By Tammy Takahashi
As a young, fledgling writer in high school, I often found myself penning anything from creative writing exercises to poems, songs and short stories (even a film treatment—I was ambitious!) featuring male protagonists.
I never questioned this tendency. My teachers as well, both male and female, never asked me to reflect on why I might not be writing women characters or female perspectives.
It took me many years, and a male protagonist-driven novella later, to realize what seems so glaringly obvious: I had been under-examining and also not understanding or embracing a massive part of who I was, in no small part due to prevailing societal forces: I grew up in a “dead white male” world where the vast majority of authors—including those used in the school system—along with their main characters, were men. It’s not that I, myself, identified as male, but that my imagination was molded and encouraged to align with the dominant voice of many, many, generations, to the extent that it was easier for me to imagine worlds through the male experience than my own.
It is no secret that the all-pervasive patriarchy—now, at the very least, under public scrutiny in the wake of the Weinstein scandal and the #metoo movement it inspired—extends to the realms of spirituality and religion, where the suppression of the feminine and women’s voices and practice has long been the norm. That’s why, before even opening Bhakti Blossoms, there is so much to admire and be excited about. Editor Krishna Kanta Dasi, founder of the Vaishnavi Voices Poetry Project, has invited 108 women practitioners of Bhakti Yoga to express their devotion to the Divine through poetry.
The four main branches of yoga in the Gita—Raja, Karma, Jnana and Bhatki—all seek, through different means, to achieve a union between people in their bodily incarnation, and the Divine. Bhakti is the path of loving devotion; the root of the word, the Sansrkrit “bhaj”, means to love or worship God. As Graham Schweig explains in Bhakti Blossom’s foreword, “Bhakti is a practice that cultivates purity of heart, selflessness of devotion, and sweetness of character.”
Within Bhakti, he goes on to explain, the Vaishnava tradition revolves around devotion to the Divine as Vishnu, or Krishna, and highlights the Bhakti practice as a yogic path.
Though this devotional yogic path is thousands of years old, the voices of its women practitioners have been all but obscured. Devotional poetry written by men abound, from the Sufi traditions’s Rumi, Kabir and Hafiz, to the Hindu trandition’s Rabindranath Tagore, Ramprasad and Sri Aurobindo, but Bhakti Blossoms represents the first coming together of women devotees in Bhakti yoga in expression of their spirituality and devotion through this rich and impacting medium.
Many of the poetesses featured in the book are new to poetry, and for many, English is not their first language, but it is no exaggeration to say that the primary language here is love, and the book is tremendously affecting as a result, a real balm for our times and gift to pore through.
The book is divided into nine chapters—Bhakti, Divinity, Guru & Sanga, Our Selves and Others, Maya’s Magic, Prayers, Seva, Divine Nature and The Holy Names—that speak to the multi-faceted and fascinating qualities of the Vaishnavi devotional pathway. The chapter introductions do the poems that follow a great service, helping readers understand the specific individual flavors of the spiritual experiences to be presented. From there the individual poetesses reach out through the page, embracing the reader as a result of they themselves having opened up to their own expressivity in devotion.
There is simply great power in the collective voice.
I think of a mosaic, or a woven textile, or a string of pearls, in which each part gleams with beauty and clarity, only enhanced by the role it plays in creating a larger totality. As I read each poem in this book, I am transported into one woman’s journey—her contentment, happiness, bliss, struggle, self-reflection—in her relationship with the divine, and the cumulative effect of reading the poems in succession is striking. I am reminded of the bhajan (devotional song) performances I’ve attended and often listen to, in which holy words are repeated over and over, their power increasing with each repetition until the song rises to a crescendo that leaves me simultaneously shattered and feeling utterly whole.
The poems in this book have a similar effect; each one glistens, helping create a momentum that potentially sweeps the reader into a universe where light, inspiration, and selfless love prevail, even in the context of the shadows and struggles that are a natural part of the true human and spiritual experience.
The poems themselves, without generalizing—for each speaks so directly from the heart that generalization is impossible—are inspired and completely honest, and they touched me to the core. In her introduction to the book, Krishna Kanta Dasi alludes to the many flower metaphors that adorn the Bhakti tradition, one of them being, “the tighter the bud the more resistant we are to Bhakti, the more our petals open, the more awake our heart is to receiving and reciprocating the love God has for us.”
As I read this book, often devouring pages at a time, this metaphor came to mind as each poem felt to me like a petal opening—by turn hesitant, gentle, unsure, questioning, vulnerable, brave, exultant, inspired, emboldened. It revealed not only the author’s exquisite relationship with the Divine, but the capacity each one of us has to open our hearts more, to not be afraid, to surrender to what lies behind the veil of our senses, to be a flower, which protects itself and hides when it needs to, but which so willingly opens at first opportunity, unfailingly, as long as it exists.
If this sounds overly poetic, this is what the book inspires! Sitting down with Bhakti Blossoms is like sitting down with a steaming cup of tea on a rainy day, or in an orchard under a bright, midday sun: it is comfort, community, love, passion, strength, devotion and faith. It is inspiration in a world that desperately needs it; it is hope for a future guided by the feminine principles of receptivity, intuition, communion, creativity and generation.
From a spiritual perspective, it is a reminder not to jump over our own humanity—our glorious triumphs and also failures, our doubts, fears, joys and sorrows—on our “way up” to enlightenment, but to live, experience and also attempt, at every turn, to give expression to our beautiful humanity as an integral part of the spiritual journey.
It is also—in the sheer feat of its coming into being—a politically-engaged assertion that women’s voices will not be silenced. But nor do they aim to dominate. Instead, they rise in chorus, guiding us on a pathway to that which is larger than all of us.
These are the guides we need, and I am so thankful for their existence.
Editor: Dana Gornall