Subramanya Bharathi: The Cosmic Vision Of A Tamil Poet

Subramanya Bharathi: The Cosmic Vision Of A  Tamil PoetSubramanya Bharathi 
  • Subramanya Bharathi did not know quantum mechanics or theory of relativity, but he was sensitive to the way science was expanding our understanding of the universe.

    On the 136 birth anniversary of the poet, today, it will be fascinating to know how he related science to the Hindu darshanas to weave for himself a cosmic vision.

Tamil poet Subramanya Bharathi (1882-1921) lived in tumultuous times. His family lived in poverty, which was magnified by Bharathi’s nonchalance towards alleviating ‘material’ penury. The anecdote about Bharathi throwing food grain (meant for the family’s next meal and that was borrowed from a neighbour) to the sparrows and bursting into a song on seeing their happiness, perhaps, best summarises his personality.

When the Indian independence movement was oscillating between phases of vigour, dullness and momentum, Bharathi sang for political freedom and emancipation from social stagnation. His radical humanism was rooted in advaitic (non-dualism) Vedanta as he battled against the evils of caste system and subjugation of women. He, at the same time, sang about the universe - from the movement of the galaxies to the storms in his coastal town. Non-dualism bubbled in his verses.

Mahakavi Bharathi and his wife Chinnammaal
Mahakavi Bharathi and his wife Chinnammaal

He was a ‘Shaktic Advaitin’ who saw the dance of Kali in all movements and the entire existence as a dynamic motion. His poems on the universe and nature never fail to astound for the prototypical knowledge they expounded, and what C P Snow would call ‘third culture’ in his essay written 42 years after the death of Bharathi.

Here is one such poem of his:

In the forest of time,
Pattern that is this universe is a tree;
In that tree roams Kali-Shakthi the bee
Buzzing the sound ‘Hrim’
With Athuvaas primordial as its six legs,
So sing the seers ancient
Who witnessed this bee fiery;
Spatial dimensions and directions
Worlds terrestrial and celestial
They are all Shakthi flooding
All theses wonders its deceptions ..
. [The glory of Mahakali]

Through these enigmatic lines, the poet creates a profound cosmic and inner imagery. He visualised Goddess Kali-Shakthi as a bee with six legs. The six legs are the six athuvaas (steps) which are the six principles that help the being move towards the Shiva consciousness of non-duality - a ‘Shaivaite-Shakthic’ concept. Of these six athuvaas, (which are the three pairs of the insect legs), three are principles of idealist universe while the other three are the principles of material universe.

The bee roams this forest of time making the ‘hrim’ sound. Here, Bharathi connects with the imagery in Tamil Shaivaite sacred text Thirumanthiram (usually assigned to the fifth century CE). This particular verse describes the goddess as the meta-creatrix of the basic principles of physical universe. She is of the pranava form and the one who is green in colour and who emits through her feet the five forms of Shiva after which she abides with the ‘hrim’ sound (verse 1073). The green nature of the goddess, the forest imagery and the ‘hrimmantra provide the link to Thirumanthiram.

Then the poem moves from time to space. Here the goddess is Shakti, the pure flood of energy. This flood flows to all the directions and fills all the spatial dimensions for both the terrestrial and celestial worlds. The bee with athuvaas as legs relate to the individual atman, while as Kali-Shakti and again as the Shakti, floods that form and fills the spatial dimensions and all directions, the bee is also the Brahman.

Then there is the inner knot the poetry places. Does the goddess as the bee of consciousness also create the forest of time?

That is not all. Bharathi provides here an extraordinary reversal of conventional imagery of space and time. Generally, across the cultures time is visualised as a river. It is fluid. We speak about the flow of time and usually it is linear. Even in the famous paintings of surrealist painter Salvador Dali, both ‘The Persistence of Memory’ (1931) and ‘The Dissolution of the Persistence of Memory’ (1954), one can see the fluid nature of time being depicted.

The fluid nature of time comes from the perception of time as a flow. The poem reverses the conventional image that we have of time and space here. Time here has been turned into a landscape - a forest - while the space has been transformed into waters (of a flood).

Bernardo Kastrup and David Eagleman
Bernardo Kastrup and David Eagleman

Bernardo Kastrup is a computer scientist specialising in artificial intelligence. Having worked in some of the world’s foremost laboratories including CERN, he also authored books on philosophy and science. He writes regularly for Scientific American on the web. In his recent article, he visualises time as a landscape. He writes:

The ostensible experience of temporal flow is thus an illusion. All we ever actually experience is the present snapshot, which entails a timescape of memories and imaginings analogous to the landscape of valley and mountains. Everything else is a story. The implications of this realization for physics and philosophy are profound. Indeed, the relationship between time, experience and the nature of reality is liable to be very different from what we currently assume …     
‘Do We Actually Experience the Flow of Time?’, Scientific American, 14-Nov-2018: 

Kastrup bases his arguments in that article on the works of the famous neuroscientist David Eagleman, who, studying the perception of time by the brain states that ‘the days of thinking of time as a river — evenly flowing, always advancing — are over’. So time perception ‘is a construction of the brain and is shockingly easy to manipulate experimentally.’ So he concludes:

Most of our current theoretical frame works include the variable t in a Newtonian, river-flowing sense. But as we begin to understand time as a construction of the brain, as subject to illusion as the sense of color is, we may eventually be able to remove our perceptual biases from the equation. Our physical theories are mostly built on top of our filters for perceiving the world, and time may be the most stubborn filter of all to budge out of the way.     
David Eagleman, ‘Brain Time’:

So the depiction of time as a forest landscape by Bharathi provides a poetic premonition of what neuroscience would discover about time perception almost a century after his time.

Forms of Kali whether in calendar art or tribal art - are enigmatic and imbibed with layers of meaning and also transcend meaning.
Forms of Kali whether in calendar art or tribal art - are enigmatic and imbibed with layers of meaning and also transcend meaning.

In the liturgy of the hundred names of Adya Kali called Adya Kalikadevyah Satanama Stotram which is part of Mahanirvana Tantra, ‘hrim’ is the mantra of Kali; She is Kalika because she devours time (Mahakala); She is Kalamata - mother of time. The puranic imagery of Kalika devouring time needs to be contrasted with Chronos, the deity of time, devouring all his children, in the context mentioned by Bohm. Here, the time itself gets devoured. It is moving beyond the time. Dr Wendell C Beane, a professor of religion, crystallises the way time stands in relation to the goddess:

The goddess Durga-Kali is, then, cosmologically, soteriologically, and eschatologically related to the phenomenon of time as manifest being: (a) she, as Prakrti, is the source of being as time (Kali); (b) she, as Mahamaya, is the redemptrix of time as power (Sakti); and (c) she as Mahakali is the destroyer of time as Siva.
Wendell C Beane, The Cosmological Structure of Mythical Time: Kali-Sakti , History of Religions, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Aug., 1973), pp. 54-83

With the bee of consciousness - which is simultaneously matter and non-matter and also Atman and Brahman - roaming in the forest of time, there is also a delicate but deliberate morphing of physical and psychological time here. What happens to the flow of time when it is realised that such a perception of the flow has been an illusion? Does and can time end then? This is the ending of psychological time.

J Krishnamurti and David Bohm, 1980 dialogues: ‘The Ending of Time’
J Krishnamurti and David Bohm, 1980 dialogues: ‘The Ending of Time’

The dialogue between Bohm and Krishnamurti that happened in 1980 centred around precisely this topic, later published as a book The Ending of Time. In the course of the conversation, Bohm points out that in Greek mythology Chronos devours his children. So, the ultimate end of being is in time. Time kills all. Krishnamurti and Bohm agree that it is not the whole story. There is a need to connect to “a ground or a source from which all things begin ... Matter, human beings, their capacities, the whole movement starts from there." In the entire discussion on the ‘ending of time’ one can see both Bohm and Krishnamurti come closer and closer to Hindu darshana of sankhya.

In that conversation, Krishnamurti speaks of thought as "a material process in the brain" and speaks of "any other movement, springing from that material process", as "still material”. Then Bohm and Krishnamurti speak of "insight" which as against "material thought", is independent of "the material process, which is thought". Krishnamurti explains further: “The material process is working in darkness, in time, in knowledge, in ignorance and so on. When insight takes place there is the dispelling of that darkness.” So the "insight" has "no time" and is "not the product of time" as time is "memory, remembrance and so on". Nevertheless, "insight being free of time acts upon memory, acts upon thought which is rational”.

Bharathi goes a step further. He seeks not to have the movement of end of thought but get it attuned with what Bohm and Krishnamurti call as “insight". Bharathi wrote an epic on the vow made by Draupadi and in the Sarasvati Vandhana written for it (for the second part), he spoke of the endless movement of the mind and related it to the material movement. However, here he wanted the movement of mind to be permeated with arul of the goddess.

Ceaseless move the atoms,
Sing the physicists;
So do the stars
Say the astronomer;
If ceaseless movement is
The nature of all matter
Then will not my mind
Work ceaseless with your arul

Arul is a non-translatable Tamil word. Christian missionaries like G U Pope who wanted to reduce Hindu darshana terms to categories in Christian theology, translated it as ‘grace’. The trend continues to this day and many Tamil Hindus unaware of the Christian theological package innocently use ‘grace’ for arul. Don Handelman and David Shulman of Jerusalem University point out that while “there is an unfortunate tendency to translate this critical term, in nearly every context, as ‘grace,’ with its heavy Christian connotations" arul actually "approximates a notion of coming into being or freely becoming present, close, alive ... a Shakti active and female aspect of Siva”. Pointing out that arul is not grace but an emergent presence” they elaborate, that “it or she is dynamic and oriented toward freedom…an experiential process of full, unconstricted potentiality." (Siva in the Forest of Pines, OUP, 2004, pp.40-1)

In these verses, Bharathi makes the movement of the atoms, galaxies and stars and the movement of the mind as basically the same - as the movement of matter. Needless to say that this is derived from Sankhya Darshana. With the mind he wants it to also access the arul which is "an emergent presence ...oriented towards freedom”. Here, Bharathi’s verses musically render the essence of the discussion that Bohm and Krishnamurti had almost six decades after his death. The endless movement of mind is, of course, material but then Bharathi points out that arul or what Bohm and Krishnamurti call the "insight" can energise it.

In both Bohm and Krishnamurti, and Kastrup and Eagleman what is being dealt with is the psychological time. This makes the entire Shaktic tradition even more relevant.

Arunagirinathar a sixteenth century mystic poet calls the goddess 'Kalandhari’ - She who ends time in the context of her providing "the bliss of non-duality" while "abiding in the cave of one’s own being”. Thus as pure consciousness, Shaktic traditions hold her as the one who ends the psychological time. She is hence both the ground and end of time. Bharathi’s poem sees a blurring of boundary between physical and psychological time - something that the new physics may well agree with.

Sankarankovil is a dusty taluk a few miles from Bharathi’s hometown in Tirunelveli. In an unfinished poem, Bharathi sings in praise of the goddess there - Gomathi . In fact, he was writing in his own verses the sthala purana of the place where the goddess is immersed in penance. And in the song he provides a cosmic vision which clearly envisions through poetry future developments in cosmology.

Innumerable the universes
So reveal many sciences,
Akasha emanating light
Verily a vast ocean,
An ocean that has no boundaries
Either here or there or anywhere
From within this ocean here and there
Many bubbles like, countless worlds arise
Accelerating fast into space pure,
Exhilarating, Astonishing
This cosmic vision magnificent
Oh seekers of knowledge true,
Realize Its real essence Para-Siva Sakthi!
(The Glory of Gomathi)

The universe as a bubble had been suggested in Einstein’s models. Einstein, however, considered the universe as static. Explaining the model of the universe emerging then, British astronomer Sir James Jeans wrote that the universe was analogous to the soap bubble. But we are not inside the bubble but on its surface. While the surface of the bubble is two dimensional, the surface of the universe is four dimensional (space-time) and "the substance out of which this bubble is blown, the soap-film, is empty space welded on to empty time". (1930, p.100).

Much water has flown in the river Cauvery since James Jeans wrote those words and along with that have gone many cosmological models. Now cosmologists speak of bubble universes in an inflationary multiverse. Physicist Michio Kaku speaks of "a grand synthesis" in which "our universe may be compared to a bubble floating in a much larger ocean with new bubbles forming all the time':

...universes, like bubbles forming in boiling water, are in continual creation, floating in a much larger arena, the Nirvana of eleven-dimensional hyperspace.
Parallel Worlds: A Journey through creation, higher dimensions and the future of the cosmos, 2004, p.5

Here, it is not hard to see how Bharathi’s lines are echoed in Michio Kaku’s own poetic description of modern cosmology.

There is a need for caution here. Bharathi did not predict science. He did not know quantum mechanics or theory of relativity. Nevertheless he was sensitive to the way science was expanding our understanding of the universe. Without getting into the specifics he was able to relate it to the Hindu darshanas to weave for himself a cosmic vision - that astonishingly reverberates with even the vision we continue to have of the universe, outer and inner, today through science. One wonders what we would have got if he had had the opportunity, without all those cyclonic agitation against colonialism and fight for social reforms, (not to mention poverty his family was immersed in), to study the advances in theoretical physics and other sciences, and then allow himself to be inspired by those discoveries and worldviews.

The ability of Hindu darshana traditions like the Shaktic and Shaivaite Advaita to produce such variety of intense imagery which are even counter-intuitive to the "naive realism" is important. It does not matter if the parallel universe proposal, the quilted multiverse, cyclic multiverse and numerous other cosmologies that bubble out of the equations, turn out to be true or false. What is important is the ability to fire the imagination, pushing the limits of reason to understand the universe that turns out to be stranger and mysterious with every new discovery. What Bharathi achieved in poetry, the inspiration and imagination, surely can be achieved in science and other art forms. Hindu tradition has been integrating them into poetry and daily contemplation.

In the poetry of Bharathi, we see how this deep meditations into nature of reality also go out through art and literature into the popular culture and mind of India. The poetry of Bharathi shows how we can understand the worldview unveiled by science in the backdrop of our darshanas and our darshanas in the backdrop of the universe emerging through scientific exploration. This provides us with the means to enrich the minds of the younger generations and root them in a fertile, open and pluralist substratum of both epistemology and ontology. The verses of Bharathi provide us poetry that deepens our own understanding of the universe, outer and inner. Are we in a position to realise the full potentialities of his poetry?

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.


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