The challenge that was being posed to Hindu orthodoxy was continued through the Bhakti movement. Its popular expression in Maharashtra was the Varkari movement. Dnyaneshwar (1275-1306), Namdev(1270-1350), and Tukaram (1598-1649) are the major representatives of the Varkari tradition in Maharashtra. Dnyaneshwar's 'Dnyaneshwari' (1290), a long and clear Marathi commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, has been seen both as an attempt at Sanskritization of the movement and as a step towards making Sanskrit works accessible to the masses. Namdev is considered by many as the true founder of the Varkari movement and its ambassador.
From the times of Dnyaneshwar and Namdev till the seventeenth century, Maharashtra saw the decline of the Yadav dynasty and the emergence of Muslim rule. The new Muslim rulers consolidated their political and military domination for the next three centuries. During this period, Maharashtra's cultural and spiritual integrity was sustained by the teachings of Dnyaneshwar, Namdev, Eknath and other poet-saints of the Varkari movement. The sound understanding of Hindu doctrines was spread throughout the population through the works of these poets and provided the necessary protection against the Muslim rule. The naturalness of their poetry, philosophical message, and simplicity made it convenient for oral discourses among the masses.
In the first half of the seventeenth century the poetic works of Tukaram posed a strong cultural challenge. For three centuries, Muslim rulers became more oppressive, the caste system became more rigid, and the society became more divided. Tukaram's 'Gatha' exposed the hypocrisy of the contemporary religious leaders and opened the minds of common people to the deeper meanings of their life and to the path toward self-realization.
A new phase emerged in the history of Maharashtra with the rise of Chatrapati Shivaji (1627-80) and his successful efforts to forge a Maratha nation. During Shivaji's times, Ramdas (1608-81), a poet-saint, came to prominence. He did not belong to the Varkari movement. His work is different from that of other writers in Varkari tradition in that he provides a strong radical expression to Hindu nationalism as a means of protection against the Muslim rule. The area of political affairs was renounced by the Varkaris because it would draw one into an arena of useless conflicts and tempt one to pursue fame, adulation, and power. Ramdas, on the other hand, advocated the unity of Marathas to propagate Maharashtra dharma.
An important point here is that the change in socio-political conditions, with Shivaji's rule, is reflected in the literary works of the period. In that sense, Tukaram and Ramdas can be perceived as "organic intellectuals" of their times, attempting to maintain cultural influence of intellectuals while introducing their ideas in the basic processes of social transformation. It is also important to bear in mind that the oral tradition and simplicity of the poetry, simple ovees (songs) sung by women while doing their household work, the spiritual songs- bhajans, abhangas, and shlokas- and the powadas, or ballads, describing real and mythical battles and conquests, facilitated the commonsense understanding of the times.
During this period, prose did not develop beyond the form of 'bakhar' which was used to record accounts of battles and administrative and political orders and events. These bakhars provide us with contemporary accounts of the times in clear and precise terms. This form flourished later during the times of the Peshwas.
After the death of Shivaji in 1680 a period of social and political turmoil followed in Maharashtra. The followers of Ramdas did little new writing on their own and satisfied themselves in either copying or idolizing the work of their guru. On the other hand, the Varkari movement continued to maintain its appeal to the masses and retained its creativity. During this period, akhyan kavya, a form of poetry started by Eknath, flourished. Wamanpandit (1608-95), a contemporary of Ramdas, wrote translations of Sanskrit classics. He was notable for his command over language, philosophical erudition, and conscious literary artistry. This marks the resurgence of academic works emphasizing knowledge rather than inspiration and emergence of the elitist impulses in literature focusing on form and nuances untarnished by the social and political disquiet of the times.
The death of Aurangzeb, the last of the powerful Mughal emperors, in 1707, provided the Maratha kingdom with much needed respite from the continuous struggle to maintain the integrity of its freedom. A sense of security and stability that began to spread throughout the kingdom was also accompanied by the tendencies to expand geographically. The Maratha power, wielded by the Brahmin peshwa (prime ministers) was initially in the name of Shahu Maharaj and later almost independently, became a dominant force on the subcontinent. This political and military domination brought an era of relative prosperity in Maharashtra. Pune became the centre of learning, culture, colourful social life, and political power. Moropant (1729-93) is the dominant poet of this period, representing the tradition of Eknath, Wamanpandit, and Raghunathpandit. He read verse stories from the Indian Puranas (ancient texts) in temples, explaining them to lay audiences. The emphasis was on keeping the audience attracted through a clear narration adorned with poetic style, craftsmanship, and lyricism.
The expansion of the empire and the rise of the peshawas gave boost to the powadas. The balladeers sang about the military exploits and tragedies of the Maratha warriors. These powadas were sung before a variety of gatherings from courts to the villages. If powadas presented the heroism and exploits of Maratha soldiers on the battlefields, Lavani (romantic songs) gave expression to their love of sensual pleasure. Both these forms, popular even today, have a genuine folk flavor reflecting the speech and rhythms of the masses.
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