Sant Tulsidas – A Balmiki Avatar

We know how deeply indebted Sant Tulsidas felt to Rishi Balmiki in composing Ramcharitmanas (‘Recalling Ram’, DE, 28 April, 2024). His contemporaries, such as Guru Nabhadas (1537-1643), even believed that he was Balmiki reborn. The followers of the Ramanandi sect subscribe to this belief. Yet, Tulsidas, a product of the Bhakti Movement, had had his own distinctive style and the astuteness to use the vernacular Awadhi to convey his message. In one stroke, he had democratised the Ramkatha to bring it within the easy reach of one and all.
His origins
Scholars seem to have burnt gallons of midnight oil (apologies for using the outdated phrase) to come to a conclusion when and where precisely Tulsidas was born. As to the year of his birth, there is a wide margin of some forty-six years (!) between the two extreme guesses. Going by ‘Mool Gosain Charit’ of Veni Madhav Das, he was born in the Vikrami Samvat 1554, corresponding to 1497 CE. Krishnadatta Mishra and others, however, reckon Samvat 1600 (543 CE) as the poet’s birth-year. In the same vein, there are as many as seven different places in Uttar Pradesh where Tulsidas is supposed to taken birth. The controversies though have since been set aside. Government of India and the provincial governments of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are agreed that the poet was born in Samvat 1554 – 1497 CE in the village Rajapuri which is located on the borders of UP and MP.
The father, Atmaram Dubey, and the mother, Hulsi, as also the rest of the kin, were more astonished than happy on the occasion. It was an extraordinary birth. The baby had remained in gestation for as long as 12 months. At the time of birth, he had the body of a 5-year old and a full set of 32 teeth in his mouth. While most children cry on their entry into the wide world, this infant uttered “Ram”, as if offering his first salutation to those around him. Aptly, he would be called ‘Rambola’ during his infancy.
Rambola’s childhood was also uncommon, in a sad sort of a way. He was discarded by his family merely four days after his birth. Reason? Astrologers said the time of his birth portended ill for his father’s life. His mother’s maid took him to her village to look after him. But she died four and a half years later. The little orphan was on the streets for quite some time. Legend has it that Goddess Parvati herself fed him during the period in the garb of a Brahmin woman.
Journey from Rambola to Tulsidas
Destiny took Rambola to Ayodhya where he had his basic education under the tutelage of Narhari Das. The kindly sage not only initiated him in the ascetic order of Vaishnavites but also gave him the name of ‘Tulsidas’. A few years later, Guru Narhari Das sent young Tulsidas to his friend, Sanatan of Varanasi, who was a great scholar of his time. Under Sanatan’s able guidance, Tulsidas imbibed a deep knowledge of the ancient India’s religion, philosophy and the related subjects.
On completion of his education, he came back to settle in his ancestral house in Rajapuri. His parents were dead now. Tulsidas thrived on reciting Ramkatha to the villagers. In Samvat 1583, he got married to Ratnavali, a beautiful Brahmin girl. Their marriage was tempestuous. Once, when Rantnavali had gone to her parental house to meet her father and brother, Tulsidas swam across the Yamuna to be with her. “You could have attained salvation if you had half as much fondness for God as you have for this flesh and bones body of mine!” Ratnavali protested. Her message had gone home. Tulsidas became a renunciate.
The renunciation made him a free bird. He made pilgrimage to all the near and far religious places, including the Mansarovar in the modern-day Tibet. He was truly a Ram-bhakta and that he remained throughout his life. Legends have it that Hunuman appeared to him in the form of a leper and both Ram and Lakshman also made an appearance before him riding horses while he was at Chitrakoot. His absolute devotion to Ram brought him psychic powers. He is reputed to have revived a dead Brahmin in Fatehpur Sikri on merely uttering a benediction – albeit unknowingly – to the widow to remain ‘saubhagyavati’ – a woman who has the good fortune to be with her husband. When the woman told him that her husband was dead, Sant Tulsidas pronounced with godly confidence that his word could not go false. And verily, the dead man began to breathe again. This incident became the talk of the town. When Emperor Akbar heard that a fakeer had, in the name of Ram, brought a dead man back to life, he tried to test its veracity for himself. Putting Tulsidas in prison, he said he would like to see how Ram would set him free. They say that hordes of monkeys went on ransacking the town till the mighty emperor bowed down to Tulsidas and sought his forgiveness.
Such incidents went on to reinforce his zeal for propagating his deity Ram’s deeds in the world. Tulsidas has left a record of the day he began to write Ramcharitmanas:
Saadar Sivhin naai ab maatha/Barnaun bisad Ram gun gaatha//
Samvat soreh sai ekteesa/Karaun kathaa Hari pad dhari seesa//

Now, bowing reverentially to Lord Shiv, I tell the pure tale of Lord Ram’s virtues. Putting my head to Lord Hari’s feet, I begin this narrative in Samvat 1631 (1574 CE).
Ramcharitmanas, Balkand, 33(ii)

He finished writing the epic in two years. Then a problem arose. The contemporary Brahmins protested that a scripture of this importance should have been written in Sankskrit and not in a ‘rustic’ language, like Awadhi. The nit-picking of the envious pundits did not bother Tulsidas. He had had the divine assurance as to the merit of his work. One night he had placed the manuscript inside the sanctum sanctorum of Shri Vishwanath temple at Kashi. When the doors were opened the following morning, it was found that the manuscript had been inscribed with the auspicious words “Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram” and signed by Lord Shiv Himself. Now, his detractors tried to have the book stolen, but this time, the thieves themselves became ardent devotees of Ram. Tulsidas, however, became apprehensive for the security of his masterpiece. He entrusted Raja Todarmal – Akbar’s prime minister and a personal friend – with its safe keeping. He made another copy of his work, which later became the source of Ramcharitmanas for the successive generations.
Both Maharishi Balmiki and Sant Tulsidas were extraordinary persons of their times. Bestowing on us, the fellow humans, an easy accessibility to Ram through their works, they went the way we all mortals have to go, sooner or later. But in a very special sense they still make their presence felt every time that we hear or utter His name.