Tulasidas was a prominent Bhakti poet of the medieval period (8th to 16th centuries CE). Considered as an avatar of Valmiki, he preferred Hindi to propagate devotion to Bhagwan Ramachandra. His Ramacharitamanas and Hanuman Chalisa are popular throughout the Hindi-speaking world. Ramacharitamanas has become a household name in north India. It would not be wrong to say that it has replaced the Valmiki Ramayan among the literate public. The discourses on Ram based on Tulasidas’s Ramayan draw crowds wherever it is recited; the narrator sometimes refers to Valmiki’s scripture. Ramcharitmanas, along with Sursagar by Surdas, succeeded in rejuvenating the shattered spirit of a beleagured India. Tulasidas wrote several other works like Vinayapatrika, Dohavali, Kavitavali, Vairagya Sandipani and others. Tulasidas reportedly uttered the name of Ram as soon as he was born. So he came to be known as Rambola – one who uttered the name of Ram. His other name was Tularam. He is, however, widely known as Tulasidas, the name he acquired after renouncing the world. Tulasidas wrote in a mix of Avadhi and Braj dialects.
Tulasidas came on the scene at a time when things were looking gloomy for India. There was no effective central ruling authority. This was not something new to India. It had been like that for a long time. There had been moments of glory under some of the Hindu dynasties. At the time of Tulasidas even this did not exist. The foreign conquerors from Central Asia continued with the practice of total warfare. Muslim rule based in Delhi was teetering on the brink of collapse like a pack of cards. A new invader, Babar, was waiting in the wings to provide that push. Tulasidas belonged to this momentous period in the history of northern India. Rajputs fought valiantly against the Muslim invaders but there was no unity among themselves. This proved to be their undoing, despite incredible acts of individual bravery.
Tularam was born in Rajapur village of Banda district, in modern-day Uttar Pradesh, on the seventh day of the bright half of the lunar month of Shravan in the Vikram Samvat year 1554. His parents were Pundit Atmaram Dube and Hulsi. The Dubes were Sarayuparin Brahmins. Tulasidas’s mother died when he was still a child. After casting the horoscope, his father found that Tularam was born under the Mula star, which, it is believed, brings bad luck to the parents. So, Pundit Dube, out of blind faith, abandoned the child and left Varanasi, where the family had resided after Tulasi’s birth, for good. Tulasidas mentioned this in Vinayapatrika, where he says that both his parents had abandoned him because of the malefic Mula star. That was the beginning of Tularam’s troubles. Soon, even his aged grandmother, who looked after him, died.
According to another version, it was his nurse, Chuniya, who looked after him at her native village of Haripur till he was aged five. Before her death, both of them used to rely on the charity of the villagers, and whatever the orphaned boy would get through begging. That made Tularam utterly dependent on the villagers for his livelihood. He learnt to subsist on whatever he could get from the villagers and regularly attended bhajan and arti in the local Hanuman Mandir, which had virtually become his home. There, he came in contact with Pundit Narharidas. He was a very learned man who delivered discourses on the Ramayan. Tularam attended the recitals without fail.
Narharidas was impressed by the boy’s piety and bearing. On hearing of Tularam’s situation, he took pity on him. At the conclusion of the recital, Narharidas asked the boy whether he would like to become his disciple. Tularam accepted the generous offer and bid farewell to his mandir-cum-home with a heavy heart. Narharidas imparted all the knowledge he had of the Vedas, Upanishads and other shastras to him. Tulasidas turned out to be an apt pupil, he learnt everything the guru taught. He learnt to sing devotional songs; in this, he even surpassed the guru. After his education was over, the guru found a suitable bride for him.
According to another version, it was actually Sesha Sanatana, a friend of Narharidas, who was Tularam’s teacher in Varanasi, where he learnt Sanskrit grammar, the four Vedas, the six Vedangas, Jyotish and the six systems of Hindu philosophy for a period of 15 to 16 years.
Mahipati in Bhaktavijaya notes that Tularam was a contemporary of Akbar. Tularam’s father was in the service of Akbar and Tularam is reported to have been a friend of Todar Mal, Akbar’s finance minister. So, Tularam belonged to a settled period in our history. Other scholars similarly adjust the name of the Sultan as per the chronology they choose to follow.
According to some scholars, Tularam was born in 1532 CE and lived for 126 years. Despite a difficult childhood, we hardly meet an instance in his life when he sought any official favours. He maintained a safe distance from the court. The Ain-I Akbari, a reliable account of Akbar’s reign, does not mention Tularam. Considering the fact that the Mughal emperor was a great patron of letters and encouraged composers, this absence is rather difficult to explain.
According to Mahipati, once Tularam was forced to join Akbar when he was setting out on a tour. Tularam was reluctant to leave home but he had to go as it was the king’s wish. During Tularam’s absence, his wife, Mamata Devi, also called Ratnavali, received a message from her father that her mother was seriously ill and longed to see her daughter. After getting the permission of her in-laws, Mamata Devi set out to her parents’ house. The messenger, however, told her on the way that the mother’s illness was only an excuse to make her visit her parents as she had rarely visited them since marriage as Tularam would never let her go out of sight.
On returning and learning of her absence, Tularam left hastily in the dead of night to join his wife at her father’s place. It was raining heavily and the Yamuna was in flood. To cross it he got on to a dead body to cross the river and by hanging on to a serpent reached Ratnavali’s room on the upper storey. Such was his infatuation for her. She felt sorry to see her husband in such a plight. The wise Mamata Devi taunted him for this blind passion for her. In an outburst of spiritual fervour, she inquired of her husband how much better it would have been if he had displayed half as much love for Ram as he was showing for her body, which was but a bag of skin and bones. From then onwards, Tularam came to be known as Tulasidas. The saint-poet spent nearly 12 years in meditation after that rebuke.