Namdev, Who lived in the 14th century , was one of the gratest saint-poets of Maharashtra. Besides
Numerous songs in Marathi, tradition ascriber to him songs in Hindi too. Namdev’s Hindi songs
Breathe a spirit quite distinct from his Marathi compositions and are considered the oldest expression
Of the Hindi nirgun strain of bhakti poerty. Accroding to the 16th century ‘biographer’Anantdas, namdev was the
First among the nirgun greats and stood at the threshold of the remarkable religious and poetic movement which
Later produced men like kabir , Raidas, Nanak and Dadu.’
Almost all of greatest Hindi Nirgun poetry is riddle with problem of authenticity. The historical
And Scholarly quest of identifying songs which Namdev. Kabir or Raidas actually from out of the
Bewildering manythat survive in their name both in oral and written transmission, has exercised many modern
Minds. But no satisfactory answer are yet at hand.
Greater reliance, naturally, has been placed on written mansuscripts, the earliest written collection
Being the Guru granth. But as far as Namdev (also Kabir and Raidas) are concerned, the Guru Granth is
Clearly a selection and thus an incomplete guide.
Another store of old written materials comes mainly from rajasthan. However, modern scholarship has yet
To make full use of the earliest of this written store –house. What have been examined so far are usually later
Manuscripts with the usual text-critical presumption that they can lead us back to the unique and authentic
Version of a poet’s work.
This presumption, our study show, is a myth. We have been able to expose this myth with the help of
The rich microfilm collection of nirgun manuscripts in Leuven, Belgium (along with a suitable computer).
This collection contains the earliest manuscript records of nirgun songs and has been text-critically explaining
The original Namdev.
Insecapably, we are led to the conclusion that the original must remain tantailsingly elusive. One reaches
For a written record in order to escape the uncertainties of the Oral. But in the earliest nirgun manuscripts,
What we are faced with is oral tradition itself which we had hoped to escape through the written .
The earlier nirgun manuscripts are records of oral repertoires as they stood in the 16th century .
These were reertoise transmitted by organized bands of musicians whose record were essentially
Oral as they still are. The repertoires are interconnected and our study is an attempt at examining
The interrelations between these repertoires with a view to arriving at an oral stemma and drawing
Significant text-critical clues from the fact that the transmission was in a musical tradition, which is
Different in important ways from the poetic in our study , history of poetry accosts the history of music.
Long neglected in such studies.
We have also made an English translation of a select number of Namdev’s song . those that we consider
As belonging to the oldest strata. But we have not really taken sides in this matter and our collection contains
All of Namdev’s available hindi songs which we have noted with pathabhedas.
An authentic biography of Namdev present as many problems as his songs. We have tabulated a detailed
Picture of how his ‘biography’ has grown with time acquiring more and more hagiographic details till in the
Modern period, with a growth of the taste for the historical, it also began to acquire a historical visage.
Dr. Winand M. Callewaert is a professor of Indian studies at the katholieke Universirties. Leuven. Belgium.
He holds degrees in Hindi, Sanskrit, Philiosphy and History from Ranchi, Banaras, Pune and Leuven. After
Long periods of study and research in India, he now focused his attention on sant literature in Hindi of
Containing the oldest available manuscripts on microfilm.
Besides numerous research articles he has published important works of Rajab , Dabu and on the Bhagavad Gita.
This book. does not give the answers some may be looking for. It is not
definitive about Namdev’s date and place of birth or of his samadhi,,
about the exact number of poems sung by him (in Hindi), or about ‘his’
language, when and if he. travelled through North India. Perhaps we
should not.even be interested in these facts, convinced that. the grapes.
Very illuminating, however, is the historical ‘exercise’ presented in
Chapter 1. Starting with a brief enumeration of miracles in the earliest
written source (Anantad4s:1588), the hagiographical writings eventually
mention. his exact date of. birth (Singh:1906).and even give a description.
of his previous birth (Marathi abhanga 1245). Of course, there is one
‘early’ source which cannot be properly classified in our chronological
list: the Marathi abhangas attributed to Namdev and his servant-
disciple,. Janabai (edited in Avate:1908, or even earlier in Tatya:1894).
If all. abhafgas relating. to Namdev’s life were also composed by him,
we would be out of the. woods. But most abhangas probably. are not;
quite a few. certainly are not. Till we. see a critical edition of the
Marathi abhafgas, we cannot date the information found in them. . We.
suggest ‘that there is a relation between the oral tradition from which
Mahipati:1762 drew his information and the period when, e.g., the
Tirthavali was written. But that remains a challenging topic for ma-
nuscript hunters and text-editors.
The personality of Namdev has constantly eluded us, from the day we.
started to copy manuscripts with his Hindi poems in 1973, through our
initiation period into the computer age in 1980, up to the. present when
125. poems .are. presented. in English translation, selected from: our.
critical edition of 258.poems. Seventy-five poems are not even critically
edited, because they occur only in the Guru Granth (36) or only in one
In. Chapters 2 and 3 we.describe the Rajasthani manuscripts in which
we found the 258 :Hindi poems attributed to.Namdev. Even if we do:
not go. beyond this question of attribution ‘to Namdev’,:around 1600 ,
AD when the.scribal tradition started, we do get close to early musical.
repertoires. Relying.on our feeling for the way in which musical |
repertoires were handled and on a mathematical analysis: made by the
computer, we selected’ poems which we know. were certainly popular
around 1550 AD and probably even before that.
This was only the. first thrill in the. often dreary task of editing the
texts: we caught; scribes tampering with the text as well as musicians.
adjusting the lines to their mood, genius or audience. And in the forest
of doubts in all books about Namdev, we know this for certain: the
poems attributed to Namdev in the manuscripts (dated-1582 AD and
later), have not survived unchanged during the 250 years of musical
transmission. The variants we find in the manuscripts are to a great
extent musical, and often of minor importance. And, the mixture of
both musical and scribal variants make all attempts to construct a
classical stemma futile. Note that in the discussion about rdagas,
ramkali and raémgiri, gaud and gund are identical.
We give in Chapter 4 a selection of 125 poems in English translation.
Specialists have read in Namdev’s Hindi poems the experience of a
mature mystic, who "must have come to the Panjab at a later age". We
see in them some of the earliest Hindi bhakti poetry, sung in Rajasthan
and Panjab. These songs greatly influenced later trends and poets,
including Kabir. When, in the Dadipanth, there was a need to -go back
to the sources and the idea of a Paficavdni came up, it was Namdev
who was presented as the earliest poet. This mystical poetry is now for
the first time available in English translation, based on a critical edition
of the earliest Rajasthani manuscripts.
In Chapter 5 we give the ‘critical’ edition with apparatus, based on the
, musical’ and ‘scribal’ versions at hand. The critical apparatus is the
result of a computer programme. After the initial input and revision of
each manuscript and the establishment of the ‘critical’ lines, there was
no further scribal interference, and no opportunity for later generations
to detect scribal errors. It may be that computer errors will be the next
Namdev’s poems published here have been handled by many singers
before they were written down and this publication owes a lot to many
people who have contributed to its form.
First we thank the custodians of the institutions where, since 1973, we
have been allowed to study and copy manuscripts: Dr. A. Das and Mr.
G.N. Bahura, City Palace, Jaipur; the Mahants of the Dadi
Mahavidydlay, Jaipur; the Directors of the Oriental Research Institute
at Jaipur, Jodhpur and Bikaner. The English rendering of Namdev’s
terse songs has kept improving with the valuable suggestions of Richard
Barz of Canberra, Francine Krishna of Jaipur and Ila Dalmia of Delhi.
The computer programmes have been developed especially for this study
by Herman Swinnen and Paul Bijnens of the University of Leuven,
Belgium. We owe the fine laser print-out to the patience and expertise
of Erik Van Eynde, University of Leuven and we are obliged to Ken
Bryant, Vancouver, for the design of the Devnagari font. Generous
funding by the University of Leuven has enabled us to pursue our
intercontinental co-authorship both in India and in Belgium. For the
input of the Hindi material we thank Vinay Jain and Anuradha Patni,
Delhi, and Bart Op de Beeck, Leuven, for his very meticulous care in
the production of the final copy.
One sometimes wonders whether looking for manuscripts isn’t a waste
of time and energy. One peers through catalogues and handwritten lists,
corresponds for years, travels in buses, drinks tea again and again, finds
temples and institutions open but the person-in-charge absent.
Eventually one can copy old manuscripts on film and spend hours at the
reading machine. The editors of the New Oxford Complete Shakespeare
(1986). define the task of editing as "a total waste of time which
periodically reconstructs our image of the past". Of course they did
prepare a new edition, leaving out even very popular passages.
But why bother? Why do we engage in the ‘waste of time’ of re-editing
songs sung in the 14-16th centuries and committed to writing after a
long period of oral transmission? Certainly, it does no harm periodically
to stir up the academic or sectarian complacency and to remind
ourselves that the bhajans we hear and read have been mediated by
unknown singers and known scribes. Very few such transmitters passed
on the songs of a pvet-mystic without changing them. Musicians
adjusted the poetic line to suit the rhythm and adapted the language for
the convenience of the audience, as they went from village to village,
from one region to the other. And then the scribes took over, while the
oral tradition too continued, adding and changing.
Studying the songs of a poet like Namdev is quite different from the
study of Shakespeare or Kalidasa. It is the ambition of a text-critic
studying Shakespeare to bring out the text ‘written’ by the author,
looking at the various versions available in manuscripts. The text-critic
soon realizes that this is impossible in the case of a Namdev or a
Kabir. There is no way by which we can reach beyond the oral tradition
to the pocts themselves. This oral tradition, unlike that of the Vedas, did
not shun variety and creativity. Consequently, the oeuvre of Namdev
(and other Sants?) has come to us in a multiplicity of forms, changing
over both space and ‘time. We should look for an analogy in the
Puranas, rather than in Shakespeare or Kalidasa.
Fortunately, the manuscript tradition allows us to reach the threshold
of this oral tradition, or the moment when it started to be written down,
some time before 1600 AD (while the oral tradition continued). Our
textual study is an attempt to study the tradition of Namdev’s Hindi
songs. We try to reproduce Namdev’s oeuvre as it existed in great
diversity around 1600 AD. Unable to give up our samsk4r as text-critics
we also look for uniformities in the multiplicity, slender threads which
might lead us beyond the oral maze to Namdev himself. We cannot
claim that we have succeeded in going beyond the songs of bhakti to
Namdev the individual bhakta. But we certainly have gone deep into
the rain forest of oral traditions, beyond the borderline between the oral
and written traditions. The key to the nebulous past was the musical
traces in the manuscripts: the rag pattern and the geyavikaras.
What do we know about Nadindev?
Rarely have critical questions been asked about the authenticity of
the biographical data now so abundantly available in editions of Santa
literature. Written material giving information about a Santa results
from oral traditions which continue, up to the present day, after the
written tradition had started. The oral traditions kept growing as time
went on and were regularly written down in ever more elaborate
versions. We do not suggest that these versions are ‘incorrect’. For
millions deriving inspiration from oral traditions the written word is less
important. And inspiration is as important a value as historical
‘authenticity’. But when we look at the biography of Namdev (and
other Sants) from the historical’ point of view, we have to admit that
there is very little we know for certain.
What do we know about Namdev? The earliest hagiography, the
Parcai of Anantadas, was written in 1588 AD, more than 200 years
after Namdev had died, and reflects a rich and well-formulated oral
tradition'. For Anantadas the date of birth of Namdev and many. now
‘well-known’ facts were either not available or of no’ importance. He
only briefly refers to a few miracles (ch. 1.5-8):
It is due to an ever-growing and continuing oral tradition that we have
so many details about a Santa who certainly had a great appeal, even
400 years after his death.
For Anantadds it was important to stress the superiority of bhakti
above ritual practices: ‘The Santa has power even over God who is in
love with him. Like a yogi mastering his body and attaining liberation,
the bhakta has power over God’. In his Parcai Anantadas basically tells
only two stories connected with Namdev in order to emphasize this
message. He records what he found important for true devotees to
know about Namdev;, assuming that they would be familiar with the
details of other ‘events’. He wrote a didactic essay, not a historical
Now we turn to our manuscripts. The earliest manuscript with
Hindi songs of Namdev is dated 1582 AD*. It was written more than
200 years after Namdev’s death. Its source was an oral tradition which
did not shun change or mutation. The biographical historicity of its
material may be doubtful, but it may in its own way be a reflection of
true events. In song 231 from this manuscript we read that Namdev’s
mother asks him not to go to the temple, and in song 234 we read about
problems with Brahmans and about a temple incidents. The miracle of
the dry bed in the river’ (see below, Ch. 1.1;E14) is first found in
Namdev’s song 195, which is given only in two manuscripts. It should
be ascertained whether any Marathi manuscript with autobiographical
data is dated before 1582 AD.
We do not denv that it is possible that songs edited and translated in
our book were realiy composed by Namdev, and that autobiographical
hints may have been given by him. What we know for certain is that
these songs giving autobiographical information were sung in
Rajasthan or in Panjab around 1600 AD. Manuscripts dated around
1600 AD are records of an oral tradition as it existed 250 years after
Namdev’s death. Songs recorded in later manuscripts contain more
details. Each later version is often like a new miniature painting of an
old scene, recording more people in the background and packing more
events into the scene. Whatever the historical value of the pictures we
find in the songs recorded in our manuscripts, we should not forget that
they are the only dated early matcrial about Namdev’s life. The
manuscripts with the ever-expanding hagiographical accounts (see
below Ch. 1) postdate the early manuscripts with songs.
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