Deeply Personal and intuitive, the literary output of the bhakti tradition moves through love and desire, agony and ecstasy, passion and devotion to transcend religion, race, and region.
Mapping bhakti literature from the first century BCE to the twentieth, this anthology covers a large swathe: the early poems to siva, the compositions of the Alvar poets, the Virashaiva poets, the Varkaris, and the Vaishnava poets to Punjabi songs, the mystic music of the Bauls of Bengal. And Bengali Shakta lyrics. In tune with the eclectic nature of the tradition, this volume captures the depth and diversity of bhakti down the ages, and across languages and cultures. The careful selection of lyrics, the broad canvas of songs, composers, and singers and the evocative nature of the translations give it rare depth showcasing the enduring relevance and beauty of bhakti poetry.
In a beautifully written Introduction. Andrew Schelling takes us through his Poetic and scholarly journey of discovery and, in doing so, outlines the historical and socioliterary landscape of the tradition. This collection also includes insightful notes on the poets and translators, providing a more complete picture of their life and work. Rewarding for literature aficionados and bhakti enthusiasts, this anthology will interest students and teachers of Indian writing in translation, translation studies, religion, and cultural and gender studies.
Andrew Schelling is professor of writing and poetics, Naropa University, Colorado, USA. Poet, amateur naturalist, mountaineer, and translator of India’s classical poetry, he teaches poetry, Sanskrit, and wilderness writing.
As the last of the bhakti poems finds its place in this volume, and the book’s final structure rounds into shape, a hard Master wind drives snow down from the western peaks of Colorado. It carves ravines and whorls of ice about the log cabin, and a snowdrift rises over the north window. This cabin sits in a valley of soaring rock-walls honeycombed with mines from the gold and silver rushes of the nineteenth century. Before that, the archaeological record shows, this valley has served as a migration road and trade route for 10,000 years or longer-since the last glaciations.
If this ecozone at 3,000 metres elevation, with its bare rock, stiff tundra, and bitingly cold creek, seems far from Tamil Nadu’s villages, the scrubby sun-bitten hills of Rajasthan, or Bengal’s watercourses, that is precisely my reason for invoking it. The specific cultural, intellectual, economic and emotional factors within bhakti poetry remain distinct to south Asia, and the greatest temptation for modern, literature people is to assume its emotions, aspirations, or lyric forms are readily of bhakti does have its place in Colorado’s high valleys though, if only for the fact that an international readership, or audience of listeners, has grown up around the lyrics Kabir, Mirabai, Antal, and vidyapati during the past century.
The poems of the bhakti tradition began to take shape in India during the eighth or ninth centuries. Scholars have tracked its origins in Sventasvatara Upanishad. Bhagavdgita Purana. And other texts that advocate or describe the yoga of devotion. At this point we can document the names of hundreds, if not thousands of singers who old excluded orders of India’s political or social hierarchies, and their songs and subversive beliefs caused upheavals in families and entire clans. At times, revolutions spread across whole kingdoms, propelled by the emotions of bhakti. Driven by spiritual hunger, a fierce desire for spiritual freedom, and long-simmering demands for social or economic equality, bhakti poets issued forth in dozens of languages. Though few of the longings they articulate feel alien to this Colorado valley from which I write , bhakti is salted with an intensity that requires intellectual effort and a great deal of honest probing to get close to.
At the root of bhakti coils the formidable old hunger for human freedom, a sense of the world’s inexplicable mystery, and the conviction that each of us forms some personal relationship to that mystery, and the conviction that each of us forms some personal relationship to that mystery, As a North American gospel, the blues, labour protest songs, and most significantly in my own ‘tradition’-the experimental and laboratory impulses of international modernist and postmodern poetry.
At the same time I want to resist any impulse to try a quick assimilation. Fifteen years ago, when I published a book of translations of the sixteenth-century bhakta Mirabai, the American poet and anthropologist Nathaniel Tarn wrote to me. How, he asked, could a person live their whole life on such an edge? So perilously in love with an unattainable beloved? How could she maintain the tension of her ferocious unrequired love for Krishna for decades? While the emotion itself may seem familiar, its duration and intensity locate it in a realm of experience not easily reached.
There is an essay the North American poet Kenneth Rexroth wrote during worldwide political upheavals in the 1960s, in which he defined the ‘counterculture’ as those people who by the tenets of lyric poetry’. This would be a suitable place to start talking about bhakti. What sets the poets apart from their classical Sanskrit or Tamil procedessors-transforming them into a prtominent countercultural force is their resolve to match life and poetry: To live by what themselves ‘communities of dissent’ in their own lifetimes. As much as they drew from the tradition of India-both the so-called ‘Great’ and the so-called ‘Little Traditions’-the passions given speech in their poems were designed to shatter any fetters of belief that would limit the ferocity of experience.
Uncritically placing bhakti poets alongside singers in far-off traditions inadvertently does just that: it limits the intensity of the living poem.
The editors of a very different sort of anthology, a collection of contemporary avant-grade poets of the British Isles, use words I think helpful:
It is important to remember here that tradition, as instrument of power, sanctions agreed habits of syntax, rhytms and sequence of thought , intonation, figurative language, and range of diction. The normative impulses of literary and linguistic tradition reinforce notions of intelligibility (and of syntax). Its vocabulary prizes terms like ‘unfiled’ and ‘centered’, for in proposing their contraries-edges, margins, fragments-such trivialize and thus silent dissent. (Caddel and Quartermain. Other)
What I want to get at is this: at level deeper than what a poem or song says, occur disruptions or subversions that appear both spiritual and linguistic. These include forbidden emotions, raw vernacular vocabulary, riddles, secret codes, and non-rational images. There is also a question of context: the disruptive force of speech, prayer, liturgy, or song when used by people who have been forbidden it.
When the editors at Oxford University Press approached me about an anthology in English translation of bhakti poetry, I resisted at first. I have some facility in Sanskrit-thirty off-and-on years as translator, with excursions into hindi, Pali, and some of the Prakrits. But my life has been lived as an American poet. Better, I thought, someone who knows a good number of the languages, and knows them well. Someone who inhabits from birth the range of India’s cultures, and can approach bhakti from an indigenous point of view. Someone who has come of age among the traditions and counter-traditions in question.
What I came to see though, though that swarn of first doubts, was this: to regard bhakti as a religious emotion locked inside India, or to fret over the supposed impenetrability of the languages and cultures in which bhakti appears, is to diminish its poets. It is so pretend that those singers were parochial figures, understandable by, or of interest to, only a small local audience. In fact the greatest poets of bhakti-and there are many, far more than this book can accommodate-stand with the bravest poets across our planet. Their songs have migrated not just across India, but also into Europe and the Americas. They are collaborators in the effort to find the dimensions of the human heart and mind, and to redjust the world we live in-to wrench or crack it open-so we might drop old prejudice. Rather than think the poets fenced in by languages tough for an outsider to approach- Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, or the Braj Bhasha dialec-why not observe that through the attentive work of translators, such poets may return to be admitted into the creation of what we consider we are.’
I can think of no better point of orientation than Duncan;s call, as a gate or entry to the range of bhakti poetry.
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