The Varkari Tradition: A Legacy of Bhakti, Social Justice, and Inclusivity

Each year on the eleventh day of the bright fortnight of the month of Ashada — the beginning of the Indian monsoon — thousands of pilgrims make the holy odyssey to see their beloved Lord of Pandharpur. This pilgrimage, known as the Waari, has been a cornerstone of the Varkari tradition for centuries. 

Legend has it that when the Lord came to meet his bhakt — his ardent devotee — Pundalika, in Pandharpur, Pundalika was so engrossed in washing his parents’ feet that he threw a brick towards the Lord, and asked him to wait. This simple yet profound act of devotion underscores the importance of one's duty towards family and loved ones, even over attending to the divine. 

And since ‘brick’ in Marathi is veet and ‘place’ is thal, so the Lord standing upon a brick, arms akimbo, patiently awaiting his devotee on the banks of the Bhima, like a loving mother awaits her children — is Vitthala

And while the Vaishnavites claim He is The Husband of Rukmini and an incarnation of Vishnu, and the Shaivites believe He is Padurangathe white God — an epithet for the avatar of Shiva, to a Varkari — one who makes the pilgrimage to the sacred land of Pandharpur — Vitthala is swarup: he is simply himself, the original. 

Pundalika Varada Hari Viththala” , the Varkaris chant in unison as they walk towards the Lord’s home. 

“Oh one who gave Pundalika the boon: Hari Viththala!” they roar, in hope, and in immense faith, that He waits for them like He waited for his beloved Pundalika. 

This belief in His affection for them, is their bhakti — their loving devotion.

The poet Mahapati describes Bhakti very beautifully in his ‘Bhaktalilamrita’, When he talks about Uddhava’s bond with Eknath. He says, “To love, ever new, ever developing and growing, is to be given the name of Bhakti.” This dynamic and evolving nature of Bhakti makes it a living, breathing practice, constantly rejuvenated by the devotion of the Varkaris.

And the first tenet of Bhakti — preached by every Varkari saint — is the chanting of the Lord's name.

What makes the Varkari tradition stand out is that, unlike a monk or nun, a Varkari does not need to abandon samsara, their worldly life: their family, their occupation, their home to break away from the cycle of rebirth and death. Since Vitthala only desires the devotion of his bhakts, the bhakts find liberation from the joylessness of samsara through the simple means of loving devotion.

This is what the Varkari saints, the sant kavis— the saint poets — did, they performed musical sermons known as kirtans, and songs composed in the form of Ovi and Abhang (widely used Marathi poetic meters), and preached the path of bhakti. They did this all while fulfilling their familial responsibilities.

In his book ‘Tukaram’, Bhalchandra Nemade very beautifully writes how the Varkari saints “. .. refused to go into another cage in order to escape the one in which man is forced to be born and live.” (Tukaram, page 12, 1980)

Most of the Varkari saints were men and women from the lower strata of society — mainly shudras, some ati-shudras, and a few Brahmins. They were poor, uneducated householders and a lot of their compositions were about their caste-based occupations.

In their preachings they often contested Brahminism, caste hierarchy, ritualism, orthodoxy, and other social injustices. They sought equality, and Vitthala promised them this.

They were his estranged children and He their divine mother.

Avagha Rang Ek Zhala Poem Translation

Bhakti, with its emphasis on devotion, love, and equality, mirrors the ideals of interconnectedness and the inherent divinity or sacredness in all life, as seen in the teachings of philosophers and thinkers throughout history. The Varkari saints may have taken a different path, but their teachings align with those of Buddha, Socrates, Spinoza, Plato, Emerson, and Tagore. Their abhangas serve as a reminder that the path to enlightenment is not confined to intellectual pursuit or asceticism alone.

When the ultimate goal is realization and union with the divine, loving devotion is enough to carry you to this goal. Be like Pundalika—follow your dharma. As long as you throw God a brick, God will wait.

About the Author- Priyamwada Redican is an Indian-origin author and illustrator based in Rotterdam. You can explore her creative and outreach work at and follow her on her Instagram @kaavyaphule.


Odyssey: A great journey
Ardent: Passionate
Akimbo: Having hands on one's hips with elbows outwards
Rejuvenated: With renewed energy
Tenet: Principal
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