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The Mahnubhvas

Author(s): I. M. P. Raeside
Source: Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 39,
No. 3 (1976), pp. 585-600
Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of School of Oriental and African Studies
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The Mahanubhavas are a Hindu sect whose members are largely concentrated in northern and eastern Maharashtra, between the old districts of
Khandesh and Nagpur, while they are strongest of all in Berar. In many
respects they have a rather marginal place in the culture of Maharashtra
today. Unlike the Varkari pantha, the much more celebrated and popular
Vaisnava sect, they are centred on a backwoods area. They tend to gather in
mathas (monasteries) in decayed villages that are a day's journey from the
nearest railway or main road. Instead of Alandi, which is on Poona's doorstep,
or Pandharpur, their holy places are Ritpur, a crumbling dusty village in the
rolling country north of Amraoti, and Mahur, on a mountainside on the borders
of Berar and the Adilabad district of Andhra. Like the Varkaris their followers
are almost all non-Brahmans, but unlike the Varkaris they have, until recently
at least, acquired few Brahman champions to lend them ethical and religious
respectability, and indeed they are chiefly known in Marathi folk-lore as typifying a virulent brand of hypocrisy-the stereotype of a sweet tongue and
professions of virtue that cover up all sorts of unseemly and unspecified
'goings-on'. Their numbers are relatively small. Enthoven, whose section on
them in The tribes and castes of Bombay is one of the few references to the sect
in English, gives it an estimated membership of about 22,000 in 1901,2 and it
is hard to judge what relation this figure would bear to the number of professed
Mahanubhavas today. The modern census figures are of course no help, since
Mahanubhavas are included under the general heading of Hindus.
However, in spite of this peripheral status in Marathi society, the
Mahanubhava sect has received a great deal of attention from Marathi scholars
over the last 50 years, and this is entirely on account of the literature produced
within the sect. Up to the beginning of the present century it had been content
to suffer in silence the slanders of its enemies (and the enemy was to a large
extent the Brahmans of the districts in which it flourished). A nineteenth1 The core of this article was a paper read to the Royal Asiatic Society in 1966. This was later
expanded to form a contribution to the seminar on Aspects of Religion in South Asia that was held
at SOAS in 1970-1. It has been further revised now that it is apparent that there is no longer any
prospect of the seminar papers being published as a collection.
2 R. E. Enthoven, The tribes and castes
of Bombay, Bombay, 1920-2, iu, 427-33. Some of the
information supplied to Enthoven (by D. R. Bhandarkar) reveals a high degree of heterodoxy
within the sect which may be true of the late nineteenth century but has left no trace in the
Marathi literature. See also J. N. Farquar, An outline of the religious literature of India, Oxford,
1920, 247-9. Reference to a few other sources on the Mahanubhavas is made in J. Gonda, Die
Religionen Indiens, i, Stuttgart, 1963, 177, but beware some semi-' ghost' works: ' B. M. Sastri:
Mahdnubhdv Panth' is the Marathi work of Bilakronasastri Mahanubhava referred to in n. 4,
below. 'N. Kalelkar: La secte Mdnbhdv' is an unpublished doctoral thesis that I have yet to
see. For some of the main works on the sect in Marathi see I. M. P. Raeside, ' A bibliographical
index of Mahanubhava works in Marathi ', BSOAS, xxni, 3, 1960, 464-507.



century writer from Ellichpur (Muslim and therefore neutral) says of the
Mahanubhavas that 'there is bitter enmity between them and the Brahmans
of this district ', but ' however much people oppress them they never complain '.3
The twentieth century wrought a change in this humility and some of the
mahantas, as the Mahanubhava religious leaders call themselves, began first in
1907 to defend their sect in the courts against slanders.4 To prove their case
and rebut some of the more offensive origins wished on them by their detractors,
they had to produce some of the holy scriptures of the sect which had been
jealously kept secret until then, and Marathi scholars were astonished to find
themselves presented with a whole corpus of literature much of which dated
from the fourteenth century and was contemporary with the oldest works of
Marathi literature known up to that time. Moreover this corpus contained not
only verse but a great quantity of early prose-the only appreciable body of
prose to be written in Marathi before the seventeenth century. It is no wonder
that a number of Marathi scholars began to devote themselves eagerly to the
publication of these early works and to studies of the sect which have enormously
increased our knowledge of it over the last few decades. Naturally all this
work has been published in Marathi and is scarcely known outside Maharashtra,
so much so that the baldest outline of the history of the sect was recently
published in a Gujarati journal in the guise of a learned article. The present
article sets out only to make available to non-Marathireaders an outline of the
institutions and beliefs of the Mahanubhavas. Although I have permitted
myself a few speculations on somewhat sensitive points that have, in general,
been avoided by Marathi scholars, I have tried as much as possible to restrain
myself from suggesting possible influences and indicating parallel beliefs or
practice, since I feel that this task is better left to scholars who can take a
broader view of the development of Indian religions and philosophy.
Origin and history of the sect
The Mahanubhava sect has preserved very detailed histories of its founder
and of the ramifying guru parampardsof the disciples who followed him. With
them it has always been a work of piety to keep accounts of the lives of their
great men and the works that they wrote in a series of hagiographical works
known as Lildcaritra, Smrtisthala, Vrddhdcdra,and Anvayasthala.5 Unfortunately these works are somewhat deficient in dates, and those dates that are
given are conflicting and seem frequently to be interpolations. However, by
combining the Mahanubhavatraditions with the emendations of later historians,
notably Professor Kolte who has devoted a lifetime of study to the subject, one
can arrive at a fairly satisfactory account of the early years of the sect.
3 V. B. Kolte, Mahdnubhdvasa.msodhana,Malkapur, 1962, 148.

4 Times of India, 15 November 1907. For an account of another cause celebre see
Balak.rsnaastri Mahanubhava, Ma7ihnubhdva-pantha,second ed., Mahur, 1960, 346-58.
6 For these and other title of Mahanubhiva works mentioned subsequently detailed references
can be found in Raeside, art. cit. Individual references will only be given for works published since



The founder was Cakradhara,traditionally born at Broach in 1194 the son

of the minister of a king Malladeva (?). His name was Haripiladeva and he
died young, perhaps c. 1221, but before his body could be burned it was
reanimated by the spirit of Cakrapani, the third avatar of god (parame4vara)
according to Mahanubhava belief. However, he still carried on his secular life
as a young prince for some time, but finally set off on a pilgrimage to Ramtek
near Nagpur. He separated himself from his train and finally wandered into
Ritpur where he met Govindaprabhu, the fourth of the five avatars, and
became his disciple. Then began a series of wanderings-12 years in the
wilderness as a naked ascetic, then a period in the south at Warangal in
Andhra where he rather oddly married again, and finally a return to the
Godavari at Paithan where he met Nagaisa and acquired her as his first
permanent female disciple. This marks the end of the period of Cakradhara's
life that is known as Ekanka in the Mahanubhava histories, the period when
he was' solo ' so to speak, and his meeting with Nagaisa can be fairly confidently
dated to 1266. Up to this point one may believe as much or as little of the
story as one likes, but from now on, for the last eight years of Cakradhara's
life which is told in the two sections of the histories called Pirvdrdha and
Uttardrdha,we are given the most detailed account of Cakradhara'swanderings
up and down the Godavari, constantly teaching his doctrine and acquiring
devoted disciples, many of them women. The names of all the villages where
he stopped are given, the number of days that he stayed in any one place,
whether he set out in the morning or the evening, and so on. Naturally there
are discrepancies in times and numbers between the various versions of the
histories, but all the same it is possible to draw a map of Cakradhara'smovements during those years and the details hang together remarkably well.
About half-way through these eight years, at the break between Purvdrdhaand
Uttardrdha, Cakradhara was joined by Nagadeva, his most devoted male
follower who was to become the leader of the sect after Cakradhara's death
which took place probably in 1274 (iaka 1196 mggha).
Cakradhara'sdeath was remarkable, and the most remarkable aspect of it
is that the story is told openly in the sect's own histories, though only in some
versions. Because he had earned the undying hatred of the Brahman ministers
of the king, Ramdevraja Yadava, he was arrested and brought to Paithan
and there accused of living immorally with his female disciples. As a punishment his nose was cut off (some say his ears as well). Later, his enemies still
not satisfied, he was arrested again and this time beheaded. The Mahanubhavas
say that he then 'received' his head back on to his body and departed for the
north where he is still presumed to be living in splendour-rajya karitam.6
6 This episode, usually known as evatacer. prak;aranua
(the final event), appears only in some
MSS of L.ldcaritra, but it fills an obvious lacuna in the other versions which jump without any
transition from the point where Cakradhara'slife is threatened to his' going north '. V. B. Kolte's
Srikakradharacaritra, Malkapur, 1952, covers all aspects of Cakradhara'slife and has a final chapter
(pp. 284-318) which deals exhaustively with the evidence that bears on his dates.



After Cakradhara's death the leaderless disciples drifted back to Ritpur

and gathered round Govindaprabhu till his death in c. gaka 1209/1287,7
whereupon Nagadeva took over and commanded the group till his own death
in c. 1312. He held the sect together, no doubt through having been
Cakradhara'sinseparable companion, and under him it was a definite rule that
only he, as leader, could give diksd, initiation and teaching, to new recruits.
Once instructed, however, these new disciples tended to be shared out among
the old guard. Nagadeva was followed by Baidevabasa (1312-15) and then by
Kavlsvaracarya, who as his name implies was the great poet of the early period
of Mahanubhava literature, but after his death in the 1390's his successor
Paragaramabasaseems to have been unable to control the inevitable fissiparous
tendencies of any growing society. Once the nexus of Cakradhara's original
disciples had begun to acquire their own issyas, quite obviously sub-group
loyalties began to develop until towards the end of Parasaramabasa'sleadership
the Mahanubhava pantha split into 13 sub-sects or dmnayas. We have the
names listed, but many are scarcely mentioned again and must have been very
short-lived. Others keep cropping up continuously, but by the end of the
nineteenth century they had all merged back into one or other of the two
strong factions, the Upadhye and the Kavisvara-the Kavivara representing
orthodoxy and the Upadhye having proved for some unknown reason the
strongest splinter group. The differences between these two amnzyas are now
minimal-minor points of doctrine, minor details of dress-but no doubt
there must have been many furious debates produced by the original schism.8
In the present century one can see a rather interesting reaction upon the sect
as a whole of the attentions of outside scholars. Mahanubhavas have been
spurred by the interest of others into taking an interest in themselves. Clearly
the whole movement had become somewhat debased over the centuries-each
sub-sect devoutly preserving its manuscripts and traditions but rarely bothering
to think about them, still less to compare them. From the 1920's onwards they
began to produce a few scholars from among themselves and have been moved
to resurrect some of the missing dmndyas. So a learned and respected member
of the Kavisvara was some years ago promoted as the new, revived Yaksadeva
mahanta. Time will show whether this is enough to start a viable guruparampard stemming from him.
The pace at which this modernization and reformation of the pantha takes
place depends very much on the character of the incumbents of the more
influential centres. Between the wars the mahantas of the Devadevesvara
matha at Mahur and the Gopiraja mandira at Ritpur were enthusiasts who
played a leading part in collecting and studying Mahanubhava works and in
assisting outside scholars to understand them. Their immediate successors did
7 V. B. Kolte
(ed.), Mhdirnbhata-sankalita~ri Govindaprabhucaritra, second ed., Malkapur,
1960, introd., 18.
8 V. B. Kolte, ' Mahdinubhvdincedona dmndya 'in his Malhnubhdva sarisodhana, 123-36.



not maintain this tradition quite so actively and other centres of reform
developed. The position today is that many mahantas within the pantha are
happy to take their doctrinal difficulties to Professor Kolte to be settled, for
he has devoted more study to Mahanubhava philosophy and ritual (vicara and
dcdra) than anyone within the sect. The other half of the sect are strictly
orthodox still, and refuse to disclose or even discuss Mahanubhava beliefs with
Before leaving the history of the pantha I should mention its extension
into the Panjab in the sixteenth century, where it became established in a
small way as the Jai Krishni pantha. There are Jai Krishni mathas at Lahore
and Peshawar, and there is even reputed to be one in Kabul. The connexion
between the M1ahanubhavasof Maharashtra and this outpost was well maintained until partition. It was the tradition for the mahantas of the more
important Mahanubhava mathas to be Panjabi, and in fact most of the
enlightened Mahanubhava leaders who began to publish on their own account
and to co-operate with outside scholars were Panjabis.
The authority for all Mahanubhava beliefs and practices is contained in the
writings produced soon after Cakradhara'sdeath by his disciples. First came
the Lldcaritra, the story of Cakradhara's lild or activities on earth. It is
divided into three parts, Ekdnka, Purvdrdha,and Uttardrdha,as I have already
mentioned, and has been published in a very unsatisfactory edition.9 It is
supposed to have been composed by the disciple Mhai.mbhata immediately
after Cakradhara'sdeath and contains all Cakradhara'smovements and every
word that he said put down from memory by Mhaimbhata after consultation
with all the other disciples. Soon afterwards Kesobasa produced from this
and from his own recollections an epitome of Cakradhara's teaching in the
form of sutras, now called the Sutrapdtha. This is the ' bible ' of the Mahanubhavas. It is divided into sections of which all but the last four are quite
short. Kesobasa later added a further section that has also become holy writ,
the Drstanta-pdthawhich is a collection of all the stories Cakradharaever used
to illustrate his teaching. A large proportion of later Mahanubhava writing
consists of reworking of and commentaries on this material.
The philosophy propounded by the Sutrapdthais basically a dvaita system,
but instead of the simple dualism ofprakrti and purusa of Sankhya, Cakradhara
proposed four everlasting, always independent components of the universe:
Jiva (the life-monad), Devata (minor gods who mainly exist for their nuisance
value to Jiva), Prapanca (the material world), and Paramesvara/Brahma. It
seems that the Mahanubhavas are eccentric in setting up Devata as a separate
9 H. N. Nene, Mahrdsfrfya ddya caritrakdra Mahindrabhattasankalita Lildcaritra, Nagpur,
6 parts, 1936-50. The more recent edition of S. G. Tulpule (5 parts, Poona, 1964-6) reprints the
same text but with some useful notes and vocabularies.



entity instead of as a higher manifestation of Jiva. The purpose of Jiva is to

attain moksa or a state of kaivalya, attaining the form of God (isvara svarupacd
prapti) and participating in the bliss of God (isvara dnanddcaupabhoga),l0and
Jiva is held back from this by the usual things-anddi avidyd, various categories
of ignorance and error, and also by the temptation to aim at something lower.
By striving to attain one of the many forms of Devata, Jiva receives the smear
(lepa) of the karma that is in the control of the lower gods, and therefore even
the optimum fruits of karma that Jiva can hope to achieve by so doing are
necessarily transient. It will eventually drop back into the endless karmarahdti-the wheel of action in the world.
The devatd are essentially therefore a powerful impediment to Jiva in its
search for moksa. Devata includes in fact almost the whole gamut of the Hindu
dantheon. Accordingto Mahanubhavabelief the devatdcakrais very elaborately
organized into a hierarchy of nine levels. I will not list them all but at the
bottom come the karmabhaumcyddevat--very minor godlings, yaksas and
yaksinis, animistic gods inhabiting wells and ruined buildings. Their number
is 13 crores and they are limited in space to a distance of 500 yojands each
way-that is the karmabhimi, the widest extent of Bharatvarsa. At the top of
the hierarchy comes Maya, the female principle of creativity, infinite or rather
coterminous with the brahmdnda and responsible periodically and under
instruction from Isvara for extruding Jiva from where it has been existing in
a potential form within her. Meanwhile the astabhairava are busy evolving
Prapanca from the pdnca mahibhuteinand the three gunas which they in some
way embody. Half-way down the hierarchy come the satya-kaildsa-vaikun.thicyd
devati, who are three parallel sets headed by Brahma, giva, and Visnu respectively. Somewhat confusingly, however, the names of the astabhairava, who
are like very bad-tempered henchmen of Isvara employed for creating and
destroying Prapanca, include Umapati, Sadasiva, Pasupati, as well as Brahma,
Visnu, and Mahadeva.l1
One does not need to take this elaborate construction too literally. It is
quite obviously a structured rag-bag into which has been thrown any preexisting god that emerged and it is very convenient for making conversions.
For the devati cakra is incidental, and moreover it is very dubious whether
Cakradharahimself was concerned with it at all except to deny its relevance.l2
10 V. B.
Kolte, Mahdnubhdvatattvajndna,Malkapur, 1945, 13. A summary of the main points of
Mahanubhava doctrine, for which I have not thought it useful to give detailed references, can be
found in Kolte, Srfcakradharacaritra, 214-50.
11Sutrapdtha, Vicdra, 20. None of these correspond with the names of the eight Bhairavas of the
Saiva system. Interestingly the remaining two, Karali and Vikarali are almost the same as the
names of two of the 12 sages (Karala and Vikarala) to whom Kapilika doctrine was revealed. Cf.
D. N. Lorenzen, The Kdpalikas and Kdldmukhas: two lost Saivite sects, New Delhi, 1972, 37.
12 See
esp. Siitrapdtha, Anyavydvrtti, 1-10. Even though the details are quite different, the
concept of an elaborate hierarchy of Devata has a close parallel in Madhva. Perhaps both systems
descend from the lost Pancaritra texts to which Madhva refers. (Cf. S. Siauve, Les hierarchies
spirituelles selon t'Anuvydkhyanade Madhva, Pondichery, 1971, 9-14.)



His teaching is mainly concerned with the relationship between Jiva and
Paramesvara. He was preaching a kind of monotheism and refers constantly
to the highest deity as Paramesvara, gri Prabhu, or simply Para-that which
is beyond all the Devata. For him this one true god makes himself manifest
on earth from time to time as an avatar in order to assist Jiva in its heavy task
of attaining moksa. The pre-eminent avatar is Krsna, but not Krsna as an
aspect of Visnu. This Krsna is independent, sui generis and at a pinch Krsna
the expounder of the Gitd.
Paramesvara gives salvation (uddharana)through the medium of knowledge
(jndna) or of love (prema), and, as is usual where this kind of dichotomy is
postulated, it is the receiver of prema, in other words the bhakta,who is dearer
to god: 'to some he induces love-when you say love you say bhakti ... he
places the bhaktabefore his face-those who have acquired knowledge he places
at his back '.13 In itself this is a fairly conventional gospel except that it was
exclusive and in opposition to the comfortable belief of popular Vedanta that
all forms of devotion might be equally efficacious-' a namaskdra made to
any god goes ultimately to Krsna '. However, there is much in the detail of
the Sutrapdtha,particularly in the last two sections, Vicara and Vicdra-mdlikd,
that is obviously drawn eclectically from pre-existing systems. In the vocabulary
of the sutras which discuss Jiva's acquisition of inferior grades of jndna and
sakti there are traces of Vedanta, of Yoga, and of Tantric concepts, and since
Cakradharais more or less contemporary with Madhva it would be surprising
if his intransigent distinction of four eternal entities did not owe something to
Purna-dvaita. Informed discussion of any such parallels or influences must
await a respectable edition and translation of the Sutrapdtha.l4 Up to now no
serious attempt has been made to compare the Sitrapdtha with the Lildcaritra
and although Kolte devoted immense labour to expounding the' Mahanubhava'
system in Mahdnubhdva-tattvajndna,the circumstances of his research, in
which he was dependent on the goodwill of devout Mahanubhava scholars,
themselves somewhat apprehensive at their own temerity in discussing ' secret'
doctrine with an outsider, made it impossible for him to distinguish between
levels of authenticity-between what Cakradhara said in specific situations
(his words as quoted in Lildcaritra),the epitome of his teaching (the Sutrapdtha),
and the interpretation of later commentators.
Precepts of conduct
The Acdra and Acdra-milikd sections of the Satrapdtha are concerned
mainly with the way of life to be followed by the true disciples of Cakradhara/
13 ekari prema sancariti
; prema bolije, bhakta bolije ... bhaktdsi apa.naper samora deti ;...
jndniydsi pathEsighdilti ' (Sutrapdtha, Uddharana, 13-14, 60, 62). There may be slight variations
between my citations from Sitrapdtha and those of Kolte. The Nene editions are extremely rare
outside India and my own copy of Siztrapdtha is only a pantha edition published in Nagpur in
1959 without scholarly pretensions.
14A student of the University of Pennsylvania, Miss Anne Feldhaus, is at the moment
embarking on this formidable task as a thesis subject.



Paramesvara. It is the life of a wandering ascetic that is envisaged-a life in

which all worldly ties are abandoned. More specifically Cakradhara enjoins
nitydtana (constant movement-' you should be in such places where none
know you and you know no one '),15 vijana (solitude-' you should pass your
life at the foot of a tree at the farthest confines of the place '),16 bhiksdbhojana
(begging all food), and ndmasmarana (constantly remembering the names and
acts of Paramesvara). There is no trace in this monastic rule of the conventional
Vaisnava bhakti-no devotional songs, no personalized god that resides in a
specific image at a specific place such as Vithoba of Pandhrapur. In fact
Cakradharasays unequivocally: tirtha, devatd,purusu, iye tini dpalaviti 'holy
places, gods, and men, these three you should avoid '.17 All that is needed is
smarana, anusmarana, sakrta smarana, he says. tumhd sayanasani, bhojani
paramedvarucihoadv ki gd 'remembering, more remembering, remembering at
every moment. God alone should be with you in sleeping, in sitting, in
eating...'.18 One should give no special reverence to a guru, for this only
forms another kind of bondage. A guru is only another human being, a j7va,
after all. One should stay with him long enough to receive the true teaching
and then depart to live alone. If you meet a fellow believer on your wanderings
you should remain in company no longer than five days, and this time should
be spent in fortifying each other's understanding by discussion and argument.
Only the old and infirm may legitimately stay with their gurus and live on the
alms begged by others.
Also allied with this doctrine of renunciation is a very strong insistence on
ahimsd. tumaceni mungi rdnda na hoSvi 'not even an ant should be widowed
because of you', Cakradhara says,l9 and one of the most strictly observed
practices among Mahanubhavas is that of straining all their drinking water
through three thicknesses of cloth.
This then in essence is what Cakradharataught-continually to remember
God (Paramesvara) and to hold oneself aloof from all but the most unavoidable
contacts with men and the world, being at the same time quite indifferent to
mdritdmpujitdm samdnaei hodvdki gd 'a beating or
praise or blame (tumhdmr
a blessing should be all the same to you ').20 It is a Spartan doctrine in fact,
designed only for the sannyasi. There is no provision for lay hangers-on, no
ritual, no real sense of community, no tangible objects of worship-except, of
course, for Cakradharahimself. It is quite clear that he recommended himself
to his followers as the latest avatar of Paramesvara. 'Remembering' for his
disciples meant thinking on their leader's life and words as much as anything
else. There was also Krsna, but Krsna only as expounder of the Gitd. There
are occasional references in the Sutrapdthato the Bhdgavatastory of Krsna,2'
kavhazrre nene, dpaia kavha'4itenrne,ije ais8rf sthdrnyi asdve*r (Sutrapdtha,
Acdra, 22).
sevaftr.jhdadta.lrAjanma ksepdvem(ibid., 26).


ibid., 39.

18 ibid., 29-30.

19 ibid., 60.


ibid., 64.

Sutrapdtha, Vicdra, 82-5. Cf. also Lkldcaritra,Uttarardha,283-ydvari gosdvjardsandhdcz

gosti sdnghitali.



but Cakradharadoes not seem to have taken much account of this. The Gztd
is the word of gri Kirsna,he says. 'All the rest is just Vyisa '.22 One does not
find Cakradhara dwelling fondly on the pranks of Balakrsna or the martial
exploits of Krsna the warrior. His teaching is confined to stern precepts and
when he illustrates his doctrines the examples are contemporary and downto-earth.
The corollary of Cakradhara'sinsistence on tydga, sannydsa, etc., was that
he took no account of social and sexual differences. For him women as well as
men, didras as well as the higher castes, were, if suitably instructed, equally
fit for enlightenment and moksa. His followers were told to beg food from all
four varnas and the fact that they did so was one of their boasts.23 Needless
to say, he had no time for the brahmaznsto whom his doctrines were anathema
and who persecuted him, although he himself and many of his early followers
were brahmans. Ritual purity meant nothing to him, as is shown by several
stories in the Lildcaritra.24
Later developnments
It is not hard to imagine that left in this bare and unappealing state
Cakradhara's teaching might well have died with him, but in fact, as often
happens, it was soon expanded into an increasingly popular form.
To start with the pantheon, we have seen that Cakradhara'smain teaching
concerns himself together with some references to Krsna. He makes a very
occasional approving mention of Dattatreya and he always acknowledged and
gave great respect to Govindaprabhu as the guru who had passed on to him his
jnana-dakti.25 This much can be gathered from LIalcaritra,which was, it must
be remembered, constructed out of the reminiscences of Cakradhara'sclosest
disciples several years after his death. In the Sutrapd.tha,which is a distillation
of Cakradhara'steaching extracted from the LIldcaritraand which was subject
to the same vicissitudes of loss and reconstruction, we find the first explicit
mention of the five avatars of Paramesvara in the sections called Pancandma
and Pancakrsna which are a kind of preface to the main work added, according
to Mahanubhava tradition itself, at the reconstruction of the Satrapdtha by
Kavi/varacarya in the early fourteenth century. These five avatars, or Krsnas,
are listed as follows: ' In the Dvapara-yuga gri Krsna Cakravarti; in Saimhadri
(i.e. Mahur) gri Dattatreya Prabhu; at Dvaravati gri Cangadeva Raula

puradnaksrdbdhiparyantadekhati,dgamaastabhairavaparyantadekhati ; Bdi, gtgd rJkrsnokti;
era avaghfir vydsokti (Sitrapatha, Vicara-mdlikc, 108-9).
28 cdturvarnyamn
caredbhaiksyam, yd adstrdsianusarije (Sutrapdtha, Acdra, 81). Cf. Lqilcaritra,
24 Lildcaritra,
Uttardrdha,336, 427.
25Lildcaritra, Ekdnka, 7. Cakradhara had little subsequent contact with Govindaprabhu. He
went back to Ritpur only twice (Ekdnka, 21; Purvdrdha, 33-7) and while there lived separately
from Govinda who, being both choleric and eccentric, tended to receive him with blows as often as
with affection.



(Cakrapani); at Rddhipiira gri Gundama Raula (Govindaprabhu); at

Pratisthana (Paithan) gri Cangadevo Raula Sarvajna (Cakradhara)'.
In the interval between Cakradhara's death and the time of Kavigvara
the original disciples had, we know, transferred their devotion to Govindaprabhu, and his guru Cangadeva Raula had come to be canonized in this time.
Indeed the whole story of Cangadeva being reborn as Cakradhara may date
from this period. As for Dattatreya there seems no reason why the Mahanubhavas should have exempted him from the scorn they felt for all other
gods, except, one might suggest, because he was present in strength. The
temple of Dattatreya on the hill-top at Mahur is one of the oldest and most
sacred places of that god, and Mahur is very close to the Mahanubhava heartland in Berar. One cannot avoid an unworthy suspicion that Dattatreya was
admitted to the pantheon because he was the main object of veneration of the
most convenient potential converts. What is certain is that in the Sutrapdtha,
even as reconstructed in the early fourteenth century, there are only two
pronouncements made by Cakradharawhich have any bearing on Dattatreya.
At the beginning of the Acara prakarana he says flatly Mdtdpurd Kolhdpurd
na vacdvem' Don't go to Mahur or Kolhapur '.26 He certainly never went near
either place himself. However at the end of Vicdra we find Sri DattStreya
prabhucd caturyugFavatdru ... ya margdsi Sri Dattdtreyaprabhuddhikarana.27
This seems conclusive, yet I find it suspicious that the words should occur in
the very last four sitras of the chapter and that neither of these sentences
can be traced back to L;ildcaritra. At all events Dattatreya has been introduced
into the canon by the story of his appearing to Cangadeva Raula at Mahur
in the guise of a tigress. Laying her paw on CSngadeva'shead she transmitted
the sakti of Dattatreya to him.28 Possibly some historical Cangadeva, the guru
of Govindaprabhu, actually was a devotee of Dattatreya. Certainly it was
Nagadeva, while living with Govindaprabhu at Ritpur after Cakradhara's
death, who first started the rot by visiting Mahur in defiance of Cakradhara's
express commands, and the reason was because Govindaprabhu told him to do
we hear how Nagadeva
so almost on his death-bed. In the Govindaprabhu-caritra
was upset when Govindaprabhuwas dying and said' When Cakradharapassed
on he sent us to you, and now you are preparing to die and where will you
send us now ? ' And Govindaprabhu, who was a rather choleric old man, said
'Damn it all, why don't you go to Mahur! ' or words to that effect.29 It is not
impossible either that this might be a piece of self-justification by the Kavivvara
dmndya, for it was the Kavisvara who went to Mahur and now control the
Sutrapdtha, Acdra, 25. Cakradhara's explicit reason was that Mahur, like Kolhapur, was a
centre of Devi worship and he felt that the power of the goddess was an impediment to true mok.sasthdnei sddhakdsi vighna kariti. The temple of Devi, under the name of
tiyem s8abhimnniyerm
Renuka, shares the hill of Mahur with Dattatreya and their local legends are intermixed.
27 Sitrapdtha, Vicara, 282-5.
28 Lciicaritra, Ekdnka, 1.
29 dvo
meld, mdtdpursaijde mhane (Govindaprabhu-caritra,322).



Devadevesvar matha at the bottom of the hill of Dattatreya,30 while many of

their main rivals, the Upadhye dmndya, will not go near the place still.
I suspect that Cakradhara,whatever claims he may have made about his
own origin (Gujarati royalty, avatar of ParameJvara, etc.) in his latter days,
taught an essentially ascetic Vaisnava dualistic doctrine, enjoining rejection
of all gods and images but allowing Krsna, solely as author of the GitN,as a
worthy object of reverence. All this teaching was put out while wandering
up and down the Godavari with only one visit to his nominal guru Govindaprabhu. However after Cakradhara's death his flock moved north, collected
round Govindaprabhu,and began to take root in the Berar district accumulating
lay followers for the first time and with them accretions, the most important
being Dattatreya, the deity of the dominant local holy place.
This new proselytizing period, which followed the disciples' move to Berar,
produced other major changes in the Mahanubhava pantha. Up to now most
of the disciples had been brdhmansand therefore educated men. It is not chance
that nearly all the major literary works written in the sect appeared in the
early fourteenth century. However, as soon as the pantha began to acquire a
large non-brdhmanainfrastructure of converts more doctrine was needed-laws
for various grades of grhasthas, or lay followers, which significantly include a
category of sannydsacyuta(backslidersfrom sannydsa), as well as bhop--temple
servants.31 It is all right to leave an educated man to work out his own brand
of smarana, but for the multitude something less demanding is needed and we
see the composition of short litanies like Pljadvasara and Prasddasevd which
give a handy form of words to help weaker brethren in their main, twice daily,
remembering sessions.32 The first of these was traditionally composed by
Baidevabasa, the second acarya.
We find a whole new ritual structure being introduced. Cakradhara had
said that his followers should never omit to salute his ote.33 An ota is a low dais
where he sat to teach and many presumably were preserved in the villages up
and down the Godavari where he made long stays. These have multiplied
until there is one in almost every village where a body of Mahanubhavas live.
The otd has become a cult object. Moreover it is no longer tied to Cakradhara,
for some are associated with other members of the Pancakrsna (for instance
at Mahur there is one to commemorate Cangadeva Raula).34 This is not all,
though. At Mahur a perfectly ordinary linga is one of the main objects of
reverence, but this is nothing to do with Mahadeva, one will be told. It is
worshipped only because it is a sambandhi sthdna. Any place or object that
was ever touched by any one of the five Krsnas is sambandhi ' connected ' and
therefore Mahanubhavas today, while professing a philosophy which demands
an entirely intellectual worship of an ideal Paramegvara, still have an unlimited
number of icons to resort to. Sdde soldse tirthdsa mdjhe dan.davat,they say 35
30Balak1qnaastri, op. cit., 143.
32Kolte, Mahanubhdvasa*hodhana, 42.
84 B]alrkrniaMstri, op. cit., 147.


31ibid., 296-7.
38Sutrapdtha, Acdra, 186.
8Sibid., 375.



(salutations to the 1650 holy places). They have taken over or adopted a
number of temples by virtue of this sambandhidoctrine and their names give
some idea of the sect's eclecticism in its later popular form: the DevadeveAvaralinga at Mahur, Kolhari ai and Ganpati at Ritpur, Bhimesvaralinga at Belura,
Gopala Krsna at Pujade, Vijnanesvaralinga at Apegaon, etc.36 In addition to
this they have a flourishing series of relics. Every major matha boasts of
possessing some fragment of Govindaprabhu's nails or teeth, and the vastravigesa, fragments of cloth from Cakradhara'sgarment, are an object of reverence
for the whole sect and have an elaborate worshipping ceremony connected
with them called prasdddbhiseka. These fragments are said to have been left
by Cakradharaas a means of worshipping Paramesvara.37
Modern converts to the pantha are enjoined to cast out any household gods
that they have (though they should not slight them, but carry them respectfully
to the nearest appropriate temple) and then set up in their place a sambandhi
stone ORan image made from one.38 From all this it can be seen that as a
doctrine and as far as the lay members are concerned the Mahanubhavapantha
has been almost swallowed up in the surrounding sea of general Hinduism.
All that remains perhaps is an increased insistence on ahimsd and the straining
of all water as among the Jains, and the custom of burying the dead instead
of burning them. I would not care to say how far this last injunction is honoured
these days. In fact I have no information on how far professing to be a lay
MahPanubhavaaffects one's daily life at all. I can only say that a jdtrd at a
Mahanubhava temple like the Devadevesvara matha at Mahur seems very like
a jdtrd at any other temple.
So, one might ask, why have the Mahanubhavas remained as a separate
entity, thought of and even hated as being different by their fellow Hindus ?
This springs entirely from the organization of the hard core, the sannydsis and
pseudo-sannydsis who still live communal lives in mathas in the main centres.
Here the men and women live in separate and, it is said, strictly separated
compounds. They go out to beg for their food. They wear a distinctive dress
and they live under the complete authority of a mahanta.
The second way in which they are set apart is a rapidly diminishing asset.
It is their reputation for having a secret doctrine, a store of holy books that
must never be divulged. Now that these have been divulged, at least to the
literate, they are found to be rather small beer-dvaita philosophy that is
scarcely likely to horrify anyone and a treasury of Krsna poems that one has
to be fairly expert to tell from ordinary Vaisnava bhaktiworks.
I have mentioned the doctrinal works already-the original lildFcaritra
the Sutrapdtha drawn from it.39 There are other hagiographical works in the
36ibid., 371.
37ibid., 318.
88ibid., 300.
39The Lz.ldsarzvdda, occasionally mentioned in some of the older sources as if it were a separate
work, is merely an alternative name for the LW.IEcaritra.



same mould. Govindaprabhu-caritrahas already been cited and there is a

whole series of subsequent histories, Smrtisthala, Anvayasthala, etc., which are
of absorbing interest to historians of the pantha and to linguists. It is hard to
assess the literary value of these early prose works with dispassion. Before the
nineteenth century there is so little prose of any kind written in any of the
modern languages of India that the earliest Mahanubhava histories are quite
unique. They have no 'style'. They are set down in a series of telegraphic
jottings which provide the setting for quantities of conversational fourteenthcentury Marathi-terse, sometimes vivid, sprinkled with exclamations and
expletives, morphologically archaic yet in tone remarkably similar to the
speech of village Maharashtra as it can be heard today. Here is one Lil~,
picked entirely at random, as an example.
'One day the Gosavi was sitting in the Vigvanatha
(was a) mahdtmd of the Natha sect. He was on his way home from the
Ganga. He saw the Gosavi (Cakradhara)and came-sat by him. He asked
the Gosavi, "Do you know how to do the yellow stick? " The Gosavi
shook his head. He was there a little while, then left. Then Nathoba asked,
" Ji ji! What does the yellow stick mean ? " Sarvajna (Cakradhara)said,
" Making gold out of copper ". "Then what does the white stick mean "
" Silver out of tin ". " Ji! Have
you (ever) made gold ? " Sarvajna said,
" Yes. Bring me that
lump of cowdung over there. I'll make some for
you ". (Then) Sarvajna said, "But then, my children, you won't have me
(any more) ". Nathoba said, "We don't want it, lord ".' 40
It is easy to imagine the vast edifice of commentaries-bhdsyas and sthalas
and bandhas and chdays-which was erected on the foundation of these early
doctrinal texts. These are not, of course, literature but works of pious scholarship. In addition, however, there are a number of works written in ovi verse
which combine exegesis with didactic and narrative matter. Such is the
.Rddhipuravarnanawhich is both a life of Govindaprabhu and a kind of guidebook to Ritpur with philosophical excursions. The Sahyddrivarnana41fulfils a
similar role for Dattatreya and Mahur. Kesobasa's Murtiprakdsa42 combines
doctrine and the story of Cakradhara's end with a description in the most
rapturous detail of his physical appearance. Jndnaprabodha,43another verse
work of particular sanctity, is entirely didactic as its name implies.
Finally there are the Krsna poems. The earliest are Mahadiisa's Dhavale,
the Siiupd.lavadhaand the Uddhavagitdof Bhaskara or Kavisvara, Narendra's

LiWlcaritra,Purvdrdha, 315. I have translated ddn4f quite literally, for it is impossible
to be sure which of the many derived meanings of dandaldaand4/dandgave rise to this bit of al.
chemist's jargon.
41V. B. Kolte (ed.),
Rava.obasakrtaSahyddrivarnana, Poona, 1964.
V. B. Kolte (ed.), Muni KeAiraja-viracitaMurtiprakdia, Nagpur, 1962.
43 P. C.
Nagapure (ed.), Jndnaprabodha,Amraoti, 1971. There is a more recent edition by V. B.
Kolte, Malkapur, 1973, which I have not seen.



Rukminz-svayamvara,44and Damodarapandita's Vachdhara.a. Their subjectmatter is largely drawn, as one would expect, from the tenth and eleventh
skandhas of the Bhdgavata-purdna,but the treatment is quite original. The
Krsna of the Bhdgavatawas of little interest to Cakradharahimself, as I have
said, but patently this attitude did not long survive him. It is worth pointing
out, however, that in all these Krsna works there continues to be only the most
token coverage of the erotic elements in the Krsna story. No Mahanubhava
poet has ever been moved to make more than passing reference to the rdsa-krt.dd.
In the stories of Krsna's childhood it is the slaughtering of demons that occupies
most space (as, to be fair, it also does in the Bhdgavata)and it is the Rukminzsvayamvarathat is far and away the most popular episode as evidenced by at
least six extant Mahanubhavaversions. Even Gadyaraja,45a fourteenth-century
brief history of the Pancakrsna and one of the earliest Marathi works to be
written in gloka, devotes nearly a third of its 279 verses to the capture and
wedding of Rukmini.
The use of a learned verse form such as sloka is unusual and it should be
noted that the Mahanubhavas, like Jnanadeva, deliberately used the current
spoken language, Marathi, for their doctrinal works as well as for more literary
ones. There were Sanskrit works produced by most of the early writers, but
one cannot make converts in Sanskrit and a display of learning for its own
sake was not encouraged. When Kesobasa had written his Ratnamildstotra
in Sanskrit he proposed to start on another Sanskrit work, but Nagadeva said,
'No, that'll be no help to the old women .46 On another occasion when
Damodara and Kesobasa were plying him with questions in Sanskrit Nagadeva
snapped at them, 'I don't understand your asmdts and kasmdts. Sri
Cakradhartaught me in Marathi. Use that '.47
There is then nothing particularly recondite about the Mahanubhava works
of literature, and the only reason for the sect to have kept them secret in later
years was no doubt a very natural desire to be secretive and exclusive, reinforced
by the opposition of orthodox Brahman opinion. This opposition may originally
have been doctrinal. All the early disciples of Cakradhara were Brahmans
recruited on his wanderings among the holy places along the Godavari, and so
converts from the prevailing advaita Vaisnavism. It has even been suggested
that Jnanadeva may have written his great sermon on the Gitd, the Jndnedvari,
as a direct response to the Mahanubhavas' seduction of good men from the
true path of advaita-a kind of counter-reformation.48 It is certainly true
44G. M.]Lolake (ed.), Narindra-viracita $kmilf.-svayamrvara,Nagpur, 1971. The poem edited by
Kolte in 1940 is incomplete. This is the first edition of the ' full ' version, but it is by no means certain that the continuation is the work of Narendra himself.
45 J. S. Jo;i and Kr8nadasa Mahanubhava (ed.), HayagrZvdcaryakrta
Gadyardja,Bombay, 1966.
A fuller edition of this poem is under preparation at SOAS.
46 yezet mdjhiyd mhdntdrfyi ndgavatila (Smrtisthala, 15).
47 tumacd asmdt kasmdt mifr neenz gd ; maja 8ricakradharemnirupilz marhdltfr ; tiydci pusd
(ibid., 66).
48 V. B. Kolte, CakradharaidniJndnadeva, Bombay, 1950.



that the Jndneivari was written at Nevase on the Godavari in the years
immediately following Cakradhara'sdeath and while the Mahanubhava pantha
was still making high-class converts.
However, this stage did not last very long, and as the Mahanubhavas
became increasingly non-Brahman and materialistic-in the sense of becoming
tirtha-ksetra-ydtrdvddl-thisBrahman opposition must have become increasingly
a fossilized response coupled with a natural objection to a sect which did not
recognize the superiority of Brahmans as such. Whatever the reason, the
Mahanubhavas in a way went underground and began to keep everything
secret, not only their doctrinal works. They attempted to do this in a rather
interesting way. In the second half of the fourteenth century they invented a
series of ciphers into which they transcribed all their important works.49 It is
rather odd, though, that the first and most commonly-used ciphers were all
invented by members of the Upadhye dmndya,50and one wonders whether
inter-dmndya rivalry may not have been a contributory cause of this
The name' Mahdnubhiva'
Finally perhaps it might be considered that the name of the sect reflects
to some extent its present standing in the outside world. To the early disciples
it was just 'the way', and they occasionally referred to their fellow-believers
as mahatmas. In the fourteenth century the pantha was commonly known as
the Paramarga, to those inside it, and the Bhatamarga (from Nagadeva bhata
who was the first to do much proselytizing) to outsiders. The word mahdnubhdva can be found throughout Marathi literature, both within and outside
the writings of the sect, but simply meaning a sddhupurusa,a' great experiencer'
of any kind. From the sixteenth century at least, members of the sect were
known to their fellow-Hindus as Manabhavas, but this term had so many
pejorative overtones that it is hard to believe that anyone using it would have
agreed to derive it from mahdnubhiva,51and it was not until the present century
that the latter term was revived (or instituted) by members of the sect as part
of the general rehabilitation which followed the revelation of their scriptures.
Nowadays therefore it would be gratuitously discourteous to use the older
name, and I think it would be true to say that few people wish to be insulting
about a sect which, whatever else it is, is solidly within the Hindu tradition.
In spite of what was said earlier about the somewhat marginal place of the
Mahanubhavas in Maharashtrian culture, it is also true that even within the
last decade the sect seems to have achieved an increasing degree of social
respectability. A number of educated and enterprising Mahanubhava leaders
a9For a description of the most
commonly used cipher see I. M. P. Raeside, ' The Mahinubhava
sakala lipi', BSOAS, xxxm, 2, 1970, 328-34.
50Kolte, Mahdnubhdvasa*rodhana, 129-30.
61 One derivation that was popular with their detractors was from mdngabhdu(ibid., 148).



have broken away from the old monasteries to found institutes,52 to rebuild
temples, to publish propaganda material,53 even, I hear, to found housing
colonies. In so doing they have become expert fund-raisers, some having been
back to the Panjab to re-establish broken ties with the Jai Krishni wing.54
With a flourishing institution behind them they have become establishment
figures in the town or village. They are automatically appointed to committees.
In short we are undoubtedly witnessing a revival in the fortunes of the
Mahanubhava sect-a revival which had its origin in the discovery of Mahanubhava literature by Marathi scholars nearly 70 years ago.55
62 For instance the Shri Gita Ashram at Hyderabad, founded by Krsnadasa Mahanubhava to
serve the joint purpose of research centre, archive of Mahanubhava manuscripts, and place of
68 The Akhila Bharatiya Mahanubhava Pari3ada was formed in 1953. It organizes an annual
gathering (sneha-sammelana)in order to bring members of the sect together for cultural as well as
religious exchanges. It also supports the publication of a monthly magazine, Mahanubhava, and
other sectarian literature.
54 The Jai Krishni wing is also active and now has several mathasin North India. In 1971 Hindispeaking Jai Krishni Mahinubhavas celebrated the foundation of a new temple in Delhi and the
installation of a Krsna murti which had been rescued from Pakistan and left without a home for
many years (Maharashtra Times, 21 June 1970).
65 It would be possible to guess at other factors which might have contributed to this revival:
diminished Brahman influence in modern Maharashtra; the comparative success of the 'green
revolution ' in Berar in the 1960's and the resulting enhanced prosperity of the kuzabi caste from
which Mahanubhavas obtain most of their financial support, etc.