From Gokul to Lahore: Krishna through the eyes of an Urdu poet

This year, Pakistan’s 70th Independence Day and Janmashtami (the Hindu festival celebrating Krishna’s birth) fell on the same day: August 14th. With that coincidence in mind, I want to share a very unique Urdu poem: “Krishn Kanhaiya.”

This nazm is by Hafeez Jalandhari (1900–1982), an Urdu poet who is most well-known for composing the lyrics to Pakistan’s national anthem, the Qaumi Taranah. Born in the Punjabi city of Jalandhar (now in India), he moved to Lahore (now in Pakistan) following India and Pakistan’s independence and Partition in 1947.

 

 

As its title suggests, “Krishn Kanhaiya” is a poem about the Hindu god Krishna. Today, the mere idea of a Muslim poet writing about a Hindu deity raises all sorts of emotions among different groups in South Asia: surprise, joy, curiosity, suspicion, anger. However, there is much more depth to “Krishn Kanhaiya” than meets the eye. This is no ordinary devotional poem. Jalandhari, ever a politically-minded thinker and writer, draws upon the mythology and persona of Krishna in order to produce a poem that is simultaneously devotional and political in nature. It is, in fact, a call to liberate India from British colonial rule. Moreover, this poem, especially when examined in comparison with Jalandhari’s more famous work, the Qaumi Taranah, can tell us a great deal about the cultural politics of South Asia in the 20th century and today.

Setting the scene

Let’s begin with a close reading of “Krishn Kanhaiya.”

In the very first line of the poem, Jalandhari addresses his readers as onlookers (dekhne wālo). Although this may seem trivial, I believe there is a deeper significance to this choice of words. Urdu poetry is usually meant to be heard, not read silently. One popular type of poetry, the ghazal, is sung, while nazms (of which “Krishn Kanhaiya” is one) are usually recited. Yet, Jalandhari chooses dekhne wālo, “those who look,” to characterize the consumer of this poem.

Could Jalandhari’s choice of words be referring to the importance Hinduism gives to seeing God? I don’t think it would be inaccurate to describe Hinduism as a religion which, among the fives senses, gives primacy to sight as a way of connecting to the Divine. The central act of devotion when one goes to a Hindu temple is darshan: gazing upon the decorated image of the deity. And, of course, the incredibly intricate and symbolic iconography of Hindu gods and goddesses suggests the importance of saguna brahman, God With a Form. By addressing the readers of the poem as “onlookers” instead of “listeners” or “readers,” Jalandhari might be encouraging them to engage in an act of darshan in their mind. As they read or hear the poem, he encourages them to also visualize Krishna in their minds.

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The moment of darshan, when the devotee makes eye contact with the deity.

Continue reading “From Gokul to Lahore: Krishna through the eyes of an Urdu poet”

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:

“Lost”: A poem by Surdas

Lost, lost, lost to Mohan’s captivating image!
 Lost to his earrings,
  lost to his eyes so vast,
Lost to his eyebrows, lost to his splendid forehead mark,
 lost to Murali, his flute,
  lost to her fluid sound,
Lost to the locks of his hair, lost to his splendid turban,
 lost to his cheeks,
  lost to the wildflower garland on his chest,
Lost to the vision that captivated Brahma and the gods,
 lost to the shawl on the shoulders
  of that lovely Mountain-Lifter,
Lost to those arms, around the necks of his friends:
 lost to the way that beautiful Shyam
  walks with his clan,
Lost to the yellow cloth he’s cinched around his thighs—
 Surdas says, I’m lost to Madan Gopal,
  that intoxicating cowherd lad.

bali bali bali mohana mUrati kI bali kuNDala bali naina bisAla, by the sixteenth-century bhakti poet Surdas, who wrote in Braj Bhasha


Source: Surdas, and John Stratton Hawley. The Memory of Love: Surdas Sings to Krishna. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

The “monkeys” of history: a Hindi poem

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.

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According to some retellings of the Ramayana, writing Rama’s name on the rocks allowed them to float and form a bridge to Lanka. (source)

जो पुल बनाएँगें
वे अनिवार्यत:
पीछे रह जाएँगे
सेनाएँ हो जाएगी पार
मारे जाएँगे रावण
जयी होंगें राम
जो निर्माता रहे
इतिहास में
बंदर कहलाएँगे

jo pul banaayenge
ve anivaaryatah
peeche reh jaayenge
senaayein ho jaayegi paar
maare jaayenge Raavan
jayee honge Ram
jo nirmaataa rahe
itihaas mein
“bandar” kehlaayenge

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.

 

 

Some more poetry about Shiva

Having a blog makes it really easy to procrastinate on midterms.

Kalabhairava is the most fearsome aspect of Shiva; the form in which Shiva is truly “the Destroyer”. In Sanskrit, kala means “black” and bhairava means “terrible, frightful”. I guess you could say Kalabhairava is equivalent to Kali: the fiercest form of the Goddess. Because of his fearsome qualities, Kalabhairava is worshiped as the protector of the city of Varanasi, as well as the grama-devata (village deity) in some villages in parts of South India.

The Kalabhairava ashtakam (eight-verse hymn) is said to have been written by the great Hindu philosopher Adi Shankara (788-820 AD). Even though it worships a frankly terrifying aspect of God, has a sentimental value for me. I remember watching this YouTube video when I was in fifth or sixth grade (yes, this is what I did back then… and now…), looking up the lyrics, and memorizing it. I think this is one of the first Hindu chants I memorized. I’d say there are less literary flourishes in this hymn than in the Shiva Tandava Stotram, but this is still a powerful work of devotional poetry:

Continue reading “Some more poetry about Shiva”

When God is a lover… or a customer

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

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?

Continue reading “When God is a lover… or a customer”