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Faith : September 23, 2001
The wandering minstrel
The author, who lives in Paris, is a distinguished scholar of Indian religious culture and social thought, known for his authoritative studies of the Bhakti tradition of Maharashtra, a subject he first addressed more than four decades ago. His latest book, L'Inde, Continent Rebelle, was published in 2000.
I discovered India through Tukaram; fifty years later, I am relying on Namdev to guide my slow deciphering of the rich popular culture of the sub-continent, which has remained until to-day, to a large extent, unknown to the French and even to the international public. I have followed a similar path in my taking possession of my own French culture, beginning with Ronsard, the poet of my native region and, moving backwards singer by singer, to Fran‡ois Villon, Cl‚ment Marot and the 13th Century poet Rutebeuf (1230-1285), a near contemporary of Namdev (1270-1350): a pilgrimage journey to the fountainhead which makes possible some understanding of the waters in which I am able to quench the fires of my questioning body.
Though my first book, published in 1956, was a French translation of some one hundred poems by Tukaram, and though in the year 2001 I am preparing a translation of some one hundred poems by Namdev, I do not consider myself to be a specialist of the Marathi language. I often regret that I am not greatly gifted for languages, and that I practise poorly those languages that I do know. But I have borne patiently with this personal failing without undue remorse, since it has enabled me to approach my favorite authors in the capacity of a delighted amateur and if I may say so, of a poet.
In keeping with the Russian Formalist school of the 1920s, I consider poems as indivisible wholes, as abhangs, to use precisely the name that the Marathi poets give them: the metre, sounds and rhythm are for me inseparable from the meaning. I prefer to listen to a poem than to read it, and to sing it to myself for my own hearing, even if my pronunciation is atrocious. It is in this way, at any rate, that certain poets become close friends and indispensible companions to me, however great the temporal and spatial distance that separates them from me. Namdev speaks to me then, as if he were present at my side, in the same way as he was present in the midst of his fellow pilgrims, seven centuries ago.
From Maharashtra to the Punjab, Namdev flooded the entire North-West of India with his hymns, which the pilgrims, his companions and disciples down the centuries, have transmitted to the hearts of the pilgrims of the 21st Century; vernaculars were closely related, coming from the same prakrits, and devotional music was understood by all. However, it is less important to dwell in the capacity of a historian on the anecdotes of Namdev's biography, be they legendary or factual, than to plunge into his poetic creations in the capacity of a seeker of eternal truths. Namdev speaks to me personally through the sounds of his songs.
He would sing out his love for and total faith in the ever-active presence of an avatar of his God, whom he addressed as Viththal or Vithoba. But what was an avatar for him? Not an abstract concept inherited from any traditional theology, but a reality experienced by innumerable lineages of poet-saints, born in every conceivable kind of family in his native region of origin. Two abhangs in particular reveal to us the depths of his faith in the avatar who inspired his love. In the edition of the Gathas published in 1970 by the Government of Maharashtra, they bear the numbers 287 and 289. I will begin with the latter.
Namdev, of course, is not responsible for this numbering. Did he even know how to write, not being a brahmin, but of the tailor caste? Others around him would gather together his compositions, and down the ages, various professional singers, in order to preserve them from oblivion, transcribed them into a written form and assembled them in collections called Gathas. In North India, they were arranged according to the musical mode or raga in which they were composed or ought to be sung. In Maharashtra, a thematic presentation was preferred. Poems nos: 287 and 289 appear in the Government edition of 1970 under the heading "Krishna's games" or krishnalila. In the edition by Sakhre (republished in 1990), they appear further down at the numbers 2246 and 2250 under the theme "Child's play" or kheliya. The pilgrims' prayer book known as Olice Abhang, edited by Satarkar in 1938, does not include them at all, nor does the little hymn book compiled by Vinoba Bhave in 1946. It is as if therecuperation of Namdev and the Pilgrims' movement by the brahmins of the 20th and 21st Centuries made necessary the elimination of those poems that were not quite to the taste of the latter.
In the book by R. D. Ranade entitled Mysticism in Maharashtra, which appeared in 1923 and is considered a classic, the learned author, a brahmin, devotes 139 pages to Jnandev, and only 13 pages to Namdev! This is explained under the pretext that "Jnandeva and Namdeva represent the intellectual and the emotional sides of spiritual life" (p.187). A more objective listening to the abhangs of Namdev clearly shows, on the contrary, the depth of the philosophical thinking of the humble tailor whose caste, in fact, did not put an exceptional intellectual audacity out of his reach at all.
Namdev was a free person who refused to bow down to the authority of the brahmins. The only avatar that he acknowledged as truly divine, was Krishna under his Maharashtrian incarnation of Vithoba, or his Kannarese incarnation of Viththal. And he makes fun of the series of avatars established by the brahmanical tradition which, according to him, had only been invented to instil fear into the ordinary Indian, and to force the people into docile submission to their brahmin masters. With a devastating irony, he qualifies these avatars as scarecrows or bagul.
It would be very instructive, though beyond the scope of this article, to analyse each of the ten avatars in which Namdev points out scarecrow characteristics. We will limit ourselves to a few examples:
Verses from Namdev feature extensively in the Guru Granth Sahib.
The first scarecrow, they say, is called the Fish;
The cards are all on the table, right from the outset; the Fish kills in order to save the Vedas from the Deluge. Who claims this to be so? The brahmins who alone are dependent on mantras for carrying out their rituals. But it is unacceptable to the tailor Namdev, who has no use for the Vedas. How could his "ever-serene" God be obliged to kill, albeit a demon, in order to reveal Himself to humankind? If the avatars are all killers, as the brahmins affirm them to be, then Krishna is not of their lineage. Thus Namdev wonders about and questions the common (brahmanical) conception of his time. Was the first avatar, in the form of a Fish, indeed an Incarnation, whose only goal was to retrieve the Vedas from destruction ? The ovi relating to this in the second abhang (no: 247) gives us the answer:
In the first avatar, you revealed the techniques of singing,
To the stultifying speculations of the brahmins on the divine ordination of the dharma of the castes which, according to them, is embodied in the Vedas, Namdev opposes the mystical experience of the poet-saints, most of whom were non-brahmins, or brahmins who had been repudiated by their brahmin caste, as was the case with Jnandev, one of the early companions of Namdev, along with Chokhamela the outcast, Janabai the housemaid or Gora the potter. Every individual, whatever his/her caste may be, can partake of the presence of the divine and be the singing messenger of universal "compassion". In consequence, for Namdev, the initial step of divine revelation, in the first true avatar, cannot but be that of the knowledge of poetical techniques, that is, in his particular case, the techniques of the abhangs.
The abhang is indeed a path of initiation that abolishes all frontiers (a-bhang): between man and God, as well as between man and man due to distinctions of birth, sex, philosophical schools, religious oppositions or even separations between continents. In the same way as do music, rhythmic expressions and dance. Seeing a pilgrim dance soon involves the beholder in his steps, if only he is receptive to the singing message of the pilgrim's body. This is true of the practice of bhakti, or of Sufism, or of shamanistic rituals, or of negro-spirituals. As also, in all probability, it was of the practice of the Rigveda.
Manoj K. Jain
The condemnation of the Vedas that reappears like a leitmotif in all the compositions of the Bhakti poets, from Namdev to Kabr, to Guru Nanak or Tukaram, right down to our days, is in no way levelled against the poets of the hymns (or rig), but rather against their being chopped up into mantras by the brahmins for use in their sacrificial rituals. Namdev, and his friends and successors, consider themselves as the true inheritors of the very first poets who were inspired by the first avatar. The only veritable mantra, according to them all, is the repetition of the divine name, the name that your heart sings, be it Ram, Krishna, Hari, Viththal, Allah or Jesus.
Isn't Namdev, by his very name, "the one whose name is God"? Interestingly, when he reaches, in the two abhangs quoted above, the ninth avatar, the avatar of the Buddha, equally construed by the brahmins as a scarecrow, the humble, mystical tailor claims to be part of his descendence:
The ninth scarecrow, they say, is called the Buddha;
And the second abhang (no: 287) clarifies Namdev's thinking on this issue:
The ninth avatar, the Buddha, will only terminate at the end of all time;
Could that be ours?
(Translated by Florence D'Souza, Paris, Ashadhi ekadashi, 2001.)
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