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The Cult of Vithoba - A Super Rare Book

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Item Code: NAM042
Author: G. A. Deleury S.J.
Publisher: Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute
Language: English
Edition: 1994
Pages: 262 (12 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 9.5 inch x 7.0 inch
Weight 480 gm
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Book Description

It is a matter of great significance that the first of the publications jointly sponsored by the University of Poona and the Deccan College in the field relating to the Archaeology and History of Maharashtra deals with the Cult of Vithoba which, originating within Maharashtra, has spread for and wide beyond its geographical limits. The work undertaken by several departments of the Deccan College goes beyond the confines of Maharashtra and covers practically all aspects of Indian Culture, and has given it the status of an all-India research centre. But the key to its manifold contributions is the unravelling of the threads of history in their space-time context. The University of Poona, having regard to the special relation of these studies to the region of Maharashtra, accepted the suggestion of the Deccan College that they should jointly publish such of the research produced in the Deccan College appertaining to Maharashtra in a new series. The authorities of the University have provided a total grant of Rs. 15,000 spread over a period of five years to assist the Deccan College gratefully acknowledges this assistance from the Poona University which is in addition to grants which the University has been making annually in various directions without the restrictive regional label. The Deccan College, situated in the heart of the Maharashtra region planned its research programme with Maharashtra as the focal point and gradually extended it beyond; but its slender resources did not permit the publication of important researches bearing on the history and archaeology of this significant region which has been the meeting place of the manifold cultural forces in our country. The credit for making this research available in print must go to the enlightened interest of the Poona University, and the Deccan College is conscious of the honour the University has bestowed on it by co-sponsoring this series. The present work will be shortly followed by the remaining works of this series during the next three years. They will unfold the pattern of life and culture in what has been known as Maharashtra from ancient times.


Says Gandhiji:

“Temples are so many bridges between the Unseen, Invisible and Indefinable God and ourselves who are infinitesimal drops in the Infinite Ocean. We, the human family, are not all philosophers. We are of the earth very earthy, and we are not satisfied with contemplating the Invisible God. Somehow or other we want something which, we can touch, something which we can see, something before which we can kneel down. It does not matter whether it is a book, or an empty stone building or a stone building inhabited by numerous figures. A book will satisfy some, an empty building will satisfy others, and many others will not be satisfied unless they see something inhabiting these empty buildings. Then I ask you to approach these temples not as if they represented a body of superstitions. If you will approach these temples with faith in them, you will know that each time you visit them you will come away from them purified, and with your faith more and more in the living God.” ................... “For the faithful Hindu, his Incarnation is without blemish. Krisna of the Hindu devotee is a perfect being. He is unconcerned with the harsh judgment of the critics. Millions of devotees of Krishna and Rama have had their lives transformed through their contemplation of God by these names. How this phenomenon happens, I do not know. It is a mystery. I have not attempted to prove it. Though my reason and my heart long ago realized the highest attribute and name of God as Truth. I recognize truth by the name of Rama. In the darkest hour of my trial, that one name has saved me and is still saving me... Temple-worship supplies the felt spiritual want of the human race.”

The temple of Vithoba at Pandharpur is dedicated to Lord Krsna under the name of Vithoba or Viththala. It is one of those many places in India which every year attracted thousands of pilgrims. How did it come that a French student happened to choose it as a subject matter for his thesis? So many factors enter in the choice of a thesis: the environment, the advice of the professors, the leanings of the students. It so happens that in France, today, the curiosity towards things Indian is strongly growing. It is partly due to the spiritual urge of the post-war Frenchman which explains as well the Catholic revival in that country. For many of them, India stands as a spiritual beacon towards which it is good to look after the destruction of the formerly powerful myth of indefinite scientific progress. The wish to know more about this aspect of India, to get into direct contact with a living as well as traditional Indian religious movements and not to be satisfied with academic speculations on the Vedas or with the superficial information given in books written by Indians or Europeans “ad usum Europeanorum”, is undoubtedly at the bottom of this thesis.

But why this choice of the cult of Vithoba and of the so-called Pandharpur movement among so many others? The advice of the Indo-logists of the Paris University was certainly the decisive factor in that choice. For a long time, since the days of the great pioneer Prof. Sylvain Levy, scholars were chiefly concerned with Sanskrit studies and other connected subjects. Nowadays, there is a definite trend to deal more and more with modern Indian languages and literature. Regarding the philosophic-religious studies, succeeding the interest shown in Vedic or Upanisadic speculations, researches in modern or popular religious movements have been of late more and more encouraged. Prof. P. Meile says: “On the other hand, within Hinduism, the local traditions connected with the holy places and the temples have a very strong influence. To know the religions of India accurately, it would be necessary, (and such a work is hardly begun) to make a catalogue of the various places of worship and to draw a map. The geography of the Indian religions would be an ethnological datum of the greatest value.” The wish to fill a gap in that map is at the origin of this thesis.

But why the choice of Pandharpur rather than of Tirupati, Puri, Srisailam or so many others? It is much more difficult to answer this question, for there is always an irrational factor in the choice of a subject-matter for a thesis. Two reasons however may be given by way of explanation and the first foremost is the taste for the unknown. Places like Benares, Dwarka, Ramesvaram, Madura and many others with their artistic or archaeological aspect had been described by many writers. Even if the information given was somewhat scanty and superficial, these places were known. But who in France had ever heard of Pandharpur? And who had ever heard of Vithoba? Names like Siva, Visnu, Krsna, Rama, or even Kali were known to any one who had read a little about India, but Vithoba? Then the average French reader had heard of the fame of Tulsidas, Kabir, Rabindranath Tagore (by the marvellous translation of the ‘Gitanjali’ by a. GIDE) or even the famous Alwars: he was not unaware of the richness of Hindi, Bengali, or Tamil literature. But even if by chance he had heard of the name of Tukaram, he was not aware of any Marathi literature. So, the thrill of discovering a new land may have directed the choice of this subject for a thesis.

Once the curiosity for an unknown domain was aroused, the perusal of all the available information followed, and although this was very scanty and vague, a new interest and a deep attraction were felt by the writer when he discovered there was, connected with Pandharpur and Vithoba, a very original school of spirituality called the ‘Varkari sampradaya’. This school seemed to be quite different from other Indian spiritual groups. For, these belonged to the general Bhakti movement of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries A.D. which were mostly due to the teachings of Ramanuja’s disciples, but the Varkari did not seem to follow the philosophy of that great teacher, but rather the philosophy of sanskara. Then, although they were great devotees of Krsna, they did not on that account show any contempt or hostility towards the devotees of other gods: there seemed to be an eclectic attitude which did not allow esoterism or fanaticism. For although deeply devoted to a very personal god called Vithoba they did not seem to indulge in the many exaggerations in asceticism which had been mentioned by many travellers in other parts of India, and had become for many Europeans inseparable from the idea of Indian mysticism.

Another point which seemed to differentiate it from other sects was that its members had a definitely democratic outlook. Anybody could become a Varkari, and it looked remarkable in the midst of a society organised according to the rules of castes. Then the Varkari seemed to have a very keen feeling of solidarity which not only tied them closely together, but united them in a spiritual body composed of the departed members as well as of the living. Their veneration for the Saints and their faithfulness to their memory gave to their group a very attractive human touch. This group indeed seemed to have been particularly fertile in powerful personalities and creative writers.

Besides, it was not a thing of the past, not even a dying relic of a once powerful spiritual revival. It was, as the numbers of pilgrims going every year to Pandharpur clearly showed, an actual, living and popular religious phenomenon. To study it would mean to get into contact with a religious experience, not only well representative of Hindu spirituality, but also valuable for its universal significance.

The first aim of this thesis is therefore to give to the European reader a description as faithful as possible of the cult of Vithoba and of the Varkari Panth. The Indian readers will thus have to forgive the writer for being something lengthy on what would seem obvious to them but to which Europeans are unfamiliar. Nevertheless it is our hope that this work will not be absolutely useless for them, for although the Varkaris are well-known in Maharastra, in other parts of India many people are unaware of their existence or at least have some hazy ideas about their nature. In Maharastra itself, there have been few comprehensive studies on that movement. The Ramdasis, the Nathas, and in more recent times the Manbhavas have been the subjects of monographs, while the Varkari movement, although many books and articles have studied some aspects of their history or of their teachings, have not received the same attention. This thesis will therefore be an attempt to present in a synthetic way the result of many more specialised researches, so as to give a comprehensive, if necessarily, superficial view of the Varkaris and their god Viththala. The originality resides more in that compendium than in the discovery of new material.

Nevertheless some fresh evidence has been brought to light. In our enquiry on the etymology of the word Viththala we have suggested that this word came from the Kannada word Bitta and we have shown the consequences of this opinion. Some fresh comparisons between the image of Vithoba and some others have been proposed in our chapter on Iconography, particularly with the images of Sri of the Buddhist, and of Bir Kuar of the Ahir tribes of West-Bihar. A special research based on extensive travelling over the whole of Maharastra and Karnataka has resulted in the discovery of several temples dedicated to Vithoba in which some image of Vithoba was carved, hitherto unknown to the scholars. A comprehensive study brought together data concerning religious matters as found in the Buddhist and Jaina religions as well as religious ideas and practices of several aboriginal tribes.

In our account of the history of Pandharpur we had to relate events well-known to the Indian student but with which the European reader is not so familiar. But even in that case, the history of the Deccan is examined in relation to Pandharpur, thus giving this account a certain character of originality.

Finally, this thesis has brought the writer into direct contact with many Varkaris, and it is hoped that their indirect contribution to this work will be as valuable for the European reader as it has been for the writer. The Pilgrimage to Pandharpur related by an eye-witness invited in spite of his quality of a foreigner and Catholic to accompany the procession in its two-week journey will give fresh material to the European scholar for the study of modern religious activities in India. It may also be useful for the Varkaris to know how a European reacts to their pilgrimage. And was there any other way to get a real insight into the spiritual life of the members of this Panth, but to take inspiration from the advice given by Tukaram.

“Go, to Pandhari, and become a Varkari”?

We must here thank all those who had helped in making this thesis possible: the staff of the Deccan College Research Institute, specially Dr. Sankalia and Dr. Harshe who with an untiring kindness have examined the whole thesis and corrected many mistakes by offering their valuable criticism: Principal S.V. Dandekar who has introduced us into the “society of the Saints’, invited us to join his dindi and partake of its life during the Pilgrimage to Pandharpur in July 1951, and followed the progress of our work with eagerness: Mr. Wadia whose expert advice corrected our faulty English in many places, and many others among the scholars, students and Varkaris of Poona who lent us their valuable assistance. We are indeed very grateful to them.


Foreword, by Dr. S. M. Katrev
1The Varkari Panth1
3The Temple of Vithoba60
4The Pilgrimage73
5The Spirit of the Varkaris110
9Origin of the Cult of Vithoba181
Index to Geographical Names211
Index of Names and Subjects212

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