Tukaram was born in 1608 A.D. at a village called Dehu in Poona district. It is about seven miles from Alandi—the place honoured by the Samadhi of Jnaneshwar—and about three miles from the railway station at Shelarwadi on the railway line running from Bombay to Pune. Tukaram came of a well-to-do Sudra family belonging to the tradesman class called Moray. The family had established itself at Dehu for a long time. They had accepted Vithoba of Pandharpur for worship and they had also constructed a temple of their own dedicated to Vithoba. The family members, since many generations, had also accepted the 'Wari' of Pandharpur, i.e., the annual pilgrimages to Pandharpur on the eleventh day of the month of Ashadh (June-July) and again on the eleventh day of the month of Kartik (October-November). The childhood of Tukaram was almost uneventful.
Tukaram was the second of three brothers, the names of the other two being Savji and Kanhoba. Savji had no worldly ambitions and the father was religiously inclined and thus the family burden fell on Tukaram when he was just thirteen years old. Tukaram was married to Rukmabai at about the same time, but as she was of weak health, he was soon married again to Jijabai of Pune. Tukaram began the management of household affairs and carried it on to the satisfaction of everybody, till he was about twenty years of age. In 1625, when he was about seventeen years, he lost his parents, and as his sister-in-law also died about this time, his elder brother left the village and went to Varanasi seeking spiritual salvation. The death of his parents was a great shock to Tukaram. And the next four years, from 1626 to 1630, were almost cyclonic in their effect.
After the death his parents and his sister-in-law, and the going away of his elder brother Savji, all enthusiasm for worldly life left Tukaram. Taking advantage of his state of mind, the debtors would not repay whatever due to him and the creditors began to press him for the money due to them. Tukaram tried his hand in several ventures of trade and always came back either with empty hands or with a loss. Once, on the way home, he was robbed of everything by confidence-tricksters who gave him gilt brass ornaments in exchange for all the money he had with him. On another occasion, returning home, he came across a poor Brahmin who was starving; he made the Brahmin very happy by giving him everything—the profit as well as the principal which his wife had borrowed. After those bitter experiences, Tukaram was not entrusted with anything valuable when he went far from home. Jijabai helped him again to set up a small shop in his own village, but she counted without Tukaram's state of mind. Tukaram used to sit in the shop doing Bhajan and being very kind and honest to his customers. Soon therefore, he became bankrupt, with two wives, a son and a younger brother to feed. Just at this juncture, about the years 1629 and 1630, the country was visited by a very severe famine for two consecutive years. Tukaram's first wife died of hunger crying for food. Tukaram's son also died. The few cattle that were left also died. The promissory notes of monies due the family became dead letters of credit as nothing could be realised in a famine. Tukaram's real mission in life began at this stage.
As a consequence of the many misfortunes, Tukaram was so much disgusted with life that he left his house and village and disappeared into the Bhamnath forest nearby. For fifteen days he stayed there concentrating on the Almighty without food, water or sleep. After the fifteenth day, he realised his Supreme Self and Vithoba visited him in His true form.
In the meantime, Tukaram's second wife was searching everywhere for her husband and when she found him at the hill, she brought him back to the house; but it was Tukaram different from the one who had left her a fortnight earlier. Now Tukaram had no love for his household, wife or relations. Immediately after he came back, he gathered all the promissory notes which were in the house, and all the account books, and threw them into the Indrayani river, in spite of the protests of his relatives. Then, with his own hands, he reconstructed the temple which had fallen into disrepair and began to spend his life—day and night—in Bhajan and Kirtan. His mind at that time was described by him thus: "O God! Kindly grant that I should never forget You. My body is made up of the five elements which I have to return with interest at the end. My conclusion is that there is no well-wisher for me other than You, O Pandhuranga!"
As a result of his whole-hearted devotion, Bhajan and Kirtan, Tukaram was rewarded with Guru Upadesh. The Guru visited him in a dream. Tukaram describes this, the greatest event of his life, thus: "The Sadguru came to me in a dream and was really very kind to me, though 1 had done nothing to deserve it. He met me when I was going to the river for a bath and placed his hand on my head and blessed me. He said that his name was Babaji and gave the names of his two predecessors as Raghava Chaitanya and Keshava Chaitanya and advised me to do Japa of Ramakrishna Hari. 1 adopted my Guru on the tenth day of the bright half of the month Magh." This was about the month of January 1632 when he was twenty-four years of age. Tukaram's joy. at this event knew no bounds.
Tukaram now began to spend his life more and more in devotional practices, study of the poems and works of Jnanadev, Namdev and Ekanath, Gita, Bhagavata, etc., with the result that slowly, but unconsciously, he began to make poems. Then one day, he had a dream in which Namdev appeared with Panduranga, woke him and advised him to make devotional songs. They would not hear of any excuses. Panduranga gave him the necessary inspiration and Namdev told him to complete the one hundred crores of poems which he had intended to make and of which he had completed ninety-four crores and forty lakhs, leaving a balance of five crores and sixty lakhs for Tukaram. The divine art of making poems came naturally to Tukaram ?nd as they were of the nature of Bhakti, the people began to be more and more attracted to Tukaram—more so as he did not seek anything materially for himself or for his own worldly welfare.
Whenever Tukaram began to perform Bhajan or Kirtan, people began to flock to the place, and with very few exceptions, people of all classes began to consider him as a saint and treat him with respect. This was of course resented by a small number of people and they tried their best to discredit him; and having failed in this, they sent a report against Tukaram to Rameshwar Shastri who was regarded as a learned Brahmin of the time.
Tukaram tried to convince the Shastri that he was a very innocent person. But Rameshwar was adamant and would not listen to any argument. He told Tukaram finally that he saw, in the poems of ^ukaram, a deliberate attempt to explain the principles of the Srutis which Tukaram, as a Sudra by caste, had no right to do; he must therefore stop making poems of that sort in future, and as for the poems he had already made, they should be drowned in the Indrayani river. Tukaram held all Brahmins in great reverence, and therefore, he immediately brought out of his home all the poems, bound them together, tied a big stone round the bundle, and threw it into the river. Tukaram's traducers, who were jealous of him, were greatly pleased. Tukaram did not mind their taunts, but he was worried. Here he was merely, singing the praise of God in his poems, and that was not the monopoly only of the Vedas and the Srutis. Moreover, he had been commanded by Panduranga Himself to spread Bhakti among the people through the poems.
Tukaram then sat on the bank of the river Indrayani in constant prayer to Panduranga to show him the correct path. For thirteen days he thus sat unmoved, without water, food or sleep. On the last day, one of Tukaram's followers, in a dream, saw Panduranga coming to him and telling him, "Go to the river; there you will find the poems of Tukaram floating on the surface intact." At once the man went to the river and brought to the bank the bundle of poems. Tukaram was moved by the mercy of God and delivered five poems blaming himself for doubting the word of God and for putting Him to so much trouble of having to preserve the poems in water for thirteen days. This, however, was not sufficient for Tukaram who always held the word of a Brahmin as worthy of respect as that of the holy scriptures and he had the orders of Rameshwar Shastri not to make poems any more.
Soon after this event, Rameshwar one day passed through the village of Vagholi and came to a village where a Muslim Fakir by name Anagadshah was staying. In Anagadshah's compound, there was a big fountain throwing cool water all round. Rameshwar, seeing that fountain, was tempted to take a bath in the waters. Anagadshah was annoyed to see a stranger trespassing into his compound and cursed him that all his body should feel a burning sensation inwardly. Immediately Rameshwar began to suffer from the effects of the curse. All his efforts to make his body cool failed, and in despair, unable to bear the pangs, he went to Alandi and sat before the Samadhi of Jnaneshwar and prayed to him to relieve him of the burning sensation in his body. At night he saw Jnaneshwar in a dream. Jnaneshwar addressed him: "You entertain hatred in your mind towards Tukaram, who is the greatest devotee of Vithoba. Go and surrender to Tukaram; all your bodily pains will vanish." Rameshwar, however, was afraid to go in person to Tukaram. He knew by that time all that had taken place at Dehu and he had come to recognize the greatness of Tukaram and therefore was afraid that Tukaram might curse him. So he sent a letter to Tukaram apologising and asking for forgiveness. Tukaram had nothing but supreme love towards everybody, towards even his persecutors. On receiving the letter, he sent a reply to Rameshwar in the following verse:
"If the mind is pure, even your enemies become your friends; you have no danger from cruel animals like tigers or serpents. Even poison becomes as beneficial to you as the nectar of heaven. All unhappiness will be converted into happiness and even suffering due to the burning of the body will vanish. You will come to love all creatures as you love yourself; you will entertain equal vision towards all. Tuka says, 'Narayan has showered His mercy on me. That is why I feel like this towards all beings.' "
As Rameshwar read the reply and came to the words, "and even suffering due to the burning of the body will vanish," his body became free of all suffering and thus it was firmly impressed on him that he had done great injustice to Tukaram. From that time Rameshwar became a great admirer and an ardent follower of Tukaram.
By this incident, Tukaram's name and fame spread far and wide; but he himself remained poor. He was always doing Bhajan and Kirtan and he earned nothing. The burden of maintaining the family consisting of himself, wife and children fell on his poor wife. Tukaram was so absorbed in his Bhajan that generally he forgot about his dinner. His wife had to take his food, search for him and serve him wherever he was to be found. Mostly he was found on the Bhamgiri hill. Tukaram's wife had to undergo many difficulties in maintaining the family, but she was a good woman though she was apt to lose her temper sometimes. Before his death, Tukaram himself acknowledged her devotion and purity.
One of Tukaram's admirers promised him some grain every day if he would look after his fields of corn and protect them from birds. Tukaram agreed as he thought that he would find a solitary place to sing the praises of God. When Tukaram went to the field, all the birds flew away. And Tukaram was so upset that the poor birds were deprived of their food. In a few days, however, the birds lost their shyness and fear and began to feed regularly on the corn. When the owner of the fields came to know of it, he hauled up Tukaram before the village headman; and in spite of all the protests of Tukaram about kindness to God's creatures and duty to allow them to feed freely, he was made to give a promissory note to the owner of the fields for whatever sum might be found to be the loss. After the harvest, however, it was found that the fanner, instead of losing, had got double the expected quantity. The fanner was so overjoyed that he sent Tukaram the excess quantity which, as was to be expected, Tukaram distributed to the poor.
The great Maharashtra chief Shivaji was a great admirer of Tukaram and sent him a large number of costly presents and also invited him to his court. Tukaram refused both the presents and the invitation, saying that he had nothing to do with earthly kings. Then Shivaji himself came to Tukaram and stayed with him for several days and pressed him to accept some presents which Tukaram steadily refused. One day, Shivaji was so much impressed and moved by the praises, songs and Bhajan of Tukaram that he, for the moment, wanted to give up his kingdom and take to Bhajan and follow Tukaram. But Tukaram dissuaded him from doing so. He reminded Shivaji of his duty to his subjects, to Hindu religion and to Dharma and finally advised him thus: "In order to realise God, it is not necessary to give up food or water and go to a forest. If the worldly pleasures come to you of themselves, enjoy them by all means, but only in the name of Clod who dwells in all of us. Do not desire anything and do not give up anything. This is my simple and only advice to you." Shivaji returned to his court a happier and a more contented man.
One day, a Brahmin wanted to read saint Mukund Raj's book Viveka Sindhu with Tukaram, so as to get the benefit of Tukaram's explanation, advice, etc., and thereby obtain Self-realisation and oneness with Brahman. Tukaram agreed. The Brahmin went on reading and Tukaram closed his eyes and went on doing his own Japa with concentration. After an hour or two. the Brahmin was annoyed at Tukaram's indifference and told him so bitterly. Tukaram, without losing temper in the least, told the Brahmin thus in a poem: "It is just for this reason that 1 go to the forests leaving behind the house and these things. I want to avoid oneness with God. I do not want to lose my love towards the image of God. If I obtain Self-realisation, all my desire for doing Bhajan, Kirtan etc., will vanish. I do not wish this to happen. 1 do not wish to hear the voice advocating Advaitism." On another occasion, Tukaram sang, "I want this relation to be firmly fixed between us, viz., 'You, the Master; I, the servant. You, on the high pedestal; I, at Your feet.' Give me, O Lord, only this gift—that I shall never forget Thee, that I shall always sing Your praises with affection."
Tukaram always advocated Saguna Bhakti in the form of repeating His Name and in the form of Bhajan, singing His praises. He said that Bhakti was the higher form of devotion and service, and was even higher than Mukti. He spent many, many days and nights doing Bhajan. He used to get invitations from nearby villages to go over there and do Bhajan with the villagers. Once, he was performing Kirtan at Lohagaon, a village near Dehu, and there was a large concourse of people doing Bhajan with him. Among them was a Brahmin named Joshi who had come to the Bhajan leaving his only dying child with its mother. The child died and the mother became very miserable. She came to where Tukaram was sitting in the Bhajan and upbraided him that he was the cause of making her husband indifferent to the dying child and thus responsible for the child's death. Tukaram immediately began to pray to God to grant life to the child. He sang an extempore song in the most earnest and moving terms possible in which the whole audience joined with the most heartfelt devotion. Lord Pandarinath granted their prayer and the child came to life and joined in the Bhajan.
Many wonderful events are said to have occurred in Tukaram's life. His fame spread throughout the land, but he himself remained unaffected by all that. He knew the exact time when he would depart from this world. He grew weary of living and thought his time was being wasted in attending to the wants of the body when it should have been better utilised in Kirtan, Bhajan and praise of Vithoba. He prayed to the Lord that he might be taken away soon to His lotus feet where he could remain worshipping Him continuously for ever and anon. When Tukaram's end was near, he told his friends that he would be going away in a few days. The night before his departure, Tukaram performed a Kirtan which was memorable in many respects. 7'he subject was Harikatha. Tuakaram said, "Harikatha is like the union of three holy rivers—God, the devotee and His Name. By listening to it, all one's sins are burnt off and one is purified. Even the pebbles lying around become holy and fit to be worshipped. Those among you who wish to be fit for heaven should take the holy Prasad. This is the easiest way to attain heaven." The next morning Tukaram said to his wife, "You will soon get a son called 'Narayan' and he will make you happy. You made my days happy. I shall never be able to repay your kindness." On hearing that his death was nearing, the people of the whole village assembled round him and he exhorted them thus:
"Though you all bear the responsibilities of family life, never forget Panduranga. Never forget to worship Him and sing Ais praises. Pandharpur is very near you. It is the Vaikuntha on this earth. Go and worship the Lord there. It is my experience that the Name of the Lord alone will save you at the time of death. All of you have protected and maintained me in your midst for such a long time. I can never repay you and 1 am very grateful to you. I shall ever pray to Vithoba to bless you all and take you all to heaven after this life. This is my goodbye to you all and this is my advice to you. I prostrate before you and beseech you with tears never to forget the Name of the Lord. Always do Kirtan and Bhajan of Lord Narayana. Do not be anxious about your material welfare. The Lord will look to it. This is all ephemeral. The Lord's Name is eternal. Depend on it only, liver sing the praises of the Lord. Do Japa of Ramakrishna Hari and He will always save you. This is my last request and advice to you."
Thus passed away one of the great saints of Maharashtra with God's Name of his lips, singing praises of Him. Tukaram left this world in the year 1649 when he was forty-one years old. It is believed that Lord Vishnu sent His own chariot and servants to take Tukaram to His abode.