Archives for posts with tag: The soul in poetry and song

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The great lyrical and musical compositions of the mystic-poets of 16th century India have commanded the hearts and souls of devotees over the centuries and influenced and inspired present day composers and poets. The poetic compositions are sung by all the renowned singers of India set to different melodies of their choosing. One lyric has of late been casting his spell through his compositions on devotional love, similar to Meera, Sur, Tulsi, Raidas and Kabir. Narayan Agarwal in the tradition of  the devotional movement of the 16th century calls himself Narayan Das ( disciple) much as Tulsi was Tulsi Das and Sur was Surdas and Rai was Rai Das. I have tried to translate his lyrics which when set to music have moved me deeply with their fire of devotion, intensity of love, and poetic beauty, stirring the soul. I cannot say I have done full justice to the poem in question, as in translation it loses its linguistic magic, yet I hope and trust that it has retained the essence and spirit of  the devotional passion expressed by the poet. This being my 100th post, it is also a tribute to the Soul, the Indweller ( Antaryami ) within my being.


                            MY  HEART IS A THRONE

( hriday hamara singhasan hai, Jispe Shyam biraje


My heart is a throne

On which my Lord sits,

My lips are cushions

For him to recline,

Credit : ISKCON

Credit : ISKCON

My lashes are a swing

On which he sways,

His name is a song

I can never forget

Whose rhythms are my life,

Thus on my heart, lips and lashes

Back and forth as  my Lord moves,

My desire to behold him 

spreads like a fragrance

From limb to limb

And every pore, turn by turn begins

To call out his name,

My body then turns into a harp

Whose strings hum with love

As my Lord rests on his throne

 In my heart.


Krishna, the Indigo Lord (Shyam)

Krishna and GopisCredit International Society for Krishna conciousness - ISKCON

Krishna and Gopis
Credit International Society for Krishna conciousness – ISKCON

The Avatar ( Reincarnation of the Universal Essence) Krishna, is dark, blue as the thunder clouds, slender and mischievous, the one who has stolen the hearts(souls) of all the cowgirls (Gopis), climbing the trees to secretly cast pebbles at the earthen pithcers balanced on their heads as they troop to the pond to fetch water, clambering down to steal their clothes (their egos) as they bathe, then playing on his flute a bewitching melody ( the song of creation) drawing every being, man/woman, animal, bird or beast, to where he may be. Meera, like the Gopis now pines for him (soul for the Supersoul) and with these images Meera composes her song:



In groves and forest

I searched for you O Lord

Where should I look now?

If I were a fish in the river

Where you were bathing,

I would swim down

And touch your feet,

If I was a cuckoo in the forest,

Where you would come

Grazing your cows,

I would call out in song,

If I was an oyster’s pearl,

I would be strung on  your neck,

Resting on your bosom,

Alas, now where should I go,

For you I long,

If you want us to meet,

Meera’s thundercloud dark lord,

If you want our union, come

For without your fulfilling vision,

I am inconsolable, desolate,

then how can I sing my song?

Krishna & Gopis Bathing in Eternal MoonlightCredit: ISKCON

Krishna & Gopis Bathing in Eternal Moonlight
Credit: ISKCON

kabir 2

Kabir in this poem mocks those desperately seeking the divine far and wide when all they need to do is look within in self realization:



thirsty fish

It makes me laugh to think
That a fish in the water
Thirsts for a drink.

From forest to forest he sadly roams
In search of a jewel
Lying at home.

It makes me laugh to think
A musk-deer is seeking
The very fragrance
Which emanates from him.

Without knowledge of the Self
What use O pilgrim,
At Mathura or Kasi
To go looking for him?

It makes me laugh to think
That a fish in the water
Can thirst for a drink.

The perfect pilgrimCredit: The Met. New York

The perfect pilgrim
Credit: The Met. New York

Surdas the Indian mystic-poet composed volumes of verse in praise of Krishna, the incarnated blue Avatar of the Universal Essence. One of his most popular songs seeks the Lord’s help and intervention in a moment of adversity.

The poem seeks to recapture a popular Puranic (ancient) myth about the king of elephants, Gajendra, bathing, as elephants love to do, on the banks of the Indus river. But he is caught by a monstrous croc. and slowly dragged to the depths. The elephant calls out to Lord Krishna, whose devotee he is, to come and free him from imminent death by plucking a lotus and holding it aloft as a gesture of supplication and prayer. Krishna hearing the call hastens to his devotee on a golden eagle and saves him. The story is allegorical. The river is material existence, the elephant, the individual soul and the croc., temptation dragging it under. The soul cries out for help to be liberated from the tribulations of its material incarnation and rebirth and duly receives grace. Surdas identifies with the elephant and seeks the Lord’s grace to overcome his failings.

credit: ISKCON

Credit: ISKCON



( Hey Govind rakho sharan ab to jeevan hare )


O Lord save me for I am sinking

I came to these waters to quench my thirst

On the banks of the river Indus

But in these waters lurked a crocodile,

My leg in its jaws it has caught,

I thrashed out and with all my might fought

But it has dragged me deep inside,

I am now submerged, right upto my ears and trunk

So I call out to you for help as life ebbs,

Sur says O Lord I beseech you,

Have mercy I am drowning.

The Lord’s mind then filled with the entreaty

Of a sinking elephant’s shouts,

And he swiftly arrived on his great golden eagle

And plucked the drowning elephant out,

At last free of the evil entity,

To be at liberty.      

( the suffix Das means disciple / devotee – the poets name is Sur)

gajendra moksha sculpture

credit: India-Forums



Surdas was born blind, the younger of many siblings in a poor family, in 1478. His disability, rather than creating sympathy, resulted in his mother neglecting him, as she saw no future for him. She began to ignore him to the point that she failed to even acknowledge his existence. The privations he suffered provoked him to run away from home when he was barely six. He began to sing songs as he wandered, surviving on the charity of those who felt drawn to his soulful singing. His melodious voice and natural musical talent soon attracted the attention of an eminent Guru, Vallabhacharya who adopted him as a disciple in his monastic order. His musical abilities soon won the appreciation of all. As time passed he rose in favour with the Guru and became his chief disciple.

Like Mira he became an ardent devotee of Lord Krishna, the maverick, cupid like Avatar whose melodious flute had captivated the souls of all the maidens of the glade of Vrindavan and  enraptured every man. He transferred eventually to that Vrindavan of legend and myth, singing songs of the beauteous blue Avatar. Legend has it that once straying close to a well he fell into it, remaining there for several days, till giving up all hope he sought divine help by calling out to his Krishna. A youth appeared suddenly and pulled him out of the well but when he turned to thank him there was no trace of him. Convinced that it was none other than his Krishna he began composing heart-rending verse in his praise and adoration. His Sursagar (Lake of Melody), is a collection of thousands of songs covering the legend of Krishna from childhood to kingship, the Machiavelli of the Mahabharat epic and the voice and soul of the Indian bible, the Bhagawat Gita.                                                     surdas stamp

His fame as a mystic poet and musician spread across the land far and wide, even reaching the Mughal court. Legend has it that the Emperor Akbar a connoisseur of music wishing to hear him is said to have joined the ever-present congregation of admiring disciples, incognito. Later revealing himself he asked him to join the musicians at his imperial court. Surdas declined averring that he sang for Krishna alone.

Krishna among Hindus is regarded as the incarnated Supersoul (Paramatma) into which every soul (Atma) merges after its long and arduous journey of numerous lifetimes, experiencing mortal trials and travails to learn the lessons of temptation and limitation to which the physical form of the mortal is subject. The process through which the  evolution of the material shell the souls inhabit takes place The ubiquitous presence of divinity in the physical world harmonizes it, balancing furious materialism with the calming and healing spirit of the soul.

 Surdas, in one of his most famous songs, addresses his beloved Lord, the Supersoul Krishna to be patient and tolerant of the shortcomings, failures and frailties of the physical condition that the soul is experiencing through its host, for eventually they will be overcome and healed by the power of the spirit, merging eventually with the Supersoul in enlightenment and bliss.


( Prabhu more avagun chit na dharo )

Lord let not my faults affect you so,

You are called the discerning one,

Then forgive and help me go

Across this ocean of life,

For metal can take any mould,

 As a devotee’s lamp,

Or shaped also

To become a butcher’s knife

But the Philosopher’s stone never discriminates

In turning both lamp and knife to gold.

Here is a river

There a drain, filled with defiling waters

But in the holy Ganges,

As one they flow.

One is called an incarnate soul,

The other,  Supersoul

But when they merge

As one they glow,

So help me cross to the other shore

Or your honour as saviour forego.

Memorial Statue of Surdas

Memorial Statue of Surdas


Tulsidas: Sri Ganga Publishers, Banares / Wikimedia commons

Tulsidas is easily the foremost among the mystic poets of India, a veritable Indian Milton. His remarkable achievement was rendering the epic Ramayan into verse, a feat which elsewhere only a Shakespeare could match in the volume and excellence of his verse. The Ramayan is the story of Ram an epic hero and Avatar (human incarnation of the Divine Essence – God), incarnated to save the world from ever-growing perils of evil. Tulsidas became such a fountainhead of spontaneous inspiration that people averred that it could only have come to him directly from the great Indian god of literature and learning, Lord Ganesh. Indeed in his opening verses he attributes his voluminous epic poem entirely to divine inspiration if not intervention. This prodigious work became all the more extraordinary as heretofore the epic could only be read in Sanskrit, thus debarring the masses from access. Now composed in Avadhi the language of the ordinary folk, suddenly the epic came alive in every humble home, reinvigorating faith as never before, much as Dante’s Divine Comedy made Heaven, Hell and Purgatory real for medieval Europe. Today Tulsidas’ melodious verse is sung or chanted daily, virtually in every Hindu home, acquiring the stature of a scripture. His ‘Ramcharitmanas ( The Holy Lake of Lord Ram’s Character and Career) has become gospel for the common man, the most quoted of Indian religious texts.

Tulsidas, aside from the Ramcharitmanas also composed numerous hymns, prayers and devotional songs which are today sung  and recited at congregations, temples and homes, virtually daily to enthrall and uplift quite ordinary people to spiritual ecstasy.

Tulsidas born in 1533 A.D. however began life as an ordinary householder, totally infatuated with and inseparable from his wife. The transition to sainthood came with a chance rebuke from his wife that were he to devote half of such passion and energy towards God, it would surely bring him instant salvation. Struck like a thunderbolt by her remark, to the horror of his wife, Tulsidas’ metamorphosis was effected in that very moment. He promptly left home and hearth, never to return, commencing his wanderings in search of the truth. Later when his sainthood was universally acknowledged, she meekly joined his congregation of followers, not as a wife but as a disciple, who had inadvertently enabled the unleashing of his true spirit.

Tulsi’s infatuation thus transformed, now focussed on Ram, the reduction of the Supreme Essence on the earthly plane as Avatar – the ideal man, the ideal son, the ideal spouse, the ideal adversary, the ideal King of Kings, God incarnated as man –  but equally subject to every conceivable indignity, affront, suffering and misfortune that every other mortal faced. Ram never flinched in facing adversity with honour, courage and conviction setting an example for all. He showed man how to act in adversity with a sense of sacrifice much like Jesus had on the cross. People call him Maryada Purushottam, the most honourable ideal man.

Tulsi’s love and adoration of Ram knew no bounds and he sang with ardour of his life of sacrifice, renunciation and tragedy making every eye in the land fill and flow with tears and in every heart arose a conviction that if God incarnate could thus experience and endure a life of earthly trial and travail, so could they. Tulsi became India’s greatest poet, saint and healer. His verse thus overtook all the wisdom and metaphysics of the Vedas and scriptures, transferring them from the mind and intellect to the heart.

The hymn below is one of his most popular expressions of his love for Ram and concludes by asserting that he resides in his heart and is his true essence. The message of the divinity of the soul, this time as the resident Lord Ram, comes through again as with all mystic poets of the age – internalizing the experience of external divinity, turning the objective divinity into a subjective one.


Painting by:Raja Ravi Varma / Wikimedia Commons


( Shri Ram Chandra Kripalu Bhaj Mana….)

O my mind, sing praise of gracious Ram

Who overcomes our every fear of life and death and harm

Whose every aspect charms

Like a new blue lotus in heady bloom,

The perfection of his dark strong form

With limbs long,

In a yellow robe worn

Like blue thunderclouds

With lightening’s garb adorned,

Even the beauty of  a cupid

In comparison deforms –

 To such a glorious vision of him

 With my heart so full, I bow.

My mind sing, sing praise of Ram

Resplendant like a sun,

Humble friend of the poor and downtrodden,

This son of the solar race of Kings,

This bliss for  his parents born,

This virtuous Sita’s spouse

I see him adorned with a golden crown,

And ear drops,

And on his forehead the sacred mark,

Holding aloft a bow and arrow,

 Forever all evil to overcome.

Such a Ram, the beloved of angels and saints,

Tulsi declares resides in his heart

Arisen like a lotus (in muddy waters)

All evil desires there, to graciously thwart.

(modified in translation to English)

English: Stamp by India post on Gosvami Tulsidas

painted by:Raja Ravi Varma / Wikimedia Commons

Meera Bai and her Lord Krishna
painted by:Raja Ravi Varma / Wikimedia Commons

One of the most extraordinary personalities of the age of devotional worship in 16th century India was princess Meera Bai. Born in the royal house of Merta in 1498 and married into the exalted principality of Udaipur to the heir apparent, she was destined to be a queen. But she was the spirit of the age of devotion and had only one love, her god – the Supreme Essence incarnated as the blue Avatar, Krishna, the voice of the Gita. This obsession earned the displeasure of her in-laws. After her husband’s premature death, her growing association with seers and saints in public places, particularly the mystic cobbler Raidas, who became her mentor, aroused their unmitigated wrath. After several unsuccessful attempts to dissuade her and later to kill her with poisons and cobras, she eventually left the confines of the palace to become a wandering mendicant, singing songs of love for her beloved Lord from hamlet to hamlet across the land. Finally she disappeared without trace at a temple, according to legend merging with the god she adored.

Her poems are all love songs; looking over the ramparts of the castle for the caravan of her beloved; telling her mother that she dreamt that she had married her Lord; speaking of the cup of poison which she cheerfully drank, turning into nectar; hearing the footfalls of her Lord in the rain.

Worship through love was now the new language of the mystical experience raging across the land. The ultimate path for communion between the physical self and the spirit within.

While superficially giving the impression of being sensuous, Meera’smeera-bai 1 songs are allegorical. Pining for the lover was spiritual yearning to turn inwards to find the divinity within. Spiritual communion took place when the final gate of the ego stood ajar and the third eye of conscience opened, to show God standing resplendent before you as your innermost essence. Thus when she says, ‘come to my house’ she means, reveal yourself from within.


( Mhare Ghar Aao Preetam Pyara )

Come to my house

Dear beloved,

Mind, body and wealth

All I shall offer you

And hymns of praise will I sing of you.

You are perfection incarnate

While I am worthless

Full of faults

But I know, in your presence

All my failings will dissolve.

Meera asks, when will you meet me

For without you my heart aches,

So come fill my house

Dear beloved

With your glorious presence

And I promise,

My mind, body and wealth

Will all be yours.                                                             

meera statue nagaur

Meera commemorative statue Nagaur

Meera museum merta

Meera Museum Merta

Guru RavidasRaidas was a 16th century mystic-poet who lived in north India. A cobbler by profession, his caste was at the bottom of the hierarchy. He courageously defied the orthodox establishment to lead a reform movement to ameliorate the plight of the downtrodden classes. Many of his songs and poems therefore were incorporated in the the ‘Guru Granth Sahib’ the holy book of the  reformist faith Sikhism, in acknowledgement of their appealing message of equality, truth and devotion.

In the 16th century, a revolution in worship based on devotion, overriding the prevailing ritualistic Vedic practices of orthodox Hinduism, established henceforth in India the supremacy of love as the vehicle for spiritual communion.

Here in a popular and moving song he affirms the inseparability of God and his devotee, the unity of spirit and matter, the indivisibility of the creator and his creation, expressed through unremitting love –  in essence signifying the divinity of the soul within.



(Prabhuji tum chandan hum pani)


You are the paste of sandalwood, Lord

And I am water,

 Every limb becomes fragrant

As we mingle together.

You are the deep and dark forest

And I am in it a dancing peacock,

I am a love-lorn partridge looking at the moon

And you are my moon.

I am a wick

On which your flame burns

Making my lamp glow brighter every day.

I am a thread on which you are strung

As a pearl,

I am a bride

And you my golden ornament.

You are my master

And I your loving devotee.

Such indeed is the devotion

Which Raidas feels for you

Each day.

Ravidas' Memorial Varanasi

Raidas memorial at Kasi

English: Kabir with a disciple Italiano: Kabir...

English: Kabir with a disciple Italiano: Kabir con un discepolo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kabir was one of India’s most renowned mystic-poets who lived in the 16th century and was a humble weaver by profession. He imbibed the great Hindu and Muslim Sufi mystical traditions to create soul stirring verse and song which are to this day popular across the land. In the following song he speaks of the divinity of the soul. In translation from the original it looses much of its magic and authenticity, yet conveys the force of the message.


O seeker,

Where are you vainly looking for me,

For I am neither in your pilgrimage nor in your idols,

Not in your temples, not in your mosques,

Not on the holy river banks at Kasi,

Nor in silent lonely spots in the Himalayas,

Not in penances nor the routine of prayers,

I am not in fasts, nor in rituals,

Nor in renunciation even can I be found.

Do you not see my friend,

Who seeks me so earnestly, far and wide,

That I am here, beside you,

Where are you vainly looking for me

Who am here, close at hand,

Right within you,

To be found in no more than a moment,

If you ever care to believe,

Ever care to look.                                                                          


krishna radha love

Mystics and saints in India have sought through song and dance to help ordinary people to sense the presence of the soul within, over the centuries. They did not utilize theological dialectic, esoteric philosophical conundrum, demanding yogic meditative practice or incomprehensible discourses to do so. They sought simply to move the heart of peasant and king alike, to feel and sense mystically what was for ordinary folk something beyond their understanding.

The Bhakti (worship through devotion and love) movement of the sixteenth century became the vehicle for passing on such difficult concepts to every hearth and home, taking the land by spiritual storm. The songs of the great mystic poet-saints of the period – Tulsi ( philosopher – poet), Sur (blind musician), Raidas (cobbler), Kabir ( weaver, muslim mystic), Mira (princess turned mendicant), Guru Nanak (founder of the Sikh faith), Bulle Shah ( Sufi poet), Shankaracharya ( Vedantic scholar and sage), Ramanujan (Philosopher poet) and a host of others, carried the concepts through poetry and devotional songs to the masses. The songs became as popular as  Bollywood hits are today and are widely sung and heard morning and evening right to this day. Difficult concepts, carried on the wings of faith and emotion, became a part of popular folk music through soul-stirring renditions in verse.

A song for instance spoke of a man searching for the divine, looking everywhere in places of worship and pilgrimage centres but found Him nowhere, till he sat quietly dejected at home and suddenly found Him glowing in his heart. Another song speaks of a musk deer roaming the forest relentlessly in search of the heady aroma, wondering where it was coming from, little knowing that the musk was indeed within him. Kabir in his poem sang of his great amusement that the fish was thirsty though immersed in water. Raidas in his songs tells God that He is the sandalwood paste and Rai is the water, together fragrant or that Rai is the wick on which the lord is the flame, that Rai is the thread on which the Lord as a pearl is strung. All similes and metaphors conveying that the Universal spirit, through the soul, was within the individual and all he needed to do was to  seek him there.

Like the poet saints, temple and court dancers in the classical traditions of Bharatnatyam (Tamil), Kuschpudi (Orrisa), Kathakali (Kerala), and the Mughal Kathak (entire north India) sought to convey the same message through movement, gesture (Mudra) and stylized eye movements. Folk dancers, village theatre, pantomime. puppetry and bardic couplets conveyed the same esoteric message simplified through the means of entertainment. Today Gurus, seers, yogis and Swamis address vast congregations assisted by television and the media to convey the same message of the presence of the soul within through analogy and metaphor.




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