McDermott, Rachel Fell; Singing to the Goddess: Poems to Kali and Uma from Bengal; Oxford U.P., 2001. (208 pages)
McDermott, Rachel Fell; Mother of my Heart, Daughter of my Dreams: Kali and Uma in the Devotional Poetry of Bengal; Oxford U.P., 2001. (464 pages)
Review by Colin Robinson
Bengali Goddess songs and their cultural context
conclusions of a researcher of devotion
These two books are companion volumes, the results of years of research by an American academic from a Vedantist family background, conducted with the assistance of Indian scholars, priests and singers.
The shorter of the two, Singing to the Goddess, presents new translations of a selection of songs from the genre called shakta padabali, which was pioneered in the eighteenth century by Ramprasad Sen, and continued by Kamalakanta Bhattacarya and others -- Goddess-oriented lyrical verses composed in the Bengali language. McDermott acknowledges her debt to the translation style of Leonard Nathan and Clinton Seely, whose book Grace and Mercy in Her Wild Hair 1 is a selection of Ramprasad songs, but her own book contains more songs and more poets.
The longer book, Mother of My Heart, discusses the songs in terms of the cultural history that surrounds them: both the period prior to the birth of the genre, and especially the period since. The history involves oral transmission of the songs themselves and of stories about their composers; and it also involves the growth of a body of published literature in Bengali: anthologies of the songs, biographies of their creators, interpretations of their meaning.
For westerners interested in what Kali worship has meant in the last three centuries in its Bengali stronghold, this book is a treasure. I say this for two reasons, the first of which is the quantity of Bengali source material that the author cites: she has read a great number of books and talked with a great number of people. The second reason is the subtlety and clarity with which she interprets her material.
For instance, in her discussion of the historical origins of Ramprasads songs, she takes seriously Malcolm McLeans thesis that the songs express the outlook of Tantra rather than that of bhakti (devotionalism),2 but she reaches the more balanced conclusion that the songs are derived from both Shakta Tantra and Gaudiya Vaishnavism, with its conventions of devotional expression. (Mother of My Heart, p 172)
Yet McDermott is strongest when she is discussing, not the cultural history that precedes Ramprasad, but the cultural history that begins with him.
The element of oral transmission makes it difficult to distinguish which of the songs ascribed to Ramprasad are truly his own, and to distinguish history from legend in the published accounts of his life. McDermott wisely does not try; rather she addresses questions like when songs of various types were first published, and the similarities and differences in what biographers say. On questions like these she reaches some most interesting conclusions, for instance the following:
The earliest [-published] poems [ascribed to Ramprasad], especially in the publications of 1853-1855, 1862, and 1871, are full of references to Tantric practice and iconography... the later poems are shorter and blander... increasing de-Tantricized...The poet who concludes six of his songs in the earliest three collections with something akin to the taunting, tantalizing phrase, Shall I reveal this in public? Use my hints and figure it out yourself, is transformed in the later anthologies into a man who is not himself privy to the secret; he, like the gods deluded by Kalis power, cannot fathom her depth. (Mother of My Heart p 202)
Considering McDermotts interest in the relation between Tantra and the devotional songs, it is surprising that she hasnt looked at the writings of nineteenth century Bengali tantric Sibcandra Bidyarnab, or Siva Candra Vidyarnava to give his name its better known Sanskrit form. She does mention Sibcandra in passing as a sadhaka (Mother of My Heart, pp 145 - 146), but she doesnt seem to be aware that he discusses Ramprasads songs at length in a chapter of his Tantra-tattva.3 Nor does she seem to know that Siva Candra himself praises the Goddess poetically in a work called Gitañjali.4
Half a century ago, the great Indologist Heinrich Zimmer wrote of two portrayals of Kali: one terrifying; the other a paradox of terror and beauty.5
McDermott also writes of two portrayals of Kali, but with a difference: one is paradoxical, and the other is mild. According to her, it is the terrifying side of Kali which gets forgotten. There is a class of devotees who approach the worship of Kali in a manner like the worship of all other deities; universal, accessible and pleasing characteristics are attributed to her. Such bhaktas tend to downplay the dark side of Kalis nature. There are other devotees who insist on acknowledging the terrifying side, as Vivekananda does in his poem And let Syama dance there. (Mother of My Heart, p 291 - 292)
Why the difference between Zimmers two Kalis and McDermotts? The simple answer is that Zimmer specialized in the Sanskrit language, whereas McDermott has chosen Bengali. The Sanskrit writings of Indias Goddess tradition express the experience of an earlier historical period than the Bengali devotional songs. Zimmer and McDermott are talking about different epochs.
One point stands out. In both literatures, the Sanskrit and the Bengali, it is possible to find descriptions of the Kali who is dark and radiant: the one understood as the coincidence of opposites, and the font of compassion, as McDermott puts it in Singing to the Goddess (p 5).
Occasionally McDermotts interpretations of the literature are unconvincing, though she can be thought provoking even then. An instance is her interpretation of a passage in the first published account of the life of Ramprasad,6 a lively debate in verse between Ramprasad and the poet Aju Gonsai, a devotee of Krishna. McDermott says that this debate is less about religious identity than it is about the positive or negative results of world renunciation. Aju constantly pokes fun at Ramprasads esoteric self-exhortations to leave aside worldly attachments and plunge into the sea of knowledge. (Mother, p 46)
It is certainly true, and an important point, that the debate is not about religious identity as such: it is not a simple clash of allegiance between Kalis people and Krishnas. And McDermotts interpretation works well enough for the first pair of songs in the debate, where Ramprasad describes the world as a structure of illusion, and Aju counters that it is really a house of fun. Perhaps it works for the later pair of songs where Ramprasad sings about diving into an ocean and Aju says its more sensible to stay near the surface. But in another part of the debate it is Ramprasad who resolves to walk to the wishfulfilling tree that is Kali, and taste her four fruits: a tantric image of the four worldly and spiritual goals of human life.7 Aju then replies: Dont go anywhere... 8
Perhaps the real difference between the two poets is that Ramprasad sees spiritual life as a process involving effort, devotion expressed in action, as represented by the walk to the tree and the dive into the ocean; whereas Aju believes in simple bhakti, faith without works.
If devoted action is the path of Ramprasad, is it not also the path of McDermott? She wrote in her article The Western Kali:
From the standpoint of devotionalism, a thorough investigation into the many backgrounds of the beloved in her land of origin would be a true sign of love and reverence.9
This is the spirit that inspires Rachel McDermotts own books. You dont have to agree with every word in them to see that theyre the fruits, not only of hard work and a powerful intellect, but of love.
1 published by Great Eastern, Boulder, 1982.
2 McLean, Malcolm; Devoted to the Goddess, the Life and Work of Ramprasad; State University of NY Press, Albany NY, 1998.
3 Principles of Tantra [English translation of Vidyarnava,Siva Candra, Tantra-tattva ]; Ganesh, Madras, 1986 (Sixth Edition); Part II, Chapter 17.
4 Cited in Woodroffe, J. (ed); Principles of Tantra; Part I, pp 179 - 180 and 250 - 251.
5 Zimmer, Heinrich, and Campbell, Joseph; Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization; Princeton Bollingen Paperback Edition, Princeton, New Jersey, 1972; pp 211 - 216
6 The first published account of Ramprasads life, by Isvaracandra Gupta, has been translated into English in McLean, Devoted to the Goddess, pp 139 - 158.
7 The image is found in a passage of the Niruttara Tantra cited in Woodroffe, J. (ed); Principles of Tantra; Part I, p 242.
8 McLean, p 149.
9 McDermott, R. The Western Kali; in Hawley, John S. and Wulff, Donna M. (ed); Devi: Goddesses of India; University of California Press, 1996; p 302.
Review first published August 2002 in the journal Ferment
Revised for the Web 2007.
Review © Colin Robinson 2002.
Artwork © Colin Robinson 1999, 2007.