– Purushothama Choudhary’s Krīstu bhakti

By Ravi Sekhar, SJ

I wonder how many Indian Christians in other regions of India have heard of this truly great man. Purushothama Choudhary was a great Christian poet-saint of the Telugu region of Pre-Independent India. Hailed as the ‘monarch of literature’ in literary circles, he can be considered as the earliest of all poet-saints of South India.

Youth: He hailed from a scholarly Hindu family and was well-versed in music and literature. He was born in 1803 in Ganjam district of Orissa which was predominantly a Telugu-speaking region. His ancestors, Bengali Brahmins, had migrated centuries ago from Bengal and settled in this region. As a Bengali Brahmin child, he was formed and brought up in orthodox Hindu faith, in the Vedic tradition.

K.W. Christopher writes: “Purushothama Choudhary’s childhood was filled with classical and Vedic learning. He became very proficient in Sanskrit, Telugu, Bangla and Utkala. From a very early age, he showed a great predilection for spirituality. Owing to his exceptional skill in singing he was employed as a court vidwān in Parlakimedi princely state.”

Search for Sadguru: After the death of his father, Purushothama engaged himself in a deep quest for spiritual fulfillment and true knowledge. The desire to attain true salvation through a Sadguru (the True Master) became almost an obsession. He tried different teachings, sects and cults, in the process became an avadhūta, an aghōri and even made an abortive attempt to run away to Varanasi. He made every possible effort to quench his spiritual thirst for a true guru but in vain.

Finally it was some tracts on Jesus and Christian faith that helped him discover his true guru in Jesus Christ. He, then, became an ardent follower of Christ, missionary and a mystic. With his rootedness in the bhakti tradition he scripted several scholarly hymns, operas and books on various Christian themes. His works can be compared – both in music and lyrics – to the works of the famed Sri Tyagaraja, Ramadasa and Annamayya, luminaries in the Hindu bhakti music. Since he was proficient in both literature and music, his compositions had both literary merit and musical depth.

Purushothama Choudhary was a great Christian poet-saint of the Telugu region of Pre-Independent India.

Death: Purushothama toured extensively upto Chennai in Tamil Nadu and Bellary in Karnataka to preach the Christ he loved. But he suffered greatly for believing in and preaching Christ. Once he was severely beaten up in Mylapore, Chennai. He died in 1890 at the age of 87.

Poems and songs: His poetry reads like the Old Testament psalms. He was a profound seeker and a passionate devotee. Similar to the ancient sages of India who meditated on the banks of rivers, in the forests and Himalayas in search of the Truth and true meaning of life, and the early Desert Fathers in the deserts of Egypt, Purushothama undertook an intense spiritual struggle to discover the deeper meaning of existence and to quench the inner thirst for the true divine guru. In his search for Sadguru, he travelled far and wide like a pilgrim and did not rest till he found one.

Being a true son of the Indian tradition, Purushothama wanted to seek his enlightenment through the eternal, divine Teacher. Finally he found his Sadguru in Jesus Christ and him alone.

In one of his kirtanas Purushothama states that what matters is the service of the lotus feet of Jesus, the Sadguru, the one who became God incarnate, died and rose for the sinners. This is what everyone who wants to obtain the delight of heavenly grace should know. Once he discovered his Sadguru in Jesus, his restlessness stopped and he became serene and tranquil. Through the little literature available to him on the life of Jesus – especially the gospel of Luke – he gained considerable knowledge of Christ and began to get rooted in Christ.

What happened afterward was something amazing. He grew deeper and deeper in Christ and everything else became worthless. It was like the experience of Paul who said, “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.” (Phil. 3:8).

Although he faced rejection and humiliation from his relatives and villagers, who treated him as an outcast for renouncing his native faith, he remained firm. Purushothama expressed his love for Christ in several kīrtanās. The earliest kīrtana was an outburst of joy on receiving baptism. He felt as if he was overtaken by the Spirit and from this blissful moment his first Christian hymn took shape in Cuttack. He spelled out what transformation he had experienced at that moment. “I found a hiding place in my Jesus Christ. My soul ascended to my great Saviour. My ears heard the good news and then the foolish doctrines left me and fled. I got the virtuous Christian faith. My heart found the deep mystery; boundless solid sin emptied away. Jesus gave his life as a favour, and with his death destroyed heaps of my sins. Devious doctrines of caste and creed died, and diabolic demon chains loosened, and the exalted eternal peace of the Cross-bearer came to roost at the core of my being.”

With his rootedness in the bhakti tradition he scripted several scholarly hymns, operas and books on various Christian themes.

Many kīrtanās of Purushothama reveal that he was captivated by the person of Christ. Christ, for him, is at the same time a guru, teacher, saviour, redeemer, omniscient, omnipotent, eternal healer, ocean of compassion, the treasure of mercy, etc. Besides, he was convinced that only Jesus can bestow true knowledge of God and spiritual delight. He did not love Christ for getting from him something for himself. He did so in order to experience the power and comfort that come when you believe in him and worship him. He could not experience this anywhere else.

He acknowledged this in a kīrtana. “He made me stand under his protection; led me to the dawn of peaceful and pleasing fruits of His word, and comforted me; He subdued me with the goad of His word of light; cut short all my wild desires, hewed down my sin and took me to a haven; lent His ear to my laments, dismissed my distress, dragged me onto a rock and established my well-being and comforted my heart.”

Mystic par excellence: Purushothama had the habit of sitting for long hours in prayer and meditation. He used to sit on the bank of river Vamsadhara, at the border of Andhra and Orissa states, till late at night and sing the kīrtanās aloud. Often he sang the kīrtana in Anandabhairavi, meditating on the name of Jesus: “The name of Jesus is holy; Jesus is the eternal life; the abode of the heart of his servants and he is the destroyer of all the sins. The qualities of Jesus are a delight to our hearts; he drives away the pain of those who suffer and shows the sweet path to salvation. You, Oh, Christ, are the benediction of all the faithful devotees; you are a king who liberates: you are the almighty and powerful priest!”

His profound faith & devotion: Purushothama’s faith in God was rock-strong. He never lost that faith despite the many difficulties, challenges and sufferings he had to face. He described in several kīrtanās his profound faith in God. In one of them he asks, “Is there any greater privilege than to be delighted at heart? Doubts and comforts are changing day by day. With the strength of Christ’s treasure of compassion, all burdens will disappear; there will not be enemies on earth if you learn to be forgiving and friendly to Christ!”

Through deep meditation and contemplation, he grew in the bhakti of Jesus from the age of 35. Until his ripe old age, Purushothama remained passionate in his devotion to Christ.

Like St. Ignatius & St. Paul: In his deep faith and time spent in prayer, including mystical, contemplative prayer, in repenting his past and coming to love Christ passionately he resembles St. Ignatius. Both Ignatius and Purushothama were great krīstubhaktās, ardent lovers of Christ. While Ignatius prayed on the banks of the river Cardoner, Purushothama spent many nights on the banks of river Vamsadhara, in contemplative, mystical prayer. In his missionary zeal and constant travels to preach Christ, Purushothama resembles the great St. Paul.

Dusi Ravi Sekhar, SJ, is a Jesuit from Andhra Province. He has specialized in Indian classical music with a Ph.D. in Bhakti music. He has a Licentiate in Ignatian spirituality from the Gregorian University, Rome. He was the Director of Kaladarshini and HOD of the Department of Music and Dance at Andhra Loyola College, Vijayawada. A lyricist who has written hymns and ballets, he is now the Superior and Correspondent of St. Patrick’s High School, Secunderabad.