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Rising Above Caste, Patriarchy And Religion: Maharashtra’s 800-Year-Old Pandharpur Wari

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On July 23, the eleventh day of the waxing moon period in the month of Ashadh, the spiritual procession of Varkari commences in the holy village of Pandharpur on the bank of river Chandrabhaga. In this devotional Pandharpur Wari, more than half a million devotees follow the cradle holding paduka (footwear) of Sant Tukaram and Sant Dhyaneshwar from Dehu and Alandi respectively to Pandharpur for 21 days. The devotees come from about all parts of Maharashtra and Northern Karnataka thus bringing together the essence of Marathi culture to the holy site of Pandharpur, the refuge of Lord Vitthal. A noted Marathi litterateur Durga Bhagwat said in one of her books, “Somewhere there exists some inner link between Pandhari and every Maharashtrian… The kind of inner attachment one has for one’s family and ancestors one feels also for Pandharpur.”

However, for me, the Pandharpur Wari is something beyond regular ritual code. This Varkari culture is very different from many patriarchal, casteist, hierarchical and aristocratic religious sects in India. Although the procession is organised by the government, there involves no official registration of devotees either by the government or by temple authorities. The tradition remains untouched for nearly eight centuries.

Devotees participate in the procession during Girgaon Varkari Sampraday Dindi Palkhi Sohla. The Varkaris believe that Lord Vitthal awaits them at the end of this walk, and see the journey itself as the reward. (Photo by Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

There are three peculiar things about this culture that I want to share. The first thing I appreciate is the absence of the caste system. Everyone is the same in the eyes of Lord Vitthal. In fact, the cult of Varkaris was evolved by saints from varied caste backgrounds. The spiritual guru of Varkaris Sant Dhyaneshwar was a Brahmin who didn’t patronise his caste. Other saints include Sant Tukaram – a farmer, Sant Namdev – a tailor, Sant Narhari Sonar – a goldsmith, Savtoba – a gardener, Sant Gora – a potter, Sant Chokhamela  – a Dalit man, and many more. The Varkaris are also religion tolerant as they include the teachings of Sant Kabir and Sikh Gurus in their philosophy. This system is not hierarchical – unless and until one doesn’t follow their rules and regulations, they won’t be identified as Varkari even if their parents are senior Varkari devotees. This feature draws a line between Varkaris and many other castes and hierarchy-based religious institutions in India.

The second feature is the involvement of women in the evolution of Varkari culture, unlike others where women are forbidden to even enter the temple’s sanctum. Although in Hindu culture there is almost an equal number of Gods and Goddesses, women are absent in various sectarian histories. Poet saints like Muktabai, Janabai and Bahinabai make this religious movement an example of inclusiveness amongst various patriarchal sects. Even Lord Vitthal is called as ‘Vithu Mauli’ and Sant Dhyaneshwar is called ‘Dhyaneshwar Mauli’ where mauli means mother. This comparison of Lord Vitthal and Dhyaneshwar with a mother instead of a father indicates that Varkari respect a woman’s role and position and thereby directly compare God with her.

Thirdly, the origin and evolution of the Varkari tradition doesn’t involve any royal families as it was entirely started by saints and practised by the entire society, predominantly farmers. Even in current times, Varkari doesn’t form any political pressure group. Many kings, noble families, political leaders have instituted various ritual codes. The Maratha Sardars are said to have introduced the Kumbh Mela in Nashik. The other Kumbh Melas in Allahabad, Haridwar, and Ujjain are also said to have a princely origin. In order to show united Hindu strength, Lokmanya Tilak started Ganesh Jayanti festival in Pune. However, the Pandharpur Wari was started by saints without any influence from noble families.

Among few bhakti traditions, the Varkari clan has developed entirely by the aegis of people. It is generally observed that local politician-run mandals manage the festivals of Ganesh Jayanti and Janmashtami with a motive of competing with other rival mandals. The Varkari tradition is free from petty politics, thus making it a tradition by the people, of the people and for the people.

While I am not even a manikin Varkari devotee, I have developed a huge admiration for this culture in recent years. Our incumbent Prime Minister should take a clue from the Varkari tradition followed during Shivaji Maharaj’s reign. He used to take spiritual advice from Sant Tukaram and non-Varkari gurus like Ramdas Swami. However, neither Tukaram nor Ramdas lobbied with Shivaji Maharaj to imbibe their ideology in society with the help of administration. The Varkari culture was at its zenith under the leadership of Sant Tukaram but he never asked Shivaji Maharaj to homogenise the society with his teachings. The incumbent government entertains and worship those who want to homogenise the Hindu society with their principles. The Varkari culture and ruling behaviour of Shivaji in the medieval age encourage separation of faith and politics. Shouldn’t the ruling party learn from them?

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