The year was 1282, the town, Alandi near Pune in Maharashtra, India. A drama was about to unfold that would change the lives of many people.
The story had begun years earlier when a young Brahmin named Vithoba, married but still childless, had left home to become a sannyasi, a wandering monk. Concealing the fact of his marriage, he was granted initiation at the holy city of Benares. However, it was not long before his Guru discovered Vithoba’s matrimony and instructed the young man to return to his home.
His wife Rukmabai was overjoyed at her husband’s return, but not so the community of Alandi because common belief and dogmatic priests held that a monk could not return to householder life; doing so was considered a degradation and dishonor. The young couple were therefore subjected to continual hardships and humiliation and forced to live at the edge of town, scorned and reviled by all. Turned out of their caste, they were abandoned even by their relatives.
As the years passed, Vithoba and Rukmabai were blessed with the birth of four beautiful children. The eldest three were sons: Nivritti, Gyandev and Sopan. The youngest was a charming daughter, Muktabai. The children were very intelligent and loving and brightened the lives of their parents. Still, they were treated as outcasts and the village children would not even play with them.
Their father became their Guru and taught them from the scriptures. The children soon grew in wisdom well beyond their years. When the time came for the investiture of the boys with the sacred thread, which would mark their entrance into manhood and the brahminical caste, the priests adamantly refused to perform the ceremony. The couple had feared the coming of that day and had hoped the priests could prescribe some penance which would expiate Vithoba’s ignominy, making it possible for the sacred thread ceremony to take place. Accordingly, he and his wife approached an assembly of learned Brahmins and submitted their petition. Stern and unforgiving, citing laws with the weight of scripture behind them, the priests declared that the only suitable penance was for both parents to sacrifice their lives at the holy site known as Prayag, the confluence of the Ganga and Jamuna rivers. Convinced that if they undertook this penance the priests would take pity on their orphaned children, without hesitation and in the spirit of repentance, husband and wife left for Prayag.
The children then approached the priests and humbly requested them to fulfill the last wish of their parents. The verdict was delivered haughtily: the children of a sannyasi were held to be irrevocably impure. There would be no ceremony. Gyandev was then eight years of age. Taking permission of his elder brother, he addressed the assembled pandits in a clear, sweet voice. With a depth of scholarship and wisdom that astonished the pandits, he expounded on the true meaning of purity, reciting at length from the Vedas. One of the priests angrily scowled at the boy: “You are not entitled to recite the Vedas!” Mocking the child, another priest added, “If you are called Gyandev1, then that water buffalo over there might as well be named Gyandev too!”
This remark pleased Gyandev who responded with a lucid exposition of Vedanta, stating that although the buffalo and he appeared to be different, Spirit, the indwelling Atman, was alike in all existing things. “Therefore,” the boy concluded, “there really is no difference between the buffalo and myself.” At this the priest became enraged. “Very well,” he scoffed, “if there is no difference between you and that buffalo, let us hear the buffalo recite the Vedas!” Others in the learned assemblage laughed.
Gyandev then walked over to the buffalo and laying his hand gently on its head, asked it to commence reciting the Rigveda. To the astonishment of the assembly, the buffalo began to recite the scripture. With perfect intonation of every syllable it recited all four Vedas in turn. It was clear to the priests and to the people who had gathered there that Gyandev had performed a great miracle. The head priest relented and gave his assent; the investiture was performed.
The buffalo miracle began a mission of broad social and religious reform carried out by the grace of Gyandev. Though yet a child, he was recognized as a great saint and many of those present became his followers. As news of the miracle spread, hundreds flocked to him with reverence and love. His elder brother, Nivritti, whom Gyandev considered as his Guru, joined with Sopan and Muktabai in carrying the teachings to the devotees.
Unfortunately, there were still some fanatical Brahmins who resented the homage paid to Gyandev. On one occasion, the children were invited to the home of a devotee to attend the ceremony of worship with special offerings to the ancestors. Their host, however, had just received shocking news: the priests refused to perform the worship in the presence of the children.
When Gyandev and his sister and brothers arrived, they found the host sitting sullenly in a corner. The saint inquired what could be troubling him on such a holy occasion and soon learned the whole story. “Do not concern yourself,” he said reassuringly. “Prepare the necessary food. The ancestors will surely come to the feast.”
Meanwhile the priests who had left the home were outside watching through a window. They saw Gyandev sprinkling some rice and intoning auspicious mantras. Suddenly to their surprise, radiant lights descended into the room as the ancestors appeared in visible form. Gyandev worshipped their feet and offered them ornaments, food, flower garlands, garments, sacred tulsi leaves, gold, incense and ghee lamps. Imagine the amazement of the priests when the ancestors graciously accepted the gifts and consumed the food that had been prepared for them. The priests were deeply ashamed and, entering the house, blessed the children. News of this miracle spread far and wide and thousands came to have darshan2 of Gyandev and touch his feet in reverence.
However, a man named Chati remained malicious toward the young saint. If he happened to see Gyandev or his brothers or sister anywhere, Chati would loudly revile them, urging others to not even look at them lest they be defiled. Now it happened to be the time of the Festival of Lights, Diwali, the celebration of the triumph of Light over the darkness of ignorance. Everywhere in the town, people were decorating their homes, preparing feasts and exchanging gifts. Nivritti was very fond of the special pancakes that his sister Muktabai always prepared for Diwali and requested her to be sure to make some that very day. Happily, Muktabai went off to the potter to buy an earthen pan in which to fry the cakes.
Who should appear but Chati! First he threatened the potter: “Don’t you dare sell her a pan or I will demand immediate payment of the money you owe me!” Next he shouted at Muktabai and struck her. The girl ran home in tears. Still fuming, Chati followed, intent on troubling her further. When he peered in at the door, he saw Muktabai cheerfully frying pancakes on the back of her brother, Gyandev. Being a great yogi, Gyandev was able to command all the elements; by use of his internal fire he had heated himself red hot. The pancakes were soon ready and all four children sat down, joyfully offered the food to the Lord and began to eat.
Chati found himself awash in a sea of repentance. Entering the home with folded hands, he bowed to Gyandev and laid his head at the saint’s feet, begging for forgiveness. Gyandev blessed him and asked Muktabai to initiate him which she did gladly. Chati arose a changed man. Once again Gyandev had performed a miracle to shake an erring soul awake from the slumber of ignorance.
When the saint was thirteen years old, he undertook a long pilgrimage with his brothers and sister. Thousands of people were inspired with their Divine presence. During this pilgrimage, a disciple of Gyandev recorded the saint’s teachings on the Bhagavad Gita, a book later known as Gynaneshwari, famous to this day as the most beautiful commentary ever written on the sublime “Song of God.” When the four reached Benares, Gyandev was acclaimed by a large assemblage of Sanskrit pandits and elected as their head.
Further along the route, they came to a town called Vateshwar where the citizens had been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Gyandev. The whole town turned out to greet him with flower garlands, fruits, gifts and loving obeisance. Gyandev accepted the offer of a devotee to stay at his home. There people flocked to have his darshan and hear Satsang (divine discourses).
Not far from Vateshwar stood the hermitage of a great yogi, Changdeva. An adept of various powers, including flying through the air and walking on water, Changdeva had avoided death for 1400 years. He was revered by numerous disciples who soon informed him of the arrival of Gyandev and his sister and brothers.
“The people are always running after something or someone,” they told Changdeva. “When they have a great yogi like you in their midst, is it fitting that they should give such importance to a mere boy, pious and saintly though he may be?”
“What you say is true,” answered Changdeva. “It may be our duty to teach this boy a lesson in humility. If I show him my powers, he will understand his rightful place.” The devotees agreed, “The very sight of you will teach Gyandev a lesson.”
Indeed, Changdeva was magnificent to behold. Riding on a ferocious tiger with a serpent as a whip and accompanied by a large retinue, the yogi set forth. Soon he reached the home where the child-saints were staying. Gyandev and his brothers and sister were sitting at that moment on an adobe wall watching Changdeva approach in all pomp. Noting that the yogi was still in the grip of his own ego, Gyandev smiled. Immediately the entire mud wall upon which they were sitting began to move. Upon reaching the place where the yogi sat upon his tiger, Gyandev politely offered him welcome.
Changdeva was stunned. He had subdued a wild animal, but before him was one who had complete mastery over inanimate matter. Quickly he dismounted and fell at the feet of Gyandev, begging for forgiveness and requesting spiritual initiation. The saint graciously accepted Changdeva as a disciple and through Gyandev he attained realization of the Supreme.
Their pilgrimage complete, Gyandev and his siblings returned to their home at Alandi. Nivritti now asked the saint to write a book containing the wisdom of Self-knowledge. In response, Gyandev wrote the famous Amritanubhava, “The Nectar of Spiritual Experience.” In addition, Gyandev composed many songs and couplets for daily devotions. Mukatabai is also revered to this day as one of the best known women bhakti 3 poets of India.
After this, Gyandev felt that he had completed his mission. On a clear October day in the year 1296 he took affectionate leave of his brothers, sister and disciples. Entering samadhi4 by the power of his own will, he gave up his body. He was twenty-two years old. Before a year had passed, Nivritti, Sopan and Muktabai had also left this world. During their brief lifetimes, these four holy children, most especially Gyandev, had broken down the bigotry of the dogmatic brahmins of their time, teaching that all human beings should be free to unfold spiritually, irrespective of their station of birth or breadth of education. In addition to social and religious reforms, Gyandev bequeathed immortal writings and launched a great bhakti movement in Maharashtra.
The site of Gyandev’s samadhi5 at Alandi has become a center of pilgrimage which hundreds of thousands of devotees visit each year. Gyandev’s Gynaneshwari is considered the crest-jewel of the spiritual literature of Maharashtra. Today the saint is venerated as a great yogi and sage who laid the foundation for generations of devotees in India and throughout the world.
Published in Light of Consciousness Vol. 10#3, Winter 1998.
1 Lord of Wisdom
2 holy vision
3 yoga of devotion
4 spiritual absorption
5 also the resting place of a saint’s remains