Poetry for the G20

Kabir with Namdeva, Raidas and Pipaji – Wikimedia Commons (National Museum, New Delhi)

This year India holds the presidency of the G20, and is hosting high-level diplomatic and ministerial meetings which are now in full swing.  The theme of this Indian presidency is the Sanskrit phrase “वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम्” taken from the Mahā Upanishad, or, in English, it is ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’.  Referencing this theme, the Prime Minister of India writes

“If humans were inherently selfish, what would explain the lasting appeal of so many spiritual traditions that advocate the fundamental one-ness of us all? … India’s G20 Presidency will work to promote this universal sense of one-ness.”

The theme of oneness has indeed been expressed powerfully and eloquently in poetry from diverse spiritual traditions. As such, it may be fitting to mark the occasion with some elements of poetry. 

Poetry may seem prima facie tangential to the concerns of the G20 diplomats, yet in fact, poetry and other literary traditions have the capacity to powerfully shape social and political thought.  And it is through its own such literary traditions that India has already made some of its major contributions.  For example, we may think of the Rāmāyaṇa, which influenced traditions of kingship in South-East Asia, or of the stories of the Kathāsaritsāgara & Panchatantra which travelled west to influence stories and ways of storytelling that helped shape the European imagination, or of verses in praise of Buddhist deities, the translations of which into Chinese, Tibetan and other languages helped shape state and society in Asia from an early date.  I plan to write more about these literary traditions in future articles.

Veda and Tantra are perhaps the two deep and wide rivers of ideas and experience that flow through and from India, and as such we may find renewed inspiration in their warming currents in particular.  As G20 delegates from across the world assemble to try to reach common agreement on controversial topics, we may wish them well in this endeavour with an apt verse from the Rig Veda that may have originally addressed a similar need for political unanimity –

Come together; talk together; agree together in your thinking,
Like the gods earlier, agreeing, sat for their share.
Same mantra – same society – same mind – in their thinking;
I say one same mantra to you; I do the ritual with one same oblation to you
Same your aim; same your hearts;
Let your thinking be same so it will be well for you together.

[Ṛg Veda Maṇḍala 10 Sūkta 191 Mantras 2,3,4 by Ṛṣi Saṃvanana Āṅgirasa; my own translation]

Yet sadly the turmoil of global conflict is rarely amenable to such a sense of harmony.  We may think of Aśoka as described in the eponymous poem by Laurence Binyon, who must escape into nature by night to experience a healing sense of oneness that he cannot find in the milieu of his own political institutions by day.

“O happy prince! From his own court he steals;
Weary of words is he, weary of throngs.
How this wide ecstasy of stillness heals
His heart of flatteries and the tale of wrongs!
Unseen he climbs the hill,
Unheard he brushes with his cloak the dew,
While the young moonbeams every hollow fill
With hovering flowers, so gradual and so still”

[from ‘Aśoka’, Laurence Binyon]

Indeed, nature has a unique power to nourish and succour our spiritual life, and remind us of the oneness of all things, and this observation is not limited to any one set of spiritual traditions.  Thus we may think of how Gerard Manley Hopkins starts one poem by focusing on difference and diversity in nature, yet moves beyond this to see the transcendental unity of divine beauty behind this.

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

[‘Pied Beauty’, Gerard Manley Hopkins]

One pan-Indian spiritual tradition which realizes a sense of oneness with others, with the deity, and with the universe is Tantra.  Thus Abhinavagupta writes –

“With the experience in one’s own thought-space that ‘I am the universe, the creator and the nature of everything’, there is Bhairava-nature.”

[Tantrāloka of Abhinavagupta Chapter 3 Verse 283; my own translation]

The 15th century Indian saint Kabir was part of a similar spiritual tradition which gave poetic expression to a powerful sense of oneness.  In a poem translated by Rabindranath Tagore, Kabir writes (source) –

The river and its waves are one surf, where is the difference between the river and its waves?
When the wave rises, it is the water and when it falls, it is the same water again.
Tell me Sir, where is the distinction?
Because it has been named as wave, shall it no longer be considered as water?

And finally, like the Aśoka of the poem, spiritual contemplations must come to an end, and we must return to practical life strengthened and energized by such meditations.

“–Long, long upon that cedarn–shadowed height
Musing, Asoka mingled with the night.
At last the moon sank o’er the forest wide.
Within his soul those fountains welled no more,
Yet breathed a balm still, fresh as fallen dew:
The mist coiled upward over Ganges shore;
And he arose and sighed,
And gathered his cloak round him, and anew
Threaded the deep woods to his palace door.”

[from ‘Aśoka’, Laurence Binyon]

Kabir Cafe, our very favourite Indian Sufi music band, who sing their own folk music renditions of the poems of Kabir, will be on tour in the UK this month.  Find out more here and listen to their music here –


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