#203: TAKING THE GODS TO TASK. The life of Ramprasad Sen does not seem to have been fearfully hard, compared with some of the other Hindu devotional poets—with Mirabai, for instance, whose poetic vocation so offended her parents they tried to have her killed. Ramprasad was born in the eighteenth century in West Bengal, and from the sounds of it, was the classic kid distracted from all practicalities by religious devotion and writing poetry (the sort who now distresses his parents by wanting to become an actor or a musician). He got dragged away long enough to be married off, which necessitated his earning a living. He became an accountant (forsooth!), horrifying his coworkers by writing out songs in the account books; but his employer was so impressed with his talent he released Ramprasad to write poems while keeping him on the payroll (something you don’t envision happening at Arthur Andersen or Pricewaterhouse).* He was later taken up by another patron, who gave him a hundred acres of tax-free land, and was cared for in his age by his son and daughter-in-law. His songs were dedicated to Kali, the goddess of time, change and death, and one legend of his death tells of his dying while singing festival hymns to the goddess, immersed in the Ganges up to his neck. There are worse ways of going.
Though it’s not present in all of his work, we hear in Ramprasad something a little different from the other and earlier devotional poets: the occasional impulse to talk back, just a little, to challenge the justice of his fate. We may forget that this exists even in Western devotional poetry: remember George Herbert’s “I struck the board and cry’d, No more,” and think of the “terrible sonnets” of Hopkins: “Comforter, where is your comforting? / Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?” In Ramprasad’s songs, lacking anything like Christian guilt, we can find almost a kind of cheek, not uncommon in Indian poetry. “What am I,” he cries at one point, “A rickety thing / Born a month early?” “What’s so good in You,” he asks of Kali, “That You deserve to be called Mother?” And it can mount to lines that are disarmed and blunt and bereft: “O Ramprasad, admit it— / You still walk through this sweet sham / Of a world heartsick, dazed.” Here is the touch that gives him his distinctive stance, coming in one sense from the old world of pure and rapt devotion, and in another, with its sense of loss, from our own abandoned world. It is a voice Hopkins would recognize, that returns to the gods because, finally, there is no other safety. “Ramprasad begs: Mother, / Old age has broken me—what do I do know? / Mother, teach this worshipper / Worship, plunge me / Into the saving waters.”
Grace and Mercy in Her Wild Hair: Selected Poems to the Mother Goddess (Hohm Press, 1999) is a good selection of Ramprasad’s poems, well translated by Leonard Nathan and Clinton Seely. Singing to the Goddess: Poems to Kali and Uma from Bengal, by Rachel Fell McDermott (Oxford, 2001) is a scholarly and intelligent study of the Shakta traditition.
*This employer was considered remarkable enough to be remembered by name: Durga Charan Mitra. Let no such person be forgotten.