Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Origin of a Young God

“And the splendor of her hips can be measured
by how Śiva at last would lift them
to his lap and there, faultless, she would rest
where even the desires of other women cannot go.

A delicate line of young hair crossing
the knot of her skirt and entering her deep
navel  seemed a streak of dark light
from the blue gem centering her belt.

At her waist like an altar, curving and slender,
there were three gentle folds of the skin,
as if a woman in her youth could freshly grow
steps for the God of love to climb.

She with her eyes like dark waterlilies had full breasts
and they were of a light color, with black nipples,
and pressed so closely together not even
the fiber of a lotus could find space between them.”

That’s exactly the kind of poetry the moral police in India today (it could be the Shiv Sena, or the Bajarang Dal, or any one else) would be outraged by, and probably call a strike for (along with the burning down of a library or two). Clearly, according to them, such scandalous thought and writing is corrupting the country’s ancient culture and moral fiber.

Clearly. Except that these stanzas are taken from a translation of Kālidāsa’s magnificent Sanskrit poetic composition, Kumārasambhava (an absolutely brilliant translation by Hank Heifetz). Kālidāsa  is undoubtedly one of Sanskrit’s greatest writers, remembered to this day (perhaps 1500 or more years after his time) for his three magnificent plays, two mahākāvya’s and one khandakāvya (extended lyric), which have been translated and rewritten in scores of Indian and western languages, and told and enacted more times than can be counted. Kumārasambhava is a mahākāvya, a great poem, and has eight cantos (or sargas) definitively written by Kālidāsa (with nine more, that may or may not have been written by him). It is the poem of the events leading to the conception of Kumāra (Skanda or  Shanmukha or Kārttikeya, who fused with the Tamil Muruga), the eternal youth, and child of Śiva and Pārvati.

The eight sargas start with the birth of Umā (or Pārvati) in the lap of the lord of the Himālayas, Himvan, and moves on to the manifestation of Brahmā, the burning of the god of love, Rati’s lament, achieving the fruit of tapas, Umā to be given in marriage to Śiva, the marriage of Śiva and Pārvati, and the description of Umā’s pleasure (ending in the conception of Kumāra).

Kālidāsa’s  presentation of Śiva’s as a lover may have been criticized in India, yet Kālidāsa’s work  remains true to the Upanishads. This poem is just one among many other countless works in Sanskrit that unabashedly celebrates the erotic mysticism that was very much an overt part of Indian philosophy and literature. Where there is Kāma (love, desire) there always is Rati (sexual delight), and the two are never apart.

One absolutely outstanding aspect of Heifetz’s translation is his ability to maintain the Sanskrit meter. Classical Sanskrit poetry is written in four-line stanzas, with a definite number of syllables in each stanza. One of the most common Sanskrit meters is the Śloka, which has eight syllables in each quarter (yes, the word Śloka, does not necessarily mean a prayer, but is just a Sanskrit meter). Kumārasambhava uses eight different meters (for eight sargas) including the Śloka meter. Heifetz has incredibly managed, in his translation, to retain the feel and count of these meters. Thus, every stanza flows in a rhythm that Kālidāsa himself intended.

“There the god who can be known in eight forms
fed wood to the fire, itself a form of him,
and, for some unimaginable reason of his own, practiced
tapas, he who himself gives the fruits of it.”

This is a truly outstanding effort at translation, of an immortal poem that celebrates love, life, and our culture.

Read it, even if only to enjoy the absolutely breathtaking poetry. (ISBN 0-520-07126-3, Amazon link)


Anonymous said...

The Kumarasambhava has the last canto incomplete since Shiva (?) is said to have cursed kalidasa - who began the work by invoking the blessings of the divine parents - Shiva and Parvati - and then went on merrily to describe their lovemaking (which led to the birth of Kumara - which is the point of the story anyway - I studied parts of kumarasambhava in college).
That irrelevant bit of info apart, I see what you mean by the utter stupidity of the moral policing that is on in India now - at what point in time did we learn to shroud ourselves in fake notions of morality and virtue? And forget such literary works and other masterpieces like Khajuraho...?

Anonymous said...

Thought-provoking post.

I am reminded of Anantha Murthy's Samskara, where the minds of youth of the agrahara go berserk listening to Kalidasa's description of Sakuntala (as expounded by Praneshacharya).

Sunil said...

hehe....Charu.....that story must have been propagated years after Kalidasa, by some moral police of that time. The eight cantos in themselves are very complete, and complete a story. It is after all, Kumarasambhava, not Kumarajeevanakatha! So there's no reason for it to go on and describe the childhood of Kumara, and his victory over Tarakasura. That of course comes in the other 9 sargas that probably were not composed by Kalidasa. But it is an absolutely beautiful poem (even in translation). I struggle through the Sanskrit original (with a dictionary), so some times miss the fluidity and perfect meter.

Srikanth, thanks for pointing out Samskara. It's a book i've been wanting to read for a while now.....perhaps i should go to my library and find it.

Anonymous said...

Brilliantly and passionately written. Thanks.

Incidentally eight different meters (for eight sargas) is not correct, strictly speaking, as poets usually don't compose all the shlokas of a sarga in the same meter. For instance the second sarga of the Kumarasambhava is mostly in the Śloka meter (i.e., anushtup meter) whereas the last shloka is not in that one. But there's one predominant meter for each sarga, and in that sense what you wrote is correct.

The meter that I like the most is mandakranta. (Btw, I envy the way you have transliterated the Sanskrit words, I should try that out too in future posts).

Good to see Srikanth bringing in Samskara here. It's one of the best novels that I've read. It's definitely the best Indian novel that I've read. Sunil, there's a beautiful English translation by A.K. Ramanujan.

Sunil said...

Anand, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Yes, you are absolutely correct, the meter changes in each sarga, at the end of it. But I glossed over that for simplicity's sake. Yes, the last shloka is not in that one....even in the translation...

Then, the bow slung on his neck marked
by the traces of Rati's bracelets,
the bow ends as beautifully curved
as the eyebrows of gracefully moving women,
his arrow of mango buds entrusted
to his companion the spring,
the God of the flower bow, with his hands joined,
approached the God of a Hundred Sacrifices.

I'm just amazed by Hank Heifetz's translation.

The mandakranta ......slow a meter i'm only beginning to appreciate. It isn't as obvious as the eight syllable sloka, which just jumps out at you. It's a far more refined meter. Isn't that the meter of Meghadoota?

The transliteration....i managed only because of blogger for word. There too, i've only figured it out for vowels (long form), but haven't the slightest clue how to write out transliteration of consonants, especially anunaasika letters.

Anand, Srikanth, thank you for heartily recommending Samskara. I looked at my university's vast collection, found AK Ramanujan's translation, and have placed a request for it, and it should be at my pick-up box by tuesday!

Dilip D'Souza said...

Samskara, and Heifetz's translation of Kumārasambhava ... reading list just got padded (or that phadded) some more. Thanks. The vividness of the images in that excerpt ... be still my beating heart.

Anonymous said...

Let's see if this appears correctly on all machines:
Nasal consonants - ङ ṅ ञ ñ ण ṇ

Anonymous said...

Sunil, this is the version I have heard - in fact some stories have it that the Kumarsambhava has 17 cantos, and some that the 8th was left incomplete and was written later by someone else... ah well, moral police... in those days too :)

Sunil said...

Dilip....aren't reading lists like that always? There's a constant increase in the size of that list, and no matter how much you read, the length only seems to increase.

Srikanth, I'm assuming you're using unicode. But if you know how to do this on ms word, you are a magician. Perhaps you'll share some of your secrets with us.

Charu, here's what Hank Heifetz says, and I quote from the book:

"For the subsequent nine sargas, no commentary exists by Mallinātha, the most famous of Kālidāsa's commentators. More significantly, they are never quoted in the alamkāraŚāstra, the Sanskrit treatises on titerary theory and practice, in which verses from Sargas 1 through 8 are common. Modern literary scholars also point to a general inferiority in arguement against Kālidāsa's authorship. The eight definitely authentic sargas have a completeness of their own. Thematically, they develop not exactly a love story but a paradigm of inevitable union between male and female played out on the immense scale of supreme divinity."

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

brought back wonderful memories of studying Kalidasa in school and college... have made a mental note to go to Motilal Benarsidas on my next trip home... thnx

Anonymous said...

Srikanth, I'm assuming you're using unicode.
Quite right, unicode code-points have been defined for various latin characters with diacritical marks. But these code-points may not be present in all fonts.

Fortunately, the Tahoma font has all the characters needed for romanising the Sanskrit alphabet. So, in MS Word, go to Insert->Symbol. In the dialogue box that appears, choose Tahoma and scroll down to your favourite diacritical mark.

So, have fun with all the khaṇḍakāvyas and abhijñānaśākuntalas!

PS: Saw the Word Verification for posting comments - are you being bothered with spam?

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Sunil. Even though I had Sanskrit in school, I never had the chance to explore ancient Sanskrit works, or even their translatiors.

But I am a poetry-buff, and this beautiful translation has really intrigued me.

froginthewell said...

sunIl, I am not sure if the original would be as interesting as the translation. I haven't seen kumArasaMbhava but I fail to see *any* literary merit whatsoever in any of the shlOkas I have seen in raghuvaMsha or RtusaMhAra ( of course, the authorship of the latter is controversial ) - other than, of course, many comparisons that seem slightly innovative but highly contrived. I suspect foulplay by the then-powerful king or some religious story like shiva cursing kAlidAsa or the kAli-dAsa story to have brought undeserving attention to the guy. And the cobwebs of tradition must have coaxed the other poets to concede that kAlidAsa had any merit. Or may be it is that the rest of sanskrit poetry is even worse!

I don't want to get into the ethics of moral policing but I believe erotic freedom will trigger an aesthetic catastrophy. No wonder sanskrit poets revelled in gory descriptions and contrived upamas, and their power of imagination was infinitely inferior to, say, urdu poets. I believe it should have been prudishness that prevented urdu poets from being distracted by vulgarities. Similar should be the reason why Iran makes some of the best movies on earth. Our own dUradarshan produced much better serials during its more prudish days.

Again - I have seen only some of the erotic temple sculpture - but far from exciting me, they only reminded me of how ugly and dirty human body was. As shankarAcArya says - "Etad mAMsa-vasAdi vikAram manasi vicintaya vAram vAram" - and that certainly helps in pacifying lust etc.

What really do you mean by "kAlidAsa's work remains true to upaniShads"? Even Othello would be true to upaniShads because there is no scope for contradiction.

On the other hand, the Indian commentaries on vEdAnta, grammar etc. seem to be very precise and crisp. Of course, popular hindu ( you might want to read "Indian" ) philosophies like advaita, vishiShTAdvaita, dvaita, buddhism, jainism etc. keep talking about controlling our senses. So our culture doesn't consist only of "open-minded" ( as you might want to call them ) people.

Sunil said...

Shoe fiend.....go for it!

Srikanth, thank you very much! That is most useful, and you have changed my life for the better. Yes, I was being spammed, so i turned the word verification on.

Ash......luckily, there are some excellent Sanskrit translations available for a number of texts. This was really amongst the best i've read (in terms of fidelity to the original, and retaining other aspects of the work, like the meter and flow).

froginthewell.....I have read the original, and I did find it just as fascinating as the translation. Not in an erotic sense, but in a poetic sense. I have no idea about Raghuvamsha or RtusaMhAra, but have read sections of VikramUrvashim, and was blown by the word play in that. To each his/her own, but I find most of Kalidasa's work breathtaking, just as you find it detestable. I respect your choice, as I hope you respect mine.

I fail to see the connection between prudishness and aesthetics. I have seen outstanding movies from Mexico, just as I have seen excellent movies from Iran. For every fantastic movie that you bring up from a "prudish" culture, I can find one from another that is not. Your arguement seems to be based on "look there, it's like that, so here it's not like this".

And yes, I am not denying that there have been various philosophies, many of which talk about controlling our senses. I even agree with many things written in many of them. But this aspect was also a part of mainstream philosophy. Any discussion of the philosophy was kept in philosophical arguements, and not in a rampaging mob unaware of it's essense, more interested in rioting. That is what I am objecting to....the fact that you deny something that definitely has existed, and pretend that it does not exist. Yes, commentaries on advaita, vishiShTAdvaita, dvaita etc are very precise, and I admire many aspects of these, and nor am I saying that our culture consisted of only "open-minded" people (I don't see how any of those above philosophies you have named were not open-minded anyway. They were introspective, and expected the student to analyze and argue every aspect, and convinced by force of logic. That is "open-minded" in my definition). What i'm saying is that there were many aspects to our culture, and this was very much a part of it. One is free to select the path of one's choice, and convince another of it's virtues, but to deny or expunge another?

froginthewell said...

Indeed, I respect your choice. In fact I am happy that you find some merit in sanskrit literature, which I am not inspite of being a hindutva guy and also making my best efforts to find worth in our literature.

But do people really appreciate them for what they are - or do they give the consideration that this is ancient literature and hence one cannot expect much more from them? The same kind of writing would be frowned upon today ( indeed, none ventures to do that ). For instance, word play - will anyone give serious weightage to wordplay while critically appreciating a piece of literature? If the literature really had power, its reflections would find a more respectable place in films and music today. Urdu literature has heavily enriched bollywood, while sanskrit literature hasn't. But saMskAra would get attention - partly because it ridicules tradition.

I am surprised that you consider vEdAntins open minded, as I have seen only the worst criticisms about it in left-liberal literature. Most of what their claims are supported by "AptavAkyam", not "pratyakSha" or "anumAna".

The connection I imply between prudishness and aesthetics is that eroticism takes the viewer's attention away from the theme - that is the basis for my arguments, and the examples were an attempt at illustrating the effect. I haven't seen any mexican movies - were those erotic? For data not to be distorted by regional and technological variations, let us consider one fixed country and that too w.r.t. colour movies. Indian movies have been only degraded by eroticism during the last two decades or so - one no longer has a pAthEr pAncAli ( spelling may be wrong ) or a piRavi. And I doubt if hollywood continues to produce great movies at all.

Dilip D'Souza said...

how ugly and dirty human body was.

Talk about differing world views.

Anonymous said...

In fact I am happy that you find some merit in sanskrit literature, which I am not inspite of being a hindutva guy ...

I think "in spite of being" is misleading. In fact I am yet to see a Hindutva guy who finds any merit in Sanskrit literature! Come to think of it, this isn't that surprising. The vibrant diversity of our literature does militate against a monolithic Hindutva approach.

Sunil said...

Thanks Anand.

I was trying hard to put it succinctly, but all I was could come up with were 100 word explanations. What you've said is what I wanted to say, only said in a much clearer and simple way.

froginthewell said...

sunIl : sorry for taking off in some other direction but I feel impelled to reply to some of the comments here.

Anand, most of my friends who have learnt some amount of sanskrit literature and appreciate it have a hindutva bend of mind. Of course, they learnt sanskrit the traditional way and don't have university certificates. And my hinduvAdi friends subscribe to ( and devote themselves to learning ) various philosophies - there are vEdAntins ( of the three main flavours ), jains and atheists among them - all in my very limited friend circle. There are people with conservative, liberal and libertarian world-views in the hindutva camp, quite unlike the left-liberal camp. In all probability you are generalising the statements of some VHP and bajrangdaL guy to the whole of hindutva.

As for sanskrit, I only see hindu-oriented ( I am not saying hinduvAdi or hindutvavAdi ) organizations organizing camps to teach and popularize sanskrit. The view of history I have seen in the writings of organizations committed to spreading sanskrit also matches mine more than left-liberals'.

dilIp : that is probably suggestive, not illustrative, of different world views. That statement was specifically w.r.t. the impression the temple scriptures create in me, not mainstream movies and literature.

Sunil said...

Froginthewell.........what makes you think that I might have any kind of university certificate in Sanskrit? And what makes you think that what little I have learnt has not been the traditional way? Or what makes you think that I do not appreciate or follow any other traditional philosophy? Or what makes you think i am a left-liberal? Or what makes you think that I am godless and irreligious? Every one of those statements is utterly false.

How ever, i do not subscribe to a hindutva theory in any way. I do not want this blog to become a battling ground for different camps to carry out flame wars. This is MY blog.

This post was a post on beautiful poetry (what I thought was beautiful, and said so), and an aspect of Indian pholosophy that I feel is being forcibly curtailed. I believe that any forced ideology is unacceptable and becomes repulsive. You have the right to choose what you want to do, as LONG as it does not affect another's life. If you dont like Kalidasa's poetry, don't read it. But do not prevent another from reading it. Similarly, if some one wants to read non-traditional sanskrit literature, he can freely do so, as long as he's not forcing any one else to do so. Curtailing freedom under any guise is reprihensible (and this includes BOTH camps).

froginthewell said...

I am sorry sunIl, in no way did I imply anything about your learning
sanskrit. Nor do I claim that you are godless, or that you are
irreligious. The political philosophy that is reflected in your posts
seem left-liberal - if you say this is "utterly false" that means that
we follow different definitions of the term "left-liberal" - again,
just a difference of opinion. And I am not using these terms pejoratively. Yes, it does surprise me that you do not consider vEdAnta to be close-minded,
as that is not what I have observed in the articles of people whom
I have felt to be left-liberals
. Because the left respects perception
and inference more than verbal testimony - and the vEdAntic weightage to verbal testimony has been seen as anti-scientific.

Please delete my posts if you feel they are flame wars and you want
them removed - this is YOUR blog, and I don't intend to spam.

And I did not try to prevent others from reading kAlidAsa. I only
expressed my feeling after reading a little of him.

Dilip D'Souza said...

What I cannot understand above all else is why people cannot make their arguments without ascribing labels.

Give us more poetry, Sunil.

froginthewell said...

Sorry, I will be more careful in future. Seriously.

Anand said...

I'll have one more quick comment.

Froginthewell -- As for sanskrit, I only see hindu-oriented ( I am not saying hinduvAdi or hindutvavAdi ) organizations organizing camps to teach and popularize sanskrit. The view of history I have seen in the writings of organizations committed to spreading sanskrit also matches mine more than left-liberals'. Of course we'll see more Hindus organising such camps etc. But I don't agree with the only part. I can easily think of many motivated Muslim and Christian students of Sanskrit who did very well in the Univ Campus where I grew up, most of them teaching Sanskrit in various places. For instance, one of their best students in recent years , I'm told, is a Bangladeshi dancer and columnist. You take the stalwarts of current Indological/Sanskrit studies, many of them are Christians. Many of the Sanskritists abroad have learned Sanskrit the traditional way by spending decades in India. The greatest expert on Panini today is George Cardona. The greatest expert on Vedic rituals is Fritz Stahl. I can go on and on.

Sunil -- I wish this blog will be a battling ground for different camps! I like your blog even better when it is so. As long as we do not indulge in mudslinging, I don't see a problem. And I think no one has indulged in it here so far.

Sunil said...

Well Anand....if there is a battle, I shall maintain strict neutrality, like the proverbial Swiss :-)

Frog, i'll disagree that there is only a single interpretation to fact, each of the different schools have different interpretations, and sub-interpretations. And there is no political-philosophy in my posts. But there might be if you view it under a clouded lens.


froginthewell said...


I don't think I claimed that there is only one interpretation to
vEdAnta. Roughly speaking, "vEdAntO nAma upaniShad-pramANam tadupakArINi
shArIrikasUtrAdIni ca". Any possible interpretation of these texts
can serve as vEdAnta.

As for the political philosophy - I don't want to discuss any more
about it, as I already seem to have pained you enough to trigger a
new post. So I implore you to forget that I ever put/tried to put
a label on you. And I sincerely regret my rude comments. Let us agree
that I read your posts which are nonpolitical and made some stupid
generalization to call you left-liberal. I am not quite sincere in
this last statement but I can't help it.

froginthewell said...

If it doesn't upset you, sunIl, let me make two more replies. Anand : it is one thing to be oneself enamoured by a language and learn it. It is another to devote oneself to the cause of spreading it. My contention was that only so-and-so help in really spreading sanskrit. That is why we now have villages where many people have started conversing in sanskrit. If only university people handle sanskrit it will hardly go beyond academic studies. Like I said, urdu has much, much greater influence on bollywood than sanskrit. I personally don't mind it, since I find myself hardpressed to find literary aesthetic beauty in works of sanskrit literature and hence wouldn't want its imprints on popular music. Nor do I think sanskrit literature has techniques like stream-of-consciousness to offer. On the other hand, the writing styles in commentaries etc. have had their influence on Indian literature - a very welcome one.

anUp - I disagree with what seems to be an utterly gross generalisation by you. kAlidAsa neither gives me a heartattack, nor do I read/see any of that kind of nonsense.

Sunil said... are welcome to make as many replies as you want, without bringing in assumptions unrelated to this (or other) posts.

Dilip D'Souza said...

I shall maintain strict neutrality, like the proverbial Swiss

Yeah, but I hope you won't start flinging those awful weapons about. You know ... aagh, here they come, those vile things, those, those ... Swiss Army knives!

shane said...

That’s exactly the kind of poetry the moral police in India today (it could be the Shiv Sena, or the Bajarang Dal, or any one else) would be outraged by, and probably call a strike for (along with the burning down of a library or two). Clearly, according to them, such scandalous thought and writing is corrupting the country’s ancient culture and moral fiber. Belford | belford lawsuit