A Bhakti Song and the Making of a Mahatma
Bhakti, the Indic term generally translated as “devotion”, has many connotations including “adoring,” “sharing,” and “belonging.” While often discussed as a mental or emotional state, bhakti becomes manifest only in a bhakta – a devotee. Who is an ideal bhakta? What is the definition of a person in whom all aspects of bhakti are embodied? Hindu bhakti texts in Sanskrit such as the Bhagavata Purana contain definitions of a devotee. They are read and commented upon. But what would it be like to have the definition that itself is embodied? What would be its form? A fifteenth century poet from Gujarat in western India gave it as a song, a definition to be performed. The poet, Narasinha Mehta, is also honored as a saint and an ardent devotee of Krishna whose life is remembered in numerous narratives in diverse languages of India. The saint-poet composed devotional songs in the language of the common people and is believed to have sung them in the company of the marginalized people – women and people from lower castes including those considered “untouchable.” Thus, the man who embodied bhakti gave a definition of what that embodiment should ideally be in the performative genre of song to be transmitted in people’s voices. The song, which defines a bhakta first and foremost in terms of human empathy, has been popular for centuries. But in the twentieth century, another Gujarati – Gandhi – found deep inspiration in it and made it his own musical emblem. Since then, it has been circulating in international circuits as an anthem of peace. This talk is about that song and its definition of embodied love for the divine and importantly, for humans.