|Born||c. 1270 CE
|Died||c. 1350 CE
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Namdev, also transliterated as Namdeo and Namadeva, (traditionally, c. 1270 – c. 1350 CE) was a poet-saint who is significant to the Varkari sect of Hinduism. He is also venerated in Sikhism. Most of the spiritual messages of Namdev emphasized the importance of living the life of a householder and that through marriage and having a family, one could attain moksha.
Details of the life of Namdev are vague. He is traditionally believed to have lived between 1270 and 1350 but S. B. Kulkarni — according to Christian Novetzke, "one of the most prominent voices in the historical study of Maharashtrian sant figures" — has suggested that 1207-1287 is more likely, based on textual analysis. Some scholars date him to around 1425 and another, R. Bharadvaj, proposes 1309-1372.
Namdev was married to Rajai and had a son, Vitha, both of whom wrote about him, as did his mother, Gonai. Contemporary references to him by a disciple, a potter, a guru and other close associates also exist. There are no references to him in the records and inscriptions of the then-ruling family and the first non-Varkari noting of him appears possibly to be in the Lilacaritra, a Mahanubhav-sect biography dating from 1278. Smrtisthala, a later Mahanubhav text from around 1310, may also possibly refer to him; after that, there are no references until a bakhar of around 1538.[a]
According to Mahipati, a hagiographer of the 18th-century, Namdev's parents were Damashet and Gonai, a childless elderly couple whose prayers for parenthood were answered in a form that bears similarities with the Immaculate Conception and involved him being found floating down a river. As with various other details of his life, elements such as this may have been invented to sidestep issues that might have caused controversy. In this instance, the potential controversy was that of caste or, more specifically, his position in the Hindu varna system of ritual ranking. He was born into what is generally recognised as a Shudra caste, variously recorded as shimpi (tailor) in the Marathi language and as chimpi (calico-printer) in northern India. Shudra is the lowest-ranked of the four varnas and those of his followers in Maharashtra and northern India who are from those communities prefer to consider their place, and thus his, as the higher-status Kshatriya rank.
There are contrary traditions concerning his birthplace, with some people believing that he was born at Narsi Bahmani, on the Krishna river in the Marathwada region, and others preferring somewhere near to Pandharpur on the Bhima river. that he was himself a calico-printer or tailor and that he spent much of his life in Punjab. The Lilacaritra suggests, however, that Namdev was a cattle-thief who was devoted to and assisted Vitthal.[b]
A friendship between Namdev and Jnanesvar, a yogi-saint, has been posited at least as far back as circa 1600 CE when Nabhadas, a hagiographer, noted it in his Bhaktamal. Jnanesvar never referred to Namdev in his writings but perhaps had no cause to do so; Novetzke notes that "... Jnandev's songs generally did not concern biography or autobiography; the historical truth of their friendship is beyond my ken to determine and has remained an unsettled subject in Marathi scholarship for over a century."
Namdev is generally considered by Sikhs to be a holy man (bhagat), many of whom came from lower castes and so also attracted attention as social reformers. Such men, who comprised both Hindus and Muslims, traditionally wrote devotional poetry in a style that was acceptable to the Sikh belief system.
A tradition in Maharashtra is that Namdev died at the age of eighty in 1350 CE. Sikh tradition maintains that his death place was the Punjabi village of Ghuman, although this is not universally accepted. Aside from a shrine there that marks his death, there are monuments at the other claimant places, being Pandharpur and the nearby Narsi Bahmani.
The literary works of Namdev were influenced by Vaishnavite philosophy and a belief in Vithoba. Along with the Dnyaneshwari, a sacred work of Dnyaneshwar, and of Bhakti movement teacher-writers such as Tukaram, the writings of Namdev form the basis of the beliefs held by the Varkari sect of Hinduism. He was thus among those responsible for disseminating the monotheistic Vithoba faith that had emerged first in the Karnataka region around the mid- to late-twelfth century and then spread to Pandharpur in Maharashtra.
Namdev and Jnanesvar used the Marathi language to convey their beliefs rather than using the traditional Sanskrit language that was essentially a buttress for the pre-eminence of the Brahmin priests. Namdev's style was to compose simply-worded praise for Vithoba and to use a melodic device, called samkirtana, both of which were accessible to common people. Shima Iwao says that "He taught that all can be saved equally, without regard to caste, through devotion (bhakti) to Vithoba" and that he greatly influenced groups of people who were forbidden by the Brahmin elite from studying the Vedas, such as women and members of the Shudra and untouchable communities.
The earliest anthological record of Namdev's works occurs in the Sikh scriptures known as the Adi Granth, compiled in 1604, although Christian Novetzke notes that while the manuscript records of Namdev mostly date from the 17th- and 18th-centuries, there exists a manuscript from 1581 that presents a rarely-recounted variant version of Namdev's Tirthavli, a Marathi-language autobiographical piece. It is evident that the Adi Granth record is not an accurate rendition of what Namdev wrote: the oral tradition, in particular, probably accounts significantly for the changes and additions that appear to have been made by that time. The numerous subsequently-produced manuscripts also show variances texts and additions works that are attributed to him. Of around 2500 abhangas that were credited to him and written in the Marathi language, perhaps only 600 - 700 are authentic. The surviving manuscripts are geographically dispersed and of uncertain provenance.
- There was a revival of interest in the Marathi-language bhakti movement, of which Namdev had been a part, in the sixteenth century following the collapse of the Vijayanagara empire.
- The Mahanubhavs and Varkaris were antagonists and this is often reflected in their writings, especially in those of the former sect. Novetzke discusses the chronological and philological difficulties relating to the purported origins of the Lilacaritra and the traditionally-accepted year of birth and spelling of Namdev.
- McGregor (1984), pp. 40-42
- Novetzke (2013), pp. 45-46
- Iwao (1988), p. 184
- Novetzke (2013), p. 48
- Novetzke (2013), pp. 42-44, 46
- Iwao (1988), p. 185
- Novetzke (2013), pp. 54-55
- Novetzke (2013), p. 55
- Prill (2009)
- Novetzke (2013), p. 43
- Novetzke (2013), pp. 44
- Novetzke (2013), p. 42
- Novetzke (2013), pp. 42-43
- Novetzke (2013), pp. 43, 48
- Sadarangani (2004), p. 146
- Iwao (1988), p. 186
- Iwao (1988), pp. 184-185
- Novetzke (2013), pp. 41-42
- Novetzke (2013), p. 41
- Iwao, Shima (June–September 1988), "The Vithoba Faith of Maharashtra: The Vithoba Temple of Pandharpur and Its Mythological Structure", Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture) 15 (2–3): 183–197, ISSN 0304-1042, archived from the original on 2009-03-26
- McGregor, Ronald Stuart (1984), A History of Indian Literature, Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, ISBN 9783447024136
- Novetzke, Christian Lee (2013), Religion and Public Memory: A Cultural History of Saint Namdev in India, Columbia University Press, ISBN 9780231512565
- Prill, Susan (2009), "Representing Sainthood in India: Sikh and Hindu Visions of Namdev", Material Religion 5 (2): 156–179
- Sadarangani, Neeti M. (2004), Bhakti Poetry in Medieval India: Its Inception, Cultural Encounter and Impact, Sarup & Sons, ISBN 9788176254366