Oct 07 2013

Ramprasad – In the world’s busy market-place

Published by at 10:21 am under Poetry

In the world’s busy market-place, O Shyama
by Ramprasad (Ramprasad Sen)

In the world’s busy market-place, O Shyama,
      Thou art flying kites;
High up they soar on the wind of hope,
      held fast by maya’s string.
Their frames are human skeletons,
      their sails of the the three gunas made;
But all their curious workmanship
      is merely for ornament.

Upon the kite-strings Thou hast rubbed
      the manja-paste of worldliness,
So as to make each straining strand
      all the more sharp and strong.
Out of a hundred thousand kites,
      at best but one or two break free;
And thou dost laugh and clap Thy hands,
      O Mother, watching them!

On favoring winds, says Ramprasad,
      the kites set loose will speedily
Be borne away to the Infinite,
      across the sea of the world.

— from Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar, by Elizabeth U. Harding

/ Photo by thegoodlifefrance /

Navaratri, the Hindu festival celebrating the Nine Nights of the Divine Mother, started over the weekend. Of the nine nights, the first three are dedicated to Durga or Kali, who destroys illusion. The next three nights are dedicated to Lakshmi, who grants wealth, both spiritual and material. The final three nights are dedicated to Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom.

Since this is the beginning of Navaratri, I thought I’d feature a poem by Ramprasad dedicated to the Goddess Kali…

I’ll be honest: In my opinion this English translation doesn’t quite soar the way its kites do, but the poem still fascinates me. Ramprasad evokes a dynamic vision in our minds of the great and terrible Mother Goddess flying kites and laughing with delight.

Before we go further, we must first recognize that Ramprasad is a practitioner Tantric meditation. Tantra is often misunderstood and reduced to a sexual practice, but Tantra is actually rich and complex tradition of meditation, visualization, and energetic practices that attempts to engage all of life and life’s energies, while awakening divine energies within. And Tantra has a special affinity with the feminine faces of the Divine, such as Kali. It is true that there are branches of Tantra that work with sexuality as part of its practice, but those are “left hand practices” that have been somewhat looked down upon until modern times when they’ve been popularized in the West.

What I think is especially worth remembering about Tantra when thinking about this poem is the Tantric practice of ritualized visualization. Tantric practitioners during their meditations formulate in their minds highly complex and precise sacred patterns and iconic representations of the deities. The more precise and clear the image summoned forth in the mind’s eye, the more the meditator comes into alignment with the sacred energy represented by the image.

I suspect that this poem, with its very specific imagery, can be approached as such a meditative image: each element has a precise meaning and relates to everything else in a specific way. So take a moment to reread the poem and try to construct the scene in your own mind.

So… We have kites.

In the world’s busy market-place, O Shyama,
      Thou art flying kites

The Mother Goddess is flying kites in “the world’s busy market-place.” What are these kites? They are individual human souls.

High up they soar on the wind of hope,
      held fast by maya’s string.

They are borne up by the “wind of hope.” This wind might thought of generally as spiritual aspiration, or it could be very specifically prana, the breath that animates and propels all life.

But they are held by maya’s string. Maya is the illusion of the world. It is the illusion that surface appearance is all there is of reality. That illusion is cord that holds the kites, keeping human souls bound to the earth despite their urge to fly free.

Their frames are human skeletons,
      their sails of the the three gunas made

The fact that the frames of the kites are made of human skeletons may sound gruesome, but the imagery of Kali often has shocking elements like that. Kali forces us to confront death and fear in order to dispel our illusions. We pass through death to know we cannot die. We experience loss to know that our true nature is never held or lost, it simply is. Kali represents that aspect of the Divine that loves us too much to let us remain comfortable with safe self-delusions and prods us to know our full selves and the full mystery of being.

The gunas referred to are an important concept in Indian metaphysics. All of nature is said to embody some combination of the three gunas: Sattva (purity, lucidity), rajas (movement), and tamas (lethargy, darkness). People, too, are said to be composed of these qualities. It is said that through these qualities, worldly energies and karmic tendencies manifest. So when the sails of the kites are composed of the gunas, that is what catches subtle, rising wind and gives direction to the kites.

Upon the kite-strings Thou hast rubbed
      the manja-paste of worldliness,
So as to make each straining strand
      all the more sharp and strong.

This is a delightful detail, but will only make sense with a bit of explanation. Ramprasad is describing a game of kite contests. In this game, children would line their kite strings with glue and tiny bits of glass (the manjja-paste). The glue both strengthens their own kite’s string, while giving it the sharpness necessary to cut their opponent’s string. The object was to wrap your string around your opponent’s, and cut their kite. Then the fun became chasing the freed kite as it sailed loose through the sky.

Here, Kali’s manja-paste is worldliness. It makes the string, maya’s illusion stronger, while becoming more abrasive to others. This leads to painful, jostling contests of worldly existence.

Out of a hundred thousand kites,
      at best but one or two break free

But– for those who are ready, that struggle becomes means of liberation, when the string of maya snaps and the soul is no longer tethered to the ground.

And this is what most delights the Goddess:

And thou dost laugh and clap Thy hands,
      O Mother, watching them!

We sail free across the Infinite, Mother’s laughter trailing behind us!

On favoring winds, says Ramprasad,
      the kites set loose will speedily
Be borne away to the Infinite,
      across the sea of the world.

It’s a cool, crisp autumn morning here. The sky is so blue that all the world comes into a glistening, sharp focus found no other time of the year. It might just be a good day to go outside and fly a kite…

Ramprasad (Ramprasad Sen)

India (1718? – 1775?) Timeline
Yoga / Hindu : Shakta (Goddess-oriented)

Although stories abound in the life of Ramprasad Sen, little exists that would satisfy a strict historian.

Ramprasad was born in a small village along the Ganges, just outside of Calcutta in Bengal, India. His father was an Ayurvedic doctor.

As a boy, Ramprasad showed himself to be an excellent student and displayed a natural talent for poetry and language.

Although he impressed everyone with his intellectual abilities, he showed no interest in taking up the family profession of Ayurveda or any profession, for that matter. His increasing otherworldliness and interest in spiritual practices worried his parents, who were afraid he would renounce the world. To head off that possibility, his parents married their meditative son to a beautiful young girl.

Soon after the marriage, Ramprasad’s father died, leaving the family in poverty. As the oldest son, the responsibility fell on Ramprasad to provide for the entire family. Despite his bright mind, Ramprasad struggled to find employment.

He eventually found a job as an accountant’s clerk in nearby Calcutta. But he couldn’t prevent his devotional poetry from pouring out. Lacking good paper, he wrote his poems in the margins of his account ledgers. Some of his coworkers noticed this and complained to the manager that Ramprasad was writing poetry rather than keeping the accounts. The manager demanded to see Ramprasad’s ledgers. Upon reading Ramprasad’s songs to the mother goddess Kali, the manager was so moved that he told Ramprasad to go home and devote all his time to his writing — and he would still draw the same monthly pay.

Ramprasad turned deeply to his spiritual practices and poetry, often singing his songs by the banks of the Ganges or immersed, neck-deep in the sacred waters.

One day a local Maharaja heard Ramprasad singing songs to Kali. He appointed Ramprasad as court poet, granting him enough land to support his family. It was then that Ramprasad delved more deeply in Tantric spiritual practices, often fasting and sitting in a nearby meditation garden.

He began to have visions of Mother Kali. His songs and quiet charisma started to draw devotees.

Ramprasad and his wife had four children. Finances continued to be a challenge for Ramprasad and his family. His intense focus on spiritual practices meant he neglected the day-to-day maintenance of his land, yet the family continued to get by.

Ramprasad’s poetry to the Mother Goddess Kali is playful, petulant, blissful, rageful — and sometimes shocking. His poetry shows the whole tempestuous relationship between a child and his Mother, between the soul and God. He doesn’t just show one face to the Divine Mother, he doesn’t just pretend to be ‘the good little boy;’ he communicates everything to Her nakedly. And, in doing so, he achieves a profound intimacy with the Divine.

More poetry by Ramprasad (Ramprasad Sen)

6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Ramprasad – In the world’s busy market-place”

  1. Aravindaon 08 Oct 2013 at 3:20 am

    Thank you, Ivan, for this poem and your commentary on it. I could visualise The Great Mother laughing and clapping her hands in delight while reading both. She, Kali, is such a mysterious and awesome figure.
    Greetings of the season to you, for I’m writing from India.

  2. Jennyon 08 Oct 2013 at 8:34 am

    What a lovely poem. The poem and picture remind me of the wonderful novel “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini. The line “Out of a hundred thousand kites, at best but one or two break free” reminds me how difficult it is to not be “tethered to the ground”,but to be tethered, as we are, to human existence and the hum-drum of everyday life.

  3. nitinon 08 Oct 2013 at 6:32 pm

    As always, reading Ivan’s explanation is more satisfying than just reading the poem. If not for the explanation, for me poetry would be hard and boring reading. By chance, I latched on to your blog. Before that, I did not read poetry. Ivan, thanks for making poetry reading fun for stupid people like me. Could you please throw some more light on this comment of yours “We experience loss to know that our true nature is never held or lost, it simply is.” I am a little lost but I have a feeling that you will come up with lot more. Our true nature is adamant to change and to evolve nature changing is needed and so my confusion.

  4. Pegon 09 Oct 2013 at 7:10 am

    Thank you Ivan. I cannot tell you how much I learn from the poems you choose and your commentary, the web site as well. I desperately needed this knowledge…still do. I went through spontaneous kundalini awakening having no idea what this lengthy, and for me, painful process was about. I have experienced Kali so many times I could not count them. These past couple of nights I have not seen Kali but been seeing many things that could be quite scary. I happily wasn’t afraid. I simply observed. Now I understand that these things have been the work of Kali. I was not aware of the nine nights so I look forward to learning more on that.

    I am amazed that my awakening process held so many aspects of the eastern traditions, as well as my finding comfort from those beautiful poets that try to put into words these other-worldly experiences. I am extremely grateful to you Ivan, and always look forward to the poetry.

  5. Therese Monaghan O.P.on 09 Oct 2013 at 7:23 am

    Oh–this poem says so much and you,Ivan, have elucidated its meaning so beautifully. I particularly liked your statement about KALI –that aspect of the divine that “loves us too much to let us be comfortable with delusions and prods us to know ourselves and our true being.” Lately, I’ve felt that prodding and have been tempted to give in to
    various stabs of annoyances–holding on to to surface
    meanings. I’ve been moved to let go in freedom–this time!!!

  6. Ivan M. Grangeron 10 Oct 2013 at 8:47 am

    Dear Nitin,

    To answer your question about loss, I don’t want to diminish how difficult experiences of loss, or just generally feeling lost can be. We all go through those experiences to some extent, and sometimes they can deeply shake us. When I say that we go through loss in order to know that our true nature is not lost, I am trying to point out how loss can lead to deeper insight.

    Everything in the external world changes; that is simply the nature of existence. Objects and circumstances come and go in our lives, relationships change and evolve. So, to a degree, loss is hardwired into life experience. A loss, even a terrible loss, does not mean that something is “wrong” or “broken” in reality; it is part of the bittersweet wholeness of reality.

    BUT- when we go through loss enough times and choose to not close down or tighten up through the experience, when we keep the awareness and heart open, we begin to discover something else: There is a deeper, stable reality operating beneath it all. Beneath the comings and goings of life, beneath the lurching emotions they inspire, there is deep part of ourselves that remains somehow whole, unchanged, and surprisingly filled with bliss, even amidst loss. In this way loss can be used to recognize the changing nature of things, and then to see through them, and ultimately discover a fulness of being unchanged beneath the changes.

    This doesn’t mean that we should not feel healthy grief or pretend we don’t feel sadness when we do, but we should also remember that loss can be a profound pathway of awareness. Since it is there, we should use it in combination with wisdom and self-compassion.

    Much love.


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