing Kirtans is not a profession, in the ordinary sense of the term, which one sheds like a uniform once the Kirtan ends. A Kirtankar has to enforce moral living. It is he who fills the ranga or liveliness and energy in the whole experience, of a Kirtan. Knowing when to up the tempo of the music or the pitch of the voice, when to dance, tell a story, evoke laughter, tears, bhakti should be a part of the skills he has honed — all of this elevates the audience. He builds up the tempo and then pauses to push in an important point. And like Arjuna he can never lose sight of the eye of the parrot, which is bhakti rasa. These skills are not to be confused with those of an actor. The main difference between the two would be the purpose they pursue.

Music is an integral part of the Kirtan. The use of catchy rhythm, enthralls the listeners. The melody and rhythm together with the sacred poetry of the sants, raises the experience to the spiritual. Many a times people travel long distances in tractors, vans, trucks and even bullock carts, especially to attend the Kirtan of a well known and well beloved Kirtankar.

There is something about the Dhrupad style used in bhajans all over India which give it a sacredness and a gravity, which do justice to the beauty of the abhangs. In the Dhrupad style, of Hindustani music, traditionally, the pakhwaj is used for accompaniment, but the tabla and harmonium have been added recently by many, to enhance the musical harmony of the performance.

Sunder te Dhyan Ubhe Vitewari‘, is sung to various traditional compositions and a different raag in every Kirtan. For a regular shrota every new composition gives unalloyed joy and adds to the bhakti rasa that is in him, which he seeks to bring forth.

The raag Bhairavi, draws the curtains down on any classical concert. Similarly, a Kirtan performance always ends with the chosen abhang being sung to raag Bhairavi, in its various forms. The abhang of the day is given a particular variation, accent, lilt, through the rendition of the Bhairavi, unique to the Warkari Kirtan. The spontaneity in the singing has a refreshing unrehearsed quality to it, which is very soulful.

The Warkari Kirtan music is a beautiful blend between a classical concert and the local flavor of Maharashtra’s music. The classical base does not take away from its unique, poignant, indigenous, quality, which makes the music cerebral and soulful at one and the same time. It is an amazing weave of music, rhythm and emotion that is poured into the sacred poetry. A great spiritual bhaktaKirtankar always takes care to see, that though the musical aspect, is such an integral part of a Kirtan, the main purpose of the music is to attain brahmanada. In fact a great Kirtankar who is also a great bhakta sometimes need not be a great singer, but his heartfelt, soulful music enhances the whole experience for the shrotas. The technical aspect of the music is secondary to the bhakti filled experience that the audience will find within them, through their experience. This sets the Kirtan apart from a musical concert. The integrity of the Kirtankar is towards the spiritual experience that the shrota will have, not merely the perfection of the musical note. The music is important so far as it is a means to attain brahmananda. The mellifluous age old tunes sung over the ages, have acquired a character of their own like a gnarled old tree. The sounds seem to have somehow accommodated the entire past in themselves and are full of meaning and soul. It is the hearts of our ancestors singing in unison, each generation adding a new dimension to the tune.

To express better how the Sant Sahitya  helps in shringara rasa and bhakti rasa nirmitti in a Kirtan, I would like to give the example of the ‘Virahiniabhangs’ and Madhuryararasa  or honey sweet rasa that Dnyaneshwar Maharaj brings forth.  Virahini is the female gender of virah, which means agony of separation, especially from a lover or a beloved.  It is a special category of sacred poetry, where the poet becomes the lover, and experiences ‘viraha’ from Panduranga. J. N. Mohanty discusses that Rupa Goswami, in his Ujjwalanilamani developed the theory into the domain of bhakti or loving devotion to Krishna. In his work, the sringara rasa, or love becomes bhaktirasa with its various forms such as santa (tranquility), dasya (servitude or humility), sakhya  ( friendship), vatsalya ( affection for child ), and madhurya (sweetness).’ All these rasas are evident in the Virahinis.

Through the writing of the Virahinis, Dnyaneshwar Maharaj wants to experience his tadatmya with Panduranga, in a more meaningful way. Not that he does not feel the presence of Panduranga within him, but wants to experience him more meaningfully and intensely, through the Virahini.  In the following Virahini he becomes a young woman in love who is asking her sakhi or friend, ‘Why does the one for whom I gave up everything and everyone, refuse to speak to me?’ ‘Jyachiye awadi sansaru tyajila, tene ka abola dharila ge maaye?’ This is an example of a beautiful, relatable and timeless Virahini, which expresses the bitter sweet experience that lovers inevitably have after the initial euphoria dies down. This finding and losing, only to find again, so much a part of love and life, is also a part of the spiritual journey one makes. Sometimes Vitthal seems near you, loving you and sometimes he’s elusive, and one is full of doubt. The Virahini brings out this experience of a bhakta, beautifully, to demonstrate how sringara rasa becomes bhakti rasa, as quoted above.

The virahini is all about samarpan which means ‘becoming one with’ the Lord Vitthal in us. The virahinis are beautiful vintage compositions, having a wealth of meaning and bhava. They are composed in meters, which do not yield to a musical tune easily and are sung in traditional style by experienced Kirtankars, because they do not render themselves to new styles easily.  If they are presented in a new style, the meaning is not drawn out as beautifully as in their original compositions.

In shastriya music there is a tendency to concentrate on the raagdhari and the laykari more than the lyrics. Many a times we cannot follow the lyrics, except for the first line and that is entirely accepted and acceptable because in shastriyasangeet, it is the music which is more important than the lyrics. But a Warkari Kirtankar has to be conscious of the sacred poetry and do justice to every word of which he wants to carry to the shrotas, while maintaining a proper balance between the music and the divine poetry. He has to emote the lyrics and break them up meaningfully.

‘The music is intended to engage audiences without distracting them. Musical structure is therefore subordinate to poetic structure; the phrasing of melodic lines adheres exactly to poetic phrasing.’ says Vivek Virani about the bhajan singers of Malwa in Find the true Country: Devotional and the self in India’s National Culture.’ This applies to Warkari bhajans too.

‘Hindu religious music is essentially vocal music that highlights the song-text and its clear pronunciation. Ancient authors have stressed that words, melody, and rhythm should be balanced in order to create a unique synthesis of emotional’ says Guy Beck in ‘Hinduism and Music’.

In these times of great upheaval in the world, it would be worth exploring how spirituality and bhakti rasa will evolve in the near future. Author and Scientist, Dr. Subhash Kak spoke on whether Artificial Intelligence (AI) can mimic rasa. Answering whether machines will ever be able to discern the rasas, he opines that the machine can recognize patterns. It could perhaps identify if it’s one rasa or the other. But the machine will not be able to feel the rasa or produce rasa the way a human being can. All human behavior cannot be emulated by machines and what is inaccessible to machines is the essence, the infinite, the Shiva within us, the source from which great art is produced and which makes us human. The self is different from the experience. ‘There’s no evidence ……that machines can produce something that is of time tested value.’ he asserts. Therefore if the machine is used to do the mundane technical tasks which are necessary even when producing great art it would leave the creative person with more time to focus on the essence and the creative aspect of his art. He adds that great art and artists are rare and mediocre art will be easily replicated by machines.

One can say then with some amount of conviction, that the time tested Warkari Kirtan, produces this ‘essence’ which Dr. Kak speaks of, which helps one to connect with the divine within us. The greater progress of Science he feels, in a strange sense will make human beings ask the question, ‘who are we?’ This will force human beings to delve deeper into themselves and find answers. This is something India has been doing for ages.

Replicating brahmarasa doesn’t seem possible for AI. All great arts have a touch of the divine and for a Kirtan performances, like all great arts, one has to look deep into one’s inner consciousness, whatever name one might choose to call it, Shiva, Krishna or Vitthal. A Kirtan has always focused on the essence as has Hinduism.  Dr. Kak adds that, ‘Western theories of art are behavior driven and ….based on empirical systems’. According to him they do not address the source of the inspiration which is the infinite, because it’s too complicated to address. In the West there have been sporadic attempts to look inward for answers, he says like Plato in ancient times and Kant in the medieval ages, but India has always looked far beyond the surface and this is very apparent from ancient times. We have to therefore use our ancient wisdom to face this problem. ‘Humanity has no choice’, he affirms.

The Warkari Sampradaya has a rich legacy of Dnyana or knowledge as well as bhakti. It is founded on universal, noble principles of compassion for all creatures. The Warkari Kirtan is a means to carry this wonderful knowledge and bhakti to the people, through an age old, popular, collective form of worship which has survived the ages and which will continue to thrive, despite AI and modern science and technology, as humanity seeks answers for its existence. It is an experience worth having for a meaningful, fulfilling existence. Through this paper I offer empirical evidence, of how the lives of the people of Maharashtra, have been transformed because of the aesthetics of a Warkari Kirtan through which they experience brahmananda. The Warkari Sampradaya will continue to serve as the conscience keeper of Maharashtra and I strongly believe that Maharashtra has shown great resilience and grit in the face of attacks on our land, culture and religion because of the philosophy of compassion of the Warkari Sant Parampara and the most popular form of samuhik worship, the Warkari Kirtan.


  • Sant Sahitya: Public domain
  • Narad Bhakti Sutra
  • Christian Lee Novetzke : Note to Self: What Marathi Kirtankars’ Notebooks Suggest about Literacy, Performance, and the Travelling Performer in Pre-Colonial Maharashtra
  • Vivek Virani: Find the True Country (2016): Devotional Music and the Self in India’s National Culture. University of Californi, Los Angeles,  Dissertation submitted in partial satisfaction of the requirements for degree Doctor of Philosophy in Ethnomusicology
  • Hinduism and Music– Guy Beck OUP Uncorrected proof
  • The Cult of Vithoba(1960) — G A Deleury SJ, Dr. S. M. Katre for Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute, Poona,
  • Amit Dey, Professor of History, ASPECTS OF BHAKTI MOVEMENT IN INDIA University of Calcutta
  • Alternative Krishnas( 2005)– Christian Lee Novetzke State University of New York Press, Yashwant Pathak : Kirtan Parampara Ek Loksahityavishkar
  • The Hindu news paper, Faith section . Bhakti rasa defined Chennai , July 31, 2012
  • Anaya Thatte : Maharashtrachi Kirtan Parampara-Ugam Ani Vikas 2020 Lok Kala, Folk Art, Dr. Anil Sahastrabuddhe
  • Subhash Kak interview by Parth Parihar on Infinite Foundation Channel (2020)‘Can AI Mimic Rasa’
  • Nada does not equal sound – Non-translatables of (South) Indian Music (2020) – Rajiv Malhotra with Vrinda Acharya
  • Johanna Bennet in (2016) ‘Understanding Bhakti through Rasa
  • N.Mohanty (2000) in his book Classical Indian Philosophy, Roman and Littlefield Publishers , INC
  • Sonic Liturgy( 2012) – Guy Beck, The University of Carolina Press
  • Shri Bhalachandra Bahirat (1988)- Warkari Sampradaya Ugam Ani Vikas Venus Prakashan
  • Shri S. V. Dandekar (1921)- Ed. Introduction to the Dnyaneshwari Sarth Dnyaneshwari, Warkari Shikshan Sanstha, Alandi, 12th edition

Conference on Hindu Aesthetics

Watch video presentation of the above presentation here:


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.

Leave a Reply