‘Bhakti poetry Is social action,’ says Ashok Vajpeyi


If you look at the imagery
in Kabir’s poetry… ..they are very domestic images. Boat…grinding stone…cloth… ..terms drawn from his
weaving practice. They’re very
household metaphors… ..and each of these
domestic images… …drawn from the common
Indian’s household context… ..he energises them,
fills them with spiritual meaning! For example… a dog!I am Raam’s dog, he says. To say that I am Raam’s dog… ..and I go wherever he takes me,
my leash is in his hands. Now, this is such a
domestic portrait! But think about it, on one hand
the leash is held by Raam… …and the dog is me! In a way, he’s making
fun of himself. That I am Raam’s dog
and I follow him everywhere. He’s signalling a dilemma here too,
it’s not that straightforward! Our reading often flattens
the meaning of Bhakti (devotion)… .. as ‘submission’ or
‘supplication’ to God. I believe Bhakti made spirituality
democratic by asserting that… ..matters of faith and religion
are not about temples or mosques. You don’t needpundits
ormullahs… ..or scriptures, Qur’an
or other holy books. You can communicate
directly with God… ..because God is in your
neighbourhood, in your home… ..he’s in your
very breath!Where are you looking for me, friend?
I’m right here with you!
So this job of bringing God into
your area, your house, your heart itself… ..it is democratic
in a very fundamental way! I have a firm belief that… After all, why has democracy
worked in India… ..despite all prophesies
to the contrary? “Oh, it’s such a poor country.
So many unemployed, illiterate people… ..How will they run a democracy?” After all, how have we run a democracy
for more than 50 years? Somewhere behind
all of this, I feel… ..the democratic spirit that
was born in the Bhakti period… ..it’s thanks to that! And so it’s no surprise that
Gandhiji used Bhakti poetry… ..as an aid in his
political struggle. Actually, most of the verses
that were read in his prayer meetings… ..they were not prayers at all!There’s no one as deceptive,
wicked and worldly as I
Now, how is this a prayer?
But he used it as one!Where are you looking for me, friend?
I am right next to you!
How is this a prayer?
This is an utterance by God himself. But he gave ‘prayer’ a broader meaning
and used these verses. So this was the democratic spirit that
Bhakti birthed in our society… ..in which for the first time
in our tradition… ..weavers, leather-workers, tailors
and people of ‘lower’ castes… …not only did they merely use
freedom of expression… ..but many gained repute
as our greatest poets! Kabir is one… Raidas! So many like them…
Namdev! All of them were from
the ‘lower’ castes. Freedom of expression gave them
the opportunity… ..to rise above their
social bondage… ..to get liberated
from it! This is a very big thing… …that poetry, literature and
the arts also become a place… ..where man is freed from
his downtrodden circumstances. We find this in our
own tradition. – Even though leftist scholars
today will argue that Bhakti… ..has been an escapism from
social reality for lower…? – Well, while this
can be argued… ..I would say that
they transformed the social reality… ..as no other movement in
Indian history ever did! Except perhaps, the movements
of freedom struggle… ..and the movement of
modernity as a whole. But I don’t think that social reality… One can always look at… ..nothing is perfectly structured… ..so there must have been elements
in Bhakti which did perhaps… It would be argued that… ..Gandhiji, by resorting
to non-violence… ..created a nation which was not willing
to take up armed struggle… ..and that we became
a kind of pacifist nation. But the fact remains
that we did achieve freedom. The fact remains that our freedom
was the beginning of… ..the end of the British empire… ..one of the biggest empires
in world history. It remains a positive fact… ..that freedom has done
a lot of good to us. After all, today… ..if we are on our way to become
a major economic power… ..it is substantially due to the fact
that we have been a democracy… ..and that we have
enjoyed freedom. There was a time when the leftists thought
that freedom was incomplete. It is later that they said
that this was a mistake. But the communists at
the time of the freedom… ..did believe that our
freedom was unreal…. ..and untrue
which it is not… Ultimately, it turned out to be. – So, for instance,
the social activists… ..will tend to view
the practice ofbhajansinging… ..Kabirvani… sant vani singing
inbhajan mandlis… ..which is part of
the oral traditions of India… ..as a space to escape from… ..taking action to change
your social reality. – The whole point is that while it can
always be argued in that fashion… ..some other factors have to be
taken into account. For instance, when it comes to
looking for literature… ..which would have mass appeal… ..and which would also have
a radical tone… ..which would inspire people
to social change and social action… ..why is it that you take recourse
to Bhakti poetry? Why is it that you
go to Kabir… ..and people of that ilk? So, it’s not… ..entirely true to say that… After all, literature itself
is a form of action. This notion, that action
takes place elsewhere… ..and literature’s job is only
either to escalate that action… ..or to provoke that action or
to help in that action is all rubbish! Literature itself is very substantial
social action! All the great literature in the world
can be cited as evidence. And I think Bhakti poetry
was social action! To the extent
that Kabir was… After all, Kabir did not go around
creating a new religion… ..or did not go around creating
a revolt against whoever. But he did go around creating
through his poetry and his utterances… ..a social awareness… ..and changed the paradigms that existed
and that were firmly rooted. This is social action enough! Which other movement in the
medieval times achieved… ..as much as
Bhakti poetry did? By democratising religion,
by democratising God… ..by democratising spirituality… ..and by giving an opportunity… ..for people who belonged to
lower strata of society… ..to take courage to
poetic expression. This is radical action! This is radical social
action by any standards! So I am not willing to buy
these kinds of superficial theories… ..which really try to read… ..action as limited to
politics or economics… ..and not see that action
is also… There are other
forms of action… ..and those forms
are equally valid. And at some point
they might be working in cohesion.

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