Selections from ‘Eating God’

Selections of Bhakti poetry from Arundhati Subramaniam’s collection called ‘Eating God.’ These poems by different poets cover a variety of languages, regions and styles in English translation.

Here are some exercises in pure and sustained literary immersion from this week’s reading! Here are glimpses from Arundhati Subramaniam’s collection of Bhakti poetry called Eating God which I have been reading and which stunningly reflects the breadth and depth of the devotional tradition in all its regional and linguistic diversity.

That Strange Disease Called Bhakti

Don't you take on
this thing called bhakti:

like a saw
it cuts when it goes

and it cuts again
when it comes.

If you risk your hand
with a cobra in a pitcher
will it let you

(Basavanna: A. K. Ramanujan)
Like a sharp arrow
Is the love of Rama.
Only someone struck by it
Knows the pain.

You look for the wound,
But the skin is not broken.
You bring out the ointment,
But there's nowhere to rub.

When all the women
Look the same,
Who among them
Will the lord choose?

Fortunate is she,
Says Kabir,
In the parting of whose hair,
And hers alone,

Is put vermilion.

(Kabir: A. K. Mehrotra)
She lingers out of doors.
She rushes in
And she rushes out,
Her heart is restless.
Breathing fast,
She gazes at the kadamba wood.
What has happened
The elders chatter
And the wicked gossip.
Is she possessed
By some enchanting god?
Forever restless
Careless of clothes,
Startled, she jumps in her dreams...

Her desire inflamed
By passion and longing,
She reaches for the moon.

Chandidas says that she is caught
In the snare of Kaliya, the dark.

(Chandidas: Deben Bhattacharya)

The spotless being depicted holding a silver
conch in his left hand will not show his form

to me. He arrives through an underground
spring to liquefy my house's foundations,

to seep into the walls and overflow my heart:
pure torture. Warbling kohl-bird drunk on

honey from the twitching stamen of magnolia
blossoms, intercede to the lord of Venkata
 on my behalf, murmur, get him to come.

(Andal: Ravi Shankar)

drunken clouds
no message 
from my love

the cuckoo

lightning flashes
in the dark
I want him

the wind is
cool and musical
the clouds
are pouring rain

where are you

your absence 
is venom
in my veins

(Mirabai: Rahul Soni)
Were I given a hundred thousand tongues instead of one
And the hundred thousand multiplied twenty-fold,
A hundred thousand times would I say, and say again,
The Lord of all the worlds in One.
That is the path that leads
These the steps that mount, 
Ascend thus to the Lord's mansion
And with Him be joined in unison. 
The sound of the songs of Heaven thrills
The like of us who crawl, but desire to fly. 
O Nanak, His grace alone it is that fulfills, 
The rest mere prattle, and a lie.

(Guru Nanak: Khushwant Singh)
Restless mind, don't infect the heart with fear.
That virus is not for you.
The Infinite knows what you hunger for. 
Ask Him to carry you across.

And one day
Death shall arrive

to evict this squatter
from his fragile hut of bones

Then as the spirit
quivers, buckles,

hurry, Goddess Abhirami-

you that are the primordial note
plucked by the strings of the veena
at the dawn of time


with the soft clink
of braceleted wrists


with your flock of handmaidens
of the sky


extend a bejeweled hand
utter the words I need to hear

Reassure me, say, 'Do not fear.'

(Abhirami Bhattar: Arundhati Subramaniam)
This body that you're fussing over,
this body that you're dolling up,
this body that you're wearing to the party,
this body will end as ash.

(Lal Ded: Ranjit Hoskote)
beware, your life is in danger:

the lord of gardens is a thief,
a cheat,
master of illusions;

he came to me,
a wizard with words,
sneaked into my body,
my breath,

with bystanders looking on
but seeing nothing,
he consumed me
life and limb,

and filled me,
made me over
into himself.

My lord
who lives in the city
of names
came here today

said he'd never leave
entered me
filled my heart

I've caught him
the big-bellied one
not content yet
with all that guzzling
on the sevenfold clouds
the seven seas
the seven mountains
and the world that holds them all

I've caught him
I contain him now

(Nammalvar: A.K. Ramanujan)