Friday, March 15, 2013

Canto 4: Warding 'Women' Away

Re-reading Canto 4 feels like driving along a bumpy road where deeper layers of rock are here and there protruding onto the surface.

Like a smoothly paved four-foot stretch in a furlong of rocky road is BC4.52, in which one of the women in the park asks, “Can spring deliver exuberant joy, to those that fly the skies,/But not the mind of a thinking man, who thinks that he is wise?” //

A verse like this, which sounds something like poetry, only serves to highlight by way of contrast the lack of elegance in all the other verses where I have laboured to convey the ostensible meaning while also allowing one or more alternative meanings to be dug out by any reader who is inclined to dig.

Among many protruding rocks, the “bewildered by blithe exuberance” in BC4.41 seemed to stick out so incongruously that I had to go back and check my own comment to remember the reasoning behind the translation. The reasoning was that the girl being described, a contrarian, was bewildered not by blithe exuberance in herself but by the blithe exuberance of others. Reading the comment I wrote nine weeks ago, I now re-affirm that reasoning – even though in the meantime I had forgotten it. Having forgotten my own reasoning, I failed to catch the ambiguity intended, so that my own translation when I re-read it seemed too strange even to me.

It is thus difficult to feel anything approaching contentment with regard to my endeavour to translate this Canto into English. If I have achieved anything it might be to demonstrate how very difficult it would be, even for a more gifted translator than I am, to capture not only the surface meaning of Aśvaghoṣa's words but also the various layers of irony beneath the surface.

Why did Aśvaghoṣa see fit to pack each verse with irony, ambiguity and double-entendre?

I think because, above all, Aśvaghoṣa was aware that the Buddha's teaching is the abandonment of all views.

One might expect that when a rock and a feather were dropped from the same height, the rock would land first. And on the surface the expectation might be true – on the surface the expectation should be confirmed by actual experiment, so long as the surface in question is that of the earth. But on the surface of the moon, due to the lack of air resistance, experiment might prove the expectation to have been false, or at least only a partial view.

The earth is solid and has gravity. So too does a human being sitting on it in full lotus, but not much.

My Zen teacher taught that just sitting like this on the earth is totally different from thinking. And on the surface this teaching seems obviously to be true – sitting is sitting, action done with the whole body and mind; whereas thinking is thinking, disturbing activity in the top two inches.

Again, Aśvaghoṣa seems on the surface to have views on women which are those of a patriarchal old dinosaur.

I suppose part of my job, besides producing as serviceable a translation as I can, is to make it easier for people to look below the surface, as well as encouraging them, or prodding them, to do so. To that end, being an awkward and contrary old bugger who worries about everything, though in everyday life it is a handicap, might, at least for this particular challenging task, be a strong point.

Strī-vighātanaḥ, Warding 'Women' Away, I hope to have demonstrated, though on the surface it describes the prince's rejection of the women in the park, below the surface is less about women than it is about concepts, views, ideas – those troublesome and persistent things which are not subject to all-pervading impermanence, because they do not really exist.

Then, out of that royal plot,

Their interested eyes darting,

The women advanced to meet the son of the king

As if he were an arriving suitor.

And having approached him,

Their peepers opened wide in wonderment,

They made their salutations

With hands like lotus buds,

And keeping him in their midst they stationed themselves,

Their minds caught fast by ardour;

While, with motionless eyes that sparkled with relish,

They seemed almost to be indulging in a feast.

For those women esteemed him

As a god of love in physical form,

Made beautiful by brilliant attributes

Like the adornments one is born with.

Because of his soma-steeped mildness,
and his constant gravity,

Some women intuited him to be,

Alighting on the earth in person,

A moon whose beam is contained within.

Thus, with the full extent of their mind's eyes,

The women did nothing but behold him:

They did not speak and did not laugh,

Held spellbound by his power.

But seeing them so disinclined to do,

Thinking them timid about displaying love,

The clever son of a family priest,

'Hurry-Up' Udāyin, spoke his piece:

“Adept in all the subtle arts,

Expert in understanding the emotions,

Possessed of beautiful form and dexterity,

By graces that are proper to you,
you all have risen to pre-eminence.

By the means of these graces you could cause to shine

Even that superior kingdom of the Northern Kurus,

And even the pleasure-grove of Kubera –

All the more, then, this earthly acreage.

You are able to spur into movement

Even dispassionate seers;

And even gods enticed by heavenly nymphs

You are able to hold transfixed.

Again, through knowing the emotions,
through challenging invitations,

Through possession of beautiful form and dexterity,

You are powerful agents in respect of passion in women,

To say nothing of passion in men.

You being as you are, like this,

Each set apart in her own sphere of activity,

This action of yours is like this –

In you, I am not satisfied with innocence.

For women who have recently taken their vows

And who modestly turn the light of their eyes within,

This behaviour of yours might be fitting –

As also for the wives of cowherds!

Though this man may prove to be,

By his majestic light, a mighty steadfast man,

Mighty also is the efficacy of women --

In which matter verification is to be carried out:

For once upon a time the Beauty of Benares, Kāśi-sundarī,

A common woman,

Beat with a flick of her foot the great seer Vyāsa

Whom even the gods could not conquer.

The beggar Manthāla Gautama,

Wishing to please the royal courtesan 'Legs' Jaṅgā,

Again in olden times, with that aim in view,

Carried corpses out for burial.

The great seer Gautama Dīrgha-tapas

Was long on asceticism and in longevity,

But a girl pleasured him

Who was low in colour and standing.

Ṛṣya-śṛṅga, 'Antelope Horn,' a sage's son,

Was similarly inexpert in regard to women;

Śāntā, 'Tranquillity,' using various wiles,

Took him captive and carried him away.

And the great seer Viśvā-mitra, 'Friend of All,'

Though steeped in rigorous asceticism,

Deemed ten years to be a day,

While captivated by the nymph Ghṛtācī.

Various seers such as these

Have women brought down;

How much more then the son of the king,

Who is in the first flush of frolicsome youth?

It being so, with calm confidence,

Apply yourselves in such a way,

That this light of the lineage of a protector of men

Might not be turned away from here.

For any girl entrances

Those on her level,

But those who stop the heart of low and high:

They are true women.”

Having thus attended to the words of Udāyin,

The women, as if they had been pricked,

Went up, rising above themselves,

In the direction of apprehending the prince.

Using their foreheads, using glimpsed enticements,

Using smiling artful dodges,

The women performed suggestive actions,

Like women wary of fear.

But in view of the king's assignment,

And thanks to a prince's mildness of manner,

They quickly shed their diffidence --

Through inspiration and through enchantment.

And so, surrounded by the women,

The prince roved around the wood

Like a bull elephant
accompanied by a herd of single females

As he roves a Himālayan forest.

In that delightful forest,

Attended by the women, he shone

Like Vivasvat, the Shining Sun,
in the Vibhrāja pleasure grove,

Surrounded by apsarases.

Pretending to be tipsy,

Some girls there

Brushed him, with firm, round,

Closely set, beautiful breasts.

One girl
– from whose relaxed shoulders delicately dangled

Soft arms like tendrils –

Simulated a stumble,

So that she could not help but cling to him.

One girl, whose mouth with copper-red lower lip

Betrayed a whiff of distilled nectar,

Whispered in his ear,

Let the secret be revealed!”

As if she were giving an order,

One girl who was moist with body oils insisted:

Perform the act of devotion here!”

As – wanting it – she closely attached herself to a hand.

A different girl, as she repeatedly simulated intoxication,

And let her dark blue robe, made of fine cloth, slip down,

Showed scarcely observable glimmers of sensibility,

Like a night lit by lightning, in flashes.

Some women wobbled from here to there,

Their golden girdle-trinkets tinkling noisily,

As they exhibited to him swaying hips

Thinly veiled by a robe of fine cloth.

Ones who were different held and hung onto

A flowering mango branch,

Causing others to see

Breasts, resembling golden jugs,
which would bear milk.

[Or clouds, set off by the golden pinnacles of stūpas,
which would bear water.]

[[Or containers, resembling golden jars, of the lifeblood.]]

One girl, from out of a bed of lotuses,

Bearing a lotus and looking through lotus eyes,

Came and stood by the side of the lotus-faced one,

Like Śrī, the lotus-hued goddess of beauty.

A sweet song whose meaning was clear,

One girl sang, with actions that suited the words,

As if she were goading the one who was self-assured

With glimpses whose gist was, “You are cheating yourself!”

A different girl, with a bright countenance,

The bows of her eyebrows being spread wide apart,

Put on his manner and did what he did –

Playfully replicating his seriousness
[and having fun, with gravity].

One girl, whose breasts were big and beautiful,

And whose earrings whirled round as she laughed,

Taunted him from above,

As if to say, “Catch up with me, mister!”

Different ones in the same vein, as he wandered away,

Held him back with daisy chains;

While some girls stopped him in his tracks

With the elephant hooks of sweet words, barbed with irony.

One girl, wishing to be contrary,

Seized the branch of a mango tree –

Now then! Whose flower is this?”

She demanded, bewildered by blithe exuberance.

One girl, acting like a man,

In her way of moving and standing still,

Said to him: “Women have defeated you.

Now you defeat this earth!”

Then a girl with avid eyes,

Who was smelling the flower of a blue lotus,

Said, with words that intoxication rendered somewhat indistinct,

To the one begotten out of the selves of protectors of men:

Observe, master, the mango tree

Covered with honey-scented blossoms

Where, as if confined in a golden cage,

The cuckoo keeps on calling.

See [or realize] this: the sorrowless [state of an] a-śoka,

Augmenter [or expunger] of a lover's sorrow,

Where bumble bees buzz

As if being singed by a fire.

Witness the tilaka tree,

Being closely embraced by the mango's branch,

Like a white-robed man

By a woman whose limbs are coated in scented yellow cosmetics.

Look at the kurubaka plant, with its red flower-heads –

It is luminous, like one that has yielded up every drop of red sap,

And yet, as if outshone, by the luminance of women's finger-nails,

It is bowing down.

Again, see [or realize] this: [the state of] a young a-śoka

It is brimming with new shoots

And yet, as if abashed, at the hennaed loveliness of our hands,

It remains modestly standing there.

Look at the stretch of still water,

Veiled by the sindu-vāra shrubs growing around its banks,

Like a woman, clad in fine white cloth,

Who is lying down. 

Let it be realized, with reference to females of the species,
what greatness is.

That greylag gander in the water over there, for instance :–

Trailing behind his mate like a slave,

He follows.

Let the sound be heard of the intoxicated male who is calling –

He who was nourished by one other than his mother!

Another male cuckoo, acting without scruple,

Makes a call like an echo.

Can spring deliver exuberant joy,

To those that fly the skies,

But not the mind of a thinking man

Who thinks that he is wise?”

In this manner those girls,

With hearts unbridled by love,

Approached the chosen One

Using many and various stratagems.

And even while, in such a manner, he was being put to shame,

Keeping his senses contained by constancy,

And still excited, by the prospect of dying,

He neither bristled nor blushed.

He, an excellent man,

Considering those girls to have a loose foothold in reality,


With a mind that was agitated and at the same time resolute:

What is missing in these women

That they do not understand youthfulness to be fleeting?

Because, whatever is possessed of beauty

Aging will destroy.

Surely they fail to foresee

Anybody finishing with dis-ease,

So joyful are they, having set fear aside,

In a world that is subject to disease.

Evidently, again, they are ignorant

Of the death that sweeps all away,

So easy in themselves are they, as, unstirred,

They play and laugh.

For what man in touch with his reason,

Who knows aging, sickness and death,

Could stand or sit at ease,

Or lie down – far less laugh?

Rather, when one man sees another

Who is worn out and riddled with sickness,
not to mention dead,

And he remains at ease in himself, unstirred,

He acts as though his reason were absent.

For at a tree's shedding

Of its flowers and fruits,

And at its falling, or at its felling,

No other tree mourns.”

Seeing the prince thus absorbed in thinking

And without desire for objects,

Udāyin, knowing the rules of how to handle people,

Said to him, in a spirit of friendship:

I am, by appointment to the King,

Fit, so he thinks, to be a friend to you;

On which grounds I am going to speak to you

As frankly as this.

Keeping one out of harm's way,

Urging one on in the good,

And not deserting one in adversity

Are the three marks of a friend.

Now that I personally have promised my friendship to you,

Who is turning his back on an aim of human life,

If I then were to abandon you,

There would be no friendship in me.

Speaking, therefore, as a friend,

I must say that for a handsome young man

It does not become you

To be so tactless towards women.

For women, even if the means are deceitful,

Obedience is appropriate,

To sweep away their diffidence,

And purely for the purpose of enjoying oneself!

Humility and submissive behaviour are,

For women, what captures the heart  –

Because excellent acts engender tender feelings,

And women are lovers of honour.

Therefore, O large-eyed one,

Though your heart be otherwise inclined,

With tact and delicacy that befit such a beautiful form,

You should submit!

For women, tact and delicacy are medicine;

Tact and delicacy are the highest adornment;

Beautiful form without tact and delicacy

Is like a garden without flowers.

Equally, what good are tact and delicacy alone?

Let all be bounded by what is real!

For, having gained objects that are hard to gain,

You should not think light of such.

Knowing desire to be paramount,

Even the god Puraṁdara, 'Cleaver of Strongholds,' for example,

Made love in olden times

To Ahalyā, the wife of the sage Gautama.

And so much did Agastya desire Red Rohiṇī,

The wife of moon-god Soma,

That he came to possess, tradition has it,
a woman modelled after her,

'The Robber of Attributes,' Lopā-mudrā.

Again, the great ascetic Bṛhas-pati, 'Lord of Prayer,'

Begat Bharad-vāja, 'Bearer of Velocity,'

In 'Self-Centred' Mama-tā,

Who was a daughter of the storm-gods 
and the wife of [his brother] Utathya.

And the Moon, most eminent among oblation-offerers,

Begat 'The Learned' Budha, who was innately very learned,

In Bṛhas-pati's own esteemed wife,

While she was offering an oblation.

In olden times, again, the maiden Kālī

Whose birth had its origin in water,

Was pressed for sex on a bank of the Yamunā

By lusting Parāśara, 'The Crusher.'

The sage Vasiṣṭha

Through desire for sexual enjoyment,

Begat his son Kapiñjalāda

In the despised outcaste Akṣa-mālā.

There again, the royal seer Yayāti,

Though his best years were behind him,

Enjoyed a romp in Citra-ratha's woods

With the celestial nymph Viśvāci.

'The Pale' Pāṇḍu, a king in the Kuru line,

Knew that intercourse with his wife would end in death

And yet, bowled over by Mādrī's beautiful attributes,

He indulged in pleasure born of desire.

And 'the Dreadful Begetter' Karāla-janaka

When he abducted a brahmin maiden,

Though he thus incurred ruin,

Never stopped attaching to his love.

Great men, driven by pleasure,

Enjoyed objects such as these,

Even when those enjoyments were forbidden –

How much more [to be enjoyed] are those that come with merit?

And yet you disdain enjoyments that fittingly belong to you,

A young man possessed of strength and handsome form;

You despise objects

To which the whole world is attached.”

Having listened to these polished words of his,

Complete with scriptural references,

The prince in a voice resonant as thunder

Spoke back:

"This talk intimating friendship

Is fitting in you,

And I shall bring you round

In the areas where you misjudge me.

I do not despise objects.

I know them to be at the heart of human affairs.

But seeing the world to be impermanent,

My mind does not delight in them.

Aging, disease, and death –

In the absence of these three,

Enjoyment might exist for me also

In agreeable objects.

For if indeed the beauty that women have here and now

Could be eternal,

Then desires, however blemished by imperfection,

Might – it is true – please my mind.

But since growing old will drain from them

Any semblance of beauty,

Enjoyment of such, on the grounds of ignorance,

Might be an occurrence that nobody
including the women themselves – should expect.

A man whose substance is dying, being ill, and growing old,

Who remains unperturbed while playing around

With others whose essence is dying, being ill, and growing old,

Is as one with the birds and beasts.

Although you say that even the greats

Are desirous by nature,

That is rather a cause for nervous agitation,

Since, for them also, ending is the rule.

I fail to see greatness there,

Where ending is the general rule –

Where there is, on the one side, adherence to objects,

And, on the other, absence of self-conscious practice.

Although you say that even deception

May be used as a means to deal with women,

I have no understanding at all of deception

Even when used with tact and delicacy.

Neither do I find submissive behaviour to be agreeable,

Where sincerity is lacking;

If coming together is not with one's whole being,

Then out with it!

If a person believes in, sticks to,

And sees no fault in untruth,

What could there be worth deceiving

In a soul so redly tainted?

And if those tainted by redness

Do indeed deceive one another,

Then it must never be appropriate

For men to see women, or women men!

Since in this situation I am pained by suffering

And am an heir to growing old and dying,

You should not try to persuade me

To stray into ignoble desires.

How extremely firm and strong is your mind

If in transient desires you see what is essential –

If, even in the midst of acute terror, you stick to objects,

While watching sentient creatures on the road to extinction!

I, in contrast, am fearful – I am exceedingly agitated

As I contemplate the terror of aging, death, and disease;

I know neither peace nor constancy, much less enjoyment,

Seeing the world blazing as if it were on fire.

When a man knows the certainty of death

And yet the red taint of delight arises in his heart,

I venture that his consciousness must be made of steel,

Who does not weep but delights in the great terror.”

And so, as the prince made a speech
that was tantamount to a decision

Murdering any recourse to Love,

The disc that is plain for all to see
went to meet the western mountain –

Light-producer meeting Earth-container.

Then, their ornaments and garlands having been worn in vain,

Their graceful arts and displays of affection having proved fruitless,

Each enshrouding her love within her own heart,

The women traipsed back to the city,
for the chariots of their fancy had been rent apart.

Then, having witnessed the beautiful women's brightness
which had pervaded the park

Receding once more into the twilight,

The one begotten from a guardian of the earth,

Contemplating all-pervading impermanence,
entered his earthen-hearthed dwelling.

Then, hearing that the prince's mind was turned away from objects,

The king, like an elephant with an arrow in its heart, 
did not sleep that night;

Though he wearied himself further 
in all sorts of consultations with his ministers,

He saw no other means, aside from desires,
to control his offspring's mind.

The 4th canto, titled “Warding Women Away,” 
in an epic story of awakened action.

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