Namadev or Namadeo, also called Nama (1270-1350 CE), belonged to Pandharpur, the celebrated nursery of saints, in Maharashtra. Pandharpur is also called Pandhari and Pandurangapura. Its older name is Paundarikakshetra. It appears Namadev established a rapport with God while quite young. He belonged to a deeply religious family. His parents, Damashet and Gonai, would offer naivedya to Keshavraj, a form of Bhagwan Krishna housed in a Vaishnav mandir near Narsi, their ancestral village in the Vidarbha area, every day. But one day they had to go out and asked the five-year-old Namadev to make the offering. The boy agreed and offered milk to the deity. He waited a long time to see if Keshavraj would drink the milk. In his childlike innocence, he did not realize that all sanctified offerings would revert to the devotee and that God does not drink or eat them. But the young devotee was bent on making the deity drink what had been offered. The boy after waiting for a long time shouted to Keshavraj that if he would not drink the milk offering, he would end his life in protest. The deity was really in a fix. He did not want the innocent boy to carry out his threat. So he agreed to the boy’s demand and drank the milk.
When Namadev’s mother returned home, she was in for a surprise. She found the milk missing! When she asked her son about the milk, she got the reply that God had drunk it all. Namadev explained to his surprised mother how the divine phenomena had happened. In disbelief, she repeated to her husband the incredible story. Next day, the boy was asked to offer milk to Keshavraj; unknown to Namadev his father was watching him and he found the story to be true.
So this was the boy’s tryst with God. This initial encounter catapulted him into a front rank saint-composer and a great devotee of Panduranga Vithala (Krishna), the presiding deity of Pandharpur. He was the family deity of Namadev and had been worshipped by his ancestors since 1150 CE. They would unfailingly visit Pandharpur from their native village on every Ekadashi in the months of Ashadh and Kartik. We have scant information about Namadev and his family. A number of abhangs (verses) have been written by several persons calling themselves Namadev. They are called Namadev abhangs; we can place reliance only on what had been written by Namadev, the son of Damashet and Gonai, himself.
According to one source, Namadev led a life of crime to begin with but reformed later on. His gang had once killed 84 soldiers. After committing the crime, when he visited the Amvadhya mandir, he found a child crying because he was hungry. The child’s mother began to curse the fellow who had killed her husband along with 83 other soldiers, resulting in the child’s plight. On hearing the woman’s sad tale, Namadev became repentant, as he had been the cause of the family’s misery. He decided to reform himself, so the story goes.
A story is told about his concern for animals. Once he was carrying dry rotis. A dog got hold of them and began to run away. Namadev ran after the dog with ghee so that it could have a proper meal!
There are two versions about his occupation. According to one version Namadev was a tailor. According to another report, the family were into the cloth business and Damashet owned a cloth shop. The young Namadev tried his hand at business but he turned out to be an utter failure.
One thing is certain, Namadev suffered a lot because of his low birth. The Brahmin priests of Pandharpur mandir would not allow him to enter through the front entrance of the mandir. Unmindful of this, Namadev once entered the place, dancing in ecstasy. He was subsequently thrown out. He has mentioned the incident in one of his abhangs, “O Lord! You are responsible for my birth in a low caste which has brought insult on me.’’ Thereafter, it is believed that God responded to his abhang by turning the front side of the temple towards him and told him to go to the rear of the mandir to offer prayers.
As his faith in Vithala increased by the day, there was a corresponding decline in his interest in worldly matters. This worried his parents, and after Namadev married, it turned out to be a constant source of concern to his wife, Rajai, too. Namadev’s apathy for his family had reached to such an extent that Gonai once actually quarrelled with Lord Panduranga for “spoiling” her son. But these matters did not affect Namadev in the least and he was absorbed in his daily worship of Vithala.
Things were becoming difficult. Namadev had four children and Rajai was finding it extremely difficult to feed them. Namadev continued to be his usual pious self. He would not earn a penny, and the load of supporting the family fell on his wife’s shoulders. This state of affairs is reflected in the abhangs composed by Rajai and her son, Gonda. Namadev is called Kutumb Kavi as his entire family, including the maid, composed poetry. Poor Rajai would feed her children with the little food she could manage to get and starve herself. In sheer desperation, she tried to kill herself and her children. It is said Panduranga intervened and saved the family from mass drowning when she threw herself in the river along with her kids. But she did not give up her efforts to put an end to her wretched existence. She tried to poison herself. But the poisonous stuff, the carcass of a snake which she tried to cook, turned into gold. It was another miraculous save by Panduranga’s grace.
Meanwhile, there was no change in Namadev’s routine. Unmindful of the family’s plight, he would compose abhangs and sing them attracting large crowds. As time passed he acquired distinguished company in the form of Jnanadev or Jnaneshvar. Both of them undertook a pilgrimage. In the course of their yatra, they came to Delhi. There, Namadev had a harrowing experience. The Muslim Sultan was angry at Namadev’s popularity. He wanted to show him in a bad light. So, he killed a cow and ordered the saint to restore her to life as part of testing his greatness as a worshipper of Hari or get converted to Islam. Namadev was least bothered about himself, more than anything else, he was eager to save the cow. He sought four days’ time and began to pray intently to Hari. At the end of the fourth day, the severed head of the cow was joined to its carcass and the cow rose as if nothing had happened to the delight of Namadev and the people of Delhi. The Sultan realized that Namadev was what people claimed him to be – a genuine devotee of God. Both Namadev and Jnaneshvar founded the Varkari sect of Vaishnavism; a Bhakti Sampradaya. Pandharpur has been the centre of the sect. The followers of the sect make it a point to attend the mandir regularly. They are vegetarians and adhere to the truth. The followers should observe fast on Ekadashi day and carry a mala (rosary). Varkari means a timekeeper. They got the name because of their adherence to a regular schedule.
According to one version, Jnaneshvar had little time left for promoting the Varkari sect after writing the Jnanesvari, and it was left to Namadev to propagate it through his kirtans. It is said Namadev and Jnanadev met several saints of the Bhakti Sampradaya during their tirtha-yatra.
In one of his abhangs Namadev says, “The Veda has to speak by thy might and the sun has to move round; such is the might of thee, the Lord of the universe! Knowing this essential truth, I have surrendered myself to thee. By thy might it is that the clouds have to pour down rain, mountains to rest firm and the wind to blow. Nothing moves at all (without thee). Oh Lord Pandurang! Thou art the cause of all.”
It will thus be seen that, though Namadev worshipped the deity at Pandharpur, he had full knowledge of the true nature of God, as given in treatises like the Upanishads; and it was this God that he tried to attain.
Namadev sings, “Your mind is full of vices. What is the use of the pilgrimages you make? What is the use of austere practices, if there is no repentance? The sins resulting from a mental act cannot be effaced by the highest holy place (literally: the father of the holy places). The essence of the matter is very simple: Sin is effaced by repentance.”
After spending his life in promoting devotion to God, the saint passed away at age 80.
Bhattacharya, Dr Vivek. The Spirit of Indian Culture. Delhi: Metropolitan Book Company.
Mahipati. Kalyan Bhakta Charitank, Bhaktavijaya (English translation by Prof. N.R. Godbole). Gorakhpur: Gita Press.
Bhandarkar, R.G. Vaisnavism, Saivism and Minor Religious Systems. New Delhi & Madras: Asia Educational Services, 1995.