Thursday, May 15, 2008

Good Sayings

Some of India’s greatest literary treasures own their existence to Buddhist monks. Take the Subhasitaratnakosa for example – an anthology of 1738 Sanskrit verses written by various poets between about the 3rd and the 11th century. This ‘Treasury of Good Sayings’ was compiled by the monk Vidyakara of the Jagaddala Mahavihara in northern Bengal. It is likely that he had the monastery’s huge library at his disposal when he made his complication. Until the 1930’s this important work was unknown when another Buddhist monk, the great Rahula Sankrityayan (one of my heroes), found a manuscript of it in monastery barn during one of his journeys to Tibet. The manuscript must have been taken from India to Tibet in ancient times, almost certainly by a monk, kept there for centuries, eventually forgotten about, rediscovered and then thrown away in the barn. Vidyakara selected the cream of the verses from numerous poems he knew and arranged them in chapters such as The Sun, Spring, Old Age, Good Men, Breezes, Peace and The Lamp. The first three chapters are devoted to the Buddha and the bodhisattvas. Verse 4 compares Siva’s killing of the God of Love with the Buddha’s way of handling the same deity -

Passion and anger both are states
hostile to self-control.
What then did Siva hope to gain
By slaying Karma in anger?
Rather may he who by forbearance
quelled Karma together with a hundred foes,
That chief of saints, the Buddha,
Point you to your welfare.

This is one praises Avalokitesvara.

All-conquering is the Savior of the World.
His lotus hand, stretched down in compassion,
Is dripping streams of nectar to assuage
The thirsty spirits of the dead.
His glorious face is bright with gathered moonlight
And his glance is soft
With that pity that he bears within.

The beauties of nature and the natural world feature much in the anthology.

What use, asoka tree, is your humility of branch,
Your height, your close shade,
Your gracefulness of foliage or your brilliant flowers?
The unhappy travelers gather at your base,
However great their longing as they praise you,
They still get no fruit.

It does not roar or thunder,
It spills no hail nor scatters lightening,
It unlooses no vast wind.
The great rain cloud simply rains.

Vidyakara included in his anthology 25 verses by the monk Bhartrhari, one of ancient India’s most readable poets. I think I would have liked old Bhartrhari. He had a touch of the skeptic in him. When not preoccupied with the philosophy of language he was wavered between desire for the world and the life of renunciation; he was maudlin and devote, curious and half-hearted, all at the same time (a bit like me). Hear is a sample of some of his less jaundiced verse –

Happy are those who in some mountain dale
Sit meditating on the highest light,
The fearless birds alighting in their lap
To drink their tears of joy.
But here I sit in a pavilion
Set in a pleasure garden by a pool
Within the palace of my daydreams
And as I daydream I grow old.

We praise the gods, but they are in the power of fate;
So fate deserves our praise. But fate can only give
The inevitable fruit of any given kamma.
If fruit is bound to kamma, what use the gods and fate?
Therefore, give all your praise to virtuous deeds, for over them
Not even fate has power.

If one fails to take to wife such learning
As may be worthy of his family and thereby
Does not beget that noble child Resplendence,
Or then who fails with gentle love to give that child
In marriage to one who seeks her, deserves our scorn
If to himself he should apply the name a man.

In the man of honor he finds coldness,
In the zealous man hypocrisy;
In the pure, deceit; in the brave, cruelty.
He counts the honest man a simpleton, the kindly-spoken servile,
The brilliant proud, the eloquent talkative,
And one unswayed by passion impotent.
Thus, of the virtuous what virtue
Is by the villain not condemned?

Daniel Ingalls translation of the Subhasitaratnakosa was published in 1965 under the title of An Anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry to the delight of Sanskrit lovers, but has hardly been easy to get a hold of since. I found a copy in a second-hand book-shop in London a few years ago but didn’t have the money to buy it. I asked the proprietor if I could chant a blessing for him in lieu of payment, but he refused. Now an abbreviated edition of it has been published and I found a copy in a book-shop just the other day. It’s just called Sanskrit Poetry and is published by Harvard University Press.

1 comment:

Kiran Paranjape said...

A commendable article on Sanskrit subhashitas.
Expect more from you in the future.