Adorer of the feminine principle

Bharati believed absolutely, not only in the equality, but also, the superiority of the female over the male

Updated - September 28, 2017 05:08 pm IST

Published - September 28, 2017 02:00 pm IST

Illustration by R. Rajesh

Illustration by R. Rajesh

“While I was sitting on the steps of the manadapam by the river, enjoying the Southern breeze, she brought me a poem. My heart overflowing with joy, I accepted it and asked her to marry me; with a smile on her lips, she disappeared...”

Days and nights pass; and then – “A beautiful damsel came and stood in front of me in the garden; looking at her luminous face, I lost myself entirely. She said that her name was Chentiru; since then, I have been haunted by the desire to embrace her to my heart’s content.”

The reader, like the intoxicated poet himself, is beguiled by the beauty of these encounters. But, gradually, we come to understand that Mahakavi Bharati is speaking, not of “maidens” only, but of goddesses — she who is said to reside on the tongue of Brahma and gives eloquence to the poet; she who is responsible for the abundance of life, the wealth of the world and the treasures of the heart. Saraswati and Lakshmi, the Hindu goddesses of knowledge and wealth; but who might be the third “love” of the Poet?

Late at night, a beauteous black form

came before me

I thought it was the form of a virgin

and went near passionately

Lo! It was the Mother,

Mother Parashakti!

This last and most mysterious of encounters, the sudden appearance of Parashakti before the poet’s eyes, is the most astonishing in this series of moving and mysterious meetings between the poet and the divine — the divine specifically in the feminine form of the Goddess. The poem reveals the unique vision of the poet: drawing upon ancient Tamil literature, and inspired by the profound tradition of bhakti, he presumes a relationship of great intimacy with the divine, and one that is specifically made possible through his special adoration of the feminine principle. As noted by his granddaughter, S. Vijaya Bharati, in her commentary on this poem, the encounter with Parashakti, above all, must be characterised as a truly mystical experience.

Mystics in every culture have claimed to “see” visionary events —to witness what no-one can expect to see — to enter a world that we might ordinarily describe as dreamlike or hallucinatory. It is difficult to comment on the experiences that they describe. Science, and the progress of neuroscience in particular, increasingly serves to remind us of the evanescence of our own perceptions. But Bharati was, above all, a dedicatee of truth; he believed that, as a poet, this was his particular duty. While we may not be able to comment on what Bharati “saw,” we can, however, develop a clearer understanding of his visions by looking at their practical corollaries.

In particular, Bharati’s dedication to Shakti was matched by an equally profound, mystical, and visionary dedication to human womanhood. Bharati’s “feminism” deserves emphatic clarification: he believed absolutely, not only in the equality, but also, in a sense, the superiority of the female over the male. In his essay, “The Place of Woman,” Bharati describes womankind as “the civiliser and, therefore, the spiritual superior of man.”

Bharati points out what should probably be obvious — that the “enslavement” of women is rooted in male violence (“For it is the masculine habit…to slay those who do not desire to be enslaved by you”), whereas woman “loved the male too well to think of slaying the latter.”

“Civilisation,” he writes, “is the taming down of man by woman.”

To Bharati, the role of womankind in the construction and preservation of culture could not be more fundamental. Culture is what essentially defines us as human beings and represents our contribution to the cosmos. Bharati argues that women's historical dedication to culture, to the interpretation of its “fables, parables and symbols,” is what enables culture to survive — in the case of India, what allowed Indian culture to maintain its integrity in the face of the “terrific onslaughts” of European colonialism. Indeed, these incantatory tools were the only “weapon” that women could wield in their “work” of civilization. Bharati writes, “Where woman comes, comes Art. And what is Art, if not the effort of humanity towards divinity?”

Women, though historically excluded from many educational, cultural, and spiritual contexts, have nevertheless managed to remain the keepers of what we might call traditional knowledge. This refers, not only to traditions, local culture, and knowledge of the environment, but also, as Bharati points out, to a certain special fluency in the imaginative and visionary capacities of remembrance, myth-making, and celebration, which make gold out of the dross of everyday human experience. In his writings, Bharati repeatedly referred to the great women of Indian history — women like Maitreyi and Gargi, ancient philosophers and composers of Vedic hymns, and Andal, the Tamil poet-saint whose work he even translated into English — as well as recognising and celebrating the immense contributions of Western women, such as Annie Besant and Sister Nivedita, to the Indian national movement.

New woman

Famously, Bharati wrote about his own ideal of a “Pudumai Penn,” a new kind of woman. He visualised her as a leader and a lawmaker and, above all, a free, independent, and fully realised human being. Once again, there was nothing theoretical about these ideas, nor were they based on the glorification of the past at the expense of the present. Rather, Bharati aimed to resurrect whatever was truly glorious — truly egalitarian, in his view – from the past, and give it new life. The pudumai penn that Bharati saw before his own eyes was none other than his wife, Chellamma. A woman who had married at age seven, and was effectively denied all of the benefits of modern education, nevertheless emerged as Bharati’s foremost disciple, understanding the poet’s heart and vision to the core, and virtually memorizing every line of poetry that he wrote. The poet celebrated her in lines of immortal poetry, and praised her as his vision made incarnate. “The loving wife is Shakti herself,” he wrote.

Indeed, if any one incident could be said to lie at the heart of Bharati’s feminism, it would be his encounter with Sister Nivedita. An Irishwoman who had come to India to become a disciple of Swami Vivekananda, Nivedita met Bharati when he was returning from the meeting of the Indian Congress at Calcutta in 1906. In a well-known story related by S. Vijaya Bharati, she asked Bharati why he had not brought his wife with him to engage in political activities, and advised him that it was his duty to do so!

Yet her influence on Bharati was immensely more profound than these words exchanged. Like Dakshinamurthy himself, Sister Nivedita taught Bharati through silence — through the force of her personality, which immediately touched him, appealing to his own visionary sensibility, when he met her. In 1908, he dedicated his national poems ( Swadesa Githangal ) to this “foreigner,” this woman, writing:

“As Lord Krishna revealed his mighty form to Arjuna and explained the state of Atman, the Guru showed me the form of Bharata-Devi in its completeness and taught me to love my country. I dedicate this slender volume at the flower-like feet of my Guru. I dedicate this book to Srimathi Nivedita Devi, the spiritual offspring of Bhagwan Vivekananda, the most excellent of all spiritual teachers. Through silence, she taught me the nature of true service to the Mother, and the greatness of asceticism.”

Bharati’s sense of women’s rights, of their place in society and their contribution to the world, was well thought out, deeply and patiently reasoned, and largely demonstrable with historical and contemporary examples. But, through the alchemy of his poetic gifts, feminism became, not only something that Bharati thought about, but also, something that he lived and experienced. It could be said that the poet who lost his mother at the age of five encountered her anew, in new forms, throughout his life; ultimately, he believed himself to be beloved and nurtured by the Mother of all, Parashakti. His tremendous and unshakable faith in Her, originating in his visionary experiences and sustained by the excellence of his mind, fed his transcendent gifts, and made him deeply joyful in the face of what might otherwise be considered, in crude terms, a life of unending adversity.

Notwithstanding the progress of the past century, everywhere in the world, we are still awaiting Krutha Yugam, the epoch of enlightenment sought by Bharati, where women, half of humanity, will live a free and equal life. For those who celebrate Navaratri, or witness this festival as interested observers, Bharati’s passionate argument stands: let us worship the Goddess, not only in the temple, but also in our homes, and in our hearts.

Bharati’s original poem in Tamil is entitled, “Moonru Kadal.”

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