Culture & Society

Saint Namdev and anti-caste movement in medieval India

The medieval period in Indian history produced many renowned saints, poets, scholars and social reformers who tried to remove the social evils prevalent in the society. Their message was clear, all humans are equal before God.  So, everyone has an equal right to pray to God. For these saints, God is not a personal (sagun Ishwar), but a universal power (nirgun Ishwar). They only termed it in different ways as Ishwar, Khuda, Ram, Hari, etc.

In the medieval era, we get mainly two types of ideologies within Indian society. First is Brahminical ideology which is based on human hierarchy.  Shankracharya, Vallabhacharya, Chaitanya, Tulsidas represent this ideology. These scholars are in favour of the Brahminical system.

On the other hand, Shraminic ideology which is based on human labour. We get some saints and scholars who believe in human equality. They are against this Brahmanical system. They raised a staunch voice against this system. Kabir, Ravidas, Nanak, Namdev, etc represent the saints of this era.

These saints have a deep impact on society. Most of them come from the lower ladder of the Hindu society such as Kabir was a weaver, Ravidas was a cobbler, Namdev was a tailor, Sena was a barber, Sadhna was a butcher. They revolted against social evils. They challenged the caste system and the superiority of Brahmins. They gained tremendous popularity in the society. These coincided with the Islamic ideas of human equality and brotherhood. In India, Sufi saints had preached this idea of human equality and brotherhood.   

Some of the historians named this era as Bhakti movement. But this name does not suit well looking into the practices by these saints. They did not only practice bhakti but at large, they raised their voice against the caste system and other deep-rooted social evils. 

In this era, many sects emerged in the society that challenged the caste system as the Lingayat sect in Karnataka. A similar sect emerged in Tamil Nadu and it was called as Siddhars. In Maharashtra, this idea was popularised by Saint Namdev. He was a rigorous monotheist who opposed caste distinctions and idol worship. Therefore, he is considered as the forerunner of Saint Kabir.

The saints of this era used to preach in vernacular languages. They often spread their messages through songs. Through songs, they left a deep impression on people. Saint Namdev did the same. He used to compose poems (popularly known as bhajans) and sang them. He became popular in the first half of the fourteenth century.

He was a tailor but before becoming a saint, it is said that he was a bandit. Though this may be only an interpolation. It might be a conspiracy to defame him by the Brahminical society because he came from lower strata of the society. His bhajans are written in Marathi that is based on intense love and devotion to God.

Saint Namdev is considered as an originator of devotional movement. There is a lack of certain dates of births and deaths of most of the saints and the scholars of this era. It is generally acknowledged that his period is 1270-1350.  French scholar of bhakti studies, Charlotte Vaudeville, argues that his period lies in the middle of fourteen century. A major problem with all the bhakti scholars is that there is no clear evidence about their dates.

Devotion to God

These saints followed oral traditions. The saints and their followers were not formally educated, but they had a lot of practical knowledge about society.

There are long verses that describe singing and dancing. In his songs, he shows the veneration towards God. Except for God, He rejected everything, ruined the caste, rejected the rituals, disregarded the family. They used music and songs as a part of the revolt against the Brahminical structure.

His poems are mentioned in the Guru Granth Sahib that is the holy text of Sikhs. He was associated with Warkari sect. Warkari sect was popular in Maharashtra. Most of the things about Namdev’s life are unclear.

His songs are composed as melodious and have a spiritual meaning. His poems and bhajans are transmitted from one generation to another in a singing form.  His songs are addressed to Sadguru (ultimate truth or real teacher). In devotion, he addresses one omnipotent God, not Hindu deity, Lord Ram or Krishna. For him, pilgrimages are useless. Therefore, he is impressed by the ultimate being (impersonal God). His songs are based on the idea of an ultimate being.

Household Life

Namdev had a household life.  At that time, this was the characteristic of these radial saints. Because most of the saints of the other sects used to live as renouncers. That was the revolutionary change in Indian religious tradition. For the livelihood of his family, he handled businesses through which he satisfied his family requirements. He played double roles as a devout to God on the one hand and on the other hand, he discharged his duty as a householder. He tried to interact with people in common parlance. He did not care for the sophistication of the language.

About Disciple tradition

He had a big family. In his family, there were 15 -20 members among whom his wife, children, and some other dependants were part of his family. He used to help the needy. Sometimes he used to give shelter in his home. He used to preach the people in the streets and different villages. He had many disciples.  One disciple was his maidservant, Janabai, an untouchable woman. She was a very meritorious woman.

Her poems were a critic of the caste system.  Other renowned disciples were Chokhamela and his brother Banka. Chokha represents himself as an ideal untouchable man. He was also a saint and the most revered person.  His collection of poetry is unclear. Eleanor Zelliot points out “there is no authenticated collection of this poetry at all”

But like other saints, his songs have been sung for centuries and transmitted from generation to generation.

Warkari Movement

Namdev participated in the Warkari movement. Warkari movement was within the bhakti spiritual tradition that was famous in Maharashtra. Believers of this movement worshiped their deity Vitthal who is regarded as a form of God.

This movement is said to represent the Maharashtrian culture. About Vitthal and Warkari Sampradaya, there are many versions. Charlotte Vaudeville argues that Vitthal has a Saivite origin. On the other hand, some scholars like Deleury and Dhere argued that Vitthal was originally the God of nomadic pastoral tribes.

People from different regions have different views on him.  In North India, he is considered as a nirgun spiritual saint. While in Maharashtra, it is believed that he is both a nirgun and a sagun bhakt. The saints of the Warkari sect celebrated the unity of nirgun and sagun bhakti.

References –

1. Omvedt, Gail. 2016. Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anti caste intellectuals. New Delhi: Navayana.

2. Doniger, Wendy. 2015. The Hindus: An Alternative History. New Delhi: Speaking Tiger.

3. Habib, Irfan. 2013. Medieval India. New Delhi: National Book Trust.

4. Chandra, Satish. 2017. History of Medieval India. Delhi: Orient BlackSwan.

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