Voice of the Heart: Songs of Devotion from the Mystics
Publisher: Beas, India: Radha Soami Satsang Beas, 2013.
Voice of the Heart presents devotional hymns, known as shabds, by 28 mystics from the Indian subcontinent. Dating from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries, these mystics come from different religious traditions – Hindu, Muslim and Sikh – and from different cultural and socio-economic conditions. However, as the publisher’s preface states, “Their voice is one because it is a universal voice of longing for the Lord.”
For a century these shabds have been sung at the Dera Baba Jaimal Singh as the sangat awaits the beginning of the satsang. They invoke an atmosphere of devotion and receptivity. The preface likens these shabds to prayers, invoking the view of the Great Master, Baba Sawan Singh, that true prayer “comes from the heart. Our heart, head and tongue should agree. Pray in such a manner that your inner feelings are aroused, every pore begins to weep, and all your veins become like the strings of a violin. The feeling of love should pour forth, and you should become absorbed in your prayer.”
This selection of shabds were published earlier in Indian languages. For those English-speakers who have listened to the shabds sung before RSSB satsangs, sensing the devotional atmosphere they invoke but not knowing the meaning of the words, this book will be a treasure. In Voice of the Heart each shabd is represented three ways: in the original script, in phonetic transliteration (for those who understand the original language but cannot read its script) and in English translation.
The book presents the 28 mystics in approximately chronological order. It begins with a shabd from Sant Namdev (1270–1350 CE) who pleads to the Lord for a helping hand:
In constantly resounding waves of greed
I am drowning, O Lord!
Ferry me across this ocean of existence,
O Father, please ferry me across.
Unable to steer my boat against this windstorm,
O Beloved, I cannot reach your shore.
Be merciful, O Lord,
and bless me with the company of the Satguru,
who will ferry me across.
Says Namdev: I do not even know how to swim –
give me your hand, O Lord, give me your hand.
Many of the mystics whose shabds are translated for this book will be familiar to English-speakers who have read other books published by RSSB. Among them are Tukaram, Mira Bai, Kabir and Soami Ji. But others may be new to English-language readers. For example, readers may delight in Surdas’ colourful imagery as he sings of the Lord’s compassion:
O Lord, protect me now!
Like a helpless bird, I am sitting on the branch of a tree
and a hunter has his arrow aimed at me.
Terrified of him, I am anxious to escape,
but a deathly hawk hovers above me.
O treasure of mercy, I fear them both –
who can save my life?
No sooner than I remembered you,
a snake bit the hunter and his arrow hit the hawk.
Says Surdas, how can I describe your virtues –
praise to you, O fountainhead of compassion!
Other mystics who may be relatively unknown to English-speaking readers include Dhani Dharamdas, Jagjivan Sahib, Dharnidas, Garibdas and Sahjo Bai. Sahjo Bai expresses her utter need for the refuge of her Master Sant Charandas, having no place else to go. She longs for the darshan of her Master, meaning to gain a glimpse of him.
Think of your own nature now, O Lord;
pay no heed to my vices
and be true to your intrinsic disposition.
Age after age your greatness has prevailed;
the Vedas and the Puranas have sung your glory,
calling you the redeemer of the fallen –
hearing this, my mind has become steadfast.
I am ignorant and you are all-knowing;
you know the innermost secrets of all hearts.
I have taken refuge at your lotus feet;
bestow your grace, O merciful Master!
With folded hands, I plead before you –
hold my hand and accept me as your own.
I have fallen at your door;
without virtue and bereft of devotion am I.
Your devotee Sahjia intensely longs, O Master Charandas,
for the immeasurable treasure of your darshan.
I have fallen in love
and am hanging between life and death –
tell me, without you where would I go?
This book has been organized in a thoughtful way. Two indexes of first lines, one in English, one in transliteration, will help the reader find a particular shabd. The glossary includes not only definitions of terms, but also a brief note about each of the mystics. A subject index makes it easy for the reader to find shabds by different mystics on a particular subject. For example, one can read Dhani Dharamdas on the longing for darshan:
Without your darshan I am distraught, O Master;
grant me your vision. I stand here in anticipation –
come, O Lord!
And Mira Bai expresses her longing with evocative images:
O Beloved, come and grant me your darshan –
I cannot live without you.
Without a glimpse of you, your dear one is like
a lotus without water, or a night without the moon.
Guru Ramdas says that even the fiercest storm cannot stop him from going for darshan:
O Lord, poor Nanak has gone mad in his longing
for a glimpse of your darshan.
Even in a fierce storm and torrential downpour
the disciple goes for the Guru’s darshan.
The publisher hopes that this anthology of shabds “will serve to remind us of the mystic teachings and renew the spirit of the teachings in ourselves, inspiring us to live in the Lord’s will through the life of devotion praised so highly by the saints in these shabds.”
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.