The Jnaneshvari is one of the greatest works of Indian devotional literature, and is still spoken of as the supreme work of Marathi literature. Jnaneshvar, after whom the work is named, lived in the thirteenth century, and is not inaccurately described as the founder of Marathi literature and language. The Jnaneshvari describes itself as a commentary (tika) on the Bhagavad Gita, and its eighteen chapters are framed around the like number of chapters of the Gita, but commentators are divided on whether it should be regarded as a work of pure devotional literature or as more expressive of the author’s advaitist sentiments. B. P. Bahirat has written that “Jnaneshwar gives prominence to Bhatiyoga or the path of loving devotion in Jnaneshwari” (p. 56), but Dandekar opines that “like that of Shankaracharya and other Acharyas, Dnyanadeo’s philosophy can be truly described as Vedantic philosophy . . . . Dnyanadeo advocates spiritual monism or absolutism and in the advocacy of this he is nearer to Shankara than to any other Acharya” (p. 24). If Jnaneshvar was more than anything else a bhakta, it is somewhat puzzling that the chief work authored by him should have been a commentary on the Gita, since the Gita, notwithstanding the fact that it lays down the yoga of bhakti as one of the true paths to Krishna, has seldom been the cardinal or favorite text of bhaktas or devotees.
On the other hand, in common with the bhakti tradition, Jnaneshvar was alive to the fact that he was bringing sacred knowledge to the less privileged elements of society; and his choice of the Gita as the text by which to break the barrier signifies both his estimate of the importance in which the Gita was held by the orthodox and the relative simplicity of the Gita’s teachings. The essence of the Vedas, writes Jnaneshvar, is to be found in the Mahabharata, and of the latter in the Gita (J, X:29-31; cf. XV:538; XVIII:1640). The unique charm of the Gita, avers Jnaneshvar, is that he “who recites it obtains the same fruit as he who knows its meaning; to the Gita, as a mother, there is no distinction of learned and unlearned” (XVIII:1518). It is enough to be a genuine aspirant, though one may be unlearned: “Thus, O Arjuna, both those who hear the Gita and those who study it obtain the fruit of the highest joy . . . .” (XVIII:1528). The same “benefit” is derived by those who repeat the words and those who comprehend the meaning (XVIII:1662). Finally, towards the conclusion of his exposition of the Gita (XVIII:1678ff), Jnaneshvar offers a grand defense of his enterprise. He allows that Vyasa, to whom the Mahabharata is attributed, had expressed in the anushthubha meter “that which cannot be conveyed by words, so as to bring it within the understanding of women and those of low castes” (XVIII:1678); and yet even Vyasa was not bold enough: “Where even the wisdom of Vyasa and others wavered, I, a humble man, have dared to speak of these things in simple words” (XVIII:1688). A puddle reflects the sky just as the sea does; the reflection will be proportionate to the size of the body of water: similarly it is not out of place if lesser minds than those of Vyasa and others ponder over the Gita (XVIII:1695-6): “there is no reason to consider it wrong for us ordinary men to make a version of the Gita in our language” (XVIII:1699).
There are numerous streams that fed into the Jnaneshvari: the ambition of the author to bring a great text of high literature to the people; to develop the Marathi language and make it into an exalted tongue; to render homage to his guru, Shri Nivrittinatha; and to engage in the interpretation of the Gita. The Jnaneshvari is, in the first instance, a commentary on the Gita, and as the Gita itself expounds on the manifold paths of liberation — action, meditation, devotion, renunciation of the fruits of action, and knowledge — so the Jnaneshvari follows suit. But as attempts to discern which of the paths enumerated in the Gita is elevated over the others have been fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty, similarly the Jnaneshvari does not prove malleable to interpretations which would affirm that Jnaneshvar was undoubtedly a bhakta or a jnani. “Thou shouldst know”, Jnaneshvar’s Krishna instructs Arjuna, “that there is but one path by which I can be reached; the heart must be filled with devotion” (XI:675). But knowledge receives its due: “In the Gita the main theme is the destruction of ignorance and the fruit of it is the attainment of liberation; knowledge is the means that leads to these two”; and “only he who has found spiritual wisdom is able to reach liberation” (XI:675; XV:30).
In the Gita the Vedas are born anew, to make good the defect, of which they are now ashamed, of their inaccessibility to all men and women: “the Gita does not consider whether men are of high or low birth but refreshes the whole world with the gift of heavenly bliss” (XVIII:1449, 1454-55). Similarly the Sanskrit Gita is reborn in the womb of the Marathi Gita so that the whole of creation, animate and inanimate, may benefit from these inspired teachings; and, in the company of “Saints devoted to the Supreme”,
May the wickedness of sinners cease, may their desire for good deeds increase
and may all beings live in harmony with each other.
May the darkness of sin disappear, may this universe see the rise of
righteousness, and may the desires of all creatures be satisfied. (XVIII:1773-5)
Towards the Gita Jnaneshvar’s attitude was one of reverence; and although the Jnaneshvari represents one of the most significant attempts to bring the Gita to the common person and expand the domain of its influence, there are passages which suggest that Jnaneshvar was not free of doubt regarding the propriety and wisdom of vulgarizing the Gita’s teachings. Perhaps the orthodox view was so deeply encrusted into his being that he could not restrain from pontificating on the uselessness of entrusting the Gita into the hands of the ignorant:
As crows cannot recognize the moon, so ordinary people will never be able to
understand this work. As the chakora bird feeds on moonbeams, so this
writing is meant only for wise men; as the ignorant can make nothing out
of it, there is no need to enlarge further on the subject. (VI:29-30)
For Jnaneshvar the Gita remained the most indispensable of all the scriptures, the only one that with unquestionable authority fully expounds the method of attaining liberation (XVIII:1224): “When the eastern sky is illuminated by the rising sun, all other directions are aglow with light; so the Gita, the highest of all, gives support to all other scriptures” (XVIII:1220). The Gita, he often says, is like a mother who suckles her young and lulls them to sleep — here the sleep of final absorption in the spirit (cf. XII:7). It is the metaphor of the mother with her child which suggests how finally the Jnaneshvari is to be judged in relation to the Bhagavad Gita. Almost at the very end of his exposition, Jnaneshvar exclaims that “the Gita is like a trusting mother” from whom he “as a child has wandered away.” The devotion of the guru has “brought mother and child together again”, he quickly adds; and though the infant, Jnaneshvar, is back at its mother’s breast, at the threshold of the home of the Gita, “the wandering away” has been just as, if not more, momentous (XVIII:1761). The Jnaneshvari — a work sublime in its tone, pure in its feeling, exquisitely rich in its metaphors, similes, and analogies, lofty in its flights, and evocative of a saint so gentle that not a single blade of grass would feel the burden of his tread — invites us to run away, like the errant child, from our mother once in a while.
Notes: Jnaneshvari is also spelled as Jnaneshwari in the litearture, and similarly Jnaneshvar’s name also appears as Dnyaneshwar and Dnyandeo. All citations are from the Jnaneshvari, except where indicated; citations are in the form of XVIII:1528, meaning Book 18, Verse 1528.
Text: Jnaneshvari. (Bhavarthadipika.) Trans. V. G. Pradhan. Ed. H. M. Lambert. 2 vols. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1967. UNESCO Collection of Representative Works, Indian Series.
Bahirat, B. P. “Jnaneshwar.” In Cultural Leaders of India: Devotional Poets and Mystics, Part I, ed. V. Raghavan. New Delhi: Publications Division, 1978.
Dandekar, S. V. Dnyandeo. New Delhi: Maharashtra Information Center, 1969.
Edwards, J. F. Dnyaneshwar, The Out-Caste Brahmin. Poona: United Theological College, 1941.
Eliade, Mircea. Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask. Rev. 2nd ed. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969; reprint, 1973.