Bhakti and its sant-poets
April 21, 2008
Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers, things standing shall fall, but the moving ever shall stay.
This verse, written by Basavaņņa, offers a poetic summation of three important components of the Bhakti movements: the personalization of man’s relationship to God (“Listen…”), the rejection of the usually accepted social relations and practices (“things standing shall fall”), and the emphasis on the movement of the heart exclusively towards God as the sole purpose of life (“the moving ever shall stay”).
The devotionalist movements made a significant turn from the traditional pantheon of deities towards a monotheistic understanding of Hindu faith, whether towards Śiva or Krishna or Rama. God’s love for the devotee is valued above all else (including puja, meditation, knowledge, or renunciation). Bhakti is characterized by putting love for the chosen deity above all other concerns. The emotion of Bhakti is memorialized in the verses of the sant-poets. Their songs have been recited throughout the ages as examples of the majesty of experiencing loving union with God. Founders of the Bhakti movements are thought to have achieved total union with God and are therefore divine in their own right, their words revered as the words of their Lord. The love they write of is not only a matter of learning, but of yearning and feeling. They serve witness to a love for and from God which is fostered by the devotee’s thinking of nothing other than God, rather than on scriptural knowledge.
The theme of moving towards God by thinking of and loving only Him is paired with the turning away from the conventional ways of the world. Krishna as a young child in the Gita-Govinda cares little about the normal social order, and yet his rebellion is non-threatening to the citizens. In fact, they adore his antics and admire his freedom and the harmony is brings to the village. Also, Rādha’s love for Krishna is cross-caste and cuts through conventional Hindu society’s practices which would normally outlaw their relationship. This rejection of “things standing still” is amplified by the social activism associated with the Lingayats, their rejection of discrimination against women, the inequalities of caste, and animal sacrifices. These traits are best understood in the context of the devotee’s new relationship with God and how this new relationship dissolves the long-standing “superiority” of God over men. For the devotionalists, God and man long to realize one another. When each realizes the other, the supreme goal of creation has been achieved: union of man and God (or, transcendence of the illusion of separation). We see this especially in Krishna’s love for Rādha. Early on in the Gita-Govinda, he tells her to put her foot on his head, an symbolic act equating God with man, rather than placing Himself above man. Such an act made a stark contrast to the prevailing Brahmanical order.
Bhakti achievement is the enactment, mobilization, and realization of the nature of Divine Love, perhaps best expressed by Vidyapati when writing of how he felt when overcome by Krishna: “Love is transformed, renewed, each movement.”
The fluidity of God’s love is expressed in the personalization of names for God in Śiva devotionalist poetry. Basavaņņa writes to his “Lord of the meeting rivers,” Dāsimayya to “Rāmanātha,” and Mahādēvi to her “Lord White as Jasmine.” This difference in title for the Lord, varying from poet-to-poet, emphasizes the unique and intimate relation the Bhakta has to his or her God, each displaying an aspect of spiritual life. Different poets have different conceptions of the one God, different names and forms, yet all long for love from Him/Her and wish to merge with Him/Her. These different conceptions are considered complementary rather than in competition. For the realized one, filled with experiential realization of union with God, such as Sri Ramakrishna, it is no contradiction to worship the Divine Mother Kali and, at the same time, affirm that “All this is Brahman.” The forms through which God is loved, are not at odds with realizing the formless God.
The Tamil saints used their poetry and songs to draw a picture of Śiva that is both terrifying and beautiful. Karaikkal Ammaiyar sees Śiva as perpetually dancing victoriously in the cremation grounds with matted hair and bloody fans. Other Nayanmar poets unabashedly call Śiva a “Madman!” while simultaneously affirming that, if a human could only see His maddening dance, then “even human birth on this wide earth would become a thing worth having.” In divine union, there is divine vision, there is divine purpose for life. For these poets, Śiva is Lord of the Dance. Through total, self-sacrificial love for Śiva (to the point of being a “slave” to Him), a devotee can see his beautiful dance and ultimately merge with Śiva in His creation. Mahādēvi thinks of Śiva as a husband who needs her just as she needs Him. She forsakes the world to be His bride and gradually gains the total attention of her love. In her poetry, Śiva is angry at His separation from her and the separation must be annihilated: both human and devotee long for absolute union. For Dāsimayya, when this separation is annihilated, the bounds of time, space, and the “separate self” all cease to exist in oneness with Śiva. His poetry goes so far as to dissolve both man-god and man-woman boundaries. He writes “[Rāmanātha], your body is in mine” and “the self that hovers between is neither man nor woman.” In Basavaņņa’s poetry, we find both the longing for union with Śiva and the overwhelming joy experienced after merging with the God. Śiva is only imaged as the “Lord of the meeting rivers.” This portrays the spiritual longing between human and God as a process of each finding themselves in the other: two rivers reveal themselves to be one River, always moving to one another to be One. In each of these case, we find the Bhakta moved towards union with god and motivated only by merging with Him. The unique flavor of their poetries only emphasizes the intimacy of the relationship between Bhakta and God.
In comparing Siva bhakti to Krishna bhakti, one finds many similarities. Jayadeva’s Gita-Govinda, a poem set to ragas chronicling Krishna and Rādha’s love, is the seminal text of Krishna bhakti and in this text we see many similarities to the poems of the Vīraśaivas. As in Mahādēvi’s poems, the Gita-Govinda shows the relationship between Rādha and Krishna as a human-deity relationship pervaded with longing, jealousy, and separation, though we know throughout that both Rādha and Krishna long for reunion. The pain associated with this separation is felt throughout all the bhakti literature. There is also the common theme of human-god union as being felt bodily. In both cases, this union is humanly real, sometimes erotic and sexual, and it is all-consuming. Just as the Śiva devotionalists longed for merging with God, so too do the Krishna devotionalists. They long to live forever in Brindaban with Krishna, the perfect, heavenly setting of the Gita-Govinda, where Krishna lives forever in eternal peace, a place of beauty and natural harmony. Just as Basavaņņa envisioned God as two waters meeting, so too did Govinda-dasa who says, “Let the water of my body join the waters of the lotus pool he bathes in,” and later, “Let me be sky, and moving through me/that cloud-dark Shyama, my beloved.” Dvija Chandidasa says of Krishna, “He draws me—to become an outcast, a hermit woman in the woods!” echoing the same intuitions expressed by Karaikkal Ammaiyar, who lived as a hermit in the woods to watch Siva’s terrifying dance, or Mahadevi, who lived naked in the woods to become as intimate as possible with her Lord. Even Mahadevi’s conception of Siva as “white jasmine” is replicated in the Gita-Govinda, only this time it is Krishna addressing Radha (not a human addressing God but vice-versa). Jayadeva writes for Krishna, “[Radha] your teeth are white jasmine. Love’s flower arms conquer worlds by worshipping your face.” This verse epitomizes the devotionalist realization that God longs for man just as much or more than man longs for God—Krishna is saying (my phrasing), ‘Radha, as you worship my face, I, too, worship yours.’
Love’s flower arms conquer worlds by worshipping Your face.
Worlds stand still, yet fall. Love is always moving. Paradoxically, “the moving stay.” This truth and its implications, known through God in the lives of sant-poets, go beyond mere words. Nonetheless, their words are a testament to both their experienced reality and to the power of expressing our own deepest realities as verse or social movement or song or, ideally, through our being. The devotionalist movements found an experience of the personality of God, each experience unique unto them, and wrote to show their longing for Him, His longing for the devotee, and the spiritually transformative power unleashed when this love is allowed to flourish in the world. They bear witness to our own potentiality to ascend to where they have been. Ascension to this point is where Bhakti points, where love for God points. It is the moving experience of a God who remains ever-peacefully stayed. Where can we say one river becomes two? Wherever that centered stream flows, wherever Krishna and Siva eternally dwell. This is where bhakti directs a devotee’s thoughts, powers of attention, and above all, a devotee’s love.