Ninda-stuti: Trash-talking God

Looking at the various religious traditions of the world, devotion takes a staggering number of musical and literary forms, such as the qawwali music sung at Sufi shrines in India and Pakistan, the gospel music of African-American churches, mantras chanted at a Buddhist temple, and the boisterous Vodou-Catholic rara parades of Haiti. Hindus express devotion (bhakti, in Sanskrit) through a variety of ways, from intricate, philosophical Sanskrit poetry to simple bhajans sung by children and adults alike.

The tone of devotional music and poetry is often one of emotional, self-deprecating adoration: “Oh God, Lord of the universe, you are so great! I am a sinner in your eyes, but you are an ocean of compassion! Please bestow your blessings upon me!” However, even within Hinduism alone, there are many more dimensions to bhakti. For example, in South Indian poetry, bhakti has historically taken on the character of shringara (erotic love). Another unique form through which bhakti has been expressed in South India is that of ninda-stuti: basically, trash-talking God.

What is ninda-stuti?

The Sanskrit word ninda means “abuse, blame.” Stuti is a general term for devotional literary compositions, but literally means “adulation, praise.” Putting these two together, we get what William Jackson calls a “song of praise by way of sarcasm” (Jackson 367).

Madhu Khanna writes, “It is commonly understood that a ninda-stuti is a form of shlesha-kavya, literary composition laden with double entendre. This form of address is ultimately looked upon as a form of dvesha- bhakti, devotion expressed through hatred and enmity.

Such forms of dialogue are well known in the epics and in the Bhagavata Purana. In the Mahabharata, Shishupala and Dantavaktra recite a ninda-stuti to Krishna. In the Bhagavata, Kamsa, Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha, and in the Ramayana, Ravana and Kumbhakarna don the roles of god-haters.

The [idea] is that it is the god in question who empowers them with such hatred, it is god who creates these situations through his power of maya [illusion] to put such characters in a quandary and finally it is god alone who releases them and frees them from bondage to the immoral and evil traits of their character” (Khanna 205).

Ninda-stutis aren’t just found in epics, though. Their “familiarity and humorous disrespect” lend themselves naturally to performances of music, drama, and dance (Jackson 367). Quite a few ninda-stutis are presented in performances of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam dance. The Tamil composers Muthu Thandavar (16th century), Papavinasa Mudaliar, and Marimutha Pillai (both early 18th century) were especially known for their ninda-stutis. An online Carnatic radio station notes that “these compositions are seen as passionate outbursts of the devotee, who takes liberties with [the] Lord because of the special relationship between them. Even though the [lyrics appear] to criticise the deity, the songs are an expression of affection, with the composer treating the deity addressed as an equal” (emphasis mine).

I want to emphasize that last phrase: the composers of ninda-stutis are addressing their chosen deity as an equal, and I think this is a really unique and fascinating way of imagining a relationship to the divine. It’s important that William Jackson reminds us that this attitude is not totally unique to Hinduism: “there are also examples of this complaining to the deity going back to the Old Testament: Job XVI 6-17 and XXI, 1-6.” (Jackson 367). However, I would argue that most religious traditions, including many Hindu traditions, have not fostered this attitude to the extent that we see occurring in ninda-stutis. In this post, I want to highlight three examples of ninda-stuti, all composed in different languages and addressed to different deities.
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