The spread of the Bhakti movement in Maharashtra inculcated the spirit of oneness among the Marathas. The main teachings of the leaders were Bhakti or devotion to God and equality of all believers before God without any distinction of class or birth. The Bhakti movement united the people of Maharashtra in a common love of man and faith in one God. The important leaders of the Bhakti movement were Tukaram, Ramdas Samarth, Varman Pandit and Eknath. Ramdas Samarth was considered by Shivaji Maharaj as his Guru and he exercised tremendous influence over his countrymen. He rendered yeoman's service by carrying out social reforms. In his book called Dasa Bodh, Ramdas taught the philosophy of Karma or action. He was not only a preacher, but also a nation-builder.
The effect of the Bhakti movement is described by Justice Ranade in these words: "Like the Protestant reformation in Europe in the 16th century, there was a religious, social and literary revival and reformation in India, but notably in the Deccan in the 15th and 16th centuries. The religious revival was not Brahmanical in its orthodoxy, it was heterodox in its spirit of protest against forms and ceremonies and class distinctions based on birth, and ethical in its preference of pure heart and the law of love, to all other acquired merits and good works. This religious revival was the work also of the people of the masses, and not of the classes. At its head were saints and prophets, poets and philosophers, who sprang chiefly from the lower order of society, tailors, carpenters, potters, gardeners, shopkeepers, barbers and even scavengers more often than Brahmins."
Literature and Language
The literature and language of the Marathas also acted as a unifying force. The hymns of Tukaram were sung by all the classes and they served as a bond of unity among people who belonged to different sections of society. The songs in Marathi dialect and Marathi language played an important part. According to J.N. Sarkar, "Thus a remarkable community of language, creed and life was attained in the Maharashtra in the 17th century before political unity was conferred by Shivaji. What little was wanting to the solidarity of the people was supplied by his creation of national state, the long struggle with the invader from Delhi under his sons, and the imperial expansion of the race under the Peshwas.
Thus in the end a tribe - or collection of tribes or castes - was fused into a nation, and by the end of the 18th century a Maratha people in the political and cultural senses of the term had been formed, though caste distinctions still remained. Thus history has moulded society."
Many saints like Chakradhar, Namdeo, Dnyaneshwar and Eknath lived in Maharashtra before Shivaji was born. They preached the virtue of service, sacrifice, generosity, equality and brotherhood. They created in the minds of people the feeling that all men are equal and no one is high or low.
The work of these saints can be compared to that of a farmer who tills the land makes it ready for sowing seeds.
Namdeo was a tailor by caste and a great devotee of Vitthal. He composed numerous songs in praise of God, performed 'Keertans' (songs and stories based on a religious theme) everywhere and brought about general awakening among the people. He travelled all over Maharashtra with Dnyaneshwar and taught people deep devotion to God. He instilled in them the desire to protect their religion. After the death of Dnyaneshwar, Namdeo travelled all over India. He went to Punjab, composed songs in Hindi and spread the message of equality among the people. Even now some of his devotional songs are found in religious books of the Sikhs. His songs are still sung all over Maharashtra with great love and devotion.
Dnyaneshwar was five years younger than Namdeo. His family belonged to Apegaon and he was born in 1275 A.D. He had two brothers Nivruttinath and Sopandeo and a sister called Muktabai. Bigoted men of the time used to look down on these children because they were the offspring of a 'Sanyasi'. The story goes like this. Their father took 'Sanyas' and retired from worldly life. As a sanyasi he left home, but later, obeying the advice of his guru, returned home and started living with his wife. Four children were born to them and the narrow minded religious leaders did not think it right that a 'Sanyasi' should have children. They persecuted these children and banished them from their community.
Once Dnyandeo went around the town begging for alms, but no one would give him alms. He was faced with abusive language everywhere he went. Young Dnyandeo was deeply pained by this incident. He entered his hut and locked the door from inside to grieve over his lot. His sister Mukatabai came and knocked at the door. "Open the door, Dnyaneshwar. How can we remain drowned in our own sorrow ? Who will then look to the welfare of the world ?" she said. His sister's words gave new hope to Dnyandeo. Personal sorrow was soon forgotten and he started work. Everywhere, the poor and backward people were being oppresssed in the name of religion. Dnyaneshwar went among the people and taught them to have faith in God. "Give equal treatment to all. Help those in trouble and allay their misery." This was his message to the people. Dnyaneshwar's words are hear in every nook and corner of Maharashtra for the past seven hundred years.
In those days, all religious teaching was confined to Sanskrit books. Ordinary people did not understand Sanskrit. The language in everyday use was Marathi. Dnyaneshwar wrote his outstanding book 'Dnyaneshwari' in Marathi. He thus opened wide for his people the doors of knowlesge, where he preached the ideal of brotherhood among all men. At a very early age, at Alandi near Pune, Dnyandeo took 'Samadhi', that is put himself into a trance from which he never came out. On the eleventh day of Ashadh and Kartik, thousands of pilgrims go to Alandi to visit the samadhi.
Eknaath carried on the work started by Namdeo and Dnyaneshwar. Eknaath lived in Paithan. He preached that the way to reach God was through devotion - 'Bhaktimarg'. He wrote numerous religious songs - 'Abhangs', 'Owees' and 'Bharuds'. His advice to the people was not to accept any distinction of high and low. He made friends with the poor and the downtrodden and taught them devotion to God. His love extended even to dumb animals. He exhorted the people to love all living beings and practised what he preached.
One day he was going to the river Godavari for a bath. It was noon and very hot too. He heard the crying of a child sitting on the hot sand. Eknaath looked around and saw a child who belonged to the Mahar community. He picked up the child in his arms, wiped his tears and reached him home. In this way, by personal example, Eknaath impressed the message of love and equality on the minds of the people.
Two great saints, Tukaram and Ramdas lived in Shivaji's time. Tukaram came from Dehu, near Pune. He owned a farm and also a grocery shop, but the life of an ordinary householder held no charm for him. He would go to the neighbouring hill and sing songs in praise of God Vitthal. On the eleventh day 'Ekadashi' of the month of Ashadh and Kartik, he would go to Pandharpur. He wrote devotional songs - 'Abhangs' and performed 'Keertans'. Thousands flocked to listen to him. Tukaram preached to them about the virtues of pity, forgiveness and peace of mind. He also gave them the message of equality. 'He alone is a saint, and God dwells with him who calls the weak and the downtrodden his own.' He impressed this truth on the minds of the people and made them reflect within themselves. People accepted him as a great religious leader and showered praise on him. Even today, all over Maharashtra, we hear people proclaiming 'Gyanba - Tukaram', the names of two great saints.
At the same time, the hills and valleys of Maharashtra were filled with the echoes of 'Jai Jai Raghuveer Samarth' (Glory be to the Great Rama) an invocation on the lips of the great saint Ramdas. Ramdas was born at Jamb on the banks of the Godavari in Marathwada. His birthday falls on Ram Navami, the day on which the great hero, Rama, was born. Narayan was his real name but he preferred to call himself Ramdas, the servant of Rama. Through his great book 'Dasbodh' he taught men the ways of good life. Through his 'Manache Shlok' (stanzas addressed to the mind) he gave people lessons in good conduct and good thought. To popularise the worship of Hanuman, the god of strength, he raised many temples. He exhorted people to be strong and told them of the power that resides in a united people. He taught them to organise themselves and fight against injustice. This gave courage to the people.
The work of these saints brought about a great awakening among the people. Religion once again became a thing to be respected and a spirit of self-reliance was born. People regained their lost confidence. This great awakening amongst the people was brought about by the saints helped Shivaji in his fight for Swaraj.