Santasahitya ani Lokasahitya: Book Abstracts »

Chapter 1

Literature of Saints and folk

Marathi literature is said to consist of creations by saints, scholars and ‘string based’ performer litterateurs, (the assonant triumvirate is expressed as ‘Sant- Pant- Tant’ in Marathi). The first five centuries of the history of Marathi literature were influenced by literature of Saints. It possesses such variety, variation and expanse that the evaluation of the entire literature is not complete even after the efforts of four generations of scholars.

Some scholars credit it with the revolutionizing backdrop for the political advent of Shivaji, or with a rebellion against religious orthodoxy. At the same time some accuse it to have sustained social discrimination on the basis of caste and untouchability. Similarly, all streams of reformers, conformists and rebels have found some support in literature. Many a times the critics of conformist school having hold on various systems and institutions in the society have been vitiating the views of the masses. Their criticism has been a major obstacle in an unbiased understanding of the literature.

The saints and the scholars :  Scholars represented the sensibilities of elitists. They did not initially accept the Viththal deity that was worshipped by the saints.  Works springing from the devotional tradition were not canonized. Vernacular languages and their dialects were not accepted and standard Sanskrit was favored.  Hence the saints who have initiated, expressed and supported the aspirations of the masses should be revered. The saints should be held as the source of inspiration of the masses and downtrodden.

For elitists, the masses are not worth considering and often view their expressions and mores as profane. On the contrary, the saints understand the masses, are compassionate towards them and genuinely desire an improvement in their lot. The saints accept the emotions on the mundane level and elevate them to the exotic. Thus they are emotionally in proximity of the masses and able to orient their thinking in the direction of refinement, a reason why a wide range of subjects find expression in saint literature.

Expanse of saint literature : All the work by saints may not necessarily possess literary value. However it encompasses their aspirations, beliefs, rituals, deities, expressions and actions.

Expanse of folk literature :  It covers the study of lay collective wisdom, subjects related to and accepted by the masses.

Saint literature and folk literature - their mutual relations : The Bhagavat sect imparted a degree of sobriety to Marathi culture. However, it did not tone down folk literature. The saints compassionately contemplated the plight of the common man. They spoke in his own language, setting aside Sanskrit, the language of prestige and scholarship. They addressed the spiritual problems of people using the attractive, easily intelligible medium of verse in the ovee, abhanga and bharud forms. Adopting the roles of various performers (Vasudeo, Gondhali etc.), saints even accepted lesser deities from folk imagination and merged them in the stories depicted by  epics of classical provenance. Thus, in the story of Ram and Ravan, saints depicted folk deities such as Bhavani and Khandoba by Ram’s side. Thus were ideal elements from folk imagination endorsed in the struggle of good against evil.  Effectively, the literature of saints became spiritualized folklore.

It is in the intimate emotional attachment between saints and masses that the bonding of folk literature and devotional literature lies.

The poetic forms of ovee and abhanga are used by both. The use of ‘Abhanga’ in  praise of Viththal was so profuse that the word came to be used as an adjective of Viththal.  The usage ‘Abhanga – Viththal’ was quite in vogue.

Saints used the bharud, ballads and similar forms of literary expression as well as theatrical expression to reach the masses The Gan, Gavalan forms are used by both, the spiritually informed saint and entertainer Tamasha artist alike. It will be seen that saints composed verses by adapting to other styles of folk entertainers such as Pangul, Vasudeo, Gondhali, Bharadi, Vaghya, etc.

Folk imagination and the biographies of saints : Folk imagination revels in narrating and hearing interesting stories about deities, saints and heroes, adding elements of miracle to them. Thus the metaphor from the biographies of saints is used in folk literature. The miracles arising from imagination of the masses give rise to mysticism and occultism.

One therefore finds common motifs in folk tales. Usually described are the tales of miracles of gods helping saints. The innocent saint happens to get entangled in some misunderstanding and is accused of a crime, but gets acquitted on the intervention of the deity in the disguise of a common person. Or, some conceited elements in  society try to harass a saint. Thus, some of the legends in the biographies can unearth the historical truth underlying the legends.

Saint literature and Dalit literature (literature of the marginalized): The Saints were compelled to defy social sanctions imposed by the established elite, which caused them to be spiritually marginalized. The other, lay sections of society were in any case marginalized on all fronts. This fostered a common thread of emotional attachment with each other. The marginalized were not allowed entry in temples, so saints, through their literature brought the personified deities to the houses of marginalized. It was thus that God could come to the rescue of Chokha Mela and other marginalized people.

Saints ushered in a process of democratization of spirituality. Dalit literature began democratizing agonies of the marginalized masses. Literature of saints acted as a guiding beacon for Dalit literature, preserving an element of compassion. They did not bow to ritualistic orthodoxy in their literary forms. They adopted the classical literature to interpret their own philosophy and won confidence of the masses. However, the saints accepted the fact that they had to be solitary soldiers in the fight against social evils. These elements inspired and supported Dalit literature.

Thus the literature of saints can be studied from the perspective of folk elements. The present essays are amongst the first attempts in this direction.




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