The Argentinian poet Borges said, ‘Every writer creates his own precursors’. My precursors–consciously reclaimed, gratefully acknowledged–are the devotional poets of the Indian subcontinent. I will admit I paid them little attention when I was growing up. I was busy being self-consciously ‘contemporary’ and saw most sacred poetry as sectarian and embarrassingly other-worldly.
But as the inevitable existential questions grew more pressing, I stumbled upon these voices all over again. Today, I recommend them unreservedly as provocateurs and healers for people of all persuasions. For they have offered me sanctuary and inspiration more often than I can remember.
As my own spiritual journey—an experience initially of derailment rather than tranquility—unfolded, they reminded me that all healing can, at first, be disruptive. And so, it helped to read of those before me who had recorded their journeys of dark aliveness and elated free-fall. Consider Manikavachakar: ‘I lost my cleverness/ in the bewilderment of ecstasy.’ Or Muktabai: ‘The roof has flown off./ I am open to the sky.’ Or Tukaram: ‘When a catastrophe/ wipes you out,…/… be sure/ god is visiting you.’
When I decided I wasn’t obedient enough to adhere to any template of organized faith, they offered me a deluge of joyful irreverence. They reminded me that devotion—bhakti–is never mere docility. ‘Why rise at dawn and bathe?/ Why practice each rite according to the rules?…/…All this is in vain if you do not say,/ He is my friend,’ says Appar. ‘Just calling a large thing small/ does not diminish its size,’ declares Rahim, reminding us that the divine is never offended by intimacy. ‘Imagine that I wasn’t here. What would you do with your kindness?’ says the saucy devotee in Annamacharya’s poem, playfully overturning hierarchies between the divine and the human. Even Meerabai, eulogized for her lyrical verse, threatens to tear off the wings of a messenger bird if it does not bring her Krishna to her. These poets aren’t meek followers, I discovered, but fierce improvisers who seek to embrace, even embody, the sacred.
When my life has seemed scarily unmapped, they have reminded me that you cannot emerge from any process of self-discovery with your identity intact and password secure. ‘Don’t you take on/ this thing called bhakti…/ If you risk your hand/ with a cobra in a pitcher/ will it less you/ pass?’ asks Basavanna. Salabega describes the divine as a rogue panther that tears human hearts ‘to shreds’. Not comforting, but certainly a reminder that others have been there before us in places of stunned wordlessness, and emerged to tell the tale.
When I’ve despaired at ‘the unreasonable silence of the world’ (that wonderfully resonant phrase by Camus), these poets rescued me yet again with their rage against that silence. ‘I will not utter your name again…./…You trick me into serving you,’ exclaims Tukaram. Namdev abuses his god with impunity, hoping to rouse a silent divinity into some responsiveness with his colorful invective: ‘Now/ you and I/ are equal,/ At times I will even/ curse you.’
When I decided I was too flawed to ever join the ranks of the spiritually elevated, I found poems that sang of sacred immanence, acknowledging the imperfect, yet glorious, human body. ‘With a whole temple/ in this body/ where’s the need for another?’ asks Basavanna, acknowledging the flesh as a site of sacred possibility. ‘This blood of mine fertilizes the world,’ says the outcaste woman poet Soyarabai, boldly interrogating conventional ideas of caste and ritual impurity. Weary of injunctions to transcend the body, Devara Dasimayya, asks his god reproachfully: ‘Why don’t you take on a body, O Ramanatha?’
They are not without their internal feuds and contradictions. But refreshingly, the finest poems don’t offer us a language of theological certainty or doctrinal conclusion. Instead, their deepest invitation is to the mystery. As Kabir says: ‘If I call it one, it isn’t so./ If I say two, it’s slander…. /… As it is, so it is.’
Today, as I try to chart my own makeshift path in a world besieged by the dogmas of faith and reason, it feels right to turn to a poem by the Tamil mystic, Nammalvar: ‘We here and that man, this man,/ and that other in-between,/ and that woman, this woman,/ and that other, whoever,/… good things, bad things,/ things that were, that will be,/ being all of them,/ he stands there.’
It is this language of mysterious inclusiveness that draws me to this tribe of poets. It is why I am inclined to hitch my wagon to their wild, lurching caravanserai. They are my reclaimed ancestors not because they tell me what to believe, but because they remind me how to live – how to walk, in wonder, in trust, occasionally in ecstasy, into the great unknown.
They deserve a wider audience.
Subramaniam is a leading Indian poet and prose writer on Indian spirituality, whose recent books include the poetry volume, Love Without a Story, and a book of conversations with female sacred travelers, Women Who Wear Only Themselves.