Wednesday, July 12, 2006

"Things Standing Shall Fall, But The Moving Ever Shall Stay"

Vachana 820
by Basava


The rich
will make temples for Siva.
What shall I,
a poor man,
do?

My legs are pillars,
the body the shrine,
the head a cupola
of gold.

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.

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7 Comments:

Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Another interesting piece, Sharanya.

For me, this poem speaks, in light of the recent horrific Mumbai blast, of what a 'true' religious life is, not one that is lived by external rituals, but one that is lived through a purity of the heart.

12:41 AM, July 14, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

Sharanya, why does Basava call Siva "lord of the meeting rivers"?

With apologies, for I know very little of Hindu beliefs and traditions, but I wonder if he could have intended the imperative "Listen" to a different "lord", perhaps the lord of the land at the time? The translation does not provide the inflected "Lord" -- with the capital 'L' -- so I'm curious.

Maybe the poem is a more overtly political than is immediately obvious.

"'things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay.'

The last stanza captures so well what it means to hold on to faith under fire."

But that is a beautiful thought.

It reminds me of some lines by Rumi from the Mathnawi*:

"Fools honour the mosque
yet seek to destroy those in whose heart God lives.

That mosque is of the world of things;
this heart is real.

The true mosque is nothing but the heart
of spiritual kings.

The mosque that is the inner awareness of the saints is
the place of worship for all:
God is there." [II:3108-11]

and further on...

"If you put on the armour of a warrior,
yet are unable to defend yourself, you'll die.

Make your soul a shield,
bear what God sends you,
Put down the sword.

Whoever is headless saves his head;
the selfless cannot be struck.

Those weapons are your selfish strategy;
a defense that wounds your soul." [II: 3169-71]

... what is it like to face an assault on your faith, shielding your spirit with your soul?

*taken from Rumi: Daylight, a selection from books I & II of the Mathnawi, translated by Camille & Kabir Helminski.

4:24 PM, July 14, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...


things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay.


I think what he means by the moving is Time. The physical world -- his body, his temple ... his cupola of gold -- is transient, but Time remains.

but when all are fallen, forgotten and finally gone, who would be left to remember the concept of time for Eternity?

6:25 AM, July 15, 2006  
Blogger Gilbert Koh said...

The way I see it, these lines:

"things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay."

... have several possible interpretations. One is that "things standing" refers to the physical buildings erected by the rich, but "the moving" refers, in contrast, to the speaker himself (who has likened his body to a temple). He is "moving" because he, unlike a static building, is alive & moving, and he "stays" because he will always stay with Siva (that is, his faith will outlast the physical buildings).

The other possible interpretation of "the moving ever shall stay" is that it refers to the eternal presence of Siva. Siva is referred to as "the moving" because the rivers are always flowing, and Siva is the "lord of the meeting rivers". "The moving ever shall stay" because Siva, being a deity/god, is immortal & eternal. Whereas in contrast, the temple buildings in Siva's honour must one day collapse ("things standing shall fall").

There is a 3rd possible interpretation, if one considers the poem through the eyes of a Buddhist (and uses the Buddhist concepts of impermanence) but I think this interpretation is less plausible when the god being referred to here is Siva.

10:15 AM, July 15, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Wonderful. Gilbert, I enjoyed reading your comments. I was thinking of the first one when reading the poem, but hadn't thought of the other two.

1:15 PM, July 15, 2006  
Blogger Sharanya Manivannan said...

Dreamer Idiot -- I agree. In the world we live in today, poems like this one have a greater, even eerier resonance. The poet addressed this vachana to Siva, but its message is something that holds true to any religion.

Madcap Machinist -- Thanks for the detailed comparison and comments. All Hindu deities, as far as I know, are ascribed a plethora of names. "The lord of the meeting rivers" (the actual name would be Kudalasangamadeva, if I'm not mistaken) was probably Basava's chosen epithet for Siva because Basava himself began his career at a place where there was a confluence of rivers. It was actual a common practice for poets who wrote in the devotional vein to pick a certain name, a signature if you will, and continue to use it throughout their works. You do bring up an interesting point -- I'm going to look into why he chose this personal form of address above others. I was more taken by the poetry of the epithet than by its significance.

Gilbert -- Would be great if you could share the Buddhist interpretation too.

3:46 PM, July 15, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

i was very moved by this poem, sharanya, and think i shall engrave it on my heart. the poorest man is rich in spirit, his body as much a temple to worship his god as any structure made of stone. i like the appaent simplicity of the piece and the development of the central idea through the three stanzas

the words are fitting too after the temple demolitions as you say ... and after the horrors of the bombings in Mumbai

machinist's lines from Rumi echo the sentiment so well

agree with Gilbert about "moving' - i think there's a beautiful ambiguity - humna beings move, but so does the river

thanks for this!

11:33 PM, July 16, 2006  

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