(Following is an excerpt from an article that was published in Back to Godhead Magazine #26-02, 1992)
Throughout the provinces of India, the Supreme Lord is worshiped in various forms. And in Pandharpur, the spiritual capital of Maharashtra, the Lord is worshiped as Sri Vitthala. His devotees also fondly call Him 'Vithobha' or 'Panduranga'. Pandharpur Dhama is located about four hundred kilometers southeast of Bombay.
The slightly smiling, blackish-complexioned Deity of Sri Vitthala is three and a half feet tall. He stands on a brick, His hands resting on His hips. This posture reflects His pastimes in Pandharpur.
The Padma Purana and the Skanda Purana briefly describe why the Lord journeyed to Pandharpur and why He stays there in this form.
Once Srimati Radharani, Lord Krishna's consort in the village of Vrindavana, visited Dvaraka, where Lord Krishna lived as a king. At that time, Rukmini Devi, Lord Krishna's queen, noticed that Krishna was dealing more intimately with Radharani than He had ever done with her. Upset, she departed for the forest of Dindirvana, near Pandharpur.
Lord Krishna followed Rukmini to apologize, but His apology left her unmoved. So the Lord moved on to Pandharpur to visit one of His devotees, Bhakta Pundarika. When the Lord reached Pundarika’s asrama, Pundarika was serving his elderly parents. So Pundarika gave the Lord a seat of brick and asked the Lord to wait. The Lord did as told. He stood, lotus hands on His hips, waiting for Pundarika to return.
While He was waiting, Rukmini, having forgotten her distress, came from Dindirvana and rejoined Him. Both of Them stayed in Pandharpur in Deity form. To this day the Lord stands on the same brick, but now He’s waiting for all His devotees to come see Him.
While waiting, the Lord seems to tell the devotees, “Do not fear. For those who have surrendered unto Me, I have reduced the depth of the ocean of material suffering. See, it is only this deep.” He indicates the shallowness of the ocean by placing His hands on His hips.
Elegantly dressed in yellow and other colors, Lord Vitthala wears around His neck a vaijayanti garland and tulasi, whose aroma permeates the darsana hall and the surrounding area. His right hand holds a lotus flower and His left a conchshell. On His chest He bears the mark of Bhrgu’s foot. His ears are decorated with shark-shaped earrings, and on His forehead beneath His crown is a broad mark of tilaka. The Lord’s smile irresistibly enchants His devotees. Each pilgrim who approaches Him gets a glimpse of His peaceful smiling face and considers this the perfection of life.
Devotees of Lord Vitthala
Some illustrious devotees of Lord Vitthala traveled widely throughout Maharashtra. Their preaching and their exemplary devotional mood left a permanent impression on the people.
In a letter dated July 30, 1977, Srila Prabhupada encourages in this way: “The whole of India and specifically your Maharashtra are enthused with Krishna. Now you have to revive their Krishna consciousness. This is Tukarama’s country, but now they are becoming bad politicians. So revive them by the process of the sankirtana movement.”
Saint Tukarama was the most famous of all Maharashtrian saints. Tukarama preached throughout his life, exhorting his countrymen to take to the path of bhakti, devotional service. In his autobiography, Tukarama says he was initiated in a dream by Raghava Chaitanya Kesava Chaitanya. Though not everyone agrees, Gaudiya Vaishnavas (such as the ISKCON devotees) understand this to mean Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
As Srila Prabhupada comments (Chaitanya-caritamrita, Madhya 9.282, purport), “The sankirtana party belonging to Tukarama is still very popular in Bombay. It exactly resembles the Gaudiya Vaishnava sankirtana parties, for they chant the holy name with mridanga and karatalas.” They also wear neck beads and tilaka similar to those of the Gaudiya tradition.
The most outstanding display of the Maharashtrians’ devotion to Lord Vitthala is the Dindi Yatra, a pilgrimage on foot that culminates in Pandharpur. It has been performed annually for the last seven hundred years. Dindi Yatra—the huge Asadha Ekadasi festival (also known as Shayani Ekdashi)—draws a crowd of over 1500,000 people. As many as 200,000 come on foot. The festival falls during the month of Asadha (This year Ashadi Ekadashi falls on June 30) and marks the beginning of Chaturmasya, the four months of the rainy season. According to the Padma Purana, on that day the Lord goes to sleep for four months till the month of Karttika.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s Visit
Lord Chaitanya visited Pandharpur while on a journey through South India, apparently to search for His sannyasi brother, Sankararanya, formerly known as Visvarupa. As stated in the Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 9.282–283), the Lord went to Pandharpur, where He happily saw the Deity of Lord Vitthala and chanted and danced.