Suleiman Charitra and Jatakamala

As well as translating Kemendra’s Darpa Dalana for Rasāla recently, A.N.D. Haksar has two two other very disparate translations also out: Suleiman Charitra and Jatakamala. Both, in line with the diplomat-turned-translator’s now trademark style, use a combination of mainly prose with some elegant free verse to recount these poems in wonderfully readable modern English.

Suleiman Charitra of Kalyāa Malla is a small Sanskrit work with huge import across cultures. It relates the biblical tale of David’s fascination with, and ultimate seduction of, his general’s wife Bathsheba in the language and context of Sanskrit kāvya.

The story, told fairly economically in the Bible, has many of the elements of classic Sanskrit love poetry. With some imagination and many embellishments by the 16th century poet we soon have all the ingredients necessary: a powerful man burning with desire, a go-between, and a beautiful woman cautious at first but later an equal partner in ‘the battle of love’. The telling is all the poet’s own – from the leaf juice potion used to confound and inflame Bathsheba, to the description of the many positions they tried in their lovemaking ( Kalyāa Malla’s other work is a manual on sex) – and much much racier than the original. The beauty of Bathsheba – or Saptasuta as she is called, a rough translation of the name’s Hebrew meaning – follows kāvya conventions: her lips are as red as the bimba, her thighs shapely as the plantain, her waist adorned by the triple wrinkle. Even the distinctly non-erotic episode – in which David is made to see what a crime he has committed by sleeping with his general’s wife and then ensuring the general is killed in battle, and as a result is persuaded to have the first son Bathsheba bears him killed as recompense – is heavily influenced by Sanskrit thought. We thus have David, confronted by his ministers on his joy following his son’s death, expounding on the soul’s immortality, and the unreal nature of birth and death.

As the translator points out in the introduction, this wonderful example of cross-cultural influences deserves much more attention than it has so far attracted. Professor Minkowski, current Boden Professor at Oxford, did talk about it in the Boden lecture of 2006 but that aside this little poem has hardly been noticed. This translation, the first into English, will hopefully change that to some degree, and remind us that the coming together of different cultures can engender wonderfully rich fruit rather than inevitably leading to conflict and destruction.

Jatakamala, first translated by A.N.D. Haksar in 2003 and recently reprinted, could not be more different. This collection of stories about the previous births of the Buddha, composed by Ārya Śūra probably in the 4th century AD, is extremely well known and loved among both Buddhists and others. And this is nīti-kāvya, poetry designed primarily to educate and edify. There are beautiful women to be sure but the Buddha’s previous incarnations never swerve from their upright and moral conduct. Indeed, when the Buddha in one tale is struck with love for a particularly enchanting women who belongs to his minister, he, unlike David, does not yield to his passion, even as the husband entreats his master to take her as his wife.

Here we have a hero who can do no wrong, and whose many deeds – from offering his own body to be eaten to entering hell rather than fail to pay respects to a visitor – are so right that they seem not only impossible to emulate but difficult even to relate to, so far removed are they from normal human experience. And yet most of these stories are still a rip-roaring read. There is a huge variety of lively characters, from a prince who has inherited a taste for human flesh from his lion mother to a chick who refuses the worms his parents bring and prefers a vegetarian diet of leaves. Indeed the Buddha himself appears in many avatāras, including as several animals and also the king of the gods, Śakra. And we travel with him from the royal palace to (many a) hermitage to the edge of the world. In each story, he calmly meets the calamity or challenge before him, and is concerned only with how to help others and follow dharma, even at, in fact often at, the cost of his own life. The tales of the Buddha committing suicide or allowing his body to be trampled to hacked to death in order to feed or help others are famous, and justifiably so; for all the talk of this body being only a vehicle for spiritual pursuit, how many others are so ready to give it up so easily and so joyfully, and in such a painful manner?

The one story though that really touches the heart is that of the prince who is banished from his kingdom because of his great generosity, and happily goes to the forest as a renunciant, followed by his beloved wife and children. Their peace there is destroyed when a Brahmin comes one day and asks the prince for his children, to be servants to the Brahmin’s wife. The prince is upset but doesn’t for a second consider refusing the Brahmin his request, and remains steadfast even as his children – beaten in front of him by their new master – appeal to him for help. Śakra then comes to test him – as he does in many stories – by asking him for his wife, who has by this time returned from gathering fruit to the hermitage to find her children gone. This request too the prince grants.

There are morals aplenty here, as the author points out in the introduction and conclusion of each story, and as reiterated by the Dalai Lama in his preface to the book, but perhaps the greatest power of these tales is their ability to stick with the reader as an ever-ready moral compass beautifully decorated in a rainbow of colours.

Review: The Seduction of Shiva

The Seduction of Shiva: Tales of Life and Love

Translated from the Sanskrit by A.N.D. Haksar

Penguin India, 2014

Rs 399

Image

AND Haksar’s latest Sanskrit translation is, in his own words, an “eclectic assemblage” of stories taken from right across the spectrum of Sanskrit literature. What binds these diverse episodes together – in addition to their being ‘tales of life and love’ – is their tendency to reveal an unusual, or at least little known, aspect of sex or marriage in the India of yore.

Most of these stories involve love in its most elemental form. The bawdy pub-joke type of tale – like the one about a barber being cuckolded by the king, in which teeth around the king’s anus create the climax – is typical of the earthy kathā literature for which Sanskrit is not famous (although recent translations by Haksar, among others, have attempted to make this literature more widely known). The anthropologist though will probably find the carefully selected episodes from the Mahābhārata the richest. There is a famous illustration of the niyoga rite – in which a brother may be called upon to father children by his sister-in-law; the tale of a bark-clad sage’s wife demanding a honey-moon suite with all the trimmings before she acquiesces to be impregnated by her husband; and the story of how earth’s greatest warrior spurned the advances of heaven’s most desirable apsaras, and became a eunuch as a result. There is even a discussion on whether it is men or women who enjoy themselves most in bed, and, incidentally, whether mothers or fathers love their children more.

Haksar’s easy-flowing English prose – and his skilful verse, though there is sadly little verse in this particular collection – helps the reader sail through each episode; this is not a book that will take days to read. He has not though been well served by Penguin’s editing process. Diacritical marks are used in places, but not as per the recognised standard nor with consistency. Some Sanskrit words are italicised, some not; and at times the same word is italicised in one instance and not in another. In one case, the name of a prince is spelt differently in two consecutive paragraphs. The notes too seem not to have been fully thought through. It is always difficult to get the notes in such a book right: too much and you irritate the reader for whom this material is familiar, too little and you lose everyone else in a maze of names and foreign words. Even so, it is sometimes difficult to see the logic behind decisions such as, in the first story, explaining who Śiva is but not Kāma.

Haksar has always striven to reveal Sanskrit literature in all of its glorious technicolour, rescuing it from the whitewash some try to apply, and lifting off the veil of greyness through which the majority view it. And this kaleidoscopic collection, in over-representing the colourful and entertaining, will certainly help to further this aim. For Penguin to publish The Seduction of Shiva under the Penguin Classics imprint, though, is perhaps misleading. This is not so much a canonical work but a collection of fun, easy stories that will not only entertain the reader but give him a ready stock of interesting tidbits about the sex lives of ancient Indians.

————————————

For more details and to buy this book, please see the Penguin India page

Siddhartha: From German to Sanskrit, via English

It seems only natural to be reading Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha in Sanskrit. The classic novel, written originally in the author’s native German, is set in India during the Buddha’s lifetime and follows a young Brahmin’s quest to discover his true nature. As he tries to find ātman, Siddhartha rejects the priesthood of his forefathers and joins a band of ascetics in the forest. After mastering asceticism and the supernatural powers associated with it, he renounces that too and – following a brief meeting with Gautama Buddha during which he realises he can never learn from another the truth he seeks – he next practises the arts of love and business as a wealthy town-dweller. Disgusted with that life, indeed with life itself, he finds peace finally as a boatman listening to and learning from the river across which he carries passengers.

Muni Kalyanakirtivijaya’s translation has as its base the original English translation by Hilda Rosner, which uses simple, unfussy language to allow the gentle beauty of the story to shine out. The translator’s Sanskrit version is written in a similarly simple style, with few of the long samāsas, rare verbal forms or complex syntax that can plague Sanskrit literature. So unassuming is the language that it allows the reader to focus instead on the meaning the words convey. The author’s decision to retain sandhi – in contrast to many writers of simple Sanskrit who prefer to omit it – makes for a sonorous read; and reminds us that sandhi need not impede the less practised reader, or indeed listener, of Sanskrit.

There are one or two things with which a reader might quibble. In particular, in the poem that Siddhartha composes for his mistress, Kamala, the richness of the Sanskrit kāvya tradition is conspicuous by its absence, despite Kamala’s delight upon hearing these verses.

Nevertheless, for those of us who naturally read Sanskrit more slowly than we read our mother tongue, this translation is the perfect way to really enjoy this beautiful novel. By slowing us down just enough to ensure we really drink in each word and each description, but at the same time ensuring we need not break the flow by having to puzzle out difficult sentences, this translation allows us to listen to Hesse’s story as Siddhartha learns to listen to the river. And perhaps, if we listen as he does, we too will finally hear the mystical syllable ‘Om’.

—————————————————————————–

For more details and to get a copy of the book, please write tosheelchandrasuriji@yahoo.com.

Muni Kalyanakirtivijaya’s Sanskrit translation is not the first – there is at least one other Sanskrit version of the novel, by Dr L Sulocana Devi.

 


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 211 other followers

Blog Stats

  • 455,137 hits

Updates