The householder ascetic

The famine of 1866 decimated millions in Orissa. At that time, Oriya society was plagued by an apathetic colonial administration, fervent religious activism and Brahminical caste discrimination. Few were ready to hear the words of a saint-poet, translated here from the original Oriya:
Touching the waters of Mahanadi
as I sit on its bank, I swear
I will transgress all Dharma, I will drink liquor.
I will elope with a Brahmin woman.Yet, Bhima Bhoi's compassionate verses had an impact, so much so that the Oriya people, irrespective of their literacy level or familiarity with literature, quoted his verses. One of their favourites was the following:
Endless are the agonies and sorrows of the living.
Who can bear to be witness?
Condemn my life to hell,
But let the world be uplifted.Bhima's ability to challenge prevalent belief has been appreciated not just by Oriya readers. His often mystical verses were also sung by the masses, accompanied by the tambourine-like khanjani – as they continue to be today.

The precise date of Bhima's birth is not known, but most estimates suggest that he was born around 1855 and died in 1895. Bhima's poetry reflects his background – he was blind, illiterate and born into a Dalit household – and communicates, in equal measure, the thoughts of a rebel, a disciple and a mystic who eventually came to be revered as a saint. He wrote, 'Tis a jest of my Guru that my eyes cannot see./ I mastered no Vedas or Sastras./ I compose my verses with my mind/ through my experience, peering into the void'. Thus, the issue of his blindness best fit into the canon as promoted by the Indian bhakti (devotional) tradition.

This new compilation, in both Oriya in Roman script and English, presents an authentic version of some of Bhima's best poems, such as 'Stuticintamani' (the jewel of spiritual hymns) and 'Bhajanamala' (devotional songs). The German editors, Bettina Baumer and Johannes Beltz, have wisely collaborated with two Oriya poets, Kalidas Mishra and Kedar Mishra, to arrive at a credible English translation of these verses, highly musical in their original form.

Of central importance in his verses, Bhima propagated a sense of a casteless society, and to this vision many – including Brahmins, against whom he specifically raised a voice – were attracted. Because of the rebellious nature of his poetry, he was ostracised from his guru at Joranda. Getting a land grant from the local king and donations from his followers, he established his asrama at Khaliapalli, where his wooden sandals are worshipped today. Even his writing process itself sounds almost supernatural: in his asrama, he is said to have dictated to four scribes 'one line each of four verses simultaneously; those verses became four different songs'. So enviable were his verses that, during later periods, others imitated his style, with some even trying to pass off such counterfeits as Bhima's works.

Curses into verse
The initiation of Bhima Bhoi into a spiritual order and his foray into poetry are akin to those of other bhakti poets of India, such as Surdas. Bhima writes of how he was rescued by his guru, Mahima Goswami, the founder of Mahima Dharma, a school that stood against the caste system and promoted the idea of one god, who is without attributes. Simultaneously, these ideas challenged both social structures and religious beliefs of the time. Bhima came to be known as the founder-poet of this dharma, a position that also made him the target of significant vitriol. At several points, he was accused of being a Christian missionary for his songs, such as: See what ignorance! Being mere humans, they make relationship with lifeless idols. Yet we pay no attention to the One who created our body and life from the voidIn fact, he was crusading against ignorance – and for this, invited people's scorn. But it was the poet's privilege to turn curses into verse: 'As for me, if you kick my leg/ it is my other limb which suffers.' Because they did not follow usual Hindu stricture, the followers of Mahima Dharma were labelled as 'bone-eaters', 'drinkers of wine, eaters of meat'; and Bhima, they said, was nothing but a fake saint. To this, he responded: 'They say that, despite my being a Kandha [an Adivasi]/ I accept obeisance from the Brahmins at my feet.'

Today, it appears that Mahima Dharma was so attractive to so many people because of its accessibility – one could be a householder, for instance, but still follow ascetic practices. And as Bhima gathered followers, his asrama became a site of protest. Living in the times that he did, Bhima could not just be a bhakti poet; he was also anti-colonial. He wrote, 'The Britishers will reign over this continent. As the white ants eat away the wood even though there is water at the root, so the Britishers will destroy the people. Attending the call of nature, they will not use water. Dirty as they are, they will eat the flesh of cows.' Inevitably, such provocative songs drew the attention of the British, and the local tehsildar (tax collector) was sent to take stock of the situation, though he did not find anything 'incriminatory' that would seem to drive Bhima's followers to become politicised.

Bhima's verses had such an impact that some of his followers travelled to Puri, on the Orissa coast, and forcefully entered the 11th-century temple of Lord Jagannath, which bars entry to non-Hindus and low-caste Hindus even today. The British government ordered an enquiry and Utkal Dipika, a premier Oriya daily at the time, wrote about the incident in its 12 March 1881 issue:

A rumour has broken out here that for the last two weeks a gang of gypsy-like men and women … have forcibly entered into Sri Jagannath temple at Puri … The guards of the temple prevented them. But they disobeyed and tried to approach the idol of Lord Jagannath. Then, a fight broke out with the guards in which one of the [members of the] attacking gang died … Others, throwing rice from their pots, making sacred food of the Lord unholy, threatening to burn the wooden idol of Lord Jagannath and paste the ashes on their body, came out of the temple … But the rumour does not say whether they have been arrested by the police or whether a case has been filed in court … If there is any truth in this event, then there is danger for Lord Jagannath, and no follower of Jagannath has come out to save Him.

Waiting for Satyayuga
Bhima was a radical – he had three wives – and a rebel, speaking out against Hinduism but also against certain doctrines practiced by the Mahimaites. Eventually, his verses gave impetus to the rejection of hierarchy not only in the society but in the order of the dharma itself. While the followers of the original sect gave in to the slow process of its Hinduisation, in Khaliapalli Bhima went colloquial in his verses to reach the illiterate masses. In so doing, he also became more liberal, to the point of accepting women as his devotees. Ultimately, the poet in him outgrew the disciple, although he continued to dedicate verses to his guru.

Bhima's poetry discusses two Hindu epochs in great detail – Kaliyuga (the era of darkness) and Satyayuga (the era of truth). About the former, he writes, 'The stream of Dharma has gone dry,' and in times like this, 'The wickedness of the world grows worse and worse.' Mark the confidence – or impudence – in the following lines:

In a single day, nay,
Within a moment, I could overturn the world.
But I bite my lips. What can I do?

My blessed Guru has not ordered me.Bhoi believed that his guru was an avatar of god, who would push back Kaliyuga and usher in Satyayuga. His works follow the poetic tradition of Malika, a book of predictions rooted in the works of the Oriya panchasakhas (five poets), namely Jagannath Das, Balaram Das, Yasobanta Das, Ananta Das and Achyutananda Das, who lived in the 15th and 16th centuries. Their apocalyptic poetry always had takers, perhaps due to the fact that Orissa is regularly visited by natural calamities. Bhima's era was no different, as Orissa was suffering from the Na Anka famine that killed a third of its population.

Apart from his devotional poetry, Bhoi also composed philosophical songs, which might not have been fully comprehended by the masses but were accepted nonetheless. One reason for this was his use of colloquial language, as in:

The tree has no roots, yet the shadow falls,
fruits grow without buds or blossoms,
leaves sprout without stalks.
He is realised on the path of asadhana.

He has become the pair of husband and wife
but has no sexual organs.
He wears the bark of a tree.
Serve always at the feet of the Lord,

Says the humble Bhima Bhoi.This verse begins with the much-quoted couplet, 'Having neither form nor feature/ the one whose body is the Void/ has risen.' It paints Brahma, his guru, as the incarnate who will bring about the long-awaited Satyayuga.

This well-researched collection of Bhima Bhoi's poems will help to introduce an Oriya poet from colonial times to a wider readership, and perhaps push for his inclusion in the pantheon of saint-poets of the Subcontinent. Even though he was a late arrival to this tradition, his work remains singularly original. Born into a low caste, abandoned to fend for himself, confined all his life to Orissa's remote areas, Bhima Bhoi's insight and imagination, communicated through his poetry, is remembered by the Oriya people and beyond to this day.

~ Rabindra Swain is an Oriya poet who has published three books of poetry and translated works from Oriya. He lives in Bhubaneswar.

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