kaushalaM shvaapadeShu ca
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Wishing to test their mettle
Among the elephants and big cats,
They emulated the god-like deeds
Of the forest-dwelling son of Dushyanta.
This verse draws a parallel between the intrepid exploits of the Shakya princes who were the biological ancestors of the Buddha and the intrepid exploits of Bharata, the legendary founder of the Indian nation -- the same intrepid Bharata mentioned in 1.26, the son of King Dushyanta and his forsaken queen Shakuntala.
Bharata's exploits were originally celebrated in the Maha-bharata, whose title means "the great tale of the dynasty that Bharata founded;" the great Sanskrit poet and dramatist Kalidasa, as Shakespeare did with ancient legends from Greece and Rome, later turned the ancient legend into a play, called The Recognition of Shakuntala.
Whereas the Maha-bharata pre-dates Ashvaghosha by many centuries, Kalidasa's play The Recognition of Shakuntala was written probably a century or two after Ashvaghosha's time -- in the 3rd or 4th century CE. But since Kalidasa's play is available to hand in an excellent edition published by the Clay Sanskrit Library (translated by Somadeva Vasudeva), I will quote from there the relevant part (from Act Seven):
OFFSTAGE: Don't! Don't misbehave! Lion, how you show your character.
KING DUSHYANTA: (listening) This is no place for misdemeanor. Who can it be that metes out justice? (his gaze traces the sound, acts surprise) Oh! It is a boy not young in strength of character, being restrained by two female ascetics.
Striking a baby lion with his hand,
he drags it along,
its mane dishevelled by rough handling,
half finished drinking from its mother's breast.
(Enter a boy, engaged as described, being restrained by two female ascetics.)
BOY: Open your jaws! Hey, open your jaws, lion! I want to count your teeth.
FIRST ASCETIC: Bad boy! Why are you hurting the animals who are no different than children to us? Your vehemence is increasing. Rightly the sages call you Sarva-damana [sarva = all; damana = taming , subduing , overpowering]
KING: (pondering) Why should my heart take to this boy as if he were my own? (pondering) It must be that my childlessness makes me fond of children.
SECOND ASCETIC: That lioness will pounce on you if you will not release her son.
BOY: (smiling) Oh, I'm terrified! (Bites his lip.)
This child seems to me a seed
of great brilliance,
like fire in its spark-state,
waiting for fuel.
Judging from this account, the young Bharata seems to me to be an exemplar not so much of hunting skill as sheer brass balls. So I think today's verse is saying something about the attitude of the adventurous young princes, who may be taken as representative of adolescent young men everywhere, towards fear.
What, then, is Ashvaghosha saying, or suggesting, about fear?
A superficial understanding of the Middle Way is that on one side of it there is ascetic self-denial, and on the other side is self-indulgent hedonism. But if one thinks more profoundly and fundamentally about the human condition, at the root of suffering is a conflict between two kinds of fear, white and red -- fear paralysis and panic.
Going further, there are two opposing attitudes, based on these two kinds of fear, to fear itself. One is to withdraw from it, to some kind of refuge like a monastery or an ashram or a laboratory or a library. The other is to seek it out, to look the bugger in the eye, on a sports field or in a boxing ring or martial arts dojo or half-way up a rock face or in an encounter with wild predators.
Every parent and every adult stands to be redeemed, like Kapila, from self-centredness, through the natural concern we all share for the healthy development of babies, children, and adolescents. If this concern is to be translated into constructive action -- particularly in dealing with delinquent sons of absent fathers -- one of the first things for us to understand, it seems to me, is the dual nature of fear.
So this verse, as I read it, and in the following verse, Ashvaghosha is saying something profound about both sides of the middle way.
They tested their skill on elephants and other wild beasts in rivalry of the godlike deeds of the son of Dushyanta, when he lived in the forest.
they sought to prove their hunting skills among elephants and wild beasts, in imitation of the godlike deeds of the son of Dushyanta when he lived in the forest.
jijNaasamaanaaH (nom. pl. desiderative pres. part. jNaa): wishing to know or become acquainted with or learn , investigate , examine
naageShu (loc. pl.): among elephants
kaushalam (acc. sg.): n. (from kushala) well-being , welfare , good fortune , prosperity ; skilfulness , cleverness , experience
kushala: mfn. well , healthy , in good condition , prosperous ; fit for , competent , able , skilful , clever
shvaapadeShu (loc. pl.): m. n. a beast of prey , wild beast ; a tiger
anucakruH = 3rd pers. pl. perfect anu- √ kR: to do afterwards , to follow in doing ; to imitate , copy
vana-sthasya (gen. sg.): living in the forest
stha: (ifc.) standing , staying , abiding , being situated in
dauShmanteH = gen. sg. dauShmanti: wrong reading for dauShyanta
dauShyanta: mf(I)n. relating to duShyanta ; m. N. of a mixed caste
duShyanta: N. of a prince of the lunar race (descendant of puru , husband of shakuntalaa and father of bharata)
deva-karmaNaH (acc. pl. m.): godlike deeds
deva: mfn. divine; m. deity, god
karman: n. act , action , performance , business