Poetry at Sangam




High in the mountains, an impossible bridge. It seems tenuous. Is there crust? What has rusted is air. It clears the moment I step on it. The material of the bridge is incorruptible. The more I use it, the surer I am. Know-how. Feet, nimble as a goat’s. With my ears lit.

Reading a hymn from the Ṛgveda, I feel its perfection. Every syllable here is inevitable. This is not a poem wearing prosody. Its form is uncontrived, organic, like that of a seashell, tree, cloud, or person. A tradition of manic precision in utterance is called for.

The phonetic tradition is curious. It is a guardian of the veda, responsible for its preservation. At the same time, it is also cited as evidence for the purported meaninglessness of the veda. Quite the contrary, I take the emphasis on correct pronunciation, and the training in how to articulate vedic meter as a sign of meaningfulness. An incorrectly uttered mantra is believed to have unforeseen, unwanted, and unintended effects. The underlying assumption, then, is that even if the chanter does not understand the meaning, whoever the chant is meant for – who? – does understand it. What an idea!

Sure, there is the struggle to make sense of the hymns. Commentators explain the terms, etymology, and ritual applications. What I think of, is poetics. Sometimes, the words have meaning – more or less, and the lines have meaning – more or less, but the poem in totality connects, even if it connects in some space beyond language.

First and foremost, the Ṛgveda is a poem. A collection of over a thousand poems, now fenced off as religious text. Imagine Dante lost to literature because the Divine Commedia could only be thought of as theology or philosophy? Or The Metamorphosis lost to literature because it features gods and goddesses, half-divine humans, and conversations between gods and humans. Or The Odyssey discarded because of lack of information about authorship.

I come here from poetry. I read ineffability in Sanskrit hymns made of strings of names. When Ṛgveda mantras seem over-simplistic in meaning, I suspect mockery. Myths grip, especially when taken literally. It is the inversions that surprise, and the small revelations that thrill – finding functional assonances, a nagging syllable, a clarifying etymology, déjà vu in a yantra, or a consuming image – and in turn, they point to entire systems/authors. Finding bridges, or even a maze of bridges, is not about the romance of traveling to a better place, it enables suspension, and an earned view. And again, perhaps bridges really highlight the illusion of distances, and the task is more about relations, parataxis – when well-grounded, a worthwhile process serving a useful end.

You tell me that veda is useless, irrelevant, its authority has no jurisdiction, its power is symbolic, and for all practical purposes, it is redundant. What goes by the name of veda is really an assortment of omnibus hymns with a contrived connection to practice in religious rituals. And religious rituals are meaningless, archaic, irrelevant, dangerous. And I see how religious revivalism utilizes veda as a platform, and even as a red-herring to invoke a common heritage and coalesce a communal identity. I see poetic imagination in rites-of-passage rituals. I see the persistent imprint of the vedic yajña in the antyeṣṭi (death ritual) where the corpse is offered to fire. All this is cordoned off as “Hinduism.” You say there is no other way, for it is śruti, heard revelation, received by dṛṣṭārah, seers, and its authorship is apauruṣeya, non-human. If it is śruti, all the more reason for poets to be all over it.

(First printed in Indian Literature (Issue 262. Vol LV. No 2. March-April 2011). 168-169, India.)