There must be something about the state of the world now that makes the publication of three volumes of Bhakti poetry seem like a sign of the times: First, there was Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s translation of Kabir published earlier this year by the New York Review Books press, followed shortly by Ranjit Hoskote’s I, Lalla (Penguin India); now there’s The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature, edited by Andrew Schelling.
Schelling teaches at Naropa University (established in Boulder, Colorado, by Buddhist spiritual leader Chogyam Trungpa), writes poetry and has translated Mirabai into English—translations that are included in this anthology. The university describes itself as a “leading institution of contemplative education” and has long had ties with the Beats. The importance of these connections becomes clear in Schelling’s introduction to the anthology, which reflects the almost umbilical tie that some American poetry has with transcendental/aphoristic/spiritual traditions of a certain kind, including Bhakti poetry.
Schelling finds parallels between the Bhakti poets and the Native American shamans in their “hunger for human freedom”, but is careful not to make uncritical comparisons. At the same time, he declines to see Bhakti “as a religious tradition locked inside India”. The power of words to disarrange society and its traditions is something that poetry from elsewhere in the world shares with Bhakti poetry; he quotes the poet Kenneth Rexroth, who once defined the counterculture of the 1960s as “those people who live by the tenets of lyric poetry”.
The introduction gives a brief history of the origins of Bhakti poetry from the early Tamil Kuruntokai onwards. Arranged regionally, the anthology moves across the south of Antal, Basavanna and Annamacharya, to the west with Jnanadev, Janabai and Tukaram, the north ranging from Lal Ded to Kabir, Mirabai and Surdas, and finally to the east, with selections from the Gita Govinda, the poetry of Chandidas, the Baul and Sakta poets, ending with Rabindranath Tagore’s Bhanusimha (I can’t help noticing the absence of Subramania Bharati, especially when other nationalist poetry is included).
There are the now familiar translations of A.K. Ramanujan from the Tamil and the Kannada, which retain their brevity and verve even after so many years; Velcheru Narayana Rao’s and David Shulman’s Telugu translations have also been widely read, especially the Annamayya padas from God on the Hill. Especially poignant is the evidence of the late Dilip Chitre’s huge, unpublished body of translations. His Poets of Vithoba: Anthology of Marathi Bhakti Poetry is credited as an unpublished manuscript and one can only hope it finds a publisher soon.
Rapture: (from left) Artwork depicting Mirabai (Keystone/Getty Images) and Ezra Pound was an early translator of Kabir (Onef9day/Wikimedia Commons).
That Schelling had access to Chitre’s translations makes the exclusion of Mehrotra’s translations of Kabir and Hoskote’s translations of Lal Ded more inexplicable. It says something about the serendipitous nature of anthologies—even the ones that come to be considered definitive or are hugely influential in forming a canon.
An interesting and perhaps historically valuable translation is Ezra Pound’s “versions” of Kabir, which were based on Kali Mohan Ghose’s translations. This makes for an unusual experience of Kabir, not just because it comes at two removes (and perhaps more; this, as Mehrotra has demonstrated, is impossible to determine) but also because Pound doesn’t use the word “Ram” even once in his 10 “versions”.
Schelling takes care to provide a context to each poet’s life before letting us arrive at his or her work. Through these mini introductions it becomes clear that across the centuries, while spirituality may be one axis on which the complex terrain of Bhakti is mapped, politics must always be the other.
The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature: Oxford University Press, 273 pages, Rs 695.
If Allama Prabhu says: “No one knows the groom/and no one knows the bride/Death falls across/the wedding/Much before the decorations fade/the bridegroom is dead/Lord, only your men/have no death” (Ramanujan), then Tuka says, “A king may not grant land to the landless/But wouldn’t he at least ensure/That his subjects get a meal?/After all a king must protect/The myth of his benevolence” (Chitre).
Basavanna lived on the cusp of a Hindu revival after centuries of Jain and Buddhist thought dominating the country; yet he set himself outside religious orthodoxies. Many of these poets were from lower castes or were completely outcast, yet found a kind of power through their poetry. Janabai says, “Jani sweeps with a broom/The Lord loads up the garbage/He carries it on His head/Throws it away in a distant dump/So much under the spell of Bhakti is He/He now performs the lowliest tasks” (Chitre).
There are poems in the existential mode, the mystic, the erotic, the bitter and wry, poems in satirical and paradoxical voice, epigrammatic poems and poems about the art of poetry (occasionally, there are startling and completely unintentional contemporary resonances, as when Surdas says, “Manmohan, what clues are you trying to erase?” (John Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer).
An inevitable question that arises is: Who is a Bhakti poet today, when the secular occupies as much of the public space as the overtly religious? If godhead is an abstraction separate from what’s done in its name, then one could argue for the inclusion of poems from Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri and Sarpa Satra. This brings us back to Rexroth’s definition of “counterculture” and Schelling’s reading of Bhakti in light of this definition.
I could wish there had been a deeper exploration of the sociopolitical relationship between Sufism and Bhakti, between Bhakti poetry and Jain and Buddhist poetry (Manimekalai comes to mind) but perhaps that is a subcontinental preoccupation and not within the remit of this anthology.
In an appendix, Schelling includes some poems and quotes from more contemporary sources, among them Kshitimohan Sen discussing the Bauls: “They (the Bauls) say, all these scriptures are nothing but leftovers from ancient celebrations. What are we, dogs?—that we should lick these leftovers? If there is need, we shall make new celebrations.”
The poems in this anthology are certainly not leftovers; but they could be new celebrations of an old counterculture.
IN SIX WORDS
Poetry as the world’s perpetual revolutionary
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