"Things Standing Shall Fall, But The Moving Ever Shall Stay"
will make temples for Siva.
What shall I,
a poor man,
My legs are pillars,
the body the shrine,
the head a cupola
Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,
things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay.
- translated from the Kannada by A.K. Ramanujan in Speaking of Siva (Penguin Classics)
I chose this poem not only because I have found it deeply moving for years, so much so that it made me want to pen spiritual verse myself, but because of how increasingly relevant it has felt to me in recent times, in light of the ongoing spate of temple demolitions here in Malaysia.
Its relevance, today, is startling and beautiful. The last stanza captures so well what it means to hold on to faith under fire.
The above vachana is by the 12th century poet-saint and political activist Basava (also known as Basavanna, meaning "Basava the Elder", and Basaveshwara). Vachanas are "religious lyrics in Kannada free verse; vachana means literally, 'saying, thing said' " (from the introduction in the book which contains this translation). I have previously highlighted Ramanujan's translations on this blog, here.
Siva is a major Hindu god, and Basava's recurring epithet for him was "lord of the meeting rivers". This poem can be interpreted from both political and spiritual angles. Due to Basava's own political work, particularly his dream for a classless society, the vachana can be read as a polemic piece, emphasising the equal power of the downtrodden in the eyes of God. "The rich/will make temples for Siva./What shall I,/a poor man,/do?", the poem opens, contextualising it within a distinctly class-based setting. The question is rhetorical; the reply comes in the form of the second stanza, in which the poet/poor man persona details how he, too, is capable of what the rich man can do.
But the profoundness of the the final stanza moves it beyond the political, into the realm of the deeply spiritual. "[T]hings standing shall fall,/but the moving ever shall stay" -- captured by these breathtaking lines, it suddenly seems ridiculously reductionist to think of it as a sociopolitical poem. These are lines which describe the nature or the soul itself, its endurance through turbulence. These are lines which reaffirm, and reveal.
Basava was a controversial figure in his time, and his mysterious disappearance upon his return to Kudalasangama ("the confluence of rivers"), where he began his career, sparked off the imaginations of many, who variously co-opted him to suit their own ideologies: whether this meant ascribing divine qualities to him, or holding him up as an icon for social revolution.
Prior to his disappearance, he had been a minister in the court of King Bijjala, and his defiance of caste rules had been the cause of much political dissent and dispute.
For those interested in Basava's work, I recommend one of the novels I'm presently reading: Githa Hariharan's In Times of Siege. The book explores unsettling questions of identity, minority, invasion, imperialism, religion and spirituality through a fictional account of a middle-aged professor who finds himself having suddenly become a pawn used to fuel the fire between polarized secular and fundamentalist groups, when a lesson on Basavanna he writes for a correspondence course on medieval history turns controversial.