Naked Before the Sacred
Such directness, in this case perhaps more playful than poignant, is a conduit of intimacy and is refreshingly evident in Hindu devotional traditions as well. The poems by Devara Dasimayya (10th c. C.E.) and Sambhucandra Ray (18th-19th c. C.E.) at the beginning of this essay vividly convey a blunt directness, on the one hand, before the god Shiva (Ramanatha), and on the other, before the goddess Kali, here identified as Tara, ostensibly indicating the goddess's saving power. Both poems convey exasperation, in the first case on the difficulty of embodiment, and in the second case, from the grief of feeling forgotten by the "savior" goddess.
While the bhakti (devotional) tradition in India typically drew upon different patterns of human relationships to represent relationship with the divine, the premier model was that of lovers. As such, we may be surprised to note intense emotional expression in Hindu poetry not at all limited to extravagant passion or jubilant expressions of union. Not untypically, some poets will share a sense of pique, or irritation, or anger with their chosen deity, and even chastise the god or goddess for seeming delinquent in the duties of love. Sometimes the poet appears to badger the divine for his or her peculiar or incomprehensible ways, especially as the deity withdraws (or seems to withdraw) into absence. The felt separation and the perceived sense of abandonment often occasion blunt, bald-faced words of the lover to the Beloved. There are no pious platitudes here. No Hallmark card of saccharine sweetness.
For example, Kali, as the supreme goddess in certain Bengali devotional traditions, is understood, in her benevolent aspect of Tara, as the "Compassionate" and the "Thoughtful." However, some poets offer blunt critiques of her, occasioned by their anguish, concluding, as Rachel McDermott notes, "with bitterness and sarcasm; no one would worship the Goddess if there were an alternative." Such poems reflect very real human predicaments; they express the understandable disquiet that obtains when appealing to a savior but feeling as if one's prayer echoes into silence.
We see examples of this disquiet in the Hebrew Psalms as well. The first two verses of Psalm 13, perhaps more plaintive than marked by pique, are nonetheless clear in their directness and vulnerability:
How long, Yahweh, will you forget me? For ever?
How long will you turn away your face from me?
How long must I nurse rebellion in my soul,
sorrow in my heart day and night?
How long is the enemy to domineer over me?
Such lines are potent and poignant precisely because of their "real-ness," their honesty and directness. Buddhism, while typically not appealing to a separate being as ultimate or supreme, nonetheless is rich with poetry that refreshes by its frank humanity, too; note, for example, the following poem by Ikkyu, "A Meal of Fresh Octopus":
Lots of arms, just like Kannon the Goddess;
Sacrificed for me, garnished with citron,
I revere it so!
The taste of the sea, just divine!
Sorry, Buddha, this is another precept I just
Frank expressions, artistic or otherwise, of authentic human experience is always connecting; the resonance we may feel in such expression in the world's sacred poetry builds a kind of kindred community that cuts across centuries and illumines similar struggles that we experience on our own path. To return to the Hindu tradition, McDermott adds the following concerning the blunt directness of the poets:
Even the most pungent comments, however, belie a deeper commitment. In spite of her demeanor, the poets refuse to let go of their Goddess, crying that, if nothing else, their steadfast devotion to her kinder side will save them in the end. As such, it is they who are the moral victors in these particular songs.
Thomas A. Forsthoefel, Ph.D., is associate professor and chair of Religious Studies at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania. He served as poet laureate of northwestern Pennsylvania (Erie County) 2010-2012. His work focuses on the religions and philosophies of India, and he has published numerous articles and has written or collaborated on several books, including, Knowing Beyond Knowledge: Epistemologies of Religious Experience in Classical and Modern Advaita, a study of cognitive dimension of religious experience in Hindu non-dualism; Gurus in America, an edited volume; Soulsong: Seeking Holiness, Coming Home, a cross cultural exploration of holiness; and Dalai Lama: Essential Writings.