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August 14, 2011

Page: 21/29

Home > 2011 Issues > August 14, 2011

Poems of devotion: Bhakti literature. A gripping study

By Dr Vaidehi Nathan
The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature, Andrew Schelling, Oxford University Press, Pp 273(HB), Rs 695.00

BHAKTI literature is a unique genre of poetry that originated in Tamil Nadu and later prevailed all over India. Its history goes centuries into the past and the volume is considerable. Some of the most known Bhakti poets are the Azhvars, Nayanmars in the south, Mirabai, Kabir, Surdas and others in the north. In the West, Jnandev and Tukaram are familiar to most people while in the east the Bauls of Bengal.

The Bhakti literature came into world focus and attention when the early evangelists who came to India ‘discovered’ them and amazed by their literary merit and spiritual influence translated some of the works of known poets. From time to time then on, there have been translations.

The Oxford University Press has come out with The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature edited by Andrew Schelling. He has culled out verses of some popular and not so popular Bhakti poets from all over India and classified them region-wise. In a brilliant introduction he says, “What sets the poets of bhakti apart from their classical Sanskrit or Tamil predecessors – transforming them into prominent countercultural force – is their resolve to match life and poetry: To live by what they sing, no matter the stakes.” The lives of these poets are amazing in their commitment to their god. When Schelling earlier published a book of translations of Mirabai’s poems, the American poet and anthropologist Nathaniel Tarn wrote to him and asked how could a person live her entire life “so perilously in love with an unattainable beloved? How could she maintain the tension of her ferocious unrequited love for Krishna for decades?”

Schelling traces the history of the concept of bhakti to over 2,500 years ago. “But something new appeared around 1,200 years ago, taking shape first in Tamil country. This new expression understood bhakti as the singular path, and in many instances the only appropriate path to liberation. Instead of a quiet, reflective approach to a deity, it generated a passionate, unyielding, and existentialist attitude to the devotee’s own experience.” It was a direct relation between the deity and the devout. There were no mediators like priests or guru.

Another important aspect of bhakti poems is that they all originated orally, most of the time spontaneously, what has been called ‘orature.’ They were written down much later, probably after the time of the poet. Music and dance are very much part of this poetry.

There is a short introduction about each of the poet before the translations. This recounts some of the most accepted version of the poet’s life. Some of the women included in the anthology are Andal (spelt Antal in the book), Mirabai, Mahadeviyaka, Muktabai, Rami and Lal Ded. It is interesting to note that all the women poets ‘vanish’ in the end, attaining liberation in the most dramatic way. There are poems of 37 poets other than the Bauls of Bengal. The last in the list ‘Bhanusimha’ is Rabindranath Tagore, which comes as a bit of surprise as he is usually not associated with bhakti literature. The poems of Jayadeva, Tulsidas Kabir, Surdas, Raidas, Vidyapati and Namdev have been included in the anthology. The translations have been compiled from various sources. Schelling is Professor of Writing and Poetics, Naropa University, Colorado, USA. A translator of India’s classical poetry, he teaches Sanskrit, and wilderness writing. It is an anthology that gives a glimpse of the ocean that bhakti literature is. In Tamil Nadu, most of these poems are part of the daily rituals in temples. Andal’s Tiruppavai is sung during the month of Margazhi (December-January) every morning by girls of all ages. The hymns of Azhvars and Nayanmars are rendered by a person appointed. Jayadeva’s Ashtapati is sung daily in several Vishnu temples across the country. Bhakti literature is a living body of work, a fact that illustrates its sway and acceptance. The anthology is a valuable contribution in reaching this to the world outside. There is a rich bibliography for further reading.

(Oxford University Press, YMCA Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi 110 001)

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