Nov 11 2013
Where they feed the fire
English version by A. K. Ramanujan
In a brahmin house
where they feed the fire
as a god
when the fire goes wild
and burns the house
they splash on it
the water of the gutter
and the dust of the street,
beat their breasts
and call the crowd.
These men then forget their worship
and scold their fire,
O lord of the meeting rivers!
— from Speaking of Siva, by A K Ramanujan
I hope it is obvious that this poem is meant to make us laugh at an absurd turnabout. We have a proper brahmin house with a fire altar, and they are feeding that fire as a god. But the moment that god steps out of bounds and starts to burn things up, the worshippers are terrified and try to extinguish that god with gutter water.
Of course, there is a lot being said in this poem…
On the surface, the poem pokes fun at what the Virasaiva sect considered the idolatry of worshipping fire “as a god,” particularly doing so only when the fire stays within comfortable bounds. Yet “when the fire goes wild,” then the fire is instead treated like a dangerous, insentient force that must be suppressed. Suddenly the worshipper has set himself above his god!
On a deeper level, the fire here is the divine fire of bliss. Basavanna is chiding those who worship the sacred reality and mystical truth, but only so long as it is nice and neat and socially acceptable — intellectualized and not actually experienced directly. When the fire of bliss “goes wild” and “burns the house,” filling the awareness with the fire of the one all-consuming reality, then these casual worshippers become terrified and try to suppress this sacred process, denigrating the mystics and saints who embody this fiery truth.
They splash on it
the water of the gutter
and the dust of the street
They try to cover this blazing reality with an overwhelm of emotion, sensory experience, and mundane perception. They “call the crowd” and attempt to return to the limited consensus reality shared by the mass of people. Still identified with the ego, they feel threatened by this bliss-fire and, instead of dancing amidst the flames, they “forget their worship” and “scold their fire.”
So Basavanna challenges us to ask ourselves honestly: Do we worship only what is comfortable, a god of our making and under our control, a safely caged notion of the Divine? Or do we truly worship and hold nothing back as we recognize the blissful, blazing Reality?
Basava, sometimes referred to reverently as Basavanna or Basaveshwara, was a twelfth century devotee of Shiva and early organizer of the Virasaiva Lingayata sect in the Kannada-speaking regions of southern India.
The Virasaivas were a Shiva bhakti movement that rejected the elaborate ritualism and strict caste system of orthodox Hinduism which favored the wealthy, and instead emphasized direct mystical experience available to all through deep devotion to God. In this sense, the Virasaiva movement was a mystical protestant movement that also asserted social equality and justice for the poor. As Lingayatas they worship Shiva in the form of a linga, the stone symbol that represents God as creative generator of the universe or, more deeply, as a representation of the Formless taking form.
Basavanna was orphaned at a young age but adopted by a wealthy family with political connections. He received a good education but rejected a life of comfort and prestige to become a wandering ascetic dedicated to Shiva.
He received enlightenment at a sacred meeting of rivers. This is why all of Basavanna’s poems include a reference to Shiva as “the lord of the meeting rivers.” This also has a deeper, esoteric meaning relating to the subtle energies awakened in the yogi’s awareness.
However, he soon was given a divine command to return to worldly life. Basavanna initially resisted, but eventually yielded and returned to his adopted family. Before long he attained high political office while, simultaneously, forming the new populist mystical movement of Virasaivas into a coherent, egalitarian community. This community fostered many other great poet-saints, including Akka Mahadevi and Allama Prabhu.
This utopian community began to be seen as a threat to the orthodox religious and political forces, however, and they used the marriage between an outcaste man and a brahmin woman within the community as an excuse to kill several of its members. Basavanna urged a non-violent response, but the reflex for revenge was too strong among some of the community’s members. In the tense aftermath, the community couldn’t safely hold together and its members went in different directions.
Basavanna once again left politics and returned to his focus on the inner spiritual life.