Jun 30 2014
The eating bowl is not one bronze
English version by A. K. Ramanujan
The eating bowl is not one bronze
and the looking glass another.
Bowl and mirror are one metal
Giving back light
one becomes a mirror.
Aware, one is the Lord’s;
unaware, a mere human.
Worship the lord without forgetting,
the lord of the meeting rivers.
— from Speaking of Siva, by A K Ramanujan
/ Photo by Gaetan Lee /
Bronze is a soft metal, easily shaped. It can be hammered into a bowl or flattened and polished, forming a simple mirror.
Basava is playing with a traditional teaching metaphor in this poem: both the bowl and the mirror are made of bronze. Mentally we label them as being different, but fundamentally they are the same substance, “one metal.”
The bronze can be understood to represent God. All beings, all things are made of the same substance, though we mentally distinguish them by outer shape. The only substantial difference between the eating bowl and the mirror is the form they have taken on. We can say that the mirror has recognized its nature as a bronze object. The nature of bronze, when straight and polished, is to give back light.
We are all constructed of the same God-stuff. When we become aware of our nature and polish ourselves we give back light and become a mirror.
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.