Finding God in the worldly life
Shivnarayani Bhajan, named after the saint who composed them, is one of the many bhajans that remain commonplace in the folk music of Uttar Pradesh.
Bhajan is a devotional song that is sung in remembrance of God. It is a popular form of prayer that originated in medieval India during the bhakti movement, a period when several saints opposed ritualism and instead taught that the proper condition of worship is in remembrance of God at all times. Bhakti and bhajan continue to be the dominant form of worship in Hinduism to this day. The bhajans depict a story from the epics and religious texts, or they express the love of a devotee towards God, or in some cases, they convey teachings to guide the devotees.
Paramahamsa Shivnarayani was one such saint who composed a unique set of bhajans that are now known as Shivnarayani bhajans. He belonged to Chandravar village in Ballia district of Uttar Pradesh and lived in the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. He was the son of Babu Baghray, and his guru was Dukh Haran. He is the founder of Shivnarayani Panth, a cult following of his devotees. He wrote about 13 texts on sainthood, saintly life and the philosophy behind such a life. His bhajans and songs emphasise the possibility of living in dispassion and in a saintly manner while being a householder without having taken the saintly vows. The songs also talk of eradicating untouchability, the upward mobility of the depressed classes and societal development.
Mahendra Yadav belongs to Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh and he has been singing these bhajans for a few years now. He belongs to the Yadav community, and he belongs to a family of musicians. Hence, he took a keen interest in singing and performing since his childhood. Taking after his grandfather and his father, he is the third generation of singers in his family. His father and grandfather were both proficient singers of Birha. Birha is the traditional folk form of the Yadava people, and Mahendra sings that too. But he also sings other genres, Nirgun bhajan, Qawwali and even Ghazals. Birha remains a favourite among the people of Azamgarh as it is a ballad filled with adventurous stories and heroic characters. He can perform Birha in eight different rasas.
Mahendra Yadav’s journey in music began in 2001 when he was in 5th class. His teacher Jagdish Yadav identified his talent and encouraged him to sing a folk song in memory of the martyrs of the Kargil war. He wrote the song himself and sang it at the Independence Day celebration in his school that year. His performance became immensely popular across the tehsil, and he was encouraged to start his formal training in singing. Later in his 9th class, Uma Kant Yadav, a renowned singer from Azamgarh taught Birha, and he started performing around the district. He later mastered many different art forms, including Nirgun bhajan, Ghazals and Qawwali.
Shivnarayani Bhajan is performed at weddings, jagarans and other religious occasions in Eastern UP. They are mostly in Bhojpuri and are unique for having been composed in Santau Kaharwa Taal, a distinct musical rhythm which also originated during the bhakti period. Songs composed in this rhythm deliberately go on and off the tempo during the song, and for this reason, these songs are considered a little difficult to perform. The theme of these songs is usually about finding God and realizing the Divine without having to renounce the worldly life and becoming an ascetic. Before the bhakti period, it was commonly assumed that religious life is exclusive to the saints and ascetics who are able to devote all of their time to worship and contemplate and that the householders cannot ever achieve that. This distinction gave way to ritualism and social hierarchy, where the lay people engaged in religious activities only with the help of a priest. The bhakti movement sought to challenge this notion and open the doors to liberation for everyone, no matter what family they were born into or what their occupation was.
One such bhajan that Mahendra Yadav performs is about Mirabai, a well-known devotee of Lord Krishna who lived in the 16th century in Rajasthan. Mirabai belonged to a royal Rajput family and was an ardent devotee of Krishna and she treated him as her husband, a form of devotion in Hinduism where the devotee treats God as their lover. In her time, though, this was considered rather radical and she was persecuted for her beliefs and devotion by her in-laws. The song depicts the conflict of ideas between Mirabai and her father-in-law Rana Sangha. Rana Sangha tries to tempt Mirabai with the charms of wealth and luxurious life in the palace, which Mirabai staunchly resists and instead chooses to live in the temple dedicated to Krishna. She is also tried to be poisoned, but she miraculously survives that and is protected by her Lord.
Worshipping God in Nirgun and Sagun forms also has a long history in Uttar Pradesh. During the bhakti period, there were prominent saints who taught that God has many attributes and can be worshipped in his human form. This is called Sagun bhakti and the saint Tulsidas is a famous example of this school. At the same time, other saints like Kabir taught that God has no attributes and is formless and nameless. Ravidas is also an important saint from this period who first believed in Sagun but later abandoned it and taught the Nirgun way of worship instead. This change in his thinking is also mentioned in Shivnarayani Bhajan, where a fictionalised meeting between Kabir and Ravidas is imagined, and how Kabir first rejects Ravidas’ teachings but later accepts the Nirgun bhakti path.
Shivnarayani bhajans are one of the many bhajans that form a significant corpus of folk literature of Uttar Pradesh. Bhajans continue to be popular because music appeals to the devotees and is an easy way through which everyone can listen and understand religious teachings and express their devotion and offer their prayers.