Vruksh ma bij Tu, Bij ma vruksh Tu,
Jou patantaro e ja paase.
You are the seed within a tree, You are the tree within a seed
If I look for distinctions, then that is all I will see.
Narsinh Mehta was a 15th century poet-saint and exponent of Bhakti (worship) form of poetry. He is highly revered, especially in Gujarati literature where he has earned the accolade ‘Adi Kavi’, first among poets, in Sanskrit.
Narsinh lost his parents when he was five years old and was raised by his grandmother. Poor and singularly focused on worship, he faced considerable discrimination in society, including from within his own family. At a young age, he married Mandalika and, having no real means of livelihood, the young couple lived with Narsinh’s older brother and his wife in the old city of Junagadh in north Gujarat. While Narsinh had a loving relationship with his brother, it is believed that his sister-in-law often derided him for his excessive devotion to God and lack of gainful employment.
One day, overwhelmed by the dreary circumstances in his personal life, a distraught Narsinh wandered deep into the nearby Gir forest. There, in the solitude of nature, it is said that he meditated for seven days without food or water. Pleased with his sincere devotion, Lord Shiva appeared before the young man and, on Narsinh’s request, led him to Vrindavan, the garden-city where Krishna had lived. Here, Narsinh witnessed the ethereal Ras-Leela dance of Krishna and the Gopis (cow-herding girls devoted to Krishna). Legend has it that the divine experience so transformed Narsinh that he dedicated his life to composing and performing kirtan, or religious recitals, singing praises of Lord Krishna. From that day, Narsinh Bhagat regaled everyone with stories of Krishna’s life: from his mischievous childhood exploits stealing butter from the Gopis to his erotic encounters with them.
One of Narsinh Mehta’s famous creations about the young Krishna’s carefree days is the delightful Jal Kamal Chhandi Jaane Bala (Leave these lotus-filled waters, Child), a poem based on Krishna’s mythological encounter with the dreaded ten-headed Cobra, Kali Naag. The mighty Cobra’s wives (Naagan) enquire of Krishna who has jumped into the Yamuna river, where Kali Naag dwells and terrorizes the people of Mathura, to retrieve his ball:
Kahe re Baalak tu marag bhuliyo, Ke tara veriye valaviyo
Nishchal taro kalaj khutiyo, ahinya te shid aaviyo?
Tell us, Child, did you lose your way, or did one of your enemies lead you here
Surely your time must be up, why else would you come here?
To which Krishna responds:
Nathi Naagan hu marag bhuliyo, nathi mara veriye valaviyo
Mathura nagri ma jugatu ramta, naag nu shish haariyo!
I have not lost my way, Naagan, nor have any enemies led me here
During a betting game in Mathura, I happened to lose the head of your Naag!
In the end, the story goes, Krishna valiantly fights with and defeats the monster Kali Naag but does not kill him because he has promised the faithful Naagan that he will spare their master’s life; instead, he banishes the Cobra and makes him promise never to return to those waters. “Behold!”, the poet-saint seems to be saying, “Krishna, the all-powerful, in might as well as compassion!”
So steadfast was Narsinh’s faith that he was considered the ‘chosen one’ whose love was reciprocated by the object of his affections, Lord Krishna. Narsinh Mehta’s writings include autobiographical stories, one of which is Kunvarbai Nu Mameru, where Krishna comes to the rescue of his special disciple. According to the custom of Mameru, the parents of a woman expecting a child offer gifts to her in-law’s family during a celebration held in the seventh month of pregnancy. All Narsinh had to offer when his daughter was pregnant were his priceless bhajans, and he proceeded to sing his heart out. Suddenly, it is said that Lord Krishna arrived in the form of a wealthy merchant and fulfilled the materialistic needs of everyone, thereby saving Narsinh’s honor! Like most of mythology, the story is an allegory – in this case, of human greed and prejudice.
Narsinh Mehta was a pioneer in many ways: as a man with scarce regard for social status, since he was stigmatized by members of his Brahmin community for worshiping with members of a lower caste. He was a saint who did not denounce family, unlike other men of faith, and he continued to fulfill his duties as a husband and father after devoting his life to Krishna.
His sentiments are well proclaimed in what can be considered his most famous work, ‘Vaishnav Jan Toh,” which describes what it means to be a ‘Vaishnav’ (worshipper of Lord Vishnu, one of whose avatars is Krishna). The bhajan, a favorite of Mahatma Gandhi’s, is well known nationally as well as internationally, having been featured in films and documentaries based on the Mahatma.
Vaishnava jana toh tene kahiye je peed paraayi jaane re
Par dukhe upkaar kare toye man abhimaan na aane re.
A Vaishnav is one who understands the plight of his fellow humans
Though he helps those that are in need, he does not allow it to inflate his ego.
Amazingly, Narsinh Mehta’s original work has been passed down by word of mouth – very little has been found in written form! A devotee of the immortal God, a human with indestructible faith and a way with words, seems to have imbibed some of that immortality, uniting several generations through his reflections on humanity, faith and love.
Bela Desai, Ph.D., has been working in biotechnology in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than twenty years. Besides science, she enjoys reading and traveling to different places around the globe. She loves to dabble in singing and writing as well.