Mystical Poetry in Medieval India

Ms. Neelima Shukla-Bhatt
Harvard University

The first part of this lecture discussed ritual offerings, or puja, in the Hindu tradition. Puja is an expression of the bhakti way of devotion to a god, and such offerings are done either in the temple or home, with offerings being made of food, flowers, or lights as from lamps. The point of the puja is to make a gesture of total surrender of offering of oneself.

The second part of the lecture focused on aspects of mystical poetry in medieval poetry, which have become incorporated into the tradition as a vehicle of mystical prayer for the masses. This poetry originated in South India in the 7th-9th centuries, by a group called the Alvars, a name meaning “one who has immersed in the love of God”. This poetry became the core of both Northern and Southern Indian mystical traditions.

The tradition of mystical poetry represented a democratization of worship, in that it was written in the vernacular and not the priestly Sanskrit. The poetry also often spoke about a breaking away from the caste system, and the many stories about Krishna suggested a more personal and accessible relationship to the divine. The poetry has emphases on finding God everywhere, total surrender, and an intense longing for union with the divine. As the poetic tradition moved northward, it encountered Islam, and many of its forms took on metaphors borrowed from the Sufi tradition. The lecture ends with the recitation of several poems by Mira and Kabir, which are infused with the quality of spontaneity of the mystical experience, as well as representing very non-sectarian approaches.