Who is that Syama woman

by Ramprasad (Ramprasad Sen)

English version by Rachel Fell McDermott
Original Language Bengali

Who is that Syama woman
standing on Bhava?
All Her modesty gone,
She plays with Him
overturning sexual custom
by being on top.
Choked up,
waves of bliss sweeping over Her,
She hangs Her head and smiles --
Love incarnate!
The Yamuna, the heavenly Ganges, and between them
the honorable Sarasvati --
bathing at their confluence
confers great merit.
Here the new moon devours the blue moon,
like wind extinguishing fire.

Poet Ramprasad says,
Brahman is merely the radiance of Brahmamayi.
Stare at Her
and all your sins and pains
will vanish.

-- from Singing to the Goddess: Poems to Kali and Uma from Bengal, Translated by Rachel Fell McDermott

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

Okay, I know -- the first thing we notice in this poem is the sexual reference. What does Ramprasad mean when he says that the Goddess Kali (Syama) is "overturning sexual custom / by being on top"?

In the traditional imagery of Kali, the Goddess is portrayed as standing naked ("All Her modesty gone") because nothing in creation is capable of clothing her. She IS creation, all of manifestation.

When paired with Shiva as the masculine form of God, Shiva is portrayed as lying prone on the ground staring at Kali standing above him. In this masculine/feminine division of God, the male represents the essence, the inactive spiritual potential (thus, he is lying down), while the feminine is the active and visible manifestation (thus, she stands above him). Sometimes you will find this iconography portrayed in a more overtly sexual way, with the two in sexual union, but with Kali still on top. This is meant to suggest that even though we can divide awareness of the Divine into the potential essence (male) and the active principle (female), they are still One, in eternal union.

This is how Ramprasad can teasingly note that Syama or Kali, though the woman, overturns sexual custom by being the active sexual partner on top.

This divine union not only occurs on a universal level, but it also occurs within every individual. Kali is also equated with the Kundalini force that typically lies dormant at the base of the spine. But when the Kundalini is awakened, it (she) becomes active, and rises along the spine to the crown, where Shiva resides. This meeting of the two divine principles is the marriage bed or the wedding feast mentioned in many sacred traditions, including Christian mystical tradition.

Ramprasad speaks of this again using the imagery of three rivers: the Yamuna, the Ganges, and the Sarasvati. These are the three sacred rivers of India. The Yamuna and the Ganges still flow through the land and can be visited by pilgrims today. The Sarasvati is an ancient river that dried up thousands of years ago, and is now considered a river that only flows on a spiritual level. Understood esoterically, these three rivers represent aspects of the spiritual anatomy. The Yamuna and Ganges represent the ida and pingala, the left and right currents of energy that flow about the central spiritual channel of the shushumna (the Sarasvati). In Kundalini Yoga, the energies of the ida and pingala are balanced, opening the pathway of the central shushmna. The Kundalini force then rises along the shushumna to the crown -- the confluence, the meeting place. Bathing in the blissful waters that are discovered here indeed "confers great merit."

But there is a reversal that happens. Ramprasad says, "Here the new moon devours the blue moon..." The Goddess is not only the power of manifestation, She is also the Void (the darkness of the new moon); She is the Womb of Creation. That Void, that Nirvana, that no-thing-ness, is found to encompass everything, even the masculine light of the blue moon.

So Ramprasad turns the traditional teaching around and declares that Brahman (the masculine) is actually just a radiance of Brahmamayi (the feminine). That is, from his point of view, even the spiritual essence or light of the universe can only be measured against the vast backdrop of the Void that is the night sky.

Learn to see the utterly undefined stillness (the Goddess) that is the foundation of everything, "and all of your sins and pains / will vanish."

This is one of those poems that, when you look deeply into it, leaves you gasping for breath and, hopefully, devoured by the new moon.

Recommended Books: Ramprasad (Ramprasad Sen)

This Dance of Bliss: Ecstatic Poetry from Around the World Singing to the Goddess: Poems to Kali and Uma from Bengal Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar Mother of the Universe: Visions of the Goddess and Tantric Hymns of Enlightenment Great Swan: Meetings with Ramakrishna
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Who is that Syama