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GOD ON THE HILL - Annamayya

It is said that when he was a little boy his aunt sent Annamayya (the fifteenth century poet saint of Tirupati), to bring grass for the cows. Annamayya cut his finger along with the handful of grass that he had plucked. He yelped “Hari! Hari!”. At that moment, when he surrendered to pain, he found God. Throwing away the sickle, he left his family and a life of domestic comfort, and went in pursuit of the divine. Poetry found him soon after, when, hungry, and haggard, with a band of pilgrims, he is said to have had a vision of the Goddess Alamelumanga who fed him with milk that oozed out of her own breasts and the prashad that she and Vishnu shared at the temple. He wrote a sataka (one hundred verses) for Alamelumanga, transfixed by the golden hue of the mountain before him. The next day he sang another Sataka to Venkateshwara, an incarnation of Vishnu. 

 Hagiographies tend to recast ordinary incidents as miraculous affairs, and so, the myth of Annamayya is cast in the mould of a child who is born with Vishnu in his heart. (The poem and biography of Annamayya is from God on the Hill Translated from telugu by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman)

The poetry of the mystics has always fascinated me. Poetry, like religious belief is often a response to the unseen, an ethnography of all that is mysterious. As an observer, God is the name I give epiphany, When the world comes to me and whispers, so that nobody else can hear, I think it is better to listen. The artist documents, embraces the voice of truth. For Annamayya, God is both love and work. He speaks to god as a servant, a jaded lover, a confidante. I listen to him, because he speaks truth. 

 It is important to have this conversation, to be comfortable with uncertainty, and to reaffirm faith, because we live in a time when prayer has become a political weapon. Jai Shree Ram is a war cry, and the religious imagery of the revolutionary poet Faiz is “anti-Hindu”. No Bhakti poet would endorse the violence both physical and psychological that the “Bhakts” today eschew. 

Over the years, God has slipped into my consciousness the way “life seeps in, like water under the carpet”. I do not see God as pure or unchanging. Since it is belief that creates God, what is ascribed to divinity stems from the impotence of humanity, but those who speak of enlightenment treat God as familiar and fallible. 

 Can we imagine a god that sits in envy of our own mortality? The stoics profess a deep knowledge of death as a way of living each moment as if it were last. If we knew this, maybe we would know love, maybe we would understand why a mother would bring her month-old baby out to a protest, why a parent would stand by her child asking her to not give in, even after she is bludgeoned by a bloodthirsty mob, why families of countless Muslims who have been arrested and beaten without reason turn to prayer.

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