Jul 12 2013

Ravidas – When I existed

Published by at 9:44 am under Poetry

When I existed
by Ravidas

English version by Nirmal Dass

When I existed,
You did not.
Now You exist
and I do not:
as a storm lifts waves
from water –
still they are water
within water.

O Madho,
how can we describe
this illusion?
What we believe does not exist.

A mighty king sleeps
on his throne
and in his dream
becomes a beggar.
Seeing his kingdom vanish
before him
he greatly mourns –
such is our condition.

Like the tale
of the serpent
and the rope –
I know a little
of the secret.
Seeing many bracelets
we think gold has many forms –
but it is always forever gold.

In all things
exists the Lord,
assuming countless shapes;
in each pore he plays and sports.
Ravi Dass say,
He is nearer than my hand.
All that comes to pass
is by His will alone.

— from Songs of the Saints from the Adi Granth, Translated by Nirmal Dass


/ Photo by Joi /

This poem has several traditional spiritual metaphors: water and waves, a king dreaming he is a beggar, the serpent and the rope, gold taking many shapes without changing its nature. In the poem, these act as a sort of shorthand, the hearer expected to recognize and smile at the references. All tell us something of the variety and connection, the relationship of the individual beings to Being.

Let’s take a look at these…

When I existed,
You did not.
Now You exist
and I do not:
as a storm lifts waves
from water –
still they are water
within water.

We tend to see existence as a collection of separated beings and objects. Seeing that way, we imagine we too are objects and separated from everything else, including being separate from a big object called “God.”

The metaphor of the water and the wave helps us to see things differently. God, or Reality, is the water, the incomprehensibly vast ocean, and every individual being is a wave in that ocean. The wave rises, becomes distinct, takes on an identity; we can identify it as “a wave” rather than merely an undefined patch on the surface of the ocean. Yet the wave is in no way separate from the ocean. It is not other than the ocean. Though distinct, the wave is still “water within water.”

The wave rises from the ocean, exists in the ocean, and merges back into the ocean, never having been anything but the ocean. The wave is the ocean expressing itself.

What about the reference to a “storm”? Within Indian metaphysics, we might say that the storm is the pull of karma. Its tugging, churning motion pulls individual beings into manifestation from the blissful depths of Unity. But, when the storm has spent itself, and serene stillness is restored, the individual settles back into the great Unity that is the natural state.

A mighty king sleeps
on his throne
and in his dream
becomes a beggar.
Seeing his kingdom vanish
before him
he greatly mourns –
such is our condition.

We are, all of us, royalty, sons and daughters of the Divine. This is not just a pretty fantasy, it is who and what we are. Mundane consciousness is like being caught in a dream, and in that dream we tell stories to ourselves, and the stories are often about spiritual poverty, isolation, desperation. In our dream reality we experience dream suffering.

When the king drifted off to sleep, he was a king. When he wakes up, he is a king. And throughout the entire dream, he is yet a king.

Like the tale
of the serpent
and the rope –
I know a little
of the secret.

A farmer enters a darkened hut. In the corner he sees a poisonous snake, coiled and ready to strike. A wise man raises the shutters to let the light in. Only then does the farmer see that the “snake” is a coiled rope. It is not that it was transformed from a snake to a rope; it was always only a rope. Though he felt fear was entirely justified in the moment, once he saw clearly, the fear transformed into laughter.

Seeing many bracelets
we think gold has many forms –
but it is always forever gold.

We enter a goldsmith’s workshop, and see his work displayed in front of us. We exclaim in delight and overwhelm at the dazzling variety of rings and bracelets. The old goldsmith laughs at our reaction and shakes his head. All that variety is an illusion. To him, every ring and bangle is the same: they are all gold. He can easily drop a bracelet in the crucible, melt it down, and reform it into something new, a necklace perhaps. It looks different and is used in a different way, yet it has not changed; it is still gold.

In all things
exists the Lord,
assuming countless shapes;
in each pore he plays and sports.
Ravi Dass say,
He is nearer than my hand.
All that comes to pass
is by His will alone.

This bewildering kaleidoscopic world we inhabit — look more deeply. Look at how you look. Beneath the surface we are connected, all composed of the same God-stuff. And the variety in the world, sometimes beautiful, sometimes frightening, is simply the craftman displaying his art.






Ravidas, Ravidas poetry, Yoga / Hindu poetry Ravidas

India (1398? – 1448?) Timeline
Yoga / Hindu
Sikh

Ravidas lived in Varanasi (Benares) and is generally thought to have been a younger contemporary of Kabir. In his poetry, he describes himself as a leather worker, someone whose contact with dead animals would have marked him as a dalit (or “untouchable”) in Indian society. Yet he is revered by both Sikhs and Hindus.

The two oldest sources of his work are the Sikh scripture, the Adigranth, and in the collections of songs compiled in the Dadu Panth.

According to some sources, Ravidas was initiated by Kabir’s famous guru Ramananda. And some traditions assert that Ravidas was, in turn, the guru of the great female poet-saint Mirabai.

Because of his low caste status, Ravidas has become an important figure for poor and oppressed people in India today, his followers calling themselves Ravidasis.

More poetry by Ravidas

5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Ravidas – When I existed”

  1. ebrahimon 12 Jul 2013 at 1:38 pm

    Beautiful commentary and wonderful nature words. Thanks for all the behind the scenes hard work, Ivan.

  2. Chinmayaon 12 Jul 2013 at 5:42 pm

    Like unpacking a complex package and neatly arranging everything, your commentary is both insightful and profound. It is as beautiful as the poem itself.

  3. Shantion 12 Jul 2013 at 10:25 pm

    The metaphor of water and wave ,though a popular symbol,is so interesting.The water stuff , the strange subtle weaving of sea and wave strands,as they meet and separate in a transparency with light ,is too fine for my sight.Water in water,raindrops dissolving in rainwater ,waves into the sea touch the gurgling element within too.Who meeting who,laughs, only to be silent again and ….Is being the miracle different from knowing it?O! to be able to hold both simultaneously is to be both wave and
    particle.Mystics’ metaphors are always leading beyond the frolic as they play with one and the next tossing them away ,resting in no object howsoever beautiful ,to encounter God at the end of the street, again and again.And some of us are left holding metaphors lit on their journey.

  4. Therese Monaghan O.P.on 13 Jul 2013 at 6:22 am

    I echo Chinmaya’s words: your commentary, Ivan,
    helped unpack the poem’s meaning with greater clarity–especially the opening lines. Hard to not think of ourselves as separate particles…Thank you for unraveling this thought provoking poem.
    The fact that Ravidas was a leather worker made me think of Jacob Boheme who was a German shoemaker and great mystic.

  5. deepikaon 14 Jul 2013 at 4:26 am

    It’s just beautiful! Ivan, I am very impressed by your ability to explain the meaning of spiritual metaphors. Your commentary on poem is so simple and heart-touching. Thank you for the poem by the great saint RAVIDAS. I am a big admirer of his work. Thank YOU!!!

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