(b. 1543?, probably Rajapur, India, d.1623, Varanasi), Tulsidas was an Indian sacred poet whose principal work, the Rama charita-manasa. ("Sacred Lake of the Acts of Rama"), became an extremely popular form of devotional literature which has exercised an abiding influence on the devotional culture of North India.
He belonged to no sect, he founded no sect, he was just an simple Hindu conforming to caste and worship. While worshipping Rama as supreme in his writings and sacred poems, he also paid attention to Krishna and Siva. He is famous for the Tulsai-Kirtan-Ramayan (or Tulsidas's Song of Rama), throughout Northern India. It is recognised as the "Bible" of millions in North India and is probably more familiar to persons in North India than the Bible is to the average westerner. Many bhaktas know its most famous verses.
There are numerous traditions concerning him, some of which may be accepted with confidence, He was said to be born at Rajapur, in what is now called Uttar Pradesh, circa 1532 - 1543 and to have been a Sarwaria Brahmana of the Parasara gotra. His father's name was Atmarama, and his mother was named Hulasi, and his own name being Rama Bhola. In one of his verses he tells us that he was abandoned by his parents immediately after his birth, and it can be assumed from this that he was probably one of those unfortunate children known as abhuktamula, born under the beginning of the currency of the asterism Mula. Such a child is said to be destined to destroy its father, and the only remedy is to abandon it on its birth, or, at best, so to arrange that its parents shall not look upon its face during the first eight years of its existence.
Traditions tell that his mother died the very next day, and that Rama Bhola was wet-nursed until the age of 5 when he was given over to a wandering Sadhu. Other folk traditions also mention the street urchin Rama Bhola.
The wandering Sadhu re-named him Tulasi-Dasa ('Servant of the tulasi plant) in honour of the sacred leaf used in the ceremony of purification of the infant, and by this name he was henceforth known. With this Sadhu, who was probably also his guru, Naranari-Dasa, he wandered all over Northern India. From his guru he learnt the story of Rama, but owing to his ignorance (of Sanskrit) he could not at first grasp its importance. At length, after frequent hearings, he learnt it so far as his intelligence would allow, and then determined to write it in the vernacular for his own benefit and for that of others similarly situated.
When he grew up, he lived as a householder, and married a girl named Ratnavali, the daughter of Dinabandhu Pathaka, by whom he had a son named Taraka, who died at an early age. He was devoted to his wife and could not bear to be separated from her. She was a firm Vaisnava, and on one occasion, when she had gone on to visit to her people, she reproached him for following her and for not showing equal affection to Rama. Struck with remorse, Tulasi at once left her and took to an ascetic life. He is said to have seen her only once again in after years, and then not to have recognized her.
With his base at first in Ayodhya and subsequently in Benares, he made long journeys over Northern India preaching the gospel of Rama. At first he met with considerable opposition, but his holy life and his attractive personality conquered all obstacles and, even in Benares, the headquarters of Siva-worship, he won universal respect. A wealthy landowner of Benares named Todar Mall (who is to be distinguished from Akbar's finance minister of the same name) was one of his closest friends, and a touching poem which Tulsidas wrote on his death has survived among his most cherished verses. After Todar Mall's death his heirs quarrelled as to the disposal of the property, and referred the matter to Tulasi-Dasa as arbitrator. The deed of arbitration in his handwriting is still in existence and is dated A.D. 1612.
Tulasi Dasa was a Smarta Vaisnava; i.e., while a devotee of Ramachandra, he also adhered to the tradition of ordinary Hinduism and followed the general religious customs of his caste. This involved, among other things, the worship of Siva and the practice of eating his meals apart. In both respects he differed from the Vairagi Vaisnavas, who had abandoned tradition, and who worshipped only Vishnu in one or other of his incarnations and ate in company. During his stay in Ayodhya he associated with these Vairagi Vaisnasvas and there compiled the first three cantos of the Rama-charita-manasa. Subsequently, being unable to agree with them on points of discipline, he migrated to Benares and there completed the poem.
His devotion to Ramachandra as an incarnation of the Supreme is illustrated by the content of his works. With two exceptions, they all deal directly or indirectly with that deity. One work is a collection of hymns in praise of Krishna; another work is a short poem describing Siva's marriage with Parvati, a subject also treated at some length as an episode in the Rama-charita-manasa. Over 20 works are attributed to Tulsidas. Some are apocryphal, some are written by others with a similar name, and others bear accretions from later readers and would be poets. The jury is still out on exactly which works may be attributed to Tulsidas, but source criticism, analysis and redaction criticism are bearing fruit.
The Rama-charita-manasa expresses par excellence the religious sentiment of bhakti ("loving devotion") to the Vaisnava avatar, Rama, who is regarded as the chief means of salvation. Although Tulsidas was above all a devotee of Rama, he remained a follower of the more generally accepted traditions and customs of Hinduism rather than a strict sectarian, and his poem gives some expression both to orthodox monistic Advaita doctrine and to the polytheistic mythology of Hinduism - though these are everywhere subordinated to his expression of bhakti for Rama. His eclectic approach to doctrinal questions meant that he was able to rally wide support for the worship of Rama in northern India, and the success of the Rama-charita-manasa has been a prime factor in the replacement of the Krishna cult by the cult of Rama as the dominant religious influence in that area.
The Ramacharita-manasa was written between 1574 and 1576 or 1577. A number of early manuscripts are extant - some fragmentary - and one is said to be an autograph. The oldest complete manuscript is dated 1647. The poem, written in Awadhi, an Eastern Hindi dialect, consists of seven cantos of unequal lengths. Although the ultimate source of the central narrative is the Sanskrit epic Ramayana, Tulsidas' principal immediate source was the Adhyatma Ramayana, a late medieval recasting of the epic that had already sought to harmonize the Advaita system and the Rama cult. The influence of the Bhagavata-Purana, the chief scripture of the Krishna cult, is also discernible, with that of a number of minor sources.
One popular tradition relates how Tulsidas met Hanuman at a recitation of the Ramayana and asked Him for a vision of Rama. However, when the Lord appeared before him walking through a forest with Lakshmana in the guise of Princes, Tulsidas did not recognize either, and according to some ancient authorities, petitioned Hanuman for another manifestation of Rama. This time he did recognise the Lord with bow and arrow.
Other legends speak of Tulsidas thrown into jail because he refused to perform a miracle for the Emperor Akbar and an army of monkeys subsequently attacking the jail and setting Tulsidas free. Two other legends have stronger currency. Once Tulsidas was to be set upon by robbers. When the robbers approached his abode where he was writing, the robbers found the house guarded by two fierce looking guards. In another traditon, jealous Brahmins attempted to discard the Rama-charit-manasa because it was not written by a pundit or a brahmin; a sorcerer was paid to do a rite against Tulsidas. The Rama-charit-manasa was placed in the bottom of the pile of texts. Locked in temple overnight. Next morning, the text was found at the top of the pile of scripts.
A prose translation of the Ramacharita-manasa, with a useful introduction, is W.D.P. Hill's The Holy Lake of the Acts of Rama (1952). This is reprinted and made available by the Government of India.