Kabir, (15th century), was the first one to draw inspiration from both Hinduism and Islam. His numerous songs breathe full conviction of the unity of all paths to God. He raises questions that make man perpetually unsure of his dogmatic beliefs. He was the most outstanding disciple of Swami Ramananda from whom he imbibed the message of universal love preached by Ramanuja. With his tremendous popularity he could have easily established a sect himself, but he did not, (though his followers did, after his death) nor did he accept any sectarian thinking. As an experimentor with truth, he spent much of his time in prayer and contemplation. And when he spoke out, he spoke out his mind fearlessly. His songs reverberate with his spiritual experiences and visions. His lucid but brief lyrics of devotion, for the first time composed in the local language, Hindi, rather than in elitist Sanskrit, reached the remotest villages throughout the country. He was a rebel against everything unspiritual and against all ritualistic norms in both Hinduism and Islam.
Ravidas, a cobbler-disciple of Swami Ramananda, whose hymns reflect the crystal-like purity of his heart. About thirty of his songs have found a place in the holy scripture of the Sikhs. He is said to have initiated Mirabai, the mystic royal-poet-singer saint of Rajasthan, in the art of devotional music. Sankara-Deva, whose prolific writings in the local language brought home the tenets of Vaishnavism to the north-east territories; and Talapaka Annamacharya, who is said to have composed more than 32000 songs on the Lord of Tirumalai Hills -- all of the 15th century.
Guru Nanak (15th and early 16th century), the founder of Sikhism. He boldly practised and preached equality of man before God -- 'The One Great and True Being'. He rebelled against the caste system and defied brahminical rituals. As a great prophet with a vision of finding God in man and aiming at building a classless and casteless society, he went from place to place singing the glory of God and spreading his divine message of love through his own compositions. He had miraculous powers, several manifestations of which during his lifetime are recorded. His descriptions of the Almighty come from his own Self-realization and form a beautiful synthesis of the Upanishads,mystic experiences across the world, and the teachings of the Buddha, Jesus Christ and Prophet Muhammad. He acknowledged Kabir as his spiritual guide.
Vallabhacharya and Surdas (both of the 15th and early 16th centuries). The first was a master-teacher who propagated the path of Grace to God, not ofmerging in Him. Eight of his disciples constitute what is called Ashta-chaap (Eight reprints!) The foremost of these was Surdas, the master-composer, singer and poet. Endowed with uniqure inner vision in spite of his physical blindness, he describes in thousands of songs, Lord Krishna and his exploits, as if he is seeing them directly.
Krishna Chaitanya, also called Gouranga (of the 16th century) showed by his own example and by preaching, the importance of the recitation of God's names. The sincerity of the overpowering religious experience that Chaitanya radiated could not but move millions, scholars and laymen alike, irrespective of caste or creed., to partake in the ecstasy of his nama-samkirtana, which took place incessantly all his life and which became the inspiration for the modern Krishna-Consciousness revival.
Narsi Mehta (16th century), the great Gujarati poet-saint, introduced philosophical poetry into the bhakti world of Gujarat. He composed about 740 songs. Vaishnava janato, the prayer song popularized by Mahatma Gandhi, is a composition of Narsi Mehta's. He went through several misfortunes but not once was this exemplary devotee forsaken by his Lord. For this devotee the Lord appeared in person before one of his creditors and honoured his cheque.
Purandaradasa (16th century), in whose wealthy life the spiritual enlightenment came by a miraculous intervention by the Lord Himself. He was one of the earliest composers of devotional music in the vernacular. He is regarded as the originator of Carnatic music. His compositions on the Lord of Pandarpur, all set to music by himself, number more than 2000. They are most popular, wherever either music or devotion is the theme, even far beyond the boundaries of the Kannada territory. The Lord put him to the severest test by subjecting him to a nasty scandal and, finally, when the law was all set to have him publicly whipped, at the crucial moment the whip was simply snatched away by the Lord Himself in the form of the Vithala idol of Pandarpur and Purandara dasa stood redeemed.
February 3, 1999
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Copyright V. Krishnamurthy
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