Friday, May 23, 2008

Watching Movies

In the Samyutta Nikaya the Buddha asks his audience, “Monks, have you ever seen caranam nama cittam?” They answer that they have and then he says, “Even that caranam nama cittam has been conceived by the diversity of the mind and yet the mind is even more diverse than caranam nama cittam” (S.III,151). Woodward translates the words caranam naman cittam as “a picture which they call ‘a show-piece,’” Nyanaponika translates it as “a multi-figured painting” and Bhikkhu Bodhi has “the picture called ‘Faring On.’” These three translations are certainly correct in having citta as ‘painting’ and ‘picture’ but what about caranam? Carati means, according to the PTS Dictionary, to move, to turn, to turn around. This has led Bhikkhu Bodhi to think that it is the content of the painting that has something to do with moving and the ancient commentary supports this interpretation. It says, “The Sankha were a sect of heretical brahmans. Having taken a canvas, they had various pictures painted on it of the good and bad destinations to illustrate success and failure, and then they took it around on their wanderings. They would show it to people, explaining, ‘If one does this deed, one gets this result; if one does that, one gets that.’” So according to the commentary, ‘caranam’ refers to the movement of beings from one life to another according to their kamma. Of course it is quite possible that such pictures were used to entertain and instruct. However, I think ‘moving’ here had a different meaning.
There is a long tradition of wandering story-tellers in India. Some of these story-tellers have pictures which they display as they sing or recite their tales. The best known of these are the Patus of Bengal. These people make cloth paintings which they hold vertically and let descend in time to the stories they are narrating, often to the accompaniment to music. Less well-known are the long painted scrolls used by Rajastani story-tellers which are displayed horizontally and slowly unrolled in time to the story. Similar painted scrolls are called cheri in Andhra Pradesh and patta chitra elsewhere.
It is interesting that the Buddha actually refers to paintings being done on cloth (dussapatta) with lac, turmeric, indigo or madder (S.II,101-2). He also mentions that people would attend something called “the city of Sobha” (sobhanagaraka, D.I,6), Sobha being the abode of the cherubim and seraphim of Vedic mythology. It is possible that these were pictures of heaven which were displayed while a bard described their various delights. The oldest material evidence of painted cloth scrolls being used by bards and story-tellers is to be found at the Buddhist stupa of Sanchi. The cross-bars on the torana of the stupa are made in imitation of painted scrolls. Note the depiction of rolled up cloth at each end and the how crowded with images the displayed part is, as would have been the case with an actual scroll. There can be little doubt that by the 2nd century BCE Buddhist story-tellers, possibly monks, were touring the land telling people of the life and deeds of the

Buddha and illustrating it with pictures. I think it very likely that some of the gathas in the Pali Tipitaka and particularly in the Mahavastu are actually the very words these story-tellers used to read or chant.
Today, other types of moving pictures, cinema and television, have led to the almost complete demise of the Patus but in the past their stories and their gradually unfolding brightly-colored images must have enthralled their audiences. I suggest that it was such ‘moving’ paintings that the Buddha was referring to. One might render the Buddha’s words as “…the mind is even more diverse than the movies.” An acceptable translation of his question as mentioned above would be, “Monks, have you ever seen what is called the moving picture?”
If you would like to know something more about these Indian scroll paintings visit or and look up Gazir Chitra.


desertboot said...

The reference to the toranas of the Great Stupa is so spot-on. Db

footiam said...

This is news to me! Paintings would be useful in spreading a message. In the past, people may be illiterate;at present, literate people are either too busy and don't have the time to read or just too lazy. What better way then to get a message across through visual aids. It does not hurt the mind!