Tuesday, November 12, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 8.24: A Study in Grief & Frailty

⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−¦¦⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−   Vaṁśastha
tataḥ sa-bāṣpā mahiṣī mahī-pateḥ pranaṣṭa-vatsā mahiṣīva vatsalā |
praghya bāhū nipapāta gautamī vilola-parṇā kadalīva kāñcanī || 8.24

Then the king's queen, Gautamī,

Tearful as a doting water buffalo that had lost her calf,

Abducted her arms and fell,

Fronds shuddering, like a golden banana plant.

If a woman is startled by a gun suddenly going off behind her, she may exhibit a mature startle pattern, in which the arms are straightened and adducted (pulled in towards the body). Or if the stimulus is very strong – or again if the adult in question is a nervous type with a strong tendency to exhibit unduly excited fear reflexes and emotions – he or she may exhibit an immature primitive reflex, the so-called Moro reflex, which involves abducting the arms (moving them up and away from the body) and extending the fingers, as a new-born baby should do if its head is allowed to drop back.

The significance of this upward and outward movement of the arms as an expression of very profound emotion, or of absence of inhibition, not in a baby but in an adult, was evidently not lost on Aśvaghoṣa. Neither did Aśvaghoṣa fail to observe the significance of the opposite aspect of the Moro reflex, whereby the bent arms are adducted and the fingers curl, as if wanting to grasp onto something. Hence in SN Canto 6 Aśvaghoṣa describes the lamenting Sundarī as follows:
Then, on hearing what had happened to her husband, all of a sudden, up she leapt, shaking; / She clasped her arms and screamed out loud like a she-elephant shot in the heart by a poisoned arrow. // ... SN6.24 // She thought and thought about her husband's good points, sighing long and hard and gasping / As out she flung the arms that bore her gleaming jewels and hennaed hands, with reddened fingertips. // SN6.27 //

As regards the reference to a kadalī (MW: a banana or plaintain tree), according to Wikipedia, Though they grow as high as trees, banana and plantain plants are not woody and their apparent "stem" is just the bases of the huge leaf stalks. Thus they are technically gigantic herbs.

Whether or not the plant in question is technically a tree or a giant herb, the MW dictionary informs us that its soft, perishable stem is a symbol of frailty.

I could write a whole lot more about the connection between human frailty and the Moro reflex, based both on prickly personal experience and on professional experience... but on this occasion I won't. In today's verse Aśvaghoṣa for one is not discussing "unduly excited fear reflexes and emotions" in the abstract. On the contrary, without passing judgement as to whether the behaviour expresses due or undue excitement,  he is describing the actual behaviour of one individual. 

tataḥ: ind. then
sa-bāṣpā (nom. sg. f.): mfn. tearful , weeping
mahiṣī (nom. sg.): f. any woman of high rank , (esp.) the first or consecrated wife of a king (also pl.) or any queen ; f. a female buffalo , buffalo-cow
mahiṣa: mfn. great , powerful
mahī-pateḥ (gen. sg. m.): m. " earth-lord " , a king , sovereign
mahī: f. " the great world " , the earth

pranaṣṭa-vatsā (nom. sg. f.)
pranaṣṭa: mfn. lost , disappeared , vanished , ceased , gone , perished , destroyed , annihilated
vatsā: f. a female calf , little daughter ;
mahiṣī (nom. sg.): f. a female buffalo , buffalo-cow ; f. any woman of high rank , (esp.) the first or consecrated wife of a king (also pl.) or any queen
iva: like
vatsalā (nom. sg. f.): mfn. child-loving , affectionate towards offspring

pragṛhya = abs. pra- √ grah: to hold or stretch forth
bāhū = acc. dual. bāhu: m. arm
nipapāta = 3rd pers. sg. perf. ni- √ pat: to fly down , settle down , descend on (loc.) ; to fall down , fall upon or into
gautamī (nom. sg.): f. a female descendant of gotama ; name of Śākyamuni's step-mother (the sister of his biological mother Māyā)

vilola-parṇā (nom. sg. f.): with its leaves waving to and fro
vilola; mfn. moving to and fro or from side to side , rolling , waving , tremulous , unsteady
parṇa: n. a feather ; a leaf (regarded as the plumage of a tree)
kadalī (nom. sg. f.): mf. the plantain or banana tree , Musa Sapientum (its soft , perishable stem is a symbol of frailty)
iva: like
kāñcanī (nom. sg. f.): mfn. golden , made or consisting of gold

大愛瞿曇彌 聞太子不還
竦身自投地 四體悉傷壞
猶如狂風摧 金色芭蕉樹

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