Ramanujan, A. K.; bAsavaNNa; devara dAsimayyA; mahAdeviyakka; allAma prabhu;
Speaking of Siva [Śiva]
Penguin Classics 1973, 199 pages
topics: | poetry | india-medieval | kannada | translation | bhakti | anthology
At one level, this is a set of well-rendered translations from medieval Kannada devotional poetry (vacanas); at another level it is a tour-de-force presenting the Virashaiva reform movement; it is many of these "little" reform movements that constitute the religious practice of most Hindus today, rather than the Sanskritic texts.
The Virashaiva was an 11th c. bhakti cult from Karnataka inspired by movements in Tamil regions such as Ramanuja's saraNagati (surrender) and the vaishNavism of the sudra saint Nammalvar (see Ramanujan's excellent Hymns for the Drowning). In the words of V. Raghavan (from Theodore M. Bary's Sources of Indian tradition):
"From the Tamil country this movement of saint-singers of philosophical and religious songs in regional languages spread to the Kannada-speaking area, whence the spark was ignited in Maharashtra; then the Hindi-speaking areas took it up and the whole of North india was aflame with this resurgent and fervent faith. " Today this religious movement lives on in the lingaiyats of Karnataka and Andhra, who constitute a large and politically powerful community. They worship Basaveswara (basavaNNa) as their god.
All of us born into "Hindu" households are exposed to any number of diverse strands of religious practice. My grandfather was a liberated individual, the first "B.A." in the family (his father had an I.A. degree from an era where it carried enormous significance). He lived life on "scientific" principles, but such principles can transcend custom only so far. As children in a Bengali brahmin household, we had to be careful about what we touched and where. Bathroom rules were carefully followed - left hand for the bathroom, right hand for meals - and you would see the adults carefully entwining the paite (the sacred thread), about their ear when going inside. But mostly, we had to be careful about the rules of food. At mealtimes, your eating hand as well as any food on your plate was enTho (contaminated), and any contact between it and the serving dish would be complete disaster, contaminating the entire pot, and spoiling the food for everyone. A second form of contamination, shakri, was caused by cooked rice - in some stricter traditions, also wet muRi (puffed rice), or milk and chiRe (rice flakes). Anything contacting enTho or shakri items became contaminated themselves, and strict rules for ritual purification were prescribed. Also, the transmission of enTho / shakri-ness had its own rules - most materials conducted it - wood, metal, etc. The earth did not (presumably it acted as a vast sink, a sort of electrical grounding) - by extension, stone vessels also did not. For this reason, widows (bidhabAs) - who were more particular than others - would eat from stone plates which minimized the chance of contamination. Failure to follow these rules might result in a special purification bath, preferably in the nearby Ganges. These practices vary considerably across religious groups. Among several caste hindus of UP and Bihar, there is a concept of kacchA khAnA which applies to un-fried food such as roti or dAl - these require separate treatment somewhat similar to the bengali shakri practice applied to rice.
As a child, I knew that these practices were particular to our brahmanic household - and even these practices differed between my mother's side of the family and my father's side. These differences may have resulted in a dim perception that these traditions were not the result of any vedic law, but were local variants that evolved over the years. While these have equivalents in other regions of India, some of these norms can be quite different elsewhere. I am not sure I ever knew that what it was that was meant by "Hinduism" (or that other neologism, sanatan dharma), I sort of thought these practices were Hinduism. Similarly the traditions of Durga Puja, which we took to be according to the gospel of ChanDi-purAN, I now realize was a Sanskritized structure composed around the middle of the first millennium AD, and was perhaps part of the process by which a folk mother goddess tradition attained legitimacy (see the chapter on mother worship or shAkta in Gavin Floood's Introduction to Hinduism). When I came across AK Ramanujan's discussion of Virashaivism here, I could immediately relate to the many elements of what I understood to be religious practice as a child. It is closely related to the Vaishnava and bAul tradition - we used to have bAuls who regularly stopped by at the rural homestead announcing their presence with "Mother, alms please" (mA bhikShA den). Indeed, the process of giving alms was institutionalized - there was a special cup with which a measure of rice would be taken from the large tin drum and emptied into their bags, and then they would depart with a mangal hok (may the future be propitious). The Vaishnava tradition was very much a part of the bhakti movement, the earliest rumblings of which came from the Tamil tradition, and were incorporated into the Marathi and Bengal/Orissa bhakti cult converging in the Mathura region around the 16th c. (e.g. see excerpts from David Haberman's introduction to the bhaktirasAmr^tasindhu of Rupa Gosvamin). As a "modern" English-educated Indian seeking to understand his roots, Ramanujan came as a breath of fresh air, one that I could relate to. Unlike the seriousness of Radhakrishnan or Coomaraswamy or Zimmer, Ramanujan dispenses his erudition lightly, and it is indeed a pleasure to read his introduction and the biographies of each saint in this group of four. The elegance of these poems, even when you look at them from the vantage of the 20th century, is striking. A masterly job of translation.
Ramanujan's masterful introduction provides an analysis that draws us into the poems. Consider the world of meaning within this one poem, one of the vacanas of basavaNNa: The rich will make temples for Siva. What shall I, a poor man, do? My legs are pillars, the body the shrine, the head a cupola of gold. Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers, things standing shall fall, but the moving ever shall stay. [basavaNNa poem 820] [opening lines of intro; p.19] In the first reading it appears to be primarily an analogy of the temple with the body - legs as pillars and head a gold cupola; but it turns out that this is a conventional metaphor: The different parts of a temple are named after body parts. The two sides are called the hands or wings, the hasta; a pillar is called a foot, pAda. The top of the temple is the head, shikhara. The shrine, the innermost and the darkest sanctum of the temple, is a garbhagriha, the womb-house. The temple thus carries out in brick and stone the primordial blueprint of the human body. By noting that the temple will fall, but the moving will stay, the poet, who has torn up his thread and abjured caste, considers the lower-caste man who is not admitted entrance into the temple, and argues that his "moving" temple is actually the better one. Ramnujan comments that this dramatizes several of the themes and oppositions characteristic of the protest or 'protestant' movement called Virasaivism.
Thus the poem registers a protest against the value system where only the rich may make temples; South Indian temples enjoyed great patronage from the wealthy, and are indeed richly endowed even today. [p.21] To counter this, basavaNNa says that his body is a temple, which houses within himself the immortal godhead. The last lines reveal an opposition between moving and standing, jangama and sthAvara, a key notion in virashaivism. The jangama man is constantly moving - he has renounced hearth and home, and now wanders across villages, he is a god incarnate. [p.20] A final contrast is between making (first part of the poem) to being (last two parts). What's made will crumble, what's standing will fall; but what is, the living and moving jangama, is immortal.  It is thus that Ramanujan draws us into the debate within Hinduism, between the great traditions (Sanskritic) and the many little ones that are closer to our lives. These debates reflect a period of reformation within Hinduism, associated with names such as Ramanuja and Chaitanya, one of the offshoots of which is the bhakti movement.
The Virasaiva saints - like other bhakti movements - do not believe that religion is something one is born with or into. An orthodox Hindu believes a Hindu is born, not made. With such a belief, there is no place for conversion in Hinduism; a man born to his caste or faith cannot choose and change, nor can others change him. But if he believes in acquiring merit only by living and believing certain things, then there is room for choosing and changing his beliefs. He can then convert and be converted. If, as these saints believed, he also believes that his god is the true god, the only true god, it becomes imperative to convert the misguided and bring light to the benighted. Missions are born. Bhakti religions proselytize, unlike classical Hinduism. Some of the incandescence of Vlrasaiva poetry is the white heat of truth-seeing and truthsaying in a dark deluded world; their monotheism lashes out in an atmosphere of animism and polytheism. (cites Basavanna 558: How can I feel right about a god and Basavanna 563) The crusading militancy at the heart of bhakti makes it double-edged, bisexual, as expressed in poems like I wear these men's clothes
Many years back, I had come across a very brief description of Basavanna in Romila Thapar's History of India, The Lingayata or Virashaiva sect which emerged in the twelfth century with characteristics of a reform movement... The founder Basavaraja, an apostate Jaina, had a certain cynical strain which lent sharpness to the point he wished to make. The lamb brought to the slaughter-house eats the leaf garland with which it is decorated ... the frog caught in the mouth of the snake desires to swallow the fly flying near its mouth. So is our life. The man condemned to die eats milk and ghee. ... When they see a serpent caged in stone they pour milk on it: if a real serpent comes they say, Kill. Kill. To the servant of God who could eat if served they say, Go away, Go away; but to the image of God which cannot eat they offer dishes of food. [p.216, quotes from Theodore M. Bary's Sources of Indian tradition) Ramanuja disagreed with Shankara's theory that knowledge was the primary means of salvation. According to Ramanuja it was merely one of the means and was not nearly as effective or reliable as pure devotion, giving oneself up entirely to God. ... it was essentially a personal relationship based on Love. The emphasis on the individual in this relationship carried almost a protestant flavour. [p.217] Ramanuja, whilst accepting special privileges for the higher castes, was nevertheless opposed to the excluding of shudras from worship in the temple. He pleaded for the throwing open of temples to shudras, but without much success. ... Although the temples were not opened to the shudras, the deities and rituals of a vast number of subsidiary cults crept into the temple. [p.218] This description stayed with me, for I started developing a theory that in every religion, there comes a time, perhaps a millennium or more into its history, when its orthodoxy becomes too rigid, and encounters a severe challenge. This is how religions change. For Christians it happened with the reformation, for Buddhism it was the Mahayana schism. For the religions of india (call it hinduism) it was first the heterodox challenge, and then the bhakti movement. Often the protest overthrows the rule of an authority, and looks upon God, and salvation, as an individual enterprise. Possibly the sufi cult that developed in islam represents its transitional phase.
In Ramanujan I encountered the terms "little tradition" and "great tradition" (from Robert Redfield and Milton Singer, c.1954); the great tradition that was inter-regional, Sanskrit, and the little traditions that were regional, carried by the regional languages. Also historicity: ancient / modern traditions; classical and folk or high/low traditions. But these categories do not quite hold -- even the great tradition is hardly monolithic. Considrable intermingling takes place with folk traditions seeking to legitimize themselves through sanskritization (e.g. the Puranas), and texts in the great tradition incorporating folk aspects, e.g. epics like the Mahabharata, which then returns to the folk tradition in diffused and diffracted forms. This tradition of interactions between the formal and the folk, the great and the little, is captured by this parable of transposed heads: A sage's wife, mAriamma, was sentenced by her husband to death. At the moment of execution, she embraced an outcaste woman, Ellamma, for sympathy. In the fray both the brahmin and outcaste woman lost their heads. Later, the husband relented, granted them pardon and restored their heads by his spiritual powers. However, the heads got transposed. To mAriamma, (brahmin head w outcaste body) goats and cocks but not buffalos were sacrificed; to Ellamma buffaloes. Ramanujan suggests that the parable could well stand for the mixing of the great and little traditions. [NOTE: It is the head that determines the identity; the seat of the soul in the head was recognized even in ancient times. ]
Other key Virasaiva notions are the rejection of caste, even gender: Look here, dear fellow; I wear these men's clothes only for you. Sometimes I am man, sometimes I am woman. O lord of the meeting rivers I'll make war for you but I'll be your devotees' bride. [basavaNNa 703] or we have this from Dasimayya: If they see breasts and long hair coming they call it woman, if beard and whiskers they call it man: but, look, the self that hovers in between is neither man nor woman O rAmanAtha [Dasimayya 133]
Virashaivism started by rejecting the performance aspects of traditional religious practice, relying instead on a direct, intimately personal notion of God. Here's a poem mocking ritual genuflection to the deity: See-saw watermills bow their heads. So what? Do they get to be devotees to the Master? The tongs join hands. So what? Can they be humble in service to the Lord? Parrots recite. So what? Can they read the Lord? How can the slaves of the Bodiless God, Desire, know the way our Lord's Men move or the stance of their standing? [basavaNNa 125] Another poem suggests that rituals associating propitious times (like the full moon), or sacred venues (like Benares) are useless: To the utterly at-one with Siva there's no dawn, no new moon, no noonday, nor equinoxes, nor sunsets, nor full moons; his front yard is the true Benares, O rAmanAtha ['''Dasimayya 98] Later however, separate rituals developed within Virashaivism - the word lingAyat (literally, carrying a linga), means that from birth onwards, the a small linga is tied to his body. (app 2, p. 179) Another tenet of virashaivism is the glorification of achievement. The saints are drawn from every social class, caste and trade, touchable and untouchable - from kings and ministers to manual workers - lanndrymen, boatmen, leatherworkers. Such collapsing of classes and occupations in the new community of saints and saints-to-be, however short-lived, led to Virashaiva slogans like kAyakavE kailAsa (BasavaNNa), 'Work is heaven', 'to work is to be in the Lord's Kingdom'. KAyaka could also mean the work of ritual or other worship; here I think it means 'labour, work'. Furthermore, in the new community, instead of the multiple networks of normal social relationships, we have face-to-face dyadic relations with each other, with the guru, especially with God. Such dyads are symbolized by intimate relationships: lover/beloved, father/son, mother/child, whore/customer, master/man (e.g., BasavaNNa 62, 70,97 etc.). p. 35 This glorification of work is why Dasimayya was enjoined to become a weaver.
AKR gives this "generally accepted version" of his life (p.61): A brahmin by birth, Basavanna had become devoted to Shiva by age 16. He then left home and went to Kappadisangama where three rivers meet, a site associated with Shiva, kURalasaMgamadeva, the "lord of the meeting rivers" of his poems. He eventually was given a personal linga consecrated by Shiva himself. He returned to Kalyan (now a suburb N of Mumbai), entered the kings service, became his treasurer, and initiated a society for Shiva worship, which became the Virashaivas. He tore up his sacred threads, and opposed all caste distinctions in the community. A marriage between an erstwhile brahmin girl to an ex-outcaste man resulted in confrontation. It appears that Basavanna was advocating non-violence, but this did not hold and he left the capital to return to Kappadisangama, where he soon died. Eventually the king was killed in the violence. Today the Lingayats number approximately one in six in the state of Karnataka, and are a powerful political community. The first poem below merges the conventional metaphor of the world as a raging sea (saMsArasAgara) with the drowning-in-water metaphor.
p. 67 Look, the world, in a swell of waves, is beating upon my face. Why should it rise to my heart, tell me. O tell me, why is it rising to my throat? Lord, how can I tell you anything when it is risen high over my head lord lord listen to my cries O lord of the meeting rivers listen.
p. 67 I added day by day a digit of light like the moon. The python-world, omnivorous Rahu, devoured me. Today my body is in eclipse. When is the release, O lord of the meeting riven?
p. 68 Father, in my ignorance you brought me through mothers’ wombs through unlikely worlds. Was it wrong just to be born, O Lord ? Have mercy on me for being born once before. I give you my word, lord of the meeting rivers, never to be born again.
p. 68 Like a monkey on a tree it leaps from branch to branch : how can I believe or trust this burning thing, this heart ? it will not let me go to my Father, my lord of the meeting rivers.
p.70 Cripple me, father, that I may not go here and there. Blind me, father, that I may not look at this and that. Deafen me, father, that I may not hear anything else. Keep me at your men’s feet looking for nothing else, O lord of the meeting rivers. AKR on this poem: about the distractions of a worldling, struggling for oneness with the Lord. This struggle is related to the yogic ideal of 'stilling the waves of the mind', reducing the distractions of the senses. Keep me at your men’s feet: "your men" is sarana, a Vira5aiva technical term, literally 'the ones who have surrendered (to god)'. [or "sought refuge"]
p.71 As a mothers runs close behind her child with his hand on a cobra or a fire, the lord of the meeting rivers stays with me every step of the way and looks after me.
p.72 The master of the house, is he at home, or isn’t he? Grass on the threshold, Dirt in the house, The master of the house, is he at home, or isn’t he? Lies in the body, Lust in the heart, No, the master of the house is not at home, Our lord of the meeting rivers.
p.74 A snake-charmer and his noseless wife, snake in hand, walk carefully trying to read omens for a son’s wedding. But they meet head-on a noseless woman and her snake-charming husband And cry “the omens are bad!” His own wife has no nose, there’s a snake in his hand. what shall I call such fools who do not know themselves and see only the others, O lord of the meeting rivers!
p.76 See-saw watermills bow their heads. So what? Do they get to be devotees to the Master? The tongs join hands. So what? Can they be humble in service to the Lord? Parrots recite. So what? Can they read the Lord? How can the slaves of the Bodiless God, Desire, know the way our Lord's Men move or the stance of their standing?
p.76 The sacrificial lamb brought for the festival ate up the green leaf brought for the decorations Not knowing a thing about the kill, it wants only to fill its belly: born that day, to die that day. But tell me: did the killers survive, O lord of the meeting rivers?
p.77 You can make them talk if the serpent has stung them. You can make them talk if they’re struck by an evil planet. But you can’t make them talk if they’re struck dumb by riches. Yet when Poverty the magician Enters, they’ll speak at once, O lord of the meeting rivers.
p.77 The crookedness of the serpent is straight enough for the snake-hole. The crookedness of the river is straight enough for the sea. And the crookedness of our Lord's men is straight enough for our Lord!
p.78 Before the grey reaches the cheek, the wrinkle the rounded chin, and the body becomes a cage of bones: Before with fallen teeth and bent back you are someone else’s ward: before you drop your hand to the knee and clutch a staff: before age corrodes your form: before death touches you! worship our lord of the meeting rivers! b468
p.81 I drink the water we wash your feet with, I eat the food of worship, and say it’s yours, everything, goods, life, honour: he’s really the whore who takes every last bit of her night’s wages, and will take no words for payment, he, my lord of meeting rivers! [nindA-stuti:] The god as an intimate, can also be insulted with invective; this is known as nindA-stuti (praise by vilification). Here he is being called a whore. The first two lines refer to the Virashaiva practice of pAdodaka, drinking the water from washing the guru's (jangama's) feet; and prasAda, eating of food he has touched.
p.82 I don't know anything like time-beats and metre nor the arithmetic of strings and drums; I don't know the count of iamb or dactyl. My lord of the meeting rivers as nothing will hurt you I'll sing as I love.
p.82 Feet will dance, eyes will see, tongue will sing, and not find content. What else, what else shall I do? I worship with my hands, the heart is not content. What else shall I do? Listen, my lord, it isn't enough. I have it in me to cleave thy belly and enter thee O lord of the meeting rivers!
p.83 Make of my body the beam of the lute of my head the sounding gourd of my nerves the strings of my fingers the plucking rods. Clutch me close and play your thirty-two songs O lord of the meeting rivers!
p.84 How can I feel right about a god who eats up lacquer and melts, who wilts when he sees fire? How can I feel right about gods you sell in your need, and gods you bury for fear of thieves? The lord of the meeting rivers, self-born, one with himself, he alone is the true god.
p.85 In a brahmin house where they feed the fire as a god when the fire goes wild and burns the house they splash on it the water of the gutter and the dust of the street, beat their breasts and call the crowd. These men then forget their worship and scold their fire, O lord of the meeting rivers!
p. 86 He’ll grind till you’re fine and small, He’ll file till your color shows. If your grain grows fine in the grinding, if you show color in the filing, Then our lord of the meeting rivers will love you and look after you.
p.88 The rich will make temples for Siva What shall I, a poor man, do? My legs are pillars, the body the shrine, the head a cupola of gold. Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers, things standing shall fall, but the moving ever shall stay. [tr. A.K. Ramanujan] [the low-caste man has no temple, but he knows that god lives not in the perishable stone but in his heart. The metaphor of the temple and the body is deeply entrenched; see the elegant analysis by translator A.K. Ramanujan in Speaking of Siva ) original poem in kannada: ಉಳ್ಳವರು ಶಿವಾಲಯ ಮಾಡುವರು ನಾನೇನು ಮಾಡಲಿ ಬಡವನಯ್ಯಾ ಎನ್ನ ಕಾಲೇ ಕಂಬ, ದೇಹವೇ ದೇಗುಲ, ಶಿರವೇ ಹೊನ್ನ ಕಳಸವಯ್ಯಾ ಕೂಡಲಸಂಗಮದೇವಾ ಕೇಳಯ್ಯಾ, ಸ್ಥಾವರಕ್ಕಳಿವುಂಟು ಜಂಗಮಕ್ಕಳಿವಿಲ್ಲ, uLLavaru shiválaya máduvaru nánénu mádali badavanayyá enna kále kambha dehavé degula shiravé honna kaLashavayyá kúdala sangama devá keLayya sthavarakkaLivunTu jangamakaLivilla the song is sung by S.P. Balasubramainiam in the movie _Kranthiyogi Basavanna_ (1983), based on Basava's life. Here is the song from youtube
In the lost wax method for casting, a detailed "lacquer" or beeswax model is sculpted, and then embedded in a clay mould. Later, when metal is poured in, the wax evaporates, and metal fills in the space. The Chola bronzes were made through the lost wax method, which was also exported to Cambodia and other cultures (see Romila Thapar's History of India, p. 219) In a footnote Ramanujan suggests that the above poem may be the earliest reference to this method. Poem 686 may be dealing with the process of cleaning the cast metal. Chola bronze Nataraja (lost wax process): 12-14 c.
[the name is literally "God's dAsimayya"] Possibly predates Basavanna, who makes admiring references to him. Was a weaver, from the village of mudanUru, which has a temple devoted to Shiva as worshipped by Rama, hence "rAmanAtha", rAma's lord. Miracles associated with him, like the conversion of a Jaina king, may reflect conflicts with Jainism.
You balanced the globe on the waters and kept it from melting away, you made the sky stand without pillar or prop. O rAmanAtha which gods could have done this?
A man filled grain in a tattered sack and walked all night fearing the toll-gates but the grain went through the tatters and all he got was the gunny sack. It is thus with the devotion of the faint-hearted O rAmanAtha.
The five elements have become one. The sun and the moon, O Rider of the Bull, aren't they really your body? I stand, look on, you're filled with the worlds. What can I hurt now after this, Ramanatha
For your devotees I shall be bullock; for your devotees I shall be menial, slave and watchdog at the door: Maker of all things, for men who raise their hands in your worship I shall be the fence of thorns on their backyard O rAmanAtha.
The earth is your gift the growing grain your gift the blowing wind your gift. What shall I call these curs who eat out of your hand and praise everyone else?
Whatever it was that made this earth the base, the world its life, the wind its pillar, arranged the lotus and the moon, and covered it all with folds of sky with Itself inside, to that Mystery indifferent to differences, to It I pray, O rAmanAtha
What does it matter if the fox roams all over the Jambu island? Will he ever stand amazed in meditation of the Lord? Does it matter if he wanders all over the globe and bathes in a million rivers? A pilgrim who’s not one with you, Ramanatha, roams the world like a circus man.
To the utterly at-one with Siva there’s no dawn, no new moon, no noonday, nor equinoxes, nor sunsets, nor full moons; his front yard is the true Benares, O Ramanatha. [Note: i.e. ritual times, or ritual places have no significance]
I'm the one who has the body, you're the one who holds the breath. You know the secret of my body, I know the secret of your breath. That's why your body is in mine. You know and I know, Ramanatha, the miracle of your breath in my body.
Fire can burn but cannot move. Wind can move but cannot burn. Till fire joins wind it cannot take a step. Do men know it’s like that with knowing and doing?
Suppose you cut a tall bamboo in two; make the bottom piece a woman, the head piece a man; rub them together till they kindle: tell me now, the fire that's born, is it male or female, O rAmanAtha?
If they see breasts and long hair coming they call it woman, if beard and whiskers they call it man: but, look, the self that hovers in between is neither man nor woman O rAmanAtha [p.110]
Mahadeviyakka is the only woman among these Virashaiva saints. Since the age of ten, Mahadeviyakka betrothed herself to Shiva and none other, though human lovers also desired her, including the king (or a chieftain), whom she may have married. She is often referred to as akka, elder sister. Her verse is unique in that she calls Shiva her lover and spouse. She reportedly left her home to wander around with some saints, often clothing herself only in her long hair. Her signature line or ankita: mallikarjuna: "Lord White as Jasmine" is (mallikA = jasmine, arjuna=lord) can also mean, arjuna, lord of goddess mallikA. This is said to have been the form of Shiva in the temple of her village. cennamallikArjuna: beautiful mallikArjuna.
Like treasure hidden in the ground taste in the fruit gold in the rock oil in the seed the Absolute hidden away in the heart no one can know the ways of our lord white as jasmine.
My body is dirt, my spirit is space: which shall I grab, O lord? How, and what, shall I think of you? Cut through my illusions, lord white as jasmine.
Like a silkworm weaving her house with love from her marrow, and dying in her body’s threads winding tight, round and round, I burn desiring what the heart desires. Cut through, O lord, my heart’s greed, and show me your way out, O lord white as jasmine.
When I didn't know myself where were you? Like the colour in the gold, you were in me. I saw in you, lord white as jasmine, the paradox of your being in me without showing a limb.
If sparks fly I shall think my thirst and hunger quelled. If the skies tear down I shall think them pouring for my bath. If a hillside slide on me I shall think it flower for my hair. O lord white as jasmine, if my head falls from my shoulders I shall think it your offering.
Four parts of the day [Four jAvas, 1 jAva ~= 3 hours] I grieve for you. Four parts of the night I’m mad for you. I lie lost sick for you, night and day, O lord white as jasmine. Since your love was planted, I’ve forgotten hunger, thirst, and sleep.
What's to come tomorrow let it come today. What's to come today let it come right now. Lord white as jasmine, don't give us your nows and thens!
Sunlight made visible the whole length of a sky, movement of wind, leaf, flower, all six colours on tree, bush and creeper: all this is the day's worship. The light of moon, star and fire, lightnings and all things that go by the name of light are the night's worship. Night and day in your worship I forget myself O lord white as jasmine.
Why do I need this dummy of a dying world? Illusion’s chamberpot, hasty passions’ whorehouse, this crackpot and leaky basement? Fingers may squeeze the fig to feel it, yet not choose to eat it. Take me, flaws and all, O lord White as jasmine.
I love the Handsome One: he has no death decay nor form no place or side no end nor birthmarks. I love him, O Mother. Listen. I love the Beautiful One with no bond nor fear no clan no land no landmarks for his beauty So my lord, white as jasmine, is my husband Take these husbands who die, decay, and feed them to your kitchen fires
You can confiscate money in hand; can you confiscate the body's glory? Or peel away every strip you wear, but can you peel the Nothing, the Nakedness that covers and veils? To the shameless girl wearing the White Jasmine Lord's light of morning, you fool, where is the need for skirts and jewels? p.129
Look here, the legs are two wheels; the body is a wagon full of things Five men drive the wagon and one man is not like another. Unless you ride it in full knowledge of its ways the axle will break O Lord of Caves [Footnote: Five men = five senses]
If mountains shiver in the cold with what will they wrap them? If space goes naked with what shall they clothe it? If the lord's men become worldlings where will I find the metaphor? O Lord of Caves -- [Alternate version, from Subramanian, V.K. (2005). Sacred Songs of India- Vol VI, p.219]: If the mountain feels cold, What will they cover it with? If the fields are naked, what will they clothe them with? If the devotee is wordly, what will they compare him with? O! Lord of the caves!
With a whole temple in this body where's the need for another? No one asked for two. O Lord of the Caves, if you are stone, what am I?
When the toad swallowed the sky, look, Rahu the serpent mounted and wonder of wonders! the blind man caught the snake. Thus, O Lord, I learned without telling the world. [Footnote p.197: describes the process of bhakti yoga. When the soul (sky) awakens at the highest chakra (toad), the other centers onm the serpent-path (Rahu) are also awakened. The blind man is the devotee, who can achieve this ecstatic state purely through devotion.]
If it rains fire you have to be as the water; if it is a deluge of water you have to be as the wind; if it is the Great Flood, you have to be as the sky; and if it is the Very Last Flood of all the worlds, you have to give up self and become the Lord.
Light devoured darkness. I was alone inside. Shedding the visible dark I was Your target O Lord of Caves.
Whoever knew that It is body of body, breath of breath and feeling of feeling? Thinking that it's far, it's near it's out here and in there, they tire themselves out. [p.166]
For all their search they cannot see the image in the mirror. It blazes in the circles between the eyebrows. Who knows this has the Lord.
Feed the poor tell the truth make water-places for the thirsty and build tanks for a town - you may then go to heaven after death, but you’ll get nowhere near the truth of Our Lord. And the man who knows Our Lord, he gets no results.
Looking for your light, I went out: it was like the sudden dawn of a million million suns, a ganglion of lightnings for my wonder. O Lord of Caves, if you are light, there can be no metaphor.
The necessity of hyphens - Among many people, in many places The Hindu, May 2004 Having spent many years of his life in the department of south Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago, A.K. Ramanujan liked to describe himself as the hyphen in “Indian-American”. Re-reading the work of this poet, translator and curator of folklore, it strikes me that Ramanujan is also a hyphen, that valuable go-between, among Indians. I first encountered Ramanujan’s work when I was an ignorant but earnest seventeen-year-old college student in Mumbai. Day after day my well-meaning teachers helped me negotiate a world of literature and culture where all the practitioners were white, preferably English. Nothing was “lost in translation” because translators were, for all practical purposes, an unknown species. Anything beyond the prescribed literary canon I came across was by accident. A friendly teacher introduced me to Kawabata, Kafka, Camus and Dostoyevsky; the college library to some dusty, neglected volumes of Tagore. The rest came in serendipitous bits and pieces in bookshops that offered discounts to poor but greedy students. It was around this time that a friend, Semine, gave me a copy of A.K. Ramanujan’s Speaking of Siva. She wrote on the flyleaf, “Maybe these vachanas will inspire you to write better poetry.” I lost touch with Semine soon after, and, fortunately, with my poetry as well. But the slim volume of vachana translations remains with me. So does my early love for these poems. Vachana means, simply, “what is said”. They are intensely personal, even intimate conversations, between the poet and the beloved — some form of Siva the vachana composer is deeply enamoured of. I am not equipped to judge Ramanujan’s translations, but through them I fell in love with the four major Virashaiva “saints”, Basava, Dasimayya, Allama, and Mahadevi. I suspect this must be the hope of any translator: to make the reader forget she is reading a translation; to evoke admiration and gratitude not for the translation, but the translated work. I think I was attracted most by Mahadevi’s work at first. For a girl whose literary intimacies were confined to Jane Austen, at best George Eliot, how heady it was to read lines such as “Take these husbands who die, decay, and feed them to your kitchen fires!” and “How can I bear it when He is here in my hands, right here in my heart, and will not take me?” But as I read on, the need to “identify” with the writer — so major a guiding force in adolescent literary judgement — loosened its hold. The intellectual puzzles in Allama Prabhu’s vachanas teased me with their complexities. His poems are called “bedagina vachanas”: “fancy” poems, apparently obscure and riddle-like, written in “twilight” or “topsy-turvy” language. The yield, I found, usually made up for the difficulty of cracking the hard little nut open with persistence. (“Light devoured darkness. I was alone inside. Shedding the visible dark, I was your target, O Lord of Caves.”) But perhaps it was Basava’s poetry which summed up best everything I learnt from Ramanujan’s vachana translations: that it’s possible to find a contemporary voice in the past. That the tussle between tradition and modernity is a continuous one; that the gap between the powerful and the powerless is as wide (if not wider) within a temple as it is without. “The rich will make temples for Siva. What shall I, a poor man, do? My legs are pillars, the body the shrine, the head a cupola of gold. Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers, things standing shall fall, but the moving ever shall stay.” Many years later, Ramanujan’s work again ferried me to the meeting of rivers. As an adult, with much easier access to more than the English canon, I discovered Ramanujan’s “tellings and retellings” of epics, folk tales, proverbs and riddles; and his elegant, insightful essays on the ways in which they flow together. His essays make it clear that epics such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and Silappadikaram can never be merely “official”. Valmiki’s Ramayana is bound up with a sparkling array of other Ramayanas, or other stories of Rama, some nugget-sized but potent. One story, for example, describes how sixteen thousand sages want to turn into women because they have fallen in love with Rama. But Rama asks them to wait — he has taken a vow of monogamy in this life. But when he comes back as Krishna, he tells them, they can be his beloved cowherds. In the Jain retellings, Ravana is a tragic figure, killed by Lakshmana, not Rama. In a Kannada folk Ramayana, Ravula (the Ravana figure) becomes pregnant, and at the end of nine days, sneezes Sita into existence. (In Kannada the word sita also means “he sneezed.”) This motif of Sita as Ravana’s daughter occurs elsewhere — in, for instance, Jain stories, Telugu folk traditions, and in several southeast Asian Ramayanas. “The oral traditions,” writes Ramanujan, “partake of...themes unknown in Valmiki.” How, he asks, do these tellings and retellings, oral and written, epic and tale, relate to each other? They do it in ways that impoverish a part — one story or tradition or genre — if it is mistaken for the whole. The grand saga of the epic has to be viewed along with its homely versions, folk tales and traditions that are cut down to size for daily consumption. Love, death, incest, the afterlife — nothing is too big or subtle for the debate conducted among these tales; and between this earthy body of tales and the more revered “classical” texts and traditions. Acknowledging the familial relationships among all the possible types of “tellings” means a reward of an astonishing body of systems, counter-systems; traditions, alternative traditions; tales and counter-tales, private and public lore, a large and amorphous body that can never quite be complete as long as people continue to “complete” the telling for their times and lives. It is this multiplicity, this use of a heritage to hold something for every one of its heirs, which makes for a common heritage. Postcolonial writers have “balanced” the view offered by the classics they were fed, whether it is a Maori writer rewriting Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party” from the point of view of the poor little house down the lane that receives the party leftovers; or Jean Rhys’ retelling of the story of the mad Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre. We are lucky. It seems we still have a reservoir of multiple, mutating tales, both written and oral, that tell us what a bewildering, complicated, heterogeneous world we live in. When we have this reservoir, how absurd it is to carry a warring cardboard Rama like a military banner! Or a syrupy sweet cardboard Sita to bully every budding woman into submission! Perhaps the biggest gift Ramanujan the go-between has given us through his work on our rich heritage is showing us how important it is for culture to travel; to give and receive. Almost as a recipe for world literature, Ramanujan quotes the twelfth century Kshemendra: “A poet should learn with his own eyes/ the form of leaves/... /his mind should enter into the seasons/ he should go/ among many people/ in many places/ and learn their languages.”
Basava's eventful life as the leader of the Virashaiva movement deserves to be studied carefully. His vacanas powerfully express the "white heat" (Ramanujan, p. 7) of Virashaiva devotionalism and social vision. In Speaking of Siva, in his choice of a spare, stark, minimalist, vocabulary and style, Ramanujan has captured the soul of the vacana style. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 107, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1987), pp. 350 -- blurb: Speaking of Siva is a selection of vacanas or free-verse sayings from the Virasaiva religious movement, dedicated to Siva as the supreme god. Written by four major saints, the greatest exponents of this poetic form, between the tenth and twelfth centuries, they are passionate lyrical expressions of the search for an unpredictable and spontaneous spiritual vision of 'now'. Here, yogic and tantric symbols, riddles and enigmas subvert the language of ordinary experience, as references to night and day, sex and family relationships take on new mystical meanings. These intense poems of personal devotion to a single deity also question traditional belief systems, customs, superstitions, image worship and even moral strictures, in verse that speaks to all men and women regardless of class and caste.