Bhakti, as an intense longing for God, is an existential fact. It is ever present at a deep level within us. Time and again mahatmas come and wake us up to the truth of this already existing wealth within us, our possession, our birthright, which we must strive to reclaim. Sant Tulsidas was one such mahatma whose heart melted in the white heat of love for God, whose pure, home-spun, and simple longing for God was to show direction not only to a few individuals, but to humankind at large; not only to one particular nation, but also across all borders; not only for a decade or two, but for centuries. Such saints do not direct just a small number of persons but wake up the divine consciousness in all humanity.
In sixteenth-century Rajapur—about 200 km east of Allahabad—in the Banda district of Uttar
Pradesh, there lived a rather gullible brahmana couple: Atmaram Dube and Hulsi Devi. The year was 1532. One day, at a somewhat inauspicious moment, was born to them a male child. Even at this happy moment the mother was frightened. Born after twelve months of gestation, the baby was rather large and had a full complement of teeth! Under which unfortunate star this child was born is not known for certain. But it is believed that it was the asterism mula that was on the ascent then—a period of time known as abhuktamula. According to the then popular belief, a child born during abhuktamula was destined to bring death to its parents. The only remedy, it was believed, was for the parents to abandon the child at birth—or at least not to look at it for the first eight years!
The utterly poor father had nothing in his house for the celebration of the child’s birth or for the naming ceremony. Meanwhile, the mother died. Weighed down by circumstances and superstition, the father abandoned the child. Chuniya, the mother-in-law of the midwife who had helped during the birth of the child, wet-nursed him. Such was the child’s fate that Chuniya too died after five years and he was left wandering,
looking for morsels of food here and there, taking occasional shelter at a Hanuman temple. This was the boy who would later be recognized as Sant Tulsidas and excite bhakti en masse with his soulstirring couplets.
The penchant of saints for self-abnegation and their aversion to renown and recognition make it difficult
for biographers to obtain details about their lives. This is also true of Tulsidas. Benimadhavdas, a contemporary of Tulsidas, wrote two different biographies: Gosai Charit and Mula Gosai Charit, the latter including more incidents. However, these books are full of fanciful details; they also contradict each other and the biographies written by others. Tulsi Charit, a large volume of undated origin, was written by Raghuvardas. Although this work contains a lot of information, it cannot be accepted in toto as it too contradicts Tulsi’s own works and those of other writers. The Gosai Charit, believed to have been written in 1754 by Bhavanidas, is another biography. However, from Tulsi’s own works, and through commendable scholarly research, a lot of information has been gathered about his life. But in his own works Tulsi gives no information about his youth or the grihastha period of his life. He does not even tell us his father’s name, though his mother does find mention in the Ramcharitmanas: ‘Tulsidas hit hiyan hulsi si; the story of Ram is truly beneficent to Tulsidas, like [his own mother] Hulsi.’1
The longing for supernal beings is as old as humankind itself. Ancient people worshipped the forces of nature to propitiate them or invoke their power.
The Vedas are replete with prayers to Indra, Varuna, Agni, and other such gods. After the decline of the Vedic and Buddhist religions in India, the bhakti movement was ushered in by a host of saints. Sri Ramanujacharya (1017–1137), who gave bhakti a firm philosophic base and also popularized it, was one of them. We see the appearance of a disproportionately large number of saints from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. Swami Ramanand (c.1400– c.1470), born perhaps in Prayag, played a great role in paving the way for bhakti in North India during this period. Many saints, who ignited and spread the conflagration of bhakti across the land, appeared in the wake of Ramanand’s advent. These included Kabir the weaver, Dhanna the peasant, Sena the barber, Pipa the king, Raidas the cobbler, and through Raidas, Mirabai. The great Tulsidas too may be counted as belonging to this tradition. Ramanand is reputed to have been the fifth spiritual descendant of Sri Ramanujacharya. We have no record of the sayings of Ramanand, who perhaps preferred to spread the immortal message of bhakti through the radiant and glowing example of his own life. However, one song of his, included in the Guru Granth Sahib, is evidence enough of his insight: ‘Where shall I go? The music and the festivity are in my own house, my heart does not wish to move, my mind has folded its wings and is still. One day, my heart was filled to overflowing, and I had an inclination to go with sandal and other perfumes to offer my worship to Brahman. But the guru (teacher) revealed that Brahman was in my own heart. … It is Thou who hast filled them all with Thy presence. … It is the word of the guru that destroys all the million bonds of action.’ 2