Prime Edition

Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry

(Edited by) Arundhathi Subramaniam

Penguin UK

Pages: 328 Rs. 599

A strange disease that does not spare God or man

Arundhati Subramaniam has compiled and edited a splendid new collection of Bhakti poetry, one that places the movement in an appropriate socio-political context, writes Lora Tomas.

Lora Tomas  25th Oct 2014

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, whose Kabir translations are part of Eating God

hen Vidyapati, a 14th century Bhakti poet of Eastern India, assuming a female devotee's voice to sing about her vehement lovemaking to her dark divine lover, confides, "I devoured that liquid face," he is playing with the cannibalistic impulse lurking in the relationship between devotees/bhaktas and their deities, an impulse that goes both ways. The correlation between the Bhakti sentiment and food is the same inseparable correlation between Bhakti and the body. The Sanskrit word bhakta, in neutrum, stands for food, meal, boiled rice.

Published by Penguin Books India this September, a book of bhakti poetry, Eating God, edited and with an introduction by the poet, curator, and writer Arundhathi Subramaniam, brings together a wonderful mix of 48 bhakta voices spanning several centuries, in stylistically varied, adept translations by established writers, poets, littérateurs, and scholars such as A. K. Ramanujan, Rahul Soni, Vijay Nambisan, Dilip Chitre, Ranjit Hoskote, Anand Thakore, Jerry Pinto, Mustansir Dalvi, Sampurna Chattarji, David Shulman and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, to name a few.

The "strange disease called Bhakti" (as Subramaniam calls it), which attacks crystallised systems, rigid structures, and hierarchies of oppressive order, broke out in the Tamil traditions of Vishnuite Alvar and Shaivite Nayanmar poetry between the 6th and 9th centuries, and by the 17th, it had infected much of the subcontinent and its many vernaculars. This "contagion" craves to articulate the meta-realities glimpsed in devotional ecstasy. It also craves attention, participatory audience. To borrow the words of scholar Christian Lee Novetzke, Bhakti, with its creative outlets in song, poetry, dance, or theatre, is "a performance of emotion", even if only God(dess) is watching.

In her extensive and deeply intimate introduction, Subramaniam traces the historical trajectory of Bhakti movements, and reflects on the beauties and paradoxes of their expression, elegantly ushering readers into trancelike receptiveness for the texts that follow.

These poems, originally songs, have been passed down mostly through the oral tradition, with their real composers sometimes being untraceable. In this volume, they are grouped by theme and timbre, not chronology, region, or author. They include well and less-known Bhakta names like Lal Ded, Akka Mahadevi, Kabir, Tukaram, Basavanna, Janabai, Allama Prabhu, Chandidas, Nammalvar, Andal, Mirabai, Sankaradeva and many others. Some of them are related through clan or kinship, which makes for amusing analogies: the 12th century Kannada poetess Gangambike was also one of the wives of the social reformer and poet Basavanna. Rajai, wife of the celebrated Marathi Bhakti poet Namdev, who lived in the 13th and 14th centuries, has this to say about her absent-minded husband: "The man of the house says he's found a guru./ Mother Mesai, now what do I do?/ I have a family, hungry mouths to feed."

he book's sections are titled after a verse from one of the poems, while their subtitles further set the tone, revealing Subramaniam's candid editorial approach stripped of vague sentimentality: "Hubris, Forgetfulness, Ego Games", "Shedding Cargo, Cutting the Crap", "Urgency", "Love's Lunacy", "Violence, Cannibalism", "The Politics of Intimacy", "Irony, Irreverence", "God as Taxman, Burglar, Businessman", "Breakthrough, Endgame", and so on. You will find here poems that channel the longing for the divine amplified to pressing eroticism, a clamant desire; verses on the existential fear, a fall from grace into the unsettling human condition, and the constant struggle to tame the reeling mind; or more enigmatic compositions, inclined toward the philosophical and the esoteric, and not too dissimilar from the discourse of Yoga Vasistha, for example.

Some of the authors' poetic techniques and forms are surprisingly present-day. These verses by Nivruttinath, a 13th century poet in the Varkari tradition, sound both like a village rumour and a commercial ad: "No wear! No tear! It's priceless! It's free! / We have seen on the bank of the river Bheema/ That which lies beyond all contemplation: / Absolute Being! — with our own eyes!"

At times, Nammalvar, the famed Tamil poet who lived between the ninth and 10th centuries, resonates with the drunken incantations of the Beats. His Supreme Lord is: "all things dying, these things/ those things, those others in-between, / good things, bad things,/ things that were, that will be..."

The terse, state-of-the-art aphoristic poetry of a 14th-century Kashmiri poetess, Lal Ded, evokes the contemporary spoken word: "Wisest to play the fool. Lynx-eyed, play blind./ Prick-eared, be deaf./ Polished, lie dull among the dull./ Survive."

The relationship between the Bhaktas and their chosen divinity can even reflect a master/slave dynamics. If we took his verses out of the sophisticated context of bhakti fever, Narsinh Mehta, a 15th-century Vaishnava poet, could be a character straight out of Fifty Shades of Grey: "To the foot of the bed I'll fasten your arms."

Women take sexual initiative. They praise their own charms, their knowledge of sorcery, magic, herbs; they trespass, they are reckless. A 13th century Marathi poetess Janabai has no scruples: "Jani says: I have become your whore, Keshava. / I have come now to wreck your home."

Enjoyably arranged and presented, this collection impresses with its contemporaneity; of translations (which are often brilliantly ironic, or remarkably rhythmical, as in the case of Vijay Nambisan's rendering of the 16th century Malayalam poet Puntanam Namboodiri) and of its socio-political concerns. However, Bhakti poetry, in spite of its passionate outlook, manages, sometimes quite subtly, to solidify the existent hierarchies, writes scholar Patton Burchett.

It argues for its own limitations when it comes to egalitarianism and democracy in everyday, worldly life, and instead sublimates these into a metaphor of transcendence in verse and worship.

Things get said, but a certain resignation persists. "This impurity is the cornerstone of your world," says Soyarabai, a 14th-century Marathi poetess, to the upholders of untouchability and caste. Bhakta poet Ravidas, a tanner who lived in Varanasi in the fifteenth century, takes it from there and conjures a utopian city where "none are third or second — all are one." This revolutionary potential, anchored in the body and the sensuous as much as in the spiritual, is the gift of Bhakti poetry.

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