Saturday, July 21, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 1.82: The Meaning of a Rite of Birth

⏑⏑⏑⏑⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−−¦¦⏑⏑⏑⏑−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−− Puṣpitāgrā
nara-patir-api putra-janma-tuṣṭo viṣaya-gatāni vimucya bandhanāni |
kula-sadṛśam-acīkarad-yathāvat-priya-tanayas tanayasya jāta-karma || 1.82

Even the king, delighted at the birth of a son,

Loosened his ties to worldly objects

Whereupon, in a manner befitting his nobility,

He performed for his son, out of love for his son,
a rite of birth.

The 2nd pāda of today's verse conveys two totally different meanings. In order to grasp which one of the meanings is the primary one intended, therefore, some digging is necessary.

The Chinese translator went with "he issued a universal pardon throughout his kingdom, that all prisoners should be set free” (大赦於天下 牢獄悉解脱). As we saw in EHJ's response to the Chinese translation of yesterday's verse (or the lack of such a translation, in EHJ's view), EHJ probably had a scholar's tendency to give too much credence to a revered ancient text. (Just because a text is ancient and revered does not necessarily mean it is to be trusted.) Thus EHJ translated the 2nd pāda according to the Chinese translation as “threw open all the prisons in his realm.” PO followed EHJ in translating “threw open the prisons within his realm.”

EBC in his Editio Princeps translated “having thrown off all those bonds called worldly objects.” And EHJ in a footnote acknowledges that the 2nd pāda has a second sense of “loosening the bonds of the objects of sense.”

It is unlikely that the ambiguity of the 2nd pāda was accidental, and so Aśvaghoṣa must have intended us to consider both meanings.

Such consideration leads me to think that Aśvaghoṣa's ulterior motive was to cause us to consider the relation between, on the one hand, attachment to worldly objects and, on the other hand, the practice of a ceremony like a birth rite or baptism, which is generally associated with religion.

Certainly there is no sense in Aśvaghoṣa's writing of the hostility towards religion which I am tempted to express on perceiving that people fail to understand a verse like yesterday's verse because they approach it with the assumption that sādhu must mean a “saint” or a “holy man.” The MW dictionary does in fact define sādhu as “a holy man, saint, sage, seer” but before that MW defines sādhu simply “a good or virtuous or honest man,” a bloke who is straight and true. And it is in this primary, simple sense of an honest man that Aśvaghoṣa uses the term in Saundara-nanda Canto 10:
And so the Sugata, the One Gone Well, seeing Nanda wandering in the darkness called "wife," / Took his hand and flew up into the sky, wishing to take him up -- like an honest man in the water bearing up a pearl. // 10.3 //
Undeniably there is in me some almost Dawkins-like distaste for religion. In Richard Dawkins' case the distaste seems to be linked at least partially to a justifiable disdain for creationists and the like who cling against all the evidence to a literal belief in what the Bible says. That is one of the grounds for hating religion: the tendency to rely on belief as opposed to evidence. This tendency is not only unscientific, it is also tied up with fixing and arrogance – wishing to believe that “I/we am/are right,” as opposed to the more fluid and modest acceptance of a hypothesis, provisionally, as not proven wrong, yet.

In my responses to Dorella's comment yesterday (just in case anybody out there who is still on the nursery slopes of irony thought I was serious) I was playing with this religious attitude, which tends frequently to crop up among academics who suppose themselves to be men of science but who truly do not wish any view of their own ever to be falsified. The truth is that Dorella, using her own spade, dug out something from yesterday's verse which I had missed -- i.e., the son referred to in yesterday's verse seems on the surface obviously to mean the new-born prince of the Śākyas, but digging deeper it might also refer to the King of the Śākyas himself. Nice one, Dorella. I shall discuss an appropriate honour later in this comment.

Following the logic of today's verse, as I have translated it, when a bloke like Richard Dawkins, or yours truly, lets it be known that he would not give the steam off his piss for religion, this attitude of outright hostility to all things religious is likely to be linked to an attachment to a worldly object. If such attachment to a worldly object is loosened, today's verse seems to suggest, it might be possible even for His Non-Holiness Richard Dawkins or the Right Irreverend Mike Cross to tolerate the wetting of a baby's head.

I don't know about Richard Dawkins, but when I test out this logic on myself, I can't deny the tendency strongly to attach to a worldly object. Maybe that's why the birth of my two sons was never marked by any kind of rite, at least not on my part. Sorry chaps. At that time of my life, 20 years ago, I was working pretty much flat out on the worldly object which was the publication of the Editio Princeps of Dogen's Shobogenzo in English. (The Wiki entry on Shobogenzo says that there are three complete English translations. In fact there are four; the first, which Gudo Nishijima did all by himself, he completed shortly after I arrived in Japan. I mention this because EHJ nods or bows to EBC's translation of Buddhacarita as the Editio Princeps. And EHJ, from his experience translating Saundara-nanda, doubtless understood that the first, ground-breaking effort, is a hard one.)

Besides disliking  religious arrogance -- via the mirror principle -- I tend to be irritated by what I see as the relative insincerity of ceremonial behaviour, as opposed, for example, to sporting endeavour. And yet, at times like birth, marriage, and death, not to mention birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, retirements, and so on, many human beings -- even irreligious ones – like to have some kind of ceremony. Even sports men and women, when the team they play in wins a cup, or when they win a medal, invariably have some kind of presentation ceremony, accompanied by speeches, shaking of hands with dignitaries, fireworks, spraying of champagne, playing of national anthems, et cetera. 

Is this liking for ceremonies distinctively human? Do other intelligent beings, like chimpanzees, bonobos, dolphins and whales, naturally engage in ceremonial-type behaviour? When a dolphin dies, do other dolphins hold something like a funeral?

A google search yields evidence of a dolphin mother mourning her dead baby dolphin. But more pertinent for the purposes of the present investigation is this clip of african elephants surveying the bones of an elephant matriarch in what appears to be a ritual manner -- insofar as the elephants are following ancient forms as a natural expression of reverence and grief for their dead matriarch.

In writing the above comment, I almost pursuaded myself to translate jāta-karma as “a religious rite of birth.” But on consulting the dictionary definition of rite as “a solemn ceremony or procedure customary to a community, especially a religious group,” I think that there is no need to hammer the point home by adding the word religious. “A rite of birth” hits the target for jāta-karma; and what the elephants are demonstrating in the video clip seems to be a rite of death, but not necessarily a rite that needs to be called "religious."

We usually think that animals, lacking self-consciousness and the power of thinking, are tied more automatically than we human beings are to objects in the sensory sphere. But the behaviour of the elephants suggests it is not always necessarily so.

Maybe if I were less attached to worldly objects, like gold bullion for example, or being number one in my chosen sphere, I would have more time, like the king, or like the elephants, for beautiful ceremonies with flowers, incense, sprinkling of water, sutra-chanting, forming of a circle, holding up of bones, et cetera.

With this in mind, I hereby announce that Dorella is the recipient of the first Golden Spade, awarded for an outstanding original contribution in the field of digging. Start working on your acceptance speech, Dorella, and I for my part shall take my prostration cloth out of mothballs.

nara-patih (nom. sg.): m. " man-lord " , a king
api: also, even
putra-janma-tuṣṭaḥ (nom. sg. m.): pleased at the birth of his son
putra: son
janman: birth
tuṣṭa: satisfied, pleased

viṣaya-gatāni (acc. pl. n.): bound up with objects
viṣaya: m. anything perceptible by the senses , any object of affection or concern or attention , any special worldly object or aim or matter or business , (pl.) sensual enjoyments , sensuality
gata: gone to; relating to , referring to , connected with (e.g. putra-gata sneha , love directed towards the son ; tvad-gata , belonging to thee)
vimucya = abs. vi- √ muc: to unloose, unharness
bandhanāni (acc. pl.): n. the act of binding , tying , fastening , fettering ; n. a bond , tie (also fig.) , rope , cord , tether ; n. catching , capturing , confining , detention , custody , imprisonment or a prison

kula-sadṛśam (acc. sg.): befitting his family, worthy of his family
kula: a race , family , community , tribe ; a noble or eminent family or race
sadṛśa: mfn. conformable , suitable , fit , proper , right , worthy
acīkarat = 3rd pers. sg. aorist kṛ: to do, make
[See SN1.49, 1.56]
yathāvat: ind. duly , properly , rightly , suitably , exactly

priya-tanayah (nom. sg. m.): mfn. loving his son
priya: fond of attached or devoted to (in comp. , either ibc. e.g. priya-devana , " fond of playing " , or ifc.)
tanaya: m. son
tanayasya (gen. sg.): of a son
jāta-karma (acc. sg. n.): birth rite
jāta: n. birth
karman: n. act, action; any religious act or rite (as sacrifice , oblation &c , esp. as originating in the hope of future recompense and as opposed to speculative religion or knowledge of spirit)

大赦於天下 牢獄悉解脱
世人生子法 隨宜取捨事
依諸經方論 一切悉皆爲


Dorella Belle said...

I'll take this golden spade if this is necessary to attend to your prostration. :)
I'm fond of prostrations, I'm not able to give my respect and esteem to people who are unable to prostrate.

Mike Cross said...

Going on hands and knees and hitting the ground with the head has a lot of merits -- for example, the inhibition of immature primitive reflexes.

But being the object of a woman's fondness is not traditionally cited, as far as I know, as one of the merits of a prostration.

Dorella Belle said...

Yes, I like them because I appreciate their many merits and I prostate myself, displaying reverence to the ones that are able to prostrate and to what led them to do so.

Mike Cross said...

Mmmmmm. Are you sure you are not getting religious in your old age?