Monday, May 3, 2010

Kalibhakta Sutra, Part Four

Verse 4:
Clothe Her if you will, but always desire Her naked.

Vibhakti paramatman, matta bhaktih.

The verse is impossible to translate literally. Vi- is an intensifier but also has the connotation of "dissolution." Matta has meanings of, according to Monier-Williams, intoxication, madness, sexual abandon, wild joy.

The verse is a sly parody of a Hindu proverb: Parabhakti paramatman, sukha bhaktih ("The most intense devotion leads to oneness with the highest realm of divinity, but even a little devotion sweetens life."). Kalibhakta, a staunch adherent of the devotional (bhakti) tradition, seems to vaunt that tradition here, even as he reminds us that ultimate Godhead has no form-- the basic tenet of the advaita tradition. Bhakti is almost always focused on some specific form of God, and so it "clothes" the formless Infinite in an image, in personality and emotion. For this reason, bhakti is considered by the sages to be the most accessible and effective spiritual path, as its personalizing of God makes steady practice easier and intensifies the aspirant's spiritual state. Advaita, on the other hand, is a much more difficult path due to the challenge of abandoning all concepts and ideas about God.

The verse hints, however, that as one progresses on the spiritual path advaita is inevitable, as one begins to see God in more and more of the world, finally attaining the sense of Her presence in all phenomena. In the "unclothing" of advaita, it is not only God who sheds all conceptual form, but concepts themselves fall away, as does the aspirant's own self. Kalibhakta seems to say: follow the path you like best, worship the image of God that appeals to you most ("clothe" God with that image), but don't let the particulars of an image, the details of theology, or the rituals of worship deaden your sense of adoration and joy in all of creation. One of Kalibhakta's teachers, Mother Meera, was fond of saying that no matter how much of God we have enjoyed, no matter how exalted a spiritual state She may have graced us with, there is always more, always higher. That itself would be a good translation of the spirit of this verse.

Vibhakti can mean "intense devotion" but also means "grammatical case." As a word in Sanskrit takes on different cases, and therefore different forms, according to its role in various sentences, so do we give God various forms through our religious ideologies. These ideologies, in turn, shape us and shape our world, as the words in a sentence shape its meaning. Somewhat esoterically, the grammatical imagery refers to Kali, "She Who is words," according to the Sri Kali Sahasranamam (1000 Names of Kali). Kali is often depicted wearing a garland of the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet.

Language can serve as a door to the Divine, but not as a substitute for It. Hinduism, like most religions, places much emphasis on scripture, but it is somewhat unusual in that it recognizes that scripture is limited, human-produced, and thus unable to convey or contain ultimate truth. Eventually, the aspirant reaches the stage at which scriptures, rituals, and devotion itself fall away into uselessness. As Ramprasad wrote: "
Rituals and devotions have grown profitless for me / My sleep is broken .... For now I am wide awake .... I have discarded, once and for all, / both righteousness and sin." Kalibhakta cautions us, though, in his correspondence, that "Anyone who tells you they're in this state isn't in it." We assume he excused Ramprasad from this dictum.

Of course, the verse's sexual undertone is what makes it controversial and what, ironically, led to Kalibhakta's expulsion from a well-known school of Tantric Hinduism. Kalibhakta here, echoing Sontag, calls us away from endless interpretation of dead texts and towards an "erotics" of religion, as he also does in the next verse. Of course, sexuality is only one side of the verse; the reader is also, very importantly, urged to love the Divine Mother for What She Is, even when Her unfolding is wildly playful or chaotic (see previous verse). Wishful thinking, however comforting, can only lead to distorted and ultimately dangerous religious ideas.


  1. Vibhakti can mean "intense devotion" but also means "grammatical case." Wow! That's quite a stretch and gives one pause - dare I step through that door? You do- and point out: Kali - "She Who is words"
    I pause again. I pause once more.
    It's been a while since I checked in with Kalibhakta. I need to visit more often!

  2. Hi, Pat! I'm so glad to see you...