bhakti poetry: In Hinduism, bhakti is a mystical devotion to God. The Bhagavad Gita (“Song of God,” fifth to second century BCE) was the first text to use the term bhakti to designate a religious path. Medieval bhakti poetry is the devotional genre of love poetry. The word bhakti derives from the Sanskrit root bhaj, meaning “to share, to possess,” and bhakti poetry is an intense way of sharing in the divine. It is an ecstatic poetry. The Bhakti movement originated in the south of India in the sixth century and gradually spread to the rest of the subcontinent. From the seventh to the ninth century, the South-Indian poet-saints, the Vaisnava Alvars and Saiva Nayanars, traveled from temple to temple, singing of their gods and spreading bhakti energy throughout India. These itinerant poets drew upon Sanskrit models, but composed their hymns in their own local languages. They centered their work on the gods Visnu and Siva, and their poems establish direct, emotional bonds with these divines. Many of the bhakti poets came from the lower rungs of the Hindu caste ladder—among them, there is a cobbler, a tailor, a boatman, a weaver, a maidservent—and wrote in the vernaculars (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati) rather than Sanskrit, the language of Brahmans. They reach from the lowest to the highest, the One Deity.
Scholars make a useful distinction between poet-saints who composed verses extolling God “with attributes” (saguna bhaktas) and those extolling God “without attributes” (nirguna bhaktas). One of the great sagunas was Mirabai (ca. 1498–ca. 1557), who sang passionately of her love for Krishna, her true husband, her ishtadevata, the god one makes through desire. One of the great nirgunas was Kabir (1440–1518), who questioned the hierarchies of the caste system and pondered God’s greatness “without qualities.” Both poets wrote out of personal experience. As Meena Alexander puts it in an essay on bhakti poetry: “There is a simplicity, a grace if you will, in the poetry of both Mirabai and Kabir. A dwelling in the body that does not cut consciousness apart from the desiring, perishing body and sings, sings through sorrow into joy. A precarious joy that remains at the edge of the world.”
Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.