High Noon in the Desert

Posted on June 22, 2010

Here is an entry from my friend Jai Uttals’ blog at http://jaiuttal.com/blog/:

The “Bhakti Movement” in the US these days is kind of strange to me. Wonderful, but also, weird. Wonderful because more and more people are experiencing the incredibly passionate joy of singing God’s names; and weird because, as Americans, we seem to feel the need to make it ‘special,’ and make ourselves ‘special’, and use Madison-Avenue type names to label and increase our ‘special-ness.’ We throw around words like ‘bhakti,’ ‘bhava’ and ‘ecstacy’ as if they are ice cream flavors or new types of kombucha. But in India, where all this stuff comes from, these words denote deep spiritual states, attained by only a few very lucky and very devoted souls who then become inspirations for the rest of us. When we in the west get together for an evening of Kirtan everyone is so eager to ‘get off,’ to have a super high euphoric experience, kind of like a rock concert…. This is fine, I suppose, but it’s just sooooo different from what we experience in a small temple in North India, where the devotees feel like they’ve been chanting for lifetimes and lifetimes, oblivious to the highs and lows, riding the waves of emotion and mood, resting in deep longing and fulfillment and surrender, awaiting God’s mercy. Is ‘Bhakti’ just a ‘high?’ A cool, blissed-out experience? The great ‘bhaktas’ (devotees) of old all write of an immense love and an even greater dependence on their beloved’s response. “My Lord, I’ve done nothing to deserve your embrace, but please come to me anyway!!!” Oh well. Maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon, too hard on myself and thus too hard on everyone else…

Here’s a true story of ‘Bhakti’…… (I probably have many details of this story incorrect, and I thought I would do some research before writing it. But instead I’m just diving in. Please forgive any historical or theological errors.)

In a dusty desert village in West Bengal, in the 15th century, sat an old but still very active little temple to the Goddess. Day in and day out, for hundreds of years, the poor villagers had been prostrating themselves there to ask for better harvests, more sons, and more money; in other words, relief from their suffering. To some the Goddess responded, but to most She remained mute. As in all Hindu temples of that time, a young Brahmin (someone from the highest, priestly, caste) was engaged to officiate the prayers and offerings, and to distribute ‘prasad’ (consecrated food). Chandidas, as he was called, was deeply committed to his tasks, yet he was confused by what he perceived as the Mother’s callous ignoring of Her children’s requests. “Are you really there?” he would ask the statue. “Please, please show me that you are hearing my words!”… But there was no response.

One day, as Chandidas was preparing the ‘aarti’ (offering) lights, he heard a brushing sound coming from the other side of the worship hall. Turning around, Chandidas was struck by what felt like a lightening bolt to his soul. Was it the Goddess, herself? Well, that’s been the big question for over five hundred years. Because quietly working in the corner, partially veiled, was Rami, a young woman from the village, an ‘untouchable’ (the lowest caste), sweeping the temple floors. Chandidas gasped and whispered “Radha.” Rami lowered her almond eyes saying ‘Govinda, my Lord.”

And thus began one of the most remarkable love affairs in history. Chandidas, who had never written a single line of poetry in his life, began to record his romance with Rami with an incredible outpouring of songs of the love of Radha and Krishna; songs of ecstacy, songs of anguish, in the first person voices of both God and Goddess. Perhaps Rami wrote the songs with him, for the voice of Radha emerged even stronger and more clearly than did the voice of Govinda. Of this we’ll never know.

Meanwhile, there was another voice that began to scream and howl. The power structure of the village, the political and ‘spiritual’ elders, had become enraged at this blasphemous affront to the caste system, in the heart of the very temple itself. A Brahmin and an untouchable having an illicit affair!!! And cloaking it in the language of scripture!!! An outrage beyond compare!!! The two lovers were ordered to stop seeing each other. Rami was of course fired from her job at the temple and thrown back into her life of poverty and Chandidas’ every step was watched by the unblinking eyes of the town bosses. But did this diminish the path of true love? Not one bit. In fact, as they were forced to meet in more and more secrecy, the songs of Chandidas took on an even more mystical hue, invoking as they did the illicit, mysterious nature of Radha and Krishna’s divine love. But in a small town in 15th century India, secrets could not be kept for very long. Soon, Rami was banished and Chandidas was thrown into prison. Demanded to deny his love, Chandidas simple bowed his head and proclaimed the eternal reality of ‘Radha Ramana Hari.’ Tears streaking the dust and dirt of his face, the young Brahmin fell to the prison floor chanting the glories of the divine couple: “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare.” What difference was there for him between his love and passion for Rami and the ‘Rasa Lila’ (divine play) of Radha and Krishna? Nothing could stop the river of love flowing from Chandidas’ very soul. And so, in the ultimate act of fear, the village elders tortured Chandidas, finally tying his limbs to four horses and tearing his youthful body apart. As his soul departed his agonized body, the villagers could heard the words: “Hare Krishna…. My Rami, My Radha!”…..

Today, centuries later, the love songs of Chandidas are still sung reverently and, yes, ecstatically, by the villagers, Bauls, and devotees of West Bengal. Praising the divine lovers, falling at the feet of the divine lovers and identifying with the undying passion of the divine lovers….. With tears of longing to feel just a drop of what Chandidas must have felt. To have just the tiniest taste of true ‘Bhakti’, true love…… I’ve seen with my own eyes these mystic Bauls singing Chandidas’ songs, dressed in patchwork robes, begging the Lord for just one crumb, pounding out rhythms on a small drum or even just a wooden table, plucking a one stringed ektara, and remembering one of the great heroes of love, Chandidas, and his beloved, Rami.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply