Tuesday, January 18, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 7.45: And Another One Bites the Dust

shaptash ca paaNDur madanena nuunaM
strii-saMgame mRtyum avaapsyas' iiti
jagaama maadriiM na maha"-rShi-shaapaad
asevya-sevii vimamarsha mRtyuM

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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.

Pandu's mother Ambilaka, the story goes, was instructed by the ex-fisherwoman Satyavati/Kali of the previous verse, to keep her eyes open in childbirth so as not to bear a blind son. When Ambilaka eventually opened her eyes and saw the formidable form of her offspring, she became pale. That is how Pandu got his name, which means "Pale."

Pandu became a king and married Madri, daughter of the King of Madra, along with another princess named Kunti. He was, so the story goes, an excellent archer -- but not so excellent as to prevent him mistaking the sage Kindama and his wife for deer and shooting the pair, in flagrante. The story goes that the dying sage Kindama placed a curse on Pandu. Ashvaghosha in today's verse says that the curse was placed madanena , which could mean "by [the sage, one of whose names was] Madana, 'Passion' " or could mean "by [the god of] Passion," or possibly could mean "because of passion."

Since Pandu had killed the pair in flagrante, the curse was that if Pandu himself had sex with any woman, he would die. Pandu then remorsefully renounced his kingdom and lived as an ascetic with his wives.

After 15 years of ascetic celibacy, when his other wife Kunti was away, Pandu was irresistibly drawn to his first wife Madri. One thing led to another, and Pandu set about enjoying what he was not to enjoy, whereupon he duly died. Madri, out of repentance and grief, committed so-called 'sati,' burning herself alive on her husband's funeral pyre.

This, then, is the last in the long list of verses in which the lamenting Nanda cites Brahman kings and so-called sages who were brought down by their attachment to women. And in the background to this final verse is the ancient custom that a wife climbed aboard her husband's funeral pyre.

Now what kind of practice was that? Practice for the sake of practice? Or something tainted by the stain of human ideology?

The strong sense I have got at the end of this trawl through Brahmanical legend is that the best things in life are free, and the best thing of all is practice for the sake of practice -- which evidently is not a feature of the Brahmanical tradition.

Ashvaghosha does not condemn the Brahmanical tradition called "sati" or "suttee", and neither does he affirm it. He does not even explicitly mention it. But in the background to this verse, there it is.

So each reader is left to make his or her own mind up. Some opine that Ashvaghosha's intention was to present the Buddha's teaching as the culmination of this kind of tradition. But I think maybe not.

If we want to know Ashvaghosha's real intention, being able to read his words, even in their original Sanskrit form, is never sufficient. A different kind of effort is also necessary. And it is, as I understand it, and as I repeatedly fail in practising it, primarily an effort not to do.

EH Johnston:
And though Pandu was cursed by Madana that he would die if he united himself with a woman, yet he had intercourse with Madri and recked nought of the death that would ensue out of the great seer's curse by doing what was forbidden.

Linda Covill:
And Pandu was cursed by Madana to die upon intercourse with a woman; but disregarding the death that would result from the seer's curse, he did what he shouldn't have done and slept with Madri.

shaptaH (nom. sg. m.): mfn. cursed
ca: and
paaNDuH (nom. sg. m.): mfn. yellowish white , white , pale; m. N. of a son of vyaasa by the wife of vichitra-viirya and brother of dhRita-raaShTra and vidura (he was father of the five paaNDavas) ; m. name of a son of janamejaya and brother of dhRta-raaShTra
madanena = inst. sg. madana: m. passion , love or the god of love ; m. Madana, name of various men
nuunam: ind. now ; (esp. in later lang.) certainly , assuredly , indeed

strii-saMgame (loc. sg.): upon intercourse with a woman
strii: f. a woman
saMgama: m. coming together , meeting (in a friendly or hostile manner) , union , intercourse or association with (instr. with and without saha gen. , or comp.); sexual union

mRtyum (acc. sg.): m. death, dying
avaapsyasi = 2nd pers. sg. future avaap: to reach , attain , obtain , gain , get ; to suffer
iti: "...," thus

jagaama = 3rd pers. sg. perfect gam: to go ; to approach carnally , have sexual intercourse with (acc.)
maadriim (acc. sg.): f. " princess of the Madras " , N. of the second wife of paaNDu and mother of the twins nakula and sahadeva (who were really the sons of the ashvins
madra: m. a country to the north-west of Hindustan proper , or a king (pl. the people) of this country
na: not
maha"-rShi-shaapaat (abl. sg.): from the great seer's curse
mahat: great
RShi: seer
shaapa: curse

asevya-sevii (nom. sg. m.): enjoying what he should not have enjoyed
asevya: mfn. not to be used or practised , not to be eaten , drunk , &c
sevin: mfn. (only ifc.) going or resorting to , frequenting , inhabiting; serving; having sexual intercourse with; enjoying, practising
vimamarsha = 3rd pers. sg. perfect vi- √ mRsh: to touch (with the hands) , stroke , feel ; to touch (mentally) , be sensible or aware of , perceive , consider , reflect on , deliberate about ; (with inf.) to hesitate about doing anything
mRtyum (acc. sg.): m. death, dying