of Bhakti Literature
Religions typically evolve from individual and spontaneous to collective and organized forms of experience. Each time an intensely subjective spiritual awakening solidifies into an increasingly complex and codified set of beliefs, practices, and rituals, a reaction usually occurs, in which one or more individuals cast themselves beyond the pale of orthodoxy, choosing a path of renunciation, retreat, and reflection, or undertaking more active and antagonistic forms of dissent. In the Judeo-Christian world, anchorites, mystics, and martyrs variously represented this reaction in different countries and time periods. In medieval India, a renewal process characterized by unorthodox forms of intimate devotion started between the fifth and the ninth century C.E. with two groups of Tamil poet-saints, the twelve Vaishnava alvars (“immersed in god”) and the sixty-three Shaivite nayanars (“lords, masters, devotees”), whose hymns to Vishnu and Shiva helped define a new spiritual and literary sensibility. Rejecting established forms of dogmatic and ritual mediation in favor of a pure and passionate relationship with a personal god, the new devotional approach gained rapid popularity, especially among the non-brahmanical castes and the lowest strata of the population, spreading across the subcontinent and eventually giving rise to a counter-tradition of spiritual practices and devotional songs known as bhakti. The term itself, explains Andrew Schelling in the introduction to this new anthology, first appeared 2500 years ago in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad and the Bhagavad Gita, indicating “love or devotion directed to a deity or a god.” More specifically,
the word derives from the Sanskrit verb bhaj, which initially meant to divide, share, or distribute. Over time, the verb came to mean partake, enjoy, participate; to eat, to make love. From such personal colourings it took abstract meanings. To experience, to feel, to adore; to serve, honour, or worship. There is also a noun, bhakta, meaning a votary, a worshipper, a lover.
Often referred to as a movement, bhakti is more a “state-of-the-heart” or, in Schelling’s words, “a prominent countercultural force,” whose philosophical, religious, social, and literary relevance and implications have become the object of frequent scholarly investigation. Most bhaktas were low-caste men and women who rejected social conventions (caste, family, marriage) and orthodox religion (typically Brahmanic Hinduism) to live an itinerant existence, alone or in a group of similarly minded devotees or followers, in pursuit of a direct communion with a personal deity. Their spiritual quests were often characterized by unconventional looks, provocative performances, and ecstatic outbursts of singing and dancing, and in time gave rise to rich and expansive poetic traditions associated with individual figures of poet-saints. Given the lack of manuscript sources, and the fact that bhakti poems originated and circulated for centuries in oral form and in a number of vernacular languages, modern attempts to trace a nucleus of poems to their presumed authors (i.e., the poet-saints they are commonly associated with), and to separate the authentic from the spurious and the apocryphal, have proved largely unsuccessful.
From the far south of the subcontinent, the spiritual counter-tradition spread north, to Kannada-, Telugu-, and Marathi-speaking areas (corresponding to the modern states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra, respectively), and eventually reaching the Indo-Gangetic Plain, where bhakti poetry fully flourished between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries. By the end of this period, India had started to develop her own literature in English, and it is largely through this imported medium that bhakti poetry started to circulate and to draw attention as a literary form and tradition, both in India and abroad. Starting at the turn of the twentieth century, such an interest has grown steadily since the 1970s, with new studies and translations being published every year, mostly in India and the United States. The past decade alone has produced editions of Antal, Chokhamela, Kabir, Lal Ded, Mirabai, Ramprasad Sen, Surdas, Tukaram, and others; while the current one has started, quite promisingly, with three major works, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Songs of Kabir, Ranjit Hoskote’s I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded, and now The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature, edited by Andrew Schelling.
With only one distant antecedent—John Stratton Hawley’s and Mark Juergensmeyer’s 1988 Songs of the Saints of India, a more scholarly work which focuses on six northern figures—the Oxford anthology is truly the first attempt to chart the field of bhakti poetry in English translation, and to provide a rich and valuable resource for the general reader. It is a task for which Schelling is uniquely qualified. A poet and prize-winning translator of classical Indian poetry, with teaching appointments in the United States (at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics) and India (at Deer Park Institute, Himachal Pradesh), he combines an engaged and insightful perspective with a deep knowledge of the material involved.
Although rich and diverse, such material lends itself to a natural arrangement in four sections—South, West, North, and East—following the geographical progress of bhakti literature across the Indian subcontinent, from sixth-century Tamil poems to contemporary Shakta poetry from Bengal. The first section, largely dominated by A.K. Ramanujan’s scholarship and translations from the Tamil, Kannada, and Telugu, documents the growth of an intensely individual, and acutely physical approach to the divine. “The greatest noticeable shift from classical poems of the Tamil anthologies to the emergence of bhakti,” writes Schelling, “occurs in the stance of the poem’s speaker.” Borrowing themes, situations, and settings from classical poetry, bhakti poets of both genders represent the relationship between devotee and divinity in terms of a passionate and forbidden love affair, typically expressed by a woman’s intense longing for a selfishly absent and unreachable male god. The following verses by the ninth-century Shaivite poet Manikkavacakar contain already most of the typical ingredients of a bhakti poem: the furtive and predacious intervention of the god; the devotee’s submission to his will, characterized by physical and psychological abandon; the ecstatic response of the all-possessed; the erotic imagery of the melting wax and the piercing nail; and the devotee’s ultimate indifference to, and rise above, social norms and bonds:
He grabbed me
lest I go astray.
Wax before an unspent fire,
I bowed, I wept,
danced, and cried aloud,
I sang, and I praised him.
. . . . . . . . . .
Love pierced me
like a nail
driven into a green tree.
. . . . . . . . . .
I left shame behind,
took as an ornament
the mockery of local folk.
We will find similar images and themes again and again in the poems of other female poet-saints like the ninth-century alvar Antal (“Like an arrow / from the bow of his eyebrows / the sidelong glance / of him who destroyed Kamsa / enters my heart, / makes me sore with pain, / weak and worn”), the twelfth-century Virasaiva poet Mahadeviyakka (“Cut through, O Lord, / my heart’s greed, / and show me / your way out, / / O lord white as jasmine”), the fourteenth-century varkari guru Muktabai (“Cast off all shame, / and sell yourself / in the marketplace; / then alone / can you hope / to reach the Lord / . . . / Jani says, My Lord / I have become a slut / to reach Your home”), and the sixteenth-century Rajasthani princess Mirabai (“Dark One, don’t go— / when only cinder remains / rub my ash over your body. / . . . / Listen, friend, / the Dark One laughs / and scours my body with ravenous eyes. / Eyebrows are bows, / darting glances are arrows that pierce / a wrecked heart.”
By the time bhakti reached the Indo-Gangetic Plain, it had incorporated elements of Tantrism and Sufism, and the wealth of esoteric references in the work of Lal Ded (a fourteenth-century yogini from Kashmir), or the caustic comparativism and “upside language” (ulatbansi) of Kabir (a fifteenth-century Muslim-raised weaver from Varanasi) are a proof of such development. Indeed, their complex and diverse religious backgrounds led to their message often being misinterpreted or misunderstood, and their legacy (beginning with their funeral rites and bodily remains, as a number of colorful legends document) being claimed by both Hindus and Muslims.
Moving East (to Bengal and areas corresponding to the modern-day states of Bihar and Orissa), devotional attitudes changed under the influence of the Gita-govinda, Jayadeva’s twelfth-century poem whose subject (the relationship of Krishna and Radha) and composition (in twelve chapters and twenty-four songs) had a huge impact on bhakti poetry. Although written in Sanskrit, the Gita-govinda drew inspiration from folk songs and in turn inspired vernacular poets who composed songs based on the divine love affair. This may be depicted from alternative points of view (Krishna, Radha, a messenger or a girlfriend), and represents a significant change of sensibility from the female “devotee longing for a male god” perspective of previous poets. A further and more significant development occurred under the influence of Shaktism, a major devotional tradition focused on Shakti or Devi, the Hindu Divine Mother. Starting in the second half of the eighteenth century, a wave of popular Shaktism spread throughout eastern India with the love songs of Ramprasad Sen and his followers, Kamalakanta Bhattacharya, Mahendranath Bhattacharya, and Najrul Islam, creating a bhakti tradition that continues to this day.
The final section ends with poems and songs recorded in Bengal in the 1970s. Around the same time, Ramanujan in Chicago, Dilip Chitre and Arun Kolatkar in Bombay, and a few other poets in India and abroad were creating a distinctive poetic idiom in English, bridging tradition (i.e., Indian classical poetry) and innovation (European and North American modernism), and often using translation, particularly of bhakti poetry from various vernacular languages, in new and original ways. The trend set by their pioneering work continued over the following decades and is very much alive today, with new versions published regularly by Indian authors in India and abroad, as well as by non-Indian scholars and poets. Yet the contribution of translation to the growth and renovation of contemporary Indian poetry in English has not been fully explored, assessed, or appreciated yet. A comprehensive and timely work like the Oxford anthology, featuring over thirty poets and as many translators, could have offered a richer and more diversified picture of bhakti poetry in English translation.
Unfortunately, Schelling’s choice of translators is not as inclusive or representative as his selection of poets and poems, and consequently a good opportunity is somehow missed. Of the thirty plus poets featured, only three (Janabai, Kabir, and Ramprasad Sen) are represented by more than one translator, and in a couple of instances the predominance of a particular translator feels oddly reductive. For instance, it is understandable—and to some extent inevitable—that Ramanujan dominates the first section (South), but it is far less clear why the next (West) is almost entirely represented by Dilip Chitre’s translations. While the inclusion of material from Chitre’s unpublished anthology of Marathi bhakti poetry is noteworthy, the section is weakened by the absence of other translators of varkari poetry, particularly Arun Kolatkar, whose tight and snappy versions of Janabai, Namdev, and Tukaram have attained a quasi-legendary status (and whose own reputation as poet in English and Marathi has long surpassed Chitre’s).
Similarly, the next section (North) could have gained from a slightly more catholic selection, particularly in regard to Kabir and Mirabai, arguably northern India’s most popular and beloved poet-saints. Yet both poets are somehow shortchanged, although in different ways. In Mirabai’s case, a selection from Schelling’s own collection, For Love of the Dark One, seems hardly representative of a poet whose work has been translated several times in the past three decades, most notably by A. J. Alston (1980), Hawley and Juergensmeyer (1988), Shama Futehally (1994), and Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfield (2004). As for Kabir, Schelling first identifies the three main literary traditions in which his poems have been preserved, namely “the Guru Granth of the Sikhs in the Punjab, the Pancavani of the Dadu Panth from Rajasthan, and the Kabir Panth of eastern India, for whom the Bijak is scripture;” then switches gears and adopts Charlotte Vaudeville’s distinction between a “western” (i.e., Punjabi and Rajasthani) and an “eastern” tradition, the former typically “softer [and] more emotional,” the latter “fiercer [and] far more confrontational.” (108) Adding that “the ‘softer, more emotional Kabir’ . . . has been well served by American poet Ezra Pound” (a questionable statement to say the least), Schelling includes all ten of Pound’s versions of Kabir (originally published in The Modern Review in June 1913) and a selection from Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh’s 1983 Bījak of Kabir, to represent the western and the eastern traditions, respectively. Next, besides these two textual traditions of Kabir, Schelling adds another one, originating “from a manuscript that emerged in Bengal in the nineteenth century and was translated into English by Rabindranath Tagore and Evelyn Underhill.” Published in 1915, the Tagore-Underhill translation has been “influentially available in England and the United States for a hundred years,” especially after Robert Bly reworked forty-four of the one hundred poems selected by Tagore (whose English he considered “hopeless”) in The Kabir Book, which was published in 1971, reprinted many times, expanded in 2004, and popularized through hundreds of public readings. During one of these events, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1971, a young Indian poet was so impressed by Bly’s achievement that he put aside his own plans of translating Kabir. It took Arvind Krishna Mehrotra exactly forty years to act oedipally (just like Bly had toward Tagore), and to produce his own Songs of Kabir, which came out in the spring of 2011 and is likely to remain the most innovative and provocative English-language Kabir for some time. (The fact that Mehrotra’s versions came out right before Schelling’s anthology does not justify their exclusion from the latter, since a number of them circulated in magazines long before their publication in book form.) Now let’s backtrack for a second and consider the sources of both the Pound and the Tagore translations. The former was admittedly derived “from the English versions of Kali Mohan Ghose,” a young friend of Tagore. As for the latter, according to Underhill’s introduction, “it has been based upon the printed Hindī text with Bengali translation of Mr. Kshiti Mohan Sen; who has gathered from many sources—sometimes from books and manuscripts, sometimes from the lips of wandering ascetics and minstrels—a large collection of poems and hymns to which Kabir’s name is attached, and carefully sifted the authentic songs from the many spurious works now attributed to him.” Kshiti Mohan Sen’s four-part edition was published in 1910–11, and it is the same source Ghose used for his literal versions. This and the fact that Sen’s sources included variant songs from the Bijak, show how the “western,” the “eastern,” and the “received” tradition, as represented by Schelling, are all genetically related, if not hopelessly tangled.
Apart from the choice of translators, the book could have used a more rigorous critical approach, as well as more thorough editing and copyediting; a few entries read as if they were put together hastily. The British religious writer Evelyn Underhill is correctly identified on page 108, but rather surprisingly becomes “the American anthropologist Ruth Underhill” fifteen pages later. The Virasaiva poets are introduced (on page 28) without mention of the fact that their poems were composed in Kannada rather than Tamil. Jayalal Kaul, Lal Ded’s translator, is omitted from the list of translators at the end of the volume, and occasional spelling inconsistencies (e.g., tantrik, Tantric, and tantric on pages 213, 216, and 217, respectively) and typographical errors further detract the reader’s attention from the content of the book. Nonetheless, The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature is a rich and engaging treasure trove; readers interested in the saga of a unique genre of writing should dive into it today.