Poetry: Indian Religious Poetry

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The most popular and influential devotional poetry in India is that associated with the bhakti, or popular devotional, movementa wave of religious fervor that swept over India from South to North, beginning around the sixth century in the Tamil area and flourishing in the Hindi region between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was a grass roots movement, protesting against formalism and priestly domination; insisting on the direct accessibility of God to everyone; attacking purely external practices and hypocrisy; and stressing the importance of inner experience, which generally meant establishing a bond of fervent personal love with the deity. Bhakti is also associated with the rise of vernacular literature and with a group of poet-saints whose works are in many instances the classics of their respective languages. Much of this literature was composed orally, and all of it has been transmitted largely through singing. Written versions have typically been recorded and collected after the poets' lifetimes, though some poets did write down their own works. This article focuses mainly on short verse forms (lyrics and couplets) and on Hindu vernacular poetry, though there are brief sections on Sanskrit, Buddhist, and Jain materials as well.

Hindu Poetry in Sanskrit

The most ancient texts of Indian civilization, the Rgvedic hymns (1200900 bce), can be seen as remote first ancestors of the long tradition of devotional poetry in India. These poems include paeans to various Aryan gods, many of whom assumed places in the late Hindu pantheon.

The body of Sanskrit verse most relevant to this survey is the vast assortment of Hindu stotra shymns of praise, adoration, and supplicationwith examples ranging over two millennia, from before the common era to the present day. These poems are found imbedded in epics, Purāas, māhātmya s, Tantras, other sacred texts, and occasionally secular texts; or as independent works attributed to various devotees and teachers. The period in which stotra s were most abundantly produced corresponds largely to that of the bhakti movement. Composed in all parts of India, the hymns are addressed chiefly to forms of Śiva, Viu, and Devī (the goddess), but they are also dedicated to other deities, such as Gaeśa and Sūrya. Their subjects extend further to sacred cities, rivers, shrines, plants; to guru s and ancestors; and to the impersonal Absolute. Many stotra s are anonymous or of dubious attribution. Among numerous named composers, a few famous examples are the philosophers Śakara and Rāmānuja, the Kashmiri Śaiva devotee Utpaladeva, the Bengali Caitanyite Rūpa Gosvāmin, and the South Indian poet Nīlakha Dīkita.

Sanskrit stotra s are used widely in both temple and domestic worship. Their contents typically include detailed descriptions of a deity's form and accoutrements, praise of his or her attributes, references to mythological episodes, strings of names and epithets, prayers for grace and assistance, and testimonials to the devotee's grief, helplessness, love, and faith.

A. K. Rāmānujan (1981, p. 109) comments on the relation between Sanskrit and vernacular bhakti literature. "The imperial presence of Sanskrit," he writes, "was a presence against which bhakti in Tamil defines itself, though not always defiantly." While vernacular bhakti poets often defy Sanskritic norms, there is also a continuity between the two traditions. For example, in the Rāmcaritmāna s of Tulsīdās there are many praise poems in highly Sanskritized Hindi, set apart in diction and form, obviously meant to echo the style of Sanskrit stotra s. The Saundaryalaharī, a stotra popularly attributed to Śakara, describes the experience of oneness with the divine in terms that later turn up almost identically in the Kabir tradition. An important transitional work between North Indian Sanskrit and vernacular bhakti literature is Jayadeva's Gitagovinda, composed in Bengal around 1200.

South Indian Vernacular Poetry

Partly in reaction to the strength of Buddhism and Jainism in the South, a great surge of faith in Viu and Śiva was touched off by poet-saints in the Tamil region between the sixth and ninth centuries. Śaiva and Vaiava saint-poetsat one level rivals, at a deeper level, collaborators in this awakening of faithshared common themes and styles. They roamed the countryside reaching audiences of all classes and included among their number peasants, aristocrats, Untouchables, priests, women, and men. Tradition has preserved the names of sixty-three Śaiva poets, known as Nāyaārs, and twelve Vaiavas, or vārs. Nammāvār is often singled out as the greatest vār poet, Māikkāvacakar as the greatest Nāyaār. Around the tenth century Nāthamuni compiled the Divyaprabhandam, containing four thousand vār compositions for use in Śrī Vaiava worship. Similarly Nampi ntār Nampi, at the request of a tenth-century king, is said to have compiled most of the Tirumuai, which includes eleven volumes of Nāyaār poetry (a twelfth volume, of hagiography, was added later). Śaivas often call the Tirumuai, as Vaiavas call Nammāvār's Tiruvāymoi, "the Tamil Veda."

The siddha s (Tam. cittar ) are part of an ancient pan-Indian movement characterized by its use of yogic practices and Tantric symbols. Important siddha poets in Tamil range from the seventh to the eighteenth centuries and include Civavākkiyar, Pattirakiriyar, and Pāmpāttic Cittar. Siddha poetry is both linked to and distinguishable from mainstream bhakti poetry. Both tend to denigrate caste, mechanical ritual, and sterile intellectuality. But while the bhakta s continue to adore their images of Viu and Śiva, the siddha s favor an interior, impersonal Lord and unequivocally attack idol worship. Stylistically, too, the siddha s differ from the generally more refined devotional poets. Their verse, which often utilizes folksong forms and meters, is colloquial, forceful, and simple often to the point of being crude.

"Like a lit fuse, the passion of bhakti seems to spread from region to region, from century to century, quickening the religious impulse," says Rāmānujan (1973, p. 40). In the tenth to twelfth centuries the flame burned brightly in Karnataka with the Kannada verses of the Vīraśaiva saint-poets, the four greatest of whom were Basavaa, Dēvara Dāsimayya, Mahādēvīyakka, and Allama Prabhu. They composed vacana s, short free-verse utterances expressing intense personal experience and sometimes trenchant criticism of what the poets regarded as superstition and hypocrisy. A vacana by Allama Prabhu, for example, is a purely lyric outpouring:

Looking for your light,
I went out:
it was like the sudden dawn
of a million million suns,
a ganglion of lightnings
for my wonder.
O Lord of Caves,
if you are light,
there can be no metaphor. (trans. Rāmānujan, 1973, p. 168)

while the conclusion of a vacana by Basavaa has a note of biting criticism:

Gods, gods, there are so many
there's no place left
for a foot.
There is only
one god. He is our Lord
of the Meeting Rivers. (trans. Rāmānujan, 1973, p. 84)

Vaiava poetry emerges in the sixteenth century with Purandaradāsa Vihala, who is remembered as the founder of the southern (Karnatak) style of classical music. The greatest composer of Karnatak music, Tyāgarāja (17671847), acknowledges his debt to Purandaradasa. A devotee of Rām, Tyāgarāja composed many devotional songs in Telugu, often praising music as a pathway to God. Another well-known Telugu saint-poet is the seventeenth-century Rāmdās of Bhadrācalam, also a worshiper of Rām.

North Indian Vernacular Poetry

Four names stand out among a rich array of Maharashtrian singers between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries: Jñāneśvar, also called Jñāndev (fl. late thirteenth century), Nāmdev (c. 12701350), Eknāth (15481600), and Tukārām (15981650). Jñāneśvar is best known for his long Marathi exposition of the Bhagavadgītā, the Jñāneśvarī. Nāmdev composed passionate devotional songs and consolidated the cult of the Vārkaris ("pilgrims") to the important pilgrimage center at Pandharpur. Eknāth translated and interpreted important Sanskrit works. He also poured out his own feelings in lyric poems and in a remarkable series of dramatic monologues, putting the most profound teachings of bhakti into the mouths of characters generally despised by societyUntouchables, prostitutes, ropedancers, demons, the blind, and the deaf. Tukārām, perhaps the most beloved of the four, was a śūdra (member of the lowest of the four broad categories of caste) pressed by misfortune to reject worldly values and devote himself to God. His lyrics run from harsh contempt of self-serving religious specialists ("the wretched pandit stewed in dialectics a fool among fools / wagging a sage beard") to the most tender humility ("May I be, Lord, a small pebble, a large stone, or dust / on the road to Pandharpur / to be trampled by the feet of the saints").

Nasiha Mehta (fifteenth or sixteenth century), the major bhakti poet of Gujarat, composed songs that were incorporated into the rituals of the Vallabhācārya sect. The Kashmiri Lal Ded (fourteenth century) was a woman devotee of Śiva whose poetic utterances are famous throughout Kashmir and beyond. The earliest and still most important devotional poetry associated with the Punjab, that compiled in the Sikh di Granth (1604), is largely in an old form of Hindi. True Panjabi literature, beginning in the seventeenth century, is almost entirely by Muslims.

The leading figures of Hindi bhakti poetry are Tulsīdās, Śūrdās, Kabīr, and Mīrā Baī, followed closely by Raidās, Nānak, and Dādū. Tulsīdās (15431623), who wrote in the Avadhi dialect, is the author of the Rāmcaritmānas, a highly devotional version of the ancient Rāmayāa epic. Popularly known as the Tulsī Rāmāyan, it is probably the most influential single literary work in North India. Tulsīdās also wrote many lyrics.

Śūrdās (sixteenth century) is the most illustrious member of the aacāp, or eight Kaite poets associated with Vallabhācārya and the sect he founded in Vndāvana. He is most famous for his evocations of Ka's idyllic childhood, but recent scholarship suggests that Sūr's often emotionally harrowing personal supplications to God and his poems of grief-stricken separation may be closer to the authentic core of his work than the popular songs of the youthful deity. According to legend Sūr was blind, and "Śūrdās" is today widely used as a title for any blind singer of religious songs. Thousands of lyrics attributed to the poet are collected in the Sūrsāgar (Ocean of Sūr). He composed in Braj bhāā, the most important literary dialect of medieval Hindi.

Mīrā Baī was a Rajput princess who became a wandering saint. Although she is believed to have spent the later part of her life in Dwarka, Gujarat, and a considerable body of poetry ascribed to her exists in Gujarati, she is more closely linked to her native Rajasthan and to its regional form of Hindi.

The leading poet of the Sant (or nirgua, "without qualities") school in North India is Kabīr (c. 13981448). Born of a Muslim family in Banaras, Kabīr was influenced more by Hindu than by Muslim traditions and is popularly believed to have been a disciple of Rāmānanda. He is known particularly for his iconoclasm and for his rough, colloquial style. Kabīr called on the name of Rām as a sound that revealed ultimate reality, but he rejected the mythology of the popular avatāra Rām, insisting that God was beyond form.

Gurū Nānak (14691539), the founder of Sikhism, composed poems revering the formless God and criticizing superstitious practices. The same is true of Dādū (15441604), in whose name a sect was founded in Rajasthan. Raidās, an Untouchable leatherworker and Sant poet of the fifteenth century, is respected by all classes but has a particular following among his own caste, the camār s.

Mention should also be made of the poetry of the North Indian yogins called Nāth Pahis, who belong to the same broad tradition as the Tamil siddha s. The most significant collection is attributed to Gorakhnāth (eleventh century?), semilegendary founder of the Nāth Pah, whose teachings pervaded North Indian religious thought in the medieval period.

The story of Bengali bhakti poetry begins with a Sanskrit poet, Jayadeva, whose late twelfth-century masterpiece Gītagovinda sets the mood for the efflorescence of Kaite verse in the following four hundred years. In a series of subtle and sensuous lyrics, the Gītagovinda unfolds the drama of love between Ka and Rādhā, which became the major theme of devotion in medieval Bengal. In this poetry the strand of several traditions come together: secular erotic verse in Sanskrit, Tantrism, and orthodox Vaiavism.

The name Caīdās was used by at least two important Bengali poets whose dates can only be guessed (guesses range from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century). The enormously influential saint, Caitanya (14861533), though he composed very little himself, encouraged the development of Bengali song literature by establishing the widespread practice of kīrtan, or meeting for ardent group singing. Rāmprasād Sen (17181785) was a powerful poet of the Śākta (Goddess-worshiping) tradition. The Bauls, unique to Bengal, are iconoclastic wanderers who hover between Hindu and ūfī mysticism and worship exclusively through singing.

Vidyāpati (c. 13521448) was one of the earliest poets to compose religious lyrics in Maithilia border language between Bengali and Hindi. The outstanding figure of Assamese devotional literature is akaradeva (c.14891568), who introduced a devotional dance drama form still widely used today. A unique bhakti institution in Assam is the satra, a religious center with a leader, lay members, and facilities for musical and dramatic performances. Another prominent poet of the same period is Mādhavadeva (1489?1596). The best-known medieval bhakti poet in Oriya was a disciple of Caitanya named Jagannāthadāsa (fifteenth century).

Buddhist Poetry

Remarkable early examples of Buddhist poetry are found in the Therīgāthā and Theragāthā (Songs of the venerable women and Songs of the venerable men) of the Pali canon, recorded around 80 bce. The women especially describe vivid personal experiences that led to their choice of a renunciant's life.

Two great Sanskrit poets appear in the second century of the common era. Aśvaghosa is most famous for the Buddhacarita, a biography of the Buddha in the form of a mahākāvya (lyric narrative). Mātcea, perhaps an older contemporary of Aśvaghosa, wrote beautiful Sanskrit hymns to the Buddha. The seventh-century Chinese pilgrim Yi Jing reported, "Throughout India everyone who becomes a monk is taught Mātcea's two hymns as soon as he can recite the precepts."

Over the centuries Buddhist poets, such as the seventh-century monk Śāntideva, produced many stotra s praising the Buddha and bodhisattva s and expressing fervent dedication to the Buddhist path. Like Hindu stotra s, these are found incorporated into larger texts (such as sūtra s and Jātaka tales) as well as in independent form with attribution to particular authors. In one such hymn Śāntideva expresses his vow to save all beings:

I am medicine for the sick and
weary may I be their physician and their nurse
until disease appears no more
may I be a protector for the unprotected
a guide for wanderers
a bridge: a boat: a causeway
for those who desire the other shores. (trans. Stephan Beyer)

Finally mention must be made of Tibet's powerful and original contributions to Buddhist lyric poetry. Especially noteworthy are the many songs of the twelfth-century teacher Milaraspa (Milarepa).

Jain Poetry

Like Hindus and Buddhists, the Jains have produced a large stotra literature. Their hymns, composed since at least the earliest centuries of the common era in Sanskrit and later in Prakrit, praise chiefly the twenty-four jina s as well as some ancient teachers of the Jain tradition. There also exists a body of vernacular Jain poetry, largely in Hindi and Gujarati. One of the most famous Jain hymns is the Bhaktāmara Stotra of Mānatuga, whose dates have been estimated to be as early as the third and as late as the ninth century. Several Jain authors composed both philosophical works and devotional poems. These include Siddhasena Divākara, Samantabhadra, Vidyānanda, and the great twelfth-century sage Hemacandra.

Many Jain stotra s are organized around the sequential praise of all twenty-four jina s, the best known being the highly ornate Śobhana Stuti of the tenth-century poet Śobhana. As the repeated glorification of the jina s made for monotonously similar content, poets made great efforts to achieve originality of form, and thus the stotra s contain the most ornate verse in Jain literature.

See Also

di Granth; vārs; Bhakti; Caitanya; Gorākhnāth; Jayadeva; Kabīr; Mahāsiddhas; Māikkavācakar; Mi la ras pa (Milarepa); Mīrā Bāī; Nānak; Rāmānuja; Śaivism, articles on Nāyāārs, Vīraśaivas; Śakara; Śāntideva; Śūrdās; Tulsīdās.


A good introduction to the bhakti movement is Eleanor Zelliot's "The Medieval Bhakti Movement in History: An Essay on the Literature in English," in Hinduism: New Essays in the History of Religions, edited by Bardwell L. Smith (Leiden, 1976), pp. 143168. Zelliot provides accounts of the regional movements and bibliographies. Missing from her lists, however, are important recent translations.

Superb translations from Tamil and Kannada are given in A. K. Ramanujan's Hymns for the Drowning: Poems for Viu by Nammālvār (Princeton, N.J., 1981) and Speaking of Śiva (Harmondsworth, 1973). Kamil Zvelebil's survey of Tamil literature, The Smile of Murugan (Leiden, 1973), includes chapters on both bhakti and siddha poetry. Zvelebil has also written a book on the siddha s, The Poets of the Powers (London, 1973), which includes a number of translations.

Charlotte Vaudeville's numerous contributions in the Hindi field include her monumental Kabīr, vol. 1 (Oxford, 1974), which combines a 150-page introduction with extensive translations and painstaking scholarly apparatus. The Bījak of Kabīr (San Francisco, 1983), translated by Shukdev Singh and me, conveys a vivid sense of Kabīr's forceful style and includes essays on his style and use of symbols. Śūrdās is richly represented in Kenneth E. Bryant's Poems to the Child-God: Structures and Strategies in the Poetry of Śūrdās (Berkeley, Calif., 1978) and in John Stratton Hawley's Sūr Dās: Poet, Singer, Saint (Seattle, 1984). Tulsīdās's lyrics are available in reliable if not sparkling translations by F. R. Allchin in Kavitāvalī (London, 1964) and his The Petition to Rām (London, 1966).

An exceptionally lovely book of translations from Bengali is In Praise of Krishna (1967; Chicago, 1981), a collaborative effort of the scholar Edward C. Dimock, Jr., and the poet Denise Levertov. Lively translations of Ramprasad Sen are provided in Grace and Mercy in Her Wild Hair: Selected Poems to the Mother Goddess (Boulder, 1982) by another poet-scholar team, Leonard Nathan and Clinton Seely. Jayadeva's Gītagovinda is splendidly translated by Barbara Stoler Miller in Love Song of the Dark Lord (New York, 1977).

A good source for examples of Buddhist poetry is Stephan Beyer's The Buddhist Experience: Sources and Interpretations (Encino, Calif., 1974). On the caryāgīti, see Per Kvaerne's An Anthology of Buddhist Tantric Songs (Oslo, 1977; Bangkok, 1985).

A multivolume, English-language History of Indian Literature, edited by Jan Gonda (Wiesbaden, 1973), is in progress. Individual volumes have been published on literature in Sanskrit and the vernacular languages as well as on the literatures of particular religious traditions. Maurice Winternitz's A History of Indian Literature, 2 vols. (Calcutta, 19271933) covers ground not covered elsewhere, particularly in volume 2, Buddhist Literature and Jaina Literature.

New Sources

Guptara, Prabhu S., ed. The Lotus: An Anthology of Contemporary Indian Religious Poetry in English. Calcutta, 1988.

Ramanujan, A. K., Velcheru Narayana Rao, and David Dean Shulman, ed. and trans. When God Is a Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs by Ksetrayya and Others. Berkeley, Calif., 1994.

Rao, Velcheru Narayana, and David Dean Shulman, ed. and trans. Classical Telugu Poetry: An Anthology. New Delhi and New York, 2002.

Shulman, David Dean. The Wisdom of Poets: Studies in Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit. New Delhi and New York, 2001.

Linda Hess (1987)

Revised Bibliography