Sanskrit plays tend to be largely happy affairs. The darker strains of a story are bleached out and any incidental unhappiness that occurs in the course of the drama is always set right in the end. Even by these sunny standards, though, the Lokānanda of Candragomin, a rare Buddhist drama, stands out for its bright optimism.
Almost without exception, everyone in this play is good. The baddies – a rakṣasa who demands the flesh of the hero and a Brahman who takes the crest-jewel that forms a part of his head – turn out to be acting out of concern for others. The story of Prince Maṇicuḍa, one of the Buddha’s incarnations, which the play tells doesn’t need much whitewashing but Candragomin nevertheless edits out the nastiness of King Duṣprasaha (literally ‘insufferable’) and gives Maricī, the sage who takes the hero’s wife and son away from him, a selfless reason for doing so. Even the viduṣaka (jester) Gautama unusually thinks more about others than what’s for lunch, although he still plays the fool.
Standing on the peak of this high moral mountain is Prince Maṇicuḍa. So named for the inbuilt crest (cuḍa) jewel (maṇi) he was born with which acts as a physical extension of his own benevolent self, dishing out healing rays as he dispenses compassion, the prince is at times hard to stomach. At one point, he explains to his long-suffering wife – he has by this stage gladly given her to Maricī – whom he has just saved from the clutches of some would-be abductors that he must of course send her straight back to the sage: were he to reclaim something he had already given away it would be “like a dog that/ in full public view/ slurps up its own vomit”. He turns down Indra’s offer of a place in svarga (heaven) upon hearing that there will be no supplicants there and only ever experiences real happiness when a huge demand is sought of him, a demand he can only fulfil by ultimate self-sacrifice.
This eagerness to sacrifice himself results in two gruesome acts of violence upon the king’s body, both of which seem to be enacted on stage making this one of the bloodier Sanskrit plays, rather ironically. In the first, the king slices off his own flesh for the hungry rakṣasa and is then partially eaten alive. In the second, he rips off the top half of his own head for the Brahman who has come in search of his crest-jewel, and in doing so dies. In both instances, divine intervention very quickly restores him.
Upon closer inspection, though, things are not so clear cut. It is almost as if Candragomin is here preaching to two different audiences: to the first he presents the drama with its loudspeaker message; to the second he offers a more subtle exploration of the difficulties involved in the renunciation that Buddhism espouses. We are told that Maṇicuḍa wants to become a Buddhist monk at the beginning of the play, while his parents are desperate that he marry, rule and produce an heir. In the end he does marry, but only out of pity for his future wife’s torment – she is already in love with him – and at the behest of others who urge him to do his duty (to his family). It is the forest, far beyond all defilement, and the life of an ascetic, free from all human attachment, and ultimately enlightenment, for which he aims. Nevertheless, when he tries to revive the fainted Padmāvatī, he doesn’t know whether to feel joy or sorrow; he is not yet free from emotion and the beauty and purity of this woman can still stir him. Once married, it only gets worse. He continues to ensure all his acts are in keeping with righteousness and to remind himself that attachment is to be spurned, but he is torn when his son is leaving and by giving away his crest jewel he indirectly causes his son’s death. To help one person is to hurt another. To do the right thing causes suffering.
Like many Buddhist texts, this play has been preserved only thanks to an Indian pundit and Buddhist monk who translated it into Tibetan in Kathmandu 650 years ago. Only seven verses survive in the original Sanskrit; the rest must be pieced together from various Tibetan texts, not all of which agree. As a result of the difficulties in establishing the original text, the translator, Michael Hahn, decided against including the Sanskrit so we just have the English. Professor Hahn, who is Professor of Indology and Tibetology at the Philipps-University of Marburg, has elsewhere produced a critical version of the text for the specialist scholar. In this book, though, which is aimed at the generalist, knotty textual issues are not raised, allowing the reader to immerse himself in the play. English approximations replace Sanskrit terms – a vidyādhārī is a “heavenly fairy” – and explanatory details are added to poetic, but for the unitiated mysterious, names, thus: “the bearer of treasures, the earth”. The book is as beautifully produced as it is easy to read, with colour details on several pages and a richly reproduced painting.
The playwright, a well-known 5th century AD Buddhist teacher and author of a grammar, may irritate some readers with his abundance of self-praise – especially the peculiar closing verse of each act, not found elsewhere in Sanskrit drama – but he has a good imagination and some striking pen-pictures which come out well despite the complex transmission.
Thus Maṇicuḍa describes their flight with the vidyādhārī up to heaven on their way to Padmāvatī’s ashram:
The disk of the sun appears to plunge from the sky
and hurls itself down upon our heads.
The earth with all its mountains sinks from view;
the dark blue tamāla forests are skirted
by rows of clouds scattered and dispersed.
Act 2, 29
In the introduction Professor Hahn notes just how much we owe to Buddhist Sanskrit literature. Many texts exist either fragmentally or not at all in the original and must be reconstructed from Tibetan or Chinese translations. This is the first time that the Lokānanda has been translated into English. Hopefully more of this literature, which forms an important part of the Sanskrit corpus, can be reconstructed and published.
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