Biography of Namadeva

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Born in 1270, Namadeva is an attractive figure, not just for his poetical compositions, the abhangas, in which he had few rivals, but also for the fact that his saintliness was not innate but acquired after many trials and slips when confronted with the ways of the world. This was no pious and pompous saint, doling out prescriptions and condemnations for those whose flesh was weak, for he himself had endured the mortification of seeing his good intentions defeated by the urges of the body. The difference between him and the garden-variety sinner was of course that he got up and tried one more time, till he finally achieved the transforming experience of God, from which there are no more falls. As he put it, ” From top to toe I have committed innumerable sins, but I will not weary of pursuing You, oh Lord! The rope of my life I shall bind to your feet and drag You to me. My heart will be the prison in which I secure You forever. I shall beat You with the stick of (realizing the) Self until You sue for mercy. You are not generous. You give only after having taken away.”

This violent language declares at once the man who has passed through a harrowing Dark Night of the Soul, and is determined to ensure God does not forget. When he finally got his realization through the grace of the Lord he compared it to torrential rainfall from the clouds of mercy. A life of Namadeva is a difficult thing to attempt, we have only stories, which may or may not be true. There is, fortunately, not much doubt that he had the support of Jnaneshwar, the spiritual titan of the times, and which went a long way to confirming him that it was not hubris for him, a mere tailor, to seek God. We know that his guru was named Visoba, who was such a strong influence that Namadeva always held that the realization of God is a consequence of the desire that awakens only in the company of the holy. We have charming incidents, or what is meant to be charming, showing how the young lad was driven by a thirst for the divine even in his escapades. One such involved him stealing milk from the village’s prize cow because he held that only such was worthy of being offered to the Lord. Since his Lord was Krishna, another famous milk and butter thief, we can understand his logic.

The priestly establishment could never stomach with equanimity the fact that a tailor had achieved such rank and fame in spiritual pursuits and often took a petty pleasure in showing him his place. One day in the temple Namadeva was overcome with devotion and stated dancing with abandon. That was enough for the priest to push him out. The distraught saint burst out into song, complaining to the Lord that he was being treated like this only because he was born in a low caste – for which the Lord is responsible! An amused Vithala is supposed to have turned around on his pedestal to listen to this accusation and the temple still faces the direction Namadeva was in when he set off this miracle.

Angered at this setback his hut was set on fire. Namadeva had a literal belief in the dogma that the lord would provide and he refused to do anything about this disaster. The lord was forced to rebuild a new hut for his stubborn devotee and so well was it constructed that his fellow villagers offered Namadeva twice the usual wages if he made a similar hut for them. The saint answered that he had nothing to do with this hut and the only wages the Lord took was love, devotion and complete surrender. If they could pay those wages they could have similar huts. So completely secure was Namadeva in his constant awareness of the lord that one day he saw him dressed as a despised Mughal and still found him out, exultant that he had passed the test of the Trickster Lord, who wanted to find out if Namadeva really meant it when he sang, ” I care not for caste or vocation.” The Mughal was the lowest form of life in the popular imagination of the Hindus so this was really far more significant than it looks. Namadeva addressed this form of the lord as Mir Mukunda, Mir being the Mughal term for ‘Lord’.

Namadeva was somewhat skeptical of the ability to realize God while still living a family life. “If it were so easy why did the sages go to the forest?” he asked again and again. For him the reality of death was enough impetus to develop one’s spiritual life. The name of the lord was a constantly active reality for him, no matter what the daily routine of living might suggest on the outside. Namadeva had an interesting insight that the external guru would come in time to all sincere seekers so there was no need to despair if it did not seem to be happening. However, the internal guru was far more important and he could teach you always, in the midst of your work even. As he sang,

“My mind is like the yard measure of the tailor
My tongue serves as the scissors
I measure the cloth of life with the mind and cut it out by the tongue (by repeating His Name constantly)
I care not for caste or vocation; I dye the cloth and sew it with the needle of his Name
I know nothing besides; my life’s support is the Name of the Lord.”

Namadeva died in 1350.

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