There are poems, and there are poems. There are poems that get under your skin and seep into your marrow without your even realising you have been annexed. There are poems that become a part of the aural backdrop of your inner life, hypnotic and resonant. There are poems that tease the human cortex so that each reading becomes a decoding, an unraveling.
And then there are poems that assault you in some unknown part of your inner geography. A place both mysterious and familiar. A place that you recognise as a dark place of origin, marking the beginnings of an ancient human ache. A place that has sometimes been called the heart, sometimes the soul, and by the doggedly unsentimental, the gut.
This is the breath-catching moment when self speaks to self more directly than you ever thought possible. A moment that sears through the smog of belief and doctrine, the endlessly recycled traffic of theology, the air waves of opinion. A moment when you know you are witness to the self pretending to be none other than itself—a simple, insatiable throb. This is a throb that will not be silenced. This is a throb that will not settle for bucket list petitions, for easy deals with a brokering god.
This 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. It clamours for form and for no form, for thingy-ness and for no-thingness, even perhaps while knowing all along that there is not much difference between the two.
This is a throb so definitive, so encompassing that it blurs the conventional divide between the sacred and the profane. It is a throb that demands union and annihilation, love and liberation, ecstasy and extinction, more and no more—and demands it now.
Everyone has known it. Many choose to forget, defer, deny or dilute it. Understandably. It is inconvenient. It makes life difficult. When one does encounter it, however, one knows one is in the presence of something fragile, urgent, moltenly alive.
This is bhakti.
And this sharp text message to the human epicentre, this bruising and yet exhilarating arrow to the core of one’s being—this is the province of Bhakti poetry.
Experientially, the condition is as old as time. Historically, the movement had its identifiable moment of emergence on the Indian subcontinent—an exuberant birthing that assumed the proportions of a tidal wave that crashed across the great barrier reefs of region and language, caste and class. The poet, scholar and preeminent Bhakti poetry translator AK Ramanujan described it as the “great many-sided shift [that] occurred in Hindu culture and sensibility between the sixth and ninth centuries”. Bhakti, he said, “is one name for that shift”.
Sacred texts like the Bhagavad Gita and strands of Upanishadic literature had invoked it earlier. But Bhakti, as a series of popular cults, celebrating devotion as the supreme road to the divine, began taking shape around the 8th century. The historical reasons for its emergence in diverse regions are varied— ranging from the rigidity of Brahminism to the need to carve out a spiritual identity vital- ised by, and yet distinct from, the shramana movements, and later, Islam—and it is not the intention of this volume to dwell on the complex factors shaping its chronology.
It is clear, however, that the movement was not unitary. The regional cults were divergent in belief and practice. The objects of devotion were the gods, Shiva and Vishnu, in embodied and non-figurative versions, as well as the goddess or Devi in her many manifestations. But it is clear that these regional upsurges did not evolve “out of some original teaching or spread through conversion” (as historian Romila Thapar pointed out). Instead, they surfaced across a period of a thousand years when historical circumstances were ripe for their emergence, converging with the growing need of lower castes to give voice to their aspirations.
Sanskrit, that venerable matriarch of Indian languages, had held monarchs and metaphysicians in her thrall for centuries. The sacred traditions of revelation (sruti) and recollection (smriti) were already known to comprise a rich heritage of spiritual literature. And yet, for all her lapidary refinement, her exquisite subtlety, Sanskrit gradually began to seem inadequate to meet the needs of a growing tribe of spiritual aspirants. This new tribe comprised men and women, seized by a collective feverish thirst. They were potters and peasants, weavers and cobblers, basket-makers and palanquin-bearers, musicians and milkmen, scholars and tax-collectors, boatmen and blacksmiths, pundits and hangmen, pariahs and priests, plebeians and princesses.
What did they have in common? Nothing, seemingly. Except for the fact that they dared to give voice to their longing. They were incendiary dreamers who refused to be mere worshippers, anarchic visionaries who refused to be mere inheritors. They were less god-fearing than god-possessed, less content to receive an ancient wisdom than impatient to express their own tempestuous interiority. It was a strange condition, this bhakti, this unappeasable lust, this clamorous yearning, this greed.
And so, the bhakta was born—a new and colourful figure on the Indian spiritual land-scape, wild and incorrigible, unquenchable in his yearning, irrepressible in his authenticity. With his cussed insistence on singing the dialect of his heart—its lurching passions and plummeting despairs—he became the voice of a people, the leader of a community, an embodiment of the zeitgeist. In his poems, he sang and lamented, cursed and celebrated, hungered and praised, loudly, lustily, sometimes embarrassingly. And he never stopped demanding. What did he demand? Nothing less than the divine—the glorious, unmediated divine. And what’s more, he seemed to see evidence of divinity everywhere. He saw it in the ordinary life ordinarily lived. He saw it in life’s detritus and trivia—in cloth and clay, in pots and pans, in the temple and on the street, in the grandeur of the scripture and in his own robust demotic. He exulted when he saw it and despaired when he lost sight of it; he yearned to devour it and be devoured by it; he sought it in the world of throbbing materiality and he sought it in the shadowy provinces beyond the threshold of the senses.
“A bhakta,” AK Ramanujan said, “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.”
It was a relationship of such intimacy that it made every tone permissible—rebuke, banter, humour, lust, entreaty, indignation, rage. God was sublime, exalted, beautiful, but he was also family. He could be addressed the way one might speak to a beloved, if habitually disobedient, member of one’s household. And the only means to speak to such
a god was in the homespun cadences of the vernacular, which seemed to come closest (even if never close enough) to the many shifts of the bhakta’s inner weather. Sanskrit—and indeed any standardised language, whether courtly or regional—seemed too remote to suit this hot, spluttering, sometimes inarticulate dialogue conducted in the innermost chamber of the heart.
Sanskrit was never entirely erased. Several poets acknowledged their debt to it.
Several drew from its vocabulary, but at the same time further nourished their regional languages with the flavour of local dialects, to create a new idiom of striking contrasts and verbal textures. Even while Tamil poets like Appar sang the praises of Tamil and proclaimed the equality of their verse to Vedic scripture, they weren’t simply resorting to an easy chauvinism.
The bhaktas’ impatience was, instead, with everything that seemed frozen and strait-jacketed. Into stone as into language, these poets sought to breathe life. They demanded a divinity and a diction that was spontaneous, responsive, alert to their needs—fiery, riverine, untamable. They sought a tongue that could be sacred without ceasing to be earthy, a god who could be human without ceasing to be divine, domestic without ceasing to be cosmic, and a path that could be particular, popular, and even profane, without ceasing to be a pilgrimage. With the scorching white heat of their words they consecrated the lowly and the inconsequential, the humble ghettos and dark enclaves of human experience, proving that every by-lane, every forgotten alleyway of language, locality and life could be just another way home.
From the introduction to Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry. Edited by Arundhathi Subrama-niam, Penguin Books India.
Arundhathi Subramaniam is a poet, curator and journalist. She has been published in several newspapers. She divides her time between Mumbai and a yoga centre in Coimbatore. Her most recent works include the book of poems, When God is a Traveller. She has been shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize for poetry.