The name ‘Pandurang’, another name for Vithal, is of Kannada origin, and some stone tablets dating to the thirteenth century excavated near the western gate indicate this. The Shaivites dispute this and say that the word Pandurang comes from the Marathi words ‘pandhara’ meaning white and ‘rang’, meaning complexion. As Shiva is portrayed as very fair in mythology, they claimed that Vithal was Shiva.
However, the Vaishnavites contest this argument and say that Vithal was Krishna whose body had turned white due to the dust from the hooves of the cows he was herding, having settled on it. This debate often turned acrimonious, and many were the attempts made to unite both factions, giving rise to many myths, such as the one of Narhari Sonar.
Narhari Sonar was the most noted goldsmith of the area, but when he was called forth to craft a crown for Vithal, he flatly refused.
‘Vithal is Krishna, and I am a worshipper of Shiva. I cannot set sight on Vithal,’ he said.
On being persuaded, he agreed to craft the crown but said he would take the measurements for the crown blindfolded, and then make the crown according to them. His condition being accepted, he was escorted into the sanctum santorum blindfolded, as he desired. He made an exquisite crown that did not fit when set upon the Lord’s head. Narhari was stunned; it had never happened before! He set out on a second blindfolded mission with the same disastrous results, and the third that followed was no better. The fourth time, in pure frustration, he tore the blindfold away and saw none but Shiva in front of him and saw him dissolve into Vithal. The blindfold on his mind disappeared too, and he became one of the most ardent devotees of Vithal.
In the fourteenth century, Sant Dnyaneshwar (called Gynaneshwar in Hindi) first came here with his followers. He settled the differences between the two factions by stating that Vithal was Krishna, but he carried a Shiva lingam carved on his crown.
He also bade his followers walk to Pandharpur twice a year in the Ashadh and Kartik months of the Hindu calendar, reaching on ekadashi or the eleventh day of the lunar calendar. The practice, called vaari, has continued unabated for over seven hundred years. The number of people walking from the samadhis of Dnyaneshwar at Alandi and Tukaram at Dehu, both near Pune, is now the single biggest exodus of humans from one place to another conducted so regularly. Upwards of one and a half million people walk the path twice a year now, in perfect peace and harmony, singing, dancing and chanting the name of the Lord. They come from differing social backgrounds and are from all age brackets. Often, the younger age group also includes many software engineers and corporate executives. They walk in self-contained groups, each called a ‘dindi’. Every dindi has a leader; there is a group to look after accommodation, one for food and one also includes musicians and singers who chant the name of the Lord. The order in which they walk is predetermined, and there is never any dispute or rowdyism. Their discipline can be gauged from the fact that there are often only a few hundred policemen to monitor over one million plus people.
The Vaarkari sampraday, or the community of those undertaking the vaari, is probably the most egalitarian community in the spiritual firmament of the country, with all castes represented in it. No one in the vaari is a brahmin or a lower caste—each one is just a varkari.
The phalanx of saints associated with the worship of Vithal has come from all communities. Namdev was a tailor, Dnyaneshwar a Brahmin, Tukaram a Baniya, Chokha Mela, a Mahar or lower caste, Narhari Das a goldsmith. Even women saints abound with Janabai and Kanhoptara, who was a prostitute, being amongst them.
Stories are aplenty of how Vithal donned the garb of an ordinary person to help these saints. Janabai, it is said, was overloaded with housework by her in-laws and so she would not find time to take the name of Vithal. So the Lord would take a human form every day and go and wash her clothes for her. Since Chokha Mela was of a lower caste, the Brahmins would not allow him inside the temple or let him partake of the prasad. Vithal would, it is said, go to Chokha Mela’s hut every day and eat with him. Once, when he spilt some curd on his garment, the Brahmins in the temple were surprised to find the curd on the attire of the idol.
The prevalence of these stories ensures that Vithal is, to his devotees, not a distant God but a friend and companion who is also a loved equal. The personalisation of the Lord is clear from the name he is addressed by in the local dialect—he is called Vithoba, which is quite akin to a Samuel being called Sam or a Debendranath being called Debu in his family. His consort Rukmini is similarly addressed as Rukumai or Mother Rukmini. Strangely, Vithal is also called Mauli or a loving mother, probably to indicate the closeness one feels with the mother. Vithal is to his devotees a God who is a part of their families.
This personalisation of the Lord came home to me the very first time I came to Pandharpur with my grandfather, more than fifty years ago, when I was about twelve. He was a varkari (one who walks in the vaari) and had all his life walked the vaari twice a year. A prosperous farmer and head of a large village, he would for those twenty days turn into a mendicant and carrying his ektara (a single-stringed instrument), walk with the dindi, singing the praises of the Lord. He would sleep on the ground and eat whatever was available. I joined him for the last day’s walk that particular year. Part of a huge crowd, we jostled for space and with great difficulty entered Pandharpur, but as we came close to the temple, he stopped, looked at the dome of the temple and folding his hands, muttered a prayer and turned back to return. I was stunned!
‘Didn’t you want to meet the Lord?’ I asked him.
‘Yes,’ he replied.
‘But then why are we not going into the temple?’ I asked him.
‘He knows I came; I don’t have to show him my face to establish that,’ he replied.
Badve shows us a stone tablet fixed in the wall of the mandap against which people rub their backs before going in to meet the Lord. The tablet has a list of eighty-four donors to the temple in the twelfth century, and devotees believe that rubbing their back against the same relieves one of the sins accumulated over a lifetime. We cleanse ourselves too and enter the garbhagriha through silver-plated gates, and there right before me under a canopy supported on pillars of pure silver stands the Lord, his feet firmly planted on a brick, his hands on his hips. I am overwhelmed and bow down and murmur, ‘Vithal, Vithal, Vithal.’