To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, August 3, 2009

Outsider Poems, A Mini-Anthology in Progress (4): Bhakti Poems by Lal Ded

Translation from Kashmiri with commentary by Andrew Schelling


The poems of the bhakti tradition began to take shape in India during the eighth or ninth centuries. We can document the names of hundreds, if not thousands, of singers. Those singer-poets were often members of the old excluded orders of India’s political or social hierarchies, and their appearance caused upheavals in families and clans. At times, revolutions spread across whole kingdoms in the wake of bhakti. Driven by spiritual hunger, a fierce desire for religious freedom, and long-simmering demands for social equality, bhakti poets came forth in dozens of dialects. …

There is an essay by Kenneth Rexroth in which he defined the “counterculture” as “those people who live by the tenets of lyric poetry.” What sets the poets of bhakti apart from classical Sanskrit or Tamil writers—making them a significant counterculture force—is their resolve to match life and poetry: to live by what they sing, no matter the stakes. Some bhakti poets gathered around themselves “communities of dissent” in their own lifetimes. As much as they drew from the traditions of India—both the so-called Great and the so-called Little Traditions—every act given speech in their poems was designed to shatter those fetters of belief that could limit the intensity of experience. …

Bhakti poetry occurs at the confluence of Sanskrit with India’s vernacular traditions. It also exceeds the reach of either. Its first singular emergence—the point at which most scholars name the appearance of something radically new—occurred in Tamilnadu, around the eight or ninth centuries. … The new vision drew on pan-Indian themes, collecting inspiration from Sanskrit tradition, local vernacular cultures, and classical Tamil literature, though in many ways its impulse was subversive of each of these. Bhakti and the poems that convey its passions are, in A.K. Ramanujan’s words, deliberately “anti-tradition.” … The principal poets who come down to us look wild, untutored, often quite mad from the standpoint of conventional social norms. Try to generalize about their beliefs, and some hectoring poet will show up with a contradictory phrase, a puzzling stanza, or a swift image that confounds any earlier assumption.


Almost certainly Lal Ded was born in the early 1300s in Kashmir, of Hindu parents. Her vaakh (verses, sayings), suggest an early education in her father’s house and eventual marriage into a Brahmin family of Pampor, where she was cruelly treated by her mother in law. She took to visiting the nearby river early each morning, crossing it to secretly worship Nata Keshava Bhairava, a form of Siva. Her mother in law suspected her of infidelity, rivers in Indian lore being invariably the site of clandestine trysts. One day when she returned with a pot of water on her head her husband in a fit of rage struck it with a staff. The crock shattered but the water remained “frozen” in place until Lalla had filled the household containers. The remaining water she tossed out the door where it formed a miraculous lake, said to exist in the early 20th century, but dry today.

Word of her miracles spread. Crowds came to take darshan with her, violating her love of solitude, and at some point she left the house of her in-laws to take up the homeless life. Legend has it she wandered naked, singing and dancing in ecstasy like the “Hebrew nabis of old and the more modern Dervishes,” as one Muslim chronicler tells it. Muslim chronicles are full of her encounters with their holy men, and Hindu texts speak of gurus. It’s likely she regarded Siddha Shrikantha, a Saivite, as her teacher, and one of her vaakh begins—

My guru gave a single precept:
draw your gaze from outside to inside
and fix on the inner self.
I, Lalla, took this to heart,
and naked set forth to dance—

She became known as a Saivite yogini, and in her vaakh calls herself Lalla. Tales of her insight and magical powers outstripping those of her teachers circulated, though no records of her appear until centuries after her death. Even her death was a miraculous disappearance, when she dramatically climbed into an earthen pot, pulled another pot over herself, and vanished forever. In her day Kashmir held Buddhists, Nath yogins, Muslims, and Brahmin teachers, all of whom may have influenced her. The likelihood, though, from her own songs, is that she remained devoted to nila-kantha, Siva, “the blue-throated god.”

[Some poems follow.]

Beneath you yawns a pit.
How can you dance over it,
how can you gather belongings?
There’s nothing you can take with you.
How can you even
savor food or drink?


I have seen an educated man starve,
a leaf blown off by bitter wind.
Once I saw a thoughtless fool
beat his cook.
Lalla has been waiting
for the allure of the world
to fall away.


Ocean and the mind are alike.
Under the ocean
flames vadvagni, the world-destroying fire.
In man’s heart twists the
flame of rage.
When that one bursts forth,
its searing words of wrath and abuse
scorch everything.
If you weigh the words
calmly, though, imperturbably,
you’ll see they have no substance,
no weight.


It provides your body clothes.
It wards off the cold.
It needs only scrub & water to survive.
Who instructed you, O brahmin,
to cut this sheep’s throat—
to placate a lifeless stone?


I might scatter the southern clouds,
drain the sea, or cure someone
hopelessly ill.
But to change the mind
of a fool
is beyond me.


I came by the public road
but won’t return on it.
On the embankment I stand, halfway
through the journey.
Day is gone. Night has fallen.
I dig in my pockets but can’t find a
cowrie shell.
What can I pay for the ferry?


The god is stone.
The temple is stone.
Top to bottom everything’s stone.
What are you praying to,
learned man?
Can you harmonize
your five bodily breaths
with the mind?


You are the earth, the sky,
the air, the day, the night.
You are the grain
the sandalwood paste
the water, flowers, and all else.
What could I possibly bring
as an offering?


Solitary, I roamed the extent of Space,
leaving calculation behind.
The place of the hidden Self
opened and suddenly
out of the filth
bloomed a lotus.


O Blue-Throated God
I have the same six constituents as you,
yet separate from you
I’m miserable.
Here’s the difference—
you have mastered the six
I’ve been robbed by them.

[The six kancukas, “husks” or “coverings” of existence in Kashmir Saivism: appearance, form, time, knowledge, passion, fate.]


I, Lalla, entered
the gate of the mind’s garden and saw
Siva united with Sakti.
I was immersed in the lake of undying bliss.
Here, in this lifetime,
I’ve been unchained from the wheel
of birth and death.
What can the world do to me?

This selection is from An Anthology of Bhakti Poetry, edited by Andrew Schelling, forthcoming from Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2010. Earlier entries on “outsider poems” as an ongoing anthology project were posted on Poems & Poetics on June 14, July 7, and July 25, 2009. [J.R.]

1 comment:

David Need said...

a bit discouraging that Schelling's historical material is not more critical... dates he gives for Tamil material are the dates for compilation of anthologies, but poets anthologized lived as much as 3 centuries earlier... also, there is a long-standing trope that makes bhakti something of a protest movement modeled on English Romantics... we don't really have the historical material to suggest this--at least not with respect to pre-Muslim era.
I know this he writes for a general audience, but I wonder if this has to mean reiterating sensationalist positioning--even when done by contemporary Indian critics weaving their own geneologies.

David Need