Intimate relations: Psalms and bhakti poetry.
In two religious traditions as supposedly disjunctive as the Jewish and Hindu, we would not expect to find significant religious phenomena in common, yet even a casual reading of the biblical Psalms and the poetry of bhakti (devotion) reveals stunning similarity in style, modes, content, and focus. The fact that the two traditions share a very similar literature is worthy of acknowledgement and comment. Here, we follow two principal modes of exploration. After a historical introduction to both the Psalms and bhakti poetry, we first use the Book of Psalms to establish categories by which to examine the bhakti literature; second, we adopt the reverse tactic, looking into characteristics indigenous to Hindu devotionalism in order to ponder the Psalms anew. In conclusion, we summarize the similarities and significant disjunctions between the two genres and attempt to account for them historically and phenomenologically.
I. Literary Devotion, Jewish and Hindu
Jews and Christians identify the Bible as their foundational text. For Christians the core story is contained in the Gospels; for Jews, in the Pentateuch. Yet, members of both traditions hold one other part of the scriptures in special affection. Many Christians cherish a volume that contains the four Gospels and the Book of Psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Jewish tradition, it is common to find a book of Tillim--the Yiddish formulation of Tehillim/Psalms--as a constant companion by the bedside or in miniature form as a book carried around in one's pocket. The Psalms occupy a role unique among the books of the Bible. Jews turn to the Psalms in times of personal or communal need. The Psalms are read on every occasion at which Jews maintain a vigil of any kind, from sitting with a woman on the eve of childbirth to staying with a body from the time of death until the time of burial, and they are read at all the rites de passage in between. Among some Jewish groups, reaching for a Book of Tillim is the first response to word of a crisis or bad news.
The Book of Psalms, found in the third section of the Hebrew Bible, Ketuvim/Writings--a collection of diverse works of various genres, such as Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and job--is a collection of 150 poems, all of a theological nature. Each of the poems is separate and discrete unto itself. There is no thematic progression or narrative arc of any kind. Rather, each of the compositions is to be read by and for itself. The Book of Psalms is divided into five "books," perhaps to mirror the structure of the Torah/Five Books of Moses. But, once again, there is no continuity within any one of the "books." Like any anthology, the Book of Psalms is a repository of separate and discrete works, dealing with various themes, of different styles, and of varying degrees of literary quality--although for the most part the literary merits of the Book of Psalms are stunningly high.
Tradition ascribes the authorship of the Book of Psalms to King David who lived around the year 1000 B.C.E. In fact, many people know the work as "the Psalms of David." There is a rabbinic tale in which we are told that David would hang his harp over his bed each night as he went to sleep. While he slept, the winds would pluck the harp's strings. When he awoke, David would sing along. Those songs, "written by the winds," became the Psalms. The Psalms are attributed to David for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that seventy-three of the Psalms begin with a superscription (introductory verse) that identifies the composition as being "L'David." Though the phrase has other meanings (which we will discuss shortly), its simplest translation is "of David." Thus, these Psalms are regarded as being created by David, and by extension the book in its entirety was attributed to him.
There are other reasons to ascribe the Book of Psalms to David. The account of the life of David as a young man that we find in the Book of Samuel depicts him as a lyre player, a singer and composer of songs. So many of the emotional states we find described in various of the Psalms comport with experiences we read of in David's life. Indeed, many of them are associated with specific episodes of his eventful life: Psalm 23 with his boyhood as a shepherd and then later having his "head anointed with oil" as part of his coronation--which is seen as being depicted again in Psalm 100; and Psalm 2 with the establishment of the Davidic dynasty. Perhaps most significantly, the entirety of Psalm 18 is repeated, virtually verbatim in 2 Samuel 22, in the midst of its depiction of the life of David. Much later, traditional Jewish commentary devoted great energy to associating particular Psalms with specific events in David's life.
Still, there are many reasons not to attribute the book in its entirety to David. Most glaringly, many of the Psalms deal with events that transpired long after David's life, such as the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the people to Babylonia in 586 B.C.E. Other Psalms clearly deal with the return of the people from that exile. Many of the Psalms deal with the Temple built by David's son and successor, Solomon. Indeed, the superscriptions of many of the Psalms attribute their authorship to people other than David. For these reasons, modern scholarship tends to discount the attribution of the entire book to David. Jewish tradition is not at all uncomfortable acknowledging both the later date and the multiple authorship of the Book of Psalms.
Religiously, there is nothing lost in divorcing the Psalms from Davidic authorship. The power of these compositions is not in their royal pedigree but in their literary beauty, the powerful way in which they capture human emotions, the profundity of their religious understanding, and the way they express the reader's most pressing spiritual needs. It is possible that the expression "L'David" had the meaning "concerning David"--a later composition concerning David or the House of David, the Davidic dynasty that ruled the kingdom of Judah from David's lifetime through the destruction of the first Temple. The phrase may even have conveyed the sense "in the manner of David"--a song in the same style as the songs that David wrote. Or, perhaps "L'David" had the sense of "to David" and was included at the beginning of a Psalm to suggest that the poem was composed by a member of a guild that traced its lineage or inspiration back "to David."
The original purposes to which the Psalms were put and the circumstances of their composition are subjects of scholarly debate. Most likely the Psalms were associated with the Temple rites, perhaps chanted by priests to accompany the sacrifices that were the primary component of the cult. Once the Temple was destroyed and the people were driven into exile in Babylonia, the Psalms became the focus of the worship experience. Later, they provided the core of the liturgy, and many of them were included in toto, or excerpted, or provided the themes and vocabulary for the liturgy of the worship service that grew up to replace the sacrificial cult and that persisted even after the Temple was rebuilt and sacrifice was reinstated. With the destruction of the second Temple, this worship service, built upon the Psalms, became the primary liturgical expression of the Jewish people. From there it assumed the beloved place in the lives of individual people that we described earlier.
Bhakti poetry has many features in common with the Psalms, as just described. However, since there is so much of it, spanning over 1,000 years of composition, the entire geographic range of the Indian subcontinent, and a focus on several different deities, we cannot speak of a book of bhakti poems, as we can with the Psalms. Historically, the first bhakti poetry tradition is typically identified as that from South India--Tamilnadu--in the fifth to ninth centuries, and there were two streams of more or less simultaneous devotional outpouring: one centered on Visnu and the other on Siva. By the eighteenth century, we find devotional poetry traditions in most parts of India. In northern and western India it was focused mainly on Rama and Krishna; in eastern India, on Krishna and various forms of the Goddess, such as Durga, Parvatl, and Kali.
Bhakti poems are generally short, lyrical, and expressive of great emotion--acknowledging, praising, petitioning, and even scolding the deity in question, in an intimate, earthy language. Scholars divide bhakti literature into two main strands: that praising the saguna (with form) aspect of God--in other words, poetry that describes God in one of his or her anthropomorphic, named forms--and that praising the divine in a nirguna (formless) aspect, as a power, a heat, or a Being beyond all language. For devotionally oriented Hindus attached to the saguna tradition, the poets encourage a range of possible relationships with God: One can approach him or her as a servant, a friend, a parent, a child, or even a lover. In other words, the poetry offers language and feelings derived from the intimacy of relating to a familiar, loved person, which is why the literary genre is so popular.
The regionalism of bhakti poetry is also an important aspect of its character. Many local, non-Sanskritic languages gained an impetus in their linguistic development after poets began using them to compose bhakti poetry, and religious communities often claim a sense of identity through reverence of a corpus of poems in their regional language and a lineage of beloved poet-saints. Nowadays, it is possible to find cassettes of such poetry, sung and recorded, in devotees' homes, and many Hindus grow up memorizing the most famous poems in their specific regional tradition, simply by repeated hearing in the home. Sometimes, bhakti poetry is sung in temples, in front of the deities, and good singers can span the spiritual/commercial divide by performing in public on religious occasions.
The intimacy of the poetry encourages this feeling of human bondedness; if one can cry directly to the Lord without needing a priestly intermediary, then all worshipers are alike in the eyes of God. It is not surprising that social distinctions of caste and class are frequently derided in bhakti communities. It is interesting, however, that such social leveling is the theological norm, rarely the actual reality. The poets themselves hail from a number of caste backgrounds, including low caste or even Untouchable groups, and also embrace women. How exactly the fervor for writing bhakti poetry traveled from south to north is something scholars have yet to ascertain, but it is clear from a thorough comparison of the various regional genres that certain key concepts, metaphors, and images have made their way all over India through the medium of this devotional literature. Hence, while each community can boast of its own literary bhakti tradition, there is also something universal about the genre that is recognizable across the boundaries of language, century, and place.
II. In Light of the Psalms
That bhakti poems share with the Psalms an intensely intimate relationship with the divine can easily be demonstrated by identifying characteristics common to the Psalms and then finding analogs in the Hindu devotional literature. Indeed, we note six main points of similarity between the two genres: their personalism and articulation of universal human feelings; their expression of hope in a God who cares; and their voicing of petition, thanksgiving, praise, and criticism. Although each of these is important to both literatures, some elements are more present in the Psalms than in the bhakti poetry, and vice versa. Asking why such disjunctions occur helps us shed light on the underlying commitments and orientations of the Jewish and Hindu traditions.
By and large, the Book of Psalms was not written to convey accounts of events long past, nor is it composed in abstract, impersonal language. Instead, the Psalms are written in very immediate, concrete language that describes life very much as ordinary people live it, and it speaks of the events it describes in the present tense. Whatever the subject of any of the Psalms may be, we can identify it very much as our own. The Psalms are not written about the great heroes of religious history, the giants of the human spirit. Instead, the main protagonist of the Psalms is a character identified as "I" or "me," who describes the very same sort of life experiences that the readers of the book encounter and responds to those events very much as the readers would (and do) respond. The emotions described in the Psalms are the same emotions that make up the contours of our own lives. Thus, the Psalms are beloved because they deal with the reality of the lives of the people who read them. In the end, they are about us.
The Psalms are beloved for more than their familiarity. They do more than describe the lives we know. They help us find meaning in the events that make up our lives. Often they provide words to help us give expression to our experiences and our reactions to them. The Psalms speak, above all, about what it is like to live in the presence of God. The reality is that people, even religious people, often cannot put their spiritual feelings into words. The great gift that the Psalms give us is to provide us with words that capture the religious emotions of our own lives. The Psalms are not read as the subject of abstract speculation. Rather, we read them to give voice to the religious impulses of our own hearts. When we do not have words to express what we would say, we turn to the Psalms to provide them for us. We read them, as it were, on our own behalf. As we do so, we articulate our own experiences and our deepest reactions to them. So, the Psalms are beloved not because of what they teach us but because of the aid they give us: They give our own religious lives expression.
Bhakti poems, too, are written by an "I" with whom one can identify. Most poems conclude with what is called a bhanita, or signature line, in which the poet inserts one's name and comments upon what one has just written. Many poems are replete with references to the geography of the area--including temples and pilgrimage sites, flora and fauna--and scenes particular to the poet's life story. Basavanna, the twelfth-century bhakti poet of Karnataka, always addressed his poems on Siva to "my Lord of the Meeting Rivers," a reference to Siva in his temple at Kappadisangama at the confluence of three rivers. Basavanna's younger contemporary, a woman named Mahadeviyakka, also from Karnataka, called Siva "my lord white as jasmine," an epithet used for the Lord in her home town of Udutadi. Poems attributed to the medieval Rajasthani princess Mirabai, who refused to love anyone but Krishna in his form as the Mountain-Lifter, detail the agonies she endured at the hands of her husband and in-laws. The eighteenth-century Bengali poet Ramprasad sings of a miracle performed for him by the goddess Kali, who appeared in the shape of his little daughter and helped him mend his fence.
These person- and place-specific details do not detract from the universal appeal. It is natural for religious poetry to express human aspirations and fears, such as worrying that one's sinful nature will prevent one from loving God sufficiently. Here is the voice of Basavanna:
Like a monkey on a tree It leaps from branch to branch: how can I believe or trust this burning thing, this heart? It will not let me go to my Father, my lord of the meeting rivers. (1)
Related to this self-deprecating stance, a sub-genre of bhakti poetry is those poems addressed by the poet to his own mind; here, instead of bewailing his dreadful state to God, he castigates himself in often florid language for his failings and sloth. Below are the opening lines of three of Ramprasad's most famous poems:
Oh mind, you don't know how to farm; your human field has fallen fallow. Love Her, Mind; She can ferry you across the sea of birth and death. My Mind, my helmsman, don't let the boat sink! (2)
Thus, a reader who speaks either through the poetry to God or through the poetry to oneself will find a ready vehicle for intimate self-expression. Indeed, Hindu devotees assert that, because of its personalism, bhakti, or the way of love, is the easiest spiritual path available to humankind in the Kali yuga, this degenerate point in cosmic history in which we are all mired.
The site-specificity that we noted in bhakti poetry makes us aware of an aspect of the Book of Psalms that we might not have otherwise noticed. While, by and large, the Psalms are not identified by location, a number of them do make specific reference to Jerusalem. Psalm 122, for instance, is virtually an encomium to that city:
I rejoiced when they said unto me: "Let us go unto the house of the Lord." Our feet are standing Within thy gates, O Jerusalem; Jerusalem, that art builded As a city that is compacted together: Whither the tribes went up, Even the tribes of the Lord, As a testimony unto Israel, To give thanks unto the name of the Lord. For there were set thrones for judgment, Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; May they prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, And prosperity within thy palaces. For my brethren and companions' sakes, I will now say: "Peace be within thee." For the sake of the house of the Lord our God I will seek thy good. (3)
A second reason both genres are so beloved is their repeated witness to a God who steps into our personal histories. The living presence of God is palpable in the Psalms, and the experience of God in the Psalms is congruent with the experience that most of its readers have of God. In other parts of the Bible the story is about God's reaching out to people. Most of us are not given to living that experience. The Psalms are about people's reaching out to God, which is what we do experience, or what we can experience. The Psalms are a model for us of what our own relationship with God can be. They speak of the close intimacy that the worshiper can develop (139:1-2, 7) if we extend ourselves toward God. From another perspective the Book of Psalms is beloved because of the image of God it presents. God cares about God's people (11:9), and God cares about individuals. Religiously, this is the most compelling aspect of the Psalms. God not only cares about the heroes of the spirit or about the people as a whole, but the God of the Psalms also cares about individuals: average, ordinary people, and perhaps especially the lowly and the hurting. The theology of the Psalms teaches us, for instance, that
God is close by (34:17). God raises the poor from the dust (113:7). God guards our going out and coming in--always (121:8). God listens (116:1). God inclines God's ear to hear us (17:6). God champions the needy and downtrodden (35:10). God is near to all who call upon God (145:18).
Repeatedly, the Psalms talk about God's saving and rescuing us-seventy-six times in 150 Psalms. Because of this, the religious lesson of the Psalms is a lesson of hope.
The metaphors used in Hindu poetry to express hope in a God who cares are, of course, different from those in the Hebrew tradition. God is said to be a boat that carries the drowning devotee across the raging sea of suffering to the other side of liberation; or a judge who, out of mercy, acquits the devotee of wrong-doings; or a mother, into whose arms one can run for solace and safety. Kalyankumar Mukhopadhyay, a mid-twentieth-century Kali devotee, writes in one of his poems, emphasizing that God takes the initiative in dispensing his grace: "like a cow missing her calf, / Ma runs to find you." (4) Basavanna says this about divine compassion:
As a mother runs close behind her child with his hand on a cobra or a fire, the lord of the meeting rivers stays with me every step of the way and looks after me. (5)
Indeed, the entire bhakti tradition is replete with vocatives and imperatives, indicating that the poets anticipate the divine ear and expect consequent divine action. Every single one of the Hindu gods and goddesses is celebrated as concerning him or herself about human affairs, and the poets capitalize on this, pleading, cajoling, and even goading the deity for aid. The Goddess Kali, for instance, is often called Tara, She Who Takes Across, or the Savior, and her poets are most likely to employ this name when they want something specific from her. Visnu's ten avataras, or incarnations, are a stock element of Visnu-oriented poetry. The poets seem to aver that you were born on earth in the past as a tortoise or a boar or a human, in order to save the world in dire need; now do so again, here! In this poem by the ninth-century poet Nammalvar, from Tamilnadu, Visnu is reminded of all the forms he takes in heaven and earth as a way of goading him also to reveal himself to his devotee:
You dwell in heaven stand on the sacred mountain sleep on the ocean roll around in the earth yet hidden everywhere you grow invisibly: moving within numberless outer worlds playing within my heart yet not showing your body will you always play hide and seek? (6)
Personalism, the conveying of human emotions, and belief in a God who can be called and called to account are three of the commonalities between the Psalms and bhakti poetry. As we explore these two genres further, we address four additional modes of expression: petition, thanksgiving, praise, and petulant criticism.
When we discuss religious poetic expression, the idiom that comes most immediately to mind is petition. Protestant theologian Paul Tillich (7) spoke of religion as humanity's response to finitude. People call for help from beyond themselves when they encounter the limits of their capacities: sickness, danger, death, or oppression. Not surprisingly, we find these themes in the Book of Psalms. In many of the Psalms, the Psalmist cries out for assistance in the face of overwhelming need or pain or threat. A few examples will suffice. In Psalm 38, we can envision the petitioner crying out from a sickbed:
O Lord, rebuke me not in Thine anger; Neither chasten me in Thy wrath. For Thine arrows are gone deep into me, And Thy hand is come down upon me. There is no substance in my flesh Because of Thine indignation; Neither is there any health in my Bones because of my sin. (Ps. 38:1-3)
It is difficult, even painful, to read these words. The Psalm is redolent with the author's sickness. Pain, affliction, and physical infirmity fill these and so many of the remaining verses in the Psalm. We hear the sense of oppression and despondency that have come to define the Psalmist's life. Yet, the Psalm reminds us, beyond the afflictions of this moment is the help that can come from God, if we call out.
Interestingly, bhakti poetry is much less likely than the Psalms to refer to human bodily illness. Sickness is typically a trope for a spiritual malady, and the poets often refer to themselves as scorched by lust or weighed down by the fat of sin. In the following poem, in the Kali-centered Bengali tradition, Kamalakanta Bhattacarya compares his body to a tree dried out by the six deadly sins:
The withered tree doesn't blossom. I'm afraid, Mother: it may crack apart! ... I had great hopes: "I'll get fruit from this tree." But it doesn't bloom and its branches are dry. All because of the six hostile fires! (8)
In truth, taking note of the tendency in bhakti poetry to use sickness as a trope for spiritual malady alerts us to the frequency with which illness in the Book of Psalms is a symptom of a more significant spiritual malaise. Here, too, we find an association between sickness and transgression:
Crazed because of the way of their transgression, And afflicted because of their iniquities (Ps. 107:17) (9)
Another source of oppression that is common in human life is the sense that we have to deal with powerful adversaries. These can take the form of conventional adversities, or they might be real enemies who wish us ill or even exert themselves to do us harm. Given this reality of the human condition, it is not surprising that many of the Psalms cry out to God to stand with us in the presence of the threats we face. Just a few examples will suffice to represent a vast corpus:
O Lord my God, in Thee have I taken refuge; Save me from all them that pursue me, and deliver me. Lest he tear my soul like a lion, Rending it in pieces, while there is none to deliver. (Ps. 7:2-3) Consider how many are mine enemies, And the cruel hatred wherewith they hate me. O keep my soul, and deliver me; Let me not be ashamed, for I have taken refuge in Thee. (Ps. 25:19-20) Arouse Thyself to punish all the nations; Show no mercy to any iniquitous traitors. Selah They return at evening, they howl like a dog, And go round about the city. Behold, they belch out with their mouths; Swords are in their lips: For "who doth hear?" But Thou, O Lord, shalt laugh at them. (Ps.59:s-8) (10)
Once again, the bhakti poems do not provide an exact parallel, as there is very little indication of real adversaries against whom the poets are railing. Instead, "enemies" in this literary genre tend to be the foes of the mind, and there are traditionally said to be six of them: lust, anger, greed, lethargy, pride, and envy. Many bhakti poems use homey metaphors to illustrate their potency; the six enemies are six tenants who do not pay their rent, or a rabble that will capsize the body-boat or drown the devotee, or false witnesses testifying against one in court. In all cases, however, if the aspirant supplicates the divine and opens oneself up to the Lord's guidance, the deity will rescue one from the enemies' clutches, for which one gives thanks. From Dasarathi Ray, another Kali devotee:
It's no one else's fault, Syama Ma; I'm drowning in waters I made myself. The six enemies took the shape of trowels and helped me such a fine piece of land! to dig a well. ... Dasarathi ponders this, eyes filling with unstoppable tears. The waters flooded my house; soon they rose up to my chest. From life to life there's no escape. But if You give me the lifeboat of Your feet, Beneficent One, I'll try to persevere. (11)
Perhaps the closest we come in Hindu devotional poetry to a mention of real-life enemies are the anti-caste invectives on the part of low-caste poets or the critiques of pious ritualism by those who find hypocrisy to be deadening. The following three stanzas come, first, from the corpus of Nammalvar, devotee of Visnu; second, from Basavanna, who derided caste and class; and third, from the famous fifteenth-century North Indian poet named Kabir, who had equal taunts for both Hindu and Muslim religious leaders:
Only men who live by the Vedas qualify, can wear your feet on their heads, lord of blue-black body and eyes like lotuses, but, you know, when the town's cattle moo coming home, the blind one moos too: so I too speak of you, how else? (12) You went riding elephants. You went riding horses. You covered yourself with vermilion and musk. O brother, but you went without the truth, you went without sowing and reaping the good. Riding rutting elephants of pride, you turned easy target to fate. You went without knowing our lord of the meeting rivers. You qualified for hell. (13) The Hindus says Ram is the beloved, the Turk says Rahim. Then they kill each other. No one knows the secret. They buzz their mantras from house to house, puffed with pride. The pupils drown along with their gurus. In the end they're sorry. (14)
The point is that the poets take umbrage, on behalf of God, for the lukewarm or even positively wrong-headed ideas of their co-religionists. There are no real enemies to slay, just ignorant notions.
A second type of religious expression, after petition, is thanksgiving, for fortunately there are times in each of our lives when we feel our supplications to have been answered. Many of the Psalms and the bhakti poems are devoted to putting that experience into words:
Praised, I cry, is the Lord, And I am saved from mine enemies. As for God, His way is perfect; The word of the Lord is tried; He is a shield unto all them that take refuge in Him. (Ps. 18:3,30) The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Ps. 27:1) I will be glad and rejoice in Thy loving-kindness; For Thou hast seen mine affliction Thou hast taken cognizance of the troubles of my soul, And Thou hast not given me over into the hand of the enemy; Thou hast set my foot in a broad place. (Ps. 31:8-9) (15)
We find expressions of gratitude for other types of rescue and salvation elsewhere in the Psalms: God gives good counsel (Ps. 16:5-6), delivers from fear (Ps. 34:1, 4), and "brought me up out of the tumultuous pit, out of the miry clay" (Ps. 40:2). (16) Perhaps the best-known and most beloved Psalm in the corpus also conveys heartfelt thanks:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul; He guideth me in straight paths for His name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, For Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. (Psalm 23)
Let us note in passing that the Jewish tradition enjoins the faithful to begin each day on a note of thanksgiving. The very first words upon waking express gratitude that one's "soul has been returned" after the night of sleep and that one has been privileged to experience a new day: "I give thanks to You, O living and enduring King that in mercy You have restored my soul. Great is Your faithfulness."
Bhakti poetry is, intriguingly, much less full of thanksgiving than one might expect. What one finds instead are expressions of fulfillment, joy, and contentment, such as is conveyed below in a selection from a poem by Kamalakanta Bhattacarya:
The bee of my mind is absorbed in Kali's blue lotus feet. The honey of worldly pleasures, the flowers like lust, all have become meaningless. Black feet, black bee, black mixed with black. Look! Happiness and suffering are now the same! The ocean of my bliss is overflowing. (17)
This lack of explicit thanksgiving does not mean that Hindus are ungrateful or unmannered before God. Until the British came to India, there were no common words for "thank you" in any regional language; this derived from the facts (1) that kind actions done for others were taken for granted as part of the expected relationship between family members and friends; and (2) that prescriptions for dharmic action, as defined for each caste or social group, regulated human social interactions to a large extent. Hence, the idea of thanking someone for a kindness was tantamount to acknowledging distance rather than intimacy--or to implying that a person could not be expected to perform his or her dharmic duty properly and without incentive.
Even the outlets for thanksgiving that are sometimes available in certain parts of India are considered dubious by many bhakti poets. Says Basavanna,
The sacrificial lamb brought for the festival ate up the green leaf brought for the decorations. Not knowing a thing about the kill, it wants only to fill its belly: born that day, to die that day. But tell me: did the killers survive, O lord of the meeting rivers? (18)
True gratitude is an internal state of heart, not the senseless killing of a live creature.
Thanksgiving should be understood to reflect an expression of gratitude for a specific act or quality of God. Closely related to thanksgiving is the mode of praise. Praise is less specific than thanksgiving and reflects more of the religious sensibility of awe and wonder. Praise takes as its theme a more generalized amazement at God and astonishment at what God is and can do. It is this sense that comes closest to putting into words a sense of what Rudolph Otto (19) identified as mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Many such expressions of generalized praise can be found in the Psalms. Perhaps the most ecstatic and compelling is the composition with which the Book of Psalms concludes:
Hallelujah. Praise God in His sanctuary Praise Him in the firmament of His power. Praise Him for His mighty acts; Praise Him according to His abundant greatness. Praise Him with the blast of the horn; Praise Him with the psaltery and harp. Praise him with the timbrel and dance; Praise Him with stringed instruments and the pipe. Praise Him with the loud-sounding cymbals; Praise Him with the clanging cymbals. Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Hallelujah. (Psalm 150)
This Psalm has been called a veritable symphony of praise. In reading the words, we can feel the rhythms and hear the music with which it must have originally been sung. We can imagine the Levitical musicians at the temple in Jerusalem leading a congregation in this jubilant song of celebration.
Similar expressions of wonder and joy in God's presence are to be found throughout the Psalms. God is praised for creating the heavens and the earth (Psalms 104 and 148), for taking the Psalmist safely from the mother's womb (Ps. 71:5-6), for showing boundless loving kindness (Ps. 36:6-10), and for being utterly dependable, unlike human friends or even princes (Ps. 146:1-6). The Psalmist even admits to not being competent to know everything God does for us:
Whither shall I go from Thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there; If I make my bed in the netherworld, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there would Thy hand lead me, And Thy right hand would hold me. ... Wonderful are Thy works; And that my soul knoweth right well. (Ps. 139:7-10,14b) (10)
Praise is another category that, while certainly present in bhakti literature, is both more implicit and more specific than in the Psalms. In other words, God's specific acts of wonder are recounted in awe and celebration, but the word "praise" is not repeated as it is, for example, in Psalm 150 above; the deeds speak for themselves. In the following poem by Nammalvar, the poet is recounting Rama's victory over the ten-headed demon Ravana and his demon armies, as told in the epic, the Ramayana:
Crowding each other face to face as the arrows sang and jangled demon carcasses fell in hundreds rolled over like hills the sea stained with blood backed upstream into the rivers when our lord and father ravaged the island and left it a heap of ash (21)
The Lord accomplishes praiseworthy, heroic actions in a mythic past but also steps in to effect the miraculous in our own lives. Says a joyous Mirabai, recounting Krishna's kindness in saving her from the machinations of her princely husband (rana), who, frustrated that she preferred the company of local Krishna devotees to himself, sent her a cup of poison in order to rid his family of her disgraceful behavior:
They thought me mad for the Maddening One, raw for my dear dark love, colored with the color of my Lord. The rana sent me a poison cup: I didn't look, I drank it up, colored with the color of my Lord. The clever Mountain Lifter is the lord of Mira. Life after life he's true-colored with the color of my Lord. (22)
Ravidas, the great fifteenth- or sixteenth-century Untouchable poet-saint of North India, echoes this same sense of wonder at his grace-filled life:
And I, born among those who carry carrion in daily rounds around Benares, am now the lowly one to whom the mighty Brahmins come And lowly bow. Your name, says Ravidas, is the shelter of your slave. (23)
Bhakti is no stranger to praise, even if the act of praising is not as frequently exhorted per se as a spiritual virtue. The poets simply do it through their testimonies.
Personalism and universal appeal, hope in a caring God, petition, thanksgiving, and praise: such religious emotions and expressions are familiar enough to us. More unexpected is a class of Psalms and Hindu devotional poems that chastises and rebukes God. Significant numbers of Psalms call God to task, demand answers to the problem of human suffering, and, in general, are of an essentially argumentative character. One group of such "argumentative" Psalms asks where God is when the Psalmist is in need:
Why standest Thou afar off, O Lord? Why hidest Thou Thyself in times of trouble? (Ps. 10:1) Awake, why sleepest Thou, O Lord? Arouse Thyself, cast not off for ever. Wherefore hidest Thou Thy face, And forgettest our affliction and our oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; Our belly cleaveth unto the earth. (Ps. 44:24-26) I will say unto God my Rock: "Why hast Thou forgotten me? Why go I mourning under the oppression of the enemy?" As with a crushing in my bones, mine adversaries taunt me; While they say unto me all the day: "Where is thy God?" (Ps. 42:10-11)
Still other parts of the Psalms are constituted of extended reproaches of God for the way God is perceived to have treated the Psalmist:
My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me, And art far from my help at the words of my cry? ... In Thee did our fathers trust; They trusted, and Thou didst deliver them. Unto Thee they cried, and escaped; In Thee did they trust, and were not ashamed. But I am a worm, and no man; A reproach of men, and despised of the people. All they that see me laugh me to scorn; They shoot out the lip, they shake the head: "Let him commit himself unto the Lord! Let Him rescue him; Let Him deliver him, seeing He delighteth in him." (Ps. 22:1:4-8)
Christians, of course, recognize the opening words of Psalm 22 as the words spoken by Jesus on the cross as reported in Mt. 27:46. There they depict Jesus as quoting Psalm 22 and relating its words to his own situation. But, even without such an association, the reader of Psalm 22 can well understand the emotions depicted in that selection: the feeling of being abandoned by God and receiving harsh treatment from the God whom we expect to aid and protect us. Similar feelings are found elsewhere in the Psalms as well, particularly in reference to death:
Wilt Thou work wonders for the dead? Or shall the shades arise and give Thee thanks? Selah Shall Thy mercy be declared in the grave? Or Thy faithfulness in destruction? Shall Thy wonders be known in the dark? And Thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? (Ps. 88:10-12)
Such mention of the dead is its own special kind of argument with God. The author is implicitly admonishing God that the author's death would only result in God's own deprivation of someone to praise God.
Elsewhere, we hear words charged with frustration. The Psalmist seems to rebuke God and call God directly to our assistance:
Arise, O Lord, in Thine anger, Lift up Thyself in indignation against mine adversaries; Yea, awake for me at the judgment which Thou hast commanded. (Ps. 7:7)
We can be struck by the harshness of the tone of some of these verses. They seem especially presumptuous when we remember that they are directed against the deity:
Awake, why sleepest Thou, O Lord? Arouse Thyself, cast not off for ever. (Ps. 44:14) Lord, why casteth Thou off my soul? Why hidest Thou Thy face from me? (Ps 88:15) For Thou art the God of my strength; why hast Thou cast me off? Why go I mourning under oppression of the enemy? (Ps. 43:2)
The premise of the Book of Psalms is that a relationship exists between the worshiper and God. This relationship is, like human relationships, multifaceted. It is broad and flexible enough to include love and devotion as well as frustration and even anger. The understanding of the Psalms is that the relationship is strong enough to withstand the occasions when the feelings of frustration and even rage are stronger than the other, more positive, emotions. But, clearly those occasions grow out of the intensity and intimacy of the relationship. Indeed, they are, in a paradoxical way, a very powerful testimony to it.
If the Psalms quoted above seem harsh or even shocking, the comparable bhakti poetry will appear blasphemous. Indeed, this is the first category examined so far where the Hindu poets outstrip their Jewish counterparts--in this case, by their daring, punchy, even ribald communicative style.
In fairness, not all regional bhakti literatures are imbued with this sense of critique. The poets who complain the most tend to be those whose chosen deity is the most ambiguously benevolent or has the most outlandish physical form. Choice examples can be found in the Bengali Kali tradition, where Kali's naked stance upon her husband on the cremation ground is a scandal; her lack of care for her devotee-child belies her claims to be a mother; her delusory powers keep her children in ignorance; and her created world seems bereft of justice. The following excerpts come from Ramprasad Sen and Mahendranath Bhattacarya:
I'll die of this mental anguish. My story is unbelievable; what will people say when they hear it? The son of the World-Mother is dying of hunger pangs! The one You keep in happiness, is he Your favorite child? Am I so guilty that I can't even get a little salt with my spinach? You called and called me, took me on Your lap, and then dashed my heart on the ground! Mother, You have acted like a true mother; people will praise you. (24)
Sarcasm just drips from the last sentence.
What shall I say to You, Sarikari? I am speechless at Your behavior. You play the part of the World-Mother, but Your son has no clothes. Worse, You dance on that corpse Siva engrossed in Your own thoughts. You may not be ashamed of this, but I am dying of shame. (25)
The emotional tension of this sort of poetry is often found in the signature lines, where the poets, in spite of their vocalized complaints, swear loyalty, love, and a commitment to Kali, nevertheless. "Still I call you Ma," they proclaim. It is as if they are the spiritual heroes of the poetry, those who cling, even in the seeming absence of corroboration, to the promises of divine mercy. One is reminded here of the human mother-child relationship. Children pout, sulk, and cry over perceived injustices--but all within a context of loving embrace.
III. Starting from Bhakti
One can understand a great deal about Hindu devotionalism by starting with the Psalms, as we have done, identifying common themes and noting near-parallel religious expressions. However, if we were to stop here, much of what characterizes bhakti poetry would remain unnoticed, and we would forego the chance of viewing the Psalms from a vantage point foreign to its own context. In what follows, therefore, we reverse the procedure of Section II and allow Hindu devotees to set the comparative project.
In many ways it is the biblical "Song of Songs," rather than the Psalms, that provides the nearest analog to the spirit of much bhakti poetry. For, if God is truly the poet's beloved, as he is in many bhakti traditions, then the Master-servant and Lord-nation relationships that capture the spirit of many of the Psalms really do not match what we find in India. Like romantic love between humans, the divine-human love relationship is characterized by perceived oscillations of union and separation, joy and despair, and trust and jealousy. In fact, many male bhakti poets take the female voice vis-a-vis their beloved male deity, imagining themselves, for instance, as Radha in her passion for Krishna. The poet, or Radha--or the soul more generally--aches in separation from God, as is beautifully recounted in this Tamil poem by Nammalvar. Note how nature reinforces and painfully accentuates the feeling of being bereft:
What She Said Evening has come, but not the Dark One. The bulls, their bells jingling, have mated with the cows and the cows are frisky. The flutes play cruel songs, bees flutter in their bright white jasmine and the blue-black lily. The sea leaps into the sky and cries aloud. Without him here, what shall I say? how shall I survive? (26)
Theologically, Hindus have emphasized that being apart from God--or feeling so, at any rate--leads to the highest love imaginable, as one is not complacent but always longing. Such is the sense conveyed by Mahadeviyakka, Siva's female devotee from Karnataka:
Better than meeting and mating all the time is the pleasure of mating once after being far apart. When he's away I cannot wait to get a glimpse of him. Friend, when will I have it both ways, be with Him yet not with Him, my lord white as jasmine? (27)
Mahadeviyakka is, in fact, an excellent example of a second, related theme: If God is really one's beloved, then all human bonds, particularly those imposed by marriage to someone else, are insignificant by comparison. Many of the female bhakti poets whose work has come down to us declined to marry or, if forced to do so, refused to consummate their marriage beds. Here is Mahadeviyakka on the subject of human husbands:
I love the Handsome One: he has no death decay nor form no place or side no end nor birthmarks. I love him O mother. Listen. I love the Beautiful One with no bond nor fear no clan no land no landmarks for his beauty. So my lord, white as jasmine, is my husband. Take these husbands who die, decay, and feed them to your kitchen fires! (28)
A male poet is less likely to refuse marriage to a human woman, who poses no threat to the mostly male deities featured in bhakti literature, but male devotees have their own ways of demonstrating their attachment to their divine Beloved. Some, like the Bengali saint Caitanya, are believed to have merged, bodily, into the image of the Lord whom they worshiped, and others evince a longing to be totally consumed, taken over, or possessed by the Lord--all metaphors for sexual intimacy.
Passion is the overwhelming emotion present in bhakti poetry. The hagiographies of bhakti poets frequently dwell on the absorption of the poet-saints, an affect so profound that to outsiders they appear to be mad: "they dance, they leap, / undone by feeling." (29) To the poet him or herself, however, there is nothing more important than devotion to the Lord; anything else is paltry:
Kings who rule the earth all alone for long years will one day hobble on legs bitten by black dogs and beg from a broken pot here in this very life with the whole world watching: don't tarry then think of the lord's feet and live (30)
If there is anything lost in the description of Hindu devotionalism by a comparison that starts with the Psalms, it is this attempt to erase the distance between the devotee and the Lord. We do not find a total merging, as in the Upanisadic exhortation to become one with a formless Absolute--Ramprasad Sen puts it nicely when he says that he wants to taste sugar, not become sugar--but the bhakti poets want to get as close as possible, in earthly, informal language spoken by intimates to each other.
Drawing this intimacy to its height, perhaps the most astounding aspect of certain bhakti poetry traditions is the claim that God graciously condescends to love, need, and even pine for and suffer in anticipation of, the devotee--just as the devotee does in relation to God. Usually, such poems occur in the context of the lover-beloved relationship and are set in the framework of the Krishna-Radha love story. Listen to this poem by the fourteenth-or fifteenth-century Mithili poet Vidyapati, whose Krishna pleads, in earthy, sexually explicit language for the returned love of his paramour:
Swelling breasts, hard, like golden cups. Those wanton glances have stolen my heart, O beautiful one, protest no longer. I am eager as a bee, let me take your honey. Darling, I beg you, holding your hands, Do not be cruel, have pity on me. I shall say that again and again, No more can I suffer the agony of love. Says Vidyapati: Shattered desire is death. (31)
Here bhakti assumes a mutuality of intimacy: Neither God nor the devotee can survive without the other.
Turning back to the Psalms, we note that they employ an astonishingly wide range of images to describe God. In images drawn from the nonhuman world, God is depicted as a shield, fortress, high tower, stronghold, shelter, refuge, hiding place, shadow, and a being with wings. The Book of Psalms also describes God in terms of roles and relationships drawn from the realm of human experience. God is depicted as a concerned friend, a warrior who will fight on our behalf. Our relationship with God is presented in terms of a king and his subject, a parent and child, or a shepherd and flock. However, one image that is decidedly not employed in the Book of Psalms is that of lover and beloved. This imagery is completely absent from the otherwise extensive repertoire of images marshaled in this text. Indeed, many scholars assume that the absence of such imagery in the Bible is more than incidental. They posit an intentional and explicit rejection of the fertility-cult practices of the Israelites' neighbors. It will not be until the flowering of various mystical approaches within Judaism after the fifteenth century that we will hear echoes of such imagery again.
It should be noted that other texts in the Hebrew Bible do make use of the cognate image of marital fidelity to depict the relationship between God and Israel and the image of marital infidelity to describe the sundering of that relationship. (32) Having earlier mentioned the Song of Songs, we should note that that book seems to be a straightforward presentation of erotic love. The text itself makes no claim to metaphorical significance on its own behalf. Later readers of the text, however, came to interpret it in allegorical terms: Jewish commentators seeing the book as a description of God's attachment to the people Israel, Christian commentators interpreting the book as a depiction of Christ's love for the church. Hence, the portrayal of the relationship between God and human beings in erotic terms, while absent in the Book of Psalms, is not unknown in the Jewish (or Christian) tradition at large.
However, the absence of this motif in the Psalms shows that the "intimate relations," as we have titled this essay, between the God of Judaism and God's human worshipers and the various Hindu God figures and Hindu devotees do not present us with a perfect parallel. One important reason for this is the fact that, unlike the biblical writers, Hindu authors delight in telling amorous tales of their gods and goddesses, tales that provide templates for human action and/or contemplation. If we want to love Krishna, we have only to imagine ourselves, as countless devotees and poets have done since the first millennium C.E., as his consort, Radha. It is she who shows us how to love, sacrifice, pine, and ultimately have hope in communion with the Lord--all in a context of marital infidelity, as she is married to someone else and risks all codes of proper conduct for Krishna's sake. The same is true for Siva; his love-making and dalliances with his wife Parvatl, as well as her heroic austerities in the winning of his love, provide models for divine-human relating.
Devotion in the Hindu context is purposely and self-consciously modeled after human relationships. Four of the five bhavas--moods, or relationships that one can have with the divine--are taken from human life: the peaceful, meditative mood, where one is thinking of God as a light or a formless power; the servant's relationship of obedience and awe before the master; the child's feeling toward the mother or the parents' adoration for their child; the equal comradery between friends; and the intense, erotic love of romance. The Krishna-centered theologians who pioneered this concept of bhavas after the medieval period in North India arranged the five in a hierarchy, with erotic longing at the top. Although some reform-minded Hindus in the mid-nineteenth century, influenced by the British critiques of Hindu sensuality, expressed embarrassment over the frank descriptions of love between their gods and goddesses, such poetry is a sublime metaphor for the desired passion for God if understood in their own light.
Nevertheless, one can hardly imagine the God of the Hebrew Bible's having a romantic love object, except as read through the lens of metaphorical exegesis, as this would compromise God's oneness, uniqueness, and transcendence. What the Hindu poets can claim as a heritage, therefore--a history of meditation upon the love and loveableness of an erotic God--their Jewish counterparts cannot.
IV. At the Journey's End, with Jewish and Hindu Devotees
One significant feature that the Psalms and bhakti devotional poetry share is that they were not intended to be objects of study. Both were created as instruments to give voice to a relationship--one predicated on devotion but including the experience of disappointment and anger that is a part of all relationships. More specifically, the Psalms and bhakti poetry are meant to be voiced aloud--the Psalms read or chanted, and the poetry sung. Both share the reality that, when they are enunciated, they give expression to the emotions and attitudes not only of their author but also, no less importantly, of the reader or listener. They put into words the reader's own emotional experience and deepest religious feelings and serve as vehicles for the expression of our own intimacy with the one to whom they are addressed.
Furthermore, the Psalms and bhakti poetry share the quality of being performative. They not only express and describe conditions or states of mind but also evoke them. By pronouncing the words, we bring into being the reality that those words express. The words can serve to bring us closer to the divine object of their utterance, to feel ourselves calling out for help, feel the gratitude for petitions fulfilled, or experience the awe and wonder associated with praise. They can help us arouse within ourselves a sense of frustration or disappointment--and the intimacy that such disappointment presumes. Both the Psalms and bhakti poetry, in their very articulation, put us in the relationship with the sacred to which their words attest.
What the Psalms and bhakti poetry share underscores a profound, and perhaps insufficiently appreciated, commonality in the spiritual aspirations of Jews and Hindus. At the same time, our study of the two corpora in tandem allows us to recognize significant differences between them. These differences may shed light on the specific religious configurations of the two traditions and may even witness to something of their fundamental character.
As we have seen, the contexts, presuppositions, hopes, and forms of the relationships desired by Jewish and Hindu authors are, of course, quite dissimilar. The Psalmist does not express distress or outrage about social divisions in society, nor do the Psalms reflect the same level of condemnation of an over-dependence upon ritual. Conversely, we have noted that the bhakti poems seem to have been composed in a more pacific environment than the Psalms were. While the Psalms devote great attention to the existence of enemies--sometimes of the individual, but frequently of the nation as a whole--we find that in bhakti poetry such enemies are likely to be internal rather than external in nature. These differences in the two bodies of literature result from, embody, and throw into relief noteworthy differences between the two traditions.
Of even greater significance in a conversation between the Jewish and Hindu traditions, of course, is the distinction between the multivalent attitude of Hindu theism and the monotheism of the Jewish tradition. It is reflected most explicitly in the spectrum of deities addressed in the bhakti poetry, as opposed to the consistent focus on the one God of the Book of Psalms. Indeed, several of the Psalms are devoted to asserting the singularity and uniqueness of the God who is their focus.
But, that difference presents itself to us through other means as well. We noted the way in which the bhakti texts spoke of the relationship with the deity addressed in terms of lover and beloved, while any such reference was completely absent in the Psalms--and, for that matter, in the self-presentation of any part of the Hebrew Bible. We see, as well, a difference between the effusiveness of expression in the bhakti poems in contrast to what we can only characterize as, in comparison, the generally more reticent nature of expression in the Psalms. While both corpora reflect a sense of relatedness to--even intimacy with--the deity addressed, the bhakti poems seem more unrestrained in the verbal expression of that relationship.
This difference might allow us to conjecture that perhaps a monotheist would feel a greater degree of reticence in the presence of a sole and supreme deity than would one who recognizes his or her divinity to be one among many in a constellation of divine beings. In other words, the distinction we noted may even imply something deeper than the merely stylistic. It might serve to remind us that the difference between strictly monotheistic and nonmonotheistic ideologies involves more than mere quantity of deities. It may well leave its imprint on the very nature of the relationship that the worshiper enjoys with the divine or the religious attitude with which the worshiper approaches that divinity.
Nevertheless, despite their differences, we argue that the Jewish and Hindu traditions do not stand worlds apart, sharing no common ground. As we look at these remarkable religious compositions, we see profound similarities in form, content, and religious attitudes. Both become vehicles for worshipers to pour out their hearts before the God they worship. Both serve as ways to express hopes and petitions. Both afford worshipers the chance to give thanks for the goodness they have received. Both give expression to the awe and wonder we feel in the presence of the divine. And, both are so firmly rooted in the intensity of the relationship between worshipers and their deity that both, remarkably, contain instances in which worshipers chastise, rebuke, or even express rage at the one they worship. We see, above all, the profound commonality of the role that these two bodies of religious literature play in their respective communities. Recognizing this, we cannot help but be impressed by what is shared and the profound significance of that shared element of the two traditions to the adherents of each of them.
Rachel Fell McDermott (Episcopalian) is the Ann Whitney Olin Professor in, and previous chair of, the Dept, of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures at Barnard College, New York City, where she has taught since 1994. In 1993-94, she was a lecturer at the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. She has an A.B. from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; an M. Div. from Harvard Divinity School; and an A.M. and Ph.D. (1993) from Harvard University (Study of Religion). Most recent of her six books are Revelry, Rivalry, and Longing for the Goddesses of Bengal (Columbia University Press, 2011); and The Sources of Indian Tradition, vol. 2, for which she was managing editor of the 3rd edition (Columbia University Press, 2014; a 3rd ed. of vol. 1 is in progress). Ten of her articles and two dozen reviews have appeared in academic journals and another twenty articles as book chapters or encyclopedia entries. Sixty-some academic conference presentations and lectures have taken her across the U.S. and to Canada, Europe, Israel, Bangladesh, and India. She has served as an officer of numerous academic societies, including the American Society for the Study of Religion, the American Institute of Indian Studies, the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies, the Taraknath Das Foundation, and the Society for Hindu-Christian Studies, among others. She often lectures at community events in congregations and educational institutions in the New York City area and has taken frequent research trips to India and Bangladesh.
Daniel F. Polish (Jewish) has been Rabbi for Congregation Shir Chadash of the Hudson Valley since 2003, following service at synagogues in Poughkeepsie, NY (1996-2000); Harrisburg, PA (interim, 1995-96); Bloomfield Hills, MI (1988-95); Los Angeles (1981-88); Rockville, MD (1973-81, part-time), and Canton, MA (1967-73, part-time). He also served as Associate Executive Vice President and director of the Washington office of the Synagogue Council of America, 1977-81; and as director of the Joint Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, 2000-03. He has taught part-time at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and at Occidental College, both in Los Angeles; at the University of Maryland; and at Harvard University (as a teaching fellow). He was education director for Interfaith Metropolitan Theological Education, 1973-77. His B.A. is from Northwestern University, Evanston, IL; his M.A.H.L. and rabbinic ordination, from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati; and his Ph.D. (1974) from Harvard University. He has been on the editorial board for the journal of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1969-79 and since 2010, as well as other positions with the CCAR; currently Vice Chair of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, he has been on its Executive Committee since 2001. He has also held a variety of positions with numerous other Jewish organizations, locally and nationally. His four books include Talking about God: Exploring the Meaning of Religious Life with Kierkegaard, Buber, Tillich, and Heschel (Skylight Paths, 2007); and Keeping Faith with the Psalms (Jewish Lights, 2004). With Eugene Fisher he edited Formation of Social Policy in the Catholic and Jewish Traditions (University of Notre Dame Press, 1980); and Liturgical Foundations of Social Policy in the Catholic and Jewish Traditions (UNDP, 1983). He has contributed chapters to eight edited books and published articles and reviews in several popular and academic journals.
(1) A. K. Ramanujan, tr. and intro., Speaking of Siva (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1973), no. 33, p. 68.
(2) Rachel Fell McDermott, Singing to the Goddess: Poems to Kali and Uma from Bengal (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), no. 70, p. 77; no. 79, p. 83; and no. 85, p. 87.
(3) A very similar note is sounded in Ps. 103:13: "Like as a father hath compassion upon his children, / So hath the Lord compassion upon them that revere Him." Quotations from the Psalms are taken from The Holy Scriptures according to the Masoretic Text: A New Translation with the Aid of Previous Versions and with Constant Consultation of Jewish Authorities (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1917), with modifications by Daniel Polish.
(4) McDermott, Singing to the Goddess, no. 98, p. 98.
(5) Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva, no. 70, p. 71.
(6) A. K. Ramanujan, tr., Hymns for the Drowning: Poems for Visnu by Nammalvar, Princeton Library of Asian Translations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981), "The Lord at Play," no. 5, p. 21.
(7) See Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1952).
(8) McDermott, Singing to the Goddess, no. 76, p. 81.
(9) Similar connections are expressed in Ps. 41:5 and 103:3.
(10) Similar themes are expressed in 13:3-5,57:3-4, and elsewhere.
(11) McDermott, Singing to the Goddess, no. 63, p. 72.
(12) Nammalvar, Hymns for the Drowning, "Love Poems: The Playboy," no. 7, p. 32.
(13) Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva, no. 639, p. 86.
(14) Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh, trs.; Linda Hess, essays and notes, The Bijak of Kabir (San Francisco, CA: North Point Press, 1983), no. 4, pp. 42-43.
(15) Further examples can be seen in Ps. 138:6-7 and 54:6-7.
(16) These same themes are articulated in Psalms 92 and 138:1-3, 6-7.
(17) McDermott, Singing to the Goddess, no. 97, p. 97.
(18) Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva, no. 129, p. 76.
(19) See Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Enquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational, tr. John W. Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 1950 [orig., 1928]).
(20) See also Psalm 148.
(21) Nammalvar, Hymns for the Drowning, "The Works of Visnu--I," no. 7, "The Sack of Lanka," p. 10.
(22) John Stratton Hawley, text and notes; J. S. Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer, trs., Songs of the Saints of India (New York and Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1998), no. 37, p. 134.
(23) Ibid., no. 38, p. 25.
(24) McDermott, Singing to the Goddess, no. 38, pp. 52-53.
(25) Ibid., no. 40, p. 54; emphases in original.
(26) Nammalvar, Hymns for the Drowning, "Love Poems: The Dark One," no. 1, p. 33.
(27) Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva, no. 324, p. 140.
(28) Ibid., no. 283, p. 134.
(29) Nammalvar, Hymns for the Drowning, "Idiots, Monists, and Others," no. 1, "God's Idiots," p. 54.
(30) "Ibid., "No More Kings," no. 2, p. 59.
(31) Deben Bhattacharya, tr.; W. G. Archer, ed., Love Songs of Vidyapati, UNESCO Collection of Representative Works, Indian Series (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1963), no. 11, "Shattered Desire," p. 50.
(32) Some might be surprised to find such imagery in the Hebrew Bible. In fact, it serves as a kind of trope among the prophets. There, marital imagery is employed to depict the relationship of God to the people Israel. This is certainly the master image of the Book of Hosea and of Ezekiel 16. We find this imagery as well in Jer. 3:1-5; Is. 50:1, 61:10, and 62:5; and Mai. 2:14. Later in the history of Jewish thought, the rabbis would use the image of marriage to describe the relationship between God and Israel. They would portray the Torah as the Ketubah/marriage contract of that union (Lamentations Rabbah to Lam. 3:21). Indeed, they would go so far as to identify the very date of that marriage--the feast of Shavuot/Pentecost, which Jewish tradition describes as the day the Torah was given at Sinai.
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|Author:||McDermott, Rachel Fell; Polish, Daniel F.|
|Publication:||Journal of Ecumenical Studies|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2015|
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