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Tulsidas

Category: Poet

 

Tulsidas ([Tulasīdāsa – Sanskrit; Tulsīdās, - Hindi; born 1497/1532– died 1623) was a Hindu poet-saint, humanist and reformer, renowned for his devotion to Rama.

He was a member of the Bhakti movement and also one of the Saguna poets, along with Mirabai and Surdas.  He expressed much of his philosophy via his poetry,
for example:

Ramacharitamanas
I recognise only one relationship: devotion.
Caste, kinship, lineage, piety, power, wealth, strength, connections, virtue, achievements -
a man with all these but without devotion
is like a cloud without water

 

The classic tale of Ram, the Ramayana, was framed in Sanskrit by the poet Valmiki some two thousand years ago.  Sanskrit, however, was the language for gods and Brahmins, not for the ordinary person and it is only due to Tulsidas, through his version – the Ramacharitamanas – that this epic stayed alive “a verse epic in the eastern Hindi dialect of Avadhi that plumbs the depths of what its title calls The spiritual lake of the Acts of Ram”.

The impact of Tulsidas and his works on the art, culture and society in India is widespread and is seen to date in the Ramlila plays [Tulsidas’s folk-theatre adaption of the Ramayana], Hindustani classical music, popular music, and television series.

Songs of the Saints of India – Professor John Stratton Hawley
Tulsidas is possibly the establishment saint of Benares and indeed of all north India.  Almost universally assumed to be a Brahmin, Tulsi was in truth a true bhakti – a poet whose language and concerns tied him to people of all castes.  In the tension between his brahminhood and his bhakti lies the power he has wielded ever since he began chanting the manas some four hundred years ago.

Works

Upstream-from-Tulsi-Ghat-Varanasi

Tulsidas spent most of his life in the city of Varanasi.

The Tulsi Ghat on the Ganges River in Varanasi is named after him and he founded the Sankatmochan Temple dedicated to Hanuman in Varanasi.

Tulsidas also started composing poetry in Varanasi and initially used Sanskrit.  But after he had a dream, in which he was instructed to compose poetry in the vernacular instead of Sanskrit, he moved to Ayodhya and composed his poetry in Awadhi.

Twelve works are widely considered by biographers to be written by Tulsidas, six major works and six minor works. Besides these twelve works, four more works are believed to be composed by Tulsidas.  Based on the language of the works, they have been classified as follows–

Awadhi works

 

The Awadhi works are as follows:

  • Ramacharitamanas (रामचरितमानस, 1574–1576), literally The Holy Lake of Acts of Rama, is the Awadhi rendering of the Ramayana narrative. Tulsidas is probably best known as the author of this epic, a retelling based on Rama's life.  It is the longest and earliest work of Tulsidas, and consists of around 12,800 lines divided into 1073 stanzas, which are groups of Chaupais separated by Dohas or Sorthas. It is divided into seven books.  The work is composed in 18 metres which include ten Sanskrit metres and eight Prakrit metres.  Tulsidas started composing the Ramcharitmanas in Ayodhya in 1631 (1575 CE).  He composed the epic over ‘two years, seven months and twenty-six days’! and completed the work in 1633 (1577 CE).
  • Ramalala Nahachhu (रामलला नहछू), is a work of 20 verses composed in the Sohar metre.
  • Barvai Ramayana (बरवै रामायण, 1612), , is an abridged rendering of the Ramayana consisting of 69 verses composed in the Barvai metre.
  • Parvati Mangal (पार्वती मंगल),  is a work of 164 verses describing the penance of Parvati and the marriage of Parvati and Shiva.
  • Janaki Mangal (जानकी मंगल), is a work of 216 verses describing the episode of marriage of Sita and Rama from the Ramayana.
  • Ramagya Prashna (रामाज्ञा प्रश्न),  is a work related to both Ramayana and Jyotisha (astrology). It consists of seven Kands or books, each of which is divided into seven Saptakas or Septets of seven Dohas each. Thus it contains 343 Dohas in all.

Braja works

 

The Braja works are as follows:

  • Dohavali (दोहावली, 1581), is a work consisting of 573 miscellaneous Doha and Sortha verses mainly in Braja with some verses in Awadhi. The verses are aphorisms on topics related to tact, political wisdom, righteousness and the purpose of life.
  • Kavitavali or sahitya ratna or ratna Ramayan (1608–1614), literally Collection of Kavittas, is a Braja rendering of the Ramayana, composed entirely in metres of the Kavitta family.  It consists of 325 verses including 183 verses in the Uttarkand. Like the Ramcharitmanas, it is divided into seven Kands or books and many episodes in this work are different from the Ramcharitmanas.
  • Gitavali (गीतावली), is a Braja rendering of the Ramayana in songs. All the verses are set to Ragas of Hindustani classical music and are suitable for singing. It consists of 328 songs divided into seven Kands or books. Many episodes of the Ramayana are elaborated while many others are abridged.
  • Krishna Gitavali or Krishnavali (कृष्णगीतावली,  is a collection of 61 songs in honour of Krishna.
  • Vairagya Sandipini (वैराग्य संदीपनी, -  is a philosophical work of 60 verses which describe the state of Jnana (realisation) and Vairagya (dispassion), the nature and greatness of saints, and moral conduct. It consists of 46 Dohas, 2 Sorathas and 12 Chaupai metres.
  • Vinaya Patrika (विनयपत्रिका), literally Petition of Humility, is the last work of Tulsidas and consists of 279 stanzas or hymns. It is considered to be the second best work of Tulsidas after the Ramcharitmanas, and is regarded as important from the viewpoints of philosophy, erudition, and eulogistic and poetic style.  It is also one of his most poignant works. In it, he beseeches Rama to give him Bhakti.  Bhakti refers to one of the possible paths of moksha as in bhakti marga mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita and is achieved via love with visualisation.  This rather sadly implies that Tulsidas never actually achieved this, but longed for it.   The 45th stanza of the Vinaypatrika is sung as the evening Aarti by many Hindus.

Popularly attributed works

 

The following four works are popularly attributed to Tulsidas:

  • Hanuman Chalisa (हनुमान चालीसा), is an Awadhi work of 40 Chaupais and two Dohas in obeisance to Hanuman. Popular belief holds the work to be authored by Tulsidas, and it contains his signature, though some authors do not think the work was written by him. It is one of the most read short religious texts in northern India, and is recited by millions of Hindus on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
  • Sankatmochan Hanumanashtak (संकटमोचन हनुमानाष्टक), - is an Awadhi work of eight verses in the Mattagajendra metre, devoted to Hanuman.
  • Hanuman Bahuka (हनुमान बाहुक), is a Braja work of 44 verses believed to have been composed by Tulsidas when he suffered acute pain in his arms at an advanced age. Tulsidas describes the pain in his arms and also prays to Hanuman for freedom from the suffering.
  • Tulsi Satsai (तुलसी सतसई) - is a work in both Awadhi and Braja and contains 747 Dohas divided in seven Sargas or cantos. The verses are the same as those in Dohavali and Ramagya Prashna but the order is different.

Life

A vast edifice of legend and myth has built up around Tulsidas, though he himself has recorded only a few facts about events of his life.  Priyadas in particular, writing 200 years later, embellished Tulsidas’s biography significantly adding numerous extra stories - the power of working miracles, the ability to bring back a dead Brahmin to life, the ability to conjure up armies of monkeys and the ability to get statues to move!  Other sources have added the ability to have visions and hallucinations and these seem to be better substantiated.

Until the late nineteenth century, the two widely known ancient sources on Tulsidas' life were the Bhaktamal written by Nabhadas between 1583 and 1639, and a commentary on Bhaktamal entitled Bhaktirasbodhini written by the afore mentioned Priyadas in 1712.

During the 1920s, two additional biographies of Tulsidas were found in old manuscripts – the Mula Gosain Charit written by Veni Madhav Das in 1630 and the Gosain Charit written by Dasanidas (also known as Bhavanidas) around 1770.  Veni Madhav Das was a disciple and contemporary of Tulsidas.

In the 1950s a fifth ancient account was published based on an old manuscript, the Gautam Chandrika composed by Krishnadatta Misra of Varanasi in 1624.  Krishnadatta Misra's father was a close companion of Tulsidas.

Although all these five works are often used to produce modern biographies of Tulsidas, that by Veni Madhav Das and Krishnadatta Misra are possibly the only two reliable sources.

Early life

 

Tulsidas was born in Rajapur (Chitrakoot), a village on the banks of the river Yamuna, on the border between the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.  There is a difference of opinion among biographers regarding his year of birth – suggestions include 1554 (1497 CE); 1589 (1532 CE); and 1600 (1543 CE). 

According to the Mula Gosain Charita, he was born under the Abhuktamūla constellation, which according to Jyotisha (Hindu astrology) “causes immediate danger to the life of the father”.  Due to the inauspicious events at the time of his birth, he was abandoned by his parents and sent away with Chuniya, a female servant.  Chuniya took the child to her village of Haripur and looked after him.

After her death, a Vaishnava ascetic of Ramananda's monastic order took him in as an initiate and gave him the name Tulsidas.  The ascetic also started to narrate the Ramayana to Tulsidas.  As he was very young, Tulsidas did not understand it, but it clearly affected him at a more emotional level

And then, I heard the same narrative from my Guru in a Sukarkhet (Varaha Kshetra). I did not understand it then, since I was totally without cognition in childhood. Ramcharitmanas 1.30 (ka).

 

Tulsidas further mentions in the Ramcharitmanas that his guru repeatedly narrated the Ramayana to him, until eventually he began to understand it.  This exposure to the Ramayana so early in life was to have a profound influence on all Tulsidas’s poems and approach to religion. 

Tulsidas later went to the sacred city of Varanasi and studied Sanskrit grammar, the Vedas, and other sacred texts and philosophical works, for around 16 years under the guidance of his guru Shesha Sanatana, a renowned scholar on literature and philosophy.  The Maharajah of Benares/Varanasi used to allow his palace to be used for the month of ram lila – The Play of Ram – and there are indications that Tulsidas also saw these re-enactments

Songs of the Saints of India – Professor John Stratton Hawley
All month long people arrive in boatful after groaning boatful to see the god-king Ram, played by a Brahmin boy, abandon the throne that is rightfully his, wander through the forests of India in fourteen years of exile and return at last to be crowned in glory.  Sometimes he is accompanied only by his courageous beautiful wife Sita and his fiercely loyal younger brother Laksman – roles also taken by Brahmin youths.  At other times, however, he is surrounded by an army of monkey warriors led by its greatest devotee, the monkey general Hanuman.  With the help of these animal allies he is able to defeat the demon king Ravan in his island fastness.  Ravan’s thirty foot high bamboo and paper form bursts into a tower of fire as Ram’s forces set the torch to his capital and thereby free Sita from her captivity.  On the last day of the cycle, Ram returns to be crowned.

We can see from this that the story is an allegory of the spiritual path – masculine and feminine, demons, islands, monkeys, etc, but wonderfully told to be very memorable, especially to a child.

Mid life

 

After completing his studies, Tulsidas returned to his birthplace Rajapur seeking out his parents, but found his family was no more, with both parents dead.  He then settled down and married [according to the Mula Gosain Charita]  a lady called Ratnavali in 1583 (1526 CE). They had a son named Tarak who died as a small child.

Songs of the Saints of India – Professor John Stratton Hawley
Tulsidas is said to have loved his wife exceedingly and when one time he returned from a trip to find that she had gone to her parents’ home, as is the Hindu custom for young brides at certain times of the year, he nearly went out of his mind.  Immediately he raced off to find her

Much later accounts have Tulsidas becoming a Sadhu, but there is nothing to bear this out as fact in contemporary accounts.  We do know however, that Tulsidas spent most of his time at Varanasi, Prayag, Ayodhya, and Chitrakuta but visited many other places including Badrinath, Dwarka, Puri and Rameshwaram and the Himalayas.   He also visited the Manasarovar lake in current-day Tibet.

Last compositions

 

Around Vikram 1664 (1607 CE), Tulsidas was afflicted by acute pain all over his body, especially in his arms. He then composed the Hanuman Bahuk, where he describes his bodily pain and suffering in several stanzas. Later he was also afflicted by ‘Bartod boils’. Benares was frequently visited by the plague and it appears that Tulsidas both caught the plague and died from it – in some distress.

Tulsidas died at the Assi Ghat on the bank of the river Ganga in the Shraavan (July–August) month of the year Vikram 1680 (1623 CE). Like the year of his birth, traditional accounts and biographers do not agree on the exact date of his death.

Songs of the Saints of India – Professor John Stratton Hawley
There is something genuine and significant about Tulsidas that emerges from his own writings; his ecumenity.  In a more considered way than any of the other poets in the Bhakti tradition, Tulsi was a theological bridge builder, someone interested in spanning the gaps between several of the important religious communities of the day and in the course of doing so, between the gods themselves….

 

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