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Thy love was not of earth; no woman’s soul 
For mortal love craved with such a yearning. 
So thou didst wed great God Himself! O Goal 
Beyond our ken, beyond our dim discerning! 
And soul to soul, like sunbeam unto Sun, 
Thou didst vanish away, O mystic Nun!

~ Sri Devendranath Sen

 

At all times, India has embraced the love and longing for God as a privileged access to our ultimate reality. This path of love or devotion, called bhakti, was trodden by countless seekers and poets who have offered their verses to posterity. Amongst them many women. Women who, alone, have walked the steep path to God, going against the society of men, marriage and conventions, with only one goal: to reach divine love. I present here three such women — Andal, Akka Mahadevi, and Mirabai — these mystic nuns, whose personality and poetry are an unforgettable milestone to this day in India and elsewhere.

Through devoting or directing their love to a god, be it Krishna or Shiva, these devotees were searching to experience the bliss of their own being, the happiness that is the very nature of their self. But by conditioning their love to an object, they also experienced suffering, longing, sadness, anger, which all came to feed their poetry, their songs, all these exquisite expressions. These were the very vector that supported their spiritual search. But don’t think that this is a path that is limited or lacking depth. For though directed towards an object, the love they feel is always their own. The forms of Krishna or Shiva were a vehicle to lead them to their very self, to realise that their longing is and has always been for their own unborn nature, for love itself, the oneness of their own being.

This tension between the love for God as a form, and for being or oneness as a principle, between saguna and nirguna bhakti, as it is expressed in the Indian tradition, is at the core of the bhakti endeavour, of the journey to divine love. In ‘The Embodiment of Bhakti’, Karen Pechilis Prentiss wrote: “The lord is characterized by both ‘paratva’ (otherness) and ‘soulabhaya’ (ease of access). He is both here and beyond, both tangible as a person and intangible as a principle.” These nuns were expressing this tension with various degrees in their many songs and poems. Listen to their voice. Listen to how Krishna’s forms and attributes, ramblings and happenings are only expressions of a deeper reality, of the understanding and tensions at play in the seeker’s very being. They are their paths whose completion will lead to the recognition of their own true self. 

~

God is through all in all, so that 
life and limb are His through all in all, 
so that He breathes in our breath, 
speaks in our speech, 
thinks in our thought. What then? 
Shall we suffer and He not know? 
Are we in pain and will He not feel? 
It is the mystery of His nature to be 
the eternal and the All-pervading, 
and yet to blend Himself with our mortal frame, and 
to abide unchanged while we grow and decay
.”
~ Dr. E. Carpenter (‘The Veerashaiva Philosophy and Mysticism’ by Shri Kumaraswamiji)

~

Andal, or Kodhai, lived in the 8th century in Tamil country. She is the author of beautifully structured poems, imbued with a gorgeous imagery and a tender passion for the god Krishna. She was part of a group of twelve holy poets, the Alvars – “those immersed in God”. The legend has it that she was found as a baby under a tulsi plant in a temple. Her father brought her up in an atmosphere of love and devotion to Krishna, and she grew up yearning for one thing only: to marry the Lord himself. “Grant me this, my life’s aim. That I become Kesava’s servant-maid.” 

Her supreme devotion for Krishna appears in two works: ‘Thiruppavai’, the ‘song for Thirumal’ – one of Krishna’s many forms, and ‘Nachiar Tirumozhi’, a poem of 143 verses meaning ‘Sacred Sayings of the Goddess’. Of her own poetry, she said: “Those who would treasure as a balm These words of Vishnuchittan’s Kodai … Will reach the sacred feet of that Lord Never to be parted from them!” She became one of the most loved bhakti saintly figure of South India. 

The path of Andal is a more tangible one (saguna), concentrating on the divine form of the Lord. In one of her stanzas, she describes the importance to refrain from objective experience, to let go of the superfluous, in order to seek only the reality that is left behind, open and self-evident:

 

O People of the world, listen to what we shall do, 
How we shall observe these sacred days. We shall praise the feet 
of that Supreme One Lying on the Ocean of Milk; 
No ghee, no milk shall we take, and at dawn we shall bathe: 
No collyrium for the eyes; no flowers bound in the hair. 
Avoiding all proscribed deeds, refraining from gossip; 
Giving alms, and making offerings all we can, 
and joyfully seek our liberation
.”
~ Thiruppavai

 

The spiritual endeavour is hidden under the mask of devotion to the “Supreme One”, to “Northern Mathura’s mysterious child”, “The Lord Damodara” or “Govinda, immaculate One”. Through these many names, Andal seeks to be, to abide, melt and heal in the Self or God’s presence. “Let us sing His glory” she says.

 

Northern Mathura’s mysterious child, 
The one who plays in the pure waters of the Yamuna river, 
Emerald-like; the radiant lamp of the cowherd clan, 
The Lord Damodara who has illumined his mother’s womb, 
Let us, all pure, adore him with fresh flowers, pay our obeisance 
and sing his praises. Let us meditate upon Him. 
Our sins both past and present and those yet to come will vanish 
like cotton in afire. Therefore let us sing His glory
.”
~ Thiruppavai

 

In Bhakti, the path itself is the goal, love itself is the means to surrender our limited self to the ultimate presence of God. Knowledge or intellectual understanding is not necessary. This presence is available to all.

 

We follow our cattle and eat in the woods, 
ignorant folk of the menial cowherd clan. Yet it 
is our good fortune that You have been born amongst us. 
O Govinda, immaculate One, the bond we have 
with You can never be undone by anyone. 
Unsophisticated milk-maids as we are, out of love have 
we called You by trivial names, don’t be angry O Lord! 
Nor withhold Your gracious drum!

~ Thiruppavai

 

Here, Andal stresses the effectiveness of being humble. Humility gives complete access, for it opens up to some degree of surrender, to letting go of all egotism, not desiring anything for oneself. This absolute trust is a key to receive the grace of God.

 

We have come here, like the kings of this beautiful wide world, 
Humbled, renouncing pride and gathered at the foot of your throne, 
We too have come seeking you, with bended head, 
will not your benign eyes like half blossomed lotuses, 
resembling little bells, open upon us little by little ? 
If you will deign to look upon us with your two eyes 
that resemble the sun and the moon arisen; 
We will be freed from the curse which is upon us
.”
~ Thiruppavai

 

In her work ‘Nachiar Tirumozhi’, her poetry expresses itself in more intense, savage longings and erotic accents, to the point that some of her poems were rarely recited publicly. 

 

O famed and expert God of Love, 
Take note of the penance I undergo— 
My body unwashed, my hair unbound. 
My lips without colour, one meal a day. 
One thing I have to say, my Lord, 
That my womanhood may not be a waste 
Grant me this, my life’s aim. 
That I become Kesava’s servant-maid
.”
~ Nachiyar Tirumozhi (Translated by P. S. Sundaram)

 

If the Lord of Tirumal’s Grove 
Fragrant with the south 
Will come today and partake of these [offerings],
For each one I will give a lakh,
And on top of that give more —
If only he will come
Straight into my heart 
And stay there eternally
.”
~ Nachiyar Tirumozhi (Translated by P. S. Sundaram)

 

My life will be spared 
Only if he will come 
To stay for me for one night 
If he will enter me, 
So as to leave 
the imprint of his saffron paste 
upon my breasts 
Mixing, churning, maddening me inside, 
Gathering my swollen ripeness 
Spilling nectar, 
As my body and blood 
Bursts into flower
.”
~ Nachiyar Tirumozhi (Translated by William Dalrymple)

 

Sometimes, in her most desperate longings, she could be angry at him, fed up with his playing hide-and-seek with her.

 

O clouds in the sky, 
like a blue vesture spread 
Is he too with you there 
from Venkatam’s clear-stream hills? 
That the tears from my eyes 
should drown these hills, my breasts! 
Does it become his greatness 
to kill a woman’s essence thus?

~ Nachiyar Tirumozhi (Translated by P. S. Sundaram)

 

With her passionate longing for the Lord, Andal has remained a strong influence to this day in India, and her songs are still choreographed by classical dancers. Through her dedication and passion, there is no doubt that she finally merged in God’s infinite presence. “Having taken all my goods He has now taken my body too!

 

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Akka Mahadevi was born in 1130. Many of her Vacanas – ‘something said’,  these poems dedicated to the god Shiva in the Kannada language, remain famous nowadays. She was part of the Nayanars, a group of Shiva devotees in southwest India between the 10th and 12th centuries. Little is known about her life, but it is traditionally admitted that she rejected a mariage proposal from a local king, and renounced her life to become an ascetic wanderer. Her poems, which reflects her conflicting love life, torn between her different suitors and Shiva, the legitimate husband, are among the most beautiful of this period. She addresses her god with ‘Lord white as jasmine’ (Chenna Mallikarjuna), a signature that punctuates each of her poems. Her message is not hidden behind the nimbus of esoteric devotion, as was the case with Andal. The world with its natural and social aspects along with the inner conflicts of her quest are here more pregnant. 

 

Lo, the world does not take its hand off my back even now! 
O, Lord of infinite mercy, your Maya frightens me. 
O Lord Mallikarjuna, bestow your grace on me
.”
~ ‘Women Saints East and West’ by Swami Ghanananda

 

Why do I need this dummy 
of a dying world?
illusion’s chamberpot,
hasty passions’ whorehouse, 
this crackpot
and leaky basement?
Finger may squeeze the fig 
to feel it, yet not choose 
to eat it.
Take me, flaws and all, 
O lord
white as jasmine
.”
~ ‘Speaking of Siva’ by A. K. Ramanujan

 

I have fallen in love, O mother, with the 
Beautiful One, who knows no death, 
knows no decay and has no form; 

I have fallen in love, O mother, with the 
Beautiful One, who has no middle, has 
no end, has no parts and has no features; 

I have fallen in love, O mother, with the 
Beautiful One, who knows no birth and 
knows no fear. 

I have fallen in love with the 
Beautiful One, who is without any family, 
without any country and without any peer; 
Chenna Mallikarjuna, the Beautiful, is my husband, 
Fling into the fire the husbands who are subject 
to death and decay
.”
~ ‘Women Saints East and West’ by Swami Ghanananda

 

All the forest is You, 
All the glorious trees of the forest are You, 
All the birds and beasts that move among the trees are You. 
O Chenna Mallikarjuna, reveal to me Your face, 
pervading everything
.”
~ ‘Women Saints East and West’ by Swami Ghanananda

 

Akka Mahadevi, during her travels, would look for the company of fellow seekers and take part in philosophical debates. Her seeking was of a devotional nature, but with some emphasis on the intangible nature of the Lord. Her knowledge of the subtleties of the path to enlightenment is obvious. “If I say I know, Forgetfulness becomes a veil.” “Weld to the divine until the very welding disappears.”

 

When I didn’t know myself, 
where were You? 
Like the colour in the gold, 
You were in me. 
I saw in You, 
Lord white as Jasmin
the paradox of your being 
in me 
without showing a limb
.”
~ ‘Speaking of Siva’ by A. K. Ramanujan

 

I do not say it is the Linga, 
I do not say it is oneness with the Linga, 
I do not say it is union,
I do not say it is harmony, 
I do not say it has occurred, 
I do not say it has not occurred, 
I do not say it is You, 
I do not say it is I, 
After becoming one with the Linga 
in Chenna Mallikarjuna, 
I say nothing whatever
.”
~ ‘Women Saints East and West’ by Swami Ghanananda

 

Like a corpse placed on the funeral pyre 
Like a puppet cut off from the leading string, 
Like a pond with dried up water, 
Like a burnt rope, 
What dependence have I on my former state, 
Now that Cenna Mallikārjuna is my sole refuge?
 
~ ‘Imagination in Indian Poetics and Other Literary Studies’ by T. N. Sreekantaiya

 

Like 
treasure hidden in the ground 
taste in the fruit
gold in the rock
oil in the seed
the Absolute hidden away 
in the heart
no one can know 
the ways of our lord
white as jasmine
.”
~ ‘Speaking of Siva’ by A. K. Ramanujan

 

Towards the end of her life, Akka Mahadevi is said to have travelled to the Srisailam mountains in Andhra Pradesh where she reached union with her God Mallikarjuna. She died young at 30 years old, maybe even before. “For soul’s company I have you, O lord white as jasmine.”

 

He bartered my heart, 
looted my flesh, 
claimed as tribute 
my pleasure,
took over 
all of me.
I’m the woman of love
for my lord, white as jasmine
.“
~ ‘Speaking of Siva’ by A. K. Ramanujan

 

Every tree
in the forest was the All-Giving Tree, 
every bush
the life-reviving herb,
every stone the Philosophers’ Stone, 
all the land a pilgrim’s holy place,
all the water nectar against age,
every beast the golden deer,
every pebble I stumble on
the Wishing Crystal
walking round
the Jasmine Lord’s favourite hill,
I happened
on the Plantain Grove
. (paradise)”
~ ‘Speaking of Siva’ by A. K. Ramanujan

 

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Mirabai is a famous 16th century bhakti saint and poetess from Rajasthan. She was born in 1498 in a Rajput royal family, and brought up by her father – himself a Krishna devotee – after her mother died. Love and devotion for Krishna experienced its golden age between the 15th and 17th centuries, with some prestigious poets such as Chandidas, Vidyapati, Surdas, Tulsidas or Tukaram. Mirabai has remained a jewel whose devotion and fearlessness has produced countless stories and legends that have been adapted in literature and movies. 

She is said to have married a crown prince and spent time with her in-laws for five years until her husband died in the battle field. Left alone, she was martyrised and persecuted for her growing devotion to the Lord and her fierce independence and disregard for social conventions. She began to travel and participate in satsangs with other devotees. Krishna became the only husband she would care about. In her desire for union with her God, she expressed all the expectation, suffering, uncertainty and exaltation, all the nuances and flavours of the senses on the path of divine love. “I have searched the whole world; none else but You alone pleases me. Says Mira, I am Your slave; forget me not, I beseech You.”

 

O mother, Giridhara Gopala married me in a dream.
I wore a red and yellow veil, and henna 
was beautifully applied to my hands. 
My love for this (divine) Cowherd, 
who played the flute on the banks 
of the river Yamuna, is from my very childhood. 
This love can never be given up. 
It is eternal
.”
~ ‘Women Saints from East and West’ by Swami Ghanananda

 

Come to my house, O Krishna, 
Thy coming will bring peace 
Great will be my joy if I meet Thee, 
And all my desires will be fulfilled 
Thou and I are one. 
Like the sun and its heat 
Mira’s heart cares for nothing else. 
It only wants the beautiful Shyam
.”
~ ’The Devotional Poems Of Mirabai’ by A. J. Alston

 

For Mira, the spiritual search has flowered in equal share on both the tangible form of the divine and the intangible principle as consciousness. Even in the more tender accents of her devotion and surrender to the lord are pointing hints of a deeper understanding and the seeds of the realisations to come. “My Lord, I long for Thee in my heart, Come, knowing me to be Thine.”

 

To hear that a fish is thirsty in water, 
I feel amused and am moved to laughter
.”
~ ‘Mira The Divine Lover’ by V. K. Sethi

 

No one in this world is mine, 
Thou alone art truly my own
.”
~ ‘Mira The Divine Lover’ by V. K. Sethi

 

Go to that impenetrable realm
That death himself trembles to look upon. 
There plays the fountain of love
With swans sporting on its waters
.”
~ ’The Devotional Poems Of Mirabai’ by A. J. Alston

 

My Beloved is like the Indestructible Principle, 
Love of Him is true love 
The Lord has revealed Himself to Mira 
This is the path of true devotion
.”
~ ’The Devotional Poems Of Mirabai’ by A. J. Alston

 

All-pervading One, I am dyed in Your colour. 
When other women’s sweethearts live in foreign lands, 
they write letter after letter. 
But my Beloved lives in my heart, 
so I sing (happily) day and night
.”
~ ‘Women Saints from East and West’ by Swami Ghanananda

 

The simplicity of Mira’s poetry and message is dumbfounding. It has a sweet musicality, but its delivery remains clear and uncompromising. She knows well the price for being “steeped in the love of the Lord”. 

 

I am steeped in the love of the Lord, 
And I am rid of the guiles of my mind.

As long as I was a captive of ego and pride, 
My Beloved never cast a glance at me.
But when this slave became humble as the dust, 
From my eye He removed the inner veil.

He has bridged the gap of separation; 
Now He has embraced me and made me His own, 
I drink deep from the goblet of His love, 
And now live with my Beloved ever in bliss
.”
~ ‘Mira The Divine Lover’ by V. K. Sethi

 

Reach home, and from fear and doubt be free; 
Loitering midway, you will come to misery. 
Foolish wayfarer, why do you delay? 
Long is the way and soon will end the day
.”
~ ‘Mira The Divine Lover’ by V. K. Sethi

 

Mira is well aware of God’s abiding presence in all. In just a few verses, she shows the underlying oneness that enfolds her and the world as one big unifying self.

 

The sun will perish, so too the moon; 
Earth and sky will exist no more.
Air and water will also go; 
The Eternal alone will there be
.”
~ ‘Mira The Divine Lover’ by V. K. Sethi

 

I am attached to the Lords Name; 
His Name alone I now love and cherish.

My loving Friend has entered my heart 
As the string runs through a necklace.
He is within all, yet ever apart; 
Not near, nor far, is the Mighty One.

Mira now abides in the Lord’s shelter; 
The fear of birth and death is set aside
.”
~ ‘Mira The Divine Lover’ by V. K. Sethi

 

Listen to Mira’s poetry, to how she was able to blend the highest truths with the beauty and simplicity of nature, how she could marry her most tender feelings with the rock-like solidity of the Self.

 

The one I longed for has come home;
The raging fire of separation is quenched.
Now I rejoice with Him, I sing in bliss.

The peacocks at the cloud’s roar
Dance with unbound joy;
I rejoice in ecstasy
At the sight of my Beloved.

I am absorbed in His love;
My misery of wandering
In the world has ended.
The lily bursts into bloom
At the sight of the full moon;
Seeing Him, my heart blossoms in joy.
Peace permeates this body of mine;
His arrival has filled my home with bliss.

That very Lord has become my own
Who is ever the redeemer of His devotees.
Mira’s heart, scorched by the blaze of separation,
Has become cool and refreshed;
The pain of duality has vanished
.” 
~ ‘Mira The Divine Lover’ by V. K. Sethi

 

Mirabai flew unfettered towards the intangible side of the bhakti path. She is said to have spent her last years in Vrindavan — a Krishna’s pilgrimage town, where she died in 1547. Her poetry remains evanescent like is her trajectory into nothingness, into freshness, into lightness.

 

Deep is Mira’s love, now free from pain; 
Her Primal Groom is with her again. 
Its raining today, let it pour; 
My love is home, Him I adore
.”
~ ‘Mira The Divine Lover’ by V. K. Sethi

 

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Mirabai – Wikimedia

 

~~~

Poetry by Andal (8th Century), Akka Mahadevi (1130-1160), and Mirabai (1498-1547)

Accompanying text by Alain Joly

~~~

 

Read the text ‘Bhakti, the Song of Love’ on the blog…

Bibliography:
– ‘Bhakti yoga: The path of love’ – by Prabhuji – (Prabhuji Mission)
– ‘The Embodiment of Bhakti’ – by Karen Pechilis Prentiss – (Oup Usa)
– ‘Antal and Her Path of Love’ – by Vidya Dehejia – (State University of New York Press)
– ‘Speaking of Siva’ – by A. K. Ramanujan – (Penguin Classics)
– ‘Songs for Siva: Vacanas of Akka Mahadevi’ – Translated by Vinaya Chaitanya – (HarperCollins India)
– ‘Sky-clad: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Akka Mahadevi’ – by Mukunda Rao – (Westland)
– ‘Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems’ – by Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfield – (Aleph Book Company)

Websites:
Andal (Wikipedia)
Akka Mahadevi (Wikipedia)
Mirabai (Wikipedia)
Bhakti (Wikipedia)
Bhakti movement (Wikipedia)

 

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