Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Madhura Bhakti in Devotional Poetry

Dr. P. P. Sharma



There are nine types of bhakti or devotion mentioned in The Bhagavata Purana, viz (1) Shravan (Hearing) – listening to the glories of the Lord, (2) Kirtan (Chanting) His glories, (3) Smaran (Remembering) God constantly, (4) Padasevan (Adoration) of the Lotus feet, (5) Archana (Offerings), (6) Vandana (Adoration), (7) Dasya (Servitude), (8) Sakhaya (Fellowship) and (9) Atma-Nivedan. (Skanda 7, ch.5, sloka 23). The Sequence in which these types have been mentioned is significant. It indicates a rising tempo of devotion, Atma-Nivedan being the culmination point. The items 1 to 6 more or less refer to certain overt acts. Not that they are not accompanied by certain mental experiences. How can one, for instance, do Padasevan in any meaningful sense without bringing same feeling or emotion to bear on his outward behaviour? In contrast to this, in items 7 to 9 the emphasis shifts from the ritualistic act to the inner state of the “sadhaka” or spiritual aspirant. It should, however, be pointed out here that this hierarchy will hold only if other things remain the same. In other words, it is possible for kirtan to become more effective when it is performed with total self-absorption, as in the case of chaitanya Mahaprabhu, then Atma - Nivedan practised in a luke warm fashion. Another point worth noting is that Padasevan, Archana and Vandanam would normally require the physical presence of the image of the deity whereas the other types can be carried out' by the individual concerned without any external aid or ancillary. Moreover, in Dasyam, Sakhyam and Atma Nivedanam some kind of reciprocity is expected by the devotee from his adored. All other forms can be observed almost unilaterally.

Atma-Nivedanam means complete self-surrender. Obviously this state is not easy to arrive at. From the aphoristic statements made by Shandilya and Narda in their Bhakti sutras, it is clear that it is the most intense form of love for or attachment to the Godhead. But how to come by it, that seems to be the crux of the problem. Perhaps in an attempt to answer this certain types of spiritual attitudes have been recommended by the seers and sages. They are Shanta, Sakhya, Dasya, Vatsalya and Madhura. In shanta Bhakti, the devotee accepts whatever comes to him, success or failure, joy or grief, without being ruffled, with perfect equanimity as a gift of the Grace of God. There is absolutely no room for complaining against divine dispensation or railing against misfortune. In Sakhya bhakti, one feels that one is all the time in company with the lord who is his companion and counsellor, always at his beck and call. In dasya bhakti, he looks upon God as his master and upon himself as his humble servant. In vatsalya bhakti he either regards God as his father and mother and thus attaches himself to His Lotus Feet or treats God with the love and indulgence of a mother. All these attitudes will be conducive to the development of what has been called Atma Nivedanam. But the highest among them all is Madhura bhakti.

Instead of answering the question what is Madhura bhakti? in ab­stract conceptual terms, it would be more illuminating to ponder over a concrete picture: “The yamuna bank: calmness ... charm ... inspiration ... thrill. The cool breeze brought soft and sweet strains of Divine Music from the Flute of Krishna to the ear. Radha came down from the high sand dune forwards the water line, with a big pot on her hip. Half way through she stopped short, for she heard her name wafter on the wind from where krishna stood, ‘Radha, Radha! with eyes wide open she looked on all the four sides. No one to be seen anywhere. And no habitation around. Krishna was ever thus” (Sathya Sai Baba Speaks, Vol. X, p.172). Narad has defined Parampremorupabhekh.” or devotion in the form of supreme love as “that which manifests itself in offering all one’s actions to the Lord and in being intensely in agony even in slightly forgetting Him. This is exactly like the devotion of the gopis (milkmaids) of Vrej (for krishna) (Narad Bhaktisutra, 19-21.) The tenth skanda of the Bhagavata Purana provides us with a very detailed description of these gopis. We are told that they were all married and belonged to decent and respectable families. Their hearts were so overwhelmingly swamped in the love of Krishna that they cared for nothing - their marital ties, their concern for their children and the elders in the family, social norms and mores for good conduct and rushed to meet Krishna in extreme impatience on hearing the soft and caressing music of his flute. They hoped to get nothing out of that love-neither entry into Vaikuntha or “moksha”? (Salvation): love was the summom bonum of their life. They loved Krishna as an infatuated women would love her paramour. Since they were already married and had their husbands, they loved Krishna not with the homely (or state?) love of a house wife but with the raging passion of a mistress. They were not “svakiyas” but “parakiyas”.

Madhura bhakti is the intensest form of devotion as it brings the devotee closest to his adored. All distinctions are obliterated, they meet on most intimate terms. As a wife meets her husband, or more appropriately, a woman meets the man she is passionality in love with, so does a Bhakta meet the Lord. In that encounter all formalities are dropped. Moreover, it is not always goody goody things decordusly dropped, that are said. The mistress can remonstrate if she has the suspicion that her paramour has wronged her by being caught in the snare of somebody else’s love and so on. One does not have to be an good behaviour all the time. Love is not clayingly sweet throughout; it involves tantrums, painful partings, estrangements and, of course, blissful reconciliations. Madhura bhakti is a nerdant woodland but occasionally is reveals a few arid patches too, may be to bring into relief its overall vernal splendour. Just as in sringar rasa there are two opposite situations, one of samyoga or of being together and the other of separation; so in Madhurabhakti there are thrills and joys of being united and there are pangs of being parted.

Madhurabhakti is found among some medieval saints belonging to the Catholic church. Another name for Madhura bhakti is Kanta-­Kanta bhava which means the devotee worships the Lord as a devoted wife worships her spouse. God is active and the individual soul is passive, merely acted upon. The metaphor of the thunderbolt and the lotus also stresses the same relationship. In the sankhya philosophy also two aspects of the Premordial principle have been conceived: One is purusha nad the other is Prakriti. The entire creation issues from their union. Certain passages in the Old Testament are clearly marked by the kind of love that a wife has for her husband: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” (The song of Solamon. Ch 1-2): “My beloved sake, and said unto me, Rise up. My love, my fair one and came away. (Ch. 2-10): “My beloved is white and reddy, the chiefest among ten thousand (Ch. 5-10); “I am my beloved’s and his desire is toward me.” (Ch 7-10. Saint Bernard had developed this attachment for Jesus Christ that he ecstatically contemplated a conjugal relationship with him. Nor was he the only one to be pining like a bride for her groom. St. John of Ruice Brooke St. Terese and St. John of the Cross were all moved by a similar experience. The suffis among the followers of Islam were also familiar with the mystique of Divine bethorothl but perhaps because the masculine trait was too pronounced in them they could imagine their beloved in no other than the feminine form. Here in our country Madhurabhakti has always been a manifestation of a wife’s devotion to her husband and not vice versa. That is why it has been called “gopibhava” at its greatest heights it has been styled as “Radhabhawa” or “Mahabhava”. One gain that has accrued from the acceptance of the Lord as husband and not as wife is that excessive eroticism has been checked.

It is often assumed that Madhurabhakti is possible only in con­nection with the worship of God with form, But if the desire to be at one with God without form is as intense as characterizes a wife’s attitude towards her husband, a passionate longing to be held in a tight embrace by him, to be completely seized by him and absorbed by him, then indeed we do find the conditions of Madhura bhakti. Several medieval saint poets show a strong yearning to merge with Brahman, that aspect of the godhead which has no name, no form and no attribute, and call the Absolute Principle as “Swami” (husband or master), “Bhartar” (One who bears the burden, or a husband) and themselves as “Dchuria” or “Dulhin” (bride or wife). Their highest aspiration is to because an undistinguishable part of God, A river easing its separate identity and merging into the sea. In philosophi­cal language this is called “advaita”, non duality and Madhura bhakti enables the saint poets to attain it.

Kabir is the greatest of these saint poets and although in principle he is opposed to accepting God under a human aspect (being a “Nirgunavadi” he considers God “agochar”, beyond the grasp of the senses, “anirvacha” one who cannot be described or named, who is ineffable, he is at times seen to be sufficiently swayed by Madhuri bhakti as to fondly wish for a wedlock with Hari. He wants his mind to show patience for it has already started flirting with its bridegroom. He would put the noose of love round its neck (literally throat) and take him where his Madhava is (Shyam Sunder Das (ed.) Kabir Granthawali (Kashij Nagari Pracharni sabha, samvat 1987) hada 213, h. 160). Elsewhere depicts himself as a wife eagerly waiting for her beloved groom:

O bride, sing a song of Welcome
for my darling king Ram has come to my home.
I am lost body and soul in him ...
My beloved guest Ram Deo has come.
I am intoxicated by youth.
I’ll take seven steps while going round the fire
with Ram Deo. How very lucky I am.
Thirty three crore gods and eighty eight thousand sages
Have out of curiosity turned up
Kabir says that I have wedded a person immortal
(Ibid. pad 1, p. 87 translation mine)

A loving wife is so full of surrender that the regards nothing as her own; everything actually belongs to her husband. This sentiment Kabir expresses thus:

There is nothing in me which is mine, whatever
there is yours.
While rendering upto you which is yours I am not
doing anything (Ibid., pad 23, p. 19)

It is not difficult to cull parallel passages from the works of other “nirguna” saint poets like Dadu, Rajjas and Sundardas. Dadu in fact says that who ever is the Kanta (or husband) of Kabir, him he will also marry, nor will his mind, speech and action accept anybody else. The same spirit of object surrender is in him too. He says: “The body is yours, the mind is yours; my very life - breath is yours. Everything is yours and you are mine. This is Dadu’s wisdom. “Most of these saint poets were low born and had no learning but they expressed in their forthright utterances. Often they project themselves as keeping a tryst with their lover, keeping the sukhman sage (the lover’s cosy bed) ready, adorning their bodies with decorations and jewels. The poet Paltu lays bare his soul in these words: “Since I have obtained my darling I’ve become oblivious to everything. Peace has entered my heart and all uncertainty has ceased. O mother my heart has got stuck and I cannot bear to live without seeing him. Some malady has gripped me and I will have to give up my life. I am devoid of consciousness; the sense of shame has forakin me and there is no other remedy except meeting my darling “(Paltu Saheb Ki Bani, Part I (Valvediar Press, Prayag: 1910), pp. 27-29. Translation mine)

The nirguna saint poets do afford enough evidence of madhurab­hakti in their writing and they have perforce to bring divinity down on the level of humanity. How can anyone establish the ties of love with an abstraction? The analogies to suggest their relationships with God are all drawn from the familiar context of human life. They are, however, intent all the time to lead us through appearances to the ultimate Reality “Brahman expressed in language applicable to hus­band, beloved or bridegroom. Kabir’s Ram is not the son of the King Dashratha. They also describe the physical charm of their darling and also some times mention same qualities to show that there is same shared ground between the devotee and the deity but the philosophi­cal import is always hinted at. That is why the allegorical dimension is never absent for long and that introduce the element of intellectuality which somewhat mitigates against the unfolding of madhurabhava. This perhaps explains why this bahava finds a fuller and more satisfy­ing archestration in the saguna devotional poets in comparison with the nirguna saint poets.

Among saguna poets Mira stands foremost in the domain of madhurabhakti. The strategy of putting her in the centre and grouping all other poets of this kind of bhakti around her would presumably be very helpful for a general assessment. Of Mira Nabhadasa in his Bhaktamala says:

Love akin to Gopika’s she demonstrated to the world
in the Kaliage
Unbridled and fearless, her tongue sang the ditties
of love.
Guessing fault in her, the wicked conspired for her
Not a hair of hers was hurt. She drank off poison
like nectar
Beating aloud the drum of love she felt not
ashamed of anyone.
Discarding the family tradition of decorum and
propriety, Mira gave herself up to Giridhar.

Here we have the salient features of madhura bhakti stated in a nutshell, Mira was a woman and so could most effortlessly and spontaneously feel as well as articulate the yearning of a woman for her paramour. A certain odium attaches to her infatuation for krishna as the expected norms of a married woman or a widow (particularly in the Rajputana of four centuries ago) were glaring flouted by her. She cannot offer herself to a husband who is born and who dies, she would much rather wed the dark-complexioned one to ensure herself perpetual marital bliss. She will deck herself out with the most auspicious colourful dress of a bride waiting for her groom. For the sake of her husband she has selected sarees, petticoats and brasiors of the most enchanting and delightful colours. Let others say what they want to say. Mira tying the bells on her ankles is dancing away, as though lost in ecstasy. She has got her bridal bed prepared with meticulous care and has adorned her person with consummate skill:

The frills of the coverlet embroidered with buds
and flowers are dyed in five colours
The armlets and the neckband are sparkling bright and
the line (of the parting) of the hair is filled
with vermillion.

Mira will stretch herself out on the “sukhamana
sage (Couch) for the auspicious hour has struck.

The physical charm of Krishna is envoked throughout by Mira. She is for ever dwelling and doting on the crown of peacock feather. The red dot on his forehead, the earrings of the crocodile formation, the soft silken black tresses, the yellow robe, the beautiful garland, round his neck. With the conjuring up of these sensuous details the madhura sentiment is easily kindled.

There was much earlier then Mira another women poet in the Tamil country, Andal, one of the Alwar poets. The word “Andal” means a bunch of flowers and she was found in a bed of flowers by periya Alwar who. brought her up as his own daughter. She never entertained the idea of marrying anybody as from her childhood she regarded herself as the berothel of Shri Ranganatha in the Shri Rangam temple. On attaining the age of 16 she entered into perpetual union with him. She never doubted that the Lord would one day make her his own. In one of her verses she says:

The drums beat
The conch blow
Neeth the pearl-decked
Wedding place;
Madhusundan, my Lord,
The hope of all,
He came; and I dreamt
That he held my hand

(Devotional poets and Mystics part I, Publication Division Govt. of India, April 1983, p.49.)

Although women poets have a certain edge over their male counterparts in the domain of madhura bhakti at cannot be regarded as their exclusive territory. Nammaalwar for example is tormented by the same kind of yearning for his beloved god as we find in Andal and Mira for theirs. Like a “Virhotkanthita nayika” he is impatiently waiting for his divine spouse in the following poem:

Evening has come, He has not
And the kine are wriggling in content
For the bulls, bells jingling,
Have masted with them
The cruel flutes are prating
Within the bright, bright jasminebuds,
And the blue lily.
The bee is fluttering and dancing.
The sea breaks open, leaping upto the sky
And cries and cries.
What is it that I can shy?
How can I escape and save myself,
Here without Him? (Ibid, p.42).

Of Narsi Mehta we learn that as a child he was very fond of dressing himself as a girl. Later he describes how he had a vision of being taken by lord Shiva to dwarka to witness the glorious dance (or ras) of krishna with the Gopis. He was asked to hold aloft a burning torch while Krishna and Radha danced. He was so lost in the ecstatic sight that his hand was burnt by the torch before he was even aware of it, “I took the hand of that lover of the Gopis in loving canverse .... I forgot all else. Even my manhood left me. I began to sing and dance like a women. My body seemed to change and I became one of the Gopis.” There have been two most significant avatars so for as Hinduism is concerned Ram and Krishna called “maryada Purshottama” and “leela purshottama” respectively. Rama is known for laying down ‘Maryada’ or boundary or limit for human conduct whereas Krishna is of a sporting nature. It is Krishna who has called forth the enormous body of poetry marked by Madhurabhakti. The Gopis in general and Radha in particular developed a very strong, albeit illicit relationship with him so much so that just on hearing his flute call they left their husbands, children and families and pursued him in the groves of Vrindawan. The devotional poets have taken them as models of divine intoxication and have often felt tempted to follow in their footsteps. Rama has a sterner and forbidding aspect and since he is bound by the inviolable vow of are wife, contemplation of him does not encourage the attitude of conjugal love. At best some Hindi poets have tried to identify themselves with the sakhis of Sita and have thus managed to look at Rama in his earlier years with a feeling of love. But that is all. In the case of Krishna, poets have often expressed their own “kanta bhava, but more often they have done it vicariously. Narsi Mehta in Gujarat, Tukarama in Maharashtra and Surdas in. the North have projected their attitude through the characters of Gopis and Radha. It is certain that while they are depicting the pangs of separation on the joys of being together for these women driven crazy by Krishna, they are trying to find some appeasement for themselves by releasing their cum pent up turbulent emotions. Often they have “dasya”, “sakhya” and “Shringar” for developing their madhurabhakti.

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