Dnyaneshwari: The Common Man’s Gita
Few texts have had such an impact on the religious landscape of Maharashtra, as Dnyaneshwari, a 13th century CE commentary on the Hindu scripture Bhagwad Gita, by Sant (Saint) Dnyaneshwar (1275-1296 CE) who is considered the greatest saint of the Bhakti movement in Maharashtra. Written around 1290 CE, this book revolutionised worship and made the Gita, Lord Krishna’s sermon to Arjun in the Mahabharata, accessible to the common man. This work not only took God to the people, but it also emphasised morality, good conduct and a pious way of living that each person could follow. This was in stark contrast to the elaborate rituals and rigidity of mainstream Hinduism.
Such is the popularity of the book, that almost 800 years after it was written , it is still quoted and recited across Maharashtra and even broadcast on Marathi TV channels every day!
– Few texts have had such a lasting impact on the religious landscape of Maharashtra, as the Dnyaneshwari
The Bhakti movement and Dnyaneshwari emerged during the reign of the last Yadava (Seuna) King Ramchandra (1271-1311 CE) who ruled over the Kingdom of Devagiri (Daulatabad), which covered large parts of present day Maharashtra. This was a time of flux. On one hand there were those who wanted to keep close control over religion and the scriptures, on the other the very fabric of Hindu faith was under threat as armies of the Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji were rampaging across the Deccan and Hindu kingdoms were collapsing one after the other.
On the banks of Godavari, eight miles east of Paithan in Aurangabad district is the village of Apegaon. It is here that Sant Dnyaneshwar was born into a minor landlord family in 1275 CE. Sant Dnyaneshwar’s father Vithalpant had renounced his family and taken Sanyas (asceticism), but he faced the wrath of the orthodox Brahmin community when he decided to come back to his family. The orthodoxy disowned not just him but his whole family and they had to go through extreme hardships. The story goes that Sant Dnyaneshwar moved to Paithan with his siblings, performed several miracles and around 1290-1293 CE, composed the great commentary on Bhagwad Gita called Bhavartha Deepika which is popularly called Dnyaneshwari.
Soon after, at a young age of 21, he took Samadhi, which is a state of intense concentration achieved through meditation. In yoga this is regarded as the final stage, at which a union with the divine is reached, before or at death. But even though Sant Dnyaneshwar chose to let go at such a young age, he left a lasting and powerful legacy. Over the next few centuries, other Bhakti saints like Eknath, Namdeo and Tukaram would take this work forward.
– Though Sant Dnyaneshwar chose to let go at such a young age, he left a lasting and powerful legacy
Having experienced firsthand the ills of orthodoxy, Sant Dnyaneshwar was very sympathetic to the sufferings of common man. He wrote Dnyaneshwari not in the official Sanskrit, but rather in the common man’s language, Marathi. Furthermore, it was written in the form of Ovi- a lyrical musical meter which is very easy to recite and sing, something similar to Kabir’s couplets or dohe.
In his interpretation of the Bhagwad Gita, Sant Dnyaneshwar elaborated on the 700 shlokas in Gita expanding it into around 9000 Ovis. Sant Dnyaneshwar laid great emphasis on ethics and conduct. The text taught people how to live their everyday life and was very emphatic that there is no discrimination based on caste in the eyes of god. Thanks to its simplicity, the popularity of Dnyaneshwari spread across Maharashtra.
Dnyaneshwari is the most sacred text of the Varkari sampradaya (Pilgrim sect), a Vaishnava tradition which is centred around the worship of Lord Vitthal in his temple in Pandharpur . Every years, lakhs of people make the annual pilgrimage to the temple often walking 100’s of miles . The largest procession is from the town of Alandi, from where the Palkhi or palanquinof Sant Dnyaneshwar moves towards Pandharpur accompanied by lakhs of people. On the way, they sing verses from this Dnyaneshwari and have religious discourses.
There are few texts that have remained as popular as the Dnyaneshwari. Nearly 800 years after it was written it still remains the most quoted religious text in Maharashtra. So much so, that its verses are beamed down satellite channels, to television screens each day . It is estimated that even though it might not be read by all - in its original form, nearly every Maharashtrian knows a verse or two from the Dnyaneshwari .