Wednesday, July 25, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 1.86: Whiter than White Religious Worship

⏑⏑⏑⏑⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−−¦¦⏑⏑⏑⏑−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−− Puṣpitāgrā
dvi-rada-rada-mayīm-atho mahārhāṁ sita-sita-puṣpa-bhtāṁ maṇi-pradīpām |
abhajata śivikāṁ śivāya devī tanayavatī praṇipatya devatābhyaḥ || 1.86

And then into a precious pallanquin
made from a tusker's two tusks,

Which was filled with the white flowers
of the White Flower, the Sita,
and had pearls for lamps,

The god-queen with her child repaired,

Having bowed down, for good fortune,
before images of gods.

The merits of today's verse are more obviously poetical than philosophical.

Thus, “ivory” is dvi-rada-rada-mayīm (lit. made of a two-tusker's tusks); “filled with white sita-puṣpa flowers” is sita-sita-puṣpa-bhṛtāṁ (lit. filled with white whiteflowers); and “a pallanquin... for good fortune” is śivikāṁ śivāya. A fourth and final correspondence, separated by the space of one pāda is between devī (queen) and devatābhyaḥ (images of gods). 

Still, I think a certain scepticism or cynicism remains descernible in Aśvaghoṣa's description of the queen's worship of religious idols, for good fortune.

The MW dictionary indicates that śivāya has an adverbial usage -- “auspiciously, fortunately,” and EHJ asserts that its place next to śivikām (a pallanquin, regarded as a lucky object) makes it necessary to construe śivāya with śivikām (and not praṇipatya), so that what the queen did auspiciously, or for good forutne, was to enter the pallanquin (and not bow to the gods).

Not buying EHJ's argument on this point, I have followed EBC in taking śivāya with praṇipatya. (PO omitted to translate śivāya.)

In any event śivāya means “for good fortune,” and so the irony intended may be that though the scene being depicted is one that is whiter than white, replete with ivory and pearls and the white flowers of the white-flowering White Flower tree, the queen's religious worship is in fact tainted by her agenda of securing good fortune, happiness, welfare, prosperity.

A further philosphical point that can be drawn from today's verse is that situations which can be portrayed by poets in glowing terms as whiter than white, and situations which can be expected by idealistic minds to be whiter than white, and situations which can be believed by religious minds to be whiter than white, are in reality never so pure as all that. Hence Dogen's memorable observation, in Shobogenzo chap. 73, that if water is too pure fish cannot live in it.

Etymologically the word sita, white, is thought to be derived from asita, which means dark-coloured or black. So asita, which sounds like a compound of a- (not) and sita (white) was probably originally just asita, and not in fact  a-sita. In other words, in the same way that sura “god” is thought to be back-formed from the original asura “demon, anti-god,” sita “white” is thought to be back-formed from the original asita “black, not-white.” Either way, my sense is that in the background to Aśvaghoṣa's earlier descriptions of the non-Buddhist Asita, and in the background to his descriptions in today's verse of the whiter than white sita-puṣpa flowers, there was investigation, on the same round cushion as Dogen's round cushion, of the fact that if water is too pure fish cannot live in it.

On further reflection, on thinking about today's verse in four phases (viz. abstract number 2; natural flowers and pearls; human action; and real stupidity thereof), though I had intended to translate dvi-rada-rada-mayīm “made of a two-tusker's tusks” simply as “ivory,” it occured to me that Aśvaghoṣa may have intended something by dvi, the number two. For one thing, as the first word in today's verse,  dvi draws attention to the dual correspondences underlined above. For another thing, in the pure realm of mathematics two is an even number. Artists drawing or painting real objects, however, report that in drawing or painting a still life of, say, items of fruit in a dish, it is more difficult to make a picture look balanced with two items than with three. Again, the tradition I heard in Japan for putting sticks in an incense burner was to use one stick or three sticks, but not to use two sticks.

In mathematics, an even number is always easily divisible into two perfectly equal parts. The samādhi which is king of samādhis, in contrast, which every verse of Buddhacarita is ultimately about, is never about perfect symmetry. It is more akin to keeping one's balance while riding a bike around a bend or around a corner, in which case worrying about symmetry is liable to cause one to fall off.

In conclusion, then, I read today's verse as the painting of a pretty picture whose real intention is to subvert itself.

When the god-like queen bows down before images of gods, for good fortune, her flowers may be whiter than white, but her mind is tainted as hell. That, as I read it, is Aśvaghoṣa's real intention. He is out to subvert the basic beliefs and practises of ancient Indian religion in particular and religion in general.

dvi-rada-rada-mayīm (acc. sg. f.): made of a two-tusker's tusks; ivory
dvi-rada: m. 'two-tusked,' an elephant
rada: m. the act of splitting or gnawing; a tooth; the tusk of an elephant
-maya: made of
atho: ind. and so, then
mahārhām (acc. sg. f.): mfn. very valuable or precious , splendid

sita-sita-puṣpa-bhṛtām (acc. sg. f.): filled with white Whiteflowers
sita: mfn. (prob. formed fr. a-sita as sura fr. asura) white , pale , bright
sita-puṣpa: m. 'white flower,' Tabernaemontana Coronaria ; Saccharum Spontaneum ; Acacia Sirissa ; n. Cyperus Rotundus
bhṛta: (ifc.) filled , full of.
maṇi-pradīpām (acc. sg. f.): with jewel/crystal lights; whose lamps were jewels
maṇi: m. a jewel , gem , pearl (also fig.) , any ornament or amulet , globule , crystal
pradīpa: m. a light , lamp , lantern ; ifc. " the light i.e. the glory or ornament of "

abhajata = 3rd pers. sg. imperfect bhaj: to partake of , enjoy (also carnally) , possess , have ; to turn or resort to , engage in , assume (as a form) , put on (garments) , experience , incur , undergo , feel , go or fall into
śivikām (acc. sg.): f. a palanquin , palkee , litter , bier
śivāya (dat. sg.): m. happiness, welfare ; n. welfare , prosperity , bliss (śivāya , -éna or -ébhis , " auspiciously , fortunately , happily , luckily " ; śivāya gamyatām , " a prosperous journey to you! ")
devī (nom. sg.): f. a female deity, a goddess; the queen

tanaya-vatī (nom. sg. f.): with her child
praṇipatya = abs. pra-ṇi- √ pat : to throw one's self down before , bow respectfully to (acc. , rarely dat. or loc.)
devatābhyaḥ (dat. pl.): f. godhead , divinity (abstr. & concr.) ; image of deity, idol

二飯白淨牙 七寶莊嚴輿
雜色珠絞絡 明焔極光澤
夫人抱太子 周匝禮天神

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