Lives of Saints: Sant Eknath
Sant Eknath is one of the greatest saints of Maharashtra.
He was born in Paithan on the banks of the Godavari River
around 1533. Paithan is a holy place, and in those days it
was a centre of Sanskrit learning, as well as of Brahminical
orthodoxy. Eknath was the great grandson of the well-known
saint, Saint Bhanudas. His parents died when he was three
years old, and he was brought up by his grandparents.
He became a disciple of Janardana Swami who lived a little
distance away from his town. One story has it that he ran
away from home and stayed with his Guru for 12 years. Another
story says that he was entrusted to Janardana Swami by his
grandfather Chakrapani. This is more likely since there are
historical records which show that Janardana Swami and Chakrapani
were scholars and good friends.
His Guru made him undergo spiritual disciplines and taught him
Sanskrit grammar, philosophy and basic texts of Vedanta and other
holy books. It was here that Eknath studied the Jnaneshwari, Jnandeva's
commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, and his mastery of this classic
comes through in his writings. Janardana Swami was a state official,
and Eknath helped him in his official work.
Essentially, however, Janardana Swami was interested in his disciple's
spiritual progress and he took every opportunity to drive home a
lesson. On one occasion he asked Eknath to square up the accounts.
Eknath discovered that there was a discrepancy of one adhela (the
equivalent of one paisa) in the accounts, and he sat up all night
to rectify it. He danced with joy when the accounts were finally
squared up. Seeing his jubilation, his Guru remarked, "If you
have the same concentration and devotion for Lord Krishna, you will
realize the Truth and attain everlasting happiness."
When Eknath had completed his education, Guru and disciple went
on a pilgrimage. At Tryambakeshwar (near Nasik) they heard a discourse
on the four fundamental slokas of the Bhagavat Mahapurana (Canto
II 9:32-9:35) given by Pundit Chandroba in Sanskrit. Janardana Swami
asked his disciple Eknath to translate them into Marathi and to
write his own commentary, so that ordinary people could enjoy it.
Eknath did this, and the result was the Chatusloki-Bhagvat, his
first important work. Eknath was a great Guru-bhakta and he attributed
not just this first book but all his works to his Guru's inspiration,
invariably writing "Eka-Janardana" (Eknath of Janardana)
as his signature.
After his education, as per his Guru's instructions, Eknath settled
into a householder's life. He married Girijabai from Bijopur. She
proved to be a saintly woman, a lifelong companion and a great support.
Eknath is a remarkable example of a man who blended worldly life
and spiritual attainments. He lived in the world but was not of
it, and achieved complete renunciation in the midst of activity.
He was a prolific writer who wrote a number of abhangas (hymns)
and bharudas (short allegorical poems), besides philosophical and
devotional works. He spent his life spreading the gospel of Lord
Krishna among the masses, not in Sanskrit, but in Marathi, their
own language. This frequently brought him in conflict with the orthodox
sections of society.
His most important work is the Eknathi Bhagavat. It is his commentary
on Canto XI of the Bhagavat Mahapurana -- the dialogue between Lord
Krishna and Uddhava. Composed between 1570 and 1573, it was begun
in Paithan and completed in Varanasi. There is an interesting story
behind this. After the first five preliminary chapters had been
completed, one of his disciples took them to Varanasi and recited
them on the banks of the Ganges River. The pundits of Varanasi took
umbrage at what they called the "pollution" of the holy
text in the language of the shudras (the lowest caste). Eknath was
summoned to Varanasi and asked for an explanation. He requested
that he be given an opportunity to present his work before judgment
was passed. This was given reluctantly. In fact, the chief pundit
even kept a curtain between himself and Eknath, so that he would
not be polluted. Then Eknath started reciting his poem. So beautiful
was the melody, so profound the philosophy, and so moving the mystical
imageries created by him, that the audience of learned pundits became
ecstatic. The chief pundit tore down the curtain and requested him
to complete the work in Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges. After
completion, the work was paraded on the back of an elephant, through
the streets of Varanasi.
Like many poets-saints of the period, Sant Eknath creates a fusion
of bhakti (devotion) and advaita (non-duality). The reflection of
God in the soiled mirror of avidya (ignorance) is jiva (individual
soul), and in the clear mirror of vidya (knowledge) it is Shiva
-- the difference is not real. He emphasised the practice of bhajan
singing, nama-smarana (chanting the Lord's name), purity of conduct,
meditation, discharging one's duties, retirement into solitude from
time to time, and saguna bhakti (devotion to the Divine with a form)
leading to Nirguna (formless). His ideal was to see God everywhere
and in everything (Gita, Ch. IX, s 1:29-30).
Eknath's reformist views brought him into conflict not only with
orthodox pundits but also with his own family. His son Hari Pundit
was annoyed at his father's habit of preaching in Marathi and of
eating in low-caste homes. He went away on a pilgrimage to Varanasi
and didn't return. When Eknath followed him, Hari Pundit told him
the reason for his exile. With a heavy heart, Eknath promised to
give up his discourses and unorthodox ways. Hari Pundit returned
and gave discourses in Sanskrit, while Eknath remained silent. The
audience dwindled to near-zero while the people clamoured for Eknath's
discourses and kirtans. One day an old, low-caste widow came to
invite Eknath for a meal at her place. She desired to feed a thousand
Brahmins, but, being poor, could not do so.
Since she considered Eknath to be worth a thousand Brahmins, she
decided to feed him. Eknath turned to Hari Pundit, who was moved
by her plight. But Hari Pundit made two conditions: one, that he
would accompany Eknath; and two, that he himself would cook the
food. On the appointed day, the two of them went to the woman's
house and settled down to eat. Hari Pundit noticed that the woman
had slipped a dish that she had prepared onto Eknath's leaf plate.
He resented this but kept quiet. After finishing the meal, Eknath
told Hari Pundit to pick up the leaf plates, so as not to trouble
the old woman. Hari Pundit bent down to pick up Eknath's leaf plate.
As he picked it up, he found another plate beneath it. Perhaps he
had been served on two leaf plates. But below the second was a third.
Eventually, Hari Pundit had to pick up a thousand leaf plates! A
thunderstruck Hari Pundit realized his stupidity. His father was
worth a thousand Brahmins and more. He fell at his feet begging
forgiveness. Eknath forgave him saying, "Hari, you have learnt
the shastras, but not humility." Needless to say, after this
Eknath resumed his preaching and other activities.
Besides the Eknathi Bhagavat, he wrote the Rukmini-Swyamvar, the
story of Lord Krishna's marriage to Rukmini Devi. It is an allegorical
tale of the meeting of the jiva and Shiva, though in Maharashtra
it was popular as simply a story.
In 1583, Eknath renovated the samadhi (tomb) of Jnanadeva in Alandi.
In 1584 he completed editing the Jnaneshwari. In his day, there
were several interpolations on the Jnaneshwari and more than one
version was extant. The Jnaneshwari we read today is his edition.
He began writing the Bhavartha Ramayana, a Marathi translation of
the Ramayana, but took Mahasamadhi (left his body) in 1599 before
completing it. This parallels the story of the sage Valmiki: Scholars
believe that Valmiki never wrote the Uttar Kanda, but that it was
added later. Similarly, in Eknath's case, the Uttar Kanda was written
later by his disciples.
According to scholars, in Maharashtra, Eknath's place as philosopher-writer-saint
is second only to Jnanadeva's. His main achievement, outwardly,
was to spread Sanatana Dharma (the Eternal Religion) and its philosophy
down to the lowest stratum of society. As one of his biographers
puts it, "With Jnanadeva, philosophy reigned in the clouds;
with Eknath, it came down to earth and dwelt among the people."