An ant flew to the sky and swallowed the sun.
Another wonder - a barren woman had a son.
A scorpion went to the underworld,
set its foot on the Shesh Nag's head.
A fly gave birth to a kite.
Looking on, Muktabai laughed.
Bhakti was as much about defying/challenging social inequality as about faith. No reason to wonder then that women and untouchables are visible throughout the history of bhakti. One of the bhakti movements of early modern times (13th century) is Warkari. To that Warkari tradition belonged one more, great female saint, this one from Alandi in Maharashtra.
Her parents, Vitthal Govind Kulkarni and Rukmini, a pious couple from Apegaon near Paithan on the banks of the river Godavari named her Mukta, meaning liberation. True to her name, she rose to become a profound poet-saint in her own right, although she was the youngest sister of the highly revered Jnanadev (knowledge), Nivrutti (renunciation) and Sopan (stairway). She has been regarded as the incarnation of Devi Saraswati or Adi-Shakti.
Vitthal had studied the Vedas and set out, with his wife’s permission, on a pilgrimage at a young age. But when his guru, Ramananda Swami, discovered that he had a wife, he was ordered to abandon sanyas, leave Kashi and return to his marriage. This entire event was shocking and unacceptable to orthodox authorities and so the family was excommunicated.
When the children were all very young, their parents died, ostensibly by committing suicide in the hope that after their death their four children would be accepted by society, but that was not to be. The children had to survive by begging. Yet they all emerged as great spiritual visionaries. Their argument with the brahmins, who shunned them, earned the children fame and respect due to their righteousness, virtue, intelligence, knowledge and politeness. Mukta, at the age of eight, became the student of her brother Nivruttinath along with her siblings Dnyaneshwar and Sopan. Having faced the same tribulations as her brothers since childhood, she was equally influenced by their endurance, knowledge and philosophy.
Very little information is available about her extremely brief but spiritually illustrious life.
She wrote many Abhangs in her brief life span. She tells us that she was awakened to spiritual consciousness by the grace of Nivritti. Many of her preachings to Changdev (her disciple) in the form of Abhangs became very famous.
Though he has no form
my eyes saw him,
his glory is fire in my mind
his secret inner form
invented by the soul.
beyond the mind
has no boundary.
In it our senses end.
Mukta says: Words cannot hold him
yet in him all words are.
Where darkness is gone I live,
where I am happy.
I am not troubled by coming and going,
I am beyond all vision,
above all spheres.
His spirit lives in my soul.
Mukta says: He is my heart's only home.
Her most popular Abhanga is the Tatiche Abhanga (The Song of the Door). It so happened once, that Jnanadev, being extremely annoyed with the people around him, locked himself up in his hut. Hearing this, Muktabai composed some Abhangs chiding him that for a saint to be upset over follies of the world was totally unbecoming. She says:
"An ascetic is pure in mind and forgives the offences of people. If the world is hot as fire owing to exasperation, a sage should with pleasure be cool as water. If people hurt them with weapons of words, saints should treat those remarks as pieces of advice. This universe is a single piece of cloth woven with the one thread of Brahman, so please open the door, O Jnaneshwar."
Scholar Ruth Vanita mentions that Mukta did not reflect on her personal life or on womanhood in particular, but wrote with a larger, more philosophical perspective. Remarkable, for someone who did not live beyond her teens.
With her radiating personality, intelligence and clarity of thought, she not only enlightened thousands, but also heightened her brothers’ greatness. She was revered and honoured. Having been liberated and risen to sainthood, she even initiated others into spirituality. There are many legendary stories related to her supernatural powers and ability as a spiritual guide.
1) On one occasion, Muktabai wished to cook sweet buns for her brothers. So she set off to the village to get a clay plate from the potter to roast them. A prominent leader of the village, Visoba, who was very cruel to the children, scolded her and ordered the village potters to refuse her request. As she returned home, she was weeping with sadness. Jnanadev asked her to prepare the dough. He then bent down, touching the floor with his hands and heated his back red-hot, asking Muktabai to roast the buns on it. She did so and happily gave them to her brothers. With shock and amazement, secretly watching this miracle through a window, Visoba Chaati, realised the power of these extraordinary children. He rushed inside the hut and picked up the crumbs of the buns, as their prasad. Seeing this, Muktabai exclaimed, "O khechara (mule) turn back!" These words completely transformed his heart. He fell at their feet, crying and begging their forgiveness. When he asked them to accept him as their disciple, Nivritti requested Muktabai to initiate him. After that Visoba left the village in order to spend the rest of his life in deep contemplation and sadhana. He achieved Self-realisation and became the guru of Saint Namdev.
2) Muktabai was responsible for removing the film of ego in Saint Namdev’s mind. When they met Namdev in Pandharpur, Nivritti, Jnaneshwar and Sopandev, in humility, prostrated before him. Namdev was filled with pride, because everyone in Pandharpur regarded him as a great saint. Muktabai, with great compassion for this sincere devotee, wished to remove this short-sightedness by giving him the cosmic vision. She did not fall at his feet, as her brothers had done. Instead she requested Gora Kumbhar (the potter saint) to test the pots. Gora Kumbhar understood and with his testing rod, began to hit Nivritti, Jnanadev, Sopandev and other saints who were present, on their heads. All of them remained calm and quiet, upon which Gora Kumbhar proclaimed them fully baked. When he hit Namdev on the head, Namdev began shouting at him, thus Gora Kumbhar proclaimed him half-baked. Namdev was furious at this insult and ran to Lord Vittala in the temple. The Lord told him that they were right because he was seeing God only in Lord Vittala, rather than as the all-pervading Creative Presence. He was asked to go to Visoba Khechar, and through his practical teaching Namdev became fully enlightened.
Another legend, tells us about Muktabai being the spiritual guide of Changdev Vateshwar, a yogi living on the bank of the river Tapi. Once Muktabai and her brothers were sitting in the Ashram when Changdev happened to pass by. Muktabai was, of course fully clad, but she appeared to Changdev as unclad so he at once turned away. Muktabai then told him that he was not perfect as he still had a complex of sex and shame and did not see God in every being. These words of Muktabai had great effect on him and he eradicated this weakness through intense sadhana. Changdev wished to make Jnanadev his Guru, but Jnanadev said that Muktabai was the right spiritual Guru instead of himself. Changdev has made many references to Muktabai in his Abhangs.
It is only befitting to end this with a Muktai Arti that is sung to this day in honour of this pioneer of the Warkari cult.
Om jay-jay jagdambe,jay muktai ambe l
Nij-jankalpalate tu,karunamayi ambe ll Dhru.ll
Ganga tu,go,gayatri,gita,vasundhara l
Maha-Saraswati,laxmi,kaali,maate shakti-para ll 1 ll
Nijshakti tu,adishakti,adimaya l
Brahmaswaroopini mate,tu shuddha turiya ll 2 ll
Sarvarth sadhike tu,srimante,kalyani l
Mangalroopini nijdasa,tu Dyanesh-Bhagini ll 3 ll
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