Samarth Ramdas

Prominent Marathi saint and religious poet in the Hindu tradition in Maharashtra, India

Samarth Ramdas (c. 1608 - c. 1681), also known as Sant (saint) Ramdas or Ramdas Swami or simply Ramdas was an Indian Hindu saint, philosopher, poet, writer and spiritual master. His earlier name was Narayan. He was a devotee of the Hindu deities Rama and Hanuman and also a contemporary of the Maratha rulers Shivaji and Sambhaji.

Ramdas or previously Narayan was born at Jamb, a village in present-day Jalna district, Maharashtra on the occasion of Rama Navami in 1608. He was born into a Deshastha Brahmin family to Suryajipanta and Ranubai Thosar. His father was known to be a devotee of the sun. He had an elder brother named Gangadhar. His father died when Narayan was around seven years of age. It is believed that Narayan turned into an introvert after the demise of his father and was often noticed to be engrossed in thoughts about the divine.

According to legend, Narayan fled his wedding ceremony upon hearing a pundit chant the word 'Saavdhan' (Beware!) during a customary Hindu wedding ritual. Then at the age of twelve, he is believed to have walked to Panchavati, a Hindu pilgrimage town near Nashik. He later moved to Taakli near Nashik. At Taakli, he spent the next twelve years probably between 1621 and 1633 as an ascetic in complete devotion to Rama. During this period, he adhered to a rigorous daily routine and devoted most of his time to meditation, worship and exercise. He is thought to have attained enlightenment at the age of 24. He adopted the name Ramdas probably around this period. He later had an idol of Hanuman installed at Taakli.

After leaving Taakli, Ramdas embarked on a pilgrimage across the Indian subcontinent. He traveled for twelve years and witnessed the then existing social realities. He made observations on the effects of natural calamities such as floods and famine on human life. He also observed the atrocities that the then Muslim rulers committed on the common masses. He had these observations recorded in two of his literary works Asmani Sultania and Parachakraniroopan.[2] These literary works provide a rare insight into the then prevalent social conditions in the Indian subcontinent. He also traveled to the Himalayas during this period. Around this time, he is thought to have met the sixth Sikh Guru Hargobind at Srinagar, Kashmir.

After concluding his pilgrimage, he returned to Mahabaleshwar, a town near Satara, Maharashtra. Later while at Masur near Satara, he arranged for Rama Navami celebrations that were reportedly attended by thousands. He is also believed to have discovered idols of Rama in the Krishna river.

As part of his mission to redeem spirituality among the masses and unite the distressed Hindu populations, Ramdas initiated the Samarth sect. He established several matha (monasteries) across the Indian subcontinent. He is claimed to have established somewhere between 700 and 1100 matha during his travels. Around 1648, he had an idol of Rama installed at a newly built temple in Chaphal, a village near Satara. He initially had eleven Hanuman temples constructed in various regions of southern Maharashtra. These are now commonly referred to as the 11-Maruti (see list below). He also had Hanuman temples built in other parts of Maharashtra and across the Indian subcontinent. Temples established by him have been found across India in regions including Jaipur, Varanasi (also Kashi), Thanjavur (formerly Tanjore) and Ujjain. He also had a temple of the Hindu goddess Durga constructed at Pratapgad, a fort near Satara.

Ramdas had a matha set up at Tanjore (presently Thanjavur) during his journey to southern India. On his arrival there, he was reportedly received by Vyankoji Bhonsle, the then ruler of Tanjore. Vyankoji was later accepted by Ramdas as a disciple. While at Tanjore, Pandit Raghunath, a contemporary religious figure also became his disciple.

Ramdas had extensive literature written during his lifetime. His literary works include Dasbodh, Karunashtakas, Sunderkand, Yuddhakand, and Shreemad Dasbodh. Unlike the Warkari saints, Ramdas is not deemed a pacifist and his writings include strong expressions encouraging militant means to counter the aggressive Muslim invaders.[3]

Poorvarambh, Antarbhav, Aatmaaram, Chaturthman, Panchman, Manpanchak, Janaswabhawgosavi, Panchsamasi, Saptsamasi, Sagundhyan, Nirgundhyan, Junatpurush, Shadripunirupan, Panchikaranyog, Manache Shlok

His literature utilized precise and lucid language. His writings conveyed his direct, forceful and unhesitating approach. Apart from Marathi, components of other languages such as Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu and Arabic can also be traced in his literature. He introduced new words to these languages. A major chunk of his Marathi literature is in the form of verses.

His compositions also include numerous aarti (worship rituals). One of his most popular aarti commemorates the Hindu deity Ganesha, and is popularly known as Sukhakarta Dukhaharta. His other works include the aarti commemorating Hanuman, Satrane Uddane Hunkaar Vadani and the aarti dedicated to the Hindu deity Vitthala, Panchanan haivahan surabhushan lila. He also had aarti composed in dedication to several other Hindu deities. His well-known work Dasbodh[4]has been translated to several other Indian languages. The original copy of Dasbodh is currently placed at a matha in Domgaon, a village in present-day Osmanabad district, Maharashtra.

Ramdas was an exponent of Bhakti Yoga or the path of devotion. According to him, total devotion to Rama brings about spiritual evolution. He emphasized upon the importance of physical strength and knowledge towards individual development. He expressed his admiration for warriors and highlighted their role in safeguarding the society. He was of the opinion that saints must not withdraw from society but instead actively engage towards social and moral transformation. He aimed to resuscitate the Hindu culture after its disintegration over several centuries owing to consistent foreign occupation. He also called for unity among the Marathas to preserve and promote the local culture.[3]

Ramdas frequently expressed his abhorrence for distinctions based on caste and creed. He advocated for the abolition of social classes. He encouraged the participation of women in religious work and offered them positions of authority. He had 18 female disciples, among who Vennabai headed the matha at Miraj near Sangli while Akkabai managed at Chaphal and Sajjangad near Satara. He is said to have once reprimanded an aged man who voiced his opinion against female participation in religious affairs. Ramdas reportedly responded by saying "Everyone came from a woman's womb and those who did not understand the importance of this were unworthy of being called men". According to him, granting women equal status as men is a prerequisite for social development. In Dasbodh, Ramdas eulogizes the virtues of good handwriting (Chapter 19.10, Stanza 1-3). [5]

Ramdas initiated the Samarth sect to revive spirituality in the society. He established several matha and appointed dedicated, selfless, intelligent and morally incorruptible members of the sect in charge. He provided guidance and support to the contemporary Maratha warrior-king Shivaji Bhonsle I, who was attempting to bring an end to the centuries old Muslim rule.

Ramdas had numerous disciples among whom Kalyan Swami was the most eminent. He was often employed by Ramdas to write his literary works. Some noteworthy disciples of Ramdas are listed below.

Ramdas also served an inspiration for many twentieth century Indian thinkers and social reformers including Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Keshav Hedgewar and Ramchandra Ranade. Nana Dharmadhikari, a spiritual guru promoted Ramdas' views through his spiritual discourses. Bhausaheb Maharaj, founder of the Inchegeri Sampradaya, used Dasbodh as a means of instruction to his disciples. Dasbodh has been translated and published by the American followers of Ranjit Maharaj, a spiritual teacher of the Inchegeri Sampradaya.

According to a manuscript in the Sikh tradition known as Panjah Sakhian, Ramdas encountered Guru Hargobind (1595 - 1644) at Srinagar near the Garhwal hills. This meeting also finds a mention in an eighteenth century Marathi literary work composed by Hanumant Swami known as Ramdas Swamichi Bakhar. The meeting probably took place in the early 1630s during Ramdas' pilgrimage to northern India and Guru Hargobind`s journey to Nanakmatta, a town in present-day Uttarakhand. When they met, Guru Hargobind had probably just returned from a hunting excursion.

During their conversation, Ramdas reportedly asked "I had heard that you occupy the Gaddi (seat) of Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak was a tyagi sadhu, a saint who had renounced the world. You possess arms and keep an army and horses. You allow yourself to be addressed as Sacha Patshah, the true king. What sort of a sadhu are you?". Hargobind replied, "Internally a hermit and externally a prince. Arms mean protection to the poor and destruction of the tyrant. Baba Guru Nanak had not renounced the world but had renounced Maya (wealth/luxury). It is claimed that these words of Guru Hargobind immediately earned a spontaneous response from Ramdas who reportedly said, "Yeh hamare man bhavti hai" (This appeals to my mind).

There are contradictory versions to the nature of association between Ramdas and Shivaji Bhonsle I, founder and contemporary ruler of the Maratha empire. Earlier historians considered Shivaji Raje to be a follower of Ramdas. A few of the recent but unfounded claims state that they both might not have known or met each other until later during the Maratha ruler's lifetime [6]. Ramdas had written a letter to Shivaji Raje's elder son and the second Maratha ruler Sambhaji Bhonsle I, advising him on the future course of action after his father's death [7].

Ramdas moved all across the Indian subcontinent and usually resided in caves (ghal in Marathi). Some of these located in present-day Maharashtra are listed below.[8]

Ramdas breathed his last at Sajjangad in 1681. For five days prior, he had ceased consuming food and water. This practice of fasting unto death is known as Prayopaveshana. He continuously recalled the taraka mantra "Shriram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram" while resting besides an idol of Rama brought from Tanjore. His disciples, Uddhav Swami and Akka Swami remained in his service during this period.[10] Uddhav Swami had the final rites performed. Sambhaji later had a samadhi shrine constructed at Sajjangad.