Gosvami Tulsidas, the Saint – composer of Ramacharita – Manasa, was the most illustrious saint in Rama Bhakti tradition whose life and works have influenced millions of men and women in India and abroad. His matchless devotion to Sri Rama and spiritually uplifting writings are a source of inspiration and succour to all devotees. His compositions such as Ramacharita –manasa and Hanuman Chalisa are committed to memory and sung by countless Hindus, especially in the Hindi speaking areas. This book is an overview of his life, including many legends attributed to him, as also his literary works and a summary of his philosophy.
Rama darasa basa sab nara naaree
Janu kari karini chale taki baaree
Ban siya rama samujhi mana maaheen
Saanuja bharata payaadehin jaaheen
[swayed by the urge to have Rama’s darshana, all men and women keep walking as one seeing water, elephants - males and females – rush to quench their thirst. Thinking in their minds that Sita and Rama were(suffering hardship) in forest, Bharata and his brother are going on foot.]
1. Valmiki: The Adi Kavi
Valmiki Ramayana, in its prologue, says that Lord brahma, the Creator, while blessing Valmiki, the first (and the foremost) poet of classical Sanskrit literature, had prophesied that the immortal story of Rama (Ramayana or Ramakatha) shall flourish in the worlds lokeshu – as longs as mountains on earth stand and rivers flow.
Yaavatsthaasyanti girayah saritashcha maheetale
Taavadramayana katha lokeshu pracharishyati
Although Ramakatha, in the form Akkyaanas [tales] and Gaathaas [singing of religious verses] was well – known even before Valimiki and, as some scholars suggest allusions to it are implicit in some of the Vedic mantras, it was left to Valmiki to compose and hand it down in manner that brought it such popularity in our country and the world at large that several millennia later, even today, it remains the source book on Ramakatha. It has inspired across the world and is regarded with reverence and admiration even today. In fact, Brahma’s blessing was preceded by his command to the seer – poet that he must narrate the history of Rama in entirety – krtsnam – as heard by him from narada in summary form. Swami Vivekananda says:
‘...This Rama has been presented before us by the great sage Valmiki. No language can be purer, non chaster, none more beautiful and at the same time simpler than the language in which the great poet has depicted the life of Rama.
And Camilli Bulcke, the well-known Christian Hindi Scholar from Belgium, supplements:
‘Ramakatha Commenced its word wide triumph the day Valmiki composed the Adi Ramayana...Valmiki taught Ramayana to his disciple and instructed them to go about reciting it among the seers and the kings and the common people.
Since Valmiki then, the pristine river of Ramakatha has been flowing – is being narrated, composed, retold, rewritten, sung, staged, filmed and serialised on TV in practically all languages of our country and many of them of the world. The Story of Rama and Sita, in myriad versions, is well known throughout the globe. Goswami Tulasidas says,’men and women of discerning wisdom do not wonder at these different versions because just as Rama is infinite, so are his virtuous acts and immeasurable is the expanse of his divine – play.
While without doubt, India remains indebted to the Adikavi, it is Tulasi who, above all his predecessors, contemporaries and successors, is responsible for the fame, renown, popularity, veneration, sanctity and spread of Ramakatha. His Manasa has become synonymous with Ramakatha. Rama’s devotees across the country believe that Tulasi was the reincarnation of Valmiki. Swami Akhandananda Saraswati, an eminent monk and scholar, represents their sentiments as under:
‘Sri Hanuman had elaborately gauged the capability and eligibility of the great seer Valmiki whose love for Sri Rama, he judged, was unquestionable. Sri Hanuman also knew that Valmiki was not afraid of the transmigratory character of the world. Sri Hanuman, therefore, instructed the sage to reincarnate himself in Kaliyuga and spread the virtuous divine-plays of the Lord among the common masses. Sri Valmiki accepted the command and promised that he would be born in Kaliyuga and sing Sri Rama’s lila – divine play – in melodious poetry in the people’s language. Thus Valmiki himself returned as Gosvami Tulasidas.
That Gosvami ji was a reincarnation of Valmiki has been acknowledged by Sri Nabha Das, the author of Bhakta Maala and one of the early chroniclers of gosvami ji’s life. Swami Yatiswaranandaji of Ramakrishna Order echoes similar views.
‘in expressing pure devotion and human sentiments, Tulasidas, considered to be Valmiki’s reincarnation, has excelled the latt4er... In addition to the Ramakatha in Ramayana, Tulasidas has rendered the thoughts of Upanishads, Gita Bhagavata and the other scriptures in translation. In this way, he has made the sublime truths concealed in Sanskrit, accessible to the laity as well as literati, masses as well as classes.
Tulasi Himself was of the view that ‘what is of importance is not language – vernacular or Sanskrit - but true devotion. If a coarse blanket serves the purpose, why bother about a silk-shawl.
2. Inspiration from Adhyatma Ramayana
While Valmiki is the perennial source of inspiration for the authors, poets and scholars including Gosvami ji who drew the story –outlines from the Adikavi’s classic, another important source for him is the Sanskrit Adhyatma Ramayana. This influence is discernible in both, his spiritual leanings as well as the story-line. Considered to be a part of the Uttarakaanda (last section) of brahmananda Purana, Adhyatma Ramayana is in the form of an aakhyaana. It is traditionally viewd as the work of the sage Vedavyasa although some modern scholars place it in the 14th or the 15th century which brings it closer to Gosvami ji’s time. This Katha as of Manasa, has been narrated by Lord Shiva to parvati although in Manasa we have two other dyads of listener speakers, ie. Bharadvaja- Yajnavalkya and Garuda- Kagabhushundi also. However, even those exponents draw from Shiva's narrative. Even in his philosophic outlook, Tulasi seems to be closer to Adhyatma Ramayana even though in many instances he takes a different line, especially as far as primacy of Bhakti over Jnana is concerned.
It must be added here-and as we shall see later-that Tulasi's reverence and love for Shiva and Parvati are all our poet's own. For Gosvami ji, Bhavani and Shankara are the embodiments of Shraddha and Vishvasa-faith and trust. They are his Guru, Mother and Father." The poetic backdrop against which Manasa is conceived is the metaphoric manasasarovara-the mind lake-of Shiva from where the river Sarayu of Ramakatha issues forth and, satiating saintly congregations, the veritable Ayodhya, flows on to meet the Ganga of Ramabhakti and eventually merges in the ocean of Rama's divine-self."
Tulasi uses another metaphor, that of Triveni at Prayaga, where, in the congregation of saints, there is confluence of Ganga of Ramabhakti, Yamuna of Karmakaanda-prescriptive and prohibitive laws of religion-and Sarasvati of Brahmavichaara- deliberations on the Supreme Brahman. The spot of this confluence-Triveni-is Hari-Hara-katha, narratives of Vishnu and Shiva. In Gosvami ji' s Vinaya Patirkaa (Songs of Entreaty), we come across a Hari-Shankari hymn (49) of 18 lines, alternately celebrating the majesty of Vishnu (and his incarnations Krishna and Rama) and Shiva and thereby underscoring the unique and intimate relationship between the two. Thus Tulasi's literature is the veritable confluence of Bhakti, Karma and Jnana. And yet his partiality for Bhakti and ananyanishtha, one-pointed love, for saguna-sakara Rama, God with attributes and form, are over-riding. He makes a challenging statement:
Tulasi is prepared to accept him his master who, without reference to ignorance, can explain knowledge, without reference to darkness, light and without reference to Saguna, Nirguna.
3. Other Sources
Gosvami ji says:
'For his heart's gratification, Tulasi has composed in Bhaashaa, the people's speech, the elegant story of Raghunatha, in accord with various Puranas, the Vedas and Agamas and with what has been expatiated in Ramayana (of Valmiki) and elsewhere.'
We have, while citing Swami Yatiswarananda, already mentioned the Upanishads (Vedas), Gita and the Bhagavata Purana as Tulasi's sources. In addition, Gosvami ji also draws from the Agama scriptures like the Narada Bhakti Sutras and the other traditional doctrines. To the six Darshana-Shastras- Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya, Yoga, Purva Mimamsa and Uttara Mimamsa-we find many allusions, especially to Sankhya and more frequently to the Uttara Mimamsa or the Vedanta Darshana with commentaries of the Acharyas.
As for the Puranas, we see Gosvami ji freely drawing, in addition to Bhagavata, from Padma, Skanda, Matsya, Brahma, Vayu, Garuda, Shiva, Brahmavaivarta and Bhavishya. He has studied and discreetly used several versions of Ramakatha. Then there are the classical poets like Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti and others. All these and many more works make their appearance in his writings, through not by their names or those of their authors. We should also mention here that although Tulasi is remembered most for his Manasa, it will be unjust to attribute his greatness only to it. While it, no doubt, stands out, Tulasi's other works, to which we shall refer later, equally entitle him to be reckoned as the greatest poet of Hindi literature.
4. Only Tulasi
Are then Tulasi's literary works just an assortment of several heterogeneous elements or mere translations of some Sanskrit scriptures or secular literature? Or are they a conglomerate of religion, philosophy, mythology, morals, ethics and history gathered from a variety of sources, knitted into poetry in he people's speech with Ramakatha and Ramabhakti as the centerpieces?
To these questions, our answer is in the humble but firm Negative. It is neither an anthology, nor translation of varied texts, tor a conglomerate, nor mere history or mythology. Tulasi's poetry pulls at our heart-strings, raises ripples in our minds, compels us to extend our intellectual horizons, takes us on a pilgrimage to the beyond, fills our souls with an experience of spiritual bliss and, at he same time, reinforces our contact with the ground-level morality and ethics. His works, no doubt, speak of his erudition, wisdom, scholarship and poetic genius, but there is more to them than mere theoretical understanding and interpretation. The moral and ethical values that Tulasi consciously but unobtrusively propounds through his characters help reinstate confidence and vigour in I society torn between our ancient ethos and foreign political domination. He steers clear of even the' slightest hint of sensuality, showing, in fact, a scrupulous concern for purity. In Tulasi, a true poet, a true sage and a true devotee come together. T.S. Eliot has defined a 'great poet' as one in whom 'the two gifts, that of wisdom and that of poetic speech are found in the same man. And Tulasi eminently fits into this description.
Tulasi is 'the seer thinker transcendental self-existent'- Kavirmaneeshee, paribhooh, Svayambhooh – the poet whose work stands for itself as testimony to his greatness. When we listen to his voice in the silent depth of our hearts, read him or sing his resonating songs from vinaya Patrikaa or Geetaavalee, they not only capture our imagination, they seem to come out as our own voice seeking to invoke Sri Rama’s grace and merciful glance at us. His prayer becomes our prayer. Distance of centuries vanishes and two voices, the poet’s and ours – mingle as one. It is this magic of tulasi that his song becomes ours, his petition to Rama becomes our supplication. Even as we rise in standing ovation to this Acharya-poet and fall at his feet in salutation, we feel that he is holding our hands and with us, for us, paying obeisance to Sri Rama, his Aaraadhya, and by an extension of spiritual identity, our Aaraadhya, who is at once Supreme Brahman, Lord Vishnu and Raghunandana Rama.
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