There is another Gurucharitra which was written by Shri Govind Dabholkar on the life of Shri Saibaba in the 20th Century and has been translated in many languages. This should not be confused with the original Gurucharitra that is described here.
The book is as holy to Datta Sampradaya devotees, as Quoran is to Muslims or Bible is to Christians. The book has mainly the life story of Shri Narasimha Saraswati , his philosophy and some mythology stories. The book is important from the point of view of history as well since it depicts the stories or events which took place around the 14th Century. The language is Marathi of the 14-15th Century, but without any Urdu or Persian words. Shri Saraswati Gangadhar made sure that there are no words taken from Urdu or Persian, but only from Sanskrit. However, this does not make this book any terse. It is far simpler to understand and follow. This shows the power of the poet and his command over the Marathi language. Moreover, this poet's mother tongue is Kannada and not Marathi!
Gurucharitra has been very influential on the Maharashtrian culture, especially the Brahmin community due to its philosophy. Strictly speaking this is an "aachaargranth" (book of behavior or life routine) for the Brahmins, written by a Brahmin. It seems Saraswati Gangadhar was a Deshastha Brahmin.
The book has 51 Chapters originally, and the 52nd Chapter of "Avatarnika" (अवतरणिका) was introduced later in it over the centuries. This last chapter is basically the brief description of the previous 51 chapters. In that sense it is the concluding chapter with summary.
The whole book is like a "Mantra" in itself and thus there are very strict rules for reading it and they are to be followed strictly if one wants to read it with full faith. The power of this book has been experienced by many who read this regularly. This book has utmost importance in Datta Sampradaya and they consider this as their "ved".
The standard copy of this book was edited by Mr. Ramchandra Krishna Kamat, who painstakingly researched about 26 or 27 different copies of this book obtained from various places. After studying the language and contents in each of these different copies he finally wrote this book, with the Kadaganchi version of this book assumed to be the standard one. There are thousands of copies of this book, however, Mr. Kamat zeroed onto the final 26-27 of those different versions and from these he finalised this version of Gurucharitra. The book has about 7491 stanzas, and each was well scrutinized by Mr. Kamat. This will show the monumental work he did in getting this book into its final version. The book is published by Keshav Bhikaji Dhawale Prakashan, Girgaum, Mumbai.
The book is divided in to 3 parts: Dnyankand (Knowledge part), Karmakand (Work part) and Bhaktikand (Devotion Part). Chapter 1 is Managalacharanam (holy feet or holy stanzas), Chapter 2 to 4 are Datta-avatar Charitra (Life story of Dattatreya incarnations), Chapter 5 to 10 are Shripad Shrivallabha charitra (Life story of Shripad Shrivallabha), Chapter 11 to 51 are life story of Shri Narasimha Saraswati and Chapter 52 is Avataranika or the summary of the whole book. There is a unanimous agreement among the scholars that this last chapter has been attached later, and was not part of the original script.
The chapter 1 describes various deities and their praying. Chapter 2 explains how universe was born, and how four Yugas were created with their specific trends. Also it has Guru and his disciple Deepak story. In chapter 3 he describes Ambarish-Durvas story and how god Vishnu was made to take 10 avatars. In chapter 4 the famous story of Atri-Anusuya and Datta-janma is given.
From chapter 5 the story of first avatar Shri Shripad ShriVallabha at Pithapur is given. In chapter 6 the birth of Gokarna-Mahabaleshwar is described with Ravana-Ganesh and Shivalinga story. Chapter 7 then describes the importance of the above holy place as told by sage Gautam. In chapter 8, Shripad Shrivallabha save the mother-son who were trying to commit suicide and ask her to do Shanipradosh-vrata. In chapter 9 Shripad ShriVallabha blesses the washerman to become the king in his next birth and eventually ends his avatar. In chapter 10, the Vallabhesh Brahmin who is killed by the dacoits is revived by Shri Shripad ShriVallabha near Kuravpur.
Chapter 11 onwards is the description of life story of Shri Narasimha Saraswati. He is born to his father Madhav and mother Amba. His surname is Kale and was named Shalgramdev and Narahari. From his this second name Narahari comes the first part of his Narasimha name. He is born at Karanja (Lad) now in Maharashtra, the old name is Karanjapur. In chapter 12 he leaves home and goes for Kashi-pilgrimage and takes Sannyaas at Kashi from Shri Krishna Saraswati. The second part of his name comes from this guru, who eventually named him Shri Narasimha Saraswati. Now he is the Guru. In chapter 13 he comes back to Karanja and cures one Brahmin. In chapter 14, he meets Sayamdev who is Saraswati Gangadhar's great-great-Grandfather and saves him from the Muslim king Sayamdev is working for.In chapter 15, Guru asks his disciples to go for pilgrimage and himself stays near Parali-Vaijanath a place in Maharashtra. In Chapter 16, he comes to Bhillavadi-Audumbar (current name: Bhilavadi, a railways station on South-Central Railway) and spends some time there giving knowledge to a Brahmin. In chapter 17 a stupid, illiterate brahmin is made wise and knowledeable by clessing him. In Chapter 18, Guruji went to a poor Brahmin's home and by cutting a plant of Ghevda (one Kind of a bean) vegetable handed him a pot of gold, thus removing his poverty. In chapter 19 there is a description of 64 yoginis who were praying the guruji and they were all blessed. Guruji left Audumber and came to Shri Kshetra Ganagapur now in Karnataka (closest railway station is Ganagapur Road on Pune-Solapur-Gulbarga line). In chapter 20 he saved a women from a ghost and blessed her with two sons. When one of them died, he condoled her with lot of philosophy. In Chapter 21, once she brought the dead-child to him, he revived the child and blessed it with long life. In Chapter 22, he made one old buffalo give milk. After hearing this feat the king of Ganagapur took him to his palace. One of the renowned yati that time from Kumasi village, Shri Trivikram Bharati criticized Guru for this. However, in Chapter 24 Guru meets Trivikram Bharati and he becomes Guru's disciple.
In Chapter 25, two brahmins troubling Trivikram Bharati, and asking him to give them a "winning letter" (meaning they have won the discussions regarding all four Vedas and philosophy with Trivikrambharati) are brought to meet Guru. In Chapter 26, Guru explain to them the structure of Vedas etc. but they don't listen to him. Eventually in chapter 27, guru calls a shudra and show him his previous and next 3 births (total of 7 including the current one). In one of the births he is born a Brahmin (named Adhyapaka) and is asked to discuss vedas with these two brahmins. These brahmins give up and eventually are punished by Guru to become a BramhaRakshasa (a sort of demon who feeds himself on animals including humans). In chapter 28, guru by removing Bhasma (holy ash) from the shudra's body, clears the shudra of knowledge and sends him home. In Chapter 29, the effect of Bhasma is explained to Trivikrambharati with Vamdev story. In chapter 30, the woman is condoled who has lost her husband with many stories. In chapter 31, she is explained all the Pativrata-dharma. Finally in Chapter 32, her husband is blessed and is brought back to life. In chapter 33, the importance of Rudraksha is explained by telling the famous Mahananda (the whore) story. In chapter 34, Rudradhyaya importance is explained. In chapter 35, Kach-Devayani story is described with Simantini story to stress the importance of Somavar-vrata (to be done on Monday). In chapter 36, Karma-marga is explained to the brahmin and his wife who made her husband break the vrata. In chapter 37, Guruji continues to explain and elaborate on many more karmas to be performed by a brahmin.
In chapter 38, Bhaskar brahmin who brought food only for 3 people is made to feed more than four thousand people. In chapter 39, Somnath brahmin's wife Ganga, who was 60 years old and did not have children was blessed with a daughter and a son. In chapter 40, skin disease of one Brahmin was cured and he was told the story of Shabari and Shiva-linga worshipping. In chapter 41, Saymdev is told about the Kashi-pilgrimage. In chapter 42, Guru asks Sayamdev to perform the Ananta-vrata and tells the story of it. In chapter 43, one of his tailor disciple is taken to shri Parvat (a holy mountain) and brought back. In chapter 44, a skin-diseased brahmin is cured. In chapter 45, Shri Guru meets Narahari poet at Kalleshwar-Hipparage village and makes him his disciple. This poet has written the famous Indukoti stotra which is recited everyday at Narasoba Wadi alias Nrusimhapur which is 50Km from Kolhapur and also at Audumbar (4Km from Bhilavadi railway station). Both these places are close to Kolhapur and on the banks of Krishna river. The Indukoti stotra is very poetic and is very brilliantly composed piece work. It is shown in the image on the right and is written in devanagari script. In chapter 46, during Diwali festival, he visits all his 7 disciples so as not to make them unhappy and also stayed at the Math. In chapter 47, a poor farmer named Parvateshwar, Guru asked him to cut his farm, and later is blessed with huge amount of farm-yield. In chapter 48, Amaraja-sagam importance is told and his own sister's skin disease is cured. In chapter 49, Sanskrit Guru-Geeta is described. In chapter 50, the Muslim king (possibly Allauddin-II of Bedar and the previous birth washerman) visits him and he is cured of his swelling on his leg (some disease). Finally in chapter 51 Shri guru decides to take samadhi, as lot of people may start coming to his Math and that may start giving problem to the disciples. He vanishes in Karadali-van. In chapter 52, the whole summary of 51 chapters is given.
Since this whole book is like a Mantra by itself, it is a powerful book and should be read with the following strict rules. These rules are given in the book itself. The book is to be read either in 7 days (called Saptaha) or in 3 days.
According to Shri Vasudevanand Saraswati (shri Tembe Swami, 1854AD-1914AD), Woman are not allowed to read this book, as it contains some things from Vedas etc. However, this opinion is from the late 19th Century. Modern research has shown that there were women who contributed to the Vedas and their discussions and development of Mantras also. Thus this fact should be taken from that perspective. According to Aprabuddha (Vishnu Keshav Palekar) he has seen several women who have read this holy book. The restrictions may have come from certain gestures which have been described in the book, which may or may not be suitable for woman. Also, modern woman reading the book may not like the restrictions which have been told to put up on the woman, and this may reduce the effect of faith they may have on the book.
It should be kept in mind that this book is not written in 20th or 21st century and thus all the things described there and have been asked to be performed by a Brahmin are nearly impossible in the current times. However, the book stands out in its importance as it was written at the time when there was a virtual war going on in India, culturally as well as philosophically due to the attacks and intermixing of two different religious ideologies. This book showed the brahmins working for the Muslim kings that they should not end up serving these kings, but rather try to save the old knowledge (Sanatan-dharma) as revived by Jagatguru Shri Adi Shankaracharya. All the brahmins who were disciples of Shri Guru, had left the service of Muslim kings. Rather Shri Guru showed that the king himself came to see him. The book clearly brings this issue out. No wonder this book set the stage for the next generation fighters like Chhatrapati Shri Shivaji Maharaj in Maharashtra.
There are some objections raised for this book :
There are remarks that it is meant only for Brahmins and does not give any rights to women and shudras (lowest caste in Hindus, also known as Dalits). It is true that the book is a book of rituals or routine workout-book for Brahmins. The book stresses the point that the actions taken by Brahmin are all accounted for and he has to follow certain procedure or path only, and he should not deviate from it anytime. This will make him great etc. Such a book was required when it was seen that the Brahmins of that time had forgotten the Sanatan-Dharma and had taken to all immoral behavior. The work of Shri Narasimha Saraswati has been outstanding from this point of view, and he showed these people a proper way of life. At least it brought some discipline in their lives. Shri Guru himself never liked these rich Brahmins and always stayed away from them, as can be seen in the stories written in this book. He also helped many non-Brahmins. (He is the first Guru who showed that it is NOT necessary to be a sanyasi to be a devoted disciple of a guru. Many of his disciples were family men. This was a revolutionary concept at that time).
In modern times, anyone can follow the basic path shown in the book. What is meant by a Brahmin now, is a learned man and any learned, civilized person would definitely be benefited by reading and following the path of life shown in this book. Again, the book is written centuries back, and reflects the social and cultural values of that time and not 20th or 21st century. It is not possible for anyone now to follow each and every step that is written in this book. One has to use his/her own discretion and make appropriate changes. For example, Shri Guru advises married women to follow the path of serving the husband and after husband's death, follow the tradition of Sati (sacrificing herself alive on deceased husband's pyre) or follow the widow-tradition, which involves terms which will surely lead the women to an early death. No one can justify these things in modern times. Such things are to be seen from the point of view of the century and the time when this book was written. The social values at that time were very different and the book reflects those. The book does not advocate new religion or panth (sect). So the book will justify what was traditionally believed and was followed at that time by that society. The book endorses the Sanatan Dharma views of Shri Adi shankaracharya.
The book also narrates stories which may sound giving contradictory messages. The book advocates that the guru is divine, gracious, caring and will always protect his disciples. But it also narrates stories where the gurus have made errors. For example, the book has story of Kalamshpada who is cursed by Sage Vashishthha, for feeding the sage by mistake with human flesh or by Sage Durvas who cursed Ambarish (to destroy Ambarish's vrata). However, these stories give an important message that one achieves godliness and eventual Guru-position by his hard work etc, however he is still prone to committing errors, and thus no none is an ABSOLUTE deity. Nevertheless the Guru has to be worshipped and adored as he will eventually show you the right way. The curses given by the guru in the stories teach the disciples some important lessons of life and makes their life eventually great. (This is a very remarkable feature of Hindu religion where nothing is an absolute truth in any way. This is very much unlike in many other religions, where final truth is written in their holy books and is normally considered as the last word, and any deviations or ideas from that truth, are attacked or are dealt with resistance).
There are other remarkable features of this book. Remarkably, the book DOES NOT insist on praying a particular deity. There is ABSOLUTELY NO mention of Dattatreya worshipping or any special preaching of any god. This may be surprising but it is true. The book endorses all kinds of devotion methods which are socially acceptable and within civilized limits of that time. The vratas or devotional rituals described in the book have Shaivaite (Shiva praying) as well as Vaishnavite (Vishnu praying) sects. But no stress on any particular sect over the other. This is another very remarkable feature of this book.
Publishers: Keshav Bhikaji Dhawale & Co., Girgaum, Mumbai.