|Tulsidas (1532 – 1623)|
It is difficult for us to create an authentic portrait of Tulsidas’s life. We do have access to accounts that some of his contemporaries and successors have written, but most of these texts are laced with apocryphal legends. It is difficult to say where the mythology ends and real history begins. There is some confusion about Tulsidas’s place of birth as well, though it is generally believed that he was born in a village called Rajapur, Uttar Pradesh, during the period of time when Emperor Akbar reigned in Delhi. He belonged to the Brahmin caste; his father’s name was Atmaram Shukla Dube and mother’s name was Hulsi. According to some legends, he had a full complement of teeth at the time of his birth, and instead of crying, he uttered the name of Ram, which is why his parents decided to name him Rambola. But the fears of the parents were aggravated by the fact that the child had been born at a time when there was an inauspicious configuration of stars in the cosmos. According to the then popular belief, a child born during this period was destined to bring death to his father.
In order to ensure his own survival, the father was supposed to destroy such a child. But Tulsidas survived, perhaps, because his parents were incapable of taking the extreme step of destroying their own progeny. Instead, they abandoned him. Some legends say that Tulsidas got adopted by the midwife who had assisted his mother helped during his birth, and wet-nursed him. There are other legends that suggest a wandering sadhu, who went by the name of Narharidas and was a descendant of Ramanand, adopted him. The foster parent played a key role in leading Tulsidas towards the path of devotion to Rama. Tulsidas mentions in Ramcharitmanas about how his foster-father took pains in relating the story of Rama to him until he was able to grasp it fully. Narharidas is also credited with changing the boy’s name from Rambola to Tulsidas. Even though Tulsidas has refrained from writing about the youth or the grihastha period of his life, with a careful study of the Ramcharitmanas it is possible for us to learn about some aspects of his life. He does not mention the name of his original father, but his mother, Hulsi, does find a mention few times.
It is popularly believed that the Bhaktmala written by Nabhadas has important information on Tulsidas’s life and career, but that does not seem to be the case. The Bhatmala has very few lines devoted to Tulsidas; even these are devoted to elucidating the mythological ideal that Tulsidas was a reincarnation of Valmiki. Almost a century after Tulsidas’s death, a Brahmin called Priya Das wrote his religious commentary, which has now become a source of much of the legendary material that we have on Tulsidas. It is from Priya Das that we learn about the infatuation that Tulsidas had with his wife before he became fully immersed in devotion of Ram. According to this account, Tulsidas had married a girl whose name was Ratnavali. The couple lived at Rajapur; their only son, Tarak, had died in infancy. Being devoted to his wife, Tulsidas could not bear to be away from her for even a day. On one occasion, when his wife had departed for her paternal home, Tulsidas’s infatuation forced him to cross the Yamuna so that he could spend the night with her.
When he reached her, she chided him with these words:
Hada mamsa-maya deha mam, taso jaisi pritti,
Vaisi jo sri-ram mein, hot na bhav bhiti.
(Had you for Sri Ram as much love and you have for my body of flesh and bones, you have overcome the fear of existence.)
Priya Das is the only commentator who says that Tulsidas’s wife had chided him with this set of words. It is possible that in reality the wife might have used a less dramatic set of words. There are other legends that offer a more interesting slant to the same story. For instance, it has been suggested that Tulsidas’s father-in-law had on more than one occasion suggested that his daughter should be spending more time in his father’s house. However, Tulsidas always refused. One day, while he was away, the wife’s brothers arrived and took her away. When Tulsidas returned, he learned from neighbours where she had gone. He might have felt a little indignant at her going away without telling him first, so it was natural for him to follow to get her back. That is when she reproached him for his inordinate affection. Her words might have been a spur of the moment reaction, but he took them to seriously. The realisation dawned on him that he was wasting his life by remaining mired in worldly issues. He immediately set out of his father-in-law’s abode, with the intention of becoming a peripatetic monk.
His response was much more than what his wife could have ever expected. She followed him outside and implored him to stay behind and have his food. She is said to have promised to accompany him back to their home after he had eaten. But he told her to stay where she was, as he wanted to go back alone. From that day onwards, he lived the life of an ascetic. He and his wife were never together again. There is another interesting legend that describes the poignant meeting between Tulsidas and his wife when he was an old man and she an old woman. During the course of his wanderings, he reached his father-in-laws village, where he found himself outside his father-in-law’s house. When he knocked, it was his wife who opened the door and asked him what he would eat. He told her that he would prepare his food by his own hands. So she got the eating-place ready for him. At first she had failed to recognise him, but by his movements and gestures she realised that he was her husband. She begged him to take her with him on his journeys, but he refused.
In his commentary, Priya Das has also recorded the story of incidents where Tulsidas obtained a vision of Lord Rama through the interventions of Hanuman. After being told by Hanuman that Lord Rama would give him a darshan in the forest of Chitrakoot, Tulsidas visited that holy town, where he used to spend much of his time in praying. One day while he was doing a parikrama of the hill in Chitrakoot, where Lord Rama is said to have stayed, he saw two handsome princes, one dark complexioned and one fair complexioned, riding beautiful horses at some distance. The beauty of the two princes mesmerized him, but he failed to realise that he was seeing Lord Rama and Lakshman. Later on when he learned about their identity from Hanuman, he was saddened by his failure to recognise the God. There is another legend that describes how some thieves who intended to rob Tulsidas’s house were confronted by a mysterious blue skinned youth who was armed with a bow and arrow. When they learned that it was Lord Rama himself who was trying to protect Tulsidas and his belongings, they gave up their wicked ways and became a devotee.
Priya Das has also attributed a few miracles to Tulsidas, who on one occasion is supposed to have raised a dead man to life. His miracles made him so famous that he was summoned to the court in Delhi and was ordered by the emperor to conjure a miracle. Tulsidas refused oblige, preferring to chant the holy name of Rama. This infuriated the emperor, who had Tulsidas arrested and locked up in a cell. Tulsidas appealed to Hanuman, who dispatched a large number of monkeys who created a great havoc in the emperor’s court. Eventually, the emperor had to let Tulsidas go. As in case of most legends associated with Tulsidas, there is no historical proof to suggest that he had managed to outsmart the emperor of Delhi. Tulsidas was 91 years old, when he left for the heavenly abode. According to ancient sources, he was cremated at Asi Ghat by the Ganga in the holy city of Varanasi.
According to a popular legend, one night when Tulsidas was engaged in meditation in his hut in Kashi, Lord Shiva manifested himself before him and inspired Him to write Shri Raam Kathaa in vernacular language. In his Ramcharitmanas Tulsidas makes a brief allusion to the inspiration that he got from Lord Shiva. It is also stated in the scripture that work on it had started on the night day of the month of Chaitra, which was the birthday of Lord Rama. Many scholars are of the opinion that Tulsidas began working on the scripture in Vikram Samvat 1631 (year 1574) when he was based in Ayodhya. In the A large portion of the poem was composed at Varanasi, where the poet spent most of his later life. In a literal sense, Ramcharitmanas means “The Lake of Deeds of Lord Rama.” Tulsidas thought that the story of Lord Rama was as purifying as taking a dip in the holy waters of Himalayan Lake Mansarovar. That is why he has compared the seven parts of this great epic to the seven steps that lead to the lake, whose holy waters, it is traditionally believed, carry the potential of purifying the body and soul.
Much of the material that Tulsidas wrote in Ramcharitmanas has come from the original Valmiki Ramayana. But that is on expected lines as both the works are centred on the narrative of Lord Rama, the crown prince of Ayodhya. However, it would be wrong to say that Tulsidas’s work is a literal translation of the Valmiki Ramayana. He was a great poet on his own and he also had a personal point view. He might have been filled with the desire of interpreting Lord Rama in a way that would make him relevant to his generation. Some scholars like to credit Tulsidas for the creation of a more modern rendering of the Ramayana. Valmiki had composed his Ramayana many centuries ago, since then the Hindu thought had shifted a great deal. It is indeed the truth that Tulsidas was an orthodox Hindu, whose mind was filled with sincere belief in all the scriptures of Hinduism. But he also harboured religious aspirations that were inspired by the realities of his own era. In order to satisfy these aspirations, he created the Ramcharitmanas, which was written in the vernacular language, and was filled with several new ideas for expression of devotion.
Tulsidas identifies Lord Rama with Vishnu, one of the three Gods of devotion, and also with the Supreme Spirit. God, to him, was not a passionless being, he saw Him as an entity that is capable of heeding to men’s prayers. The everlasting popularity the Ramcharitmanas enjoys is also due to Tulsidas’s masterful use of poetic imagery. Also, whereas Valmiki had condensed the story of Rama, Tulsidas expanded it and led to the creation of an epic that is much broader in scope. The seven books in Ramcharitmanas are Bal Kand, Ayodhya Kand, Aranya Kand, Kishkindha Kand, Sunder Kand, Lanka Kand and finally the Uttar Kand. The first two episodes are the longest and make up more than half of the work. There is a rhythmic quality in the Ramcharitmanas. The quatrains, popularly known as the Chaupais, that Tulsidas has composed have a timeless appeal. As a poet, he was definitely an innovator, but he did not have any iconoclastic zeal. While being firmly devoted to Rama, he made no attempt to dethrone other Gods, and remained true all the central dogmas of Hinduism, including polytheism. Throughout his life he continued to worship many different Gods.
Today Tulsidas is a household name in India. His Ramcharitmanas is read and worshipped with great reverence. Many scholars believe that by retelling the Ramayana in the popular language of his own day, Tulsidas rejuvenated the Hindu faith. Over the centuries, the Ramcharitmanas has served as an inspiration for many social and bhakti movements in the country. It is certain that the popularity of the Ramcharitmanas has directly led to rise of the tradition of celebrating Ramlila, during which we have the dramatic enactment of the text.