“My father is the husband of Rukmini Devi; Vitthal is everything.”—Sant Gyaneshwar, 13th century.
“My Mother Krishna is a good mother-sister.”—Sant Namdev.
Once Rukmini, jealous of Krishna’s attention to another consort, came to the city of Pandharpur. While searching for her, Krishna came across the ashram of Rishi Pundalik. Krishna found Pundalik taking care of his parents in utmost devotion. Despite coming to know the presence of God Himself, Pundalik couldn’t care less as he was in the midst of service to his parents. However, since it was raining and the floor outside was muddy, Pundalik tossed a brick to Lord so that He could stand on it and wait until he was finished. However, as it turned out, Pundalik’s eternal work of filial devotion was never finished and Krishna is still standing akimbo on the brick, eternally waiting for 28 yugas (eons).
In Pandharpur, Krishna is accordingly known as Vitthal or the one standing (thal or sthal) on the brick (vit).
Vithoba: The Available God of His Devotees
Having learnt a lesson or two from Pundalik, in how to be a good family man, Krishna went on to resolve the matter with his disgruntled wife, Rukmini Devi, and then decided to settle with her in Pandharpur out of love for His devotees. Vitthal is, for his devotees, essentially a family man—not just husband of Rukmini Devi but also mother, father, sister, and friend of devotees. Sant Namdev says that Vitthal “feeds him the milk of love from His own breasts.”
Pandurang, as Vitthal is also known as, is the available God who is always to callings of his devotees—not transcendental or distant God. Devotees refer to Him rather informally as “Vithoba” (Vitthu + Baba) as we do to our friends or close ones. Vitthal even suffers from withdrawal symptoms if His devotees leave Him. As Vitthal confessed to Rukmini, as recorded in Namdev’s Tirthavali, His intimately special bond with devotees:
“I keep my devotees close to my heart and to them too, there is no one as dear as I. I take the form of a human for their pleasure. I provide them whatever they desire as they are the greatest happiness of my life. They are my refuge and I am their rest. Their mouths invoke my name. I am their shade; they are my companions. It’s a wonderful thing to be in their company. Voice, mind, body, breath—they give it all to me. I cheer them by living amongst them. They make me happy; they’re in control. For them, I made the dwellings of Heaven. Their secrets I alone know, and they can read my signs. The sun shines with its rays, and those rays are not different from the sun. That’s the way it is with my devotees and me. We are of one essence, without division. They are constituted by their devotion to me and devotion produces my form just as a flame and a lamp are the same.”
Perhaps this is the reason that the temple of Rukmini is separately located from Vitthal’s in Pandharpur. Vitthal’s indulgence towards His devotees is so much that He has no time for her.
As Rohinimokashi-Punekar explains absence of identity of Vithoba apart from His devotees such as poet-saints:
“In a curious fashion, and unlike the luxuriant descriptions of godheads in Hinduism, Vitthal is identified not by myths and stories surrounding him, but by stories about the saint-poets. The mythology of Vitthal is in a sense the mythology of the saint-poets. He is given shape and form and substance by the devotion of the varkam; by himself he is almost qualityless.”
The salutation amongst Waarkaris (the annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur temple) is “Bola Pundalik varade Hari Vitthal—Shree Gyandev Tukaram” which is an ode to his exemplary devotees Gyaneshwar and Tukaram. What matters to Vitthal is the feeling of devotion and not caste or status or gender. Dnyaneshwar was a Brahmin, Tukaram a Baniya, Namdev a tailor, Chokha Mela, an outcaste, Janabai a poor housewife and Kanhoptara, a prostitute.
It is said that when King Krishnadeva Raya decided to take vigraha/murti of Vitthal to Karnataka, Vitthal appeared in his dream and agreed to come with the king only if devotees too could have unrestricted access to Him at the new place. However, when the agreement was breached and the public was barred from having darshan of Vitthal, the God became restless. Vitthal then instructed a pious devotee, Bhandudas, to reinstate Him back at Pandharpur which he eventually did.
Vithoba would wash clothes of Janabai daily as she was overloaded by her duties. Vithoba came rushing to the help of Namdev when he was about to die of thirst when away from Pandharpur. Vithoba Himself would visit hut of Chokha Mela and dine with him as he was denied entry to the temple by the caste Brahmins.
The devotees of Vithoba undertake biannual pilgrimage on foot called wari, from samadhi of saints to Pandharpur. The warkaris, as pilgrims are known, carry paduka (sandals) of saints in a palkhi. Of all, palkhis of sant Tukaram (from Dehu) and sant Gyaneshwar (from Alandi) are most famous and reach Pandharpur on Ekadashi. More than 15 lakhs people, in their respective troupe known as dindi, join wari which is the biggest periodic movement of people from one place to another on Earth. The tradition is around 800 years old. Covering a distance of nearly 250 KMs, the devotees reach to Pandharpur in 21 days. They know that their Vithoba has patiently been waiting for them as He had waited for Rishi Pandurang for 28 yugas.