Book Excerpt: Love and the Turning Seasons: India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing
The twelfth-century Gīta-govinda of Jayadeva has a reputation as the last great poem in the Sanskrit language. It holds two other distinctions. First, it appears to be the first full account in poetry of Radha as Krishna’s favorite among the gopis or cowgirls of Vrindavana. Secondly, it seems to be the first historical instance of poetry written with specified ragas or musical modes assigned to its lyrics. The poem-cycle occurs in twelve cantos with twenty-four songs distributed among them, about 280 stanzas in total. It presents the love affair of Krishna and Radha as an acutely human love affair, from initial “secret desires” and urgent lovemaking to separation — nights of betrayal, mistrust, longing, feverish anguish, strange Imaginings — and finally to a consummation as spiritual as it is carnal. Jayadeva’s birthplace is uncertain — some think Orissa, some Mithila, some Bengal. Accounts make it clear he had carefully trained himself as a poet in the Sanskrit tradition, learnéd and in command of classical metrics, when he took a vow to wander as a homeless mendicant, to sleep no more than one night under any tree. On this endless pilgrimage he passed through the coastal city of Puri in Orissa State, one of India’s cardinal pilgrim destinations and home to the huge Jagannath Temple. There in Puri, the chief priest and administrator of the Jagannath Temple had a vision. In it Krishna told him that Jayadeva should marry his daughter Padmāvatī, a dancer dedicated to the temple, settle down, and compose a devotional poem of unprecedented beauty to Krishna. The result was the Gīta-govinda. At one point while composing his poem, overwhelmed that he had to write words that belonged to Krishna, Jayadeva, unable to continue, put down his stylus and went to the river to bathe. When he returned he asked for his meal. Padmāvatī exclaimed that she had already fed him. Confused, Jayadeva looked at his manuscript; the words he had felt unable to compose sat inked onto the palm-leaf page. Krishna had visited in Jayadeva’s absence and taken a hand in his own poem—then, mischievously disguised as the poet, stayed on to eat Jayadeva’s lunch. Meeting Padmāvatī wakened in Jayadeva the bedrock emotion, the rasa, of love. What had been distant accounts of spiritual grace, a familiar theme for poetry, or even a set of metaphysical abstractions, came alive in his own body: the merging of spiritual and erotic ecstasy. Under Padmāvatī’s hands Jayadeva learnt that the old tales, the yogic teachings, and the cycles of loss and longing were no far-off vision. They are tasted through one’s senses. You could say that all the metaphysics and yoga practices of India—heady, magnificent, intricate, contradictory—return in the end to a single imperative: love. I think it the genius of Radha-Krishna poetry to take the hair-splitting metaphysics of India, lift them from our easily bewildered minds, and relocate them in the glands of the human body. Krishna devotees say that in our current dark era, the Kali Yuga, not everyone can practice meditation; few can wrap their minds around subtle doctrine or follow the eight stages of yoga. Everyone can taste the desolations and ecstasies of love, though; this is where one finds Krishna. Some centuries after Jayadeva’s death, the Jagannatha Temple instituted the Gīta-govinda as its sole liturgy, with Padmāvatī’s dances performed in the sanctuary. All day and into the evening loudspeakers mounted on poles around the temple send the poem in loud song across courtyard and roof top, out to the cashew groves and semi-arid scrublands threaded by jackal and cobras.
Her companion reports—
“She’ll look into me—
tell love tales—
chafing with pleasure she’ll draw me—
into her body—
he glances about. He shivers for you,
bristles, calls wildly, sweats, goes forward,
The dark thicket closes
Eyes dark with kohl
ears bright with creamy tamala petals
a black lotus headdress and breasts
traced with musk-leaf—
In every thicket, friend,
Night’s precious cloak wraps a girl’s limbs.
The veiled affairs
the racing heart—
Eager, fearful, ecstatic—
darting her eyes across Govinda she
enters the thicket.
Ankles ringing with silver.
Her friends have slipped off.
Her lower lip’s moist
wistful, chaste, swollen, trembling, deep.
He sees her raw heart
sees her eyes rest on the couch of
fresh flowering twigs
Sung to Rāga Vibhāsa
Come, Radha, come. Krishna follows your
“Soil my bed with indigo footprints, Kaminī,
lay waste the grove
savage it with your petal-soft feet.
“I take your feet in lotus hands, Kaminī,
you have come far.
Lay these gold flaring anklets across my bed.
“Let yes yes flow from your mouth like amṛta.
From your breasts, Kaminī,
I draw off the dukūla-cloth. We are no longer separate.”
About the book:
For thousands of years, the Indian subcontinent has proved a fertile ground for the world’s most captivating erotic love poetry, and the genius of its devotional writing harnesses great energy and mystical insight. It is in fact often hard to tell whether the poets are offering poems of spiritual longing using the garments of love poetry or writing erotic pieces in the guise of devotion. Perhaps, in a land where erotic sculptures routinely ornament its many temples and gods are known for their explosive sexuality, this question has little meaning to these remarkable writers. In their devotional traditions, eroticism and mysticism seem inseparable.
This collection spans 2,500 years and includes work originally sung or recited by well-known bards: Kabir, Mirabai, Lal Ded, Vidyapati and Tagore. There are also poems from the Upanishads, ancient Sanskrit poetry and Punjabi folk lyrics. The poets have largely emerged from the ranks of the dispossessed: leather workers, refuse collectors, maidservants, women and orphans. Their vision is of a democratic society in which all voices count. Often they faced persecution for speaking candidly, or daring to speak of spiritual matters at all. The notes include profiles of these legendary lives. Several of these poets simply vanished, absorbed into a deity, or disappeared in a flash of purple lightning. A few produced miracles—most of them are surrounded by clouds of mystery. Andrew Schelling has drawn on the work of twenty-four translators, including A. K. Ramanujan, Arun Kolatkar, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Deben Bhattacharya, Dilip Chitre, Gieve Patel, Ezra Pound and Robert Bly to build the finest anthology of India’s erotic and spiritual poetry ever assembled for the general reader.
About the author:
ANDREW SCHELLING is a North American poet and translator. He has published seven books of translations of classical Sanskrit and Prakrit poetry, including The Cane Groves of Narmada Riverand Dropping the Bow: Poems from Ancient India, which received the 1992 Academy of American Poets award for translation, the first time that association recognized work from an Asian language. Schelling’s poetry and essays have been published widely in the United States, and are recognized for their close attention to the orders of the natural world. His latest book, a folkloric account of California writing and ethnography, is Tracks Along the Left Coast: Jaime de Angulo and Pacific Coast Culture.
He teaches poetry and Sanskrit at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.