Bhakti, ultimate form of love

Alka Tyagi’s book, Narada Bhakti Sutra, gets us to rethink Bhakti that inspired the greatest achievements of Indian art and culture for over a millennium

DK Printworld has been doing a commendable job by publishing a series of Indian literary classics. The present book is a welcome addition to the above series.

'Narada Bhakti Sutra' is discursive text on the theme of Bhakti. It is interesting that discursive texts on Bhakti were written in Sanskrit though there was a literal harvest of Bhakti literature in most Indian languages from 7th century onwards. This is not to suggest that Bhakti scholarship belongs to Sanskrit and creativity to other Indian languages, as many Bhakti scholars have mistakenly held. Sanskrit did not lag behind other regional languages in producing remarkable expressions of Bhakti like Kulashekhara Azhwar’s ‘Mukunda Mala’, Acharya Utpala Deva’s ‘Shiva Strotravali’ and Jayadeva’s ‘Gita Govinda’. It is therefore inaccurate to argue that Bhakti creativity belongs to regional languages alone and not to Sanskrit, though Bhakti expressions in other languages far outnumber those in Sanskrit.

Exponents of Bhakti invoke ‘Narada Bhakti Sutra’ as as a seminal text on the nature and purpose of Bhakti. Probably compiled by a scholar in the name of the mythical Vaishnava Bhakti sage Narada in the vicinity of 11th Century, this text discusses the nature, purpose and varieties of Bhakti. The authorities invoked are mythical sages like Shandilya or Parashara but none of the well-known poets of Bhakti either in Sanskrit or in other languages: Utpala Deva, Shankaracharya or any one of the Tamil poets who antedated ‘Narada Bhakti Sutra’. Except in one place, there is no mention of ‘Srimad Bhagavatam’ which was perhaps a highly influential text on Vaishnava Bhakti by the 11th Century. Neither does one find mention of the Gita which had already spoken of Bhakti yoga. This clearly proves that, though ‘Narada Bhakti Sutra’ does introduce us to some of the key concepts of Bhakti, it does not do justice to the richness and variety one finds in the creative expression of Bhakti. Further, as Tyagi points out in her introduction of ‘Narada Bhakti Sutra’ makes no mention of Advaitha Bhakti that informs texts like Acharya Utpala Deva’s ‘Shiva Stotravali.’ The Narada approach to Bhakti is therefore primarily the product of dualism in schools of Vaishnavism. It is therefore a limited version of Bhakti grammar than a comprehensive introduction to Bhakti, perhaps the greatest source of inspiration for Indian imagination for well over a millennium.

The above limitations notwithstanding, Narada emphasises the nature of Bhakti as the ultimate form of love (parama prema), which is likened to the consuming passion of cowherd girls for Krishna. It also emphasises, like Acharya Utpala Deva’s ‘Shiva Stotravali’ that, in Bhakti, the means itself is the end in the sense that it yields fruits instantaneously. The nature of a Bhakti adept is also characterised as one of unalloyed joy.

What is the relationship between Bhakti, on the one hand, and societal norms? Or with scriptural prescriptions? Narada is not very consistent with these aspects. In the early part of the text it calls upon the practitioner to go beyond the scriptural prescriptions. The same point is made towards the end. But in the middle of the text, Narada enjoins that Bhakti needs to adhere to scriptures. What does one make of this? Tyagi relates this to the stages of Bhakti but it is not quite convincing.

Let us step out of Bhakti Sutra and address this question in the overall context of Indian Bhakti. Some exponents of Bhakti have emphasised defiant and deviant characteristics of Bhakti. One does find lots of quotes from the rich repertoire of Bhakti expressions to this effect. Narada himself, after declaring that Bhakti is comparable to the attitude of cowherd girls of Vraj (vraja gopikaaanaam’ in sutra 21). The next sutra says that Vraja cowherd girls remember Krishna uninterruptedly.

‘Without this, it is like illicit love’ ( tadvhinam jaranamiva) says the next sutra.Elsewhere, Narada compares Bhakti to the single-minded love of a true wife to her husband. The same kind of vacillation can be seen in Bhakti expressions. At times Bhakti is likened to illicit love. Akkamahadevi, one of the greatest Bhakti poets, says in a vachana (translated by the columnist) of hers:

My mother-in-law is Maya

My father-in-law law, a worldling

Three brothers-law are tigers

Listen friend, four sisters-in-law I have

No gods are taking away brothers-in-law

I cannot defy five sisters-in-law

O mother, seven slaves are my guards

I tore apart the mouth of my husband, karma,

And committed harlotry with Hara

Thanks to the blessings of my mind, my friend,

I learnt the mystic wisdom from Shiva

And made the most handsome

Channa Mallikarjuna, my virtuous husband

In the light of seemingly inconsistent statements in Narada and Akka, one can infer, unlike scholars like A.K. Ramanujan, who are too ready to see social defiance in Bhakti or like scholarly defendants of patriarchal values that Bhakti is neither pro or anti-system. It is independent of both. This is the dialectics involved in the way Akka makes her paramour her husband in the vachana quoted above.

The ambivalent approach to social norms, particularly patriarchic institutions of marriage, is everywhere in Bhakti expressions.

Recent scholarship on woman Bhaktas has highlighted the role of Bhakti as being antithetical to marriage, while expounding works of poets like Akka and Mira. But Bhakti tradition has also woman Bhaktas who, without walking out of their homes, stayed within marriage and transformed it into a non-patrairchic context. Such Bhaktas are exemplified by Basavanna's wife Neelambike who described herself as Basavanna's 'thinking wife' ( vichara patni).

The editor and translator, Alka Tyagi, deserves our thanks for producing an eminently readable version of a key text of Indian culture, which invites us to rethink Bhakti that inspired the greatest achievements of Indian art and culture for over a millennium.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 6:42:27 AM |

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