One of the books I found especially useful to my understanding of ancient Indian literature was Speaking of Siva. The collection consists of Kannada poems written between the 10th and the 12th centuries, poems full of intense emotion, speaking of love, jealousy and loneliness while addressing the Lord. They also interrogate their own beliefs in a deeply modern way: questioning customs, the rights of women, customs and superstitions. It’s deeply personal poetry, with the speaker holding little back.
It was also hard to contain once it started: the poetic tradition spread like fire, feeding off the need for poets to express themselves in ways beyond traditionally approved meter and structured verse.The words were sung not in scripture, but in the locally spoken, often downtrodden tongue. A variety of similes weaved through these poems: similes that played with the relationship of one object to another. Popular similes, as Speaking of Siva notes, included: the Seed and the Tree; the Sea and its Rivers; the Spider, and the Web it weaves; the Thread, and its Gemstones; the Child, and its Fantasies; the Puppet, and the Puppeteer.
One of my favorites among these is Akka Mahadevi’s song about the silkworm and its cocoon. She sings,
Like a silkworm weaving
her house with love
from her marrow,
and dying in her body’s threads,
winding tight, round
desiring what the heart desires.
Mahadevi writes about a self caught up and destroying itself in its illusions and desires – the theme is powerfully religious, and she calls out to her lord to rescue her. But the poem is also sensual and emotional.
The Bhakti poet Basavanna said,’I will sing as I love’, and that’s how these poets render their devotion. It was effective, for the words caught at the hearts of their audiences, and spread better than any bestseller. The lines sustained themselves long enough to reach our ears, so that we can admire them from a distance of several centuries.