The Body and the Beehives

Yesterday, I finished reading a translation of Akka Mahadevi’s vacanas for Shiva. Vacana seems to be a specific term for a free-verse form. I had never encountered writings from the Lingayat Shiva tradition, and it was very educational for me. It turns out that, for at least over a millennium, there has been resistance to social inequality in South Asia and in Hinduism. For example, women in the Lingayat Shiva tradition do not have menstrual taboos and are the spiritual equals of men. The tradition has historically been a harsh critic of the caste system, although all of that got more than a bit screwed up during British colonialism. I may not like the monotheizing tendencies within her tradition, but I can definitely relate to the mysticism bits — we all get a bit “you are the God of Gods” with the God we’re devoted to, don’t we? The sense of familiarity and commonality, along with learning about another culture, made the reading process very rewarding.

There are two of the vacanas I want to share, though, because they remind me of things a bit closer to home for me. The first one I will present in the context of this passage from Damascius’ Life of Isidore:

Hypatia: she was born, brought up, and educated in Alexandria and, being endowed with a nobler nature than her father, she was not content with the mathematical education that her father gave her, but occupied herself with some distinction in the other branches of philosophy. And wrapping herself in a philosopher’s cloak, she progressed through the town, publicly interpreting the works of Plato, Aristotle, or any other philosopher to those who wished to listen. As well as being a gifted teacher, she had reached the peak of moral virtue and was just and prudent; she remained a virgin, but as she was remarkably beautiful and attractive, one of her students fell in love with her and, not being able to control his passion, he betrayed it to her as well. Ignorant legend has it that Hypatia cured him of his disease through music. But the truth is that when music failed to have any effect, she produced a rag of the type used by women, stained with blood and, showing him the symbol of the impurity of birth […] she said: “This is what you are in love with, young man, and not a thing of beauty.” His soul was overcome by shame and astonishment at the unseemly display and he adopted a more rational attitude.

Damascius, Life of Isidore, §43, trans. Polymnia Athanassiadi

Here, we see Hypatia shocking a man who couldn’t control his desire with the realities of what embodiment means, as symbolized by the cloth used to catch menstrual blood. The cloth is the body; the menstrual blood is the means of birth, or the allotment, of the soul; to take after Proclus, being overly obsessed with it is becoming “mad about material lots” (Proclus, Hymn to the Muses).

Akka Mahadevi also dealt with others’ lust pushing her boundaries, as shown in this vacana, and indeed this is a common sexist thing to deal with. Instead of discussing menstruation, though, she focuses on more routine physical waste products — which seems fitting due to the lack of menstrual taboos in the tradition. Note that the God named is Shiva.

You came with no hesitation, O brother,
As the form was pleasing to your eyes.
You came deluded by a pleasure you heard of,
You came lusting after the female form.
Not seeing that it is only a tube
From which drips piss,
You came, O brother, blinded by desire.
Driving away the supreme meaning by a mind perverted,
Not knowing why this is so,
Not realizing this as the supreme source of pain
You came, O brother.
Men other than Channamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender,
Are brothers to me;
Off, get off, you fool.

Vacana 23, Akka Mahadevi, trans. Vinaya Chaitanya

There is another one that reminded me of Proclus’ Hymn to the Muses, especially the imagery of bees and beehives — the Muses give forth their inspiring honey, exciting the soul to the (positive) madness that ultimately leads up to the ascent and to union with the One through the difficult ascent and purification of the soul, harmonization of her embodiment, and the her recognition of her leader-God.

Troubled by the five senses,
A potful of pride,
The youthful body has gone in vain, alas!
As the bumblebee, drinking
Fragrance, stops fluttering —
When will you take me in,
O Channamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender.

Vacana 120, Akka Mahadevi, trans. Vinaya Chaitanya

The translator notes that the bumblebee is “used to describe the mind attaining a state of bliss whose source is within the self, and thus ceasing to wander.”

Proclus’ Hymn to the Muses ends “always draw my all-roving soul towards the holy light / away from the hubbub of the [confused crowds] / heavy-laden from your intellect-strengthening beehives, / and everlasting glory from its mind-charming eloquence” (trans. van den Berg, from his Proclus’ Hymns book). Thus, there is a similar thing at play here with how the stillness of bliss/ecstasy/divine mania arises. Of course the nectar that the bees are drinking wouldn’t be the most Platonic image for union because nectar is liquid (ambrosia is a solid) and thus has a proceeding/towards-generation quality to it. But that’s beside the point; what comes down must go up.

I hope these piqued your curiosity. Another book, The Ant Who Swallowed the Sun, has more women authors and may present a more nuanced image. I’ve only just cracked it open. The women translated in this other one focus on the God Vitthal. Their tradition seems to have a similar anti-casteism stance, although in both bhakti movements’ cases, the reality of fighting caste inequality in spirituality and religion has been fraught due to the overculture and human biases. Still, it’s amazing how I’ve not once heard mention of these millennium-old movements, as we Westerners talk about caste and Hinduism as if worshipping the Gods cannot be divorced from it … clearly, if there have been groundswell movements for this long in Hinduism that still exist, the narrative we’ve been pushing is incomplete and possibly furthering an iconoclastic evangelistic missionary agenda instead of concern for the actual well-being of people who are suffering from caste discrimination and sexism. I feel embarrassed that we haven’t expressed more nuance and care in the West, and I’m happy that I came across these writings to broaden my perspective.

📚

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