Indiana University Bloomington

Relating a Message

Caleb Shriner, Religious Studies and India Studies


Since you will dance on me one way or another in the end,
Draped in hibiscus and lolling tongues,
Kali,
Don’t wait around until after you’ve claimed these bones
To dance on coals and ashes.

They won’t know it’s you anyway.

Come here!
Interior temple of hollowed rib cage,
This heart is your cremation ground.
Dance on it now!

Shyama!
This spirit-sickness,
This heart-nausea for you,
Makes this one a wreck.

The people say it’s shameful.
They call out lunatic
Or liar.

It’s only a message. Only a song.

A person can never say they have gone looking for
The Source of Breath
Until they have thrown themselves ten thousand times
Against the gate of Grief
And run their head against
The wall of Loneliness.

People don’t seem to like the mention of gods and grief
Or love and loneliness
So close to one another.
But the Queen of the Burning Grounds
Is busy dancing
And doesn’t seem to bother with what we think.

These orphans dress their faces in diamond tears.
Kali is drunk and reeling in the night.
And in her wild wailing something speaks
Of smoke and blackness mingling
Until there’s no difference left at all.

It’s only a message. Take what you need from it.

Hamsha says:
A person can never say they have lost themselves searching for
The Beloved
Until they have whirled in the ocean of Kali’s heart,
Where black forms bleed into one.


I’m fascinated with the literary genre of devotional Bhakti poetry, which originally flourished in South India. Bhakti poetry takes many forms but is characterized, generally, by its passionate and emotional appeals to devotional themes. I’m attracted to its honest and desperate negotiation of relationship between the devotee and the deity. A salient theme of this genre is the response of the poet to the apparent absence of the object of their devotion. The genre makes use of a developed sense of intimacy, at times eschewing praise -or even respect- in favor of a more personal and authentic exchange in which the poet is emboldened to voice pessimism, criticism, and frustration with the deity. At times the poet boldly confronts the deity for their perceived negligence and disinterest. This confrontational sub-genre of Bhakti, “hate-devotion” or “blame-praise”, is poignantly embodied by the poet Cuntarar’s question “if he doesn’t want us, can’t we find some other god?” and his desperate outburst “Shiva you have no mercy. Shiva, you have no heart.” I do not, however, interpret such expressions of religious frustrations as being disdain or disrespect for their own sake. Rather, I read them as an honest exchange which is made possible through a cultivated sense of intimacy with the object of devotion, in which the poet is freed of inhibitions to expression.
The above poem is one of my personal Bhakti-themed works. It invokes the goddess Kali and is an attempt to express some of my own negotiations with religious themes, namely, loneliness, abandonment, and craving for experience.

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