Tulsidas and I

July 15, 2009

This is what the picture of Tulsidas at home somewhat looked like

My introduction to Tulsidas when I was a kid was rather unusual. It was not by his written word, but by a painting of his! This portrait of Tuslidas occupied a prominent place in our drawing room on a bookshelf teetering with a load of books. It showed Tulsidas sitting cross-legged on a round platform under a tree, writing away. It was a copybook portrait of any writer-saint. This would have otherwise been unnoticeable save for the fact that it would disappear once in while. It would get borrowed by others in our town to decorate the stage for their functions on Tulsi jayanti. Or other such activities. Apparently this old, black-framed painting of Tulsidas was the only one existing in town and was in much demand during the “season”. I discovered later that this portrait of Tulsidas was presented to Pitaji, my father, after one of his talks on the relevance of the poet in the modern context. The talk was given years ago. Pitaji, now long retired, was a professor of Hindi.

When I grew up a little more I noticed a fat book in Pitaji’s collection written by the subject of this portrait. A thick brown-cloth covered tome: Ramcharitmanas. The fonts used in this book were unusually large, alternating from very large to large. The big fonts had the original text in Avadhi while the smaller fonts explained the text in Hindi. The sub-head for this book was “Sachitra, sateek- mota type”, or illustrated, annotated and with large fonts. On occasions this book was taken out, opened reverentially, and parts of it read out aloud. I was told that this book was the fount of all wisdom.

As a kid I used to amuse myself with its unique “Shri Ramshalaka Prashnavali”. This was right in the beginning of the book. A grid of letters, like a pre-filled crossword. You were required to close you eyes, meditate on Lord Ram, think of the problem bugging you, and place you finger “blindly” on the alphabet grid. Then you open your eyes and trace your path ahead on the grid based on a particular “formula”. The combination of words you finally traced would spell out a choupai from Manas and this choupai would reveal your future! That was so much fun for us, kids!

I discovered later that this big fat large book also had a much smaller-sized version. While this version had the entire text of Ramcharitmanas, it was bereft of annotations and was in much smaller font. This version, called the “gutka” did not have the “Shalaka” grid. And, I think, there was an intermediate-sized version as well.

Little did I know that this “Book” would dominate much of what the North Indian Hindu society believed in. And for virtually every occasion there was a quote from Ramcharitmanas. Which was recited four times for ease of understanding! My father, for example, would recite an appropriate choupai from Ramcharitmanas in its original. Then he would repeat it this time breaking it up into small pieces, explaining the meaning of each piece. The third iteration was the full Hindi translation. And the closing version was the original one, the entire choupai all over again to round off this pithy lesson in human behaviour, or a salve to the sufferings or a solution to one’s problems in life. Like take this one:

“Jo vichar karihun man mahin

Prabhu pratap kachhu durlabh nahin.”

Round one would be a verbatim repeat of the choupai.

Then Round 2, the broken-up choupai with Hindi translation:

Jo vicharjaisa tum soch rahey ho, chahte ho, Pitaji would elaborate and also check whther I had understood or not. “Samjhey beta?

Karihum man mahin- jo tumhare mann mein hai. Pitaji would recheck,” theek hai na?”

Prabhu pratap- bhagwan ke parakram se.

Kachhu durlabh nahinsab kuchh mil jayeega; Pitaji would conclude. “To yeh hua matlab iska.”

“Phir suno”, he would say. Round 3 now:

“Jaisa tum chahate ho,jo  tumharey man mein hai, Bhagwan tumhein awashya dilayengey.” Pitaji would translate the full choupai together In Hindi.

“To yeh kaha hai Goswami Tulsidas ji ne, ab phir sey suno, beta“. And then he would repeat the original.

Round 4, to round up this homily.

“Jo vichar karihun man mahin

Prabhu pratap kachu durlabh nahin.”

And so on and so forth it went. Every elder in the large circle of family and friends had some choupai or the other to narrate, whatever be the issue involved. And we  kids would be agape with astonishment (and part due to our inability to absorb such a gem) with all this wisdom flowing in!

Sometimes I wonder if this four-time repetition is why this was called a choupai! I am joking, of course!!


Like most traditional Hindu families, as I have mentioned earlier, ours too had the fat edition of Shri Ramcharitmanas in our pooja room. My mother, who hardly read any other printed matter would pull out the Book and read parts of it in her halting manner. Apparently, the ability to read Ramcharitmanas was a major qualification for a bride in the old days. As in the following example. The eligible bachelor’s mother would see a see a prospective bride in a temple or at a relative’s place. She would then convince her husband or her son (the eligible bachelor), “This girl is well-mannered (sushil), she can handle all household work (ghar key saarey kaam mein nipun hai), she can stitch and embroider (silayi-kadhai kar leti hai). And as a clincher, the propective mother-in-law would add, “Manas bhi baanch leti hai” (she can read ‘Manas- Ramcharitmanas- too). That would be the clincher. The ultimate sign those days of culture and literacy!

Hanuman Chalisa, that forty line ode to the power of Lord Hanuman is what any North Indian Hindu kid learns early, I was no exception. Pitaji taught each one of the words of this. He also added an interesting “historical” background to Hanuman Chalisa. He said that Tusidas had two kids (baalak) staying with him in his ashram. They were scared of darkness and ghosts. Tulsidas specially wrote Hanuman Chalisa for the benefit of these two kids and told them that regular recitation of this would keep evil spirits and harm away from them. (Bhoot-pishaach nikat nahin aawein, Mahavir jab naam sunawein). We kids were asked to follow the same advice. And indeed most of the Hindu populace across the globe still does.

My wife has placed a copy of Hanuman Chalisa in her pooja room, and she carries a copy in her purse when we are traveling. I am not a great believer in ritualized religion (I do not “pray” in the classical sense) but I do make it a point to listen to Hanuman Chalisa the first thing when I board my car to travel to work. A bonus is that I teach my kids whatever little I know of the story or Hanuman, and Ram and indeed Hinduism to my kids when I drop them in the mornings to their school on my way to work. Which also gives me an opportunity to teach them some advanced Hindi: like meaning of words like “Ram doot”, atulit, “sookhsham” and ‘roop” etc. My kids are habituated to it enough to ask the driver to play Hanuman Chalisa on their way to school even when I am traveling they. Though I am sure they would have also loved some rap or heavy metal music! (On my travels I play it on my laptop early mornings.)

There is something in Hanuman Chalisa which makes me a “believer”, so to speak. Hanuman I have faith in. Lord Ram has said that it suffices if one to think of (sumiran) Hanuman. The very thought of Hanuman is enough to propitiate Lord Ram himself. Hanuman, the all powerful, and the very epitome of devotion to Ram Himself!  And I think of Hanuman as someone who is with you in vanquishing all problems: “Sankat kate mitey har peera, japat nirantar Hanumat veera.”  No wonder then, that whenever I board my car driving to work in the morning I have Hanuman Chalisa playing in the car audio system. I could do with some divine intervention in the rough- and-tumble of my life!!

Besides Hanuman Chalisa, we were taught some more bhajans when we were kids. Meera, Surdas, Kabir and Tulsidas. But my most favourite was,“Shri Ramchandra Kripalu Bhajuman” fromVinay Patrika by Tulsidas. This was also the first bhajan all of us siblings got to learn. We would recite this in the evenings before we got to sleep. And sometimes as a demo of our singing skills to some important guests. I was considered to especially good at this. I would clasp my hands, close my eyes, and sing the bhajan at the top of my voice. Voice still a child’s, not broken yet. Some others bhajans we learnt were “Tu dayaalu deen hon, tu daani hon bhikhari”, “Koi Udaar Jag mahin” etc. “Tu dayaalu” was also a handy piece for cracking the elocution competitions at school!


Here I am, decades later, sitting in Kamani theatre, Delhi, 6th July 2009, awaiting the screen to open for a play on Tulsidas. This is closest to the flesh and blood of Gosawmi Tulsidas I can come to. I see vividly his trials and tribulation, the struggles he had to go through. And what all he stood for. Tulsidas suddenly was not the writer of a famous book, but as someone who took on the dogma prevailing in his time and stood his ground. Never confronting, always reasoning. And always full of bhakti towards Ram.

I shall not tell more about it, I have said my piece in an earlier post just after I saw the play.

Anshu Tandon has done an immense service to those like me who thought they knew it all given their north Indian background. Now I do know what the idea of Tulsidas was!

(This post was inspired by a reader’s comment on an earlier post of mine, my take on Anshu’s play, “Jo Chaho Ujiyaar”. Thank you so much, dear reader. You were so perceptive and generous with your comments  too. And I do not even know you! Thanks you so much!)

PS: You will discover a lot more about Goswami Tulsidas and Anshu’s play on the play’s website: www.jcu.co.in