To Love is to Know: Reflections on Bhakti

"Jheeni," Shruthi Vishwanath & Sanjukta Wagh

"Jheeni," Shruthi Vishwanath & Sanjukta Wagh

To Love is to Know: Reflections on Bhakti

Conversation with Poet and Festival Curator,  Arundhathi Subramaniam, Mystic Kalinga Festival of Verse, Music, Dance & Discussion, Bhubhaneshwar, January 5 2019.

AS: I’m going to start by asking you about the title you proposed for this session, To Love is to Know. This idea excites me and I particularly liked the succinctness of your title. I’d ask you to say more about that.

LM: First, I want to thank everyone who has preceded me. Something very beautiful about the bhakti tradition has been made manifest today: its extraordinary force, plurality, beauty and persistence. Its persistence across a range of domains, its expression in a variety of registers and its capacity to exist both inside of time and outside of time. The yantra is a beautiful representation for the multiplicity we have experienced. [1]

So far in our discussions, bhakti has been talked about as a movement that is locatable in history and as a form of conversation, engagement, intimacy with the Divine. But prior to all of this I would say that bhakti is the very cause of Creation. In other words, the world or Creation exists because of the love of the Divine. It is an expression of the love of the Divine. If we think about it that way, bhakti is the first cause. And our capacity to love each other and our capacity to love God are simultaneously bequeathed to us in the manifestation of Creation as an act of love. In that sense bhakti is a kind of pedagogy that is implicit in Creation itself. Which is why it has the staying power, philosophical depth and the multiplicity of expressions that we have experienced today.

I think some of the tensions that we have named and discussed today have more to do with our modern tendency to binarize. It is we who have produced the binary of the sacred and the profane or the sacred and the banal which clearly doesn’t exist as is evident in the poems that were read today. There is a fundamental tension within the tradition, between what one might broadly call the tantric and the atantric or anti-tantric impulse or tendency. By tantra I mean those aspects of the tradition that unequivocally embrace materiality, embodiment, matter, sensation, touch, tactility, phenomenality - the fact of existence. And by atantric or anti-tantric, those aspects of the tradition that shy away from an unequivocal embrace of matter in favor or some notion of the transcendent, in favor of the search for meaning outside of the cut and thrust of matter or that which constitutes the world. So, to some degree, some of the binaries that everyone is seeking to trouble in the course of their discussions of bhakti come out of that tendency within the tradition, mapped onto which is a postcolonial, post Enlightenment binarization which tends to read tradition in a certain way and therefore finds “contradictions” or “tensions” which are actually not present quite in that way in the tradition itself.

AS: Do you think it’s that kind of binarizing that is responsible for this idea that the life of the mind and the life of the heart or the language of the mind and the language of the heart are two different languages, a premise that is quite pervasive?

LM: Absolutely. Why do I say “To Love is to Know”? There are the four named paths: bhakti, tantra, jnana, karma.[2] One can understand it this way. If bhakti is the first cause, the first cause of Creation, tantra is its first effect. Because in the Creation of the universe is the creation of matter. In the creation of the universe in love, out of love, because of love of matter, matter arrives as inherently, intrinsically beautiful. Jnana is how you understand matter, phenomenality, your relationship to the Divine. And karma is how you tend Creation understood as the manifestation of love. The capacity to love is bequeathed to you. To love each other, to love matter, to love God.

Or not!

And the “or not” is very important because we are given free will. And because we are given free will, inquiry is central to the tradition itself. We often think of the idea of criticality as being a modern sensibility, a modern disposition. But not at all. Once you have a manifestation of an order to which humans are invited with the capacity for free will - to say yes or no - inquiry is built into the pedagogy of Creation itself. This idea that somehow there is the jnana path and it is somehow superior to the bhakti path and that the bhakti path is only about sensation and feeling and emotion and is not a cognitive path is really problematic. You could say it’s a misperception and an original misperception like that gives rise to tertiary misperceptions and some of the ways we have tended to talk about these traditions reflect those tertiary misperceptions which are then compounded by certain post-Enlightenment ways of thinking.

AS: When one hears Lata the questions that invariably come up are, “Where is this particular kind of articulation coming from? Is this her training? Is this something that she schooled herself in? What lies behind this articulation? This insight?” I found this beautiful line in an interview with her in which she says that one day in the year 1993 her very head oriented approach to life literally and figuratively turned turtle when she met with a head-on collision with a truck. She says that after that she had to replot her whole life, recraft it, reperceive it ground upward. For me that particular image was vivid and quieting. I’d like you to say something more about how life post-1993 has shaped you understanding of bhakti, shaped your understanding of life.

LM: I think some of us are hard nuts to crack! I was quite satisfied with the Marxist Feminism that had shaped my own intellectual formation. I was hit at 100mph by a truck. I survived the collision but my brain was not intact. I entered a very long period when mind was very quiet, brain was very inactive. And I began to experience states of consciousness for which I had no language. I began to experience a kind of love that I had never experienced before. And I began hearing in my inner ear words and poems and songs and invitations that I had never heard before. I had no choice but to open myself to allow this force to teach me. That was when my apprenticeship began. And it continued. What I was experiencing in the depths of the brain injury was something for which neither Marxism nor post-colonial theory nor Feminism had prepared me.

One of the things about the spiritual journey as anyone who’s been on one would recognize, is that every idea you have about the spiritual journey is turned turtle to borrow a phrase from you. What became clear to me midway through my recovery was that the invitation was not merely to open to this nameless, formless, immeasurable love and how it was remaking my consciousness, but to integrate it with my prior training. What was the nature of the bridge? Was there a bridge? What does Marxism or Feminism have to do with the spiritual journey? What is it about this new experience that might help illuminate the kinds of issues I was interested in previously? So yes, 1993 remade me. It’s still remaking me. And I am still trying to find language.

AS: This quest for language is something I understand as a practitioner and lover and a reader of poetry because poetry compels you in some way to constantly confront uncertainty, to try to wrest something fresh from the familiar. That is our business as poets. I’ve been through periods in my life that were scarily non-verbal -- certainly one in which I felt absolutely inarticulate and speechless, I thought I would never come out of it. Although I believed that, poetry found its way back into my life, perhaps differently, but it found its way back. And now I see why. Poetry by definition is about trying to create form in a situation of freedom, to fashion words out of wordlessness. It’s a terrifying thing, it’s a lonely thing, it’s often completely unproductive. You don’t get there, you’re searching for a poem that eludes you. But it’s part of the process. In your case, where your training as you point out was in this Marxist Feminist framework it seems almost like two incarnations. I’m curious to know how those connections have endured. What kinds of conversations go on between the Lata Mani that authored Contentious Traditions and the Lata Mani who is the contemplative writer, who authors Interleaves and who was receptor enough to receive The Tantra Chronicles? And who now seeks to turn bhakti into this cognitive mode, to be talking about bhakti as cognition in the way that you are?

LM: There are so many questions embedded in that! Let me go at it tangentially. What most spiritual traditions do is address the individual. Obviously spiritual teachings have valence and resonance for more than the individual. But fundamentally spiritual teachings address the individual. What I would say secular forms of knowledge offer us is the notion of the social. Spiritual teachings are unitive philosophies. When they are practiced at their deepest level what you experience is your intimacy with the whole of the universe. So, it’s an individual journey but it’s not an individualist journey. You increasingly find yourself recast as multiply constituted within infinite relations that you cannot possibly grasp. And as you understand yourself as a dancing molecule, you are opened to leaning into, bowing down with, the rest of Creation. That gesture of surrender is very much at the heart of the yearning of love which we name as bhakti. So you have a sense of your connection to something larger.

But there is an intermediate category which is the social. And that is what sociology, history, politics, philosophy, all of these secular forms of knowledge give you access to. If you are to strive for unconditioned knowledge you have to understand your own social formation. If you are not to reproduce the cultural conditioning of the tradition into which you are born or the tradition that calls to you (you may be born into a tradition called Hinduism and you may be called by Sufism or Buddhism) there is no way to do it without understanding the social. How is hate culturally legitimized? How is greed made socially acceptable so that the profit motive and aspiration is so naturalized that we do not take a critical view of the kind of economic system within which we live? All of this cannot come to you only from the spiritual teachings. You draw on these other knowledges. And one is not unique in doing that. After all, a weaver draws on metaphors from weaving. A weaver may also draw on metaphors from farming. One draws on whatever lexicon is available to one. I guess since this was my intellectual lexicon this is the kind of transcoding I’m engaged in. That’s a partial answer.

AS: It’s a persuasive answer. I will take it for now. But I also wanted to ask you, Lata, you talked about bhakti as pedagogy for living. To link this with the earlier conversation which Sachidananda Mohanty moderated on bhakti in an ethos of disbelief, in many ways it feels that we live in a horrifically polarized world in which sometimes the choices seem absolutely dire between a very barren, very sterile secularism and a kind of terrifyingly infantile religiosity, intolerant and bigoted. Sometimes between these two terrifying alternatives it seems like life is hard. What is the role that bhakti can play? What is its relevance in a world like this for you?

LM: Bhakti is very simply acknowledgement of the fact of intimacy. That’s what it is. Once you acknowledge intimacy bhakti becomes a disposition. How is it that I experience intimacy? I experience it by opening myself to that which I don’t know, that which I love, that which I will allow to remake me and that which I would love to share with the other. If there is something that marks most authoritarian or sectarian or hate-filled discourse it is the violent act of othering. To other is to deny intimacy.

It is very sad that the word ‘bhakt’ (adorer/devotee) has become associated with the Right in India. This idea that true bhakti is unreflective is deeply problematic. After all, take any saint or any bhakti poet and look at their oeuvre across time. You can see how they are clear about how their own perceptions are changing and shifting. Indeed, part of what they are sharing in their writing and poetic expression is precisely their transforming consciousness. I think the problem of a binary between hate on the one side and dry secularism on the other is that it ignores the vast middle ground. And the vast middle ground is much more complex and fecund and rich than that. We saw that even today. I think we must distrust binaries as an a priori, that divisive energy of binary thinking. I also think we would do well to look at how predominant ways of thinking orient us to not noticing that which predominates. Kabir and the mystic poets are known widely to those who have had no formal education, to those who are our homegrown philosophers.

 AS: We’re going to pause now and open this up for questions. I see Danish has his hand up.

Danish Hussain: Thank you for this conversation. One point you raised was that the sacred is not used enough as a cognitive resource. Then later in the conversation you said that bhakti is an act of intimacy. Do you think in some sense that it could be that people are scared to use the sacred as a cognitive resource?

LM: That’s a very interesting question and it bears deeper reflection than I would be able to bring to bear in this moment. It’s a paradox. Human loneliness comes from the sense of separation. Much of what we do is to reach out across the divide of perceived separation. And yet, there is also a terror of intimacy because there’s often a sense that to soften the boundary is to open to chaos. There is that fear. Quite often people shuttle between the longing for connection and the fear of connection. And it is when you liberate that dynamic from being only in relation to humans, when you take that fear and desire, that longing and that worry and reorient it triadically - you, the Divine, other humans; you, the Divine, the rest of the phenomenal world, animate, inanimate, animals, nature -  that I think you are enabled to experience an expansiveness that while it unmoors you, also liberates you to experiencing something that perhaps you could risk with other humans. Does that make sense?

DH: Yes, it does.

Indira Petersen: My question is about the social. Is othering simply a product of modernity or is it something that has persisted throughout the history of bhakti? How is it so easy in practice to move from say the wonderful unifying discourse of Tamil Shaiva hymns to othering?

LM: Thank you for enabling me to clarify. The problem of conditioned knowledge is very old. It would not be part of our philosophical discourse if the capacity to other was not always already present. If the capacity to separate, to discriminate were not already present the Buddha would not have needed to teach the four noble truths and the eight-fold path. So it is very old. It is assuming a particular form today which we may name “modern” in a periodizing way, and in an epistemological way because of the way the othering is happening. Nor do I wish to say that those who do not question their own bhakti disposition are without prejudice, are innocent, or that this is only an urban problem. All I am saying is that people who are not shy about their bhakti disposition are not unreflective.

IP: If we are confronting this question as one that bridges the urban-rural divide then what might enable people to get over the othering?

LM: I think music and poetry. The energy of bhakti drops people into the depth of the philosophical promise, invitation and truth. I honestly feel this is a time for art, music, poetry, philosophy, theater, performance.

Anand Thakore: Is it safe to assume that in your approach to spirituality the triadic view of the universe is a way out of the prison of binary opposition? I felt suddenly stimulated. I have been revising my Kabir in the past few days and he was fascinated by numbers. So, three instead of two, the third entity. Can you elaborate?

LM: Self-Other-Connectivity; Self-Other-Divinity. Two triangles one upright and one inverted. I feel that the flow that this enables retriangulates my relationship with everything. I think it is not an accident that the triangle is so important as aid to contemplation. Self-other-connectivity: what is it that we have broken when we feel a sense of separation? What is it that has happened when we do not feel our intimacy, something that always already exists given the nature of Creation? It is connectivity. Othering is only possible when that thread has been snipped. I find that triad very helpful. I have also found in my own journey when I come to a moment of fear (it could be cognitive fear, fear for life, fear for the possible survival of one’s own identity at a certain moment of the spiritual journey) what allows me to take a deep breath and take the next step is this triad, the feeling that I can be held in that one point until I am ready to confront whatever misperception it is that’s holding me in a state of subjection and from which I would do well to be freed.

Bishnu Mohapatra: I think it is reasonable to say that in the way we are taught often the sacred is taken out of the social or the sacred is reduced to the social. One example, Sumit Sarkar’s work on Ramakrishna. What he did was to reduce the sacred to the social. This fragmentation is something we have not gone beyond. This comment was provoked by your thinking about the relevance of the social.

LM: I think you’ve named the moves well: the evacuation of the sacred from the social and the reduction of the sacred to the social. My oblique response has been to evoke and invoke an idea of time other than the historical. History is very important. But we also have other notions of time that we would do well to open to as a dimension of consciousness. Because there is nothing else that can account for the continued force of these practices and their capacity to move even the most secular hearts. Bhakti poetry is read at demonstrations. It arrives in slogans. It is on placards. It is not going away. It is part of the common fund, the earth, the cultural DNA. Our analytical frameworks deny or fail to acknowledge or do not build on its energy.

I think it’s an incredible resource for us, cultural, philosophical, epistemological. We don’t draw on it enough. Or we draw on it very instrumentally. And when we draw on it instrumentally it loses its power because it is not an instrumental form of knowledge. It is an invitation. It is an invitation to death. A death that is a precursor to rebirth. And what is politics? It is about imagining the future in the present and transforming the present to enable a future to be born and to incubate that future in the practices that we undertake as part of our movements. In that sense its very akin to the spiritual journey. Even though many political activists will find this a rather startling suggestion, the rhythms are actually quite similar.

We are hungry for stories of transformation. What forms of art practices might we consciously cultivate for being with uncertainty and thinking through possibility? Primary to that would be to open as we have in this conference to the idea of tradition as potentiality. We tend to think of tradition only as constraint; that which we must resist. That which must be stopped in its tracks before its rath yatra wheels flatten us out. But as we have seen at this gathering there is another way: tradition as critical inquiry.

AS: What better place to stop. Thank you all for being here and thank you, Lata, for this very special session.

This transcript has been edited for clarity. Regrettably, two comments from the audience could not be transcribed due to poor audio. Jerry Pinto’s reflections on the bhakti festival here

For more, “Cognition and Devotion,” in Mani, The Integral Nature of Things, Routledge, 2013, 160-67.

[1] The yantra is a geometric mapping of the cosmos offered to the spiritual aspirant as an aid to meditation. Each individual according to their nature can enter it from the portal that is closest to their nature and then undertake a journey in which is unfolded something about their own relationship to the phenomenal world and to Creation.

[2] Customarily translated as follows: bhakti, path of devotion; tantra, path that embraces matter and the sensual; jnana, path of knowledge and karma, path of action. Although the paths cannot but be interwoven a hierarchy is often in evidence with jnana considered as the highest, bhakti and karma as less demanding and tantra as the most suspect.