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The Abhang Tradition ? an unbroken line
Pandharpur on the river Bheema in Maharashtra is home to the Panduranga Temple, which is believed to be over 500 years old. Its unique icon of Vishnu as Panduranga standing on a brick and his arms resting on his waist, accompanied by Rukmini or Rakumai as she is locally referred to, has been the source of inspiration for the bhakti movement in the western part of India.
Legend has it that Lord Krishna came to Pandharpur to give darshan to his devotee Pundalika. At that time Pundalika?s father was sleeping with his head on his son?s lap. Unwilling to disturb his parent?s slumber, Pundalika asked the Lord to wait a while, which He did by standing on a brick. As he stood on a brick He was henceforth referred to as Vitthala. In local parlance He is also affectionately referred to as Vithoba.
With the development of the place as a pilgrimage center, it became the practice for people in neighbouring towns to go on foot to Pandharpur in large groups chanting the name of the Lord and singing His praise. This is called the Dindi and even now the largest such group proceeds from Alandi near Pune to Pandharpur. This pilgrimage was something that all devotees of the Lord desired to perform once in their life and legend has it that when the harassed housewife Sakubai was unable to do so, the Lord took her place in her household, enabling her to proceed on the tour. It was considered particularly auspicious on all Ekadasi (11th day from the full/new moon) days, more particularly on Ekadasis occurring in the months of Ashada (June-July) and Kartika (October-November). Such a traveller was called a Varakari, vara meaning frequent and kari meaning performer. A Varakari is one who is a strict vegetarian, of humble speech and action and ever engrossed in singing Hari?s glory. Their way of singing Marati abhangs, written by saints like Gnaneshwar, Ekanath, Thukaram is known as ?VARAKARI SAMPRADAYA?.
Historically, the Varakari Sampradaya appears to have begun around the 12th Century. This was the time when people had begun to question the importance of Sanskrit as a means of communicating with God. At the same time, the Mohammedan influence was rising and many were being converted. Time was propitious for the birth of the Bhakti cult that stood for building a relationship with Godhead through devotion, love and absolute surrender. Prayers were addressed in everyday language. The harbinger of this change was Sant Jnaneshwar (1271-93AD) who composed the Jnaneshwari, a 9000 verse commentary on the Gita. Set in simple language, it questioned the caste system and declared the equality of all men before God. Though he was ostracized, the Bhakti movement had begun, with Namdev (1270-1350AD), a tailor, Vishobha Kechar, a grocer, Janabai, a maid servant, Goroba, a potter and many others from diverse backgrounds who began composing songs and verses in praise of their Vithoba.
In the 16th Century appear Sant Tukaram(1588-1649AD). Born at Dehu, he preferred a life of poverty dedicated to worshipping Vitthala and composed a number of songs called the Abhangs ? meaning indestructible. These strengthened the Namasankirtana and Varakari sampradaya immensely. Sant Eknath (1548-99 AD) too did the same.Many miracles are ascribed to Tukaram and it is believed that he was taken to heaven in his corporeal form. The Abhangs became a means of prayer as the devotees trekked their way to Pandharpur. They were set to simple tunes and were meant for singing in chorus with a leader. Sant Ramdas (1608-82AD), who was Shivaji?s Guru, took the Abhangs to South India, where the leader of the Bhajana Sampradaya, Sadguru Swamin absorbed them and made them integral to the tradition in the South.