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TULSI DAS (1532–1623)

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Originally appearing in Volume V27, Page 369 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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TULSI DAS (1532–1623), the greatest and most famous of Hindi poets, was a Sarwariya Brahman, born, according to tradition, in A.D. 1532, during the reign of Humayun, most probably at Rajapur in the Banda District south of the Jumna. His father's name was Atma Ram Sukal Dube; that of his mother is said to have been Hul.asi. A legend relates that, having been born under an unlucky conjunction of the stars, he was abandoned in infancy by his parents, and was adopted by a wandering sadhu or ascetic, with whom he visited many holy places in the length and breadth of India; and the story is in part supported by passages in his poems. He studied, apparently after having rejoined his family, at Sukarkhet, a place generally identified with SorOf in the Etah district of the United Provinces, but more probably the same as Varahakshetrat on the Gogra River, 3o M. W. of Ajodhya (Ayodhya). He married in his father's lifetime, and begat a son. His wife's name was Ratnawali, daughter of Dinabandhu Pathak, and his son's Tara. The latter died at an early age, and Tulsi's wife, who was devoted to the worship of Rama, left her husband and returned to her father's house to occupy herself with religion. Tulsi Das followed her, and endeavoured to induce her to return to him, but in vain; she reproached him (in verses which have been preserved) with want of faith in Rama, and so moved him that he renounced the world, and entered upon an ascetic life, much of which was spent in wandering as a preacher of the necessityof a loving faith in Rama. He first made Ajodhya (the capital of Rama and near the modern Fyzabad) his headquarters, frequently visiting distant places of pilgrimage in different parts of India. During his residence at Ajodhya the Lord Rama is said to have appeared to him in a dream, and to have commanded him to write a Rdmayana in the language used by the common people. He began this work in the year 1574, and had finished the third book (Aranya-kand), when differences with the Vairagi Vaishnavas at Ajodhya, to whom he had attached himself, led him to migrate to Benares, where he settled at Asi-ghat. Here he died 1 This is the view of Baijnath Das, author of the best life of Tulsi Das. At Soron there is no tradition connecting it with the poet. Varahakshetra and Sukar-khet have the same meaning (Vardha= Sukara, a wild boar). in 1623, during the reign of the emperor Jahangir, at the great ' age of 91. The period of his greatest activity as an author synchronized with the latter half of the reign of Akbar (1.556-1605), and the first portion of that of Jahangir, his dated works being as follows: commencement of the Ramayan, 1574; Ram-satsai, 1584; Parboli mongol, 1586; Ramayya, 1598; Kabitta Ramayan, between 1612 a,nd 1614. A deed of arbitration in his hand, dated 1612, relating to the settlement of a dispute between the sons of a land-owner named Todar, who possessed some villages adjacent to Benares, has been preserved, and is reproduced in facsimile in Dr Grierson's Modern Vernacular Literature of Hindustan, p. 51. Toclar (who was not, as formerly supposed, Akbar's finance minister, the celebrated Raja Todar Mall) was his attached friend, and a beautiful and pathetic poem'. by Tulsi on his death is extant. He is said to have been resorted to, as a venerated teacher, by Maharaja Man Singh of Jaipur (d. 1618), his brother Jagat Singh, and other powerful princes; and it appears to be certain that his great fame and influence as a religious leader, which remain pre-eminent to this day, were fully established during his lifetime. Tula 's great poem, popularly called Tulsi-krit Ramayan, but named by its author Ram-charit-manas, " the Lake of Rama's deeds," is perhaps better known among Hindus in upper India than the Bible among the rustic population in England. Its verses are everywhere, in this region, popular proverbs; an apt quotation from them by a stranger has an immediate effect in producing interest and confidence in the hearers. As with the Bible and Shakespeare, his phrases have passed into the common speech, and are used by every one (even in Urdu) without being conscious of their origin. Not only are his sayings proverbial: his doctrine actually forms the most powerful religious influence in present-day Hinduism; and, though he founded no school and was never known as a guru or master, but professed himself the humble follower of his teacher, Narhari-Das,2 from whom as a boy in Sukar-khet he heard the tale of Rama's doings, he is everywhere accepted as an inspired and authoritative guide in religion and conduct of life. The poem is a rehandling of the great theme of Valmiki, but is in no sense a translation of the Sanskrit epic. The succession of events is of course generally the same, but the treatment is entirely different. The episodes introduced in the course of the story are for the most part dissimilar. Wherever Valmiki has condensed, Tulsi Das has expanded, and wherever the elder poet has lingered longest, there his successor has hastened on most rapidly. It consists of seven books, of which the first two, entitled " Childhood " (Bal-kand) and " Ayodhya " (Ayodhya-kand), make up more than half the work. The second book is that most admired. The tale tells of King Dasarath's court, the birth and boyhood of Rama and his brethren, his marriage with Sita, daughter of Janak king of Bidcha, his voluntary exile, the result of Kaikeyi's guile and Dasarath's rash vow, the dwelling together of Rama and Sita in the great central Indian forest, her abduction by Ravan, the expedition to Lanka and the overthrow of the ravisher, and the life at Ajodhya after the return of the reunited pair. It is written in pure Baiswari or Eastern Hindi, in stanzas called chau pens, broken by alias or couplets, with an occasional soratha and chhand—the latter a hurrying metre of many rhymes and alliterations. Dr Grierson well describes its movement As a work of art, it has for European readers prolixities and episodes which grate against occidental tastes, but no one can read it in the original without being impressed by it as the work of a great genius. Its style varies with each subject. There is the deep pathos of the scene in which is described Rama's farewell to his mother: the rugged language depicting the horrors of the battlefield—a torrent of harsh sounds clashing against each other and reverberating from phrase to phrase; and, as occasion requires, a sententious, aphoristic method of narrative, teeming with similes drawn from nature herself, and not from the traditions of the schools. His characters, too, live and move with all the dignity of an heroic age. Each is a real being, with a well-defined personality. Rama, perhaps too perfect to enlist all our sympathies; his impetuous and loving brother'Lakshman; the tender, constant Bharat; Sita, the ideal of an Indian wife and mother; Ravan, destined to failure, and fighting with all his demon force against his destiny—the Satan of the epic—all these are characters as lifelike and distinct as any in occidental literature." A manuscript of the Ayodhya-kand, said to be in the poet's own hand, exists at Rajapur in Banda, his reputed birthplace. One of the Bal-kand, dated Sambat 1661, nineteen years before the poet's i See Indian Antiquary, xxii. 272 (1893). ' Narhari-Das was the sixth in spiritual descent from Ramanand, the founder of popular Vaishnavism in northern India (see article
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