Sunday, May 29, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 10.8: A Mythical Metaphor to Describe a Peacock on a Fantasy Mountain

bahv-aayate tatra site hi shRNge
saMkShipta-barhaH shayito mayuuraH
bhuje balasy' aayata-piina-baahor
vaiDuurya-keyuura iv' aababhaase

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

For there on a great long horn of white rock

Lay a peacock with its tail feathers arrayed

So as to resemble, on the arm of Bala
-- he of the long and full arms --

An armlet of cat's-eye gems.

This image of Balarama, taken from the Wikipedia entry on him, shows two salient features which are relevant to today's verse: he is white, and he is wearing armlets on his upper arms.

In the sub-section titled Iconography, the Wiki entry helpfully expands:
Balarama is almost always depicted as being fair skinned, especially in comparison to his brother, Krishna, who is shown as dark blue or black. His āyudhas (weapons) are the hala (plough) and the gadā (mace). Traditionally Balarama wears blue garments and a garland of forest flowers. His hair is tied in a topknot and he has earrings, bracelets and armlets.

All very well. But I don't believe that there ever was such a being as Balarama -- any more than I believe there was a peacock sitting half way up a big white crag in a Himalayan heaven.

What is the point, then, of this verse in which, through the use of metaphor, a figment of somebody's imagination is compared to the figment of somebody's imagination?

Many verses in Saundara-nanda use metaphor by which real things are used to clarify things as real as sitting in lotus, or as real as seeking the truth -- as for example when Asvhaghosha describes the sitting Buddha as like the king of mountains, or as when Ashvaghosha represents the quest for truth in terms of mining and refining gold.

The present series of verses, however, is something akin to a hall of mirrors in a dream. In today's verse, the image of Balarama, a mythical being, is used as a metaphor to clarify the vision of a non-existent peacock half way up a non-existent rock.

I feel there is something wrong with this. It makes me feel somehow all at sea. So where might the wrongness lie?

In general, sea-sickness is a function not of the motion of the ocean but rather of vestibular faults in those who get sea-sick -- because not everybody, even on the choppiest ferry crossing, gets sea-sick.

As someone who is prone to get sea-sick, I have long preferred documentaries to dramas, and factual books to fiction. I seem to take for granted that the material skin, flesh, bones and marrow of life are original reality, whereas metaphors, stories, dreams, legends, and suchlike are not so real. Is this view true? Or is it just a view? Is there some sense in which Ashvaghosha in this part is suggesting that art and life are only as real as each other -- that both stand together, form being emptiness and emptiness being form? Or is the suggestion rather that both stand, form being form, emptiness being emptiness?

A Chinese Zen master named (in Japanese pronunciation) Unmon said words to the effect that when a person is enlightened, mountains once again become mountains.

I wouldn't know about that. But if I revered Unmon above Ashvaghosha, it is Unmon's gold that I would be endeavouring to dig.

In fact, far above Unmon's statement, I prefer Ashvaghosha's description of the sitting Buddha in 3.7 as "like the king of mountains" (adrir raaja-vat).

So in the end, what is the point of today's verse? To cause the reader to ask existential questions about reality and metaphor, fact and fiction, life and art? I somehow doubt it.

What I can say from experience is that this ongoing process of mining Ashvaghosha's gold has made me more open than I was before to recognizing the real, practical value of metaphor, art, fiction, drama et cetera.

What I do know from experience, having slept and reflected on it, is that three years ago with a constantly aching stomach I was sorely in need of some good medicine. And when I looked for that medicine, and found it, what I found was a narrative, what I found was a metaphor.

So even though I tend to be biased in favour of, say, sport vs drama, fact vs fiction, life vs art, Ashvaghosha's way of teaching causes me to consider whether such a biased view might be a biased view.

EH Johnston:
For a peacock lying there with outspread tail on the white far-extending peak seemed like a bracelet of beryl on the arm of Bala of the long stout arms.

Linda Covill:
For there on a pale far-stretching pinnacle lay a peacock with its tail feathers narrowed, resembling a bracelet of cat's-eye gems on the long-reaching muscular arm of Bala.

bahv-aayate (loc. sg. n.): far-extending
bahu: mfn. great in quantity
aayata: mfn. stretched , lengthened; stretching , extending , extended , spread over
tatra: ind. there
site (loc. sg. n.): white , pale , bright , light (said of a day in the light half of a month and of the waxing moon)
hi: for
shRNge (loc. sg.): n. the horn of an animal; the top or summit of a mountain , a peak , crag

saMkShipta-barhaH (nom. sg. m. ): with tail feathers heaped together
saMkShipta: mfn. thrown or dashed or heaped together &c; abbreviated , contracted , condensed ; narrow , short , small
saM- √ kShip: to throw or heap together , pile up ;
barha: m. a tail-feather , the tail of a bird (esp. of a peacock)
shayitaH (nom. sg. m.): mfn. reposed , lying , sleeping , asleep
mayuuraH (nom. sg.): m. a peacock

bhuje (loc. sg.): m. the arm
balasya = gen. sg. bala: n. strength; m. name of an elder brother of kRShNa (also called bala-deva , balabhadra , bala-raama &c )
aayata-piina-baahoH (gen. sg. m.): he of the lengthened and full arms
aayata: mfn. stretched , lengthened
piina: mfn. swelling , swollen , full , round , thick , large , fat , fleshy , corpulen, muscular
baahoH (gen. sg.): m. the arm , (esp.) the fore-arm , the arm between the elbow and the wrist

vaiDuurya-keyuuraH (nom. sg. m.): a bracelet of cat's-eye gems
vaiDuurya: n. a cat's-eye gem (ifc. " a jewel " , = " anything excellent of its kind ") ; beryl
keyuura: m. a bracelet worn on the upper arm
iva: like
aababhaase = 3rd pers. sg. perf. aa- √ bhaas: to appear , look like

1 comment:

an3drew said...

of course if this were zen they would make pretend fruit and i wish i could say "pretend" eat it, but they probably really eat the "pretend" fruit

i think you are at the stage of discovering it's all pretend!