Thursday, May 17, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 1.17: Tough Guys Bearing Golden Lotuses

−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−− Upajāti (Indravajrā)
śrīmad-vitāne kanakojjvalāṅge vaiḍūrya-pāde śayane śayānam |
yad-gauravāt kāñcana-padma-hastā yakṣādhipāḥ saṁparivārya tasthuḥ || 1.17

As he lay on a bed with a glorious royal canopy,

A base of shining gold and legs of cats'-eye gems,

An honour guard of yakṣa wranglers

Stood around him, with golden lotuses in hand.

In a past life I worked as a porter in the bedding department of Rackham's Department Store in Birmingham. That experience 35 years ago left me in no doubt that I wished as far as possible to be my own boss, at least in the sense of being self-employed. The experience also equipped me to handle fairly confidently the technical aspects of today's verse relating to the construction of a bed, which basically consists of a mattress on a base on legs. Therefore whereas aṅga was translated by EBC as “frame,” by EHJ as “framework” and by PO as “sides,” I am going to bring to bear my hard-earned expertise in the bedding department and translate aṅga as “base.”

In the 4th pāda yakṣādhipāḥ would seem on first reading to mean yakṣa-lords, i.e. yakṣas who were in charge of other yakṣas; hence EBC's “yakṣa-lords,” EHJ's “Yakṣa lords,” and PO's “yakṣa chiefs.” But I don't think we should be so quick to accept that Aśvaghoṣa accepted – even in humorous vein – the real existence of the ghosts and monsters of the distorted imaginations of superstitious people.

In countries like India, China, and Japan superstition is no laughing matter. The primitive forms of witchcraft commonly practised by backward tribes in Africa and evidently imported by African economic migrants into the tower blocks of London, are certainly no laughing matter. If any medicine man out there wishes to make a doll in my image and stick pins in it, be my guest. I am not afraid of kindoki. And I am no kind of post-modernist. As narratives go, I respect ones that acknowledge causality, like the Buddha's teaching, and like science. Narratives that make light of cause and effect I regard as inferior, not valid, not to be respected.

When the latest kindoki horror story was in the news a few months ago -- the story of a child who in the name of kindoki had been abused and murdered by his older sister and her boyfriend – an apologist for that web of absurd superstitions pointed out every Christian parish in England has somebody who is assigned to carry out exorcisms. Fair point. In some of its aspects Christian belief is not so far removed from kindoki.

This rant of mine against superstitious beliefs is inspired by thinking about what Aśvaghoṣa's phrase yakṣādhipa might really mean. On first reading yakṣādhipāḥ means yakṣas who were in charge of other yakṣas, but a certain ambiguity is inherent in the compound, so that ādhipa can be understood to mean not a chief among yakṣas but rather one who commands, or bosses around, or guards against yakṣas – a human yakṣa-buster who is not afraid to stand up and say “I ain't afraid of no yakṣas!”

Having reflected for a few days on the youtube clip I mentioned before, in which George Soros criticised both what he called “the enlightenment fallacy,” and “the postmodernist fallacy,” I think Soros was absolutely spot on in saying that the postmodernist fallacy is an even more distorted view of reality than the enlightenment fallacy. In the postmodernist view there is no such thing as objective reality, but there are narratives, each of which has its own validity. But the postmodernist view is a distorted view of reality. Narratives founded on superstitions are not valid. Narratives which negate objective reality are not valid.

So I am not inclined to translate today's verse in such a way that it might sound even the slightest bit agnostic in regard to the real existence of yakṣas. Yakṣas don't exist, except in the distorted imaginations of superstitious people who should actively be encouraged -- via better education in how to think scientifically -- to abandon their primitive superstitions.

Understood as above, a yakṣādhipa might be a karate instructor with calloused knuckles and a fearsome punch, or a yakṣādhipa might be professional rugby coach. Or picture a shaven-headed US Marine, bearing golden lotuses out of reverence for a new-born baby.

Understood like this, today's verse continues the theme introduced in yesterday's verse, of balance – balance in today's verse being a matter of co-existence of hard and soft.

The title of the first canto of Buddhacarita is bhagavat-prasūtiḥ, or "A Beautiful Birth." So a verse like today's one should be understood in the light that Aśvaghoṣa is painting a picture of something beautiful. And beauty, whether in a picture, or a garden, or an hour of sitting, is invariably a function of balance. 

Notwithstanding faulty sensory appreciation centred on a faulty vestibular system, how might it be possible to live a beautiful life? I don't know. I haven't worked it all out yet. But not by the blind end-gaining into which I am so easily liable to fall, that's for damn sure.

śrīmad-vitāne (loc. sg. n.): with a splendid/royal canopy
śrīmat: mfn. beautiful , charming , lovely , pleasant , splendid , glorious ; decorated with the insignia of royalty (as a king)
vitana: mfn. extension , great extent ; an awning , canopy , cover
kanakojjvalānge (loc. sg. n.): a base of luminous gold
kanaka: n. gold
ujjvala: mfn. blazing up , luminous; lovely, glorious
aṅga: n. a limb of the body, the body; (in grammar) the base of a word

vaiḍūrya-pāde (loc. sg. n.): with legs of cats'-eye gems
vaiḍūrya: mfn. made of cat's-eye gems, beryl
pāda: foot
śayane (loc. sg.): n. a bed , couch , sleeping-place
śayānam (acc. sg. n.): mfn. lying down , resting , sleeping
yad-gauravāt (abl. sg.): out of reverence for him
yad: (relative pronoun)
gaurava: n. weight ; n. importance , high value or estimation ; n. gravity , respectability , venerableness ; n. respect shown to a person
kāñcana-padma-hastāḥ (nom. pl. m.): with golden lotuses in their hands
kāñcana: n. gold; the filament of the lotus; mfn. golden
padma: lotus
hasta: hand

yakṣādhipāḥ (nom. pl.): m. " lord of the yakṣas " , N. of kubera
yakṣa: n. a living supernatural being , spiritual apparition , ghost , spirit ; m. N. of a class of semi-divine beings (attendants of kubera , exceptionally also of viṣṇu ; described as sons of pulastya , of pulaha , of kaśyapa , of khasā or krodhā ; also as produced from the feet of brahmā ; though generally regarded as beings of a benevolent and inoffensive disposition , like the yakṣa in kālidāsa's megha-dūta , they are occasionally classed with piśācas and other malignant spirits , and sometimes said to cause demoniacal possession ; as to their position in the Buddhist system » MWB. 206 , 218)
adhi-pa: m. a ruler , commander , regent , king
adhi: ind. , as a prefix to verbs and nouns , expresses above , over
pa: mfn. ( √3. pā) guarding , protecting , ruling
kubera: m. or in later Sanskrit kuvera (originally) N. of a chief of the evil beings or spirits or darkness having the N. vaiśravaṇa; (afterwards) the god of riches and treasure (regent of the northern quarter which is hence called kubera-guptā diś); mfn. deformed , monstrous
saṁparivārya = abs. sam-pari- √ vṛ: to surround , encompass
tasthuḥ = 3rd pers. pl. perf. stha: to stand , stand firmly , station one's self ; take up a position ; to stand by 


Jordan said...

Hey Mike, The line A guard of honour of"Yaksa bossing men appears a bit unwieldy. I see what you are trying to do, but the way it rolls of the tongue it almost sounds like you are starting to church stuff up in your efforts to not church stuff up.

Your Yaksa,

Mike Cross said...

Hi Jordan,

How about:

Yakṣa bosses, bearing golden lotuses in their hands out of reverence, stood guard around him.

Jordan said...

I have been playing with this since I made my comment, and it is really hard not to make it sound churchy. What you have there is an improvement, but I came up with " honor guard of demon wranglers" and it made me smile. I like smiling.

Mike Cross said...

Thanks Jordan -- I agree that wranglers works:

An honour guard of yakṣa wranglers stood around him, with golden lotuses in hand.

bhavanathjha said...

I have worked for the restoration of the doomed original text of the great epic Buddhacharitam and have done a poetic translation into Sanskrit maintaining the original style followed by Ashvaghosh. Please read more >>

Mike Cross said...

Dear Bhavanathjha,

Thank you for the link.

"According to I-tsing, the Chinese Buddhist monk, who travelled India in the seventh century, had found the daily recital of this Sanskrit-epic [Buddhacaritam] in Indian Buddhist temples."

That is very interesting information.

For me the Buddha is in itself a kind of honorific title for the Buddha. So when I read you or others referring to the Buddha as "Lord Buddha," (or for another example to the Dalai Lama as "His Holiness the Dalai Lama) I object to it as sounding too religious.

In the final verse of MMK, Nagarjuna writes: "I bow to him, Gautama." I feel in this verse Nagarjuna's reverence for the Buddha as a human being, the Buddha -- not "Lord Buddha."

Anyway, thanks again for the link to your work.