The notion of fusing sexuality with religious devotion strikes many readers as surprising, but it is in fact an ancient theme, common in a wide variety of mystical traditions. In all of them the union of human and divine is expressed through metaphors of lovemaking.
Source: From For Love of the Dark One: Songs of Mirabai, tr. Andrew Schelling (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), pp. 51, 89, 39, 48.
The Hindu tradition contains many traditions of mystical eroticism. The world is created through a sexual act, Kali/Durga embodies the combined activities of death and procreation, Kama is a famous god (the Sanskrit sex manual Kama Sutra is named after him), but perhaps the most widely-known figure connected with such images is Krishna, renowned for his love of the gopis.
The 16th-century mystical poet Mirabai is famous for her life-long devotion to Krishna. She identified herself poetically with his consort, Radha, rejected the husbands who were forced on her, and wandered the land with a band of like-minded women, singing their songs of praise for their god/lover. One tradition says that she spent some time at the court of Akbar the Great, the Mogul ruler of North India who lavishly supported the arts. Although Muslim by background, he was interested in all religious traditions, and tried to create a synthesis from Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. However her fame developed, it has lasted to this day. Her songs are performed devotionally, but also as entertainment, live and in popular films.
Dancing Before Him
This poem relates to the tradition of Bharata Natayam which was carried on by temple dancers throughout India at temples devoted to the worship of Krishna until they were banned by the British on the grounds that they commonly also served as prostitutes. In fact most did support themselves by sleeping with customers at the temples, but this was considered a traditional and legitimate part of their function, explicitly endorsed by the god. Their dancing, however, was performed for the god himself. The dancer would often sleep overnight beneath Krishna’s image, and elaborate dances were performed ritually in which the dancer communed directly with the god without any other audience being permitted. After a long hiatus, this form of dancing has been revived as an art form, with respectable young women reviving the tradition in concert halls and on television; but dancing in temples has not been resumed. Like the temple dancers, Mirabai here identifies with Radha and the Gopis who danced together with Krishna during his life on earth. The blue-skinned Krishna is often referred to as the “Dark One.” What is Mirabai’s attitude toward conventional social reputation? What religious significance would her attitude have? How does she express the intimacy of her identification with Krishna?
Let them gossip
How is the belief in reincarnation reflected in this poem? What do you thinking “awaking” consists in? The miracle in which Krishna protected his home village from an angry god by sheltering it beneath a mountain is referred to in the next to last line.
Come to my bedroom
This invitation to bed is reminiscent of some passages in the Song of Songs. fs20 In what way does Mirabai’s relationship with Krishna go beyond a human marriage?
Yogin, don’t go
“Yogin” is one of Krishna’s many titles. Here Mirabai offers to immolate herself on a funeral pyre, committing an act of sati to unite herself with Krishna as if she were his widow. Rubbing ashes over the body is a common symbolic gesture recognizing the unity of life and death. In what way do the final lines express Mirabai’s yearning for complete union with the god?
Persian Sufi Poetry
The majority tradition of Islam generally rejects mysticism. It is considered very presumptuous to aspire to unite with God. He is to be revered, praised and obeyed, not embraced. Islam’s rejection of any notion of divine incarnation underlines the distance between mortal believer and immortal object of worship. Yet within Islam mystical traditions proliferated, including many varieties of sufism. Some concentrate on meditative dancing designed to induce a trance (carried out by the “whirling dervishes”). Whereas many Muslims are deeply suspicious of music as a frivolous diversion (the call to prayer is never called a “song”), Sufis ecstatically sing ghazels for hours at a time in praise of God. Sufi poets are among the most famous and influential throughout the Islamic world, the most prominent writing in Persian.
Hafiz: If that Tartar, that fair-skinned Turk of Shiraz
From Peter Avery & John Heath-Stubbs, trans. Hafiz of Shiraz: Thirty Poems London: John Murray, 1952, pp. 22-23.
Hafiz’ poems strike Westerners as extremely secular in their enthusiastic praise of wine, music, and lovemaking; and yet they have been understood from the earliest times to be religious allegories of ecstatic union of God. Although wine is forbidden to Muslims by the Qur’an, intoxication is the favorite spiritual metaphor of the Sufi poets. Supremely delicious but nonintoxicating wines will flow freely in paradise, according to Islamic belief. Mysticism provides a foretaste of such wine. Here Hafiz daringly expresses his love for God through the vehicle of desire for a handsome young man. Homosexuality is generally rejected by Islam, but it is a commonplace subject for literature. Hafiz begins by expressing his willingness to trade two rich Islamic cities just for the mole on the cheek of his beloved. He then asks for the wine, and daringly implies that this earthly vintage surpasses that which awaits the faithful in Paradise. The Turks are evidently troops stationed in his city: their pillaging of the shops is compared to the stealing of hearts. What religious meaning might be extracted from the lines: “Such beauty has no need of our clumsy love:/No more than a lovely face needs pen cil or make-up”? How does the rejection of reason fit in with mystical religious views? Joseph [Arabic “Iusuf”] was a handsome young Hebrew who worked for the high Egyptian official Potiphar. Potiphar’s wife fell in love with him and tried to seduce him. When he rejected her, she accused him of rape and had him put in jail. The story is told in Genesis 39 of the Bible and in Sura 12 (“Joseph”) of the Qur’an, but later Muslim writers developed the story much further. The wife is named Zuleika, and her relationship to Joseph is developed into a complex romance with many episodes. The young man’s beauty is especially emphasized. The next stanza makes clear that the them here is rejection returned by love. The mystical lessons conveyed by God are to be prized more than the worshipper’s own soul. Finally, Hafiz asks for his poem, compared to a pearl necklace, to be accepted by God by asking for it to be showered with the stars of heaven.
Rumi: They say that Paradise will be perfect
From John Moyne & Coleman Barks, trans. Open Secret: Versions of Rumi. Putney, Vermont: Threshold Books, 1984, no. 802, p. 43.
Rumi is one of the best-loved of all Sufi poets. According to the Qur’an, Paradise will provide delicious wine and beautiful young women and men to delight the saved. Given that we know Rumi was devout, what is he implying about the relationship between pleasure in this world and pleasure in the next? Why do you suppose he neglects (like most writers) to mention the beautiful young men in Paradise?
Hildegard of Bingen: O Ecclesia
From A Feather on the Breath of God, Hyperion CDA66039, Track 8.
Hildegard of Bingen was an altogether remarkable woman in many ways. One of the few avenues to prominence for a woman in Medieval Europe was through church office. Hildegard reached the highest office open to a woman as Abbess of the Abbey of Bingen in Germany. She was made a saint because of her intense spiritual visions of union with God which she described in rapturous Latin poetry. She described these visions to the nuns in her care, who rendered them in striking paintings illuminating her works. Modern German nuns created faithful replicas of these paintings which were preserved when the originals were destroyed in the bombing of World War I. It is these replicas which are the source of all modern illustrations often misleadingly labelled as “the art of Hildegard.”
Though she may not have been a painter, she was accomplished in other fields. She wrote a treatise on medicinal herbs which displayed profound learning. But she is remembered today chiefly as a composer. Bingen was far from such centers of Church composition as Paris, and she developed a highly-original style of chant involving extraordinarily wide leaps and soaring lines which clearly echo her mystical leanings. Much of this music has been recorded and it is becoming more and more widely known each year. Recently a hit recording was created by blending authentic performances of her songs with world beat/new age backgrounds. Like other Christian mystics, she frequently uses erotic imagery, often from the Song of Songs, to convey her sense of spiritual exaltation.
In the introductory stanza, Ecclesia is the Church, personified as a beautiful woman. The opening stanza clearly echoes the language of the Song of Songs. Note the emphasis on sound, appropriate for a poet/composer. Despite being referred to, like most plainchant, by its first line, a more appropriate title for this work would be “Hymn to St. Ursula,” an early Christian martyr whose story is exceedingly obscure and confused. In all versions, however, it is clear that like , she clung to her virginity, wed only to Christ (that is, to God in the person of the Son). Nuns go through a marriage ceremony in which they don rings signifying their spiritual marriage to the Lord. Those pressuring her to marry (according to some stories, a pagan tribe trying to force her to wed one of their princes), mock her in a way which she interestingly reacts to as a kind of harsh music. Hildegard’s version of her story seems to imply that when force was attempted, she burst into a sweet-smelling flame and died, taken up by God to join him as his bride in Heaven. In the third stanza, she is addressing Christ. What is the phrase “the world” seem to be used in this poem? Can you compare the imagery of her union with Christ with any specific Mirabai poem? Ursula is traditionally said to have been accompanied in her martyrdom by many other virgins: as many as 10,000 of them.
St. John of the Cross: On a dark night
From Antonio T. de Nicol´s: St. John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz): Alchemist of the Soul. New York: Paragon House, 1989, pp. 103-105.
This 16th-Century Spanish monk was so enthusiastic a reformer that he was imprisoned for antagonizing the Church hierarchy. In jail, he began writing the poems recounting his mystical visions which are among the finest poems in Spanish literature. It was this poem which gave rise to the concept of the “dark night of the soul,” when spiritual despair gives way to enlightement and spiritual exaltation. Like other Christian mystics, he borrows images from the Song of Songs in describing his relationship with God. Can you identify any of these?
St. Teresa of Avila: I gave myself to Love Divine
From E. Allison Peers: The Complete Works of St. Teresa of Jesus, vol. III London: Sheed and Ward, 1972, p. 282
Teresa was a younger companion and friend of John of the Cross heavily influenced by his erotically-tinged style in her own mystical poetry. The pivotal experience of her life consisted of repeated encounters with a smiling angel which plunged a spear repeatedly through her heart, penetrating into her bowels and arousing a divine ecstasy. This is one of several poems in which she retells this encounter, which was memorably depicted by 17th-Century sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini in the little church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.
Hroswitha: In Praise of Virginity
This extraordinary 10th-Century nun wrote comedies based on the ancient Latin plays of Terence as well as more serious works. This is a hymn to the Virgin Mary, figured as the bride of Christ, who is God. In the book of Revelation, Christ is presented as the Lamb of God, the sacrificial Passover lamb who died for humanity’s sins. The saints and martyrs are invited to gather around his throne. What does Hroswitha say Mary will do in Heaven?
More study guides for Love in the Arts:
- Chinese and Japanese Love Poetry
- Kalidasa: Sakuntala
- Nizami: Layla and Majnun
- Egyptian Love Poetry from the New Kingdom
- The Song of Songs
- Diane Ackerman: A Natural History of Love
- Classical Love Poems
- Ovid’s Loves, The Art of Love & The Remedies for Love
- Classic English Love Poems
- Marie de France: Lays
- Medieval Love Songs
- Renaissance Love Songs
- Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet
- Madame de Lafayette: The Princess of Clèves
- Verdi: La Traviata
- Bernstein: West Side Story
- Modern Women’s Love Poetry
- Illustrated Version of Cole Porter’s You’re the Top