Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bhakti, Vol. 1

When I was first falling in love with Kali, I made a series of CDs (which Sophia, bless her, is now turning into playlists) called "Bhakti" after the Sanskrit word for devotion. I spent a good part of every day singing her these songs, usually on my morning commute but also while I was holed up in my home office huddled in front of the computer for aeons (the Assistant Professor years)... I took it literally when Teachers like Ramakrishna, Narada, Chaitanya, and Andrew Harvey said "Love Her." Taking it literally and loving Kali like an eighth-grade crush has been the greatest blessing I could have imagined.


I'm grateful to Sophia, my fellow Pilgrim, for resurrecting the Bhakti CDs and especially for the great conversations we're having about devotion and music and God...


"Green Onions" -- Booker T. & the MGs

This has always struck me as a goddess song; it sounds dark and mysterious, like some electro-sacred music played in a temple at 3:00 a.m. by magicians. It is the CD’s invocation.


"Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)" -- Edison Lighthouse

One of my favorite love songs! This is wonderfully lo-fi and brilliantly catchy. She is named “Rose” AND “Mary,” “Her hair is kind of wild and free” like Kali’s, and “She’s … got a magical spell,” which could be her all-attracting shakti or the spell of maya. Did I mention this is a musically perfect, great song???


"Annie’s Song" -- John Denver

The ultimate love song. This chick he’s singing to is elemental, man, and he’s just totally into her. In fact, she’s everywhere! “Let me die in your arms,” indeed. We read in the Bhagavad Gita (8:12-13), “Remembering me at the time of death, close down the doors of the senses and place the mind in the heart. Then, while absorbed in meditation, focus all energy upwards to the head. Repeating in this state the divine Name, the syllable Om that represents the changeless Brahman, you will go forth from the body and attain the supreme goal.”


"Kaya" -- Bob Marley

Bob does very spiritual music, and when I got into Kali I got into him seemingly as a side-effect. I used to love to sing this song in the car, at the top of my voice, re-phrasing the lyrics as “Got to have Kali now, got to have Kali now…” The substance about which Bob is singing has a time-honored place in the worship of Kali, too.


"Black Magic Woman" -- Santana

Tantra is associated with black magic and Kali is associated with magic, too. Trying to use divine shakti for selfish ends (mild black magic) or to harm others (serious black magic) are unfortunate paths some of Her children take; bhakti demands that we perform the far more difficult “magic” of transforming every event into a moment of God’s grace, of seeing Her in all of Her creation. Of course, we aren't doing this ourselves--only Kali can (un)weave Her maya into pure grace and highest love (prema), co-creating with Her children. Another song about an irresistible, sexxayy woman.


"Age of Consent" -- New Order

In this pop masterpiece, our narrator is supremely ambivalent: he wants to give the object of his obsession the kiss-off, wants to cut her loose and be done with her, but—he can’t leave her alone for a second. This is like the ambivalence I felt in the early days of loving Kali; She was totally fascinating and beautiful and Her world seemed one of infinite, ornate bliss, yet—did I really want to be “religious” and have to “surrender” and all that yucky stuff? Plus, She, and my first teacher, Mother Meera, were scary! What if They led me places I didn’t want to go? But like this song, She was sweeter than sugar and Her melody wrapped around me like a silk scarf...a Thuggee scarf???


"Dancing Queen" -- ABBA

This might be the ultimate pop song ever. Or maybe the ultimate pop song ever is "Silly Love Songs," but that's on Bhakti, Vol. 2. In myth, Kali not only dances, but She’s the Queen. 3:53 of pure pop ecstasy is the best flower of all to lay at Her Majesty’s feet, short of one’s own life.


"Learning to Fly" -- Tom Petty

During my initial period of devotion, it really did feel like I was learning to fly. Such joy, such divine light at the heart of things seemed impossible, and a fall always seemed imminent. She, however, promised that the more I grounded myself in Her, the more I opened my heart to Her, the higher She’d take me.


"(They Long to Be) Close to You" -- The Carpenters

Another classic love song, one of the best pop songs ever penn’d. This one’s got it all: angels, moon dust, starlight, birds (suddenly appearing). The Beloved in this song is omni-attractive, like Kali: everyone and everything gravitates to Her. As Vivekananda said, when people lust after other people, or after power or money or fame or beauty, they are really desiring God.


"The Caterpillar" -- The Cure

Evolution!


"I Want to Take You Higher" -- Sly & the Family Stone

This is what God is saying to us all the time. When we take Her up on it is when we’re truly happy.


"You Sexy Thing" -- Hot Chocolate

Puzzled yet intrigued by my rock-jawed, smoldering Shakta eroticism, Sophia asked me, very astutely, “How can God be sexy?” I think the classic iconography of Kali as a shapely, naked woman is (uh, kinda patriarchal) shorthand for Her being all-attractive, as God is said to be in Hinduism—no one can resist God. She is sexualized in Shakta iconography because sexuality is one of our strongest, most primal human energies, an energy we must re-direct heavenward if we are to fully surrender to Her. Sex is also a metaphor for our relationship with God: passion, surrender, union, creation, co-evolution…hence, the interlocked tantric triangles. “Did you know, you’re everything I’ve prayed for … I believe in miracles.”


"Pick Up the Pieces" - Average White Band

Mary… Inanna… Freya… Oya… Kali… Isis… the Divine Mother. Not to be too Jungian about it, but I really do believe She has been worshiped and loved across time and space, and to some extent Her mythologies cohere into a grand story of love—She and Her divine consort, the Creation. Kali and Shiva, Isis and Osiris—in both myths, the female is active and the male is passive, the female is order and the male is chaos. She restores us; She brings order, She puts us together. In Egyptian myth, Osiris is dismembered and Isis seeks his body parts far and wide, picking up the pieces and putting them back together, re-creating him (and, significantly, refashioning his phallus) and making him better than before—just as She does for us, for Her creation.


"She’s Got a New Spell" -- Billy Bragg

Since this was the first bhakti CD, I freighted it with some of my very favorite songs, including this one, an ode to a magical woman who “cut the stars out of the sky / And baked them in a pie.” The lines about “the scene and the scenery / The script and the machinery” make me think of the play of maya, how the play of experience is Her whim and subject to change and (per)mutation.


"Strawberry Letter #23" -- The Brothers Johnson

Another great love song, a funkin’ slab of 70s (post-) psychedelia. The lyrics portray a phantasmagoric fairyland while the music creates that fairyland through echo, phasing, and chorused vocals. For me, as a teenager listening to this song, as improbable or as hokey as it sounds, just the simple word "strawberry" conjured up a shimmering erotic vision of peasant-bloused Rock Chicks drifting amid the sickly gauze of berry incense that always burned in that noted Kali temple called The Infinite Mushroom (a head shop in Orlando complete with velvet Dayglo Hendrix posters and bead curtains). Ahh, the mysteries: of paisley, of sweet smoke, of dangerous herbs and long hippie dresses and chunky hippie legs... I couldn't have known these were second-hand mysteries, borrowed or warmed over from a livelier time, Hashbury magic to ward off leisure suit-ism... they shone like fairy lights, like letters on strawberry-scented paper from a far-away lover. Which in a sense they were: Kali was in that smoke, beckoning me beyond polyester, beyond the Bee Gees, beyond Electric Ladyland even, to realms unthought.


"Super Freak" -- Rick James

“She will never let your spirits down,” and “she’s got incense, wine, and candles.” I’m there! Rick James’s ├╝ber-ho, in my imagination, becomes the wildly dancing, sensuous Lady of the Cremation Ground, worshiped in all acts of love and pleasure, who “is said to be intoxicated all the time” (Kinsley, Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine 89) The song’s hard, relentless groove befits one Who wields sword and trident.


"I Only Want to Be With You" -- Dusty Springfield

I’ve already mentioned about 25 of the “best love songs ever,” so what do I say about this, the great Dusty Springfield’s first single, a song that stomps the emotional gas pedal with the hysteria of a period when love songs knew no ambiguity, no hesitation, no nuance, amen. That makes it perfect for a bhakti collection, and the simple-minded lyrics are perfect for one who wishes to court God.


"All You Need Is Love" -- The Beatles

If you could boil the bhakti tradition down to one line, this would be it.


"Sitting" -- Cat Stevens

This song’s classical beauty and forward-looking lyrics made it a logical candidate to end the CD. Cat Stevens’s passion as a singer is a wonder to hear, and his voice seems to bear all the joyous pain of one whose Beloved is dragging him to “the waterside,” a Lethean place of transformation, of death and resurrection. The song’s punchline (“You’re going to wind up where you started from”) hints that in devotion to God we learn to live where we are, learn to find Her in the here and now; it also echoes Eliot’s Four Quartets. The real mystery, in this song and on the spiritual path, lies not hidden in the Himalayas, but on the other side of the door.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry about the immense font; I know it violates the WiHW style sheet. Ahh, Blogger...

    ReplyDelete