By Sonavi Desai
[Gandhiji’s favourite bhajan, Vaishnava jana to, was composed by the 15th century poet-saint of Gujarat, Narsi Mehta.]
Narsi Mehta, the 15th century poet-saint of Gujarat, began his spiritual journey with a highly mystical experience. One day, walking to the forest in deep contemplation, he came upon a secluded Shiva temple and sat down to pray. He spent seven days there, without food or water, lost in contemplation. At the end of a week, he had a vision of Mahadeva.
“What do you seek from me?” Shiva asked.
“I am an ignorant man; I do not know what to ask for. I shall accept whatever you give me,” answered Narsi.
In response, Shiva granted him a glimpse of Gokul, where Lord Krishna was lost in ecstatic song and dance with the gopis. Krishna blessed Narsi, saying, “You have been witness to the divine Rasa-Lila. Go forth and compose poetry and spread the word of the Lord.”
Filled with supreme happiness, Narsi began composing songs to Krishna. People flocked to hear his soul-stirring bhajans and his inspiring words. “Happiness and joy are within you,” he said. “When one is asleep to the illusions of this world, one is truly awake.”
Narsi Mehta was not only a great poet and saint but also a social reformer. He welcomed all to his kirtans, strongly rejecting the caste system. To him, the untouchables were “Harijans” – the children of God.
“Mere religious rites and rituals do not lead to the Divine,” he urged. “Search for, and experience, the Truth. There are many paths to liberation. Some follow the path of jnana, others the path of karma, and yet others, the path of bhakti.”
Narsi Mehta made a great contribution to the Bhakti movement in India, advocating total surrender to God. His poetry is vivid and passionate, full of devotion to Krishna. His songs on love, jnana and vairagya have become part of folk tradition in Gujarat. In the famous bhajan “Vaishnava jana to tene kahiye” that has inspired thinkers, leaders and individuals from all walks of life, he describes a true Vaishnava: He can be called a Vaishnava who has empathy for the suffering of others, and giving selflessly of himself, remains untouched by ego.
[Published in DNA on 9th May, 2006]