Sunday, November 21, 2010

SAUNDARANANDA 6.37: Comfort in the Relative Anonymity of Belonging to a Group

taabhir vRtaa harmya-tale 'Nganaabhish
cintaa-tanuH saa su-tanur babhaase
shata-hradaabhiH pariveShTit" eva
shashaaNka-lekhaa sharad-abhra-madhye

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Enfolded on the palace roof by her women,

The slender Sundari, gaunt with worry,

Seemed like a thin lunar crescent
enshrouded by streaks of lightning

Amid the autumn clouds.

I suspect that I am far from getting to the bottom of this verse, but a couple of facts that strike me as maybe being relevant to it are: (1) that if there is a spot that one mustn't scratch, sometimes scratching the surrounding area provides some indirect relief; and (2) when a dog is sick, sometimes the best medicine for it is to be allowed to run with a pack.

In the metaphor presented here, the gaunt Sundari is like a thin crescent of the moon and the women who have rallied round her are like flashes of lightning which, by their brightness, would tend to render more or less invisible the thinly shining form of a crescent moon amid autumn clouds.

And being relatively invisible might mean being less painfully self-conscious.

So this verse might have to do with the fact that human beings are potentially self-conscious energy; and it might also have to do with the fact that, when our energy is weak, it can be a big help to be around other people whose accumulated energy is much stronger than our own.

Apropos of that, this verse might be contrasted with the portrayal of the Buddha in Canto 3, in which Ashvaghosha twice likens the fully awakened Buddha to the sun:

To people possessed by ends, / Serving many and various paths, / Splendour that seemed like the sun had arisen: / Gautama was like the sun, dispelling darkness.


He walked over water as if on dry land, / Immersed himself in the soil as though it were water, / Rained as a cloud in the sky, / And shone like the newly-risen sun.


The sun stands out in splendid isolation, putting everything else in the shade. And Nanda's journey in Saundarananda is in that kind of direction -- in the direction of becoming more of a strong individual, going from wimpish dependence on wife and brother to a condition comparable to a mighty war elephant.

In Ashvagosha's account of Nanda's journey, the words "Buddha" and "Dharma" appear frequently, but references to "Sangha" strike me so far as being conspicuous by their absence. Individual fellow-monks like Ananda are cited, along with the monk who mounts his attack on women in Canto 8. And there are references in Canto 16 to going along with friends in the good (16.39) and friends in the know (16.40). But there is no account of Nanda getting together with other monks for religious group practices such as chant-alongs or other so-called "acts of worship." The emphasis is much more on Nanda's one-to-one reception of the Buddha's instruction and his effort to make that teaching his own, as an individual.

When this verse is read in that light, one of its functions might be to acknowledge the indirect benefits (especially for a person whose own energy is weak) of belonging to a group, a Sangha -- Sangha in this case meaning not a religious brotherhood but a human sisterhood.

EH Johnston:
Surrounded by those women on the palace roof that slender beauty, wasted with anxiety, seemed like the crescent moon in an autumn cloud encircled by lightning flashes.

FN. The crescent moon, because it is thin like she was.

Linda Covill:
The slip of a girl, taut with worry and surrounded by her ladies on the palace roof, seemed a sliver of moon shrouded in lightning among the autumn clouds.

taabhiH (inst. pl. f.): by those [women]
vRtaa (nom. sg. f.): mfn. concealed , screened , hidden , enveloped , surrounded by ; filled or endowed or provided or affected with (instr.)
harmya-tale (loc. sg.): on the palace roof
aNganaabhiH = inst. pl. aNganaa: f. " a woman with well-rounded limbs " , any woman or female

cintaa-tanuH (nom. sg. f.): gaunt with worry
cintaa: f. thought , care , anxiety , anxious thought
tanu: mfn. thin , slender , attenuated , emaciated , small , little , minute , delicate; the body , person , self
saa (nom. sg. f.): she
su-tanuH (nom. sg. f.): mfn. very thin or slender ; having a beautiful body
babhaase = 3rd pers. sg. perfect bhaas: to shine, appear

shata-hradaabhiH (inst. pl.): f. "containing a hundred rays of light", lightning or a partic. kind of light ; f. a thunderbolt
shata: n. a hundred ; any very large number
hrada: m. a ray of light
pariveShTitaa (nom. sg. f.): mfn. surrounded , beset , covered , veiled , swathed
pari- √ veShT: to wrap up , cover , clothe , surround , embrace
√ veShT: to wind or twist round ; to adhere ; to dress; Causative: to wrap up , envelop , enclose , surround , cover , invest , beset
iva: like, as if

shashaaNka-lekhaa (nom. sg.): f. " moon-streak " , the lunar crescent
shash'aaNka: m. " hare-marked " , the moon
shasha: m. rabbit, hare
aNka: m. a hook ; any mark , line , stroke
lekha: m. a line , stroke
sharad-abhra-madhye (loc. sg.): in the midst of autumn clouds
sharad: f. (prob. fr. √ shraa, to cook, cause to sweat) autumn (as the " time of ripening ") , the autumnal season (the sultry season of two months succeeding the rains ; in some parts of India comprising the months bhaadra and aashvina , in other places aashvina and kaarttika , fluctuating thus from August to November)
abhra: n. (sometimes spelt abbhra , according to the derivation ab-bhra , " water-bearer ") cloud , thunder-cloud , rainy weather
madhya: mfn. middle

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