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The Varkari movement’s contribution to Maharashtra: tolerance, accommodation, and democracy

Maharashtra is more than just a territorial entity, within itself it embodies a set of progressive ideas. What we now understand as “Maharashtra Dharma” is not based on the whims of an individual scholar, saint, or any single intellectual. Many have contributed, layer by layer, over centuries. A group I wish to highlight, who have influenced me and the fabric of Maharashtra greatly, are the Varkaris.

Every year on the day of Ashadhi Ekadashi, lakhs of Varkaris gather in Pandharpur to seek blessings of their beloved deity Vithoba. A tradition that goes back to the 13th century has been altered by the novel coronavirus.

This year the annual pilgrimage yatra, known widely as Dindi, carried out by the Varkaris particularly from Alandi to Pandharpur, will have only 20 people. The Dindi that witnessed participation of over 5 lakh devotees last year, mostly on foot, will be carried out by a bus this time.

While the Dindi has a significance of its own which cannot be belittled, it is perhaps more important for Maharashtra and the world, to inculcate and carry forward the social, cultural, and religious significance of the Varkari movement.

The annual Dindi is just a page in the magnanimous canon of Varkari literature. Founded by great Bhakti saints like Dnyaneshwar, Tukaram, Namdev, the Varkari movement responded to the dominant narrative of its times. In Maharashtra, as we know today, the movement took a cue from the Bhakti and Sufi saints who were reacting to the religious orthodoxies in their respective religions.

The idea was to make God accessible to people of all castes and religions, as evident from Sant Namdev’s Abhang “His reassuring words brought together all people, high and low, rich and poor, wise and ignorant under one umbrella.”

While entry to religious or caste groups is still a function of birth or involves an elaborate process of conversion, no esoteric ceremony is required to become a Varkari. The community prescribes a way of life that is all-encompassing and based on three major tenets; opposition to narrow-minded religious practices, egalitarianism in spiritual matters, and family-centered life.

This democratised nature of spiritual and social life has had a widespread impact on the fabric of Maharashtra till date. What amuses me about the community is that the saints who stitched the Varkari movement belonged to different castes. While Dnyaneshwar was a Brahmin, Tukaram–a farmer, Namdev–a tailor, Narhari Sonar–a goldsmith, Savtoba–a gardener, Gora–a potter, and so on. None sought to create their hegemony in the movement.

The idea was simple, all are equal in the eyes of Vitthal. The tolerance and inclusiveness of the movement were not just restricted to members belonging to different caste groups, but also towards women. The comparison of Vitthal to a mother. ‘Vithu Mauli’, and the contribution of saint poets like Muktabai, Janabai, and Bahinabai, reflects the equal if not a special position enjoyed by women in the movement.

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