kulārthaṁ dhāryate putraḥ poṣārthaṁ sevyate pitā |
āśayāc-chliṣyati jagan-nāsti niṣkāraṇāsvatā || 6.10
For the sake of continuing a line, a son is maintained;
For the sake of nurturing growth, a father is served;
Living beings cohere because of an agenda –
There is no unselfishness without a cause.
On the surface, again, the prince is praising Chandraka for being a special individual, by contrasting Chandraka with people in general who, unlike him, only act out of selfish motives. (This ostensible meaning is more explicit in the Chinese translation's 一切皆求利 汝獨背利遊 "Everybody seeks gain; You only, turning your back on gain, rove.")
The hidden meaning of today's verse, below the surface, however, is not to bemoan the general human tendency to be selfish, but rather to affirm the universal truth that a true agenda, or worthy cause, makes any of us (not only Chandraka) unselfish. The real point might be to celebrate, in other words, that unselfishness really does exist; and when it exists, invariably, there lies behind it a true agenda, or a real cause.
On the surface the prince illustrates his point with reference to a human family (kula) in which a son (putraḥ) is maintained with a view to carrying on the line and a father (pitā) is served not for the sake of service itself (as per the theoretical Buddhist ideal) but on account of his role as breadwinner.
Below the surface kula suggests the Buddha's house, or a lineage of the transmission of the Buddha's dharma, putraḥ suggests a dharma-heir, and pitā suggests a patriarch or buddha-ancestor.
So ostensibly the prince is talking about fathers in general and generic sons, but really Aśvaghoṣa might be talking about Pārśva and Puṇyayaśas, and about Kapimala and Nāgārjuna.
It is Aśvaghoṣa's style to avoid being preachy. But each of us is free to read between the lines and interpret his words as prescriptively as we like, and the message I take is that I should devote myself to a task– like maintaining a son or like serving a father – with a view to following some greater over-arching agenda. And in that case, though I should not necessarily expect it, the happiness of unselfishness may inadvertently ensue.
The wise course, in other words, if we are talking about the virtue of unselfishness, might be not to target unselfishness directly, but rather to identify a cause worth devoting oneself to.
Forgive me for labouring the point, but it is a point that is worth the effort to be clear about. The apparently skeptical observation that “There is no such thing as unselfishness without a cause,” can be read as concealing Aśvaghoṣa's joyous affirmation “There is such a thing as unselfishness, and it always has a cause.”
The ironic gist of the second half of today's verse boils down to this:
An agenda is the cause of unselfishness.
The truth of this seemingly paradoxical statement, when one stops and thinks about it, is everywhere borne out in team sports. In football, for example, overpaid Premier League prima donnas can be watched every week-end taking a yellow card for the team, or passing the ball to a teammate who is better placed to shoot, instead of going for glory themselves. Why does a footballer exhibit such unselfishness? Because of the team's shared agenda, which is to score more goals than the opposition.
Another example happened to be highlighted by a BBC4 documentary last night on the coherence – notwithstanding over-consumption of cocaine and alcohol and legendary struggles in the personal lives of individual band members – of Fleetwood Mac, whose shared agenda during the making of their album Rumours was such that, come what may, you would never break the chain.
For a parallel example drawn from Aśvaghoṣa's own writing, there are the words that the Buddha speaks to Nanda at the end of the epic tale of Beautiful Joy:
Therefore forgetting the work that needs to be done in this world on the self, do now, stout soul, what can be done for others. / Among beings who are wandering in the night, their minds shrouded in darkness, let the lamp of this transmission be carried. // SN18.57 //
On a textual note, the 3rd pāda of EBC's text has āśayāśliṣyati = āśayā (with hope) + śliṣyati / ā-śliṣyati (to embrace); and, more crucially, in the 4th pāda EBC took niṣkāraṇāsvatā as a compound formed of niṣkāraṇa (causeless) + asvatā (unselfishness). Hence: “the world shows kindness for the sake of hope; there is no such a thing as unselfishness without a motive.” (EBC)
EHJ read niṣkāraṇā-svatā = niṣkāraṇā (causeless) + sva-tā (ownership). EHJ understood ownership to mean the feeling that something is one's own, and noted that here the context demands that the something should be one's relation to others. Hence EHJ translated: “The attachment of the world is always due to some motive. No feeling that this or that person is one's kin subsists without a cause.” PO followed EHJ: “The world shows affection for a motive; kinship cannot endure without a cause.”
So I have followed EBC in taking niṣkāraṇāsvatā as niṣkāraṇa (causeless) + asvatā (unselfishness), and have understood Aśvaghoṣa hidden agenda in today's verse to be to convey the gist that a true agenda saves us from selfishness.
As I write these words, the story suddenly comes into my mind, as recounted by Matthieu Ricard, of the famous Tibetan master whose former life as a hunter was suddenly turned around when one day he shot a pregnant doe, and then watched her produce her fawn and nurture it with her dying breaths.
It is not that my unselfishness and lack of an agenda causes me, as a Buddhist, to do this work for no pay. It is rather that the agenda behind this work – which is as true to me as the agenda behind the actions of the dying doe – is the cause that saves me (on a good day) from the selfish misery of feeling sorry for my non-Buddhist self, and keeps me (more or less) coherent.
In that spirit I take today's verse as a kind of reminder and clarification of what the original agenda was behind this work – e.g. to nurture or contribute to growth or prosperity (poṣam). Accepting the truth of that original agenda, the task before me is to serve an ancestor (pitaram) who wished to cause to be yielded up serviceable gold:
Seeing, in general, that the world is moved primarily by fondness for objects and is repelled by liberation, I for whom liberation is paramount have told it here like it is, using a kāvya poem as a pretext. / Being aware of the deceit, take from (this verb-rooted dust) what pertains to peace and not to idle pleasure. Then elemental dust, assuredly, shall yield up serviceable gold. // SN18.64 //
kulārtham (acc. sg. n.): for the sake of the family / lineage
kula: n. a herd ; a race , family , community , tribe , caste , set , company ; the residence of a family , seat of a community ; a house ; a noble or eminent family or race
kul: to accumulate , collect ; to be of kin , behave as a kinsman ; to proceed continuously or without interruption
artha: aim, purpose
dhāryate = 3rd pers. sg. passive dhṛ: to hold , bear (also bring forth) , carry , maintain , preserve
putraḥ (nom. sg.): m. son
poṣārtham (acc. sg. n.): for the sake of thriving / growth
poṣa: m. ( √ puṣ) thriving , prosperity , abundance , wealth , growth , increase ; nourishing , nurture , rearing , maintaining , supporting
√ puṣ: to thrive , flourish , prosper
sevyate = 3rd pers. sg. passive sev: to serve , wait or attend upon , honour , obey , worship; to cherish, foster
pitā (nom. sg.): m. father ; m. pl. the fathers , forefathers , ancestors
āśayāt (abl. sg.): m. resting-place , bed ; seat , place ; the seat of feelings and thoughts , the mind , heart , soul ; thought , meaning , intention ; disposition of mind , mode of thinking
śliṣyati = 3rd pers. sg. śliṣ: to adhere , attach , cling to (loc. , rarely acc.) ; to clasp , embrace ; to unite , join (trans. or intrans.) ; (A1.) to result , be the consequence of anything
āśayā [EBC] = inst. sg. āśā f. wish , desire , hope , expectation , prospect
ā- √ śliṣ: to adhere or cling to ; to embrace
jagat (nom. sg.): n. that which moves or is alive , men and animals , animals as opposed to men , men ; n. the world , esp. this world , earth ; n. people , mankind
asti = 3rd pers. sg. as: to be
niṣkāraṇāsvatā [EBC] (nom. sg. f.): causeless unselfishness ; [EBC] 'unselfishness without a motive'
niṣkāraṇa: mfn. causeless , unnecessary ; groundless , not proceeding from any cause ; n. taking off , killing
āsvatā [EBC] (nom. sg.): f. the having no property ; unselfishness, Bcar. vi, 10.
niṣkāraṇā [EHJ] (nom. sg. f.): mfn. causeless , unnecessary ; groundless , not proceeding from any cause
sva-tā [EHJ] (nom. sg.) : f. the state of belonging to one's self , ownership