book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasting trees

A. K. Ramanujan and bAsavaNNa and devara dAsimayyA and mahAdeviyakka and a

Speaking of Siva

llAma prabhu

Ramanujan, A. K.; bAsavaNNa; devara dAsimayyA; mahAdeviyakka; allAma prabhu;

Speaking of Siva [Śiva]

Penguin Classics 1973, 199 pages

ISBN 0140442707 (? college street ?1996? )

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.

"Little" Religion and Social practice

The opening essay is very erudite and makes some very incisive points:

	Anthropologists like Robert Redfield and Milton Singer speak of
	'great' and 'litle' traditions in Indian civilization; other pairs of
	terms have been proposed: popular / learned, folk / classical, low /
	high, parochial / universal, peasant / aristocratic, lay / hieratic.

Other dichotomies also informm this division: e.g. historicity: ancient /
modern traditions...

	The native Indian tradition speaks of mArga ('classical') and desi
	('folk'). The several pairs capture different aspects of a familiar
	dichotomy, though none of them is satisfactory or definitive.

	We shall use 'great' and 'little' here as convenient labels.

	The 'great' tradition in India would be inter-regional, pan-Indian;
	its vehicle, Sanskrit. The 'little' tradition would consist of many
	regional traditions, carried by the regional languages. It should not
	be forgotten that many of the regional languages and cultures
	themselves, e.g., Tamil, have long traditions, divisible into
	'ancient' and 'modern' historically, 'classical' and 'folk' or 'high'
	and 'low' synchronically.  Such languages have a formal 'high' style
	and many informal colloquial 'low' dialects.  ...

	But traditions are not impermeable; they interflow into one
	another...  It is often difficult to isolate elements as belonging
	exclusively to the one or the other.

Considerable 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

	A Sanskrit epic like the Mahabharata contains in its encyclopedic
	range much folk material, like tales, beliefs, proverbs,
	picked obviously from folk sources, refurbished, Sanskritized,
	fixed forever in the Sanskritic artifice of eternity.  But in a
	profoundly oral culture like the Indian, the Sanskrit Mahiibhiirata
	itself gets returned to the oral folk-traditions, contributing
	the transformed materials back to the 'little' traditions
	to be further diffused and diffracted. It gets 'translated'
	from the Sanskrit into the regional languages; in the course
	of the 'translations', the regional poet infuses it with his rich
	local traditions, combining not only the pan-Indian 'great'
	with the regional 'little', but the regional 'great' with the
	regional 'little' traditions as well.  Such interaction and exchange is
	well expressed in the following parable of the 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 her sympathy. In the fray both the
		outcaste woman and the brahmin lost their heads. Later, the
		husband relented, granted them pardon and restored their
		heads by his spiritual powers. But the heads were transposed
		by mistake. To Mariamma (with a brahmin head and an outcaste
		body) goats and cocks but not buffaloes were sacrificed; to
		Ellamma (outcaste head and brahmin body) buffaloes instead of
		goats and cocks.

	According to Whitehead's Village Gods of South India, the legend
	probably represents the fusion of the Aryan and Dravidian cults in
	the days when the Aryan culture first found its way into (South)
	India. It could stand just as well for transpositions in 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. ]

Differences between little and great traditions

Goes on to suggest some aspects of the differences between little and
great, for which he gives a table (mine has more detail):

                text  |  vedas, etc.      |  purAnAs, legends, superstitions
         performance  |  vedic ritual     |  local festivals, sacrifices
 social organization  |  caste hierarchy  |  local sects / cults
           mythology  |  vishNu, Siva,    |  local deities,  worship of stones, trees

Reading this again in 2013, I am reminded of the same point made in a more
recent book by Devdutt Pattanaik in myth=mithya (2006),
where he observes:

	A Hindu deity may be just a rock in a cave, a tree growing in an
	orchard, a river flowing down the plains, a cow wandering in the
	street, or perhaps an elaborately decorated idol of stone, clay or
	metal enshrined in a temple.Anything can be God.

To drive home his poit, Pattanaik notes that:

	In many shrines, deities are given human form merely by placing a
	pair of eyes and a pair of hands on a rock. Eyes represent sense
	organs and hands represent action organs. This indicates the deity is
	conscious, sensitive and responsive.

example of rock deity: grama devi.  The painted eyes represent
sight, and the hands action.  Thus the "deity is conscious,
sensitive and responsive."

When I had read this passage for the first time, I could not but relate it
to practices specific to our family or at least to the Bengali kulin culture
that I grew up in.  One of the hallmarks was the ritual purity of food,
that defined what could be served, by whom, and what could be eaten.  A
complex concept related to this is that of "shakri".

A personal discursion: Shakri-logy

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

Sanskritization of the mother goddess

As a child, I knew that these practices were particular to our brahmanic
household - and even that these practices differed somewhat 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


Ramanujan goes on to distinguish between these classical, sanctioned
structures, and what he calls the "anti-structures", to which the poets in
this group belong.

	classical belief systems, social customs and superstitions
	(Basavanna 581, 105), image worship (Basavanna 558)
	the caste system (Dasimayya 96), the Vedic ritual of
	yajna (Basavanna 125), as well as local sacrifices of lambs
	and goats (Basavanna 129) - all these are fiercely questioned
	and ridiculed.

	Vacanas often go further and reject the idea of doing good so that
	one may go to heaven.  Righteousness, virtue, being correct, doing
	the right things, carry no guarantee to god. p.30

The alternate philosophy propounded

	All true experience of god is krpa, grace that cannot be called,
	recalled, or commanded. The vacanas [emphasize] anubhava
	'experience'.  The latter is a search for the 'unmediated vision', the
	unconditioned act, the unpredictable experience.  p.31

But I am sure the claim is not that this holds uniformly for all the poets
here, or their many interlocutors.

Thus, the poets represented here, are not from either the little or great
traditions, but constitute an "anti-structure", one that ridicules the
classical methods, and calls for a direct personal experience as a means to

ramanujan's table p.34.  The term "anti-structure" is from
his U. Chicago colleague, Victor Turner, (1969).
The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure

Interestingly, the path of direct transcendenta experience as a realization
of the supreme, is mystic traditions across other "great" religions such as
in Sufi Islam or in Tibetan tantrism, or Christian mysticism.  Consider for
example this description from woman saint Teresa of Avila [1515-1582] :

Teresa describes her experience of the love of God through a visit by an
angel, a boy who was:

  ... very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the
  highest types of angels who seem to be all afire... In his hands I saw a
  golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of
  fire.  With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it
  penetrated my entrails... The pain was so sharp that it made me utter
  several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused by this intense
  pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one's soul be content
  with anything less than God.

Alain de Botton, calls it a  "sublimated orgasm" in his on love (1993),
which perhaps is closer to the sexual aspects of some of the anti-structure
approaches, such as tantra.

The poetry

In any event, the elegance of these poems, even when you look at them from
the vantage of four hundred generations of intervening humanity, is truly
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,

	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 trope - i.e. 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.

Rebellion against orthodoxy: caste and class

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. [21]

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.

Not bound by birth

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

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

Romila Thapar on Virashaivism

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.

Rejection of caste; Gender-less state

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 p.87]

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]

Opposition to ritual

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,
	   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.


basavaNNa (c.1106-c.1167)

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.

basavaNNa 8: The world in a swell of waves

					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?
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

basavaNNa 9: I added day by day

					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?

basavaNNa 21: In my ignorance

					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.

basavaNNa 33: Monkey on a tree

					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.

basavaNNa 59: Cripple me


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
     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"]

basavanna 70: As a mother runs


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.

basavaNNa 97: Master of the house - is he at home?


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.

basavanna 101: A snake-charmer and his noseless wife


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

basavaNNa 125 : see-saw watermills bow


	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, 
	   know the way
	   our Lord's Men move
	   or the stance of their standing?

basavaNNa 129: sacrificial lamb eats the green leaf


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?

basavaNNa 132:


You can make them talk
if the serpent
has stung

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.

basavaNNa 144 : Crookedness of the serpent


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!

basavaNNa 161: Before the grey reaches the cheek


  the grey reaches the cheek,
  the wrinkle the rounded chin,
  and the body becomes a cage of bones:

   with fallen teeth
   and bent back
   you are someone else's ward:

   you drop your hand to the knee
   and clutch a staff:

   age corrodes
   your form:

   death touches you!

	our lord
	of the meeting rivers!


basavaNNa 468: I drink the water


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!


	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.

basavaNNa 494 : I don't know time-beats and metre


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.

basavaNNa 487: feet will dance


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!

500: make of my body the lute


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!

basavaNNa 558: How can I feel right about a god


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.

basavaNNa 586: In a brahmin house

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!

basavaNNa 686 : He’ll grind till you’re fine

				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.

basavaNNa 820 : The rich will make temples for Siva


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.

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

The Lost Wax method (Investment casting)

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.

devara dAsimayya

		[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.

the earliest of the Virashaiva poets, believed to have been born in the 10th
century.  Wandered as a preacher spreading devotion to Shiva, and 
opposed the Jain presence in South India.  

	One of their primary disagreements was over the nature of karma — the
	Jain position was that evil karma could be removed only through
	suffering, whereas Devara (and other devotees) believed that God's
	grace (obtained through devotion) could wipe away past karma.
	Through his devotion and a series of miracles (including surviving
	several assassination attempts) he succeeded in converting the region
	to Shaivism. - [|J Lochtefeld]

His chosen form of Shiva, Ramanatha ("Rama's Lord") is also the presiding
deity of a very important temple in Rameshvaram.

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
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,
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:
		To the shameless girl
		wearing the White Jasmine Lord's
		light of morning,
		you fool,
		where is the need for skirts and jewels?  (poem 124)

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
cennamallikArjuna: beautiful mallikArjuna.

    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:
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!


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


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

Allama Prabhu


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


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.


devoured darkness.

I was alone

the visible dark

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.

Other reviews

Githa Hariharan: The necessity of hyphens

   full title: 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

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

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."

Indira Vishwanathan Peterson

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
	(1987), pp. 350

Great and Little Traditions in Indian academics

After I encountered the ideas "little tradition" and "great tradition"
here, they stayed with me for some time.

Here Ramanujan talks of these traditions in the context of religion - the
great as the inter-regional, Sanskrit, and the little traditions as
regional, carried by the regional languages.

It is of course, possible to think of these distinctions in any form of
societal convention.

What interests me is when the informal, societal conventions that form the
"little" traditions are in conflict with the "great".  A poignant case is
that of speed laws in the US - these are commonly scoffed at - it is widely
accepted that one may go about 10 mph above the speed limit without
consequences - and if one should be caught doing a greater speed, it is
one that will cause only a loss of money; there is no associated social
opprobriumm, which would be a much more serious penalty.  Of course this is
not true for other crimes, or even drunk driving, where the greater
tradition prevails across society.

Working in an academic institution, I can see how the "great" traditions we
have - those of the formal "structures" such as the senate, the departments,
and the various functions, which hold across most academic institutions,
interact with many local "little" traditions - such as wiping the board at
the end of a class as a courtesy to the next lecturer.

Conflicting traditions affecting academic dishonesty

In this context an area where the two traditions come into conflict, and one
that affects us seriously, is in attitudes towards academic dishonesty.
While the great tradition has multiple measures to prevent cheating,
according to the local convention among students, copying in exams and
homeworks is completely acceptable, and perhaps even a done thing.  There is
no social opprobrium even if one is caught; to the contrary, quite possibly
the tradition perpetuates itself by imposing subtle social penalties on those
that decline from helping your pal.  The convention is propagated by example,
there is of course, no written "text"; however, the convention is much
broader than here - it is possibly a broad convention accepted in indian
society as such - ends justify the means.    Perhaps even a section of
faculty are quietly sympathetic, or at least not as aggressive about it as
one should be.

This would certainly not hold in the US.

This goes well with the parable of the transposed heads - the faculty head
(?mask?) is worn, after all, by those who were once upon a time in student


translator's note 		11
acknowledgements		17
introduction			19
further readings in english	57
the poems:
basavaNNa (1106-c.1167) 61
dEvara dasimayya 91
mahAdEviyakka 111
allama prabhu 143
appendix I. the six-phase system 169
appendix II. on lingayat culture
	by William McCormack 175
notes to the poems 189

59 Cripple me
33 Like a monkey on a tree
101: A snake-charmer and his noseless wife
132 You can make them talk
144 The crookedness of the serpent
161 Before the grey reaches the cheek
494 I don't know anything like time-beats and meter
The rich will make temples for Siva


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This review by Amit Mukerjee was last updated on : 2015 Nov 14