Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Canto 7: Nanda's Lament

Simple enjoyment of sitting-zen is by no means the end of Nanda's journey in Saundarananda, but it is an important stage on the way -- a station where many of us were able to make our first real connection with the Buddha's teaching. Ashvaghosha describes in Canto 17 how Nanda's sitting-meditation became joyful because desires and tainted things had ceased to impinge upon it. Now Canto 7 is titled "Nanda's Lament": ostensibly it is about Nanda. But what it mainly is, as I read it, is a demonstration of how the ascetic practice which was woven into the fabric of ancient Indian mythology is totally tied up with suppressed sexual desire and totally tainted by separation of means and end.

Bearing the insignia, then,
whose form was fixed by his teacher

-- Bearing it bodily but not mentally --

And being constantly carried off by thoughts of his wife,

Nanda whose name was joy was not joyful.

Amid the wealth of flowers of the month of flowers,

Assailed on all sides by the flower-bannered god of love,

And with feelings that are familiar to the young,

He stayed in a vihara but found no peace.

Standing, distraught, by a row of mango trees

Amid the numbing hum of hovering insects,

He with his long yoke-like arms
opened himself out forcefully,

As he thought of his beloved and stretched,
as if to draw a bow.

Receiving from the mango trees

A rain of tiny flowers like saffron powder,

He thought of his wife and heaved long sighs,

Like a newly-caught elephant shut in.

He who had been, for those who came seeking refuge,
an abater of sorrow,

And, for the conceited, a creator of sorrow,

Became, as he leant against a 'feel-no-sorrow' a-shoka tree, a sorrower:

He sorrowed for a lover of a-shoka groves,
his beloved wife.

A slender priyangu creeper, beloved by his beloved,

He noticed shying away, as if afraid,

And tearfully he remembered her,

His lover with her tearful face,
as pale as a priyangu flower.

Seeing a cuckoo hen perched

On the flower-covered crest of a tilaka tree,

He imagined his lover leaning against the watchtower,

Her tresses perching on her white blouse.

An ati-muktaka -- 'flowers whiter than pearls' --

Having attached itself to the side of a mango tree,
was thriving:

He surveyed the blossoming creeper and fretted

"When will Sundari cling to me like that?"

The yawning naga trees,
with flowerbuds for budding teeth

Erupting there like ivory caskets filled with gold,

Did not draw his anguished eye

Any more than if they had been desert scrub.

The gandha-parna trees
gave off their fragrance constantly,

As if they were a gandharva's good-time girls,
brimming with perfume,

But for one whose mind was elsewhere,
and who was sorrowful to the core,

They did not win the nose: they pained the heart.

Resounding with the throaty cries
of impassioned peacocks,

With the satisfied celebrating of cuckoos,

And with the relentless supping of nectar by bees,

The forest pressed in upon his mind.

As he burned there
with a fire risen from the fire board of his wife,

With ideas for smoke and darkest hell for flames,

As he burned in his innermost heart with a fire of desire,

Fortitude failed him and he uttered various laments:

"Now I understand what a very difficult thing

Those men have done, will do, and are doing

Who have walked, will walk, and are walking
the way of painful asceticism,

Leaving behind their tearful-faced lovers.

There is no strong bond in the world,

Whether of wood, rope or iron,

As strong as this bond:

An amorous voice and a face with darting eyes.

For once cut or broken
-- by one's own strength or by the strength of friends --

Those bonds exist no more;

Whereas the fetter made of love,
except through wisdom and callousness,

Cannot be undone.

That wisdom which might make for peace
I do not have,

And being of a kindly nature I also lack toughness.

I am sensual by nature and yet the Buddha is my guru:

I am stuck as if inside a moving wheel.

For though I have adopted the beggar's insignia,

And am taught by one who is twice my guru,
as elder brother and enlightened sage,

In every circumstance I find no peace --

Like a ruddy sheldrake separated from its mate.

Even now it keeps running through my mind

How when I clouded the mirror

She feigned anger and said to me,

Laughing wickedly, 'What are you doing!'

Again, the words the girl told me,

'Come back before my face-paint is dry,'

While her eyes were swimming with tears:

Those words even now block my mind.

This beggar by the mountain waterfall,

Since he meditates at ease,
having crossed his legs in the traditional manner,

Surely is not as attached to anybody as I am;

For he sits so calmly, looking satisfied.

Since, deaf to the cuckoos' chorus,

His eye never grazing upon the riches of spring,

This man concentrates intently upon the teaching

I suspect that no lover is tugging at his heart.

All credit to him who is firm in his resolve,

Who has turned back from curiosity and pride,

Who is at peace in himself, whose mind is turned inward,

Who while walking up and down
does not strive for anything...

... As he looks out over the lotus-festooned water

And the flowering forest where cuckoos come calling!

What man in the prime of youth
could keep such constancy

In the spring months which are, as it were,
dharma's rival?

With their way of being, their pride,
their way of moving, their grace;

With a smile or show of indignation,
with their exuberance, with their voices,

Women have carried off hosts of gods, kings, and seers:

How could they not throw a man like me?

For, overcome by desire,
the fire god Hiranya-retas, 'Golden Sperm,'

Succumbed to sex with his wife Svaha,
as did Indra 'The Bountiful' with nymph Ahalya;

All the more liable am I, a man,
lacking their strength and resolve,

To be overwhelmed by a woman!

Our tradition has it that the sun god Surya,
roused to passion for the dawn goddess Saranyu,

Let himself be diminished in order to enjoy her;

He became a stallion so as to cover her as a mare,

Whereby she conceived the two charioteers.

When the minds of the Sun's son Vaivasvata
and the fire god Agni turned to enmity,

When their grip on themselves was shaken,

There was war between them for many years,
over a woman.

What lesser being, here on earth,
would not be shaken off course by a woman?

And through desire the sage Vasistha,
most eminent among the upstanding,

Had his way with an outcaste
of a dog-cooking tribe, Aksha-mala,

To whom was born his son Kapinjalada,

An eater of earth and water to rival the Sun.

So too did the seer Parashara,
user of curses as arrows,

Enjoy sex with Kali,
who was born from the womb of a fish;

The son he conceived in her

Was the illustrious Dvaipayana,
classifier of the Vedas.

Dvaipayana, again,
while having dharma as his chief object,

Similarly enjoyed a woman at a brothel in Kashi;

When her foot struck him,
with its trembling ankle bracelet,

It was like a cloud being struck by a twist of lightning.

So too did brahma-begotten Angiras,
when his mind was seized by passion,

Enjoy sex with Sarasvati;

To her was born his son Sarasvata,

Who gave voice again to the lost Vedas.

Likewise Kashyapa,
at a sacrifice under the aegis of king-seer Dilipa,

While fixated upon a celestial nymph,

Took the ceremonial ladle and cast into the fire
his own streaming semen,

Whence Asita came into being.

Angada, similarly,
though he had gone to the ends of ascetic practice,

Went overwhelmed by desire to Yamuna

And in her he begat super-bright Rathitara,
'Super Charioteer,'

Friend of the spotted deer.

on catching sight of the princess Shanta, 'Tranquility,'

Though he had been living in tranquility in the forest,

The sage Rishya-shringa, 'Antelope Horn,'
was moved from steadfastness

Like a mountain with high horns in an earthquake.

And the son of Gadhin who,
in order to become 'the Brahman Seer,'

Renounced his kingdom,
having lost interest in sensual objects,
and retired to the forest:

He was captivated by the nymph Ghritachi,

Reckoning ten years with her as a single day.

So too, when hit by Love's arrow,

Did Sthula-shiras, 'Thick Head,'
lose his senses over Rambha.

He with his libidinous and wrathful nature was reckless:

When she refused him he cursed her.

And Ruru, after his beloved Pramadvara

Had been robbed of her senses by a snake,

Killed snakes wherever he saw them:

He failed, in his fury,
to maintain his reserve or his ascetic practice.

As a grandson of the hare-marked moon,
and as one marked by his own honour and virtue,

The son of 'The Learned' Budha and goddess Ida
had the special powers of the lunar and the very learned;

But thinking of the apsaras Urvashi,

This royal seer, similarly, went mad.

And when 'Long Shanks' Tala-jangha,
on top of a mountain,

Was reddened, in his libidinousness,
with passion for nymph Menaka,

From the foot of 'All Beneficent' Vishva-vasu
he got an angry kick

Like a thunderbolt striking a hin-tala palm.

When his favourite wife drowned
in the waters of the Ganges,

King Jahnu, his mind possessed by disembodied Love,

Stopped the Ganges with his arms,

Like Mount Mainaka, paragon of non-movement.

And King 'Good Body' Shan-tanu,
when separated from goddess Ganga,

Shook like a shala tree
whose roots the Ganges was washing away:

The son of Pratipa and light of his family,

He of the body beautiful, became uncontrollable.

Again, when the avatar Saunandakin
took away his 'Wide Expanse' Urvashi,

The wife whom, like the wide earth,
Soma-varman had made his own,

'Moon-Armoured' Soma-varman whose armour,
so they say, had been good conduct,

Roamed about grieving,
his armour pierced by mind-existent Love.

A king who followed his dead wife in death

Was 'Dreaded' Bhimika
-- he who was dread power on earth;

He who was famed, because of his military might,
as Senaka, 'War Missile';

He who was, with his war machine, like the god of war.

when Kali's husband Shan-tanu had gone to heaven,

Jana-mejaya, 'Causer of Trembling among Men,'
in his desire to marry Kali,

Came up against Bhishma 'the Terrible,'
and received death from him

Rather than give up his love for her.

And Pandu 'the Pale,' having been cursed by Passion

To die on coupling with a woman,

Still went with Madri:
he did not heed the death
that would result from the great seer's curse

When he tasted what he was forbidden to taste.

Hordes of gods, kings, and seers such as these

Have fallen by dint of desire into the thrall of women.

Being weak in understanding and inner strength,

All the more discouraged,
when I do not see my beloved, am I.

Therefore I shall go right back home again

And make love properly, as I please!

For the insignia do not sit well

Upon a backslider from the path of dharma,
whose senses are restless and whose mind is elsewhere.

When a man has taken the bowl in his hand,
shaved his head,

And, putting aside pride, donned the patched-together robe,

And yet he is given to pleasure
and lacking in firmness and tranquility,

Like a lamp in a picture, he is there and yet is not.

When a man has gone forth,
but the red taint of desire has not gone forth from him;

When he wears the earth-hued robe
but has not transcended dirt;

When he carries the bowl
but is not a vessel for the virtues;

Though he bears the insignia,
he is neither a householder nor a beggar.

I had thought it improper
for a man with noble connections,

Having adopted the insignia, to discard them again:

But that scruple also fades away,
when I think about those royal heroes

Who abandoned an ascetic grove and went home.

For the Shalva king, along with his son;
and likewise Ambarisha

And Rama and Andha, and Rantideva son of Samkriti

Cast off their rags
and clothed themselves again in fine fabrics;

They cut off their twisted dreadlocks and put on crowns.

Therefore as soon my guru has gone from here
to beg for alms

I will give up the ochre robe and go from here
to my home;

Because, for a man who bears the honoured insignia
with stammering mind, impaired judgement
and weakened resolve,

There might exist no ulterior purpose
nor even this present world of living beings."

The 7th canto in the epic poem Handsome Nanda,
titled "Nanda's Lament."

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