classic poetry

Eight ‘Bhakti’ poems that show India had multiple and diverse paths to devotion

From Andal to Lal Ded, from Dhoolayya the Cobbler to Chaitanya, the

Words are the only / jewels I possess
Words are the only / clothes I wear
Words are the only / wealth I distribute among people.

— From the abhangs of Sant Tukaram, translated from the Marathi by Dilip Chitre.

Songs of “bhakti” that brim with intimate and impassioned devotion to a personal god are sung in mandirs and mandals, gurdwaras and dargas, homes and alone in solitude. Many voices of plurality or faiths exist under its sky, and devotees continue to be enthralled by the lives of the great medieval mystic poets. The songs’ poetic and profound appeal to align one’s self with cosmic harmonies continues to strike a chord in numerous people.

Even though the bhakti poets composed, sang and wandered several centuries ago, they always race ahead of us, arching towards the infinite, the beauteous, mysterious and sometimes terrifying terrain of the sacred. They burnt all boundaries of belonging to belong solely to their beloved. They strove to possess and, equally, be possessed by grace in a spiralling dyad. They shared their passion with others in a call so visceral, primal and wondrous that we still thrill to it today. The roar, tick and ache of their longing, bliss, viraha and unstoppable quest for transcendence also forged a new poetics that challenges translators even today.

Though the term “bhakti” was used earlier, it is generally accepted that this belief system and literature started in the 6th century in southern India before slowly spreading through the entire subcontinent. Its corpus is constantly being expanded – as in the case of Kabir’s “beejdohas that are added to by subsequent generations of his followers. But since its inception, bhakti was radical in utterance and approach. Bypassing religious ritual and hierarchies, the mystics sang in their mother tongue, versus the power-tongue of Brahminic Sanskrit of the court and temple.

Yet, especially in the early days, the mystics sang against a backdrop of religious conflict and violence that was fuelled by the impulse to convert – for instance, Shaivites turned against followers of Vishnu, and the Jains and Buddhists. This contradicted the belief of bhakti that god’s love is a levelling force, is all encompassing, and for each and everyone.

The increasing intolerance in our society today was among the factors propelling a day-long festival of bhakti poetry in translation in Pune. Hosted by the Pune International Centre and The Raza Foundation and curated by me, it had eight poet-translators presenting their translations or versions of bhakti poetry.

The Indic tradition of offering multiple perspectives, entry points, elaborations and interpretations of every text has assured its continuity and on-going transmission. It is therefore important not to confuse the renderings, versions or translations with lack of fidelity to the source text. Rather, each translator illumines aspects of these sacred verses as it appears to them after their research and meditation on the source text and on the language itself. Each one has attempted to touch and earth in English and express in several ways the plentitude inherent in the songs of these mystics that finally extend into a timeless sacred silence. A sampling of the poems offered on the occasion:

Abhirami Bhattar

Translated by Arundhathi Subramaniam

“My presentation was about examining aspects of Bhakti literature that particularly excite me, as discussed in the Bhakti poetry anthology I edited, Eating God. It focused in particular on the somewhat-disparaged strain of saguna bhakti or devotion towards the divine with name and form. The presentation was interspersed with readings from Nammalvar, Annamacharya, Soyarabai and Abhirami Bhattar. I have translated Abhirami Bhattar from the Tamil.”

Isn’t it funny
that though she’s Mother of the Universe,

we warble
about her lotus bud breasts
and her eyes more limpid than a doe’s?

And though she has no beginning or end
we hail her as the little girl born
to the Monarch of the Great Mountain?

Hilarious really
all the hype

when she’s beyond it all –
description, explanation,

perception.

Andal

Translated by Priya Sarukkai Chabria

The 9th century mystic Andal was sixteen when she composed this pasuram in classical Tamil. Today, Andal is regarded as a goddess.

Marruiru Nacchyar Tirumoliir (Take Me to the Land of My Lord) is among the last songs Andal composed when distraught in separation. Yet she retained her faith that she was meant to be the bride of Narayana and “merged” into his idol in the Srirangam temple shortly afterwards. Her tone swings between plea and command, it blazes with sacredness, eroticism, rage and vulnerability. This song shimmers in the tension between the inner and the outer; the inner – Narayana – and the outer, her mother and society. I’ve used italics to expand on mythological references and convey Andal’s allusions and hidden thoughts that needed to be prised out from within the complex codes of classical Tamil poetics.

Uncover me. Why should I wear modesty when the world already knows of my barefaced love? If you wish to be dazzled anew by me there’s only one cure: I must see the lord of illusion.

He appeared as a dwarf but covered worlds; he’s seeded in me & grows bursting boundaries. Why clothed me in convention? Let rapture recapture me.

I flame towards trembling stars. Take me quick to the magician of Ayarpati.

Chaitanya by the Workmen Kirtaniyas of Northern Bengal

Translated by Sumana Roy

Bimal Sutradhar, our carpenter in Siliguri, often sang as he sawed a piece of wood or pushed a nail into a plank. In these kirtans that the carpenters and working class men from northern Bengal sang, where the specificities of travel were also metaphors of a pilgrim’s progress, the memory of Chaitanya’s journey from Manipur, where he was born, to Bengal and Puri in Orissa remained.

What interested me were the interpolations – the entry of the contemporary idiom into their mesh. Most common among them were the mention of the pharmacy, the automobile, names of train stations, the bus, Chaitanya as the driver, his companions as engineers and ticket collectors. The open-hearted and full-throated singing, the throwing of the voice to the highest notes and its eventual collection by the end of the night, in the foggy winter morning, the cold air and the silence of the night giving the voice earnestness and the soul energy – all of these transform and naturalise the foreignness of these expressions from contemporary life.

The carpenter’s idioms – bones for joints, the number two hundred and six – have entered this kirtan.

If I have to know god, I must turn my thoughts into a temple
Without the address of a temple how will his news reach you?
Father and mother, they are the temple’s masons –
with ananda they’ve built Anandanagar.
206 wooden joints, but only two to keep you erect.
Only two things will keep you standing – Shakti and Bhakti.
I labour all day, I build a door. The roof is always above a door.
Kundalini meditates, she wants the space between the roof and the door.
The temple is beautiful. Shyam is sundar.

Dhoolayya the Cobbler

translated by HS Shiva Prakash

This is a vachana originally composed in Kannada by Dhoolayya the Cobbler. It strikes a totally different note from most of what is called bhakti poetry. The tone of the poem is characteristic of a handful of vachana poets from artisan castes, who pioneered vachana long before Basavanna, Allama and Akka. For these poets, their labour performed with mindfulness is superior to adoring god.

No details of Dhoolayya’s life are extant, though 106 of his poems available speak of his poetic and spiritual depth. But the language of his vachana suggests that he must have lived in 12th Century.

On seeing the great lord
Appear on the edge of the chisel
Piercing the hide –
“Why are you here, sir
In front of the one that moves about
Carrying the bag of flesh?
Go away
To the dwelling places of your devotees
Free them
Go on to the top of your silver mountain,
With your masquerades
Go free your devotees.
By the grace of the Master of Lust, Dust and Smoke
Go and prosper

Lal Ded

Translated by Ranjit Hoskote

A vaakh by the 14th-century mystic and poet Lal Ded, translated from the original Kashmiri.

Lal Ded, also known as Lalla, took a pragmatic view of learning. Having imbibed all that the scriptures and treatises of Kashmir Śaivism and Yoga had to teach her, she experimented beyond them, a prepared questor apprenticing herself to direct experience. As a result of this, she was no mere scriptural expert or ritual specialist, but an adept, a living master. In her own account, there was no divergence between what she taught and what she practiced.

Always ready to grapple robustly with life and its challenges, Lalla entered the forest of the spirit where the seeker must confront her or his deepest terrors and phantoms, and emerged victorious. There, as she says in this vaakh, she “wrestled with the lion”. The lion, here, symbolises worldly ambition; she has stripped it of its power to dominate the individual’s imagination and monopolise her or his energies.

What the books taught me, I’ve practised.
What they didn’t teach me, I’ve taught myself.
I’ve gone into the forest and wrestled with the lion.
I didn’t get this far by teaching one thing and doing another.

Mirabai

Translated by Rahul Soni

Mirabai was one of the most significant poet-saints of the bhakti movement. She lived during the early 16th century, and was born and married into royal Rajput families in Rajasthan. Little else is truly known about her, and in the absence of authentic records, legends have proliferated: of her early devotion, of Raidas being her guru, of her difficult relationship with her in-laws and the many times her lord, Krishna, saved her from their attempts to murder her, of her abandoning her life of privilege to go on pilgrimages and wander with fellow bhaktas, of her eventually merging into an idol of Krishna in Vrindavan, and so on.

A similar uncertainty exists about her poetry: thousands of verses are attributed to her, but there are no surviving manuscripts from her time, and only a tiny fraction might actually be hers. Yet all of that ceases to matter when we come face to face with the words themselves, as they move from despair and longing to the ecstasy of union, with surprising force and clarity. Or, to quote from one of the poems: “I am in love / who cares / what happens / next.”

fever-bird
stop crying
piya-piya

or
I’ll tear off
your wings
cut off
your beak
rub salt
in your wounds

I’m aching
for my piya, my lover
I’m his
and he’s mine
why should you
call to him

but
if your call
brings him to me
I’ll gild
your beak
I’ll crown you
king

crow
go tell my lover
his woman
can’t eat
without him
she keeps
crying
piya-piya
come back soon
my master
you know all
don’t you know
I can’t live
without you

Rahim

Translated by Mustansir Dalvi

Rahim (1556-1626) or Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana was a poet and one of the nine gems or luminaries in the court of Emperor Akbar. Although a Muslim by birth, he was a devotee of Krishna’s and Ram’s – a testimony to the tremendous spirit of cultural integration of the times – and is well known for his superbly crafted couplets or dohas dedicated to them. Well versed in Sanskrit, he also wrote books on astrology and translated the Baburnama into Persian.

Jhoomi jhoomi chahoon ore barsat megohm
Tyon tyon piya bin sajani tadpat dehaa

All around us, clouds burst.
Yet with every drop, sister,
this parched body aches
and craves for Krishna.

Aao, Sudhaakar pyare, neh nichod
Dekhan hi ko tarsein nain chakor

This songbird craves
but for a glimpse of you.
Come, Sudhaakar my love,
wring me dry.

Ab Rahim muskil padi, gaadhe dou kaam
Saanche se to jag naahi, jhoote milaai na Raam

Here is a fine fix, Rahim,
which path should I choose?
This world will not abide my truth,
by my falsehoods I will forsake Ram.

Vallabhacharya

Translated by Mani Rao

From Jayadeva (12th CE) who composed Gita Govinda to Vallabhacharya (15th CE), major figures in the bhakti tradition have composed in Sanskrit.

Vallabhacharya is the founder of the Pushti-marg with devotion to Krishna, and the author of commentaries on Sanskrit works including the Bhagavata-Purana. In the Sanskrit hymn titled Madhurashtakam (eight-sweet-verses, sweetness in eight verses), the devotional feeling (bhakti-bhav) is remarkably intense. As Vallabhacharya contemplates baby Krishna, he is so overcome with emotion that he is near inarticulate, describing everything – from how he walks to how he vomits – as charming and “madhuram” msweet). As the word “Madhuram” (sweet, honeyed) is repeated to describe every noun in this hymn, “mmm” sounds predominate. Here is a stanza from my translation – the full version is here.

He’s a Sweetie
mmSweet lips
mmSweet face
mmSweet eyes

mmSweet laugh

mmSweet gait
mmSweetheart

mmSweet talk
mmSweet adventures
Sweet costume
Sweet turningwalkingwandering

Sweet flute mm
Sweet hands mm
Sweet feet even the dust on his feet
Sweet his dancing
Sweet his friendship

[….]

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