Culture & Society

Bhakti Poetry Is Much More Than Bedtime Prayer For Sacred Love

The Bhakti poetry is not dewy-eyed infatuation. This is a scorching, all-consuming desire that cauterises, purifies and eventually illuminates every crevice of human consciousness.

Illustrations: Saahil
Photo: Illustrations: Saahil

If teddy bears and chocolate were the landscape of love, life would, of course, be gloriously simple. Also, a trifle vapid, but that’s another matter. The fact is that love is, and has always been, a sticky business. And not just vanilla sticky. Sticky in a bloody, snotty way. A living-and-dying kind of way. The problem is no one tells us so.

If the darker side of fairytales help prepare children for existential issues, ranging from terrors of abandonment to sibling rivalries, where are the adult almanacks for human love? Is greeting-card verse meant to do the trick? Is a movie like Animal meant to prepare us for the lurching cardiogram of romantic love? How do we understand what turns moonlight and roses into toxicity, betrayal and rejection? And what eventually enables love to ripen into wisdom?

Stories offer insight. But poems, I believe, go deeper. Poems offer insight more directly, swiftly and profoundly than stories ever can. Many years ago, when I began reading Indian sacred poetry, I found, to my amazement, that there was a wealth of insight here about how to navigate the darker tides of love. Why was this such a well-kept secret? Why had I grown up believing that our bhakti literature was all about pious saints looking rapturously heavenward? Why did I never hear the ferocity, the desperation, the erotic tensions, the yowl and ecstatic cry in their voices? Why had I believed that devotion was all about meek service at the lotus feet of despotic gurus and capricious deities? Why had I never been encouraged to hear the risk, the terror, the longing, the sheer sensual appetite for union and dissolution?

‘‘My hair’s come loose I dance like a madwoman’’

Here below is a roadmap by poets who remind us that romantic and spiritual love are not so different, after all.

First comes the danger. Almost every poet who has known sacred love warns us that it is not bland longing. Instead, it is a roaring, passionate appetite for ‘‘something more’’. ‘‘Don’t you take [it] on,” says Basavanna. ‘‘Nobody who goes in ever comes back,’’ says Tukaram. “The divine is a panther who rips human hearts to shreds,” says Salabega. The signs are clear. Bhakti is not bedtime prayer in some safe enclave of the heart. It is a crazy longing that rips apart pretention, breaks closets, shatters ceilings, rages against fences of every kind. This is not dewy-eyed infatuation. This is a scorching, all-consuming desire that cauterises, purifies and eventually illuminates every crevice of human consciousness.

Second comes the disease. Once you’re bitten, you prepare for rabid infection. This is not a fever that can be treated, and certainly not by candle-light and roses. This is the initiatory sickness familiar to shamans everywhere. It is the body being purged to receive the new. It is cleansing, maddening, hellish. ‘‘A lover bit my hand like a snake/and the venom bursts through/and I’m dying,’’ says Mira. ‘‘Moonlight has turned hot, my friend,/I am agitated like a tax collector/doing the rounds in town,’’ says Akka Mahadevi. ‘‘My body’s fruit/ [is] slashed open/acid-scrubbed by separation,’’ says Andal.

‘‘O brothers why do you talk to this woman, hair loose face withered body shrunk? …She [has] lost the world lost power of will’’

This is love as cataclysm. The old architecture of life falls apart. The world is no longer the way we knew it. The things that were once attractive seem strangely devoid of appeal. ‘‘My hair’s/come loose/I dance/like a madwoman,’’ sings Mira. ‘‘O brothers/why do you talk/to this woman,/hair loose/ face withered/ body shrunk/…She [has] lost the world/lost power of will,’’ says Akka Mahadevi. ‘‘When He comes/out of the blue,/a meteorite/shattering your home,/ be sure/god is visiting you,’’ says Tukaram, reminding us that every catastrophe is a blessing in mufti, a calling card from the divine.

And now comes the hardest phase: the waiting. As the fever rages, as the longing intensifies, something subterranean is afoot. In the deep clay vessel of the heart, love cooks. But it can only cook on a slow-fire. Bhakti is a resolutely dum-pukht business. For ‘‘eternity’’, as contemporary Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi reminds us, ‘‘takes time’’. It must simmer in its own juices.

‘‘When He comes out of the blue, a meteorite shattering your home, be sure god is visiting you’’

Interestingly, the experts at the business of waiting are typically female protagonists. The poetry of this land is suffused with lovelorn nayikas, tempest-tossed by yearning. The emotionally unavailable men for whom they wait are evidently metaphors for the elusive nature of the divine. Personally, this seemingly one-sided devotion annoyed me intensely for many years. Exasperated, I wondered why on earth the nayikas couldn’t find more affectionate love interests, until I found the living truth that still crackles beneath the tired clichés of calendar art: this is no ordinary vigil. This is not passive waiting. This is a dynamic state of alertness, a warrior’s keen readiness. Eighteenth-century mystic Dayabai calls herself the ‘‘acrobat-girl’’ who seeks ‘‘balance upon the thread of [her] own deep breath’’. She exults in her own audacity: ‘‘Watch her leap and fall and leap again/ capering from moment to moment/across the vaults of the sky.’’

The women in the work of male poets, from Jayadeva and Vidyapati to Chandidas and Shah Abdul Latif, slip stealthily out of their homes in the dead of night to meet forbidden paramours. They are willing to sacrifice respectability, court social disgrace and flout cultural gatekeepers, as long as it brings them closer to the objects of their love. There is nothing coy about this passion. These are women of agency —fiery, sassy, feral.

‘‘Moonlight has turned hot, my friend, I am agitated like a tax collector doing the rounds in town’’

Moreover, as soon as women protagonists enter the verse of male poets, the relationship between the human and the divine stops being a battle. It becomes a celebration. The heroine brings with her a spirit of adventure, eroticism, an awareness of her own desirability. She also brings in the magic of shape-shifting. As the heat of impending intimacy grows more intense, every identity and hierarchy begins to melt into irrelevance. The woman seeker can describe god as her boss and her slave all at once. She can tie his arms to the bedpost (as the gopi does in Narsinh Mehta’s poem), or even banish him from bed (as Radha does in Salabega’s poem). Every transgressive act is permissible because this is a game of mutuality. The divine needs the human, and Krishna needs his Radha, as much as the other way around. As the poet Uddhabadas cries in sheer incredulity, ‘‘Who can tell/who is the man/and who the woman/in this ecstasy?’’



It is not the object of love that transforms, the bhakti poets remind us. It is the experience of love itself. Once she has known the seasons of yearning and union, the woman emerges into a new state of self-possession. She no longer appeases the divine; she embodies the sacred. Hers is now the voice of female power and self-reclamation. She is a goddess of wisdom in her own right. ‘‘I have not bowed. I never will…/The one who listens is resplendent within me/That is worship. That’s what I do,’’ declares the seventeenth-century Kashmiri woman mystic, Rupa Bhavani, in a poem that still reverberates down the centuries.


This, then, is what time does to human love: it turns infatuation into inclusiveness; erotic flirtation into an expansive embrace. Consider how tenth-century Tamil mystic Nammalvar’s heroine is alchemised from yearning to wisdom and wholeness. Her bewildered mother exclaims: ‘‘My little girl says,/‘I’ve no relatives here/and everyone here is my relative.’’’ And again, ‘‘My girl, who’s just learning to speak, says/‘I’m beyond all learning…/I’m the cause of all learning/I end all learning.’’’ This is no longer the little girl lost in adolescent dreams. This is no longer the seeker as pining nayika. This is the woman as sage—strong, complete, lacking for nothing.


Sacred love, like romantic love, isn’t always pretty. It isn’t ornamental. It certainly isn’t tame. And it most definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. One prepares to lose, and be lost. But once we realise, like Lal Ded, Tukaram, and so many others before, that the dance of finding and losing is just the self playing hide-and-seek with the self, we exhale. We have come home. We now sit back, quietly assured in the knowledge that whatever happens on this wild ride, we emerge, one way or the other, the winners.

(Views expressed are personal)

(Arundhathi Subramaniam is a poet and writer)


This appeared in print as 'Scorching Sacred Love'