When I first started reading Srila Prabhupada’s books I wondered how his purports (commentary) were so long. Not in any offensive way, just actual curiosity. He could go so in depth on what seemed like a small portion of a verse. Well, when I was writing my review of the movie Sant Tukaram, I started to really understand why. Srila Prabhupada was translating the books for people that had no background knowledge of the subject. Most Americans have never actually read the Bible, but just from growing up in a Christian-centric society, they get a lot of the references. I was a seminary graduate, so I get more of the references. But, when I picked up my first ISKCON books I had no frame of reference at all. The in depth commentary was priceless.
His books had to be understandable to people with absolutely no prior knowledge of India, Krishna, bhakti etc. As I was writing the movie review I kept going off on tangents. Instead of just saying ‘good movie’, ‘good acting’… I would start to explain what was meant, and a lot of back story. It was no longer just a movie review, and it got to be over 12 pages long. I cut half of the wordiness out and tried to leave just a nice review. This post is going to be going deeper into the lessons of the movie. I think one could write an entire book about the lessons of the Sant Tukaram movie.
The movie is very enjoyable just as an entertaining movie, but there are many lessons if you look deeper into the meaning of the scenes. This is not going to be a biography of Tukaram, but will include a little of his history. There are so many great stories about Tuka, but I will try to stay within the lessons shown in the movie. In one scene, he sums up the entire Bhagavad Gita in less than 5 minutes. The explanation of that one scene could easily be as long as the Bhagavad Gita itself.
I will try not to write quite that much.
There will be major movie spoilers, so if you have not watched it… be warned.
About Sant Tukaram
Sant Tukaram lived in Dehu, near Pune, in Maharashtra. He was a Warkari bhakti practitioner, and a devotee of Lord Pandurang. Pandurang is another name for Vitthal, who is a form of Krishna. The Warkari follow very similar regulative principles as the Vaisnava e.g. no intoxication, no illicit sex, and a strict vegetarian diet (that also includes no onion or garlic). The Warkari also use much lighter spices, as heavy spice is seen as sense gratification.
Bhakti yoga is the recommended process for salvation in this age, the Kali Yuga. Lord Chaitanya was an incarnation of Krishna that appeared in the 15th century to spread bhakti yoga. In bhakti yoga one does need to renounce the world and do great penance, just remember the Lord always, do your duty – but do it for God, and chant the holy names.
Tukaram was a saint of the 17th century. A great devotee, and an acclaimed poet. He wrote many songs and poems, all glorifying God, and lamenting his own fallen state. Tuka’s life shows the flaws of the caste system. He was either a merchant or laborer by birth, but by his natural tendencies and skill he should have been a Brahmin. He was denied his rightful profession because of his “low birth”. Bhakti sees no distinction in ones birth. Some sources say Tukaram was a merchant, other say laborer (sudra). Historically Tuka was born a merchant, but failed and became a laborer. The movie refers to him as a sudra, so for the rest of this post I will as well.
Caste system and hereditary Brahmins
In the beginning of the movie we see Sant Tukaram singing a devotional song, in total bliss. He is alone on a hill and does not care if anyone sees him praise God or not. Then it cuts to a Brahmin in the temple singing the same song. The Brahmin, Salomalo, is singing for effect. He keeps making poses, and making sure everyone is watching and appreciating him and his “devotion”. He accuses a low borne sudra (Tukaram) of stealing his songs. Of course we know he is lying. Salomalo is stealing Tuka’s work and presenting it as his own.
Brahmin Salomalo is there as an indictment of the caste system, and the corruption of the church. By all rights Tukaram should be the Brahmin and well cared for. Instead he and his family starve because he was born a sudra. While the Brahmin lives a lavish life as a fraud. He has no qualifications, other than his birth. Tukaram is a pure devotee of the Lord; everyone appreciates him for it, except the jealous Salomalo.
There is a natural caste system, in that you may be drawn to intellectual pursuits, artistic, or business etc. But a caste by birth simply will not work. Many people will look down on a garbage collector, but do you want to live in a world without garbage collection? All ‘castes’ are important to society. People need to be able to take on the work they are suited for, not just what they were born into.
Salomalo spends all his time trying to destroy Tukaram because he feels Tuka is a danger to the ‘proper’ social structure. If the low class can preach the word of God, what need is there for a hereditary (and wholly unqualified) Brahmin? Of course after temple services Salomalo goes to visit his courtier (high class prostitute) instead of going home to his wife. Tukaram leaves his wife and kids alone quite often as well, but he is meditating on God and writing songs, while the priest hangs out with prostitutes and steals. It is a very stark contrast. While it is not a beat you over the head lesson, it is quite evident.
Servant of the Servant
Tukaram’s wife, Avala (also called Jijai), is shown as a very frustrated householder. She just wants a decent home and food for her family. And Tukaram is not going provide that. Her character could easily have been shown as a shrew, luckily that was not the case. She cares for Tukaram, but wants him to provide for the family.
When he wanders off in the forest to pray, she follows him with a basket of food because she knows he will forget to eat. On her way to meet Tuka on the mountain she gets a splinter in her foot. An old man removes it for her and when she asks his name… he says Pandurang! She curses him, throws stones at him, and says she would rather have the splinter. As she leaves he just laughs and laughs. Then he turns into the young form of Krishna and laughs even more.
The lesson is that although she has no love for God, she is devoted to His servant. As the servant of the servant, she is very dear to God, so He appears before her. Instead of trying to serve God, you should serve the servant of God. This makes you much dearer to the Lord. It is similar to how a parent feels about their child. If someone compliments you, it is nice, but if someone compliments your child, it so much better.
Strive to be the servant of the servant of God and you will be very dear to God. Do not try to see God – work in such a way that God will see you.
Although she complains and nags Tuka (it could be argued that it is rightly so) she is also a very devoted wife and mother. She loves her husband but is frustrated by his lack of material concerns. This is shown as they eat their lunch on the mountain where Tuka was meditating. Of course instead of thanking her, he thanks Pandurang for sending her with lunch. When he asks her if her God ever came to eat with her, she gives him an endearing look and says her god is eating with her. She nagged, but also doted over him.
Avala is also shown as the example of the perfect wife. It was an arranged marriage, but they developed a deep love for each other. She takes good care of the house, the kids, and accepts whatever her husband provides. I realize much of that is not popular today, but when the movie was written, in the early 1930s, it was still common. When the historical figure Tukaram was alive, in the 1600s, it was definitely the accepted norm.
Say what you will about the “old fashioned” ideas of marriage – she is still used as an example of how to be a good wife. She came from a wealthy family but accepted her husband as he was (with some nagging), and took good care of the children.
Be happy in the world but let your mind transcend it
Brahmin Salomalo is the antagonist of the film and does everything he can to destroy Tuka. When he fails on his own he sends people to help destroy Tuka.
Tuka wants to get some sugarcane for his kids, so is looking for work. A neighbor offers to let Tuka watch his farm, while he is gone for a while. Salomalo tries to convince the farmer not to hire Tuka. Salomalo warns him of the impending disaster when Tuka is busy singing about God, and letting the farm fall into ruin. Isn’t it nice when priests tell people not to pray? Also Salomalo says he will not give up his portion of the crop – no matter what.
The first day goes well enough and Tuka gets some grain and sugarcane. His wife and kids are very pleased – Salomalo is not. The next day Salomalo has some people drive their cattle over the fields of grain to destroy it. Tuka is meditating so deeply he hears nothing and half the crops are destroyed. Salomalo insists that he will still get his share of the crop, and wants Tukaram punished. Isn’t it nice when priest threaten the townspeople?
The farmer gets a deed drawn up saying that if the crop is the normal size, Tuka can keep his house. But if the crop is short, Tuka forfeits his house. The evil Brahmin is very happy now. When the grain is piled up, Krishna is shown pouring grain from heaven to enlarge the yield (Pandurang is a mischievous childhood form of Krishna). As they bag the grain, the size of the pile refuses to shrink. Eventually they get 10 times more grain than normal.
The farmer says it was due to Tukaram’s devotion, Salomalo says it was because there was some rain. The farmer tells Salomalo he will get his normal share, and that he would have gotten more but he wronged Tuka. The farmer also took only his normal share and sent all the rest to Tukaram’s house.
Tuka’s wife is ecstatic seeing carts full of grain, but while grinding one tray of grain into flour… Tuka gives all the rest to the local beggars. As his wife chases the beggars away, Tuka takes the flour, she already ground, to give away. In giving all the grain away he leaves his family with nothing. In her anger, his wife leaves.
Salomalo next sends his favorite prostitute to tempt Tuka, while his wife is away. She dresses very nicely and stands outside his house singing devotional songs to Krishna. The songs attract Tuka, not the woman. He does comment that the beautiful song was sung by a beautiful woman, but is not tempted sexually with her, he can simply see the beauty of God in a beautiful woman.
His wife shows back up and starts to chase the woman away. Tuka stops her and says she is a beautiful soul but has allowed herself to become fallen. He feels sorry for her. The courtier realizes her mistake and wants to become their servant. Again Salomalo is thwarted and displeased.
This shows that Tukaram can see God in everyone and everything.
Next Salomalo calls to the head Brahmin of the area for help. As Chief Brahmin Shastri enters town he hears all the townspeople singing songs praising God and Tukaram. Salomalo has some trumped up charges and Shastri quickly agrees that a sudra cannot preach – or even understand – the word of God. They call Tuka in for judgment.
Tuka is ordered to take all his writings and dump them in the river. The hand that caused the blasphemy must be the hand that destroys the blasphemy. Tuka sorrowfully takes the writings to drown them in the river. All the townspeople follow and watch him dump all the writings in the river.
Tuka and his family stay on the shore fasting for 13 days. During this time the head Brahmin Shastri becomes ill. He feels his body is burning and comes to throw himself in the river, just as God returns Tuka’s unharmed writings to him. He falls at Tuka’s feet as a devotee. Salomalo is foiled once again.
Next he goes to the king, Shivaji, to tell him that the nation and religion are in trouble. The king tries to tempt Tuka with jewels and riches. Tuka dumps it all in the dirt because riches are useless. Shivaji falls to his feet as a devotee. Tuka’s wife is not thrilled about returning the riches, but does so because she is a dutiful wife (but if looks could kill…).
Salomalo then goes to the Muslims for help. They use the king’s distraction as a good time to attack. How did Salomalo not see that coming? Tuka prays to Pandurang and all the townspeople appear as king Shivaji, confusing the invading army. It is unclear if Salomalo slinks away, or is taken by the Muslim army, but he is not seen in the movie again.
Each of these scenes could be expounded on with further lessons, but to sum up – No matter what Salomalo (Maya) does, God protects His pure devotee.
Now Tuka still has to deal with the errant king.
Duty is the way to salvation
When the king wants to renounce his kingdom and be Tukaram’s devotee, Tuka says that the king must do his duty. In a short speech he sums up the discussion between Krishna and Arjuna -which we know of as the Bhagavad Gita. He says the king is a warrior and his duty is to protect the kingdom and the religion. Do your duty, but do it for God. There is no need to condemn or forsake the material world. Just do your duty for God and your salvation is assured.
Duty is knowledge
Duty is the way
Duty is the ultimate good
Duty is prestige
Duty is the way to salvation
Once this is known you find God in stone
Everyman must do his duty
Therein lies salvation for him
One could argue that Tukaram should have been more alert to his family’s material needs, but his situation again shows the problem with the caste system. The king was in the kshaitriya (warrior) caste, and belonged there. Tuka was, depending on the source, a vaishyas (merchant) or a sudra (laborer). Neither of these was a good fit for Tuka. He was naturally a Brahmin, but not allowed to be one because he was born into the wrong caste.
Bhakti is all about devotional service to the Lord. It does not care about caste, nationality, gender, anything. Only service and devotion are important. It transcends all man-made geographic boundaries, religion, or politics. In this degraded Kali Yuga chanting the holy names is the best way to find salvation and free oneself from the wheel of birth, sickness, old age, death, and rebirth.
Do not be attached to this material world
After the battle, and preaching to the king, it is time for Tuka to go back to Godhead. He finally sees Pandurang and achieves full enlightenment. Although he always saw God in everything, he finally actually got to see God in person.
As Tuka is getting ready to go to heaven he tells his wife to join him. She of course does not believe him. He always says he is going to heaven – but he means right now. She thought he just came up with an excuse to go wandering and said for him to return soon.
He tries to tell her that God is coming for him, and because she was such a dutiful wife allowing him time for his devotions, it is his duty to take her with him. She declines and says she will not be happy in heaven if she does not have her kids and house. Tuka says that God will provide for the children. As a father myself… I would probably side with Avala. Maybe that is why Sant Tukaram is a saint, and I am just Tukaram das, a fallen soul.
Actually Tuka may have been right. At the house there was the reformed prostitute, the head Brahmin, the king, and all the townspeople who loved Tuka. Someone would have most likely taken the kids and given them a very good life. But still she could not face that. While her attachment is understandable, it was still attachment and bound her up in the material world.
Every scene in this movie has a deeper meaning. As I said a book could easily be written about the lessons in the movie. But I just wanted to point out a few and now you can go watch the movie multiple times. I usually watch it once a year. Every time you watch it you will see more and more meanings. Sant Tukaram (1936) is a very well written and produced movie.
Be happy in the world, but let your mind transcend it.