The deity at Pandharpur, in Western Maharashtra, is called Vitthala, Vithoba or Panduranga. Like the murthi at Tirupati, this murthi is also said to be self manifested. [Keshavdas: p.1] All the relogio-spiritual activity of Maharashtra saint poets of middle ages was centered around this deity. The role of these saint poets in preparing the mental state of Maharashtra of establishing Maratha rule by Shivaji, is universally accepted to be very important. Even today, it is an important deity and is worshiped by all the castes, low and high, and it is the surce of inspiration to a vast sectin of society. A big sect of devotees is called varkari and these people walk down to the shrine from long distances at least once a year for festival.
Deep rooted tradition
That Vithoba of Pandharpur is none else than Buddha is a well rooted tradition in Maharashtra. In our childhood, the book of numbers and alphabets used to have pictures of ten avatars of God, ninth avatara being depicted as Buddha, and the picture of Buddha shown was that of Vithoba of Pandharpur and none of the pictures of Ajanta etc. this shows a great deep rooted feeling in Maharashtra mind that Vithoba is Buddha.
R.C.Dhere [Dhere: 1984: 231] has observed that since the practice of printing panchangas on press was stared, the picture of Vitthala is shown as the ninth avatara of Buddha, with the caption buddha or boudha printed in the bottom. He has such panchangas in his possession. In one of the comparatively recent book shri ram sahastra nam a picture of Vitthala and Rukmini with Garuda and Hanumanta is printed with a caption of 'boudha'. He knows at least two sculptures depicting Vitthala as the buddhaavatara among the ten avatars, one at Genesh temple at Tasgaon in Sangali dist., and second in Mahalakshmi temple at Kolhapur. Image of Buddha avatara in Dasavatras at Rajapur in Ratnagiri dist., though worn out is seen as that of Vitthala.
Dr. Lokhande summarizes
Dr. Bhau Lokhande, in his above quoted work has summarized the literary evidences in a nut shell, showing that all the saints of middle ages considered Vitthala as Buddha and none else. The following is its summary. [Lokhande: 1979: 123]
12th century poet Jaideo has praised Buddha as ninth avatara on the authority of puranas. Marathi saints have considered their principal deity, Vitthala as Buddha only.
Saint Eknatha, while considering Vitthala as Buddha says
"Oh! Vitthala, seeing people madly invloved in wealth and women, you Vitthala have taken the form of Buddha and keeping your hands on waist, and observing silence, station yourself on the brick as the ninth (avatara)."
"...At your door, saints wait for you eternally, but you in great grandeur of Vitthala are standing for Pundalika keeping yourself on brick in the incarnation of Buddha."
Even to saint Tukarama and Namadeva, Vitthala appears in the form of Mouni Buddha (i.e. one who observes silence).
"It is my misfortune that you as Buddha have adopted the vow of silence. As Buddha in name and form, God has become silent in meditation."
Saint Eknatha says to Lord Vitthala that,
"You have manifested yourself on the immorial ksetra of Pandharapur in the form of Buddha seeing that the Dharam has declined and adharma has increased."
Lokhande thinks that, the origin of the word Vitthala as given in the Uttar Khanda of Padma Purana should be considered in the same context. Padma Purana, chapter 35, verse 24 says Vitthala is one who shelters ignorant, downtrodden, criminals and gives them knowledge. Who else was such a great personality other than Buddha and Vitthala, the above derivation of the word Vitthala has got special significance which cannot be denied.
Another important fact is that Lird Buddha gave His first sermon to the Panch Vargiya Bhikkus on the full moon day of Ashadha. This day is called Guru Paurnima and main festival at Pandharpur is celebrated on this day. Also Lord Vitthala wears Yellow Robes called Pitambar. This all fits well with the Buddhist tradition and history.
Views of Dr. Ambedkar
Views of Dr. Ambedkar that Vitthala is none other than Buddha are well known. He had started writing a book on this subject. Unfortunately book could not go beyond a few pages. [Keer:p.501] Even these few pages are not available to us. Whether these pages are still preserved int he unpublished works of Dr. Ambedkar and whether this writing will see the light of the day, only the furture can tell.
Views of Dr. Ambedkar as given by his biographer Dhananjaya Keer are as follows :--
"...Images of Vithoba at Pandharpur is in reality the image of Buddha. I am writing a Thesis on it which will be read at Bharat Sanshodhan Mandal of Pune. Name Panduranga is derived from word pundarika. Pundarika means Lotus and in Pali Lotus is called Panduranga, which means Panduranga is none else but Buddha..." [Keer: p.50]
Views of Kulkarni
The views of Sri. A. R. Kulkarni are also well known and they are given in the Appendix to Dhammapada edited by him. He has reviewed the saint poets' literature and derived conclusions similar to those of Bhau Lokhande. Kulkarni also mentions that there are images of Dhyani Buddha on the stone pillars on the hall of the temple. He further avers that the famous western scholar John Wilson has given evidence that this temple is Buddhist, in his 'Memoris on the Cave Temples.' [Kulkarni: 1978: 129]
Kulkarni points out that the Buddha conquered the enemies by love and non-violence unlike Rama and Krishna who used weapons, and believes that Image has got both hands on waists because of this and quotes the story of Angulimal in its support. Whether one agrees with Kulkarni's views or not, one thing is certain that the image of Panduranga is a fine example of webbed hand, 'a traditional mark of Buddha' and the image depicts a bilateral Katyavalambita mudra. The nurthi of his consort is not along with the Lord, and contarary to depiction in modern picutres, consort Rukmini is in another room.
Kulkarni points out that Vitthala is different from Krishan because firstly there is a separate Krishna Temple nearby, secondaly Saint Dnyaneshwara mentions Madhava and Vitthala separately, and thirdly Mahanubhavas who are devotees of Krishna, visit only Krishna temple in Pandharpur and not the temple of Vitthala.
Archaeologically, two inscriptions are mentioned by R. G. Bhandarkar. First is of 1249 A.D., a grant of a village in Belgaum district at Paundarikakshetra, a holy place situated on the Bhimarathi, in vicinity of the God Vishnu, and identifies it as Pandharpur; the second is of 1270 A.D. mentioning of a Aptoryama sacrifice in Pandurangapura, which is another name of Pandharpur, probalbly named after Panduranga. [Bhandarkar: 1982: 122]
It is belived that originator of Varkari cult, which forms the main bulk of present day devotees of Lord of Pandharpur, was Saint Dnyaneshwara who completed his commentary on Gita, 'Dnaneshwari' by 1290 A.D. [Ibid:p.131] Dynanedeve rachila paya i.e. Dnyaneshwara laid the foundation, is a popular tradition. Certainly the shrine was present before Dnyaneshwara and bhakti of Panduranga was prevalent then. It is to be noted that inscriptions mention the names Panduranga and Pundarika, which are concerned with Buddhist trditions, a well known Buddhist text is called Sadharma Pundarika, i.e. Lotus of Teachings of Buddha. Obviously name Vitthala came at a later date. Vitthu is said to be Kannada rendering of word 'Vishnu'. This shows that this cult must be Buddhistic before Panduranga was equated with Krishna Vishnu.
Legend was created to connect up names of Pundarika and Vitthala
To establish connection between the names Pundarika and Vitthala the authors of Mahatmya had to do a lot of acrobatics and the faniciful story as mentioned by Bhandarkar is as follows:
"...Pundalika who spent all his time in service of his aged parents and god Krishna was pleased with his devotion to them, ...In the mean time while Krishna was living at Dwaraka, he remembered Radha, ...who ... was living at mountains for practice of austerities... came to know of this through her innate cognitic powers and came at once to Dwaraka and sat on the lap of Krishna. ... Rukmini, the wedded wife of Krishna came to the place and Radha did not rise up to honour her. ... Rukmini got offended, left Dwaraka and wandered about until she came to Dindiravana and rested there on the site of modern Pandharpur. Krishna was filled with sorrow at the disappearance of Rukmini and went about in quest of her to all parts of the country until he came to the place where Rukmini was lying. After some explanations she was reconciled to him and Krishna then went to the hut of Pundalika to reward him for his devotion to his parents by personal manifestation. Pundalika being engaged in attending to the wants of his father and mother was not able to greet him at once and threw back a brick (Marathi : vit ) and asked him to stand on it and wait for him until he finished what he was engaged on. Krishna stood on the brick and there he was joined by Rukmini and thus the shrine of Pandharpur grew up."8
Views of R.C.Dhere
Shri R. C. Dhere in his Marathi monograph "Vithala: ek maha samanvaya" i.e. "Great Syncretization,' (a story of vaishnavization and sanskritization of a god of 'gopa janas' i.e. cow herds of South) has discussed the various aspects. He reviews all the sthala-puranas. He is of the opinion that all the panduranga mahatmyas of all the sthal-puranas is an attempt to "Vaishnavize" the god Vitthala. In places where the worshipers of original local deities wanted to preserve the identity of their god, the writers of sthala puranans accepted their claim and attempted to superimpose on it the greatness of Vitthala, thus promoting the process of vaishnavization. (p.42).
He believes that Vithala may be more ancient than Krishna, Vedic or even prevedic. (p.62). He was originally a folk god of cowherds (gopas). He avers that he was a god of dhanagars, a tribal community of the area and has given many tribal folk songs, to prove his point (p.387). He agrees broadly with Dhanpalwar who contemplates a shaivite stage during conversion of Vithala from Buddhism to Vaishnavism. (p.109 ff.)
Giving archeological evidences to show that 'Pandarange' was the original Kannada name of this Vitthala shrine, he avers that all the words like Pandurang, Pandurang kshetra, Pandurangpur, Poundarik kshetra, Pundarik and all such concepts originated from the word 'Pandarange'. He believes that "The origin of word 'Vithala' is not yet satisfactorily explained, and only to explain this name, a story is compiled, depicting the throw of a brick (marathi-vit) by Pundarika', a sankritizised form of "Pandrange" (p.43). He quotes Khare who believes the name Vithala is the name in south Indian Tamil language, denoting hands akimbo i.e hands on the kati, (p.160). He opines that the origin of word 'Vitthala' from 'vit' i.e brick is very artificial and story that Vitthala kept on standing on the brick (vit) is the fable to support it. (p.160). The story of Pundalika, which was accepted by the masses before Dyandeva, is not historical, it is purely mythological. Pundlika is not a son of history but an imaginary hero of devotees' fancy. (p.50)
In addition to saints' verses given above, he mentions more verses including some of Dynandeva and observes that all saints from Dnyandeva to Tukarama call him 'twenty fifth : different from 24 avataras' (verse-68) and Namadeva calls him 'one not seen in a thousands, and not among the twenty fours'. Though only ten avataras are popular, twenty four is the highest limit of Vishnu's incarnations. Vishnu has one thousand names which go by the title of 'Vishnu sahasra naam' but Vitthala is not found in it. (p.52) He is also described as 'naked' 'digambar' by Eknatha, and described as 'a child.' (p.55)
He avers that the first song ever written in any Marathi text is for the praise of Buddha avatara, in Manasollas, a sanskrit text of 1131 A.D. Here the description is of 'maya moha Buddha', like that in Puranas (p.232)
He further observes:
"The description of Buddha incorporated in ten incarnations in Puranas comes with slight difference here and there in various Puranas like, Harivamsha (1.41), Vishnu Puran (3.18), Bhagwat Puran (1.3.24, 2.7,37, 11,4.23), Garud Puran (1.1), Agni Puran (16), Narad Puran (2.72), Ling Puran (2.71), Padma Puran (3.252) etc. Vishnu took this incarnation to deceive the 'daityas' by heretical views, says Vishnu Purana. Harivamsha says, Vishnu took this incarnation in Kikat-desha to confuse the lowly people doing yadnyas by vedic mantras. Garud Puran calls him 'Jin putra'. Bhagwat says, after the start of Kali, to deceive those who hate the devas, a 'jin suta' by name of Buddha will take incarnation in Kikat desha.
"Kikat meaning Bihar, the historical birth place of the Buddha, similarly a term 'Saugat', names of places like Sarnath and Mrigdaya, term 'parivrajika' applied to disciple of Buddha, all these are found in the descriptions in Puranas. Vishnu Puran calls him 'mundit' (i.e. tonsured) and 'nagna' (naked). 'Maya-Moha' is a special adjective for him, because he deceives the daityas by his moha. Becoming 'Digambar', he only, taught Jina dharma, and becoming 'raktambar' he advised Buddha dharma. He is also the same as promoter of heretical ideas like Charvaka."
"It makes one sad to see these descriptions in puranas about the Buddha. To call Buddha a maya moha and his teaching to be heretical to divert the demons away from the right path, is a great injustice to the greatness of the Buddha. While converting the Buddha to Vishnu avatara, the puranas have disposed off the teachings of Buddha in such a manner. They accepted the Buddha but completely discarded the Buddha's teachings. In this background a verse in "Meru tantra" is important, which says that the Vipras following left path, Kundaks, Degraded from the caste, having no vedic sanskaras, those becoming 'mlencha' by mistake, the Golaks, the Kayasthas etc. can obtain salvation by taking refuge in Vishnu in Buddha avatara. Jaydev, the poet of 'git govind' also praises the Buddha in the same way. Buddha who despises the yadnyas and shrutis and animal sacrifice is the great ocean of compassion." (p.233)
Knowing well the derogatory remarks of Puranas about the Buddha, why did the saint poets praise the Buddha? he observes:
"We must not forget that, practically nothing gets lost in our tradition, it only changes the name and form. Maharashtra was a land of follower of Buddha for about 1500 years before the Namadeva. There is not one single mountains range where Buddhists have not excavated their caves. In this womb of Sahyadri, the Buddhist bhikshus were eternally chanting 'Buddham shranam gachami' from hundreds of Buddhist caves. The great precepts of 'ahimsa' and 'karuna' were echoed from every particle of marathi land. From princes to artisans, every body was in service of these homeless bhikshus, as seen by numerous epigraphs. To honour these bhikshus, newly born children were christened as 'Bhikoba' and 'Bhikubai' in various town and villages. To think that, this influence of ten fifteen centuries was wiped out just by influence of one vedic intellectual, would be out of place of History. On the contrary, he was abused as "prachanna boudha." Such indelible was this Buddhist influence." (p.234) (This last remark is obviously addressed to Adi Shakaracharya.)
"It is not proper to say that such a powerful religion completely disappeared from the minds of the Marathi masses just by the fall of bhikkus or by the origin of new influential cults in the land. The stream of universal love and karuna which was spread by Dynandeva and Tukaram in Maharashtra, was originated by the innumerable bhikkus from the influence of Buddha's teachings of Karuna. This fact can not be easily forgotten. The Buddhist society of pre- Dnyandeva period is not seen clearly as 'Buddhists'. Even then, it has to be presumed that it merged with some other popular cult"
"Buddha's religion, which flourished in this land for ten fifteen centuries, emptied its pot of karuna here while departing in twelfth thirteenth century, and the saint poets mixed their various streams of bhakti in this main stream to maintain it as a strong flowing current. Even the perversions coming in the form of tantrism were discarded in Maharashtra by the Buddhism which came now came in the form of Bhagawat dharm. Even in this new form it did not stop criticizing the Vedas. But its label of non-vedic disappeared. This religion of saint poets is a new incarnation of Buddhism, in the cultural life of Maharashtra, this is the 'mahan yugantra' - The great change of Era." (p.235)