Reviewed by Bhaswati Ghosh
Title: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing
Edited by Andrew Schelling
I left shame behind,
took as an ornament
the mockery of local folk.
Unswerving, I lost my cleverness
in the bewilderment of ecstasy.
— Manikkavacakar (9thcentury), Tr. A.K. Ramanujan
In a lover’s enraptured world, love is the breeze that strips one, quite simply, of the garment of shame. In reading Love and the Turning Seasons, the newest offering from Aleph Classics, a series that aims to bring new translations of India’s literary heritage, the reader is swept in that denuding breeze. Edited by Andrew Schelling, the collection of poems bears the slightly beguiling subtitle, India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing. I say beguiling because it would seem like the poems could fall in either category – spiritual or erotic. In reality, as Manikkavacakar, the ninth-century Shiva devotee tells us, the line between the two states is as diaphanous as air itself. For, in the “bewilderment of ecstasy”, who is left to distinguish between the flesh and the spirit? This seamless merging of the body and the soul is at the heart of this anthology of bhakti poetry, translated by various poets and literary translators.
Love and the Turning Seasons alights upon the reader as a songbird to take her across time and space – from the sixth century (barring the Isa Upanishad) right up to the twentieth, on an anticlockwise path beginning in the south of India and ending in the east. Despite the multiplicity of expressions of the bhaktas or poet-minstrels, informed as they were by specific cultural and regional parlance, what unifies them is their rejection of societal norms in their unwavering quest for the divine. These were among the first true radicals in the Indian context, repudiating, with delightful contempt, tradition and convention. Gender-bending, caste-subverting, these individuals lived and (even) died on their own terms and sang of the divine with ariose abandonment. As Lal Ded, another Shiva devotee from Kashmir said,
Who instructed you, O Brahmin,
to cut this sheep’s throat—
to placate a lifeless stone?
— Lal Ded (early 1300s), Tr. Andrew Schelling
The Sanskrit word bhakti means devotion and has come to connote intense, even blind idolatry, and in these troublingly skewed times, bhakta (devotee) has become a bad word, an uncomplimentary term for blind followers of certain ideologies, political or otherwise. As the anthology affirms through its diverse voices, the bhakti poets were anything but blind in their devotion. They questioned, complained to and even castigated the deity who had their undivided attention. Mirabai, the 16th-century Rajput princess-queen who left her life of royal luxury for the “only man” she knew, the dark-complexioned Krishna, echoes the candid spiritual eroticism of 12th-century Mahādēviyakka from Karnataka, when she says,
how can I sleep?
Since you left my bed
the seconds drag past like epochs,
a new torrent of pain.
— Mirabai (16thcentury), Tr. Andrew Schelling
Nearly two hundred years since Mirabai, Ramprasad Sen takes issue with his mother deity, goddess Kali, in a manner of ninda-stuti, which, as the annotation following his section in the book, defines as “praise in the form of abusive reproach”. Ramprasad approaches Kali as an errant child who, despite all his wrongdoing, must be comforted by the Mother. He doesn’t stop there but goes on to remind the goddess that she must deliver him for the sake of her own reputation. For there could be many
Bad children, but who ever heard
Of a bad mother?
— Ramprasad Sen (18thcentury), Tr. Leonard Nathan and Clinton Seely
As much as these poet-singers, the majority of whom came from the lower rungs of the Hindu caste structure, engage in a raillery of sorts with their divine lovers or parents, they are fiercely direct when it comes to lambasting their fellow humans for their hypocrisies and vanities. Tukaram, “born a śudra, at the bottom of the caste hierarchy”, and the most-loved voice of the Varkari (meaning pilgrimage) tradition in Maharashtra doesn’t mince words as he takes on the superiority complex of higher-caste folks.
They cite Vedic injunctions but can’t do themselves any good.
They are unable to view their own bodies in perspective.
— Tukaram (17thcentury), Tr. Dilip Chitre
Equally forthright and even more acerbic is Akho or Akha Bhagat, a low-caste goldsmith from Gujarat, considered “magically impure due to (his) contact with chemicals”. Using quotidian images and symbols — turbans, whiskers and doors — he conveys his allergy for religious rituals, monopolised by the rich and the upper castes. Akho wrote in six-line poem sayings also known as chhappas, translated brilliantly by Gieve Patel, using a mix of contemporary lexicon and idioms.
Turban tilted rakishly
to hide the bald spot,
but how will that mask
the emptiness in your heart?
Your charade goes poof,
a miserable fart.
Akha says: Rotted doors
— Akho or Akha Bhagat (17thcentury), Tr. Gieve Patel
The annotation on Akho highlights his thirst for learning. Besides the knowledge his work endowed him with — the properties of minerals – his poetry also displays an understanding of Hindu scriptures, astrology, astronomy, medicine, music, sculpture and agriculture and the habits of birds and animals. This hunger for knowledge – worldly or pertaining to the spirit – is a definitive trait of the bhakti poets through the ages.
One can hardly dwell on the subject of self-knowledge as experienced directly, not theologically grasped, without mentioning Kabir, the iconic poster boy of the whole bhakti tradition. Nearly seven hundred years since his death, Kabir continues to be mythicized and celebrated across the Indian sub-continent. Everything about Kabir – from the secularizing ambiguity of his birth (he’s claimed to be both a Hindu and a Muslim) to his deep immersion into the spiritual realm and his sharp critique of religious orthodoxies – keeps him astonishingly current and fresh. It’s not a surprise that Love and the Turning Seasons provides this master of spiritual riddles and lover of all lovers prime real estate. Kabir is the seeker who is ready to burn in the purgatory of spiritual quest but wouldn’t have anything less than direct lived experience when it comes to connecting with the divine.
The Sacred Books of the East are nothing but words.
I looked through their covers one day sideways.
What Kabir talks of is only what he has lived
If you have not lived through something, it is not
— Kabir (15th century), Tr. Robert Bly
The delicious irony about Kabir is that while his teachings are claimed by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike, he spared no one when it came to dogmatism.
Saints, I see the world is mad.
If I tell the truth they rush to beat me,
if I lie they trust me.
I’ve seen the pious Hindus, rule-followers,
early morning bath-takers—
killing souls, they worship rocks. [Emphasis mine]
They know nothing.
I’ve seen plenty of Muslim teachers, holy men
reading their holy books
and teaching their pupils techniques.
They know just as much.
— Kabir (15thcentury), Tr. Linda Hess and Shukdeo Singh
This currency is exactly why one reads Kabir and his fellow troubadours on the bhakti bandwagon. One also reads them for their brazen fearlessness, their unabashed expression of sexual longing, their dismissal of inhibitions and coyness in accepting the stirrings of the body as much as the soul – Mahādēviyakka , Lal Ded and Mirabai being prime examples. And one reads them for the exquisite, arguably ethereal metaphors of their songs. These are lovers who bled with the bruise of intense longing and, through the alchemy of their self-effacing absorption of the temporal world, converted their pain into dew-speckled flower petals. Evidently, the fragrance and teardrops have transcended all time and geography.
Would a circling surface vulture
know such depths of sky
as the moon would know?
O lord white as jasmine
only you would know
the way of your devotees:
how would these,
on the buffalo’s hide?
— Mahādēviyakka (12thcentury), Tr. A.K. Ramanujan
An anthology on spiritual love poetry must, by definition, include the separation anxiety of a love-struck Radha, the essential symbol of a pining heart. The Vaishnava poetic canon, rich with Radha’s trysts with Krishna, is represented by heavyweights like Jayadeva, Vidyāpati and Chandidāsa in the anthology. Curiously enough, another literary titan from Bengal finds a spot alongside them – Bhānusiṃha or Rabindranath Tagore – aided by his poems written in Brajabuli, a Bengali literary vernacular that had been out of use for centuries.
Jayadeva’s Gīta-govinda, reputed to be the last great poem in Sanskrit is translated with delicate facility by Andrew Schelling. Nature imagery and metaphors flow into each other like the body and the soul merging into one in this classic poem.
the crater-pocked moon as though
exposing a crime
slips onto the paths of
girls who seek lovers.
It casts a platinum web
over Vrindavan forest’s dark hollows—
a sandalwood spot
on the proud face of sky.
— Jayadeva, 12thcentury, Tr. Andrew Schelling
Love and the Turning Seasons is a gift for the modern reader. An aside: it’s hard to miss the kinship the book’s title shares with Turn, Turn, Turn, a song Pete Seeger wrote in 1950, the lyrics for which were adapted from the English version of the first eight verses of the third chapter of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes.
Coming back to the anthology itself, most of the featured singer-poets wrote or rather sang in the vernacular language of the region they came from. The translations, despite the obvious limitations of the exercise, are sensitive, lyrical and playful – same as, one surmises – their creators intended them to be.
Read this book to be swept off your feet by the extraordinary wind of mystical love.
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Her website is bhaswatighosh.com.