Saturday, September 1, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 2.32: More Sex & Wickedness

⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−    Upajāti (Ṛddhi)
tataḥ sa kāmāśraya-paṇḍitābhiḥ strībhir-gṛhīto rati-karkaśābhiḥ
vimāna-pṛṣṭhān-na mahīṁ jagāma vimāna-pṛṣthād-iva puṇya-karmā || 2.32

And so, embraced by experts in addiction to love,

By women who were unsagging in pursuit of pleasure,

He did not descend
from high up in the palace down to earth –

As a doer of good would not,
from an upper carriage of gods on high.

Today's verse, again, can be analysed, at a stretch, into four phases:

The 1st pāda describes the courtesans as paṇḍitā, pundits, experts, people with abstract knowledge, people who understand how things work in theory.

In describing the women as tireless in physical love, the 2nd pāda features the word karkaśa which EHJ reliably informs us originally means firm or hard, and is used especially in the context of a desirable young woman's breasts. So the 2nd pāda is not at all concerned with the abstract, but on the contrary brings to mind the firmly physical.

The 3rd pāda describes the concrete, historical fact that the young prince remained in his digs high up in the palace. At the same time it sets us up for the punch line....

The 4th pāda, as I read it, features a multiple play on the word vimāna, the ironic intention of which is to poke fun at pious religious types who like to sit atop a high horse.

By his inelegant repetition of the same phrase vimāna-pṛṣthāt in the same place in each of the last two pādas, where one might have expected a poet to resort to a bit of elegant variation, Aśvaghoṣa seems to be asking the reader/listener to attend to alternative meanings of the same phrase, vimāna-pṛṣthāt.

The first definition of vimāna given in the dictionary, is “disrespect, dishonour." A second, quite different definition is “a lofty chariot or palace,” heavenly or earthly.

On the surface, vimāna-pṛṣthāt in the 3rd pāda is the same word as vimāna-pṛṣthāt in the 4th pāda, except that the former refers to an earthly abode (the roof or upper storey of an emperor's palace, especially one with seven storeys), while the latter refers to a celestial abode (a chariot or palace of the gods). Hence EBC's “from the roof of a pavillion... from a heavenly chariot,” and EHJ's “from the palace... from the heavenly mansion.”

PO, mirroring the original text more closely, which is never a discreditable strategy (except when done unduly rigorously) translated “from that heavenly mansion... from his heavenly mansion.”

In my translation, I have taken the same route as EBC and EHJ but have gone much further down that route, suspecting that Aśvaghoṣa also had in mind the first definition of vimāna as “disrespect, dishonour.” In this definition vimāna is from the root √man, to regard as; whereas in the definition of vimāna as a heavenly palace it is from the root √mā, to measure out. This is a divergence of meaning on which Aśvaghoṣa seems to make a play in the 4th canto of Saundara-nanda:
While Nanda, inside the palace (vimāna-garbhe), in what almost amounted to a dishonour (vimāna-kalpe), was thus enjoying himself, / The Tathāgata, the One Thus Come, come begging time, had entered the palace, for the purpose of begging. // 4.24 /
Taking vimāna to mean disrespect, vimāna-pṛṣthāt literally means “from the upper side of disrespect,” or in other words from the standpoint of condescension -- or rather, from the standpoint of one who does not condescend to come down from his high horse. (Yes, I have been there. I know whereof I speak.) Such I think is Aśvaghoṣa real intention, which I have attempted to hint at by using the words “upper carriage,” with its associations with upper-class snobbery, and “on high,” which is not infrequently used in an ironic context.

The punchline in today's verse, then, as I read it, is particularly pointed and particularly powerful, this being the fourth in a series of four verses whose ostensible aim is to describe the sexy courtesans who catered to the young prince's every whim.

My original title for today's post was Subverting Sanctimonious Non-Condescension. On reflection, with one eye on my flag counter, I decided to sell out and go for something pithier and more attractive, and so came up with “More Sex & Wickedness.” But the wickedness referred to has got nothing to do with the sex; the wickedness refers to Aśvaghoṣa's characteristically wicked use of irony to subvert religious piety.

Aśvaghoṣa, as I read him, has really got it in for religion. So when Buddhist scholars say that Aśvaghoṣa was particularly interested in the subject of religious conversion, in my opinion they are sadly missing the point – largely because of failing to get Aśvaghoṣa's irony. I spent a lot of time writing a paper earlier this year setting out why Saundara-nanda is NOT a story of religious conversion but is rather a story of individual transformation, or growth. I submitted the article for publication in the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, but I don't think my effort was much appreciated! Needless to say, the lack of appreciation of my effort didn't bother me, much.

On the face of it, puṇya-karmā sounds like a good thing to be – a man who acts right, a doer of good, a man of good conduct, a man of meritorous action. Thus, in S1.39 Aśvaghoṣa describes the founders of Kapilavastu as coming to maturity “through good conduct” (puṇya-karmāṇaḥ), and the Buddha tells Nanda at the end of the 10th canto of Saundara-nanda:
Through strenuous efforts on earth -- drawing a bow and suchlike -- a man may sometimes win women, or else he may not; / But what is certain is that, through his practice of dharma here and now, these women in heaven can belong to a man of meritorious action (puṇya-karmaṇaḥ). // SN10.62 //
On the face of it, the Buddha in SN10.62, as also Aśvaghoṣa in SN6.3, affirms the ancient Indian conception that an ascetic maker of merit can expect the undivided and unbridled appreciation of celestial nymphs as his reward for his end-gaining efforts. Thus:
With her pearl necklaces hanging down, and straps dishevelled, as she bent down from the palace, / She looked like the most gorgeous of the heavenly nymphs gazing from her celestial abode (vimānāt) at her lover, as he falls down, having used up his ascetic credit. // SN6.3 //
But in reality how could the Buddha and Aśvaghoṣa be affirming such an end-gaining conception? The whole point of Saundara-nanda is to smash such a stupid conception, using the weapon of irony. This weapon is a subtle, delicate and precise instrument, whose existence might hang on the difference in connotation between "man of good conduct" and "do-gooder" -- that subtle difference being the gulf that separates (a) a man of action, whose good conduct is primarily the manifestation of not doing wrong, and (b) a pious do-gooder, a sanctimonious old so and so who expects to be revered and rewarded. (Again, I know whereof I speak.)

Aśvaghoṣa's real intention in today's verse is, not for the first time, to subvert religious piety, or to subvert the merit-making of merit-makers who expect some kind of reward for their meritorious efforts – just like me who, as described yesterday, have been looking forward for many years to receiving the just reward for my heroic (at least in my own mind) actions. Never has the advice “Be careful what you wish for” been more pertinent.

Rather than expectantly seeking my karmic reward, I might be better off, if I were wise, seeking to lighten my karmic burden, by regularly confessing in the traditional manner, for a start, that all my mistakes have stemmed, since times without beginning, from greedy end-gaining, anger, and faulty sensory appreciation.

Such confession might sound like something religious, but it need not be anything religious. It might rather be something akin to recognition of a debt, like reflecting on a big minus on the liabilities side of a financial balance sheet. This kind of confession and reflection --which old Zen drills like Tendo Nyojo called unnecessary, even as they practised them -- might be an aid to consciously coming off one's high horse and back down to earth (mahīm). 

For example, when I look back on my fifty-odd years, have I been immune to greedy end-gaining, anger, and faulty sensory appreciation.? No, I absolutely have not.

tataḥ: ind. then, in consequence of which
sa (nom. sg. m.): he
kāmāśraya-paṇḍitābhiḥ (inst. pl. f.): expert in erotic addiction
kāma: love, desire, sensuality
āśraya: m. a recipient , the person or thing in which any quality or article is inherent or retained or received; the being inclined or addicted to , following , practising
paṇḍita: mfn. learned , wise , shrewd , clever , skilful in , conversant with

strībhiḥ (inst. pl.): f. women
gṛhītaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. grasped , taken , seized , caught , held
grah: to seize , take (by the hand); grasp, lay hold of; to arrest, stop; to catch , take captive , take prisoner , capture , imprison ; to take possession of , gain over , captivate ; to lay the hand on , claim
rati-karkaśābhiḥ (inst. pl. f.): being firm/unsagging in giving pleasure
rati: f. pleasure; the pleasure of love , sexual passion or union , amorous enjoyment
karkaśa: mfn. hard , firm , rough , harsh (lit. and metaph.)
EHJ note: karkaśa properly 'firm,' 'hard,' often of a woman's body or breasts, and then 'experienced,' 'indefatigable,' as in raṇakarkaśa, Ram. v.44, 5.

vimāna-pṛṣṭhāt (abl. sg.): from the palace heights
vimāna: (1. fr. vi- √man) disrespect , dishonour ; (2. f. vi- √mā) m. n. a car or chariot of the gods ; m. any car or vehicle (esp. a bier); m. the palace of an emperor or supreme monarch (esp. one with 7 stories)
pṛṣṭha: n. the upper side , surface , top , height; the flat roof of a house
na: not
mahīm (acc. sg.): f. " the great world " , the earth
jagāma = 3rd pers. sg. perf. gam: to go

vimāna-pṛṣthāt (abl. sg.): from the palace heights / from the upper side of a godly chariot / from the snobbish side of disrespect
vimāna: (1. fr. vi- √man) disrespect , dishonour ; (2. f. vi- √mā) m. n. a car or chariot of the gods ; m. any car or vehicle (esp. a bier); m. the palace of an emperor or supreme monarch (esp. one with 7 stories)
iva: like, as
puṇya-karmā (nom. sg. m.): a do-gooder, a man of piety, a sanctimonious so and so
puṇya-karman: mfn. acting right , virtuous , pious
puṇya: mfn. auspicious , propitious , fair , pleasant , good , right , virtuous , meritorious ; n. the good or right , virtue , purity , good work , meritorious act , moral or religious merit
karman: n. action
See SN10.62 and 6.3


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