Thea Ayres

Bhakti: Indian Poetry of Devotion

I praise only Panduranga,
Who lives in every body, pure, impure.

(Soyarabai, in Subramaniam, 2014a, p. 49.)

A bhakta is not content to worship a god in word and ritual, nor is he content to grasp him in a theology; he needs to possess him and be possessed by him. He also needs to sing, to dance, to make poetry, painting, shrines, sculpture; to embody him in every possible way.

(A. K. Ramanujan, in Subramaniam, 2014a, p. xiii.)

Lately, the genre of poetry that has most inspired me is the bhakti poetry of India. Bhakti is an ancient concept in Indian spirituality, meaning worship and devotion. It can be a path towards union (or yoga) with the divine. The Bhakti Movement was a countercultural religious reformation that began in southern India in medieval times and spread to the rest of the subcontinent. It offered the individual seeker, regardless of their caste or gender, a path towards yoga or moksha (spiritual liberation), which was independent from priestly authority.

Bhakti poet-saints sang in their vernacular languages, rather than the Brahminical language of Sanskrit, which stimulated the emergence and growth of several regional literary traditions. Many of the most celebrated bhaktas were women or lower-caste people. Bhakti poets are known for their subversive relationship to mainstream religion, authority and gender roles.

Bhakti can be expressed towards a personal god such as Shiva, Vishnu or Devi, or towards the One God worshipped in monotheistic religions, or towards devotional figures such as Buddhas or bodhisattvas. One of the most beautiful aspects of bhakti at its best is that it burns away superficial differences of practice and opinion, revealing something fundamental, unnameable and true. Bhakti poets have often attracted interfaith admiration. Unfortunately, some Indianpoets who straddled the boundaries between religious categories have become embroiled in ethno-religious conflicts, with Muslims and Hindus each trying to claim their posthumous legacies exclusively, arguing over whether they should be classed as Hindusor Sufis. However, the boundaries between Hindu, Islamic, Sikh, Buddhist and other forms of mysticism have always been porous in India, and many of the bhakti poets were working within a context of interfaith dialogue.

My spirituality and interest in devotional poetry have deepened over the last year since I established a daily practice of yoga, meditation and prayer. The focal point of my own spirituality is my devotion to the Divine Mother, who for me is represented cross-religiously by both the Hindu goddesses and Kuan Yin, goddess of compassion, worshipped by Buddhists, Taoists and practitioners of Chinese folk religion.

In this piece, I will share some of my favourite bhakti poems, offer a creative response and suggest some devotional creative writing prompts.

Lalla, also known as Lal Ded, was a fourteenth-century Kashmiri poet and saint. Her short, provocative verses have been preserved orally by both Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir for centuries. She is an influential figure in both Kashmir Shaivism (Shiva-worship) and the Rishi order of Kashmiri Sufism. Her legend says that she left an abusive marriage to devote herself to God. She studied under a Shaivite guru before leaving by herself to travel through the country, singing and dancing. Famously, she cared so little what others thought of her she went around unclothed. She is greatly beloved in and outside her home region and is considered the grandmother of Kashmiri literature.

The emotional core of bhakti is characterised by an alternating pattern of longing and reunion. The tone is intensely passionate. There is a powerful sense of longing in this poem by Lalla:

        I’m towing my boat across the ocean with a thread. 
	Will He hear me and help me across? 
	Or am I seeping away like water from a half-baked cup? 
	Wander, my poor soul, you’re not going home anytime soon. 
        (Hoskote, 2013, poem 4.)

The pain of God’s absence alternates with the joy of mystical union fulfilled. This is how Lalla describes her recognition that she has achieved union with Shiva.

        Love-mad, I, Lalla, started out, 
	spent days and nights on the trail. 
	Circling back, I found the teacher in my own house. 
	What brilliant luck, I said, and hugged him.
	(Hoskote, 2013, poem 13.)

To find God in her own house is to find him in her own body, her own reality, her own present moment, to discover that the object of her search was none other than her own higher self:

	Wrapped up in Yourself, You hid from me. 
	All day I looked for You 
	and when I found You hiding inside me, 
	I ran wild, playing now me, now You.
	(Hoskote, 2013, poem 15.)

In Lalla’s lifetime, mirrors were metal, and ashes could be used to polish them; insults do not harm Lalla; they strengthen her trust in her own inner wisdom. Translator Ranjit Hoskote observes that the male seekers in Lalla’s religious lineage did not usually give up their wives and families. Lalla was set apart by her gender. Family life for a woman was too ‘closely and rigidly governed’—and in Lalla’s case cruel and abusive—for her to pursue a spiritual calling without first renouncing marriage and family (Hoskote, 2013, pp. 14-15). What inspires me most about Lalla’s poetry is the sense of freedom she seems to find in her outsider status.  

Lalla with Shiva by Shivani Koul Bhatt

A poem by the fifteenth-century Bengali mystic Chandidas has a similarly subversive quality. It suggests the bhakti path could prove both dangerous and freeing. It tells that a woman has been behaving strangely, attracting gossip and disapproval:

	What has happened
	That she is not afraid? 
	The elders chatter
	And the wicked gossip.

There is a sense of rising tension. The final lines reveal the source of this transformation is Kali, the goddess of time, destruction, transformation and change.

	Her desire inflamed 
	By passion and longing, 
	She reaches for the moon.
	Chandidas says that she is caught 
	In the snare of Kaliya, the dark. 
	(Subramaniam, 2014a, p. 11)

Kali is one of my favourite goddesses. She is known to have an intense, transformative impact on people, including via possession. As the metaphor of the ‘snare’ suggests, her blessings can seem a bit like curses. Wearing a garland of human heads around her neck, she wields a bloody knife, cutting away the soul from the ego’s attachments. When I first tried chanting her mantra, om krim Kalika-yai namaha,I was unprepared for the feeling of hyperactive excitement it gave me. Chandidas’s poem expresses the sense of danger that comes with an experience like that.

A devotional calling often necessitates a break from the security of mainstream acceptance and conformity.

According to his legend, Chandidas was a Brahmin priest who fell in love with a low-caste woman named Rami. When he was pressured to leave her, he refused. In his poetry, he sharply rejects the laws of society and religion:

	I throw ashes at all laws
	Made by man or god
	What is the worth 
	Of your vile laws
	That failed me
	In love? 
	I will set fire to this house 
	And go away.
	(Subramaniam, 2014a, p. 84.)

This poem critiques dualistic thinking and spiritual asceticism. There is an affirmation that the whole of reality, including sex and the body, is sacred.


The work of fourteenth-century Marathi poet-saint Soyarabai provides an excellent example of the non-dual philosophy of bhakti poetry. Born to a so-called ‘untouchable’ caste, she protests caste-prejudice and misogyny:

        You say some bodies are untouchable. 
	Tell me what you say of the soul.
	If menstrual blood makes me impure, 
	Tell me who was not born of that blood.
	This blood of mine fertilises the world.
	(Subramaniam, 2014a, p. 49.)

These passages highlight a distinction between orthodox and unorthodox forms of Hindu worship. In an orthodox context, menstrual blood is considered polluting, but in an unorthodox or Tantric context, it is potentially the most sacred of all ritual substances (Amazzone, 2010).

Soyarabai’s relationship to her god Panduranga, a form of Vishnu, affirms her sense of the sacredness of her own ‘untouchable’, female body. Describing an experience of deep religious ecstasy, she declares:

	One colour now, one colour, you and me. 
	I look at you, Panduranga, one look, no you, no me.
	The body is. 
	Soyara says: Who’s being seen? 
	Who’s doing the seeing? 
	(Subramaniam, 2014a, p. 228)

It is beautiful to picture Soyarabai and Panduranga’s bodies merging till they cannot be told apart, and angering to remember that as an ‘untouchable,’ she would not have been allowed to enter his physical temple.


The abiding theme in the work of fifteenth-century Hindi poet Kabir is the contrast between inner spiritual discovery and the restricting, outer forms of religion. Born to Muslim parents and trained by a Hindu guru, Kabir did not subscribe to a single religion. Like Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, he praises a formless ultimate reality with no specific identity. His poetry is included in the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. He retains a special place in Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism alike. According to legend, when he died, his Muslim and Hindu admires could not agree whether to bury or cremate his body; when they lifted his shroud, they found only a pile of flowers.

Kabir mocks the ‘spiritual athlete,’ who worships the performance rather than the truth of religion; he ‘often changes the color of his clothes, and his mind remains gray and loveless’; he ‘sits inside a shrine room all day, so that the Guest has to go outdoors.’ (Bly, 1977, poem 37.) He advises the spiritual seeker to look inwards instead:

	Don’t go outside your house to see flowers. 
	My friend, don’t bother with that excursion. 
	Inside your body there are flowers. 
	One flower has a thousand petals.
	That will do for a place to sit.
	(Bly, 1977, poem 36.)

In bhakti poetry, the meeting of God and the soul takes place in the body, the home, the bedroom. The soul may be figured as a bride, and God as the bridegroom. Kabir compares the fear and excitement of mystical union to the experience of a young woman making love for the first time:

	I played for ten years with the girls my own age, 
	but now I am suddenly in fear. 
	I am on the way up some stairs—they are high. 
	Yet I have to give up my fears 
	if I want to take part in this love.
	(Bly, 1977, poem 31.)

Affirming the erotic nature of divine love, he asks:

	If what you feel for the Holy One is not desire, 
	then what’s the use of dressing with such care, 
	and spending so much time making your eyelids dark? 
	(Bly, 1977, poem 31.)

He uses is bridal conceit to develop the themes of separation and union.

	I married my Lord, and meant to live with him. 
	But I did not live with him, I turned away, 
	and all at once my twenties were gone.
	(Bly, 1977, poem 32.)

Getting married but failing to consummate the marriage, the seeker is unable to experience divine union for themselves.

Arundhathi Subramaniam

Arundhathi Subramaniam is a contemporary Anglophone poet of Tamil heritage living in Mumbai. The poems in her bhakti-influenced 2014 collection When God is a Traveller describe an intimate emotional connection between a god and a human. My favourite poem from the collection is ‘How some Hindus find their personal gods’:

It’s about learning to trust 
the tug
that draws you to a shadowed alcove 
in your life
undisturbed by footfall and 
a blue dark coolness
where you find him 
waiting patiently
that perfect minor deity.
(Subramaniam, 2014b, p. 11.)

A warm, loving relationship develops with the personal god, or ishta devata:

who might even learn by rote 
the fury 
the wheeze 
the Pali 
the pidgin 
the gnashing mixer-grinder 
the awkward Remington stutter
of your heart, 
who could make them his own.
(Subramaniam, 2014b, pp. 11-12).

The god offers empathy, acceptance and unconditional love.

This sense of connection shines in ‘When God is a Traveller’, the title poem of the collection, dedicated to Kartikeya, the god of war and patron of the Tamil people. Kartikeya could be called a ‘minor deity’ in comparison to his brother Ganesha, at least outside of the Tamil community. Nonetheless, he is the god the speaker trusts:

Trust him 
who recognises you—
auspicious, abundant, battle-scarred, alive—
and knows from where you come. 
(Subramaniam, 2014b, p. 67.)

The adjectives, ‘auspicious, abundant, battle-scarred, alive,’ could describe both the devotee and the deity. The God of war, who has been everywhere and seen it all, can better understand and accept people:

Trust the god
ready to circle the world all over again
this time for no reason at all 
other than to see it 
through your eyes.
(Subramaniam, 2014b, p. 97.)

Preferring a personal relationship to a god of her choice, Subramaniam rejects the impersonal ‘public lust’ of mainstream religion. In ‘Bhakti (with some adulteration)’, the speaker tells God: ‘If you were coffee / I wouldn’t live my life in a coffee shop’. She prefers an ‘illicit’ form of religion; she will carry God in her hipflask, to ‘steal a whiff, / a whiff, no more, / of your crazy liquor’. I respond strongly to this poem because it makes me think of my own idiosyncratic relationship to the Divine Mother, in the form of Kuan Yin, Kali or Parvati. I have a home altar to Kuan Yin, where I pray to her every day by myself. I have had visions of her, and of Kali and Parvati too. Subramaniam’s ‘crazy liquor’ is such an appropriate image for this strange source of inspiration and inner guidance.

Goddess Kali’s Body

At her base, a compass.
When she’s lost, she feels North’s gentle pull.

Below her belly button, a marigold.
She lies in the grass and the bees come to land on her.
She gives me honey as prasad.

Above her belly button, a fire.
It seems to me the fire goes out.
I cry to her. She is unafraid.
I hand her kindling. It catches fire on the smouldering ashes’ heat.

Her heart, a lock,
which ten thousand waterways cross.
She opens her heart, the levels change, the boats go through.

At her throat, bite marks,
mine, her own.

Her nose, a blade.
At the point between her eyes, she grips the hilt.

At the crown of her head, a door.
When she sleeps, it opens,
and she takes me with her to walk among the stars.

Thea Ayres

These prompts are intended for people of any religion or none to take as inspiration. Please feel free to respond to them in whatever way suits you.

  • If you believe in God or another devotional figure, how might you picture their relationship to you? Are they a mother, father, bride, bridegroom, friend, child? Write a poem expressing your feelings for them.
  • A recurring theme in bhakti poetry is the need to let go of anything extraneous to your relationship with the sacred. Is there anything you want to let go of? How might you visualise this letting go? What’s left after this process of letting go has run its course?
  • Imagine you and your devotional figure are alone together. Where are you? What might you say to each other?
  • Meditate for a while outdoors. Don’t try to do the writing exercises straight away. Take your time just sitting.
    • Once you’re ready, consider these questions, one at a time:
      • Now your body is still, you are like a branch or a flower. Imagine a creature or a spirit landing on you. What kind is it?
      • In the quiet, you are like one big ear. Imagine a sound or voice breaking. What is the sound?
      • In your receptive state, you are like an empty cup. Imagine something filling you. What is it?

About Thea Ayres

Thea Ayres is a poet from West Yorkshire, and a graduate of the Writing Squad. Her work has been published in The North, Poetry Wales, Ink Sweat and Tears, The Scribe and Strix. She was highly commended in the Frosted Fire First Pamphlet Competition 2023. Her work has been commissioned by Dead [Women] Poets Society and the Arc Project.

Reference List/Further Reading

Amazzone, Laura. (2010) Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power. Plymouth: Hamilton.

Bly, Robert. tr. (1977) The Kabir Book: Forty-Four Ecstatic Poems of Kabir. Boston: Beacon Press.

Hirshfield, Jane. ed. (1994) Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women. New York: HarperCollins.

Hoskote, Ranjit. tr. (2013) I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded. London: Penguin.

Subramaniam, Arundhathi. ed. (2014a) Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry. Gurugram: Penguin.

Subramaniam, Arundhathi. (2014b) When God is a Traveller. Hexham: Bloodaxe.