By Swami Durgananda
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
Such was the turn of events when Narharidas, a descendant of Ramanand, was commanded in a dream to pick up an abandoned boy and instruct him in the timeless story of Sri Ram. He spotted the boy, who at that time went by the name Rambola3, took him to Ayodhya, and completed his sacred-thread ceremony. From a reference to a tulsi leaf used during that ceremony, Narharidas named him Tulsiram, which later became Tulsidas. After about ten months of living in Ayodhya, guru and disciple left for Sukar-khet—or Sukar-kshetra, now known as Paska, near Ayodhya, at the confluence of the rivers Sarayu and Ghagara—where they lived together for five years. It was here that Tulsidas heard the fascinating story of Sri Ram. We can well imagine what fire must have been ignited in the boy Tulsidas when the immortal story of Sri Ram fell upon his pure heart. Another sadhu, Shesha Sanatana by name, now came into Tulsidas’s life and took him to Varanasi, the city of learning. It was here that Tulsi learned Sanskrit, including Panini’s grammar. We read that Tulsi was extremely bright, could remember texts after hearing them only once, and became adept in Sanskrit. That he had a good command of Sanskrit can be known from his few Sanskrit writings and the Sanskrit words, apposite and accurate, thrown casually but widely into his other works.4
Marriage and Renunciation
Tulsidas married a girl whose name was Ratnavali. We are told that the simple couple lived at Rajapur and that their only son, Tarak, died in infancy. Tulsidas was extremely devoted to his wife. This attachment may have been an inchoate form of bhakti—wrongly directed towards a human being—for it was this love, when freed from human attachment, that blossomed into an unbounded love for God. Once his wife had started for her paternal home. An infatuated Tulsi rushed behind her at night, across the Yamuna. Upon reaching her, Tulsi was chided by his wife:
Hada mamsa-maya deha mam, taso jaisi priti; Vaisi jo sri-ram-mein, hot na bhav bhiti.5
Had you for Sri Ram as much love as you have for my body of flesh and bones, you would have overcome the fear of existence. An apparently simple and innocuous expression of annoyance brought about a conversion in Tulsidas’s mind, which must have already been pure, well disposed, and awaiting the proper hint. Such inner volte-face is not an uncommon phenomenon; innumerable instances have been recorded in the lives of saints of all religions. Tulsidas renounced his house and wife and becamea peripatetic monk. He travelled the length and breadth of India, visiting, as he went, the four dhamas and other holy places. How many souls must have been blessed and inspired by his peerless words and how many raised to sublime heights of spirituality during his peregrinations we can only imagine.
Tulsidas finally reached Varanasi. Here he had a divine command to go to Ayodhya and write the immortal epic of Sri Ram in the local dialect. At a subtle level, legends and myths can carry more of reality than so-called real, sensible, and provable facts. And a legend has it that Sri Ram had himself approved Valmiki’s Ramayana by putting his signature on it. After that, Hanuman wrote with his nails on stone another Ramayana and took it to Sri Ram. Sri Ram approved it also, but as he had already signed Valmiki’s copy, he said he could not sign another, and that Hanuman must first approach Valmiki. He did so, and Valmiki realized that this work would soon eclipse his own. So, by a stratagem, he induced Hanuman to fling it into the sea. Hanuman, in complying, prophesied that in a future age he would himself inspire a brahmana named Tulsi, and that Tulsi would recite his— Hanuman’s—poem in a tongue of the common people and so destroy the fame of Valmiki’s epic.6 At any rate, Tulsidas went to Ayodhya. In a secluded grove, under one of the banyans, a seat had already been prepared for him by a holy man who told Tulsidas that his guru had had the foreknowledge of Tulsidas’s coming. It was 1575, the Ramnavami day. As per legend, the position of the planets was exactly as it was when Sri Ram was born in the bygone age of Treta. On that auspicious day, Tulsidas commenced writing his immortal poem: the Ramcharitmanas. The composition of the Ramcharitmanas was perhaps Tulsidas’s own sadhana, his act of prayer and offering. It is an expression of creativity that blends the inner and outer worlds with God. It is an inner experience expressed in the form of legend through the vehicle of poetry. He wrote for two years, seven months, and twenty-six days, and completed it in Margashirsha (November–December), on the anniversary of Sri Ram’s marriage to Sita. He then returned to Varanasi glowing with the bhakti inflamed during the period of writing the devotional epic and began to share his ineffable experience with others. Because of Tulsidas’s good demeanour, loving personality, and exquisite devotion, people would gather round him in large numbers. That in Varanasi, the stronghold of orthodoxy, erudition, and Sanskrit learning, resistance should develop towards the growing popularity of the unsophisticated Tulsidas is not surprising. Two professional thugs were employed to steal his Ramcharitmanas— with printing not available in those days only a few copies existed. When the thieves entered Tulsi’s hut at night they saw two young boys, one of blue complexion and the other fair, guarding the work with bows and arrows. The terrified thieves gave up their plan and the next day informed Tulsidas of their experience. Tulsidas shed tears of joy, for he realized that Sri Ram and Lakshman had themselves been the guards.
A criminal used to beg everyday with the call: ‘For the love of Ram, give me—a murderer—alms.’ Hearing the name of Ram, the delighted Tulsidas would cheerfully take him inside his house and give him food. This behaviour of Tulsi infuriated the orthodox brahmanas, who demanded an explanation. Tulsidas told them that the name ‘Ram’ had absolved the person concerned of all his offences. This attitude of Tulsi incensed the people further. In a fit of anger, they demanded that if the stone image of Nandi—the sacred bull in the temple of Shiva—would eat out of the hands of that murderer, then they would accept that he had been purified. A day was fixed and to the consternation of the people the Nandi image actually ate from the murderer’s hands. The brahmanas had to eat humble pie. However, this did not settle matters. This event increased Tulsidas’s popularity even more and enraged the already defeated people afresh, triggering off more attacks and assaults. The troubled Tulsidas then turned to Hanuman for help. Hanuman appeared to him in a dream and asked him to appeal to Sri Ram. Thus was the Vinay-patrika born. It is a petition in the court of King Ram. Ganesh, Surya, Ganga, Yamuna, and others are propitiated first, just as the courtiers would be approached first. Then follows wonderful poetry soaked in bhakti:
He Hari! Kas na harahu bhram bhari; Jadyapi mrisha satya bhasai jabalagi nahin kripa tumhari.
O Hari, why do you not remove this heavy illusion of mine (that I see the world as real)? Even though the samsara is unreal, as long as your grace does not descend, it appears to be real.7
Darshan of Sri Ram
Another legend tells us that Tulsi would pour some water at the base of a banyan tree when he passed that way after his morning ablutions. A spirit that was suffering the effects of past evil deeds lived on that same tree. Tulsi’s offering relieved the spirit of its agony. Wanting to express gratitude to Tulsi, the spirit asked him what he wished. What else would Tulsi want but the holy darshan of Sri Ram? The spirit replied: ‘An old man attends your discourses; he arrives first and is the last to leave. He will help you.’ The next day Tulsidas identified the man who answered to the description and fell at his feet. The old man told Tulsi to go to Chitrakut, where he would have the darshan of Sri Ram. Who could the old man be but Hanuman himself ? It is well known that Hanuman is always present wherever the name ‘Ram’ is being uttered. Tulsi remained in Chitrakut, making sandal paste and giving it to the devotees who came there. One day, while he was making the paste, Sri Ram appeared in front of him and said: ‘Baba, give me some sandal paste.’ Tulsi was overwhelmed and went into samadhi. Sri Ram applied sandal paste to Tulsi’s forehead with his own hand. Tulsi remained in samadhi for three days. This was the first time he experienced samadhi—and that through the darshan of Sri Ram himself! Once during his visit to a temple of Sri Krishna in Vrindavana, Tulsidas addressed the deity: ‘How can I describe your heavenly beauty, O Krishna! However, this Tulsi will not bow to you unless you take bow and arrow in your hands! ’ In a moment, Tulsi had a vision of Sri Ram instead of Sri Krishna on the altar! It is believed that Emperor Jahangir knew about Tulsidas and that they met at least once. Jahangir pressed Tulsidas to perform a miracle. Tulsi refused saying: ‘I know no miracles, I know only the name of Ram.’ Annoyed at the answer, Jahangir imprisoned him. The legend narrates that a band of monkeys wrecked havoc in the prison and the emperor, realizing his mistake, had to release Tulsi. The famous pandit Madhusudana Saraswati of Varanasi was a contemporary of Tulsidas. The two devotees discussed bhakti when they met. In an answer to someone’s enquiry, Madhusudana Saraswati praised Tulsidas thus:
Ananda-kanane hyasmin-jangamas-tulasitaruh; Kavitamanjari bhati rama-bhramara-bhushita.
In this blissful forest (Varanasi), Tulsidas is a mobile tulsi tree; resplendent are its poetic blossoms, ornamented by the bee that is Rama.
Towards the end of his life Tulsidas suffered from very painful boils that affected his arms. At this time he wrote the Hanuman Bahuk, which begins with a verse in praise of Hanuman’s strength, glory, and virtue, and is followed by a prayer to relieve him of his unbearable arm pain. The disease was cured. This was the last of the many pains that Tulsidas suffered on earth. He passed away in 16239 at Asighat, Varanasi. One interesting incident in Tulsidas’s life is quite representative of his teachings. Once a woman, who happened to stay behind after Tulsidas had delivered a discourse, remarked during the course of conversation that her nose-ring had been given to her by her husband. Tulsidas immediately directed her mind deeper saying: ‘I understand that your husband has given you this lovely nose-ring, but who has given you this beautiful face?’
Before we appraise the works of Tulsidas, a review of the Valmiki Ramayana, the Sanskrit classic that inspired him, will be instructive. The Ramayana is an epic that has kept not only India but the entire Hindu world spell-bound and it has been chiefly responsible for giving Hindu culture a general direction. It is broad in scope and provides guidance for all the stages of one’s life—incidentally, ayana means journey (of life). Human life, in all its facets and fancies, twists and turns, ups and downs, is on display in the Ramayana. People of different spiritual states derive different light and meaning from the text in accordance with their need and understanding. Ordinary human life can be sublimated and bhakti cultivated through a study of the Ramayana. The Ramayana of Valmiki includes characters as they are and as they ought to be. Rama, Sita, Kausalya, Bharata, Hanumana, Janaka, and others are ideal characters. Dasharatha, Kaikeyi, Lakshmana, Shatrughna, Sugriva, and others have been presented as beings with mixed qualities. Ravana, Kumbhakarna, and other rakshasas are portrayed as personifications of abominable qualities. Rama plays the role of an ideal son, disciple, brother, master, husband, friend, and king. Subject to human emotions and weaknesses, Rama is a supernal god in human form—but onversely, he is also a human who has ascended to be an adorable god. Rama’s bow and arrow symbolize a force that guarantees peace and justice. Rama’s is the ideal of ‘aggressive goodness’ as opposed to ‘weak and passive goodness’. Rama does not, however, kill or destroy;he rather offers salvation to those he battles. This is technically called uddhara. There are many other versions of the Ramayana: Adhyatma Ramayana, Vasishtha Ramayana, Ananda Ramayana, Agastya Ramayana, Kamba Ramayana (Tamil), Krittivasa Ramayana (Bengali), and Ezuttachan’s Adhyatma Ramayana (Malayalam), among others. Although these differ in disposition, flavour, emphasis, amount of details, and length of each kanda, canto, they all describe the life of Rama and are inspired by the Valmiki Ramayana. When Swamiji was at Ramnad, he said in the course of a conversation that Shri Rama was the Paramatman and that Sita was the Jivatman, and each man’s or woman’s body was the Lanka (Ceylon). The Jivatman which was enclosed in the body, or captured in the island of Lanka, always desired to be in affinity with the Paramatman, or Shri Rama. But the Rakshasas would not allow it, and Rakshasas represented certain traits of character. For instance, Vibhishana represented Sattva Guna; Ravana, Rajas; and Kumbhakarna, Tamas. These Gunas keep back Sita, or Jivatman, which is in the body, or Lanka, from joining Paramatman, or Rama. Sita, thus imprisoned and trying to unite with her Lord, receives a visit from Hanuman, the Guru or divine teacher, who shows her the Lord’s ring, which is Brahma-Jnana, the supreme wisdom that destroys all illusions; and thus Sita finds the way to be one with Shri Rama, or, in other words, the Jivatman finds itself one with the Paramatman.
The works of Tulsidas are about Sri Ram, with two exceptions: Krishna-gitavali and Parvati-mangal. Tulsidas’s magnum opus, the Ramcharitmanas, is the story of Sri Ram retold in mellifluous language—an outburst of bhakti based on his own spiritual experiences. Although the origin of the Ramcharitmanas lies in the Valmiki Ramayana, its immediate source is the Adhyatma Ramayana. What are the differences between these two Ramayanas? The Valmiki Ramayana is ancient, has 24,000 verses, and depicts Rama as the epitome of ‘human’ perfection. The much shorter Adhyatma Ramayana, a part of the Brahmanda Purana, is of a later period. It depicts Rama as Brahman itself, and is an excellent confluence of Advaita Vedanta phil- osophy and the Valmiki Ramayana. The character Ravana in the Valmiki Ramayana is a plain villain, symbolic of vice in an ordinary human being. By contrast, the Ravana of the Adhyatma Ramayana longs for liberation through confrontation with Rama, which is described as vidvesha bhakti. ‘Ramcharitmanas’ means ‘the lake of the deeds of Ram’. The entire story is a narration by Shiv to Parvati. ‘Manas’ here denotes a lake conceived in the mind of Shiv. Like the other Ramayanas, the Ramcharitmanas too contains seven kandas. On literary merit, it can be compared with the works of the famous Sanskrit poet Kalidasa. According to Vishwanath, Tulsidas has packed into this single work all the drama and variety of emotions, moods, and judgements that Shakespeare spread out across thirty-seven plays.12 In addition, he depicts how one ‘ought to be’. It is written in Awadhi, or Baiswari—the dialect of the Awadh region—mainly in the chaupai and doha metres, and is sung to a sweet and captivating tune. It not only provides a philosophical outlook on life through its enthralling poetry, but is also a powerful tool for lila chintan, thinking of the exploits and glories of God, which is an efficacious method of sadhana.