I think some of my earliest interactions with Christianity and Buddhism were through visiting their houses of worship: an ornate Chinese Buddhist temple near the Microsoft campus, a Unitarian church in which the local bhajan group held interfaith “Sunday school” and weekly bhajans. However, I didn’t visit a mosque until I was sixteen, and I didn’t have any Muslim friends until I reached high school. My childhood encounters with Islam were limited to singing bhajans which made reference to Allah and the Prophet Muhammad, and talking to a Persian family who also attended the Sunday school and bhajans.
I think “Idgah” was my first introduction to Islam, even though it doesn’t discuss much of the religion itself. It’s just a simple story of a young boy and his day celebrating Eid, originally written in Hindi by the Hindustani author Munshi Premchand (1880-1936); it’s also one of his most well-known stories. Here’s the English translation I grew up reading (written by another great modern Indian writer, Khushwant Singh):
This moving poem was written by Sachchidananda Hirananda Vatsyayan (1911–1987), a great modern Hindi writer who often used the pen name “Ajneya”, meaning “beyond comprehension.” It’s referencing the Ramayana, the great Hindu epic in which the vanara sena, an army of monkeys, builds the prince Rama a bridge to the island of Lanka in order to rescue his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana. The poet uses this episode to make a point about how we view history. I think it’s expressing a similar idea as the quote “until lions write their own history, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”, but through the idiom of Hindu mythology.
जो पुल बनाएँगें
पीछे रह जाएँगे
सेनाएँ हो जाएगी पार
मारे जाएँगे रावण
जयी होंगें राम
जो निर्माता रहे
jo pul banaayenge
peeche reh jaayenge
senaayein ho jaayegi paar
maare jaayenge Raavan
jayee honge Ram
jo nirmaataa rahe
Those who build bridges,
Will inevitably be left behind.
Armies will cross,
Ravana will be killed,
Rama will be victorious.
But those who did the building
Will be known as “monkeys” in history.
Arun Kolatkar (1931-2004) was an influential modern Indian poet who wrote in both English and Marathi. I don’t know much else about him, but I love his description of his reading habits. This is his response from an interview, in which he was asked about the books on Bosnia he had lying on his shelves:
When I try to describe the culture I grew up in–Telugu Brahmins living in the US–I tend to think of it as very conservative and orthodox, finding its creative expression either through unbelievably cheesy Tollywood movies (which my family never watched anyway), classical dance, or Carnatic music. Even when I was younger, I wished South Indians had an equivalent to boisterous, energetic, communal dances like garba or bhangra, which have become even more prominent in my life ever since I came to college. Even South Indian weddings are polar opposites of North Indian ones; I saw this first-hand when my uncle married a North Indian woman, and my family awkwardly sat through the sangeet and the other more boisterous (North Indian) parts of the wedding.
So, whenever I come across something that counteracts my narrative of Telugu people (and South Indians in general) as being stiflingly uptight and conservative, I become very interested very quickly. The following poems represent a line of thinking in South Indian Hinduism that sees no problem in blurring the lines between romantic/erotic love and devotion to God; a philosophy that has produced some beautiful works of art, literature, and music.
Everything from this point on is going to be one long series of excerpts from the 1994 book When God is a Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs by Ksetrayya and Others by David Dean Shulman, A. K. Ramanujan, and Velcheru Narayana Rao. It’s a long read, but hopefully it’ll be kind of eye-opening as well. The first part is an introduction to the poetry itself and the history of devotional/erotic poetry in South India. I’ve included a couple of the actual poems as well, concluding with a socio-political explanation of why these poems have remained virtually unknown in the recent past.
What kind of poetry is this?
The poems translated here belong to the category of padams—short musical compositions of a light classical nature, intended to be sung and, often, danced. Originally, they belonged to the professional caste of dancers and singers, devadasis or vesyas (and their male counterparts, the nattuvanar musicians), who were associated with both temples and royal courts in late medieval South India.
Padams were composed throughout India, early examples in Sanskrit occurring in Jayadeva’s famous devotional poem, the Gitagovinda (twelfth century). In South India the genre assumed a standardized form in the second half of the fifteenth century with the Telugu padams composed by the great temple-poet Tallapaka Annamacarya, also known by the popular name Annamayya, at Tirupati. This form includes an opening line called pallavi that functions as a refrain, often in conjunction with the second line, anupallavi. This refrain is repeated after each of the (usually three) caranam verses.
Padams have been and are still being composed in the major languages of South India: Telugu, Tamil, and Kannada. However, the padam tradition reached its expressive peak in Telugu, the primary language for South Indian classical music, during the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries in southern Andhra and the Tamil region.
With the abolition of the devadasi tradition by the British, padams, like other genres proper to this community, made their way to the concert stage. They still comprise a major part of the repertoire of classical vocal music and dance, alongside related forms such as the kirttanam (which is never danced).
A short history of devotional poetry in South India
A painting by S. Rajam depicting Kshetrayya (with Krishna in the background)
A painting by S. Rajam depicting Krishna and a woman (probably Radha)
Painting of Annamayya with Kannada text underneath
From its formative period in the seventh to ninth centuries onward, South Indian devotional poetry was permeated by erotic themes and images. In the Tamil poems of the Saiva Nayanmar and the Vaisnava Alvars, god appears frequently as a lover, in roles inherited from the more ancient Tamil love poetry of the so-called sangam period (the first centuries A.D.)… Such poems—addressed ultimately to the god, Siva or Visnu, and contextualized by a devotional framework, usually that of worship in the god’s temple—are early South Indian examples of the literary linkage between mystical devotion and erotic discourse so prevalent in the world’s major religions.
A historical continuum stretches from these Tamil poets of devotion all the way to Ksetrayya and Sarangapani, a millenium later. The padam poets clearly draw on the vast cultural reserves of Tamil bhakti, in its institutional as well as its affective and personal forms. Their god, like that of the Tamil poet-devotees, is a deity both embodied in temple images and yet finally transcending these icons, and they sing to him with all the emotional and sensual intensity that so clearly characterizes the inner world of medieval South Indian Hinduism.
And yet these Telugu devotees also present us with their own irreducible vision, or series of visions, of the divine, at play with the world, and perhaps the most conspicuous attribute of this refashioned cosmology is its powerful erotic coloring… what does it mean to love god in this way?
“Let’s pretend, for a moment, that you are a 22-year-old college student in Kampala, Uganda. You’re sitting in class and discreetly scrolling through Facebook on your phone. You see that there has been another mass shooting in America, this time in a place called San Bernardino. You’ve never heard of it. You’ve never been to America. But you’ve certainly heard a lot about gun violence in the U.S. It seems like a new mass shooting happens every week.
You wonder if you could go there and get stricter gun legislation passed. You’d be a hero to the American people, a problem-solver, a lifesaver. How hard could it be? Maybe there’s a fellowship for high-minded people like you to go to America after college and train as social entrepreneurs. You could start the nonprofit organization that ends mass shootings, maybe even win a humanitarian award by the time you are 30.
Sound hopelessly naïve? Maybe even a little deluded? It is. And yet, it’s not much different from how too many Americans think about social change in the “Global South.”
If you asked a 22-year-old American about gun control in this country, she would probably tell you that it’s a lot more complicated than taking some workshops on social entrepreneurship and starting a non-profit. She might tell her counterpart from Kampala about the intractable nature of our legislative branch, the long history of gun culture in this country and its passionate defenders, the complexity of mental illness and its treatment. She would perhaps mention the added complication of agitating for change as an outsider.
But if you ask that same 22-year-old American about some of the most pressing problems in a place like Uganda — rural hunger or girl’s secondary education or homophobia — she might see them as solvable. Maybe even easily solvable.
I’ve begun to think about this trend as the reductive seduction of other people’s problems. It’s not malicious. In many ways, it’s psychologically defensible; we don’t know what we don’t know.
If you’re young, privileged, and interested in creating a life of meaning, of course you’d be attracted to solving problems that seem urgent and readily solvable. Of course you’d want to apply for prestigious fellowships that mark you as an ambitious altruist among your peers. Of course you’d want to fly on planes to exotic locations with, importantly, exotic problems.
There is a whole “industry” set up to nurture these desires and delusions — most notably, the 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered in the U.S., many of them focused on helping people abroad. In other words, the young American ego doesn’t appear in a vacuum. Its hubris is encouraged through job and internship opportunities, conferences galore, and cultural propaganda — encompassed so fully in the patronizing, dangerously simple phrase “save the world.”
I highly recommend reading the full article. They author isn’t making the argument that Americans should stop trying to work in other countries; rather, they emphasize that we should be working in the right way. (I was pleasantly surprised to see the NGO Tostan mentioned — my high school French teacher is friends with Tostan’s founder, and we did yearly fundraisers for them. I’m glad they’re doing the right kind of work in Senegal!)
This is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. For so long, I’ve felt like at some point in my life after college, I want to go to India and do some kind of work there — be it in environmental or educational policy, helping a school or orphanage, or anything else. But at the same time, I wasn’t born in India, nor am I an Indian citizen. I haven’t spent more than a couple months at a time there — and that too just staying with relatives in Hyderabad, Bangalore, or Delhi. I’m not fluent in any Indian language. I haven’t even been to India since ninth grade. Do I even have the right to want to make a difference in a region of the world that is so distant from me and my life?
I don’t have an answer to this question, and I don’t expect to any time soon. Just something to keep in mind.
Winter has officially begun with full force in Chicago — I’m typing this during the warmest part of the day, at a balmy 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite how pretty campus looks when covered in snow, walking outside is an ordeal that requires one to adopt a marshmallow-like aesthetic while also covering their face like a Tuareg man.
I guess the weather isn’t that bad, and it’s definitely an exciting, new experience. However, on the bitterly cold two-minute walk from the bus stop to the dining hall, I asked myself, “Why did humans decide to build a city here, of all places? The first European colonists in this area must have spent a winter or two here — why didn’t they take the logical decision to build their settlement somewhere else? Why is it so damn col– oh we’re at the dining hall now?” My questions obviously weren’t too serious, but they got me thinking about this passage from Charles Mann’s book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created:
Omid Safi, an accomplished scholar of Islam, has written an excellent article about the current tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have already have widespread repercussions on the Middle East as a whole. Many news outlets have described the conflict as rooted in Sunni-Shi’a rivalry, which is simplistic and not-totally-accurate, and Safi argues for a more nuanced understanding of the situation. Below are some of my favorite excerpts from the article.
“One. In order to understand this conflict, do not start with Sunni/Shi‘a seventh century succession disputes to Prophet. This is a modern dispute, not one whose answers you are going to find in pre-modern books of religious history and theology. Think about how absurd it would be if we were discussing a political conflict between the U.S. and Russia, and instead of having political scientists we brought on people to talk about the historical genesis of the Greek Orthodox Church.
“The idea of an unending, primordial conflict between Sunnis and Shiites explains little about the ebbs and flows of regional politics. This is not a resurgence of a 1,400-year-old conflict.”
The attempt to explain the Iranian/Saudi conflict, or for that matter every Middle Eastern conflict, in purely religious terms is part of an ongoing Orientalist imagination that depicts these societies as ancient, unchanging, un-modern societies where religion is the sole determining factor (allegedly unlike an imagined “us,” who have managed to become modern and secular.) Watch this four-part series by the late, great Edward Said on how Orientalism operates.
There is no disputing that religion is a factor in understanding the Middle East. In some conflicts, it might even be a primary factor. But it is never, ever the only factor. Most often it is the other factors (history, economics, ideology, demographics) that are much more important.”