In Praise of the Teacher: the Guru Ashtakam

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”

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.


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”

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.
Continue reading “Ninda-stuti: Trash-talking God”

Improvisation and the #aesthetic of Carnatic music

One major difference between the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions can be seen in their treatment of improvisation. In his book A Southern Music, Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna explains improvisation in the context of Carnatic music:

The [Sanskrit] word manodharma has two components to it: mano, meaning ‘one’s own will’, and dharma, which refers to a certain righteousness in the path… Improvisational music is what is referred to as manodharma sangita, or the music that issues out of the individual musician’s very own and personal musical sensibility.

In both systems of Indian classical music, improvisation within a raga (melodic scale) is seen as the highest level of musical skill; in no musician is qualified to perform if they are not proficient in improvisation (which is why I have a while to go until I give a concert, lol), and indeed improvisation plays a central role in Indian classical performances.

In Hindustani performances, improvisation makes up the vast majority of the concert; there may be a few compositions with defined lyrics and melodies that are performed, but the rest of the concert is raga-based improvisation. In a typical Hindustani concert, the performer will say, “I will now play/sing Raga ___”, (or they might not say anything) and they will begin a certain type of improvisation in that raga. They will then move on to another raga or two, and then end the concert with some short compositions.

In contrast, Carnatic performances are typically driven by compositions, not freeform improvisation. Instead of just announcing the name of a raga, the artist would typically say, “I will now perform the song ____ in ____ raga, set to ____ talam (rhythm), dedicated to Lord/Goddess _____ and composed by _____.” They would then begin by improvising in the raga in which the composition is set, and then they would sing the composition itself, which would have defined lyrics set to a specific rhythmic cycle. Within Carnatic compositions, there is plenty of scope for improvisation, but the artist cannot deviate from the lyrics of the composition.

This reliance on compositions with set lyrics presents listeners and performers of Carnatic music with this question:

Is Carnatic music “art music” or “devotional music”?

Continue reading “Improvisation and the #aesthetic of Carnatic music”

Will the real Jesus Christ please stand up?