Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Intimate Relations: Psalms and Bhakti Poetry

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Intimate Relations: Psalms and Bhakti Poetry

Article excerpt

We are, by now, accustomed to exploring commonalities and differences in the Jewish and Christian traditions and among the various members of the Abrahamic traditions. But, by and large, there has been very little discussion of what might be gained by exploring the commonalities and divergences of the two "root traditions" of humanity: the Jewish and Hindu traditions. We believe that there is much to be gained by such a conversation. Looking at these two traditions in tandem gives us a deeper understanding of each of them. Beyond that, it offers perspectives that are of value in understanding human religiousness in general. One, among many, examples of such juxtapositions is that of the sacred poetry of the two traditions--the Psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures and the bhakti poetry of the Hindus.

In two religious traditions as supposedly disjunctive as the Jewish and Hindu, we would not expect to find significant religious phenomena in common, yet even a casual reading of the biblical Psalms and the poetry of bhakti (devotion) reveals stunning similarity in style, modes, content, and focus. The fact that the two traditions share a very similar literature is worthy of acknowledgement and comment. Here, we follow two principal modes of exploration. After a historical introduction to both the Psalms and bhakti poetry, we first use the Book of Psalms to establish categories by which to examine the bhakti literature; second, we adopt the reverse tactic, looking into characteristics indigenous to Hindu devotionalism in order to ponder the Psalms anew. In conclusion, we summarize the similarities and significant disjunctions between the two genres and attempt to account for them historically and phenomenologically.

I. Literary Devotion, Jewish and Hindu

Jews and Christians identify the Bible as their foundational text. For Christians the core story is contained in the Gospels; for Jews, in the Pentateuch. Yet, members of both traditions hold one other part of the scriptures in special affection. Many Christians cherish a volume that contains the four Gospels and the Book of Psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Jewish tradition, it is common to find a book of Tillim--the Yiddish formulation of Tehillim/Psalms--as a constant companion by the bedside or in miniature form as a book carried around in one's pocket. The Psalms occupy a role unique among the books of the Bible. Jews turn to the Psalms in times of personal or communal need. The Psalms are read on every occasion at which Jews maintain a vigil of any kind, from sitting with a woman on the eve of childbirth to staying with a body from the time of death until the time of burial, and they are read at all the rites de passage in between. Among some Jewish groups, reaching for a Book of Tillim is the first response to word of a crisis or bad news.

The Book of Psalms, found in the third section of the Hebrew Bible, Ketuvim/Writings--a collection of diverse works of various genres, such as Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and job--is a collection of 150 poems, all of a theological nature. Each of the poems is separate and discrete unto itself. There is no thematic progression or narrative arc of any kind. Rather, each of the compositions is to be read by and for itself. The Book of Psalms is divided into five "books," perhaps to mirror the structure of the Torah/Five Books of Moses. But, once again, there is no continuity within any one of the "books." Like any anthology, the Book of Psalms is a repository of separate and discrete works, dealing with various themes, of different styles, and of varying degrees of literary quality--although for the most part the literary merits of the Book of Psalms are stunningly high.

Tradition ascribes the authorship of the Book of Psalms to King David who lived around the year 1000 B.C.E. In fact, many people know the work as "the Psalms of David." There is a rabbinic tale in which we are told that David would hang his harp over his bed each night as he went to sleep. …

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