Where they feed the fireby Basava
English version by A. K. Ramanujan
Original Language Kannada
In a brahmin house
where they feed the fire
as a god
when the fire goes wild
and burns the house
they splash on it
the water of the gutter
and the dust of the street,
beat their breasts
and call the crowd.
These men then forget their worship
and scold their fire,
O lord of the meeting rivers!
|-- from Speaking of Siva, by A K Ramanujan|
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I hope it is obvious that this poem is meant to make us laugh at an absurd turnabout. We have a proper brahmin house with a fire altar, and they are feeding that fire as a god. But the moment that god steps out of bounds and starts to burn things up, the worshippers are terrified and try to extinguish that god with gutter water.
Of course, there is a lot being said in this poem...
On the surface, the poem pokes fun at what the Virasaiva sect considered the idolatry of worshipping fire "as a god," particularly doing so only when the fire stays within comfortable bounds. Yet "when the fire goes wild," then the fire is instead treated like a dangerous, insentient force that must be suppressed. Suddenly the worshipper has set himself above his god!
On a deeper level, the fire here is the divine fire of bliss. Basavanna is chiding those who worship the sacred reality and mystical truth, but only so long as it is nice and neat and socially acceptable -- intellectualized and not actually experienced directly. When the fire of bliss "goes wild" and "burns the house," filling the awareness with the fire of the one all-consuming reality, then these casual worshippers become terrified and try to suppress this sacred process, denigrating the mystics and saints who embody this fiery truth.
They splash on it
the water of the gutter
and the dust of the street
They try to cover this blazing reality with an overwhelm of emotion, sensory experience, and mundane perception. They "call the crowd" and attempt to return to the limited consensus reality shared by the mass of people. Still identified with the ego, they feel threatened by this bliss-fire and, instead of dancing amidst the flames, they "forget their worship" and "scold their fire."
So Basavanna challenges us to ask ourselves honestly: Do we worship only what is comfortable, a god of our making and under our control, a safely caged notion of the Divine? Or do we truly worship and hold nothing back as we recognize the blissful, blazing Reality?