There is global recognition today for the distinctive spiritual ethos that envelops the Indian subcontinent. A panoply of values are nourished by the diverse traditions and cultures that have been prevailing since time immemorial. The word ‘spiritual’ is extremely complex and merely confining it to the functioning of the spirit would be doing gross injustice to its layered meaning. While in today’s day and age, scholarship tends to abhor personality driven narratives, one must remember that India’s evolution as a civilisation owes largely to its continuing knowledge traditions. Seers and saints have been carriers of this wisdom, and our sustenance as a civilisation has a lot to do with such ideas that have made themselves relevant across contexts. A lot of these saints have ‘lived’ the knowledge they preach, and that is exactly the reason they deserve to be honoured.
One such forgotten luminary is Sant Gadge Maharaj. Born as Debuji Zhingraji Janorkar in Amravati, Maharashtra in 1876, he received his name ‘Gadge’ by virtue of carrying a broken piece of earthen pot (called Gadge in Marathi) on his head wherever he travelled. For the records, he remained uneducated, but few could doubt his immaculate knowledge about society. Gadge Maharaj was a religious person in the truest sense possible, as he saw God in the poor masses of the country.
Gadge Maharaj's vision and ideas
For him, true religion meant selflessly serving this impoverished segment of society that found it hard to fulfil even basic needs. He was staunchly opposed to blind faith, as well as the regressive practice of untouchability.
He delivered his message in two ways: by propagating it through ‘kirtans’, and more significantly by travelling across the country to make a tangible difference. In his kirtans, he recited the dohas of Kabir, and invoked Sant Jnaneshwar and Tukaram who in the medieval age had presented a syncretic vision for society.
As it should be for a true saint, Sant Gadge Maharaj lived a frugal life, and travelled only with bare necessities. He focussed a lot on cleanliness and hygiene, and filth in the slums absolutely rankled him. His work in interiors of Maharashtra, especially in areas dominated by Dalits, is noteworthy.
From his childhood, Sant Gadge Maharaj raised his voice against the ruthless killing of animals for consumption or otherwise. He always maintained a high degree of respect for animals, and did not seek to treat them any differently as he would a human being. The killing of cows particularly incensed him, and in order to protect this most sacred of creatures, he opened gaushalas in Vidarbha. Many people generously donated for such noble causes, and Gadge Maharaj used all funds to construct houses and sanitise areas inhabited by the lower castes.[ref]
Association with Dr. BR Ambedkar
Gadge Maharaj is also known for his association with Dr. B.R Ambedkar, who himself made stellar contributions towards the upliftment of the lower castes. Both of them shared a very special bond, and met often to discuss social and political issues of significance. Ambedkar also reportedly claimed that Gadge Maharaj was the greatest servant of the people after Jyotiba Phule.
All-in-all, Sant Gadge Maharaj was a humanist and a deeply spiritual person. He relieved himself from familial responsibilities at an early age and committed himself towards the service of society. Social service for him was clearly a method to integrate the downtrodden sections of society with the mainstream.
Such actions aimed at social upliftment were of profound consequence in a period where India was fighting a battle for freedom with a colonial oppressor. Saints like Sant Gadge Maharaj and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa understood the need to vanquish regressive social practices that had gained credence in large parts of the country. The entrenched caste mentality had particularly proven to be a thorn by the side of revolutionaries who sought to unite the country against the British. Thus, rather unassumingly, reformers like Sant Gadge Maharaj spread the message of harmony and social equity, that helped foster social cohesion. It is upon this edifice that mass leaders like Gandhi and Bose established their influence.[ref]