A Conversation Between Desire and Delight: the Poetry of Nanne Choda

As a kid, I loved reading about mythology: Greek, Egyptian, Hindu, you name it. I grew up reading the Percy Jackson books alongside Amar Chitra Katha comics. What I enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) most about mythology was the richness, diversity, and depth of its characters, and the ways in which modern authors were able to flesh out and humanize these gods and heroes in so many different ways. Rick Riordan (author of the Percy Jackson series) had a very different take on the Greek pantheon than Kate McMullan (the Myth-o-Mania books). Similarly, Indian authors today have been exploring the literary possibilities in Hindu mythology and epics; I’ve particularly enjoyed reading Amish’s Shiva Trilogy and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s women-centric retellings, like Palace of Illusions.

However, the more I learn about South Asian history and literature, the more I’ve come to realize that this isn’t just a modern phenomenon. People have been playing with mythology and sacred narratives, emphasizing different aspects, changing up the settings, and adding totally new details and characters, for as long as these narratives have existed! This may seem obvious to everyone else, but it’s been quite a revelation to me. I want to share a wonderful passage from classical Telugu poetry, written around nine hundred years ago, that illustrates this exact phenomenon. But first, some background…

Nanne Choda, a forgotten poet

The poet whose work I want to feature in this post is Nanne Choda; I came across his writing in an anthology of classical Telugu poetry spanning a thousand years, translated by David Shulman (whom I interviewed earlier this summer) and Velcheru Narayana Rao.

Very little is known about Nanne Choda; in fact, his poetry had been lost to history until one of his works was discovered and re-published in the early 1900s by the scholar Manavalli Ramakrishna Kavi (1866-1957). Ramakrishna Kavi claimed that Nanne Choda actually lived before Nannaya, who is generally believed to be the first Telugu poet. While Shulman and Rao acknowledge that “there is an archaic quality to his verses,” they tentatively place Nanne Choda in the twelfth century AD, a century after Nannaya.

He seems to have been the ruler of a small kingdom called Orayuru, which some people associate with the city of Tiruchirappalli in the center of Tamil Nadu. Modern Telugu poets have given Nanne Choda the title of Kavi-raja Shikha-mani (“Crest-Jewel of the King of Poets”), but Shulman and Rao write that “his book seems to have disappeared from the horizon of literary discourse already in medieval times; later poets never mention him.”

The Birth of Kumara

The only surviving work of Nanne Choda is his epic poem Kumara-sambhava, “The Birth of Kumara.” Kumara (also called Skanda, Murugan, Kartikeya, Subramanya) is the son of Shiva and Parvati, and younger brother to Ganesha; he is the god in the Hindu pantheon who symbolizes courage and valor. “The Birth of Kumara” is about the intricate sequence of events that led to Kumara’s birth.

In composing his Telugu narrative of Kumara’s birth, Nanne Choda seems to have taken inspiration from the much more well-known Sanskrit Kumara-sambhava that was composed by the legendary poet Kalidasa (fifth century AD) around seven hundred years prior. Kalidasa’s Kumara-sambhava is considered by some to be “the greatest long poem in classical Sanskrit, by the greatest poet of the language.” Although I don’t think Nanne Choda’s work has been given such hyperbolic praise, hopefully the following selection will surprise you in a number of ways.

Continue reading “A Conversation Between Desire and Delight: the Poetry of Nanne Choda”

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In Praise of the Teacher: the Guru Ashtakam

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Students honoring their teachers at a Guru Purnima function in Udaipur, Rajasthan. Source
This past weekend, many Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains in the Indian subcontinent and around the world celebrated the festival of Guru Purnima. In the book Memory and Hope, Dr. Anantanand Rambachan writes:

“The Hindu calendar, in fact, sets aside a special day each year, Guru Purnima, for remembering one’s religious teacher. It is an occasion for visiting the teacher, expressing gratitude and honoring him with gifts. It is a time also for the renewal of one’s commitment to the wisdom received from the guru.

Guru Purnima, although holding special meaning for the religious teacher, is extended in meaning to include teachers of all subjects. Remembering our indebtedness to teachers is meant to awaken our own generosity to share knowledge with other and to support those who seek and impart wisdom.”

The Guru Ashtakam (“Eight Verses for the Guru”) is a poem attributed to the eighth-century Hindu philosopher and theologian Adi Shankara, who is credited with a number of other Sanskrit texts and devotional compositions. This composition emphasizes the importance of one’s guru in the spiritual journey. Without devotion to one’s teacher, all of one’s achievements, knowledge, and possessions are essentially useless, the text tells us.

Of course, this text suffers from some limitations and caveats that we have to acknowledge today. As with many of Adi Shankara’s other compositions, the Guru Ashtakam is clearly addressed to an upper-caste man. In the third stanza, Adi Shankara mentions that a student may have knowledge of the Vedas and Vedic disciplines. However, at the time of the Guru Ashtakam’s composition (and even today, to an extent), lower-caste men and women would simply not have access to those scriptures. Additionally, in the text, one’s wife is placed in the same category as one’s wealth and fame. Finally, although Adi Shankara exhorts us to be fully focused and devoted to the guru’s feet, we have to remember that today many so-called gurus are shamelessly using religion and spirituality for the purpose of generating personal wealth and exploiting their followers. We shouldn’t let blind devotion cloud our judgment and critical thinking.

To me, the main take-away of the Guru Ashtakam isn’t blind, unquestioning devotion to a guru. Although it emphasizes the importance of the guru, it also outlines the most essential qualities of a student: humility and gratitude. To me, this is what Guru Purnima is all about. After all, as Dr. Rambachan writes, “If we forget that we are receivers [of knowledge], we will not be generous givers.”

Continue reading “In Praise of the Teacher: the Guru Ashtakam”

Some thoughts on #NotInMyName

Note: This short piece was originally published on the website of Sadhana Coalition of Progressive Hindus, a grassroots organization I’m part of. When I use “we,” I am referring to Sadhana. 

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Source: Al Jazeera

In the past few days, thousands of people across the world, both in India and abroad, have publicly taken a stand against the cow/beef-related mob violence, lynchings, and targeted killings of Muslims, Dalits, and other marginalized groups in India, under the slogan #NotInMyName. (If you want to read more about the protests and the violence that inspired them, you can Google “not in my name protests india”.) These protests have been widely praised, but also heavily critiqued by others.

Rajesh Rajamani argues that the #NotInMyName protests are “part of the problem,” and take focus away from “Brahmanism, which is at the core of the Hindu religion, and its scriptures that sanction social inequality and allow for violence to preserve its unequal structure.” He further states that any distinction made between Hinduism and Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) is “imaginary and false”.

Mr. Rajamani is correct in pointing out that any discussion of the violence perpetrated against Dalits and Muslims is incomplete if we do not also address the systemic violence that takes place through the institution of caste. Brahmanism refers specifically to the system of caste hierarchy which leads to entrenched social inequity.

However, we simply cannot agree with Mr. Rajamani’s claims that Brahmanism lies at the heart of Hinduism, and that Hindutva is no different from Hinduism.

Continue reading “Some thoughts on #NotInMyName”

Imagining white gods: colorism in Hindu art

It’s no secret that light skin is favored over dark skin throughout the Indian subcontinent, an attitude that is found in many other societies and is generally referred to as colorism or shadeism:

“Everyday media culture in India … consistently marginalizes dark-skinned Indians, especially dark-skinned women. Matrimonial classified advertisements in Indian newspapers specify routinely that prospective grooms prefer women with ‘‘fair’’ or ‘‘wheatish’’ complexions. A majority of the Indian female actors in Bollywood are light-skinned women, and the few dark-skinned women actors who have overcome the restrictive norms of skin color wear thick make-up to conceal their dark facial skin.

Interweaving colorism into a seamless package of physical attributes, the faces of Indian models in advertisements are almost universally light-skinned with smooth complexions, shining black hair, and slim bodies. The most lucrative products in the Indian cosmetics sector since 1998, a decade after India’s initial incorporation into the global economy, are chemical and herbal products that promise to reduce darkness and preserve light skin by preventing further tanning.”

Colorism in India doesn’t just exist in the realm of cosmetics and modeling; it finds a stronghold in religion as well, which makes understanding it even more complicated. One of my earliest posts on this blog talked about how the popular Western depiction of Jesus Christ as a white man has actually had some pretty serious consequences. In this post, I’m going to touch on some questions that are much closer to home:

  • Can colorism in the Indian subcontinent be attributed to British colonialism alone, or are there much older causes?
  • How has colorism influenced popular depictions of Hindu deities?
  • What are the social implications of depicting Hindu deities with extremely fair skin?
  • Are colorist attitudes beginning to change among Hindus, and among all South Asians in general?

Origins of colorism in South Asia

I think it makes a lot of sense to imagine a connection between British colonialism in India and colorism in South Asia today. However, all the explanations for colorism that I’ve come across make it very clear that colonialism did not introduce notions of colorism into South Asia; rather, it significantly strengthened pre-existing attitudes. So, where did these pre-colonial attitudes come from?

Devdutt Pattanaik, a popular writer on Hindu mythology, asks the same question: “Wherefrom comes this love for gori-chitti [light-skinned] complexion, this desire for fair brides in matrimonial [advertisements]? People say it is the hangover of our Aryan past -– that the nomadic tribes who came from the [northwest] held the dark-skinned settled communities of the subcontinent in disdain. Aryan gods like Indra were white.

But this white supremacist flavor does not hold firm in the face of other evidence. Some say Shiva was a Dravidian god, a god of the settled communities –- but he is described as Karpura-Goranga, he who is as fair as camphor. Some say that Vishnu and Ram are gods of the Aryan imperialists –- but both are described as dark. This theory of Aryan invasion, with roots in 19th-century racial theory, seems too simplistic and rather pedestrian to modern scholars despite its great popularity…”

If the origins of colorism can’t be adequately explained by the Aryan invasion theory, where else should we look? Radhika Parameswaran, a professor at Indiana University’s Media School, attributes colorism to perceptions about caste status:

“The castes that are not connected to manual labor outdoors tend to have higher status and prestige according to social norms. Lighter skin color is viewed as a status symbol for the middle and upper castes, who did not have to do manual labor.

From a historical and anthropological point of view, the relationship between caste and skin color is murky. There is no established causal relationship or even correlation between skin color and caste. But here’s what I will tell you, there is a strong perception that skin color and caste are linked and as long as that perception lasts, it will matter a great deal. So, I would say there is a widespread and entrenched perception that lighter skin color equals higher caste.” (emphasis mine)

Continue reading “Imagining white gods: colorism in Hindu art”

The doomsday fisherman

One of my goals for this summer was to post more frequently, and to get rid of the thirty-some incomplete posts I have lying around in my drafts folder. With only a week left before I go back to college… I guess that was more of a long-term goal. Anyway, in this post I just want to share an eerie and fascinating Sanskrit poem I came across a few weeks ago.

This poem belongs to a genre of Sanskrit poetry called subhashita. In Sanskrit, the prefix su means “good” and bhāshita means “spoken”, so subhashita literally means “well-spoken”. Subhashitas are typically short poems of just two or four lines following a specific meter. Subhashitas have been composed on a wide variety of subjects, but what distinguishes all of them is their brevity, wittiness and creativity.

Before getting to the poem, though, we need a little context. This subhashita makes reference to a number of Hindu religious figures, mainly the dashavataras: ten avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu. In Hindu mythology, the god Vishnu incarnates when evil is on the rise in the universe and dharma is in danger. It’s believed that so far, he’s incarnated nine times, with the tenth avatar to come near the end of this world.

Without getting too much into the details, here are Vishnu’s ten incarnations:

  1. Matsya, a fish
  2. Kurma. a turtle
  3. Varaha, a boar
  4. Narasimha, half-man, half-lion
  5. Vamana (also called Trivikrama), a Brahmin dwarf
  6. Parshurama, a pretty violent Brahmin
  7. Rama, the hero of the Ramayana epic
  8. Krishna, one of the most popular Hindu deities
  9. Buddha, the founder of Buddhism
  10. Kalki, the doomsday savior-to-come

It’s also common to see the Buddha replaced in this list by Balarama (brother of Krishna), especially in south India.

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Painting of the dashavataras in the traditional Kalamkari style from Andhra Pradesh. Top row (left to right): Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana. Bottom row: Parshurama, Rama, Balarama, Krishna, Kalki.

We also need to make note of one more character (the main character of the poem, actually). Bhairava is the scariest form through which the god Shiva is worshiped. The name literally means “terrible, frightful” in Sanskrit (he’s also called Kalabhairava, “frightful time”). I’ve written previously about an 8th-century Sanskrit poem on Bhairava, so take a look if you’re interested. Bhairava is often depicted as a black-skinned beggar surrounded by dogs (which sadly don’t get much love in Hinduism). Also, his begging bowl is the skull of the creator god, Brahma. Cheery, right?

Finally, I don’t want to get too into the intricacies of Hindu cosmology, but I’ll just say that Hindu mythology looks at time on a very, very large scale. According to the Puranas (composed mostly during the first millennium AD), the universe goes through cycles of creation, dissolution, and rebirth, existing during the day of Brahma (whose day lasts 4.32 billion human years), and in dissolution during Brahma’s night (also 4.32 billion years long). After a hundred years of Brahma (over 300 trillion years!), Shiva steps in and destroys everything, including Brahma. After another hundred years of Brahma, Brahma is reborn and the process repeats infinitely. So, if you’re still with me, this poem is set at the end of a kalpa: one day of Brahma.

Finally, the poem! This subhashita comes from page 21 of an online copy of the Subhashita Ratna Bhandagara (meaning “Treasury of Subhashita-Gems”) a collection of over ten thousand subhashitas that was published in 1952. The author and date of composition aren’t given; however, if anyone is interested and finds out, please let me know. Here it is:

Continue reading “The doomsday fisherman”

Irreverent devotion: a poem by Tukaram

I posted a couple days ago about a lecture given by Professor Vasudha Narayanan. She ended her talk with a small poem that was so witty and bold, I had to share it.

A little background: Tukaram is one of the most famous poet-saints and social reformers of the Hindu bhakti movement, and is revered by the egalitarian Varkari tradition that is most popular in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Tuka, as he is colloquially called, lived in the seventeenth century, and was born into a family of grain sellers who were Shudras, one of the lower castes in the Hindu caste hierarchy. Through his songs, Tuka protested against the injustice he observed and experienced in his community, while simultaneously exploring religious themes. I’ve actually featured a Tukaram poem on this blog once before: take a look here.

Tukaram composed to his chosen deity, Vithoba/Vitthala, in his mother tongue of Marathi, in a format called abhang (meaning “unbroken”), “a run-on couplet of three and a half feet, with the first three rhyming. He was unrivaled in the use of this poetic device, and others have practically left it alone after him in a tacit acknowledgment that nothing more can be done with it. As was the tradition, he also added his signature, Tuka Mhane (तुका म्हणे) or ‘Tuka Says,’ at the end of each verse.”

“In composing abhangs, Tukaram incurred the wrath of the Brahmins, who believed themselves to be the only true custodians and interpreters of religion. Not only did he dare to impinge upon this prerogative, but he wrote in Marathi rather than Sanskrit.According to legend, the local Brahmins compelled him to throw the manuscripts of his poems into the river Indrayani, and taunted him with the observation that if he were a true devotee of God, the manuscripts would reappear. It is said that Tukaram then commenced a fast-unto-death, invoking the name of God; after thirteen days of his fast, the manuscripts of Tukaram’s poems reappeared, floating on the river. Some of his detractors became his followers; and over the remainder of his life, Tukaram acquired a reputation as a saint.”

Tukaram’s outspoken nature was likely the cause of his early death: “In the forty-eighth year of his life, in 1649, Tukaram disappeared … Some say that he informed his wife early in the day that he was going to Vaikuntha (the Divine Abode), and his wife laughed at him. He went up the hillock and waited for Vithoba. By that time, news had spread around Dehu and people had gathered around the hillock, waiting for the Divine event. From eyewitness accounts, a large vehicle appeared from the skies and Vithoba emerged. Eyewitnesses rushed to Tukaram’s home and informed his wife that Tukaram was on his way to Vaikuntha, the Abode of God. His wife ran toward the hills, only to see him take off in the Viman (flying vehicle). Modern devotees still gather at the hillock and sing his praises. However, Starr offers the suggestion that he was probably murdered because of his successful reformist activity, which had agitated the Brahmins, and that his followers hid the body and spread the rumor that he had gone to heaven in a heavenly chariot.”

“Tukaram used rustic, but striking and effective language, often strongly admonishing his listeners. Critics have sometimes characterized his language as ‘ harsh,’ ‘indecent,’ and ‘vulgar’, but his sincerity and his motivation is not doubted. Tukaram firmly believed that his verse was not his own, that his mouth was merely a vehicle for God … [He] emphasized liberation through devotion to God and loving service to mankind, rather than through rituals and sacrifices. He did not favor elaborate rituals, displays of asceticism or preoccupation with austerities, saying, ‘even dogs come in saffron color, and bears have matted fur. If living in caves is being spiritual, then rats who inhabit caves must be doing sadhana (spiritual practice).'”

According to the New World Encyclopedia, “Tukaram’s poetry has remained popular until this day. No other Marathi poet, medieval or modern, has been so universally appreciated. Several of his lines have become household sayings.” So without further adieu, here’s the poem. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the Marathi original online, so we’ll have to make do with the English translation which Professor Narayanan recited:

That we fell into sin is thy good fortune;
We have bestowed name and form on thee.

Had it not been we,
Who would have asked about thee,
When thou wast lonely, and unembodied?

It’s darkness that makes the light shine;
The setting that gives luster to the gem.

Disease brought to light Dhanvantari [the god of medicine],
Why should a healthy man wish to know him?

It’s poison that confers value on nectar;
Gold and brass are high or lowly only in comparison with each other.

Tuka says: It’s because of us, God,
That you exist.


Sources:

Approaching God through paradox and wonder: adbhuta rasa

I just listened to a fascinating lecture given by Vasudha Narayanan, an eminent scholar of Hinduism and professor at the University of Florida. Simply looking at the title of her talk, “Paradoxology: The Art of Praising the Deity,” my head started to spin a little, but Prof. Narayanan’s speaking style was so engaging that I was able to keep up (mostly).

The phrase “down-to-earth” definitely doesn’t apply to her topic, however. The subject of Prof. Narayanan’s lecture was the idea of paradox, and how paradox is a fundamental way in which Hindu traditions conceptualize and experience God.

The title of the lecture was actually a sort of esoteric religious studies pun. In Christianity, a doxology is “a liturgical formula of praise to God”. Paradoxology, therefore, would imply looking at how paradox is involved in doxologies, (of course, Prof. Narayanan explores this in a Hindu context). Just to be clear, I’m going to provide a couple definitions of “paradox”, because it’s a really tricky word (please let me know if I’m not using it properly…):

  • a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.
  • a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true.
  • a situation, person, or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities.

Paradoxes can be found in devotional poetry and mythological stories from many different Hindu traditions. Off the top of my head, I realized that paradox is a big part of Rudram, a selection of verses from the Yajur Veda that describe the god Rudra (precursor/an aspect of Shiva) through an astonishing variety of epithets, basically saying that Rudra is present throughout the universe, in nature, in all beings, etc. So, there are verses like “Salutations to Him who is elder and to Him who is younger; Salutations to Him who is born before and to Him who is born after” (6.1.1-2). I’m actually currently working on a post about the poetry of Rudram, so stay tuned for that.

In Prof. Narayanan’s lecture, however, she was talking about the Sri Vaishnava tradition in South India, which worships Vishnu and his incarnations, especially Krishna. In many Sri Vaishnava poems, for example, paradoxical statements are used to describe Vishnu: “You are nectar and poison; death and immortality.” There are countless popular mythological stories about the life of Krishna that are also quite paradoxical and mind-boggling.

One story that Prof. Narayanan relates is one that I remember hearing as a little kid; it’s one of the more popular stories about the young Krishna. In fact, it’s so popular that Yann Martel wrote about it in Life of Pi (one of my favorite books):

Continue reading “Approaching God through paradox and wonder: adbhuta rasa”