The moment Arundhathi Subra- maniam’s book came to my hands I was reminded of a song and a story. The song, composed by the eighteenth century Bengali Bhakti (Sakta) saint-poet Ramprasad Sen, is themed around the act of devouring the Goddess Kali (the opening words are: Ebar Kali tomay khabo ….) by Ramprasad, her ardent devotee.
Cut to another space and time, and there is this story of Salvador Dali and his wife Gala eating their beloved pet rabbit; while Dali vomited, Gala, having devoured her loved one, turned ecstatic. ‘For her’, writes Milan Kundera narrating the story in Immortality, ‘there existed no more perfect fulfilment of love than eating the beloved’.
The expression and experience of intense love is indeed deeply connected with the desire (and threat) to eat, metaphorically or otherwise, the loved (O)ne. Bhakti, as Subramaniam notes in the comprehensive and dazzling editorial introduction to the two hundred odd translated poems collected in the volume, is about this kind of mad, all-consuming prem or (devotional) love. Bhakti is a human ache, a throb demanding the merger of bodies, the ‘exchange of blood’ and ‘total embrace’ as Joan Miro famously opines, complete possession, and finally, transcendental bliss. In Subramaniam’s words it is a ‘throb that demands everything—all that ever was and ever will be, all that is here and now, and all that is before and beyond …. This is a throb … that … blurs the … divide between the sacred and the profane …. It … demands union and annihilation, love and liberation, ecstasy and extinction, more and no more ….’ It invokes Eros and Thanatos in the same breath as if they were one and the same.
Now, what does a bhakta (devotee) with a wildly throbbing heart do? Well, he, driven by the passionate urge to have an everyday, intimate connect with the divine, fearlessly does all that is unorthodox, irregular, and even blasphemous. ‘A bhakta’, writes A.K. Ramanujan, ‘is not content to worship a god in word and ritual, nor is he content to grasp him in a theology; he needs to possess him and be possessed by him. He also needs to sing, to dance, to make poetry, painting, shrines, sculpture; to embody him in every possible way’. Thus is born the classic bhakta, a spiritual wanderer whose unmediated, undying love for the divine transforms him into the finest of artists. And this has been the case right from the eighth century when the Bhakti movement(s) emerged in the Tamil country up until the eighteenth century.
As the movement(s) spread across the subcontinent drawing men and women devotees from diverse linguistic and religious communities, it witnessed a number of contradictions related to, for instance, treatment of caste, gender, body and sexuality, and, most importantly, the conception of God (as nirguna or saguna). But one thing that the internal differences could not take away from the movement(s) was the freedom of a bhakta to reject theological dogma (‘The texts of philosophy may speak/… they still cannot see the greatness of my lord’ writes Nammalvar) and choose his personal path of emancipation. This freedom to pursue the divine—silently or loudly, cautiously or recklessly, despairingly or ecstatically—was ideal for the creation of extraordinary art, particularly Bhakti poetry/music.
As I turned the pages of Subramaniam’s thematically structured anthology, what struck me was not only the time(space)less quality of the verses of bhaktas like Nammalvar, Tukaram, Lal Ded, Chandidas, Abhirami Bhattar, Andal, Kabir, Akka Mahadevi, Mira Bai, Vidyapati, Basavanna, Lalon Fakir, and many more but also the enviable imagination of the editor in presenting them the way she did; stunning section titles taken from the poems read, for example, as: ‘Only someone struck by it knows the pain: that strange disease called Bhakti’ (Kabir), ‘Feed them to the kitchen fires: violence, cannibalism’ (Akka Mahadevi), ‘Sunrise is sunset: ecstasy’ (Tukaram), ‘He’s my slave: the politics of intimacy’ (Annamacharya), and so on.
These poetic outpourings, brought to readers by stalwart poet/translators such as A.K. Ramanujan, Gieve Patel, A.K. Mehrotra, Ranjit Hoskote, Dilip Chitre, Priya Sarukkai, V. Narayana Rao and David Shulman, Mustansir Dalvi, Neela Bhagwat and others, are unique in their own ways. And yet, there seems to be a common thread running through all: frantic, relentless human struggle to give voice to something that is, as Mircea Eliade notes, ‘totally foreign to us, but [with which] we are completely at home’. In other words, the verses play with the
idea of the inevitable intertwining of
the Apollonian and the Dionysian in the
pursuit of God. Bhakti poetry, ultimately, stands for this kind of a synthesis of reason and unreason, mind and body, being
and becoming (the poet Surdas writes: ‘For who has ever recognized the brilliance of the sun/but by seeing it through eyes gone blind’.
Let me now run through a few absolutely soul (body) stirring lines included in the volume. Pain (and pleasure), one of the myriad experiences of Bhakti, is the opening theme on which Basavanna says: ‘Don’t
you take on/this thing called bhakti:/like a
saw it cuts when it goes/and it cuts again/
when it comes’ and Kabir observes: ‘Like a sharp arrow/Is the love of Rama/Only someone struck by it/Knows the pain’. The verses on
the (im)possibility of encountering God,
His form-fathom (lessness), and His andro-gynous (non)existence are by Annamacharya (‘Is there some way I can reach you/You have no end and no beginning’), Nammalvar (‘you stand there/a marvel/of contradictions’), Tukaram (‘Says Tuka, it is/You everywhere/and You are everything/Other than You’), and
The body, predictably, is the subject of a large number of compositions. It’s now open, now hidden character(lessness), sacred (un)sensuality/sexuality and (im)purity is captured, for example, in the powerful lines of Akka Mahadevi: ‘When all the world is the eye of the lord/onlooking everywhere, what can you/cover and conceal?’, Narsinh Mehta: ‘To the foot of the bed I’ll fasten your arms/with flower-ropes shamelessly’ (p. 112), and most strikingly, Soyarabai: ‘If menstrual blood makes me impure/Tell me who was not born of that blood/This blood of mine fertilises the world/…/Soyara says: this impurity is the cornerstone of your world.’ Yet another theme which I am compelled to point to is intimacy, revulsion and rage. I especially liked Lal Ded saying, ‘He’s naked, all year round, and walks where you walk/Just go up and introduce yourself’. As for rage, it is Salabega who scores over all others; consider these bold, angry, and yes, intimate lines: ‘Get lost, you dirty flirt/I don’t need you anymore/…/what of my sacrifices, you shameless rogue.’
Finally, the liberation of the seeker and the sought from that strange disease called Bhakti comes in the last section aptly named ‘We have slain each other’. Here, Kabir speaks these memorable words: ‘I won’t come/I won’t go/I won’t live/I won’t die/…/And I’m time/I’m nothing/…/I’m not among the living/Or the dead’. Indeed so, for mukti (liberation) through Bhakti is a complex business. It is a condition whose defining feature is un-condition or the realization of the fantastic potential of the liminal. I will have to end here by thanking the translators and especially Subramaniam for coming up with this wonderful anthology.
Nabanipa Bhattacharjee teaches in Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi, Delhi.