Ramprasad Sen (1718-1775) was a prominent poet during the 18th century. Though precise details regarding Ramprasad’s childhood and upbringing are often mixed with legend, he is said to have been born to Tantric Brahmins in Bengal, and is remembered for showing a skill and inclination toward poetry and music from a young age (McLean 42). Ramprasad’s upbringing is also characterized by his diligent religious study, especially that which focused on the Navya Tantric-scripture of Krishnananda Agamavagisha, the well-known 16th century Sreehattan Pandita and Tantra Jain Sadhaka (McLean 42). In adulthood, Ramprasad would achieve renown for his love songs, especially of a sort known as bhakti, still popular today.
The ecstatic loving fervor expressed in Ramprasad’s poems, directed toward the goddess Kali, has since come to encapsulate the devotional energies which the Bengali Saktas feel at the epitome of their faith. Appropriately, Ramprasad has since come to be recognized as one of the greatest poets in Indian history. The following work will evaluate Ramprasad Sen, the bhakti movement he originated from, and explore the intense devotion to the Goddess Kali which is present in many of Ramprasad Sen’s poetic works. Interestingly, the life of Ramprasad is very much intertwined with myth and legend which have arisen after his death, meaning that many of the pivotal experiences outlined by biographers are perhaps apocryphal. That said, the vast influence which Ramprasad has exerted over the Bengali Sakta canon and religious practice will form the core of this examination. Particular focus will be paid to the ways in which, despite his Tantric background, Ramprasad deviated from traditional devotional poetry, and even used his works as a platform for criticism of traditional Bengali Saktism.
Ramprasad Sen’s bhakti poetry can best be described as the product of its author’s unyielding devotion to the Hindu goddess Kali. This goddess is known as a destroyer of evil, and oversees, by such action, one of the four groups of tantric Saivism known as Kulamarga (Kinsley 116). Periodically throughout history, this goddess has been worshipped by her adherents directly, through devotional practice. In this role as religious icon, Kali is alternatively described as the Divine Mother, or the Mother of the Universe. Under Hindu Saktism and Tantrism, Kali was often thought to be the Brahman, both a powerful protector and the goddess who would provide moksa (Kinsley 116). Given the prominence that Kali has held in Tantric Brahmin worship, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ramprasad chose her as the object of his life’s poetic work.
Accounts of Ramprasad’s family life also reflect the powerful presence that the goddess Kali held in his life. One such account found Ramprasad building a fence and asking for his daughter’s help, a task he performed while reciting his poetry to Kali. When his daughter appeared, she chastised him for his singing to a goddess who would never appear. After helping him with the fence, Ramprasad and his daughter separated, but later he learned that his daughter had been in another town since morning, and realized he had been visited by the Divine Mother (McDaniel 2018: 45). Another perhaps apocryphal story about Ramprasad Sen’s early life concerns his work as an accountant in Kolkata. At this work, he is said to have busied himself writing poems to the Divine Mother in his workbooks. When exposed, he was not punished by his employer, but instead hired as a poet for the accounting firm (McDaniel 2018: 45).
One final account tells that Ramprasad would spend long hours lost in meditation, “often while standing deep in the Ganges river,” and the boat workers would listen to him as they passed (McDaniel 162). The account indicates that one day “the Maharaja Krishnachandra of Nadia” passed by and heard Ramprasad as he recited his devotional poetry, and was so impressed that “he asked [Ramprasad] to be his court poet” (McDaniel 162). Without strong evidence, there is no way to know whether either of these three accounts of Ramprasad’s early life are true, but the persistence of these legends of are themselves a testimony to the power of Ramprasad’s poetry and influence. In particular, it reflects the prominence that Ramprasad’s works would attain in Bengali Saktism, as considered in the section below.
The movement which would seize upon Ramprasad’s works as basis for a its literary and religious tradition is known as Bengali Saktism. This faith describes Kali as a goddess to be worshipped either as a “powerful force or life and death,” or as a “tantric and yogic goddess who [provides] supernatural knowledge,” but a third variant, one less prominent than the rest, would form the focus of Ramprasad’s work (McDaniel 2018: 44). Within Sakta devotion, and in Ramprasad’s poetry, the goddess is understood as a “loving mother who saves her devotees from painful rebirth,” as well as provides them with protection from harm and “entrance to her heaven” (McDaniel 2018: 44). In Ramprasad’s work, by contrast, his poetic vision of the Divine Mother manifest not as a loving mother, but with Kali taking the form of either “the universal mother or [an] innocent girl,” a figure which is “sometimes frightening on the outside, but inwardly loving and compassionate” (McDaniel 2018: 44). Ramprasad’s ecstatic works of devotional poetry to this dynamic figure would influence Bengali Saktism from then on, and has come to typify the effusive love which such adherents express for the goddess Kali.
Given the strong role which Ramprasad’s works play in epitomizing modern Bengali Sakti ecstatic devotion, there is certainly much evidence to indicate that Ramprasad’s choice of subject was directly compelled by his faith. In particular, biographers present evidence to show that Ramprasad’s poetry is derived from the Kularnava Tantra, that millennia-old work of epistemology and logic upon which much of Tantric practice is based (McDermott 71). Official accounts will also refer to Ramprasad’s long years spent practicing “kundalini yoga meditation,” a variant common to Bengali Sakti communities (McDermott 71). There is evidence of this faith derived from Ramprasad’s works themselves, some of which provide “descriptions of Kali derived from [the] Tantric dhyanas” (McDermott 71). There is also Bengali Sakta religious precedent for the great deal of ecstatic loving fervor which flows through Ramprasad’s works. McDaniel (2018: 44) indicates that Ramprasad’s works, and his life, are an embodiment of the ecstatic states outlined in the Kularnava Tantra, a major text of the Bengali Saktas. This work describes ullasa, or the “ecstatic joy…which occurs during ritual practice,” where the practitioner seeking the highest (divya) state described as the “ecstatic or blind madman” (McDaniel 2018: 46). Ecstasy at this level brings loss of control, described in by Bengali Saktas as feeling like “[the adherent’s] limbs are stretched, his hair stands on end, [and] he laughs and cries and stutters” (McDaniel 2018: 46). While in this state, known as divyonmada, or “ecstatic madness,” individuals are made “beyond control by the body and the senses,” and will paradoxically “[gaze] outward but [look] inward,” and thus are seem as the “equivalent to the God Shiva Bhairava” (McDaniel 2018: 46). During his life, Ramprasad was frequently described as a madman, a factor which does much to support the use of his works and ambition as a basis for Bengali Sakta ecstatic practice. Though such textual evidence is persuasive, there is also strong evidence to indicate that Ramprasad’s poetry diverged from the purely devotional and traditional Tantric poetry to which it is often compared.
As described by Schelling (2011: 14), Ramprasad’s bhakti poetry was often purely devotional, but this author ascribes its endurance in the Bengal popular imagination to the ways in which it diverted from tradition. Schelling (2011) cites the intimacy of Ramprasad’s works, or its often playful or scolding tone, as well as its deep esotericism and profusion with symbolism, as key areas where it diverges from traditional devotional work (Schelling 14). Moreover, in addition to these works lacking uniform devotional intent, they also contain a wealth of confessions of doubt “concerning the kindliness of [Kali]” which indicate a much more complicated relationship between author and subject (McDermott 71). Moreover, Ramprasad’s works included a range of heartfelt criticism against the “scriptures, images, pilgrimages, and surface acts” upon which the faith of so many people was often predicated (McDermott 71).
Accordingly, Ramprasad’s poetry is notable for the considerable depth and complexity he brings to its subject. His works focus upon “a single great goddess,” often called Kali but sometimes referred to as “Durga, Bhairavi, Sita, Uma, [or] Kalika” (McDaniel 2018: 45). These works emphasize not just the greatness and power of Kali, but tell of “passionate love which must be experienced, and cannot be found in books or philosophies” (McDaniel 2018: 45). Reflected in Ramprasad’s poetry, this intense and worldly love, as emphasized in devotion, was a way for Ramprasad (and Kali bhakti practitioners) to “[draw in] the goddess like a magnet attracts iron” (McDaniel 2018: 45). Of the poems not directed toward Kali herself, Ramprasad’s work also includes “songs of secret sadhana practices,” but each is unerring in its focus upon the act of devotion and the ecstasy to would result from such practice (McDaniel 2018: 45).
Moreover, Dalmiya (2000: 126) describes bhakti poetry as of “feminist significance,” as reflected not just in the “paradoxical” shifting attitude its author holds toward the subject, but due to each of these shifts in tone reflecting “a devotee’s worshipful attitude towards Kali” (Dalmiya 127). This author indicates that the “mother-child motif at the core” of Ramprasad’s work represented “not only a dramatic construction of femininity but of selfhood in general” (Dalmiya 125). As Ramprasad challenged the definition of devotional poetry through the “indigenous worshipful attitude of Kali-bhakti,” he transformed what had been an art form predicated on worship and devotion alone into a far more dynamic instrument (Dalmiya 125).
The transformative power of Ramprasad’s poetry is stressed in other works. In McDermott’s (2001: 71) analysis, this author explains that this poet’s biographers, no matter how stymied by anecdotal accounts, have also sought to offer a view of this eminent artist somewhat ‘divorced’ from “solely Tantric terms” (McDermott 71). This author indicates that some authors will describe Ramprasad not as a mere devotee, but as a bhakta, a “poet who transformed, rather than accepted wholeheartedly, the esoteric Goddess of Tantric heritage” (McDermott 71). The result of the poetry and legacy of Ramprasad, thus lies in his unwavering focus on expressing love for the goddess Kali, and the influence of that love, as expressed in his works, upon the Bengali Sakta tradition. Aside from the undeniable beauty of Ramprasad’s poetry, their legacy is thus felt as much by its deviation from classical poetic art forms as by its embodiment of them. A century after Ramprasad’s death, Yogendranath Gupta would argue that all of the “miracle stories” were comprised of “faith and devotion (visvasa and bhakti).” This is an indication that Ramprasad’s poetry, and his role as sadhaka (religious practitioner) who “softened the hard wood of kaula-sadhana”, the traditional Sakta practice, “through syrupy streams of bhakti and love” (McDermott 71). This description is notable for its acknowledgement that Ramprasad’s works were less an epitome of Bengali Sakta practice as a force for change in this faith.
To this end, while Ramprasad’s work has found a central place in Bengali Saktism, his poems are perhaps most notable for the ways in which they divert from this tradition. To indicate where Ramprasad’s work deviates from Sakta practice most strongly, it is important to consider the different kinds of bhakti practice. McDermott (2001: 71) indicates that there are three types of bhakti, namely (1) Vaisnava bhakti, described as a “dualistic devotion based on external image worship,” (2) Nirguna bhakti, which focuses on a “formless conception of the divine,” and (3) Saka bhakti, under which the goddess is “not understood as a real presence ‘out there’ but as a symbol of the world or of the self,” which can be “introjected into the spiritual physiognomy of the body” through kundalini yogic practice (McDermott 71). Under this formulation distinguishing between variants upon bhakti practice, the sort which is best-emphasized in the work of Ramprasad is the third type, Saka bhakti. While Ramprasad’s language may be interpreted by adherents of the first type (Vaisnava bhakti) as being purely devotional in nature, this “Vaisnavized perspective” often fails to account for Ramprasad’s symbolism, and for what is symbolized by the ecstasy which is strongly emphasized throughout his works (McDermott 71). Specifically, this author indicates that whenever Ramprasad mentions the act of loving Kali, or the idea of keeping Kali in his heart, he is in actuality “referring to [Kali’s] visualized presence in the heart,” and not “thinking of a particular [goddess whom] he worships within an external, dualistic framework” (McDermott 71). The result of Ramprasad’s intent is an art form co-opted by Bengali Shaktism which contains only superficial resemblance to the works which inspired it.
A promising alternative inspiration for Ramprasad’s works has been theorized as derived from the work of the “esoteric Bauls” (McDermott 71). Ramprasad’s songs addressed to the mind, as an example, “mirror the language and concerns of Baul maner manus songs,” themselves focused on a “man of the heart” (McDermott 71). Moreover, both Ramprasad’s works and those by the Bauls represent the mind as a bird, as well as “the body as a place of sadhana,” likened to a boat, as well as “reliance on a guru,” each of which are less emphasized or not present in traditional Bengali Saktism (McDermott 71). For this reason, McDermott (2001) argues that it is reductive and disingenuous to describe Ramprasad as a bhakti poet, despite centuries of subsequent literary works and religious tradition among the Bengali Saktas people suggesting otherwise (McDermott 71).
This work has touched upon the reductive power of religious symbolism over time. So enamored were the 16th-century Bengali Saktas with the depth of Ramprasad’s stated devotion to the goddess Kali, they neglected the deeper criticisms and complexity of these symbolic and esoteric works. In the intervening centuries, Ramprasad’s works have come to be celebrated for their ecstatic devotion alone, but they have lost much of the intricacy of the author’s original voice. Though Bengali Sakta celebrations are renowned for their fervor, their ‘basis’ in Ramprasad’s works, considered the epitome of their practice, is perhaps less direct than it seems.
Dalmiya, Vrinda (2000) “Loving paradoxes: A feminist reclamation of the goddess Kali.” Hypatia 15, no. 1: 125-150.
Gross, Rita M. (1978) “Hindu Female Deities as a Resource for the Contemporary Rediscovery of the Goddess.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 46, No.1: 269–291.
Kinsley, David (1998) Hindu goddesses: Visions of the divine feminine in the Hindu religious tradition. Berkley: University of California Press, 1988.
McDaniel, June (2004) Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal. Oxford University Press.
McDaniel, June (2018). Lost Ecstasy: Its Decline and Transformation in Religion. Springer: Oxford University Press
McDermott, Rachel Fell (2001) Mother of My Heart, Daughter of My Dreams: Kālī and Umā in the Devotional Poetry of Bengal. Oxford University Press.
McLean, Malcolm (1998) Devoted to the Goddess: the life and work of Ramprasad. SUNY Press.
Schelling, Andrew, ed. (2011) The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature. Oxford University Press.
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This article was written by Zach Myrtrunec (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.