Saturday, June 18, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 10.28: Birds with Red Extremities (& Empty Eyes)

manaHshil"-aabhair vadanair vihaMgaa
yatr' aakShibhiH sphaaTika-saMnibhaish ca
shaavaish ca pakShair abhi-lohit'-aantair
maaNjiShThakair ardha-sitaish ca paadaiH

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

Birds there have bright red beaks,
the colour of red 'mind rock' arsenic;

And crystalline eyes;

And wings a deathly shade of yellow,
with intensely red tips;

And claws as red as red dye, but half white.

One of the functions of birds, in Ashvaghosha's vision of heaven, seems to be to form a fleeting four-verse bridge between the stalwart trees and the flighty apsarases.

On the way, birds show us various colours, beginning in this verse with various shades of red, along with transparent crystal (line 2), the colour of a dead human body (line 3), and white (line 4).

What on earth does Ashvaghosha intend to represent with these colours?

I do not know and cannot say. I can only say what these colours represent to me as I read them in today's verse.

Bright red is the starting point. Today's verse begins, as does 10.9, with manaH-shilaa, lit. "mind-rock," which means realgar, i.e. an arsenic ore which has an orange-red colour.

For me, as I have described already (e.g. in comments to 10.21), going bright red was a starting point. A starting point of what? A starting point of seeking a means -- borrowing a line from Bob Marley -- to emancipate the mind from mental slavery. A starting point of seeking a means -- borrowing a phrase from Marjory Barlow -- to inhibit unconscious behaviour. After all these bloody years, I must confess, I don't feel that I have got very far.

Never mind. The principle remains that when unconscious behaviour is inhibited, then consciousness can grow. The recognition that this possibility exists for all human beings led FM Alexander to call his first book "Man's Supreme Inheritance." Eyes as transparent as crystals -- providing chinks through which the light may pass -- can be read as symbolizing the potential for realizing the supreme inheritance which is growth of consciousness.

For most of us, most of the time, however, such potential remains untapped. That being so the colour that predominates in us, in our vulnerability to labile unconscious reactions, is red.

So just as red lotuses in 10.21 seem to represent the pointless suffering in samsara of ordinary beings, red birds in this verse, as I read it, are ordinary birds, birds whose extremities are suffused with the red taint of passion, birds who are still suffering in the samsaric cycle of life and death. Hence Ashvaghosha sees their wings as being the yellow colour of bloated death, tipped by the vivid reds of intense suffering and passion. The deathless nectar is not within the grasp of these birds' claws.

Finally, why are these claws described as half-white? I think because in an immature nervous system struggling to cope with a challenging stimulus, the Moro reflex, whose colour is red (the colour of blood being mobilized for fight or flight), tends to be locked in a battle for supremacy with the fear paralysis response whose colour is white (the colour of blood being withdrawn to preserve internal organs).

Absence of such conflict between red panic and white fear paralysis may be regarded as the original condition which Gudo Nishijima used to call "balance of the autonomic nervous system," or "the state of plus/minus zero." Chromatically, I think this state of balance or enlightenment is represented by Ashvaghosha as blue and as golden.

If understanding along the above lines is roughly on target, then one might think that birds with red extremities would be more suited to hell, and so what are they doing here in Ashvaghosha's vision of heaven? The answer might lie in the ancient truth that blue lotuses open in fire. These birds with red extremities, like the trees described in 10.21 as ablaze with red lotuses, are there to provide a contrast with ones that are odd, different, other (anye) -- the golden ones who seem to have blue in their eyes.

EH Johnston:
There birds have beaks of the hue of red arsenic, eyes like crystal, dark brown wings tipped with scarlet and feet of the colour of red madder and half white.

Linda Covill:
There are birds with beaks the color of red arsenic, crystalline eyes, tawny wings tipped with scarlet, and with claws half crimson, half white.

manaHshil"-aabhaiH (inst. pl. n.): with the appearance of red arsenic
manaH-shilaa: realgar , red arsenic
aabhaa: f. splendour , light; ifc. like , resembling , appearing
vadanaiH = inst. pl. vadana: n. the act of speaking ; the mouth , face , countenance ; the front , point
viha-M-gaaH (nom. pl.): m. "sky-going," bird

yatra: ind. wherein
akShibhiH (inst. pl.): n. the eye
sphaaTika-saMnibhaiH (inst. pl. n.): like crystal
sphaaTika: n. crystal ; mfn. crystalline
saMnibha: mfn. like , similar , resembling (ifc. ; often pleonastically with names of colours
ca: and

shaavaiH (inst. pl. m.): mfn. (fr. śava) cadaverous , relating to a dead body , produced by or belonging to a corpse ; of a cadaverous or dark yellowish colour , tawny
shava: mn. (prob. fr. √ śū , or śvi and orig. = " swollen ") a corpse , dead body
√ śū / √śvi : to swell , grow , increase
ca: and
pakShaiH (inst. pl.): m. wing
abhi-lohhit'-aantaiH (inst. pl. m.): with intense red tips
abhi-lohhita: mfn. intense red, scarlet
abhi: (As a prefix to nouns not derived from verbs) it expresses superiority , intensity , &c
lohita: red , red-coloured , reddish
anta: m. end

maaNjiShThakaiH = inst. pl. m. māñjiṣṭhaka = māñjiṣṭha: mfn. (fr. mañjiṣṭhā) dyed with madder , red as madder
mañjiṣṭha: mfn. (superl. of mañju) very bright , bright red (as the Indian madder)
mañjiṣṭha: n. red , red colour
mañju: mfn. beautiful , lovely , charming , pleasant , sweet
ardha-sitaiH (inst. pl. m.): half-white
ardha: mfn. half
sita: mfn. white , pale
ca: and
paadaiH (inst. pl.): m. the foot (of men and animals)

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