The name of Tukaram brings to one’s mind the murti of Panduranga Vithal (Krishna) of Pandharpur. They are inseparable. In one of the thousands of abhangas (the word means ‘indestructible’) or bhajans by Tukaram, he has written, “To praise anyone except Panduranga is to me a crime equivalent to killing a Brahmin… If I swerve from my single-minded devotion to Vishnu, may my tongue be torn into thousands of pieces.’’ In another abhanga, he proclaims, “I am an inhabitant of Vaikuntha, I have come here from Vaikuntha.” The reason for his coming from Vaikuntha is explained in the following words, “(I have come here) to sound the drum of Dharma, to destroy Kaliyuga, so as to make devotees take the name of Bhagwan amid acclamations of ‘Victory, victory’.”
The murti of Panduranga Vithal in Pandharpur stands on a brick with arms resting on his hips. It is said Bhagwan Krishna once visited his devotee, Pundarika. Since he was busy serving his parents, Pundarika offered a brick to the Lord to stand on; which he did. When the devotee was through with his filial service, he met Bhagwan Krishna. He asked the Lord to stay at Pandharpur permanently, hence the posture.
Tukaram (1608-1649 CE) inherited his love for Vithal as a proud family heritage from his ancestor, Vishvambhar Buva, who preceded him by several generations, and his parents, Bolhoba and Kankai, who lived in Dehu, near Pune in Maharashtra. The followers of Tukaram claim a glorious descent for the saint. They insist he had previously been born as Prahlad, who was protected by Lord Nrusinha, Angad during the time of Bhagwan Ram and Uddhav, who served Bhagwan Krishna. He is also believed to be an incarnation of Namdev (1270-1320 CE).
Tukaram’s birth was also special. According to legend, Lord Hari, addressing his devotees in Vaikuntha, said, “In the family of Vishvambhar there is now a saint name Bolhoba; I am resolved to present him with a son who shall be a world saviour and world teacher.” Hari then led Namdev aside and reminded him that he had never finished the 1000 million abhangas he had promised to write; this then would be his “opportunity to assume the flesh again and finish the task”. That is the story regarding the birth of the saint.
Tukaram’s predecessors treated their spiritual legacy as a priceless one, but the saint surpassed all of them in this respect. He gave up everything for Bhagwan Vithal, including a prosperous business, so that he could serve him better. Even when his business declined and collapsed, Tukaram’s faith in Hari remained as firm as ever. His eighth ancestor, Vishvambhar, who following his mother’s advice, visited Pandharpur every fortnight for nine months, used to go to the shrine with a glad heart but felt very sad on the return trip. Vishvambhar was friendly to sadhus and Brahmins whom he would feed on a regular basis. He was an honest businessman, a trait inherited by Tukaram. On his first visit Vishvambhar was accompanied by four companions. They walked to Pandharpur singing bhajans. When Vishvambhar had darshan of Panduranga Vithal in the mandir he recalled the lives and lilas of mahatmas like Pundarik, Namdev and Chokhamela (a Mahar (lower caste) devotee of Vithal), and lost bodily consciousness. Such had been his ecstasy on seeing the serene murti of Vithal.
When Vithal realized his devotee’s difficulty in coming to Pandharpur every two weeks, he appeared to Vishvambhar in a dream and told him that he would himself come to Dehu, so that the devotee could worship with ease. According to legend, Vishvambhar went to a mango grove on the outskirts of Dehu with 50 to 100 villagers as directed in the dream. At the indicated spot the group found fragrant flowers, herbal plants and tulsi leaves. They started digging and found a beautiful murti of Vithal clad in pitambar, with a tulsi garland round the neck and also a murti of Rukmini. The devotees started shouting ‘Jai’ out of sheer joy. Vishvambhar took the murtis to the village and installed Vithal with great enthusiasm. This is how Vithal came to Dehu and it became an important centre of pilgrimage.