Sant Tukaram was an ananya bhaktha of Lord Panduranga Vittal whose bhakthi flowed through music in the form of abhangs, like saint Thygaraja whose intense devotion for Rama flowed through music in the form of Kirtanas. But unlike Saint Thyagaraja, Sant Tukaram was born of a family of traders who were not much literate and belonged to a lower Sudra caste. But his family belonged to the Varkari group that was devoted to Lord Panduranga Vittal of Pandharpur and made annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur on the Ekadasi days of Ashada and Karthick months. His formal education had not gone beyond reading and writing. Yet if he composed more than 5000 abhangs covering hundreds of topics that provide a vivid picture of the state of society, religion and the nation at that time, it is due to the blessing of Namdev as well as Lord Panduranga who blessed and inspired him by visiting him in his dream as he himself expressed in an abhang:
"I was sleeping when Namdev and Vitthal stepped into my dream.
'Your job is to make poems. Stop wasting time,' Namdev said.
Vittal gave me the measure and gently aroused me from a dream inside a dream."
Vittal gave me the measure and gently aroused me from a dream inside a dream."
Tukaram was born in 1608 A.D. at a village called Dehu in Poona district. Despite their lower class status the family was well to do and enjoyed good social standing in the village. Tukaram's troubles started with the illness of his father, due to which he had to start supporting his family at the tender age of thirteen. Tukaram was married to Rukmabai at the age of fifteen, but as she was of weak health, he was soon married again to Jijabai. Shortly thereafter, both his parents died. Soon thereafter his elder brother’s wife died and his elder brother went to Kasi seeking spiritual salvation. There was a famine and his first wife and also the son through her died in the famine. As Tukaram's problems mounted with the death of his family members all his enthusiasm for worldly life left him and he turned to spiritual life. He educated himself by reading several Marathi works on Puranas and philosophy, having a number of Sanskrit books explained to him, and by attending performances of kirtans and readings of Puranas. The decline of interest in worldly matters led to the neglect of his shop which increased his economic woes. At this point of time, he had a dream, in which one Babaji Chaitanya initiated him into the spiritual path.
Soon after Tukaram left his house and village and disappeared into the Bhamnath forest nearby. For fifteen days he stayed there meditating on Lord Panduranga, when he had another dream in which Namdev and Lord Vittal also appeared. This brought about second transformation, when he started singing abhangs on Lord. In the meantime, Jijabai, who was searching for him everywhere found him in the hill and she brought him back to the house. Tukaram was now a totally changed person from the one who had left her a fortnight earlier. He had no love for his household, wife or relations and also for worldly possessions. Immediately after he came back, he gathered all the promissory notes which were in the house, and all the account books, and threw them into the Indrayani River, in spite of the protests of his relatives. Then, with his own hands, he reconstructed the family temple of Lord Panduranga in his place which had fallen into disrepair and began to spend his life day and night, in Bhajan and Kirtan.
He would forever be chanting, singing and dancing with tears in his eyes and Lord Panduranga in his heart. Because he did not bother about running his business it went bankrupt and had to be closed. He did not understand this materialistic world nor did he bother. His wife knew about his character and knew he would not be able to bring money to run the family. So she decided to do household work in her locality and left home in the morning. Tukaram seeing her going out in morning asked her where she was going. She then told him that there was no money left at home and that she had to feed the children and had agreed to do some household work to feed them. Hearing this Tukaram felt bad and asked her to stay at home and said that he would now go for some work and get her money to run the family. As he did not want to take money free and as nobody would employ him in Dehu, he went to a neighbouring village looking for work.
He came across an old man who had a big field and asked him for a job. The man on seeing Tukaram liked him and asked him to take care of his field for the next two months from birds and other animals. He gave him some grains and asked him to give it to his family and return for work. Tukaram delivered the same in his house and came back to the field and sat there. But whenever a sparrow or a cow came he would look at them as Panduranga and did not scare them away and protect the corn field. He would forever be lost in singing abhangs. After two months the old man came to see the farm and was very angry when he found that all his crops had been destroyed. He saw Tukaram standing on the scaffold dancing and singing, not knowing what was happening in the field. The old man scolded him and demanded Rs.2000 for the loss. Tukaram did not know what to reply and said “Panduranga, Panduranga” with tear-filled eyes. Hearing this, the old man got wild and asked him why he was saying Panduranga, Panduranga as if he was Tukaram Maharaj. Tukaram then told him that he was called Tukaram. Hearing this, the old man prostrated to him and apologized to him for scolding him and gave him a load of sugarcane and asked him to take it home with him.
Jijabai heard about this and was happy that her husband had finally earned something and she asked him to go to the market, sell the same and buy a list of provisions. On the way when he saw the temple he got down to have a darsan of Lord. There were some children playing there and every kid in Dehu knew him. When they saw him with a load of sugarcane they went to him and asked him for sugarcane. He said “Yes” and as each child took one, only one was left. With that single sugarcane he returned home. Jijabai became very angry and took the sugarcane and beat him on his back. The sugarcane broke in to two. Tukaram did not get angry but smilingly told his wife that Panduranga had broken the sugarcane into two equal halves using her hands and his back so that both get an equal share. Taken aback by his calm reaction, she apologized to him.
People of all classes and castes began to consider him as a saint and treat him with respect. This was resented by Rameshwar Bhatt, a local Brahmin who was well versed in Dharma sastras and who used to give discourses, as no one now came to his discourses but instead went to Tukaram’s kirtans. He commented that Tukaram had not read the Sastras and was blabbering something in Marathi and was misleading the people with his abhangs. Tukaram who held the Brahmins in high esteem hearing about Rameshwar’s comments on his abhangs met Rameshwar Bhatt and asked him about the mistakes in his abhangs. Bhatt told him that in his abhangs he was telling something of his own and as a Sudra to interpret the sastras was a sin for him. Not only was Tukaram committing a sin, he said, he was also making others incur sin by listening to it. Tukaram felt bad and then told Bhatt with tears that he did not know that he was committing a sin by doing all this and sought his advice as to what he should do now. Bhatt then asked him not to compose or sing any more abhangs and also asked him to throw out all his compositions.
Tukaram then came back to his house tied all compositions in a silk cloth and took the bundle to river Indrayani and with tear-filled eyes threw the bundle into the river. Then he sat under a tree on the banks of the river and spent the whole night there crying “Panduranga, Panduranga”. The next morning when the priest went to open local temple in Dehu, he saw a bundle on Lord Vittal’s head. On examination he found it to be the compositions of Tukaram. He took the bundle to Tukaram who was still sitting in the river bank cryingly chanting “Panduranga” . Tukaram was happy Lord Vittal had saved the poems and restored to him which was a signal that his composition and singing had His blessings. Rameshwar Bhatt hearing of this, came to Tukaram, and apologised for his words. Tukaram said it was no one’s fault and this was only yet another Panduranga Leela. After this incident Tukaram’s abhangs became very famous and many people started singing his songs and his collection of abhangs came to be known as Vaishnava Veda.
Sant Samartha Ramadas and Chhatrapati Shivaji were his contemporaries. Sant Ramadas had asked Shivaji to visit Dehu and meet Tukaram. When Shivaji met Tukaram accordingly, he understood the greatness of Tukaram and started visiting Tukaram frequently. One day Shivaji took some gold coins in a plate and went to meet Tukaram. When Shivaji kept the plate in front of Tukaram he got up and ran away. The disciples then told Shivaji that Tukaram did not like the gold and so he ran away. Shivaji then went to him and apologized for what he did, and said he brought this gold to help Tukaram to feed the sadhus. Tukaram then told Shivaji that if he was worried about him having known him only for a few months now, wouldn’t Vittal be worried about him as he knew him not only from the day he was born but also for so many births. When pressed to accept the offerings to make him happy, Tukaram replied that he would not eat cow’s meat to please someone and that gold was equivalent to cow’s meat for him.
Tukaram's abhangs mostly deal with topics such as the Puranas, lives of Saints, praise of Lord Panduranga, self-scrutiny, and moral instruction. Even where it was autobiographical, the focus was on Lord Panduranga and not on Tukaram. Tukaram emphasized a life of devotion to God and loving service to mankind over the performance of religious rites and ceremonies. The interpretation of Gita from Bhakthi perspective called Mantra Gita in abhang form is also attributed to him. He did not favour elaborate displays of asceticism or preoccupation with austerities, saying, "even dogs come in saffron colour, and bears have matted fur. If living in caves is being spiritual, then rats that inhabit caves must be doing sadhana" Tukaram opposed the acquisition of siddhis, viewing these as obstructions to authentic sadhana. He exhorted his followers to see God in all, and to make God the centre of life
He passed away in his forty-eighth year, much adored by the masses. Tukaram's poetry retains its popular appeal even to this day. No other Marathi poet, medieval or modern is being so universally appreciated. Several of his lines have become household sayings. His works were officially published by the then British Government in 1873. Tukaram firmly believed that his verse was not his own and that his mouth was merely a vehicle for Panduranga.