Lord Vitthala of Pandharpur has always been an enigma to the scholars. Worship of Lord Vitthala dates back to minimum 11th century AD. It is believed that it is even more antique. The saints like Namdeo, Dnyaneshwar, Tukaram believe that the idol of Lord Vitthala is as ancient as the universe is. The devotees of Lord Vitthala have been worshipping him as a manifestation of Lord Vishnu or Krishna. The Varkari’s (Devotees of Lord Vitthala) call themselves Vaishnava’s, cult of Vishnu. Still Lord Vitthala is an enigma because of following reasons:
- Lord Vitthala’s name is nowhere to found in the list of Vishnu’s 1000 names or in his 24 reincarnations and the saints and devotees had and has this knowledge still he is called as “Vishnu who appeared on the banks of Chandrabhaga river, naked, stood arms akimbo.” Same time Saints believe He is Krishna, in a pastoral attire, came to Pandharpur for the great devotee “Pundarik”, eternally busy in service of his parents. Also there is another story told about the appearance of Krishna at Pandharpur. The story goes like this: As Rukmini, consort of Krishna saw Radha, a mythical lover of Krishna sitting on his laps, Rukmini was angered. In a rage she left Mathura and came in recluse at Pandharpur. To please her, Krishna, along with his pastoral mates came to Gopalpura, a village near Pandharpur, and in a pastoral attire went alone to meet Rukmini. Another explanation of Krishna’s visit and his eternal abode at Pandharpur is told that Krishna visited Pandharpura to seduce a beautiful Princess named Padma. All these stories appear to be concocted as there is no consistency in them. Real form of Vitthala remains a mystery.
- Many scholars like Manikrao Dhanpalwar have tried to prove that this sacred place was Shaivait before it was converted to a Vaishnav shrine. This is because actual temple of Devotee Pundarik is a Shiva temple. It is belief of devotees that on the head of Lord Vitthala is Shivalsinga. Many saints like even Dnyanehwar recognize Lord Vitthala as Shiva as well with Vishnu.
- According to Dr. R.C.Dhere, Vitthala originally was a minor God of pastoral communities, named as Ital, who rose high as supreme God as his character was elevated in a Vaishnav form by the Sthalapurana’s (Local mythological scripts) According to him He was first elevated as Shaivait and in later course He was related with Vishnu and Krishna to adorn him a Vaishnav character.
Without going into much detail of various opinions of the scholars and imaginative forms that were seen by Saints in the intoxication of their devotion we can deduce that Lord Vitthala is only God in Maharashtra whose origin cannot be found in any mythological texts. There is no explanation of word “Vitthala”. No origin of this word is found as yet. Some scholars have tried to prove that Vitthala is local form of Sanskrit word Vishnu. Some have tried to connect his name from the Kannada language word “Bittiga” or “Bittarasa.” But these explanations are lame as in Karnataka and even in Tamilnadu, there are temples those are called a Vitthala only, and not Bittiga.
The facts about present Pandharpura are as follows:
- Pandharpura was known as Pundrik Kshetra in ancient times.
- The city name Pandharpur is a corrupt form of original Pundrikpur.
- The mausoleum of Devotee Pundarik is in fact a Shiva temple, which can be still seen clearly. The temple was famous as “Pundrikeshwar” in ancient past which is clearly stated in Pudma and Skanda Purana. Pundrikeshwar means “Lord of Pundrik or Pundariks”
- The idols of so-called Krishna’s consorts are located at different temples. In fact they have no relation with Lord Vitthal.
Looking at above, instead of searching for Vitthal, I thought better to find historical link or lineage of Pundarik. This was so as the city is named after Pundarik, the Vitthala’s main and popular epithet is Panduranga which is clearly a corrupt form of Paundranka and that the Shiva temple is called “Pundrikeshwar”
In Shaivait’s it is a practice that the Lord Shiva is named either after great devotee or society or builder of the temple. Lord of Asur Mahabal is Mahabaleshwar. Lord of Poona is Puneyshwar. Similar way “Pundrikeshwar” mean lord of Pundrik.
The historians were busy in finding historical Pundarik. There are various indivisuals named as "Pundarik" in Hindu mythologies, but they could relate no one with Devotee Pundarik of Pandharpur.
Also it is clear that there never was a devotee named Pundarik in any era for whom Lord Krishna appeared at Pandharpur. Historians completely agree with this fact. Also they cannot explain why Krishna’s name was changed to Vitthala (as it would be impossible) and by which process and why it could be so, when Krishna is Krishna everywhere in India.
The Historians were misled because they didn’t see that was just standing before them. Or they didn’t want to see it for the reasons best known to them.
However, we can safely assume now that the place Pandharpur was historically known as Pundrikpur. (Kannada form "Pandarage" is clearely corrupted from Kannad expression "Pudarike")The area was known as Pundrika Kshetra (region). Vitthala’s main epithet is "Paundrank"…that for the sake of simplicity was converted to "Pandurang". This threefold labyrinth makes the whole thing clear.
Among many societies in ancient India were Pundra’s. The first reference to Pundra’s can be traced in Aitereya Brahmin, a sacred text explaining Rig Veda. There is story of sage Vishwamitra. King Harishandra of his times had no child. He worshipped Lord Asura Varuna and begot a boon and in turn promised Varuna that he will sacrifice his son to him. As his son, Rohit became younger, Harichandra started postponing Rohit's sacrifice for his love towards Rohit. On this Varuna got angry and punished Harischandra with sever pains in stomach. When Rohit came to know the reason, Rohit went to the sage Ajeegarta and bought his son Shunahshep as an alternate sacrifice. When Vishwamitra saw Shunahshep bound to the sacrificial pillar in a pitiable condition, Vishwamitra took mercy upon him and freed him. He named him as Devrata and asked his 101 sons to treat and respect him as their elder brother. The elder 50 sons denied accepting Devrata as their elder brother. On this Vishwamitra got enraged and cursed his fifty sons that “They shall become shudra and shall seek shelter of Pundra’s, Aundra’s, Shabar and Mutibs, the shudra kings of southern India. In alternative version it is stated that his son went to south and formed Pundra, Aundra and other dynasties.
The another reference to Pundra’s we can find in Ramayana, in which, Bhargava Rama had subjugated Pundra’s.
In Mahabharata there are several stories related with Pundra's. The kingdom of Pundra’s was located in Northern part of Bengal and was powerfull. They were allies of Emporar Jarasangha, an Asura King, whom Krishna got crookedly killed at the hands of Bheema.
That time there ruled a king who called himself “Purushottama” and said to be copied attire of Krishna. People of his kingdom would call him “ Paundrank Vassudeo”. He opposed Krishna’s claim that He was incarnation of Lord Vishnu. In later times, in a battle Paundrank Vasudeo was killed at the hands of Krishna.
In Mahabharat battle Pundra’s were united to fight against Pandava’s. After that annihilating war, many Pundra’s migrated toward south and formed their kingdoms. Mahabharata too call them Shudra’s, non-Vedik’s. Originally Pundra, Aundra, Vanga, Shabar and Kalinga were sons of Great Asur King Bali, who is still worshipped throughout India. This does mean that the Pundra clan originated from Asur Bali. No wonder Pundra's were despised by the Vedik Brahmins.
Aundra’s established their kingdom in Odisa and Andhra. The nouns Odisa and Andhra are transformation of original Aundra. Pundra’s were closely related with them. Pundra’s first capital was Pundranagara in Pundrikvardhan kingdom, in North Bengal. At Mahasthangarh ruins of thi ancient city have been found. Branches of Pundra’s migrated to south.
There are at least three known Pundrikpur’s in south. Pandharpur (Originally Pundrikpur) could be first settlement/kingdom of Pundra’s as this is a bordering city of Karntaka and is in Maharashtra. The ancient name of the city of Tiruvarur and Chidambaram too was Pundrikpur and they too are famous Shaivait pilgrimages. This does prove that the Pundras ruled some parts of south as well along with their alleys Aundra. Satvahana’s, first known dynasty of Maharashtra, that ruled from 2nd century BC till 3rd century AD belonged to Aundra (Andhra) clan. Aundra’s too were Shiva worshippers and this fact is evident from the fact that Andhra Pradesh and even Maharashtra is crowded with ancient Shiva shrines.
It can be safely deduced that Pundra’s first settlement was at Pundrikpur alias Pandharpur. Pundra’s too were Shaivik, like most of Asura’s in mythological India. They established temple and lingam of Shiva which naturally was called as “Pundrikeshwara” (Lord of Pundrika’s.)
Hence it is clear that there was never existed an individual Brahmin devotee called Pundarik for whom Krishna or Vishnu rushed to this place. This is not at all a historical figure. In fact Pundrika was an independent society, who worshipped Lord Shiva, thus erected the Shiva temple calling it “Pundrikeshwar”, Lord of Pundra’s.
Now it will become clear, who Lord Vitthala is.
The main epithet of Vitthala is Pandurang. Till date the meaning of Pandurang was taken verbatim…Fair/white colored. Also it was another name of Lord Shiva too. This baffled scholars as if Vitthala is manifestation of Krishna, who is black in color and so Vishnu too is and as Vitthala is called as black, how come that he is called Pandurang (fair complexioned) from ancient times? In fact the old Puranik texts are known as “Pandurang Mahatmya” (Glory of Pandurang), not as Vitthal Mahatmya!
But now we know that the root of noun Pandurang lay elsewhere. We now know that Pundra people referred themselves as “Paundrank” (Pundra people) at least from Epical times. This solve mystery why Vitthal is called Pandurang (Root “Paundrank”). This only mean that Vitthal himself was from Pundra clan, a great devotee and most probably founder of Pundrikpur. Vitthal was his name; hence there is no need to find its origin elsewhere. Paundrank Vitthal remained Pandurang Vitthal throughout. The Vitthal idol must have been established by his successors in his memories. There was custom among Aundra Satvahana’s as well in many dynasties to have erected idols of their predecessor kings. Hence there is no wonder why idol of Paundrank Vitthal was erected near the Pundrikeshwar Shiva temple.
It is told by the scholars that the first temple around the Vitthal idol was built during 12th century when Yadava dynasty ruled Maharashtra from Devgiri. Till then the idol stood in the wilderness of the nature. Vitthal till then was a secondary God at Pandharpur. Main worshipping place still was famous a Pundrik kshetra or Pundrikeshwar.
How idol of Pandrank king Vitthala could have been elevated as manifestation of Vishnu or Krishna is another story. We should keep in mind that Yadava dynasty related their bloodline with Lord Krishna. Pundra’s too were noted herdsmen from ancient times. The ancient enmity between Pundra’s and Yadava’s must have been forgotten by then or it was a distant vague memory. The idol of Vitthala was and is dark black, had attire of a herdsman, and though not exactly same but partially attributes of Krishna and Vishnu, such as conch and flower, in Vitthala’s hands made it suitable to correlate Vitthala with Krishna and same time with Vishnu. It suited purpose of Yadava kings as the sanctity of the place was already known and was a pilgrimage. In all probability, to get huge donations from Yadava kings, Brahmin Puranik community created a mythical God from a historical persona. They composed verses creating various stories to elevate Vitthala as a Vaishnav God. Yadava kings helped build first temple. Later on many southern kings donated villages as well as money to this temple. We can see that from known history and many inscriptions found at Pandharpur.
It is fact that in 12th century memories of Pundra’s itself had become distant as they were seized to be rulers and had degraded to a pastoral, fishermen, and other shudra community. Still they maintained their right of Puja of Pundrikeshwar. This fact is evident that till this date Mahadev Koli (Fishermen) community has right to perform sacred rituals at Pundrikeshwar temple though Vitthala has been kidnapped by Brahmins since last 8 centuries.
Gradually by 13th century, people started accepting Vaishnav form of Vitthala. The Saints like Namdeo, Dnyaneshwar to Tukaram wove their life around Vitthala and saw in Vitthala a brother, father, friend and a compassionate Lord who could bless them with ultimate salvation. Thus cult of Vitthala spread so much so that He has become a main God in pantheon of Hindu gods in Maharashtra.
But the fact remains that "Paundrank Vitthala" was a historical figure belonging to Pundra clan, who was declared by Brahmins as Shudra and non-Vedik since ancient history. It is irony that the same Brahmin’s have become chief priests of Lord Vitthala…!
Note: This article originally was published in Marathi Magazine "Kirloskar" in the year 2007.