While I was waiting eagerly for him

by Nammalvar

English version by A. K. Ramanujan
Original Language Tamil

While I was waiting eagerly for him
saying to myself,

"If I see you anywhere
I'll gather you
and eat you up,"

he beat me to it
and devoured me entire,

my lord dark as raincloud,
my lord self-seeking and unfair.

-- from Hymns for the Drowning: Poems for Vishnu by Nammalvar, Translated by A. K. Ramanujan

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

I know this poem, with its language of 'eat or be eaten,' can be shocking on first reading, but I really like this poem. Here's why...

The poem is, of course, addressed to God. We have this fascinating image of the poet lying in wait, like a hunter ready to pounce, eager to eat God. Why such a disturbing image? Think about the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist -- depending on the tradition, one is either literally or metaphorically eating the flesh and blood of Christ. Why does one want to "eat" the Divine?

While I was waiting eagerly for him
saying to myself,

"If I see you anywhere
I'll gather you
and eat you up"

Think about eating a meal for a moment. First, the food itself: It is something that carries and renews the life force. It is a product of nature that is also a tangible reminder of divine bounty, providence... love. Food comes to be seen as a holy thing, a physical representation of the connection between the Eternal and the individual. When we eat food, that food becomes a part of us. Food, in other words, is fundamentally an act of communion and assimilation -- both with the natural world all around us, and also with spiritual energies.

What we eat becomes a part of us. What we eat, we become. This is why so many traditions seek to 'eat God' -- in order to discover God within ourselves.

There is another, even deeper reason why we have this imagery of 'eating God' occurs. When you've just eaten a good, healthy, satisfying meal, how does your body feel? You feel a glowing warmth in your belly and a gentle, contented pressure there. The body is energized, but also perhaps just a little sleepy... In certain states of deep communion, especially after practicing physical purification (such as, ironically, fasting), a profoundly blissful... fulness comes upon you. The body is all aglow, with a particular warmth and gentle pressure in the belly. Thoughts become utterly silent, eyelids grow heavy, yet we find an immense energy within. It's as if having eaten the most wonderful, revitalizing meal. Truly a divine feast! Language and rituals of consuming God are sometimes understood as a way to encode an awareness of that heavenly manna.

But --

he beat me to it
and devoured me entire

At a certain point the feast table gets turned. We think we are eating God, we revel in such bounty. But then we pause and look around the banquet, and amidst so many subtle delights, we cannot find ourselves! The ego-self, the identity we've always imagined ourselves to be, is simply not there. Then we have to ask that most startling question: "Who has eaten whom?"

For this, saints teasingly chide God for His greed and sneakiness ("self-seeking and unfair"). After all, the Lord is beyond control, the source of all force and the vast, rolling mystery of existence ("dark as a raincloud").

When we are eaten by God, we become prasad. In Hindu temples, food is ritually offered to God, who "eats" the food on a spiritual level, thus sanctifying it. It then becomes holy food to be eaten by the people. When we ourselves become prasad, consumed by God, we are sanctified and ready to offer ourselves for the needs and upliftment of the world.

This business of eating God, it's a dangerous game, one you're guaranteed to lose. But then, losing is the winning move. Pity the people who never play, who never taste, never try, and stay stuck inside themselves.

So, do you have your fork ready?

Recommended Books: Nammalvar

Hymns for the Drowning: Poems for Vishnu by Nammalvar Nammalvar: (Makers of Indian Literature)

While I was waiting