Marathi Religions

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MARATHI RELIGIONS . The Marathi language, which has demarcated the area in western India called Maharashtra for almost a thousand years, is an Indo-European language of North India that includes elements from the Dravidian languages of South India as well. Other elements of Maharashtrian culturefood, marriage customs, the patterns of caste groupings, and many aspects of religionalso reflect the fact that the Marathi-speaking area is a bridge between North and South. To the mix of Indo-European and Dravidian is added a mix of Vaiava and Śaiva traditions, and the whole is contained by a remarkable sense of the area's unity and integrity.

The major persistent natural and cultural subregions of Maharashtra are the coastal strip between the Arabian Sea and the Sahyādri Mountains (Western Ghās), called the Kokan; the fertile northeastern region of Vidarbha, in central India; and, between these, the Deś, the Marathi-speaking part of the Deccan plateau, including the upper reaches of the Godavarī and Ka river systems. The upper Godāvarī valley is also called Marāhvāā.

The Development of Marathi and Maharashtrian Religion

The earliest examples of the Marathi language are found in inscriptions from the eleventh century. By the late thirteenth century, when the Yadava kingdom governed most of the area known as Maharashtra and Marathi literature began to appear, the language was already well developed. Three sorts of writings came into being at about the same time, setting in motion very different religious movements.

In Vidarbha, a court-supported philosopher, Muku-arājā, wrote the Vivekasindhu, a philosophical treatise in the Advaita Vedānta tradition of Śakara. Mukuarājā created no cult or school, but his influence is reflected in later work, particularly that of the seventeenth-century Rāmdās, a religio-political saint contemporaneous with the birth of the Marāhā nation under Śivaji.

The thirteenth century also saw the beginnings of two religious movements that continue in the early twenty-first century. The Vārkarī sect, which is the area's most popular devotional religious movement and which has an important literature, understands itself to have begun with Jñāneśvar. Jñāneśvar was the author of an approximately nine-thousand-verse commentary on the Bhagavadgītā called the Jñāneśvarī, a work strongly influenced by the Advaita of Śakara. A number of devotional poems (abhaga s) addressed to the deity Vihobā of Paharpūr are also ascribed to Jñāneśvar; it is on the basis of these that he is considered the first of a line of poet-saints who composed songs in honor of Vihobā, whom Vārkarīs take to be a form of Ka. These poet-saints, numbering around forty, include Nāmdev, a contemporary of Jñāneśvar to whom Hindi as well as Marathi poems are ascribed; Cokhāmeā, an untouchable; Eknāth, a sixteenth-century brahman from Paiha on the Godāvarī River; and Tukārām, the most popular Maharashtrian poet-saint, a seventeenth-century śūdra grocer who lived in Dehu, near Pune (Poona). Members of the Vārkarī sect, virtually all of whom are Maharashtrians, still sing the songs of these poet-saints and carry images of their footwear in an annual pilgrimage to Paharpūr.

The Mahānubhāv sect is not so widely popular today as the Vārkarī sect, but it has an important place in the religious history of Maharashtra. Founded by the thirteenth-century Cakradhar, the Mahānubhāv sect produced a large body of prose hagiographies and poetry. The sect spread primarily in the valley of the Godāvarī River and in Vidarbha. Like the Vārkarīs, Mahānubhāvs are devotees of Ka; but they exceed the Vārkarīs in their rejection of Brahmanic caste and pollution rules, and in their espousal of an ascetic way of life.

Another sect important in medieval Maharashtra was that of the Nāths, whose influence can be discerned in the early history and literature of the Vārkarīs and Mahānubhāvs. The Nāths were a sect of ascetics and yogins who specialized in various kinds of occult knowledge and who were devoted to the god Śiva. Aside from legends concerning the Navanāth, or Nine Nāths, the strongest Nāth influence today is probably in the figure of Dattātreya, to be discussed below.

Maharashtrian Deities

Although the two bhakti (devotional) sects of the Vārkarīs and the Mahānubhāvs are more pronouncedly Vaiava (or, rather, Kaite) than Śaiva, there is evidence of a Śaiva background against which they spread. And in the village and pastoral cults of Maharashtra, goddesses and Śaiva gods are far more prominent than Visnu or Ka.

Pilgrimage deities

The most important pilgrimage deity of Maharashtra is Vihobā of Paharpūr, whose primary mythological indentification is with Ka, but who also has strong connections with Śiva and who may have originated in a pastoral hero cult. Besides Vihobā, most other major Maharashtrian pilgrimage deities are goddesses and Śaiva gods. Of the many Śiva temples in Maharashtra, the two most important to Indian pilgrimage traditions may be Bhīmaśakar in Pune District and Tryambakeśvar in Nasik District. Both temples are basic to the Maharashtrian landscape, since they are at the sources of the important Bhīma and Godāvarī rivers, respectively. Along with several other Maharashtrian Śiva temples, these two claim to be among the most important Śiva temples in all of India, the twelve jyotirliga s. Tryambakeśvar, together with the nearby city of Nāsik, is one of the four sites of the twelve-year cycle of Kumbha Melās.

Several other important pilgrimage deities, more or less closely identified with Śiva, appear to be deities of pastoralists, tribals, and warriors, eventually adopted by settled agriculturalists as well. Perhaps the most prominent of these is Khaobā, whose temples at Jejurī, near Pune, and at Māegāv (Nanded District) attract large numbers of pilgrims from a wide range of castes. Other extremely popular pilgrimage deities of this sort are Śambhu Mahādev at Singāpūr (Satara District) and Jyotibā at Vāī Ratnāgiri (Kolhapur District).

Four goddess temples that ring the Marathi-speaking area are also among the principal Maharashtrian pilgrimage places: the temple of Mahalaksmī at Kolhāpūr, that of Bhavānī at Tujāpūr (Usmanabad District), that of Reukā at Māhūr (Nanded District), and that of Saptaśgī, at Vaī near Nāsik. These temples are linked to the religious geography of all of India as three and a half of the 108 śakti pīha s, places where, according to a Purānic story, body parts of Śiva's wife Satī were scattered throughout India; Saptaśgī is said to be the one-half pīha and thus is somewhat less important than the other three. Although they are all identified as śakti pīha s, each goddess has her own history and individuality as well. Bhavānī, for example, was worshiped by the seventeenth-century Marāhā king Śivājī in the form of his sword.

Distinct from temple priests, who in Śaiva and goddess temples are not necessarily brahmans but often belong to the gurav caste, there are special types of mendicant devotee-performers attached to several of the major pilgrimage deities of Maharashtra. Vāghyā s and muraī s, for instance, are such devotees, dedicated to Khaobā: muraī s are women dancers and vāghyā s are male devotees whose devotional performances sometimes involve acting like dogs, since a dog accompanies Khaobā. The most popular of such folk-religious figures are gondhaīs, who are devotees of goddesses, particularly of Reukā of Māhūr and Tujā Bhavāni. Their performance, the gondha, combines music and storytelling, usually at a wedding or other family occasion, but the gondhaī also serves as bard, singing the heroic pavāā s that celebrate Maharashtrian bravery from the time of Śivājī on.

Other deities

The figure of Dattātreya illustrates a Maharashtrian reworking of religious influences from both North and South, as well as the synthesizing of Śaiva and Vaiava motifs. A i ("seer") in Sanskrit epic and Purāic literature, Datta first appears in Marathi literature as one of the five Mahānubhāv incarnations of the supreme God, Parameśvara. By the sixteenth century, however, Datta is clearly in the mainstream Hindu tradition, and has begun to be represented as the Brahmā-Viu-Śiva triad, in one body with three heads. Shortly before that time, incarnations of the god began to appear on Maharashtrian soil, and many believe that Datta has appeared in modern times, as Sāī Bābā, as the Svāmī of Akkalko, or as some other avatāra. Datta's chief and very popular pilgrimage center is at Gāgāpūr, located to the south of Maharashtra in northern Karnataka state. As in the northern tradition, Datta is seen as the patron deity of ascetics. Another element in Maharashtrian Datta worship is that while he is seen as a brahman, he has also become guru for people in all walks of life, even, it is said, for prostitutes, and his three-headed image or an image of one of his avatara s is found at all levels of society.

The elephant-headed god Gaeśa or Gaapati is also particularly important in Maharashtra. There is a formal pilgrimage route of eight centers, all fairly near Pune, where svayambhū ("self-formed") elephant-headed stones bestow blessings as images of Gaeśa, but much more frequently worshiped are the representations of Gaeśa fixed over the doors of homes, brilliant with red coloring; among the stone sculptures on temple walls; and appearing here and there in the open countryside or in small shrines on city streets. Gaeśa was the family deity of the Pevās, the Citpāvan brahmans who ruled from Pune after the time of Śivājī, and the numerically small in numbers but nevertheless influential Citpāvans are still among Gaapati's principal worshipers. The annual Gaeśa festival has become a widely popular public event since 1893, when the nationalist leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak organized it as a way to celebrate patriotism through religious means.

The god Rām is found in temples throughout Maharashtra, but seems not to carry the cultural importance found in great public events like the Rāmlīlā in the Hindi-speaking area. Rām's devotee, the monkey god Māruti (Hanumān), is tightly woven into Maharashtrian rural life; a Māruti temple is found in almost every Maharashtrian village or on its outskirts. Other deities prominent as village protectors are goddesses with names ending in āī ("mother"), bāī ("lady") or devī ("goddess"), such as Marīāī, the goddess of pestilence.


The ritual life of Maharashtrian Hindus includes festivals regulated by the calendar, celebrations of events in the human life cycle, and rituals performed in response to individual or collective crises.

Calendrical rites

Rituals occurring annually include pilgrimage festivals (jatrā s) to particular places at particular times, and festivals celebrated locally or domestically in an annual cycle. Maharashtrian Hindus follow the luni-solar calendar, ending months with the no-moon day (the amānta system), as in South India, rather than with the full-moon day (the pūrimānta system), as in North India. The greatest concentration of pilgrimage festivals occurs during the month of Caitra (MarchApril), the first month of the Hindu calendar, but such festivals take place throughout the year. The pilgrimage deities mentioned above account for only a fraction of the thousands of jatrā s occurring every year in Maharashtra.

Of local and domestic festivals, some of the most popular in Maharashtra are the following.

  • Divāī: a complex of several festival days occurring at the end of the month of śvin and the beginning of the month of Kārtik (generally in October), celebrated domestically, most prominently by decorating homes with lighted lamps.
  • Navarātra: a festival in honor of goddesses celebrated for the first nine days of the month of śvin (SeptemberOctober); Navarātra culminates on the tenth day with Dasarā or Vijayadaśamī, a festival of triumph that is traditionally considered an auspicious day for inaugurating military campaigns or other enterprises.
  • The Gaeśa festival: a ten-day festival ending on the fourteenth day of the month of Bhādrapad (AugustSeptember), in which temporary images of the elephant-headed deity Gaeśa are worshiped in home shrines (and, following Tilak's innovations, in elaborate neighborhood shrines in cities and towns as well); in some homes, women set up temporary shrines in honor of the goddess Gaurī (Pārvatī) for three days during the Gaeśa festival.
  • Vaasāvitrī: a vrata (a fast and ritual) performed by married women on the full moon day of the month of Jyeha (MayJune) for their husbands' welfare.
  • Nāg Pañcamī: one of the many days of fasting and worship during the month of Śrāva (JulyAugust), this festival is held on the fifth day of the month and is characterized by the worship of snakes and by women's songs and games.
  • Polā: a festival usually celebrated on the no-moon day at the end of the month of Śrāva, a day on which the bullocks used in agricultural work are decorated, worshiped, and led in procession around the village.

In addition to such annual festivals, there are certain days of each fortnight and of each week that are especially dedicated to particular gods and that are observed by special worship of those gods and/or by fasting in their honor. For example, Monday is for Śiva, Tuesday and Friday for goddesses, Thursday for Dattātreya, Saturday for Śani (Saturn), Sunday for Khaobā, the fourth day of each fortnight for Gaeśa, the eleventh day of the fortnight for Vihobā, the thirteenth day for Śiva, and so on.

Life-cycle rites

Besides marriage and funeral rituals, those of the classical Hindu life-cycle rites (saskāra s) most commonly celebrated in Maharashtra today are the ceremony of naming a child (this is performed on or near the twelfth (bārāvā ) day after the child's birth and is hence called bārse ), and the ceremony, primarily among brahmans, of initiating young boys and investing them with the sacred thread (muñja ). In addition, there are several rituals celebrating the early married life and pregnancy of young women. These rituals are generally performed by women and are not included in the classical list of saskāra s. Such, for example, are Magaā Gaurī, the worship of the goddess Gaurī and playing of women's games on a Tuesday of the month of Śrāva, for the first five years of a woman's married life, and ohāejeva, a celebration in honor of a pregnant woman, named for the cravings of pregnancy (ohālā ).

Crisis rites

Rituals of crisis in Maharashtra most commonly take the form of a navas: one promises a deity that one will perform a particular fast or pilgrimage in his or her honor, or make some particular offering, if one gets a certain desired objectmost typically, the birth of a son. If that object is attained, one must keep one's promise (navas pheae ). With the notable exception of Vihobā of Paharpūr, many of the chief pilgrimage deities of Maharashtra are said to answer such prayers (navasālā pāvane ); and many Maharashtrian pilgrimages, whether at special festival times or otherwise, are made in fulfillment of a navas.

In addition, there are village deities, such as Marīāī (the cholera goddess) and Śītalā (the smallpox goddess), who are especially propitiated for curing individuals of disease and for averting or bringing to an end such disasters as epidemics and droughts which affect an entire village. Marīāī is served by a potrāj always, until the contemporary conversion to Buddhism, an untouchable mahār who carries a whip and a burning rope, wears a skirt made of women's blouse pieces, and acts as priest for the goddess.

A popular but elaborate ritual called the Satyanārāya Pūjā is most common in modern, urban environments. It is performed in fulfillment of a navas, for thanksgiving, for safety on a journey, or for prosperity or success of some sort.

Changes in Hinduism in Modern Maharashtra

Modern changes in Maharashtrian religion are many and varied, ranging from the training of women as ritual priests to a large-scale conversion from Hinduism to Buddhism (see below). Two streams of change in the nineteenth century affected the intellectual history of Hinduism, but seem not to have influenced common practice. Gopal Hari Deshmukh (18231892), writing as Lokahitavāī ("he who is concerned for the people's welfare"), set in motion a reform and liberalization of Hindu practice that was later organized as the Prārthanā Samāj, the "prayer society." This was the Maharashtrian counterpart of the Bengali Brāhmo Samāj, but was not as separated from mainstream Hindu life as the latter. The "non-brahman movement" begun by Jotibā Phule (18281890) was also liberalizing and rationalizing, but carried the additional message that brahman dominance was socially, politically, and, indeed, religiously destructive to the welfare of the lower classes. Phule's Satyashodhak Samāj (Truth Seeking Society) brought his religious ideas and ideals to every corner of the Des and Vidarbha. The chief carryover of Phule's movement in the first half of the twentieth century, however, was political rather than religious. Phule is revered today in the Ambedkar movement.

The institutional changes in Hinduism in the modern period incude the Gaapati festival as reorganized by Tilak; the formation of the Rārīya Svayasevak Sagh, a paramilitary service organization with a religious base for young men with a branch for women, and the training of women as sannyasis and as priests. While the Rārīya Svayasevak Sagh (RSS) has spread over much of India, it originated in the city of Nagpur in Vidarbha, and is still of great importance all over Maharashtra, particularly among brahmans. Begun by Dr. K. B. Hedgewar (18891940), the RSS was both a Hindu revival organization that combined Sanskrit prayer with military drill and a nationalistic service organization. Its leadership is celibate and promises lifelong dedication to the organization, but the majority of its members become associated with the youth groups of the RSS and maintain their formal affiliation only as long as they are students. The RSS is linked to the conservative Bhāratīya Janatā Paka (BJP) political party, but retains its separate existence as a non-political body. It traces its intellectual heritage to the Hindu revivalistic thought of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Vīr Savarkar, both also ardent nationalists.

Women have been of consequence in Maharashtrian religion from the days of Cakradhar and Jñāneśvar, and Muktābāī, Janābāī, Soyrābāī, and Bahiābāī are important figures in the Vārkarī movement. A pattern of prominent women devotees of even more prominent male saints was repeated in the twentieth century as Godāvarī Mātā succeeded Upāsanī Bābā at the important ashram at Sakori in Ahmadnagar District. Here the Kanyā Kumārī Sthān, a young women's religious training institute, was established, enabling women to become full-fledged ascetics. The most recent development is a program in Pune that trains women as Vedic ritual priests.

Maharashtra is home also of many gurus and their ashrams, the best known being Meher Bābā's center at Ahmadnagar, Muktānanda's at Ganeshpuri near Mumbai, and Rajneesh's in Pune. All of these have Western as well as Indian adherents. There are also many gurus whose followers are all Indian, such as Gajānan Mahāraj of Shegaon and Swāmī Samarth of Akkalkot.

Religious Minorities

Of the non-Hindu religions in Maharashtra, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity account for roughly 7, 8, and 1.5 percent of the population, respectively. Jains are few in number but important as merchants as are the Muslim merchant groups of Bohras, Khojas, and Memons. There is little writing on either contemporary Islam or Christianity in the Maharashtrian context, but there is much information on the most recent change in religion, the conversion to Buddhism.

The initial Buddhist conversion took place in the city of Nagpur in 1956 and has spread all over Maharashtra (and to many urban areas of India); the conversion movement is still gaining adherents. After a series of frustrated attempts on the part of untouchables to enter temples, B. R. Ambedkar (18911956), an untouchable mahar educator, reformer, and statesman, declared in 1935 that he "would not die a Hindu." The conversion was postponed for twenty years while political activities took precedence, but just before his death, Dr. Ambedkar publicly became a Buddhist and called for conversion to that once-important Indian religion. More than six million adherents, the majority of them in Maharashtra, now list themselves as Buddhist, and a Buddhist literature in Marathi, a growing order of Buddhist monks, and a program of building Buddhist vihara s (temples) now mark the Maharashtrian scene. Many of the converts draw inspiration from the world-famous ancient Buddhist cave-temples in Maharashtra, especially the complexes at Ajanta and Ellora.

The writing on contemporary Islam in the state is almost non-existent, but there seems to have been a considerable mixture of Hinduism and Islam in the past. Shaykh Muammad was an honored saint-poet within the bhakti tradition in the fifteenth century; the god Dāttatreya often appeared as a faqīr, or Muslim holy man, to his disciples; Sāī Baba of Shirdi was a Muslim but now is chiefly worshiped by Hindus, who flock to his center and pray to him for material well-being. The sea shrine of Hājī lī in Mumbai, accessible at low tide, is visited by Indians of all religions. Muarram is the name of the first month of the Muslim year, and the first ten days of that month are an important festival also known by that name. In the past Hindus participated in great numbers in the Muharram festival, and visited the shrines of ūfī saints. There is less participation in Muharram today, but the festival continues to be important to Shīʿā Muslims. It is a solemn occasion associated with the memory of usayn, son of the Prophet's daughter by ʿAlī, and commemorates the death of usayn in the battle of Karbala in 680 ce. The festival involves a temporary structure called an imāmbāra for gatherings; the standard of a hand placed on a pole, emblematic of the five members of the family of the Prophet; a procession carrying a replica of usayn's tomb, called a tābūt, which culminates in its immersion in the river (at least in Pune); and a feast, which is also observed by Sunnis. Muslims observe the ninth month of the Muslim year, Rāmadān, with fasting.

Christian conversion in the area, outside of the Portuguese presence in Goa, began in the nineteenth century, with the American Marathi Mission being the most important of the foreign groups. Justin Abbott and others of this mission did much to translate the Vārkarī poets into English, and one famous convert of the mission, Narayan Vaman Tilak, wrote Christian bhakti hymns in Marathi. Another influential convert, not connected to any Maharashtrian institution, was Pandita Ramabai, who wrote on social and women's issues, established a home for girls, and introduced Braille to India. The educational institutions, particularly the colleges, established by both Protestants and Catholics, are very important. Festivals are also important, especially the feast of Mary's Nativity at the famous shrine of Our Lady of the Mount in Bandra in Mumbai. While the feast is held in other parts of the West Coast on September 8, coincident with the harvest, the Bandra festival goes on for a week with several hundred thousand people venerating the ancient statue in the shrine and attending the Bandra fair. There is also a feast for St. Gonsalo Garcia, the first Indian born saint, and an older feast for St. Francis Xavier, whose tomb is in Goa, on December 3.

The small but culturally and economically important group of Parsis, eighth-century Zoroastrian immigrants from Persia, is primarily based in Mumbai and other large cities of Maharashtra. There is also a small group of Marathi-speaking Jews, the Bene Israeli, most of whom have migrated to Israel.

See Also

Ambedkar, B. R.; Brāhmo Samāj; Hindu Religious Year; Indian Religions, article on Rural Traditions; Parsis; Pilgrimage, article on Hindu Pilgrimage; Poetry, article on Indian Religious Poetry; Rites of Passage, article on Hindu Rites; Tilak, Bal Gangadhar.


The most thorough and prolific writer on the religious traditions of Maharashtra, including folk traditions, is R. C. Dhere, who writes in Marathi. His Vihal, Ek Mahāsamanvay (Poona, 1984) is the most comprehensive work on the Vihobā cult to date. The standard work on this subject in English is G. A. Deleury's The Cult of Vihobā (Poona, 1960). A recent account is Palkhi: A Pilgrimage to Paharpūr by D. B. Mokashi, translated by Philip C. Engblom (Albany, N. Y., 1987), which adds to the reality of the Vārkarī pilgrimage. Dilip Chitre's translations of the bhakta Tukārām, Tuka Says, first published as a Penguin Classic, is now available in a more comprehensive edition published by the Sontheimer Cultural Association in Pune. Shankar Gopal Tulpule's Classical Marathi Literature from the Beginning to ad 1818 in A History of Indian Literature, vol. 9, fasc. 4, edited by Jan Gonda (Wiesbaden, 1979), gives a thorough survey of Vārkarī and Mahānubhāv literature, as well as of other premodern religious literature in Marathi; this work includes generous bibliographical footnotes. An earlier work, R. D. Ranade's Indian Mysticism: The Poet-Saints of Maharashtra (1933; reprint, Albany, N. Y., 1983) provides extensive summaries of the thought of Ramdas and most of the Vārkarī poet saints.

Madhukar Shripad Mate's Temples and Legends of Maharashtra (Bombay, 1962) describes several of the most important pilgrimage temples of Maharashtra; and thousands of pilgrimage festivals are listed in Fairs and Festivals in Maharashtra, vol. 10 of Census of India, 1961, part 7B (Bombay, 1969). Günther-Dietz Sontheimer's Pastoral Dieties in Western India, translated from the German by Anne Feldhaus (New York, 1989), is a richly detailed study of the religious traditions of Maharashtrian pastoralists, including myths of Birobā, Mhaskobā, and Khaobā. John M. Stanley analyzes the meaning of a Khaobā festival in "Special Time, Special Power," Journal of Asian Studies 37 (1977): 3748. Anne Feldhaus's Water and Womanhood: Religious Meanings of Rivers in Maharashtra (New York, 1995) is based on extensive fieldwork in the state. Two older works containing a wealth of information on Maharashtrian folklore are R. E. Enthoven's The Folklore of Bombay (London, 1924) and John Abbott's The Keys of Power: A Study of Indian Ritual and Belief (1932; reprint, Secaucus, N. J., 1974).

For developments in the modern period, see Matthew Lederle's Philosophical Trends in Modern Maharastra (Bombay, 1976), which provides a good survey of the major religious-philosophical thinkers. Eleanor Zelliot's From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement (3d edition, New Delhi, 2001) provides material on the Buddhist conversion. The Experience of Hinduism: Essays on Religion in Maharashtra, edited by Eleanor Zelliot and Maxine Berntsen (Albany, N. Y., 1988) contains essays on contemporary religion, including V. M. Sirsikar on "My Years in the R.S.S.," and the last kīrtan of the reformer-saint Gadge Maharaj.

Eleanor Zelliot (1987 and 2005)

Anne Feldhaus (1987 and 2005)