As well as translating Kṣemendra’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 Kalyāṇa 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 ( Kalyāṇa 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.