book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasting trees

Singing to the Goddess: Poems to Kali and Uma from Bengal

Rachel Fell McDermott

McDermott, Rachel Fell;

Singing to the Goddess: Poems to Kali and Uma from Bengal

Oxford University Press, USA, 2001, 208 pages

ISBN 0195134338 9780195134339

topics: |  poetry | bengali | religion | bhakti | translation | goddess

A select translation of bengali songs to kAli, with the majority from rAmprasAd sen and kamalAkAnta bhaTTachArya.

... by far the most important contributors to the entire 250-year tradition are two court poets who lived at the expense of the Nadia and Burdwan zamindars, respectively: Ramprasad Sen (ca. 1718-1775) and Kamalakanta Bhattacarya (ca. 1769-1821). They appear to have had no other mandate than to compose poetry, although Kamalakanta also served as a priest in his patrons Kali temple and tutored his patron's son. As a result, each one produced between two and three hundred Sakta poems. In addition, both are celebrated in Bengali history and legend as accomplished spiritual adepts, who combined a love of the Goddess with an expertise in Tantric practice. (intro p.8)

[their work gave birth to a tradition, much new work] is derivative, with metaphors and phrases from the early poets reappearing years later in less accomplished form.

[at the time of rAmprasAd the tAntrik forces were stronger in society. In the intervening years, the tAntrik themes of his poetry have been] "sweetened". See also 2nd ed. p. xvi-xvii]

almost all Bengali anthologies that do not present the whole of a poet's work—say, selections of Ramprasad or Kamalakanta—the poems left out are those with Tantric import and those that depict Siva and Kali in union in the sahasrara. Such poems are considered too esoteric or too scandalous for a general audience. They are nevertheless a genuine part of the genre and deserve a place in its English representation. p.14

the history of Sakta Padavali in English translation

It was Mahendranath Gupta, the disciple and biographer of Ramkrsna, who first introduced the Sakta songs to an English audience with his translation of the kathAmr.ta in 1907... The first real anthology was compiled by Edward Thompson and Arthur Spencer, whose Bengali Religious Lyrics, shAkta, complete with introduction and biographical notes on the poets, was published in 1923.

Jadunath Sinha and Michele Lupsa published their English and French versions of rAmprasAd's poetry in 1966 and 1967. In 1994, Lex Hixon updated the language of Sinha's translations in his Mother of the Universe: Visions of the Goddess and Tantric Hymns of Enlightenment, but as he did not work from the Bengali and only reconfigured Sinha's English, this is not a reliable set of translations. The best collection of Ramprasad's poetry to appear in English is Grace and Mercy in Her Wild Hair: Poems to the Mother Goddess, translated by Leonard Nathan and Clinton Seely in 1982. These poems are so beautifully rendered that they set a standard for translation in the genre. p.14


In part because of the dread characteristics of kAlI, bhakti, or devotion,
came late to her literary tradition. Although we have evidence of bhakti
poetry to male deities such as Visnu and Siva from as early as the ninth
century in south India, and although love poetry to Krsna flowered in Bengal
from the fifteenth century on
[AM: in Bengal from 12th c.; Jayadeva; in Bengali
from 15th], it was not until the mid-eighteenth century
that poets began addressing Kali in the endearing language of intimacy. The
resulting genre has been named Sakta Padavali, or Collected Poems to the
Goddess, and is divided into two parts, both meant to be sung, usually to
instrumental accompaniment.  The first, Syama-sarigita, or Songs to Syama,
the Black Goddess Kali, has historically been the more popular, in terms of
both composition and audience appeal. In these poems, the Goddess receives
the full gamut of human emotion, for she is described, praised, blessed,
petitioned, cajoled, and even threatened. The poets speak directly to Kali,
trying to get her attention and secure for themselves a place at her
fear-dispelling feet.

By contrast, umA-saMgita, or Songs to Siva's wife Parvati, tell a
story. Agamam songs, or songs about her coming, celebrate Uma's once-yearly
visit from her home with Siva in Kailasa to her parents,

Through Kali's identification with Durga, and hence with pArvatI or umA, she
also gains "the Auspicious Lord" Siva as a husband; indeed, one of her most
popular epithets in the Sakta poetry is SaMkarI, or Wife of SaMkara
(Siva). As such, Kali is allied both to the goddess satI, daughter of DakSha,
who committed suicide in reaction to her father's insult to her husband Siva,
and to satIs reincarnated form in the person of Uma, Daughter of the
Himalayas, who wins Siva back through her asceticism and devotion.  These
stories about satI and umA derive at least from the time of the Mahabharata
and are amplified in subsequent Sanskrit plays and Puranas. As far as epic
and Puranic texts are concerned, then, it is Uma and Durga who are the most
famous, the most written about. Kali wins her acceptance in this literature
through her association with them.

But already by the eleventh century, Kali had gained another dimension
through her incorporation into Tantric texts, rituals, and philosophical
speculations.  Tantra as a system of texts and ideas is esoteric, for the
initiated few alone, and ... Tantric texts offer complicated ritual
and meditation prescriptions, detailed iconographic descriptions of deities
to be worshiped, and instructions on the attainment of spiritual powers. In
addition, they posit the human body as a microcosm of the spiritual universe:
inside are to be found all elements of the material world, all pilgrimage
sites, all deities, and the beginning and end of the religious path. Through
one of the most celebrated Tantric spiritual practices, kundalinI yoga, the
skilled aspirant learns to raise his spiritual energy, coiled as a female
serpent (kundalini] in the base of his spine, up through the six centers or
cakras in the central channel of
his body (tnuladhara at the base of the spine, svadhisthana between the anus
and penis, manipum at the navel, andhata at the heart, visuddha at the
throat, and ajna between the eyebrows).4 His final destination is the seventh
and last center, the sahasrara, at the top of his head (see Fig. 1).There the
kundalim unites with her consort, Siva, bringing to the aspirant the nondual
liberation he has been seeking.

18: o ramaNI kAlo eman rUpasI kemane?

	[How can that black woman be so beautiful?]

Fate has made Her the color of a new cloud.
She laughs horribly
    lightning darting from Her teeth, yet
what a lot of nectar drips
from Her moon-face!

The sun shines in Her sindura dot,
that lotus face
	beguiling even the God of Love.
Sun, fire, and moon
   sattva, rajas, and tamas
have risen
	     in Her three eyes.

Her navel is a lotus swaying
inside a lake, where water lilies
bloom into breasts. Her thick hair
streams down Her body, a garland of heads
hanging around Her neck. Even those earrings
	children's corpses
look stunning against the Mother's ears.

Ornament after ornament
adorns Her beautiful feet,
Her toenails shaming the moon
by their mirrorlike gleam.

Seeing such a sweet form
Kamalakanta goes to shyAmA's very spotless feet
	for refuge.
		Kamalakanta Bhattacarya, p.34-5

22 shyAmA mA ki AmAr kAlo re

Is my black Mother shyAma really black?
People say Kali is black,
but my heart doesn't agree.
If She's black,
how can She light up the world?
Sometimes my Mother is white,
sometimes yellow, blue, and red.
I cannot fathom Her.
My whole life has passed

She is Matter,
then Spirit,
then complete Void.  

It's easy to see
how Kamalakanta
thinking these things
went crazy.

	Kamalakanta Bhattacarya

31 : sakal-i tomAra iccha

Everything is Your wish, Tara,
You Whose Wish Is Law.
You do Your own work,
but people say, "I am acting."
You make the elephant get stuck in mud,
the lame man leap across mountains.
To some You give the heights of Indra;
others You push down to hell.
I speak the words You make me speak.
You are mystic diagrams
You are mystic words;
You are the essence of the Tantrasara.
		Naracandra Ray

34 : sadAnandamayI kAli

Ever-blissful Kali,
Bewitcher of the Destructive Lord,
Mother —-
for Your own amusement
You dance,
clapping Your hands.

You with the moon on Your forehead,
really You are primordial, eternal, void.
When there was no world, Mother,
where did You get that garland of skulls?

You alone are the operator,
we Your instruments, moving as You direct.
Where You place us, we stand;
the words You give us, we speak.

Restless Kamalakanta says, rebukingly:
You grabbed Your sword, All-Destroyer,
and now You've cut down evil and good.
		Kamalakanta BhattacArya

63 : doSh kAro nay go mA

It's no one else's fault, Syama Ma;
I'm drowning in waters
I made myself.
The six enemies took the shape of trowels
and helped me
such a fine piece of land!
to dig a well.
Oh You, Delighting the Heart of Time,
that well filled up with the waters of time.
Now what will happen to me,
Tarim, Embodiment of the Three Primordial Properties?
I've lost all virtue through my own choices.
How can I stop up the waters?
Dasarathi ponders this, eyes filling
with unstoppable tears. The waters
flooded my house;
soon they rose up to my chest.
From life to life there's no escape.
But if You give me the lifeboat of Your feet,
Beneficent One,
I'll try to persevere.
	dAsarathi rAy

46: tArA tomAr Ar ki mane Achhe

	Tara, what more are You planning?

			Oh mA,
	will You keep giving me
	the same comforts
	You've furnished in the past?
	If Siva tells the truth
	why should I have to appease You?

			mA, oh mA,
	You deceive me, and then deceive me again;
	my right eye throbs in vain.
	If I had any other shelter
	I'd never entreat You.

			mA, oh mA,
	You gave me hope, then abandoned me—
	helping me up a tree
	before snatching the ladder away.

	Prasad says,
	There's no doubt in my mind:
	Daksinakali is extremely severe.
			mA, oh mA,
	my life is over, done for;
	I've paid You my fee.
				rAmprasAd sen

[from note: This is the song that rAmprasAd is said to have been singing as
	he drowned into a pond even as the image of kAlI was being consigned
	to the waters at the end of kAlipUjA. ]

68: jAgo shyAma jAgo shyAma

Wake up, Syama, wake up, Syama!
Appear once more as demon-chopping Candi!
If You don't wake up, Ma,
neither willYour children.
Oh Giver of Food! Your sons and daughters starve,
running here and there
more dead than alive. This sight
doesn't pain Your heart?
The cremation grounds You so love
today are the land of India.
Come, dance on this cremation ground;
breathe life into these skeletons.
For I desire, Ma, a free wind;
energy I desire; I desire long life.
Shake off Your sleep of delusion, Ma,
and wake up this Siva—
You're surrounded by corpses!
		Najrul Islam

70. man re kAj jAno nA

			(মন রে কৃষি কাজ জানো না)

Oh Mind, you don't know how to farm;
your human field has fallen fallow.
Cultivate it, and the crops you'll grow
will gleam like gold. Fence it round with Kali's name
so your harvest won't be harmed.
The Wild-Haired One is strong;
Death won't come near that fence.
Don't you know? Your crops will never fail—
not in a day, a year, or a century.
So apply yourself, Mind;
work to reap your harvest.
The teacher sowed the mantra;
now water his seed -with devotion's showers.
And oh, if you can't do it alone, Mind,
take Rimprasad along.
   		rAmprasAd sen

[original bAnglA text:]

	মন রে কৃষি কাজ জানো না।
	এমন মানব-জমিন রইল পতিত, আবাদ করলে ফলত সোনা।
	কালীনামে দাওরে বেড়া, ফললে তছরূপ হবে না।
	সে যে মুক্তকেশীর শক্ত বেড়া, তার কাছেতে যম ঘেঁসে না ৷৷
	গুরুদত্ত বীজ রোপণ করে, ভক্তিবারি সেঁচে দেনা ৷
	একা যদি না পারিস মন, রামপ্রসাদকে সঙ্গে নেনা ৷৷

95 : man bhebechho tIrthe JAbe

So, Mind—
you've decided to go on pilgrimage?
If you abandon the nectar of Kali's lotus feet
you'll fall in a well
and ruin yourself.

Life is old age, sin, and disease;
these are the sufferings they offer at Puri.
Kashi — or do I mean a cough?— can kill you when you have a fever,
and bathing at Tribeni will only make your sickness worse.

Kali's name is a powerful medicine, the best prescription:
drink it with devotion. Oh sing! Drink!
You'll become the Self, delighting in your Self!
Siva is the Lord of Death; if you serve Him well
liberation will quickly follow.
In Him all things are possible: even you
will merge with the Supreme.

PrasAd says, Brother Mind,
you've traded the shade of the wish-filling tree
for the roots of a thorn bush. Is this the way
to lose the fear of death?

	Ramprasad Sen, p.96

122: ebAr kAli tomAy khAbo

This time, Kali,
I'm going to eat You up.
I'll eat You,
I'll eat You,
Oh Compassionate to the Poor.
I was born under an evil star
and sons born then
devour their mothers.
Either You eat me
or I eat You:
we must decide on one.

I'll make a curry of Your demons and witches
and boil into a soup
with spices and ghee
the heads from Your necklace.
Your blackness I'll smear all over
my hands, my face, and my limbs.
When Death comes
I'll blacken his face too.

I say I'll eat You up
but You won't fill my stomach;
I'll sit You on my heart-lotus
and worship You mentally.
They may tell me
if I eat Kali
I'll get into trouble with Death,
but why should I fear him?
I'll shout "Kali!"
and stick my thumb in his face.
I'll make sure he understands
Sri Ramprasad is Kali's son.
I'll cause my death myself
through mantra repetition.
		rAmprasAd sen

128: smasAne jAgiche syAmA

Syama wakes on the cremation grounds
to take Her child
at the final hour
to Her lap.
The peaceful Mother sits on the pyre
its fire hidden by Her sari of love.
	To hold him on Her lap
	She left the Kailasa of Her joy, and
	with blessings and fearlessness in Her hands
	made the cremation grounds Her home.
Why fear this place
when you'll sleep peacefully at the Mother's feet?
	Who dies ignited by the flames of this world,
	to him the Mother calls:
	"Come to My lap; come to My lap."
	To lull you to sleep, Oh Wearied by Life,
		Ma takes you to Her lap
		disguised as death.
			Najrul Islam

This collection presents 164 brief Bengali lyric poems dedicated to the Hindu
goddesses Kali and Uma by thirty-seven representative poets. These
poems--many of which are presented here for the first time in English
translation--were written from the early eighteenth century up to the
contemporary period. Included are forty-eight poems by the most famous of all
Sakta poets, Ramprasad Sen (c.1718-1775) and ten lyrics by the renowned
20th-century poet Kaji Najrul Islam. The book begins with an introduction
that places these works in their historical context and shows how images of
the goddesses evolved over the centuries. These poems evoke the passion and
devotion of the followers of Kali and Uma and shed light on the history and
practice of goddess worship.

Rachel McDermott has recently published
Revelry, Rivalry, and Longing for the Goddesses of Bengal, 2011
which has a long list of human sacrifice being practiced until recent
years. (p.207)

450 years back [1550] Raja naranArAyan of Kuch Bihar used to sacrifice upto
150 humans at a time.  p.208

kAmAkhyA temple in Assam: substitute sacrifice of effigy, and blood from a
human finger - from a non-brahmin, since brahmin killing would be a sin.

Sagaree Sengupta has translated 14 shAkta poems in "Poetic Visions of the
Great Goddess: Tamil Nadu and Bengal," in Vidya Dehejia, ed., Devi:The Great
Goddess (Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sadder Museum, 1999), pp. 107-117.
Sagaree Sengupta is also the translator of diary of a maidservant

amitabha mukerjee (mukerjee [at-symbol] gmail) 2013 Aug 21