Namdev (occasionally Nam Dev or Sant Namdev) (c. 1270 - c. 1350 C.E.) was a prominent Bhakti poet of Maharashtra and among the earliest of those who wrote in the Marathi language. Namdev was a pioneer of the radical bhakti school, which emphasizes achieving a direct, loving relationship with Brahman (the Supreme Personality of Godhead) through constant, sincere devotion. Renowned as a devotee of Sri Purandara Vitthala of Pandharpur, Namdev accompanied the great saint Jnanadev on a five year pilgrimage to all the holy places in India. Following this, he adopted Visoba Khechar as his Guru and realized that God was present everywhere and in all people.
Namdev did not initiate a school or movement, or author a large treatise, but he left a large number of Abhangas (short devotional poems), of which about 4,000 are extant. Namdev's abhangas became very popular and have been collected in Namdevachi Gatha, which also includes the long autobiographical poem Tirathavah. The fact that he occasionally wrote in a form of early Hindi, combined with his extended visits to the Punjab, carried Namdev's fame far beyond the borders of Maharashtra. As many as sixty-one of his hymns are included in the Guru Granth Sahib of Gur Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. He also had much influence on Tukaram. Both his compositions and those of Sant Tukaram are gathas abhangas.
Namdev was born in the village of Naras-Vamani, located now in the Satara District of Maharashtra, India, to a lower-caste tailor named Damashetti and his wife, Gonabi (Gunabai). His full name was Namdeo Relekar. The family observed the Wari of Pandharpur, going on pilgrimage twice a year on the first eleventh day of the Ashadh (June-July) and Kartik (October-November) months. Being a great devotee of Vittala and wishing to improve his material prospects, Dama Setti, the father of Namdev, had moved to Pandharpur a year or two before his son’s birth. There are numerous legends concerning Namdev’s religious calling. At the age of two, when he began to talk, the first correct word he uttered was "Vittala" (a manifestation of Krishna), and he continued with the repetition of that sacred name incessantly, without any help or instruction from others. As a young boy, his devotion to the deity Vithoba was so innocent and sincere that he used to relate to Him sometimes as his dearest brother or as his playmate.
There are several versions of an anecdote in which Vittala appeared in person to Namdev and physically accepted an offering. In one version, his mother asked Namdev to take a plate of offerings to the temple and place it before Vithoba. When Namdev did not see any evidence that the offering had been accepted, he cried so bitterly that Vithoba actually assumed a human form and consumed the offerings gratefully. Namdev’s mother was surprised when her son came back in great joy with an empty plate and explained to her that Vithoba had accepted the offerings by actually consuming the eatables presented in the plate. The next day she hid herself and watched as the Lord actually accepted their offerings.
In another version, Namdev was asked to place a daily offering on the household shrine while his parents were away for several days at Varanasi. He took his parent’s instructions literally and insisted that he would not take the food until the idol did so; the idol appeared before him in flesh and blood and partook of the food every day until his parents returned. This was a daily event until the parents returned from their pilgrimage and would not believe it had happened. In another account, Sant Namdev was known to have seen the appearance of Shri Vitthal in his original form as he waited and fasted for god to eat the nived (food offerings) placed at the Shri Vithoba temple in Pandarpur. Witnesses said Sri Vitthala finally came and ate with the young boy, Namdev, who had not eaten for many days. The place where he waited in the temple has been marked and called the Namdev Pairi (steps of Sant Namdev).
Namdev was married before the age of eleven to Rajabai, daughter of Govindashetti Sadavarte. They had four sons and one daughter. The Relekar family, his descendants, still reside near the Shri Vithoba temple, in Pandarpur. Radha Bai was a worldly and materialistic woman, but there was extreme poverty in Namdev’s house because he neglected his worldly duties and was only interested in worshiping Lord Vithoba. He spent hour after hour sitting before Vithoba, talking to Him, discussing spiritual matters with Him and doing Bhajan, and no amount of persuasion from family or friends could turn his attention to everyday affairs. His mother and wife scolded him and abused Lord Krishna. There are several accounts of incidents in which Vittala blessed his family with wealth. At Namdev’s invitation, Vittal attended the naming ceremony of Namdev’s child in the guise of a human being, named the child "Narayana," and gave generous gifts on the occasion. Under the guise of Dharma Setti of Vaikunthapuram and the pretense of past friendship with Namdev, the Lord visited Namdev’s house, gave magnificent gifts to Radha Bai and disappeared.
Another story is that a Bhakta (devotee of Krishna) named Parisha Bhagavat, propitiated Rukmini and obtained the philosopher’s stone which could convert iron into gold. One day, Parisha’s wife gave the stone to her friend Radha Bai. Radha Bai showed the stone to her husband and said that his Bhakti (devotion) was useless and inferior to the Bhakti of Parisha Bhagavat. Namdev threw the stone into the river. Next day, Parisha heard what had happened and came to scold Namdev. Namdev took Parisha to the place where he had dropped the stone. Parisha searched for the stone and found, not one philosopher’s stone, but many. Parisha was struck with wonder and admiration for Namdev’s attitude of renunciation and his spiritual powers.
Another version of Namdev’s biography, relates that as a youth he was a reputed spendthrift and a sluggard, who fell in with a gang of thieves and killed and robbed people until he came under the influence of a saint (perhaps Jnaneswar) who turned him from his evil life and the idolatry of his ancestral faith, to the devotion of Vithoba of Pandarpur.
When Namdev was about twenty years of age, he met the great saint Jnanadev at Pandharpur. Jnanadev persuaded Namdev to go with him to all the holy places on pilgrimage. Namdev did not want to be separated from Lord Vithoba of Pandharpur, but he was induced to go on pilgrimage. The two great saints almost never separated until the death of Jnanadev, and went on pilgrimage to all parts of India and almost all the holy places, composing sacred poems and singing devotional songs everywhere they went. Several miracles are reported in connection with the two saints during their pilgrimage. When they reached the desert of Marwar, Namdev was dying of thirst. They found a well, but it was so deep that it was impossible to draw water by ordinary means. Jnanadev proposed to assume the form of a bird by his Laghima Siddhi and bring the water up in his beak, but Namdev prayed to Rukmini. The level of the water rose miraculously to the surface. This well exists today at Kaladji, ten miles off Bikaner.
When Namdev and Jnanadev came to Naganathpuri and Namdev started Bhajan in the temple, a huge crowd gathered, and the temple priests became angry because they were not able to enter the temple. Namdev went to the western gate of the temple and spent the night in doing Kirtan (Hindu devotional songs). The image inside the temple itself turned to face Namdev. At Bidar, a Brahmin invited Namdev to do Bhajan in his house. Namdev went there with a large number of devotees. The Sultan mistook them for rebel troops and sent General Kasi Pant against them. The general reported to the Sultan that it was only a religious party, but the Sultan ordered Namdev arrested and prosecuted. He ordered Namdev to rouse a butchered cow to life, or embrace Islam. An elephant was sent to crush Namdev to death. Namdev’s mother begged her son to embrace Islam in order to save his life. Instead, Namdev raised the dead cow to life and won the admiration of the Sultan and his party.
During their pilgrimage, Namdev and Jnanadev met Narsi Mehta at Junagarh; Kabir, Kamal and Mudgalacharya at Kashi; Tulsidas at Chitrakut; Pipaji at Ayodhya; Nanak at a place in the Deccan and Dadu, Gorakhnath and Matsyendranath in other places.
Finding a Guru
All of his life, Namdev had worshiped the deity "Vithoba" of Pandharpur and he would not recognize any other Deity as the symbol of God. During the five years of their pilgrimage, Jnanadev advised Namdev to adopt a Guru so that he might be in a position to realize completely the manifestation of the all-pervading God. Namdev hesitated because he thought that such action might alienate his loyalty and devotion to Vithoba. Namdev repaired to Vithoba and said that he saw no necessity for him to have a Guru as he had intimate relationship with Lord Krishna Himself. Lord Krishna said that Namdev did not really know Him, and advised him to adopt Visoba Khechar as his Guru. Visoba Khechar, one of the disciples of Jnanadev, was living at the time at a village called Avandhya. Namdev proceeded to the village immediately, and arriving there at about noon, entered a temple in order to take some rest. In the temple, he saw a man sleeping with his feet on the Deity itself. Namdev was shocked, woke up the man and rebuked him for this sacrilege. The man was no other than Visoba himself. Visoba replied, "O Namdev, why did you wake me up? Is there a single spot in this world which is not permeated by God? If you think that such a spot can be found, kindly place my feet there." Namdev took the feet of Visoba in his hands and moved them to another direction, but the Deity was there. He then moved Visoba in still another direction, but the Deity was there too. Namdev could not find any direction or spot where he could place the feet of Visoba without treading on the Deity. God was everywhere. Having realized this great truth, that God permeated the whole universe, Namdev surrendered himself to Visoba gratefully and humbly. Visoba then taught Namdev:
If you want to be absolutely happy, fill this world with Bhajan and the sacred Name of the Lord. The Lord is the world itself. Give up all ambitions or desires. Let them take care of themselves. Be content only with the name of Vittal.
You need not undergo any hardship or penance in order to go to heaven. Vaikuntha will come to you of itself. Do not be anxious of this life or of your friends or relatives. They are like the illusions of a mirage. One has to spend a short space of time here like the potter’s wheel which goes on rotating even after the potter has left. Make the best of it by keeping the name of Vittal ever in your mind and on your lips. You need not undergo any hardship or penance in order to go to heaven. Vaikuntha will come to you of itself. Do not be anxious of this life or of your friends or relatives. They are like the illusions of a mirage. One has to spend a short space of time here like the potter’s wheel which goes on rotating even after the potter has left. Make the best of it by keeping the name of Vittal ever in your mind and on your lips and by recognizing Him everywhere and in everyone. This is my experience of life.
After initiation by Visoba, Namdev became more philosophical and broadminded. His temple was no longer the small narrow space on the banks of the Chandrabhaga, but the whole world. His God was not Vithoba or Vittal with hands and legs, but the omnipotent infinite Being.
After Namdev and Jnanadev returned from the long pilgrimage, Jnanadev expressed his desire to take Samadhi (departure from physical life) at Alandi. Namdev could not part with Jnanadev and accompanied the party to Alandi, remaining with Jnanadev to the last moment. He then accompanied the party until Jnanadev’s brothers, Nivritti and Sopan, and their sister Muktabai, left the world. Namdev has left behind a detailed account of the ends of these four saints in beautiful poems. According to one account, Namdev was so shocked by these events, which occurred within a short space of one year, that he himself was left with no desire to live in this world. He took his Samadhi at Pandharpur at the age of twenty-six, in 1295 C.E.
Another account relates that he went to the Punjab, where he is said to have lived for more than twenty years at Ghuman, in Gurdaspur district, where a temple in the form of samadh, constructed by Sardar Jassa Singh Ramgarhia, still preserves his memory. In his early fifties, Namdev settled down at Pandharpur where he gathered around himself a group of devotees, and died there in 1350 C.E.
No account of the life of Namdev is complete without a mention of Janabai, a maid-servant in the household of Namdev. In several poems on devotion which she has left behind, she describes herself as "Nam’s maid-servant" or "Namdev’s Jani." She was one of the closest followers of Namdev and had no ambition other than to serve him and sing the praises of the Lord Vithoba. So intense and sincere was her devotion to Vithoba that the Lord Himself used to lighten her household duties, when she became old and unable to perform them. In one of her poems she sings:
Let me undergo as many births in this world as You please, but grant that my desires are fulfilled. They are that I see Pandharpur and serve Namdev in every birth. I do not mind if I am a bird or a swine, a dog or a cat, but my conditions are that in each of these lives, I must see Pandharpur and serve Namdev. This is the ambition of Namdev’s maid.
Give me only this girl, O Hari, that I shall always sing Your sacred Name. Fulfill my only desire that You will accept my humble homage and service. This is all that I desire. Have mercy on me and fulfill my desires. I want to concentrate my eyes and mind on You and have Your Name on my lips. For this the maid Jani falls at Your feet.
Namdev was a pioneer of the radical bhakti school, which emphasizes achieving a direct, loving relationship with Brahman (the Supreme Personality of Godhead) through constant, sincere devotion. Namdev was not the author of any large treatise; but he left a large number of Abhangas (short devotional poems). Most of these are now lost, but about four thousand Abhangas are extant. Some of Namdev’s Abhangas are found in the Sikh Adi Granth. It is said that Namdev had made a vow to compose compose a hundred crore (a crore is 10 million) abhangs; all twelve members of his household became poets, and through them his vow was more than fulfilled.
- He is the One in many,
- countless are His shapes and forms.
- He pervades all that exists;
- wherever I look, He is there.
- But very few perceive this reality,
- for Maya ever enchants us
- with her multiple reflections
- of color and alluring beauty.
Sant Namdev has a prominent place among the Sants who roamed about the country reciting poems and compositions. Outside of Maharashtra he is also the best known Maharashtrian sant. Namdev's abhangas or devotional lyrics became very popular and have been collected in Namdevachi Gatha, which also includes the long autobiographical poem Tirathavah. The fact that he occasionally wrote in a form of early Hindi, combined with his extended visits to the Punjab, carried Namdev's fame far beyond the borders of Maharashtra. As many as sixty-one of his hymns are included in the Guru Granth Sahib of Gur Nank, the founder of Sikhism. Namdev did not initiate any religious institution or movement; he exemplifies the archetypical Bhakti saint, a solitary soul in search for God.
The essence of Namdev’s message is: "Always recite the Name of the Lord. Constantly remember Him. Hear His glory. Meditate on the Lord in your heart. Serve the Lord with your hands. Place your head at His lotus feet. Do Kirtan. You will forget your hunger and thirst. The Lord will be near you. You will attain immortality and eternal bliss." Naamdev repudiated all the four fundamentals of Vaisnavism. Though monotheistic in his devotional approach, he made statements such as “every thing is God;” “there is nothing but God;” “consider the world and God to be one;” “the foam and the water are not different.” Namdev taught that God created maya and "maya is the name of the power that placeth man in the womb." Since the material world was unreal, he advocated renouncing it and seeking unity with God through devotion and singing. He also advocated good conduct and purity, and believed that each person was responsible for his acts. He did not believe in a world strictly governed by karma. 
Namdev had much influence on Tukaram. Both his compositions and those of Sant Tukaram are gathas 'abhangas'.
- Dass, Nirmal. 2000. Songs of the saints from the Adi Granth. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0791446832
- Karandikar, Maheshwar. 1970. Namdev. New Delhi: Office of the Special Commissioner, Govt. of Maharashtra Information Centre.
- Maurya, R. N. 1988. Namdev, his Mind and Art a Linguistic Analysis of Namdev's poetry. New Delhi: Bahri Publications. ISBN 8170340764
- Nāmadeva, Winand M. Callewaert, and Mukunda Lāṭha. 1989. The Hindi Padāvalī of Nāmdev a Critical Edition of Nāmdev's Hindi Songs with Translation and Annotation. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass Publishers. ISBN 8120806077
- Puri, J. R. and V. K. Sethi. 1978. Saint Namdev. Punjab, India: Radha Soami Satsang Beas.
|The 15 Sikh Bhagats of Sikhism|
Bhagat Beni | Bhagat Bhikhan | Bhagat Dhanna | Sheikh Farid | Bhagat Jaidev | Bhagat Kabir | Bhagat Namdev | Bhagat Parmanand | Bhagat Pipa | Bhagat Ramanand | Ravidas | Bhagat Sadhana | Bhagat Sain | Bhagat Surdas | Bhagat Trilochan
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