Though much of North India was under the control of Islamic slave dynasty, most parts of the Deccan plateau were ruled by powerful Hindu dynasties such as Chalukyas and Yadavas. Hinduism was also undergoing a change. Vaishnavism, with its different sects presenting a more personal and emotional form of the Hindu religion, was becoming popular in various parts of the country.
Some of these sects challenged the deeply entrenched caste system and the fierce control of Brahmins and rituals on Hindu society. In present-day Solapur, the Yadavas had been ruling for some centuries, and there was relative peace and prosperity in the region. One sect that was gaining popularity here, decades after Baba Farid died, was the Warkari sect. It was known for its expression of bhakti (devotion) and for its freedom from caste discrimination in a religious setting.
Sant Jnaneshwar founded this sect in the 13th century around Pandharpur, a small dusty town in today’s Sholpauram district of Maharashtra. An ancient temple, patronised by Yadava kings, was quite popular here. Though a Brahmin himself, Sant Jnaneshwar wrote critically about the parochialism of the priestly elite. He wrote in Marathi, as opposed to most other scholarly writings of his times, which were written in Sanskrit and Kannada.
It was in these times that a young child, to be named Namdeo, was born to a Chhipi, or calico printer, father and a tailor mother, close to Pandharpur. These two castes were considered among the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy.
Namdeo was not interested in calico-printing and would often spend much time in the temple of Vithoba or Pandurang, the deity of Pandharpur. In his youth, he met Sant Jnaneshwar and was immediately attracted to his egalitarian teachings of a formless god. Namdeo travelled with him to Banaras and to Panjab.
It was in these travels and with his companionship that Namdeo may have further deepened his devotion. In this period he wrote hundreds of lyrical poems in Marathi, known as Abhangas.
Later, in his early fifties, Namdeo travelled through Gujarat and Rajputana to visit Punjab a second time. This time, he would stay back in Ghuman, a dusty village about 10 km west of modern day Sri Hargobindpur. It was here that he gained several disciples, the principle one among them being Baba Bahur Das.
Namdeo wrote extensively in Ghuman, where much of his poetry was composed. Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh Guru included sixty-one of these hymns in the Guru Granth Saheb – they are sung even today as Shabads in gurdwaras.
Namdeo continued to live in Ghuman for next two decades. While Panjabis say he died there, Marathis believe he went back and died where he was born: in Narshi Brahmani, close to Pandharpur. A gurudwara, within which is housed a Radha-Krishna temple, a Shivalaya and a brass plate with a figurine of Namdeo, stands till date in Ghuman. Namdeo’s followers and visitors from Maharashtra and Panjab gather here every year in the month of Magh to remember him and his teachings of love, equality and simplicity.
Born as he was in a lower caste in his times, Namdeo faced considerable caste based discrimination and violence. Protesing against such discrimination, legitimised by religion, he spoke firmly against rituals and fostered a direct relationship with the formless god. When he was still hurt by the brokers of religion because of his caste, he would appeal directly to this god:
I say desert me not, desert me not
Oh lord, do not desert me
They believe that they are higher castes
They have unleashed their wrath on me
He would also call out their bluff:
They behave as if they are dear relatives of the lord,
But they are, o Nama, none other than thieves in disguise
Namdeo was not only dismissive of the way religion was practised, but he also lived and proposed an alternative – of devotion, communion and compassion:
Guided by the words, calm and soundless, to the house of distressed will I go
Will not go to pilgrims or bathe in holy waters; will not harm living beings, no!
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