Friday, April 9, 2010

SAUNDARANANDA 1.2: Taking Blazing Ascetism to the Extreme

ashishriyad yaH satataM
diiptaM kaashyapa-vat tapaH
aashishraaya ca tad-vRddhau
siddhiM kaashyapa-vat paraam

- = - = = - - =
= = = - - = - =
- = = - - = = =
= = = - - = - =

He beat down ceaselessly,

Like Kashyapa the sun, on blazing asceticism;

And in the promotion thereof he pushed himself on,

Like Kashyapa the sage, to extreme achievement.

The pun on the name Kashyapa might be the harbinger of further double-meaning in this canto.

Running through Ashvaghosha's description in this canto of the asceticism of ancient sages, there is not only an ambivalence but also I think, at least in places, a deliberate irony.

So in this verse, on the surface, Ashvaghosha's words sound somewhat affirmative towards the burning zeal of the ascetic sage Kapila, who Ashvaghosha even compares to the Buddha's mythical master Kashyapa. (In the transmission of the Buddha-Dharma the ancient sage Kashyapa is revered as the 6th of the 7th ancient Buddhas, of whom the 7th and last was Shakyamuni Buddha himself.)

At the same time, however, the final word of the verse (paraam ) can be read as suggesting practice taken to an extreme -- as opposed to the alternative interpretation of practice that has gone to the far shore of conscious control in the middle way.

Similarly, in the background to several verses of this canto, one senses that Ashvaghosha might be nodding and winking.

In 1.11, for example, Ashvaghosha describes in Kapila's ashram "the peacocks with their tufted crests murmuring indistinctly."

Was Ashvaghosha just exercising his poetic sentiments in describing a peaceful scene? Or was he having a quiet dig at the vanity of those strutting peacocks who, from ancient days through to the present, have matted their hair into dreadlocks?

For two years between the ages of 26 and 28, when many a young man is still in strutting peacock mode, I sat in full lotus for no less than five hours every day without fail. Even though my head was shaved, there was a marked tendency in that practice towards extreme achievement (siddhim paraam) and this tendency was primarily due, I see in retrospect, to the influence of an immature tonic labyrinthine reflex.

So to answer my own question with regard to the 2nd line of 1.11, I think that line is not a simple description of a peaceful scene but that it is suffused with underlying irony. Similarly, in this verse too, I intuit an irreverent undertone, and have translated the verse accordingly.

By siddhim paraam, how could Ashvaghosha mean "highest perfection" or "highest success"? How could blazing asceticism be a means of achieving the highest perfection and highest success which, as we have been examining in Canto 17, is a bit of nothing (or a lot of something) which follows from cutting the five upper fetters?

No, siddhim paraam, in my book, means extreme achievement -- nothing for a follower of the Buddha's teaching to be proud of.

EH Johnston:
Who continuously practised glorious austerities just as the sun continually fives forth blazing heat; and attained in their progress the highest perfection like Kashyapa,

Linda Covill:
as ceaselessly fixed on burning asceticism as Kashyapa, he achieved the highest success through its development.

ashishriyad = 3rd pers. sg. aorist shri: to cause to lean or rest on , lay on or in , fix on , fasten to , direct or turn towards , (esp.) spread or diffuse (light or radiance or beauty) over (loc.); to lean on , rest on , recline against (acc.); to go to , approach , resort or have recourse to (for help or refuge) , tend towards (acc.); abide in or on (acc. loc. or adv.);
yaH (nom. sg. m.): who
satatam: ind. constantly , always , ever

diiptam (acc. sg. n.): mfn. blazing , flaming , hot , shining , bright , brilliant , splendid
kaashyapa-vat (nom. sg. m.): like Kashyapa, like the sun
kaashyapa: a patronym from kashyapa; N. of aruNa (the sun)
kashyapa: mfn. having black teeth ; m. name of an ancient sage (a descendant of mariici and author of several hymns of the Rg-veda; he is one of the seven great RShis ; he is supposed by some to be a personification of races inhabiting the Caucasus , the Caspian , Kasmir , &c)
tapaH = acc. sg tapas: n. ascetic practice

aashishraaya = 3rd pers. sg, perfect aa- √shri: to affix ; to apply anything ; to join; to adhere , rest on ; to betake one's self to , resort to ; to depend on ; to choose , prefer ; to be subject to , keep in mind ; to seek refuge in , enter , inhabit
ca: and
tad-vRddhau (loc. sg.): in its increase
tad: that [ascetic practice], its
vRddhi: f. growth , increase , augmentation , rise , advancement , extension , welfare , prosperity , success , fortune , happiness

siddhim (acc. sg.): f. accomplishment , performance , fulfilment , complete attainment (of any object) , success ; supreme felicity , bliss , beatitude , complete sanctification (by penance &c ) , final emancipation , perfection ; the acquisition of supernatural powers by magical means or the supposed faculty so acquired ; any unusual skill or faculty or capability (often in comp.)
kaashyapa-vat: like Kashyapa
paraam (acc. sg. f.): far , distant , remote (in space) , opposite , ulterior , farther than , beyond , on the other or farther side of , extreme


Ian Cross said...

Can you tell us something about the order/ structure/ organisation of the cantos? How many are there altogether? Are you doing them all in order or picking the best ones? etc. How big a volume is Ashvaghosha's work? After a week without any postings, I was wondering if the job might be done.

Mike Cross said...

Hi Ian,

Saundarananda has 18 cantos, the most important of which might be regarded as canto 3, which is Ashvaghosha's description of the Buddha, cantos 12 through to 16, which is essentially a long monologue in which the Buddha tells Nanda the means-whereby of practice, and canto 17 in which Ashvaghosha describes how Nanda makes the teaching his own.

Having translated the above, I decided, as far as possible, to come to a full stop, take stock, and reconsider my options. For example, go on to translate canto 18 next ; or turn to examine Buddhacarita, and maybe investigate the meaning of Defeat of Mara/Moro; or re-visit Fukan-zazengi in light of Ashvaghosha's description of the four dhyanas; or maintain silence on the internet and keep endeavoring just to keep listening through the spring and summer to the forest stream and birdsong...

The thing I felt least like doing, and which seemed least like end-gaining, was to leave canto 18 (which I have already more or less translated) unpublished, and to plough through the early chapters from the beginning, at the usual rate of publishing one verse per day. So I decided to opt for this least exciting option.

But now that I have started examining each verse in Canto 1 in detail, I find there is much more meaning hidden in them than I expected there would be -- when Ashvaghosha wrote of peacocks murmuring indistinctly he had more in mind than the feathered variety of peacock.

Incidentally, if you look on the Storehouse page of, you will find a list of the 18 canto titles.