The Mahanubhavas are a Hindu sect whose members are mostly located in Maharashtra. The people who live in this region are known as Maharashtrians and the language they speak is called Marathi. The sect was founded in 1267 by Harapala, who was from Gujarat, a state in the Western part of India. He is otherwise known as Chakradhara, because he began his career as an ascetic in Vidarbha under this name. It is here where he gathered many disciples and moved to Paithan. This would become the headquarters of the sect (Feldhaus 422). Their sacred text is the Sutrapatha, which consists of 1172 sutras and is divided into thirteen sections (Feldhaus 422). This sect has faced many controversies. One controversy concerning the Sutrapatha, is not about what the text entails, but about the language used to write it. It is written in an old form of Marathi and not in the usual Sanskrit language. Therefore, only people educated in this old way of writing are able to understand it.
Chakradhara was the son of a Gujarati royal minister. He became disgusted with his wife and, despite his father’s objections, set out on a pilgrimage (Bakker 88). Chakradharas’ guru was named Govindaprabhu and he is the fourth of the five avatars [For more information on Govindaprabhu refer to Raeside (1976)]. Chakradhara wandered the wilderness as a naked ascetic. During this journey he acquired his first female disciple. This meeting took place in 1266 (Raeside 587). This Hindu sect did a great job of documenting their history. Two fundamental pieces of writings are the Purvardha and Uttarardha. These texts are written by Chakradhara’s disciples and give a detailed account of his wanderings. Also the texts explain how he is constantly teaching his doctrine and getting many more disciples, the majority of them are women (Raeside 587). The elaborate account of Cakradharas death is quite striking. He was accused of living immorally with his female disciples, for this he was arrested and had his nose cut off. His enemies were still not satisfied with this punishment. Chakradhara was then arrested again and beheaded. [For more information on these events refer to the rajya karitam, this episode elaborates on the final event and how Chakradhara went north (Raeside 1976)].
The death of a leader has a profound effect on his/her subjects. Nagadeva became a very important figure for the Mahanubhavas and was the obvious choice as the successor because of his close relationship with the founder Chakradhara. He held the sect together and he stated that it was only him who could give initiation and teaching to the new recruits (Raeside 588). A leader is a person who needs to be able to assert his/her authority, take charge of the group and not be questioned by anyone. When the leader loses this authority, he/she also loses respect and members of the group will begin to look elsewhere for a stronger leader. This failure in leadership would happen to Parasaramabasa, who became the leader of the sect around 1390. By this time the sect was growing rapidly. He could not remain in control of the growing society and the result was a split from one unified Hindu sect into thirteen sub-sects (amnayas) (Raeside 588). By the nineteenth century all of the remaining sects merged into two of the main sub-sects that had survived. The Upadhye and the Kavisvara: the differences between these two sub-sects were minimal. Kavisvara represented orthodoxy, the Upadhye did not, but had proven to be the strongest group, and the reason for the Upadhye being stronger is unknown. Each group only had slightly differing views on points of doctrine and dress details (Raeside 588).
All of the Mahanubhava beliefs and practices were written down shortly after the death of Chakradhara. The most important writings come from the Lila caritra, which was composed by Mhai-Bhatta and the text recorded all of Chakradhara’s life and sayings (Dalal 234). This was an enormous task as Mhai-Bhatta wrote down everything Chakradhara had said and all of his movements too. This was all done by memory and with the help from some of Chakradhara other disciples (Raeside 589). This text was divided into three parts and despite holding the spoken words of Chakradhara, it is not considered the ‘bible’ of the Mahanubhavas. The ‘bible’ name is attached to the Sutrypatha, the text was written by Kesobasa and contains his own recollections of Chakradharas teachings in the form of sutras. Later he decided to add another section which entails all the stories Chakradhara had used to illustrate his teachings (Raeside 589).
In order for the leader of a religion or a religious sect to gain disciples, he needs to have a set of beliefs and values that his admirers will follow. Chakradhara had four everlasting, always independent components of the universe: Jiva, Devata, Prapanca and Paramesvara/Brahma (Raeside 589). The purpose of Jiva is to attain moksha and the Devata is a powerful impediment to Jiva [For more information on Moksha and Jiva refer to Dalal (2010), here the two concepts are elaborated on and used in many different examples]. Despite this connection between the first two components Chakradhara’s teaching was mainly concerned with the relationship between Jiva and Paramesvara, also he refers to the highest deity as Paramesvara (Raeside 591) [For further information on Paramesvara refer to Raeside (1976)]. Other beliefs involved in this sect are the worship of smarana (remembrance) of the five incarnations including their incidents, objects related to their lives and pilgrimages to places connected with them (Dalal 233). The incidents being worshiped refer to important events in people’s lives and they show a great amount of respect to these objects because of how influential the item is.
Physically seeing the founder of a religious sect can have a very strong effect on some disciples. The mere sight of Chakradhara is said to have induced a trance-like state in people (Raeside 561). A trance is referring to a person being in a specific state of mind; they are not asleep nor completely awake, resulting in an inability to function without another person directing them. For women in this Hindu sect, trance is an extremely important part of showing their devotion and loyalty to their God. Female problems are alleviated through trance, if the woman is unable to trance, she sees this as a curse or type of bad karma (Skultans 81). Men do not trance, this is related to the part they play in society. If men are in a trance like state then mentally they would be incapable of performing their job. This is why only women are able to trance (Skultans 88). To other religions, trancing is a serious effect on the mental health of the women. To the Mahanubhava women, the ability to enter a trance proves to them and to their family their devotion to their God. [Skultans (2008) explores the importance of trance and the connection the women feel with their God when they are in this state of mind].
The Mahanubhava have many practices that are accepted by other religions. They have gurus (teachers) and shishya (student), also they have a leader and many texts that explain the sects beliefs and values. However, there are also several parts of the sect that are questioned and looked down upon by other groups that practice Hinduism. What the Mahanubhava face persecution for is their non-acceptance of the caste system and their rejection of using the Sanskrit language (Dalal 233). Because they are part of the Marathi society, they speak and record all of their texts in an old form of the Marathi language. However, when writing poetry the people in this sect adhere to the high tradition of the Sanskrit court poetry [see the Medieval Indian Literature (1997) for more information]. The caste system is a huge part of the Hindu religion, each jatis (caste) is grouped into four varnas (classes): Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras, some people believe there is also a fifth caste for the Untouchables. Each caste has its own duties in society and must follow strict rules associated with their certain caste. The Mahanubhava rejected the caste system and allow anyone to join the Hindu sect. For some this was unthinkable; a Brahmin socially interacting with an Untouchable was not an event that happened a lot or at all and some thought of this as absurd. The Mahanubhavas also disregarded the teachings of the Vedas and do not recognize any deities except Krsna (Ranade 28). [For more information on the sects rejection of all deities except Krsna see Ranade (1982)]. The rejection of this system by the Mahanubhava’s founder Chakradhara brought a major change to society. This movement promoted equality among all varnas, instead of punishing the people for being born into a certain caste system.
Statistically thinking because anyone can join the Mahanubhavas Hindu sect regardless of their caste status, it would make sense if the number of members would be relatively high. The sect flourished towards the end of the thirteenth century (Feldhaus 201). However, from a membership estimation in 1901 there are only about 22,000 members and it is extremely hard to determine an accurate number for the past few years because the Mahanubhavas fall under the religion Hinduism, not a separate Hindu sect (Raeside 585). Even though the sect does not seem to have a huge following, the texts written by the disciples have received a huge amount of attention, especially over the past 50 years from Marathi scholars (Raeside 585). This sect feels a great deal of hatred from the Brahmin. They never complained about it until 1907 and it is here the mahantas (Mahanubhava religious leaders) began to defend their sect in court. They would need to present evidence in court to prove the Brahmins slander and the Mahanubhava presented multiple scriptures as evidence against the Brahmins. Some of which dated as far back as the fourteenth century and this was the same time era as the oldest Marathi literature known up to that time so it was a very impressive piece of evidence (Raeside 586). Certain members or groups in society could not accept the admission of all people regardless of their caste status, in spite of this the Mahanubhavas continue to worship their God.
The Mahanubhava is a Hindu sect that was founded by a man who rejected many aspects of the traditional Hindu society. Chakradhara was a powerful leader who taught his disciples his ideas about the universe. He asked his disciples to follow four precepts: non-violence, asceticism, celibacy and bhakti (Dalal 234). [For an in-depth look at Bhakti refer to Dalal (2010)]. Much controversy took place surrounding the founder’s death. He allegedly broke the rule of celibacy, but still the event was documented in great detail. This indicates the importance of recording all acts Chakradhara performed no matter what the outcome was and the negative impact it had on the Mahanubhava. Today the creation of this Hindu sect continues to be seen as a major change in society. Though the impact was located in a relatively small area in northern and eastern Maharashtra, between the old districts of Khandesh and Napur, they are strongest of all in Berar (Raeside 585). There is no question that the sect has produced some of the oldest forms of Marathi writing ever known, and for this reason scholars of the 20th century have become very intrigued with understanding the sect and all of their documentations.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Bakker Hans (1990) The History of Sacred Places in India As Reflected in Traditional Literature: Papers on Pilgrimage in South Asia. The Netherlands. Leiden: Brill.
Feldhaus, Anne (1996) Images of women in Maharashtrian Literature and Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Feldhaus, Anne (1985) “The Religious System of the Mahanubhava Sect: The Mahanubhava Sutrapatha.” The Journal of Asian Studies P. 422.
Raeside I.M.P (1976) “The Mahanubhavas.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 39, No. 3. P585-600.
Raeside I. (1988) “Investigating Mahanubhava Practice and Beliefs.” Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Vol. 23, No. 3 p. 561-562.
Ranade R.D (1982) Mysticism in Maharashtra: Indian Mysticism. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publisher.
Roshen, Dalal (2010) Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide. Penguin Books India.
Panikar, Ayyappap (1997) Medieval Indian Literature: An Anthology, Volume 2 Surveys and selections; New Delhi: Elegant Printers.
Skultans Vieda (2008) Empathy and Healing: Essays in Medical and Narrative Anthropology. United States: Berghahn Books.
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Article written by Heidi Elsley (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its contents.