It was one of Gandhiji’s favourite bhajans or devotional songs, and chances are that you would also be familiar with ‘Vaishnava Jana To.’
But did you know, that this piece was the composition of the 15th-century Bhakti saint Narsinh Mehta, popularly referred to as Narsi Mehta, who is considered the ‘Adikavi’ or ‘the primary poet’ of Gujarat?
Go anywhere in the state, and you will find statues and roads named after him. Even one of the most prestigious awards in the state – the Narsinh Mehta Award, is named after him. So, who was this poet-saint, who has become an important part of the Gujarati cultural identity?
A vision of Lord Krishna and his Raas Leela inspired Narsinh Mehta to compose nearly 22,000 kirtans
According to legend, Narsinh Mehta was born in a Nagar Brahmin family, in the town of Talaja in the Bhavnagar district of Gujarat. He lost his parents at the young age of 5 and was raised by his grandmother.
He married a lady named Manekbai, and they lived with his brother Bansidhar, whose wife did not approve of them. One day, after a fight, Narsinh left the house and went to a nearby forest in search of some peace.
It is said that he fasted and meditated here for seven days, after which he had a vision of Lord Krishna and his Raas Leela. It is said, that it is on Lord Krishna’s command that Narsinh resolved to compose nearly 22,000 kirtans or compositions.
He then moved to Junagadh, the capital of the Chudasama dynasty, where he lived with his family in genteel poverty. Like Bhakti poets across India, Narsinhji also preached oneness with God through Bhakti, or devotion, and shunned all discrimination based on caste or sex.
In the story of the ‘Har Mala,’ Lord Krishna himself is said to have come to the saint’s rescue, when local king Rai Mandalik attempted to test Narsinhji’s ‘immortality.’
This earned him the ire of the orthodoxy. The Brahmins of Junagadh were against him. Sadly, there is little historical evidence from that time, but there are many legends and folk tales about the travails Narsinhji went through. One popular story of the ‘Har Mala,’ for instance, is about how Lord Krishna himself came to the saint’s rescue when the local king Rai Mandalik attempted to test Narsinhji’s ‘immortality.’
Given that like most other medieval Indian poet-saints, there are no authentic historic records available on his life, this particular legend is important, as there are details available of the king mentioned in the tale. Rai Mandalik ruled Junagadh between 1451 to 1572 CE and was the last Hindu king of Junagadh, before it was annexed by the Sultanate of Gujarat. This helps us to get a rough approximation of the dates.
Narsinh Mehta’s life stories have been derived from the biographical poems attributed to him over centuries
The most comprehensive academic work on the poet is the book ‘Narasinha Mehta of Gujarat: A Legacy of Bhakti in Songs and Stories’ by Neelima Shukla-Bhatt, Associate Professor of South Asia Studies at Wellesley College, USA. Bhatt explains that most of his life stories have been derived from the biographical poems attributed to him or other narrative poems over centuries. The only major text that contains a reference to him, the Tarikh –i- Sorath by Ranchodji Amarji, dating to the early 18th century, also draws from these legends.
Going beyond dates, it is interesting to see the times in which his compositions emerged. The Bhakti movement, which emphasized equality and a direct connection to a personal God, spread across India as a response to the rigid caste system and ritualism that had begun to dominate the Hindu faith.
Narsinh Mehta also composed in a language that was an early form of Gujarati, which had emerged out of the Apabhramsha language in the 13th century.
From the Alvars and Nayanars in Tamil Nadu, it spread north to the Lingayats in Karnataka, the Varkari saints in Maharashtra and then to Gujarat, Rajasthan and Punjab. This also led to a surge in regional literature, which sought to explain the religious texts to the masses.
Narsinh Mehta also composed in a language that a common man could understand. This was the early form of Gujarati, which had emerged out of the Apabhramsha language in the 13th century.
Also, the town of Junagadh lay on the important pilgrim route to Dwaraka, where thousands of Vaishnavite devotees thronged. This made Narsinhji popular. Over the succeeding centuries, at a time when Gujarat was divided into hundreds of little kingdoms, his works helped create a sense of a ‘Gujarati’ identity, going beyond caste and class boundaries.
During the freedom movement, his composition ‘Vaishnava Jana To’ gained nationwide popularity, when it was played daily during Mahatma Gandhi’s prayers. The Mahatma also made many references to Narsinh Mehta’s teachings, especially his views on social reform.
It is no surprise that the first ever Gujarati language talkie film was Narsinh Mehta (1932). His appeal has only increased after the creation of the linguistic state of Gujarat in 1960. His poems are now a part of Gujarati language textbooks.
It is amazing how Narsinh Mehta’s legacy lives on, 600 years after his death and how it has shaped the very idea of Gujarat.
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