Thursday, February 14, 2008

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)

Posted by Sunil at 8/20/2005 02:52:00 PM

Labels: books, religion

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