The Vachanas of Allama Prabhu

September 19, 2022 [books] #india #poetry #reviews #kannada

Book: God is Dead, There is no God: The Vachanas of Allama Prabhu
Author: Manu Devadevan

Manu Devadevan's translations of a selection of Allama Prabhu comes with a long introduction to the Bhakti poets of the Kannada region. They called themselves as Sharanas in their poems, "proteges of Shiva", and their poetry came to be called vachanas. AK Ramanujan translates vachanas as "poetry in free verse". They are short, and even in translation, powerful.

While AK Ramanujan translated beautifully, he is rather infamous for disregarding the structure of the original poems. He did very successfully capture the contents and the message in his renderings, but the resulting poems bore little resemblance to the original. This raises the questions of authenticity - what was the original poet's voice, and what is the translators? Manu Devadevan tries to address these questions in his translation, and also provides a framework to understand the huge volume of vachanas produced by Allama Prabhu. This meta-structure, as captured by the chapter titles, proceeds from individual piety ("The Mist of Maya") and ends with existential pseudo-nihilism ("Passions of the Void"). It is a pseudo-nihilism because the void of Allama Prabhu is not really bereft of meaning. It is an active principle, as Manu Devadevan puts it. It contains the universe and seems to participate in creation and sustenance. The author asserts that Allama Prabhu's void was force fit into the greater Veerashaiva narrative by the fifteenth century exegetists, and it doesn't really belong there. I wish he spent more time on persuading us why this is the case. To me, Allama Prabhu’s “void” doesn’t seem to be at odds with ideas from other non-Śramaṇic Indic streams of thoughts, for example that of the Nath jogis. Manu Devadevan contrasts this void with Nagarjuna's shunya, but I was more than reminded of Nisargadatta, with some echos of Shankara.

The Veerashaiva poets were staunchly anti-caste, a feature - among other things - that makes their poems attractive to the modern mind. Allama Prabhu in the 12th century CE, as Manu Devadevan shows, was opposed to all systems, everything the mind could conceive. His poems are designed to put the listeners' mind in that space without any ego, similar to what the Zen koans were intended to do.

Here are a few of my favourites.

Why another shrine
When there’s one in the body?
No one asked for two,
My Lord.
What am I,
When you’re a stone?

-- VAV 213

There’s no such thing as ‘I’ and ‘You’.
There’s nothing, nothing indeed,
After the self is known.
From where does the no-ness that doesn’t exist
Goggeshvara—who forgot the body
After knowing the state of being—
Is the one without acts of the mind.

-- VAV 305

They hold food
For the love of hunger.
They’ve a shower
For the love of thirst.

There’s no Lord,
No devotees.
I don’t exist.
Neither do you.
There’re no worshippers,
Nor the worshipped.

-- VAV 626

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