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Book Review: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing, Ed. Andrew Schelling

Reviewed by Bhaswati Ghosh

Love and the Turning Seasons

Title: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing
Edited by Andrew Schelling
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: 294
Price: ₹399

 

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,


Dark One,
how can I sleep?
Since you left my bed
the seconds drag past like epochs,
each moment
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

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Book Excerpt: Love and the Turning Seasons: India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing

Love and the Turning Seasons

Jayadeva

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.

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