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Vārkarī Sampradāya, Bhāgavat Dharma & Democratizing Religious Practices


Vārkarī Sampradāya is one of the most prominent bhakti Sampradāyas, mainly spread across the Marathi-speaking region in western India. The Vārkarī Sampradāya is essentially a Vaishnava bhakti Sampradāya. The main deity of the Vārkarī Sampradāya is Viththala or Panduranga. As the Viththala is believed to be a child form of Krishna, the Vārkarī Sampradāya is considered to be a Vaishnava Sampradāya. It is also known as the Bhagvata Sampradāya and its philosophy is Bhagvata Dharma. The Vārkarī Sampradāya is unequivocally associated with the annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur known as the Vārī. Some of the prominent Santas of Maharashtra, like Dnyaneshvara, Namdeva, Eknatha, Tukarama, Muktabai, Janabai, Soyarabai, Kanhopatra, Chokhamela, Savatamali are associated with the Vārkarī tradition. Though the origins of the Vārkarī tradition are not accurately traceable to any single source, it can only be said that it had strong roots among the ordinary people of the thirteenth century. The means of worship propagated by the Vārkarī santas and adopted by the Vārkarī Sampradāya are people-oriented and easy to practice. The adoption of Prakrit over Sanskrit for their compositions, rejection of meaningless rituals, advocacy of nama-japa, preference to Ovi metre for the compositions, Santas of the Vārkarī tradition greatly contributed to democratising the spiritual domain by imparting the sophisticated spiritual knowledge to the majority sections of the society namely, stree-shudradi. The Santas of the Vārkarī tradition greatly influenced the socio-cultural terrain of Maharashtra and beyond. In this paper, I focus on the literature of the Vārkarī Santas and their impact on democratising religious and spiritual domains.

Vārkarī Sampradāya

The Vārkarī Sampradāya is a longstanding religious tradition in the western state of Maharashtra, India. It is one of the region’s most prominent and influential bhakti Sampradāyas. The origins of the Vārkarī tradition are not accurately traceable to any single source. It can only be said that it had strong roots among the ordinary people of the thirteenth century. Though the founder of the Vārkarī Sampradāya is not known, it can definitely be said that the works of Dnyāneśvara and Nāmdeva, both believed to have lived in the thirteenth century, are undeniably associated with what came to be known as the Vārkarī Sampradāya.

There is no clear evidence of when the tradition of Vārī (the annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur) began. Still, it is known that when Dnyāneśvara composed and sang in Marathi, the commentary on Sanskrit Bhagvat-Gītā in the thirteenth century, the Samprdāya of Vithobā was already well established. At the time of the composition of Dnyāneśvarī in the thirteenth century, the shrine of Pandharpur was a famous place of pilgrimage. However, it is difficult to ascertain when the tradition of visiting Pandharpur and Viṭhṭhala temple turned into the practice of annual pilgrimage and adopted a recurrent nature. Similarly, it is difficult to say when the gathering of the Vārkarīs took a more institutionalised form and came to be known as the Vārkarī Sampradāya. The annual and frequent pilgrimage to Pandharpur is a distinctive feature of the Vārkarī Sampradāya.

Usually, Vārkarīs wear tuḷasīmāḷa and are therefore referred to as mārakarīs. There are certain essential vows that māḷakarī / Vārkarīs take before wearing the tuḷasīmāḷa. The commitment of a Vārkarī to a specific code of conduct can be classified into two categories: firstly, the acts of commission and, secondly, the acts of omission. The acts of commission include such commitments where a particular action is expected to be performed, whereas the acts of omission require the non-performance of a specific act. The primary vow is to commit to going to Pandharpur at least once a year on the Śuddha Ekādaśī, generally, Āṣāḍhī Ekādaśī. Apart from going to the Vārī every year, there are certain behavioural restrictions or acts of omission that a Vārkarī is expected to commit to. They are no meat consumption or adoption of vegetarianism, no adultery, no alcoholism and no gambling. Along with going for a Vārī every year, singing haripāṭha every day, doing nāma-japa every day, reading a small portion of sampradāyika literature every day, observing fast on Ekādaśī, attending bhajanas, kīrtanas, pravachanas in the local temples whenever possible is expected of a Vārkarī.

Bhāgvata Dharma

The Vārkarī Sampradāya focuses on the bhakti way or mārga of mokṣa or liberation. Though bhakti assumes the duality of the devotee and the deity, many Bhāgvata Sampradāyas, especially in North India, follow the dvaita school of philosophy, the defining philosophy of Vārkarī Sampradāya is Advaita. The Vārkarīs, although teaching the devotional way of liberation, follow the philosophy of Śankara and the Vedantic philosophy of non-dualism. The highly heralded scripture, which can be said to be the cornerstone of the Vārkarī canon – Dnyāneśvarī – preaches Advaita philosophy. Even though the Vārkarī Sampradāya is founded on the sophisticated philosophy of Advaita, its practices are easy. Bhāgvata Dharma, as propounded by the Vārkarī Sampradāya, does not advocate rigid ways of bhakti but teaches simple bhakti, which can be accessed and practised by all, including women, Śūdras and the poor. Adoption of bhakti and its practices as the primary means of mośka; a child form of Kriṣṇa as its deity; the Vārkarī Sampradāya is also known as the Bhāgvata Sampradāya, and the Vārkarī Sampradāya’s philosophy is known as the Bhāgvata Dharma.

Bhāgvatas are those who worship Vāsudeva, Krishṇa, or Viṣṇu. Bhāgvata Dharma promotes simple methods of God worship that are accessible to everybody, regardless of caste, colour, gender, or age. According to the Bhāgvata Dharma, the ultimate responsibility of a human being is to give up one’s desire and passion for possessions and surrender them all to God. The Bhāgvatas do not require Sanskrit texts (though they do not necessarily reject them) nor require rigorous rituals or heretic activities. One need not become a sanyāsī to attain mokṣa or realisation. Even amid daily affairs and household duties, with intense and pure devotion to the deity, Bhāgvatas can achieve mokṣa. The pre-requisite for reaching the ultimate goal for a Bhāgvata is ‘bhāva’ or intention. [1]Bhāgvata Dharma takes a special interest in the majority sections of the society viz. poor, lower castes and women and propagates such ways of worship which do not require any special training and are generally accessible to all, regardless of status or role.

According to Tulpule, the origins of bhakti in Maharashtra cannot be decisively traced to the bhakti traditions of Karnataka and Tamilnadu. Instead, the foundations of the bhakti tradition in Maharashtra can be traced to Bhagvad-Gītā, BhāgvataPurāṇa, Śāṇḍilya Bhakti Sūtras and Nārada Bhakti Sūtras.[2] While explaining the influences on the philosophy of the Vārkarī Sampradāya, Tulpule writes, “The Bhagavad- Gītā provided the philosophical basis, whereas the Bhāgvata Purāṇa introduced the different types of devotees who attained to the Godhead through their single-minded devotion. The Bhakti Sūtras of Śāṇḍilya and Nārada provided the link between the philosophy of Bhagvad- Gītā and devotional literature of later times.”[3] Vārkarī Sampradāya focuses on directing one’s energies towards worshipping the god by singing of bhajans, recitation of god-name, and listening to the praises of god and great devotees in the form of kīrtana and so on. It uniquely blends the karma and dnyāna with the path of bhakti. This blending of bhakti, dnyāna and karma is evident in the writings of the Santas of the Vārkarī tradition and the most basic revered text of the Vārkarīs, Dnyāneśvarī.

Vārkarī Sampradāya has adopted the philosophy of monism and the practice of bhakti. It generally adopts a reconciliatory approach in the domain of spirituality and religion as well as while addressing the issues of social concern. It neither encourages asceticism nor indulgence in material affairs. It worships a form of Kriṣṇa/Viṣṇu but does not antagonise other forms of worship and deities. It calls for egalitarian change for a just and equal society but does not advocate uprooting the existing structures by revolutionary means. It prescribes a code of conduct for its members but does not have a notion of blasphemy or imposition of the rules. The overall approach of the Bhāgvata Sampradāya seems incremental, introducing a set of values to ordinary people through the easily comprehensible means of bhakti.

In Maharashtra, it is believed that Dnyāeśvara Nāmdeva, Eknātha laid the foundation of the Bhagvata Dharma, and other Santas erected the divine structure, which not only gave the systematic organisation to the sampradāya over the years but also made it famous by reaching out to the masses. And finally, Tukārāma became the pinnacle of this mystical edifice. The famous abhanga attributed to Bahiṇābāī, the disciple of Tukārāma, captures this imagination. The abhanga reads:

Dnyānadeveracilāpāyā/ Ubhāriledevālaya//

NāmāTayācākiñkara/ tyānekelāhāvistāra//

JanārdanaEkanātha/ khāmbadilābhāgvata//

Tukāzālāsekalasa/ Bhajana karāsāvakāśa//

This means,

Dnyāndeva (Dnyāeśvara) laid the foundation of the temple (of Bhāgvata Dharma).

Nāmā (Nāmdeva), who is the servant of Bhāgvata Dharma, expanded the structure.

Janārdana‘s disciple, Eknātha, built the pillars of the temple by way of composing commentary on the Bhāgvata (Purana).

Tukārām has become the pinnacle of this temple of Bhāgvata Dharma. Let’s sing (their) bhajanas rhythmically.

Social Dimensions and Democratising Religious Practices

There are two extreme opinions about the implications of the teachings of Vārkarī Santas and Vārkarī Sampradāya. One school of thought regards the works and message of Vārkarī Santas as vidrohī, or revolutionary, pioneering radical social change against Vaidic Dharma and denouncing the Vedas. In contrast, another school of thought regards it as ultimately status quoist, diverting people’s attention away from immediate socio-political concerns. In the first case, an argument is made that the Vārkarī Sampradāya, like the Jain and Buddhist traditions, emerged as a critique of the Vaidic tradition, especially the varna system. On the other extreme, Vārkarī philosophy and the works of Santas of the Vārkarī tradition are termed “other-worldly”, indulging in the passivity of action through the promotion of bhakti. According to this view, the implication of advocating bhakti was to maintain the status quo as it overlooked the political and social issues of the time. Scholars like Rajwade were at the forefront of this argument. In support of the “status quoist” argument, a stanza from Santa Tukārāma’s abhanga “Thevileanantetaisechīrahāve/Chittīasūdyāvesamādhāna//” – meaning “one should be content with whatever one has and as given by God” – is frequently quoted.

However, several other scholars do not hold either of these views. Dandekar, Abhyankar, Sardar, Deleury, Karve, and Novetzke point out that the character of the Vārkarī Sampradāya was neither revolutionary nor did it advocate radical changes in society. Even though they advocated a more egalitarian, just and equal society, they did not call for the destruction or dismantling of the existing social structures. The criticism of caste, gender-based hierarchies, and the inclusion of strī-śūdrādī in performing bhakti practices, the claim that every being is capable of attaining mokśa, or ultimate spiritual goal, irrespective of caste, gender, or class, was undoubtedly a departure from orthodox religious understanding. This departure laid the basis for social change and reform. However, the opening up of the spiritual-religious domain did not necessarily advocate equality of social status. As Sardar observes, Dnyāneśvara, who, along with his three siblings, suffered the wrath of Varṇāśramadharma, did not advocate uprooting from its foundations the system of four varnas and the structure of caste determined by birth. He can, therefore, be described as a religious reformer and not a revolutionary.[4]

The Buddhists, Jains and Lingayats vehemently opposed the varna system. They tried to uproot the caste system, advocating absolute equality, not just in spiritual and religious domains but also at the social level. Despite the efforts of these Sampradāyas, the caste system based on Varnāshramadharma did not collapse, it did not loosen its grip over the people’s minds. In fact reverse occurred. Therefore the theory of these Sampradāyas and the social practices were in conflict with each other. Based on this experience, Dnyāneśvara did not interfere with the social practices of the time. He entertained no false hopes about a social revolution. What he could achieve was the sense of equality and the feeling of brotherhood into the people’s religious life.

The Vārkarī Sampradāya, based on the philosophy of Advaita, believes in the fundamental unity of all beings. This spirit of fundamental equality is epitomised in Pasāydāna, composed by Dnyāneśvara and the most basic prayer of the Vārkarīs. However, even though the Vārkarī Santas and Vārkarī Sampradāya established equality of all castes, classes, and genders in the spiritual domain, it did not necessarily translate into social equality. Even among Vārkarīs, caste and gender hierarchies continue to manifest in their daily interactions and, for a long time, even at bhakti gatherings.

It should be noted that the period between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries is marked by the dominance and brutalities inflicted by the Muslim invaders. When the attempts were made of mass conversion to Islam by force and deceit, the Santas of the Vārkarī Sampradāya organised people on the path of bhakti, and kept them within the Hindu fold. There is a good reason to believe that there was a dialogue between various Sampradāyas of Maharashtra between the thirteenth to the seventeenth century, and the Vārkarī Sampradāya served as its anchor. The violent clashes between the Śaivas and Viśnavas in the South and North India are almost absent in Maharashtra.[5]

The Santas of the Vārkarī tradition adopted a more people-oriented means of spreading awareness and opening spiritual and religious knowledge to the majority section of society – women, Śūdras and Atiśūdras. The choice of Prākrut over Sanskrit, the use of metre Ovī, and Dnyāneśvara’s declaration in the Dnyāneśvarī that his primary audience is strī-śūdrādī are the testimony of this intentional choice. Similarly, Nāmdeva’s effort to spread the religious-spiritual message through a means of kīrtana indicates that the Santas of the Vārkarī tradition were conscious of the means they adopted. All Santas associated with the Vārkarī Sampradāya followed in the footsteps of Dnyāneśvara and Nāmdeva in adopting Marathi for their compositions and correctly blending music, dance, drama, play and singing to take their message to the majority sections of society by popularising kīrtana, bhajana, harīpātha, and the annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur, Vārī.

Vārkarī Sampradāya prioritised the majority sections of society, namely the strī-śūdrādī, and took it upon itself to uplift these sections in the spiritual domain. The bhakti practices adopted and advocated by the Vārkarī Sampradāya were people-oriented. The message of spirituality was disseminated through the language that people spoke, i.e., in Prākrit, in such a literary form that people could relate to. The santas of the Vārkarī Sampradāya engaged themselves in creating different means of teaching, which were very simple but rhythmic, easy to understand, and rich in philosophical content. They composed abhangas, performed kīrtanas, bhārūdas, gavḷaṇī, bhajanas etc. The Santas of the Vārkarī tradition blended bhakti’s individual and collective practices. Nāma-japa, pūjā, and harīpātha are primarily seen as individual acts of bhakti, though they can also be performed collectively. However, kīrtana, bhajana, pravachana, and Vārī are essentially collective acts to be performed in the community. The uniqueness of kīrtana, pravachana, or bhajana lies in their collective aspects. The singing of the bhajanas and kīrtanas together served as a great instrument of religious education for the people. They offered people such a simple spiritual instrument as the recitation of the name (nāma), which could be practised by anyone and anywhere, even while carrying out their day-to-day activities.

As G. B. Sardar notes, “the Vārkarī Sampradāya evolved a new kind of platform for its religious instruction. The style of their kīrtanas and nirupanas is quite novel… The Vārkarī Sampradāya trained religious preachers from among the people… The Santa kīrtanakāras did not belong to a special Varna or group.”[6] Similarly, Murthy observes, “to enkindle faith and devotion, mass gatherings become a necessity. Collective singing, dancing, feeding (dining) eating, pilgrimage and even collective living play an important role in Bhakti movements.”[7] The Vārkarī tradition tried to move away from the rigid rituals and traditions and preached a simple path of bhakti (devotional spirituality) that was accessible to all, including women and Śūdras. It tried to cut across the boundaries of caste, class, gender and religion.

On similar lines, Mirajkar argues, “The bhakti movement in Maharashtra did not raise a flag of rebellion against the prevailing social pattern marred by inequality, nor did it condemn the social atrocities in a confronting manner. But the propounders of the movement did advocate equality and fraternity in clear terms.”[8] He further adds, “It is the miracle performed by the Bhakti movement in Maharashtra that outcaste, downtrodden, untouchables and women found a voice of their own and could be elevated to a respectable position, at least in a limited frame-work.”[9]The Vārkarī Sampradāya was successful in crossing the barriers of social, economic, and gender disparities by bringing people on a common platform. The Santas gave confidence to the ordinary people of the lowest strata of society that the highest spiritual achievement was within their reach. G. B. Sardar made a similar observation. He writes: “The secret of the spread of the Vārkarī teachings and their great popularity lay precisely in the union of thought and feeling that prevailed among the leaders of the Sampradāy. Loyalty, sacrifice, courage, patience and generosity were the qualities with which they won the people’s hearts. Without at all getting enraged with the world, the Santas bore patiently the blows of social scorn.”[10]

Keune and Novetzke also observe, “Female figures have central and consistent positions in the panoply of Vārkarī saint-poets, and an ethics of equality are regularly promoted in the song-poems and hagiography of the saint-poets.”[11]When women were discriminated against in social and religious affairs and were attached to Śūdras status uniformly, the Vārkarī Sampradāya opened the doors of spirituality and honour to women. In the Vārkarī tradition, women not only participated in the pilgrimage and other religious and spiritual affairs, but several women assumed the status of Santa. Hence, gender was no bar in the Vārkarī tradition to achieving the heights of santhood. Muktabāī, who was a sister of Dnyāneśvara, rose to such spiritual authority that the Hatha-yogī and follower of Nāthapantha, Chāñgdeva Vateśvara, became her disciple. Janabāī, a maidservant of Nāmdeva, Kānhopātrā, a fallen woman, Soyarābāī, wife of an untouchable, Santa Chokhāmeḷā, and Bahinābāī, a disciple of Tukārāma, were known for their abhanga compositions and have contributed immensely to the bhakti tradition of the Vārkarī Sampradāya in Maharashtra. The Vārkarī Sampradāya was remarkable for creating an atmosphere that helped women develop their intellectual, literary, and spiritual agencies.

Murty regards the writings of the bhakti Santas as revolt-oriented literature. He writes, “even though with limitations and within a certain framework, all Bhakti literature was protest literature. They were socio-religious protests against religious imperialism, and they were also sincere attempts to democratise religion. They tried to reform the ritual-based religion into a value-based one.”[12] Sardar constantly reminds us of the moderate nature of the Vārkarī Sampradāya. He notes, “The movement of the Santas was therefore, not a reactionary force seeking to divert people from the social struggle; it was a movement for reform which, within the sphere of religious life, fought in an orderly manner for their rights.”[13]

In a way, at least indirectly, the Vārkarī Sampradāya led by the santas of the tradition laid the foundation for the political consciousness of Swaraj in Maharashtra and channelised people’s thinking to take pride in their dharma language and land. While arguing for this case, N. K. Behere writes: “The feeling of national brotherhood based on this devotional aspect of religion pervaded the land despite the prevalent obnoxious caste system. Maharashtra was their common mother-land, Vithobā was their common God, Marathi was their common mother language, and several Maharashtra Santas were their religious leaders and spokesmen. This religious bond,in the course of time, developed the idea of national unity.”[14]A feeling of identification with the region of Maharashtra accompanied the pride in the power of the Marathi language. This new spirit in Marathi society, which took the form of pride in one’s language and region, was responsible for moulding the history of Maharashtra. The most critical distinction which sets Vārkarī Sampradāya apart from many of its contemporary traditions is its democratic credentials.[15] Anybody could become a Vārkarī, a stepping stone amid a society organised according to the rules of castes. They have a very strong feeling of solidarity that ties them closely together and unites them in a spiritual body composed of the departed saints and the living members of the tradition.


The primary message and the domain of work of the Vārkarī Santas and the Vārkarī Sampradāya have been the spiritual-religious domain. The quest for equality among all human beings has resulted from their spiritual philosophy. The direct implication of their teachings in the political domain is far less clear. All-encompassing social and political change has not been the primary motive of the Vārkarī Santas. The primary objective has been to encourage individuals to lead more moral and committed lives and channel their energies to achieve their spiritual goals. To achieve this objective, they made bhakti the basis of their teachings and advocated simple means of bhakti that were both personal and public. The adoption of non-ritualistic means of bhakti, which all could practise, non-discrimination based on caste, class, and gender in the spiritual and religious domain, and preference for the majority section of society, namely, strī-śūdrādī, were conscious choices on the part of Vārkarī Santas. There are differences of opinion regarding the extent to which these deliberate choices resulted in a substantial social and political change to establish an egalitarian society. However, there is no doubt that they opened up religious and spiritual spaces previously closed to the majority sections of society. The works of the Vārkarī Santas and the Vārkarī Sampradāya can be credited with igniting confidence among the masses that they can attain the highest spiritual goal, irrespective of the dogma of caste and gender. It would not be an exaggeration to argue that the Vārkarī Santas and the Vārkarī Sampradāya were instrumental in igniting pride in one’s own deś and bhāśa, i.e., in one’s own country and language, and thereby shaped the psyche of Marathi people.

[1]DhundaMahārajaDeglurkar, NaradBhaktisutraVivaran (Pandharpur: BhanudasDhundaMahārajaDeglurkar, 2014), 32 -43. Also see, S. V. Dandekar, Vārkarī PanthachaItihas, 6.

[2] S. G. Tulpule, “The Development of Mystical Thought in Maharashtra,” in Region, Nationality and Religion eds. A. R. Kulkarni and N. K. Wagle (Mumbai: Popular Prakashan, 1999), 203-04.

[3]Ibid, 205.

[4]G. B. Sardar,75.

[5]R. C. Dhere, “Introduction,” ShreeViṭhṭhala: Ek Mahasambvay.

[6]G. B. Sardar, 72.

[7]S. Murthy, 34.

[8]N.Mirajkar, 108.

[9] Ibid, 109.

[10]G. B. Sardar, 77.

[11]Jon Keune and Christian Lee Novetzke, “Vārkarī Sampradāy”, 8.

[12]S. Murthy, 40.

[13]G. B. Sardar, 21.

[14]K. N. Behere, 23.

[15] It should be noted here that the term “democratic” here is used to refer to a set of certain egalitarian values values like equality, mutual respect, diversity and not in a restrictive sense to indicate political structure of modern times.

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