Cambridge, MA. We just finished the second week of the semester at Harvard, and things are settling down. I am team-teaching a first year Master of Divinity course, “Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion,” which raises some interesting questions about whether and where academic scholarship about religion meets the perspectives of insiders, and whether thinking about religion helps religious people think more clearly in their faith and works of service. More on that in a later blog, but here I would like to introduce my seminar, “Tamil Love.”
This is a seminar devoted to the close reading of selected texts, in English translation, from the Tamil language tradition of south India. Tamil, you may know, is one of the world’s oldest living languages, with literature dating back two millennia, and currently serving as the mother tongue of more than 75 million people. The course focuses on religious poetry expressive of devotion to God, particularly the songs of the alvars (7th-9th century poet saints who wrote songs, poetry, in praise of the deity Narayana (who descends into the world as Rama, Krsna, and in other ways) with his consort, Sri Laksmi. The poetry is lovely, elegantly composed, and rich in religious meaning, sentiments of praise, worship, longing, service. This is the first verse of the 9th century Tiruvaymoli, the most famous alvar work: “Who possesses the highest, unsurpassable good? that one / who graciously gives the good of a mind without confusion? that one / who is the first lord of the unforgetting immortals? that one / so bow down at those radiant feet that destroy affliction, and arise, my mind.” (We read everything in English, but keep puttering and fighting with the translations, including my own.)
But first we read some still older poetry, from a 1st century anthology known as the “Short Poem Collection” (the Kuruntokai), expressive of the mixed emotions of a young woman in love. Attuned to every facet of nature, from geography to flora and fauna to times and seasons, the poetry, these short poems explore subtly and indirectly the desires and expectations of a lover. Thus, we read poems such as this one, wherein the young woman is not sure whether her beloved is delayed, or the monsoon rain early: “These fat konrai trees / Are gullible: / the season of rains / that he spoke of / when he went through the stones / of the desert / is not yet here / / though these trees / mistaking the untimely rains / have put out / their long arrangements of flowers / on the twigs / / as if for a proper monsoon.” (as translated by A K Ramanujan, my teacher in graduate school, in his lovely collect, The Interior Landscape, Indiana University, 1967). Hundreds of such elegant little poems gently and powerfully disclose how the mind and heart of people in love care for, await, get angry at, despair of, melt into one another.
Such poetry is spiritual, to be sure, and it sets up a model for later explicitly religious poetry. Consider for example another poem from Tiruvaymoli: “The south wind fragrant with mallikai scent cuts deep, / the sound of the splendid kurinji is piercing, / the evening’s waning light bewilders me, / those fine clouds red in the waning light bring ruin, and / my lord, his eyes lovely delicate lotuses, / my lord, great bull among the cowherds, great lion, / my dark one once tightly clasped my shoulders, my breasts — / but now I don’t know where to find shelter, I am alone.” (IX.9.1) Here too the beloved does not come — yet now the mystery is all the deeper and more poignant, since it is God who is delaying. (Some of you may remember that I have commented on these songs back in the summer; what I research often finds its way into my teaching.)
We are still near the course’s beginning, but we will in time go further, reading the Song of Songs along with the Tamil songs, notably passages in which the Song’s young woman in love wonders where her beloved is: “Upon my bed at night? I sought him whom my soul loves;? I sought him, but found him not;? I called him, but he gave no answer. ?‘I will rise now and go about the city,? in the streets and in the squares;? I will seek him whom my soul loves.’? I sought him, but found him not.” (3.1-2; NRSV) Part of the inquiry of the course is interreligious, as I encourage my students to relate what we read to their own religious and spiritual traditions, but the inquiry is this time around more poetic than philosophical, more the dynamic of reading one poem next to and after another.
So for me, and implicitly in the course, the questions are not, “What does Christianity have to do with Hinduism?” or “What does Krsna have to do with Christ?” since such questions are easy to ask, easy to answer in a self-reassuring way, hard to answer in a way that helps anyone. Rather, we ask, what is it like to hear and learn from early south Indian love poetry? how did gifted artists in medieval India turn that subtle psychology and longing and doubt toward God? how do Catholics like me find a way from that poetry to a new hearing of the Song of Songs, and new sense of what it means to say we really do desire God, and often enough miss a seemingly absent God? And finally - how can we make sense of Christ who comes, who goes, as one we cannot take for granted? I think this through more clearly after studying Tamil Hindu poetry.
I have a fine group of students, and they approach the course and its readings from many different angles; yet we all read together. All this is, I suggest, not only wonderful opportunity in the classroom, a cultural exchange, a crossover among languages and translations and histories; it is also, for those who choose to take it this way, an interreligious dialogue as deep as any we might imagine, a dialogue in the heart. I'll tell you more, as the semester progresses.