Literary Review

Livin’ on a prayer

Eating God: A book of Bhakti Poetry edited by Arundhathi Subramaniam  

Most of us have a complex relationship with God. One element of this relationship — the devotion of man to God or of God to man because both need each other to survive — is what is explored most extensively in Eating God: A Book Of Bhakti Poetry.

Edited by Arundhathi Subramaniam, this book brings together translations of poems from various bhakti movements in India from the eighth century to the 18th. As Subramaniam’s extremely well-researched, personal and stirring introduction says, the condition of ‘bhakti’ is the presence of “something fragile, urgent, moltenly alive”.

But perhaps it is the bhakta or the spiritual vagabond seeking God who is the most fascinating. As poet, scholar and Bhakti poetry translator, A.K. Ramanujan says (from the introduction), a bhakta “is not content to worship god in word and ritual… he needs to possess him and be possessed by him.” And it is this extreme state of being that makes the devotee address God using every unimaginable tone otherwise not permitted. Lust, eroticism, rage, humour, rebuke, irony, protest, melancholy are all part of this condition.

The anthology gives us an opportunity to ‘listen’ to what Subramaniam calls the “sacred pop songs” of Kabir, Mirabai, Lal Ded, Nammalvar, Tukaram, Andal, Akka Mahadevi, Basavanna, Chandidas and many more, translated by poets like Ramanujan, A.K. Mehrotra, Dilip Chitre, Gieve Patel, Rahul Soni, Ranjit Hoskote, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Priya Sarukkai and so on.

Subramaniam does not arrange these poems chronologically, nor does she use any conventional sense of structure. What we see is a set of sections that rise and fall with the emotions of the bhakta as she/he is consumed by the devotion. The section titles are lines from various poems, each attempting to describe a facet of the unsentimental and unsympathetic mad devotion.

The first one, for instance, is ‘Only someone struck by it knows the pain — That Strange Disease Called Bhakti’. The line is from Kabir, the 15 century Indian mystic poet, translated by A.K. Mehrotra: “Like a sharp arrow/ Is the love of Rama./ Only someone struck by it/ Knows the pain.”

The eroticism present in many of the poems is established right in this first section when Akka Mahadevi (12th century mystic poet), translated by Ramanujan, says of her longing for the Lord: “Better than meeting/ and mating all the time/ is the pleasure of mating once/ after being far apart.”

In ‘The Body The Shrine’, the body is the recurring theme and some powerful lines hit us. Devara Dasimayya (translated by H. S. Shivaprakash), the 10 century mystic and an early vachana poet of the Sharana movement in Karnataka, says: “The man with a body grows hungry/ The man with a body tells lies/ Do not tease me,/ The man with a body/ Just once/ Take on a body like mine/ And see for yourself, O Ramanatha.”

But the poem that shone the most in this section was by Soyarabai (a 14th century Marathi woman saint-poet from the Varkari cult) translated by Jerry Pinto and Neela Bhagwat: “…If menstrual blood makes me impure,/ Tell me who was not born of that blood./ This blood of mine fertilises the world./ …That’s why I praise only Panduranga,/ Who lives in every body, pure, impure.”

The madness of devotion becomes most apparent when it takes over your senses and you are willing to eat another being — even God. In ‘Feed Them to the Kitchen Fires’, Nammalvar (translated by Ramanujan), considered the greatest of the 12 alwars or Tamil poets in the Vaishnava tradition, addresses God as his Lord, his cannibal.

The tone turns into rage in the section, ‘I Will Not Utter Your Name Again’. Salabega (translated by Prabhanjan Mishra), the Oriya Bhakti poet, calls God a “dirty flirt” and asks him to get lost. And then, Namdev (translated by Dilip Chitre), says to God, “Shame on you! You have no pedigree!/ You are casteless!/ You are a thief!/ You are the son of a whore,/ As everyone knows!”

The book ends pertinently with the section, ‘We Have Slain Each Other — Liberation’. Tukaram’s haunting lines close the collection: “…I have squandered my whole life after him./ Now I would like to sit still.” God and his devotee are one with each other. Or are they?

As Subramaniam points out in the introduction, what is inspiring about these poems is that they tell us that at times when we felt homeless, desolate, dislocated or despairing, we were not abandoned. Nothing can be more reassuring than this during these days of disquiet.


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Printable version | Nov 26, 2021 2:27:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/eating-god-a-book-of-bhakti-poetry-book-review/article6552397.ece

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