urāṁsi jaghnuḥ kamalopamaiḥ karaiḥ sva-pallavair-vāta-calā latā iva || 8.28
With hands whose gapless fingers were beautifully round and full,
With unadorned hands whose blood-vessels were invisible,
With their hands resembling lotuses,
the most beautiful of women beat their breasts –
Like wind-blown creepers beating themselves with their own tendrils.
With its description of the women's hands (kara = lit. “agent of doing,” from the root √kṛ, to do or make), today's verse is another one that can be read on at least two levels, as suggesting the outer beauty of good-looking women and/or the inner beauty of enlightened behaviour.
Thus su-vṛtta-pīnāṅgulibhiḥ on the surface is describing the women's fingers as beautifully round (su-vṛtta) and full (pīna). But su-vṛtta can also means “well-conducted” or “virtuous” and pīna can mean “expanded” or (as for example in BC8.22) “expanding” – i.e. lengthening and widening as a result of neuromuscular release. So su-vṛtta-pīnāṅgulibhiḥ could mean something like “with the lengthened-and-widened fingers of those who use themselves well.”
Still in the 1st pāda, nir-antaraiḥ on the surface describes the women's lotus-like hands as having no gaps between the fingers. But, as in many compounds prefixed with a negative, the negative prefix nir- can be read as expressing that state of being without which is the buddha-nature, so that nir-antaraiḥ could mean something like “their inside being nothing” or “their content being nothing.”
In the 2nd pāda, similarly, a-bhūṣaṇaiḥ ostensibly means “un-adorned” but below the surface can be read as meaning something like “adorned by un-ness,” or “having nothing as an ornament.”
In the 2nd pāda, again, gūḍha-siraiḥ ostensibly suggests lotus-like female hands on the surface of which only beautiful skin is visible – not veins, arteries, or tensely protruding tendons. Hence “which had their arteries hidden” (EBC); “whose veins were hidden” (EHJ); “revealed no veins” (PO). But gūḍha, as well as meaning “hidden” can mean “secret.” And when Aśvaghoṣa wrote of sira (lit. “stream,” from √sṛ, to flow, and by extension “a blood vessel”) who is to say that he wasn't secretly thinking of the one-to-one transmission of the Buddha's lifeblood?
Coming to the 3rd pāda, the first element of today's verse that baffled me was the significance of the women beating their breasts. Beating of the breast, it would appear, was more commonly practised in ancient times than it is today (as witnessed for example by the Bible), as a public expression of negative emotions like sorrow, remorse, and grief. But how does such public expression of suffering fit in with the behaviour of “different” women (anyāḥ striyaḥ), as described in the preceding three verses (BC8.25-27). Aśvaghoṣa, as I have heard him, has used these individuals to symbolize Zen monks who are sitting in stoic stillness, and simply letting the tears roll down in golden silence. That being so, what contrast is Aśvaghoṣa drawing when he describes the women in today's verse as beating their breasts?
One clue, I think, is in the description of the women as varāṅganāḥ, which, according to the MW dictionary, means “beautiful women.” Since vara means select, choicest, or best, varāṅganāḥ can also mean “noble women” or “the best of women.” Ostensibly these varāṅganāḥ are the same ones just described in the three preceding verses. Hence “these noble women” (EHJ); “those exquisite women” (PO). But I think Aśvaghoṣa's real intention might be to suggest that varāṅganāḥ means not women in general and not even the individuals just described who are different. I think varāṅganāḥ means the very best of women, the very noblest of women, the most truly beautiful of women – i.e. enlightened buddhas.
That being so, a further clue to the significance of beating the breast might be the following verses in SN Canto 18, addressed by the Buddha to the newly enlightened Nanda:
O possessor of dharma! Since, because of abiding by dharma, you have skill in making it your own and quiet confidence in me, / I have something else to say to you. For you are surrendered and devoted, and up to the task. // SN18.53 // Walking the transcendent walk, you have done the work that needed to be done: in you, there is not the slightest thing left to work on. / From now on, my friend, go with compassion, freeing up others who are pulled down into their troubles. // 18.54 // The lowest sort of man only ever sets to work for an object in this world. But a man in the middle does work both for this world and for the world to come. / A man in the middle, I repeat, works for a result in the future. The superior type, however, tends towards abstention from positive action. // 18.55 // But deemed to be higher than the highest in this world is he who, having realized the supreme ultimate dharma, / Desires, without worrying about the trouble to himself, to teach tranquillity to others. // 18.56 // 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 //
More baffling still, in the 4th pāda, is the simile of the wind-blown vines quietly beating themselves with weedy tendrils. If, as I am suggesting, beating the breast is intended to represent beating the drum of Dharma, then would not, say, a gorilla energetically pounding his pecs fit better with the hidden meaning?
Again, on the surface, the creeping vines swaying in the wind fit perfectly well as a simile for exquisite drama queens demonstratively expressing an emotionally dependent state. But on the level of the underlying metaphor wherein, as I have interpreted it so far, the suffering women stand for iron men of Zen, wouldn't a mighty oak be more appropriate than the kind of creeping vine which cannot support itself?
Perhaps it was Aśvaghoṣa's intention to lead us thus far, so as at least to ask the question, how the most truly beautiful of beings, i.e. buddhas, might be like creepers blowing in the wind, beating themselves with their own delicate tendrils.
How, in fact, does a buddha beat the drum of Dharma? With the energy of calm assertiveness, for example? Or with the energy of calm submission?
Whatever conclusion our mind jumps to, I think Aśvaghoṣa's intention might be to say: “No. Not that!”
Aśvaghoṣa's intention, in the end, might not be any conclusion any more or less decisive than a mightily imposing tree of life – or indeed a shyly retiring creeper – in the garden.
su-vṛtta-pīnāṅgulibhiḥ (inst. pl. m.): with beautifully round and full fingers ; with the fingers of the well-conducted and expanding
su-vṛtta: mfn. well rounded , beautifully globular or round ; well-conducted , virtuous , good (esp. applied to women)
pīna: mfn. swelling , swollen , full , round , thick , large , fat , fleshy , corpulent muscular
aṅguli: f. a finger
nir-antaraiḥ (inst. pl.): m. having no interval (in space or time) , close , compact , dense , uninterrupted , perpetual , constant ; faithful, true [having nothing as their contents]
antara: n. the interior ; n. a hole , opening ; n. the interior part of a thing , the contents ; n. soul , heart , supreme soul
a-bhūṣaṇaiḥ (inst. pl.): m. being without embellishment, unadorned, having nothing as an ornament
bhūṣaṇa: n. embellishment , ornament , decoration (often ifc. , with f(ā). , " having anything as ornament " i.e. adorned or decorated with)
gūḍha-siraiḥ (inst. pl.): m. with their veins/arteries invisible ; in the presence of the secret vessel of the life-blood ;
gūḍha-śiraiḥ (inst. pl.): m. with their heads covered
gūḍha: mfn. covered , hidden , concealed , invisible , secret , private
sirā: f. (fr. √ sṛ, to flow) a stream , water; any tubular vessel of the body , a nerve , vein , artery , tendon
śiras: n. the head , skull ; the upper end or highest part of anything , top , peak , summit , pinnacle , acme ; (ifc.) the head , leader , chief , foremost , first (of a class)
varāṅganāḥ (nom. pl.): the beautiful women
vara: " select " (from √vṛ, to choose), choicest , valuable , precious , best , most excellent or eminent among (gen. loc. abl. , or comp.)
aṅganā: f. (from ( √ aṅg, to go) " a woman with well-rounded limbs " , any woman or female
vara-phala: mfn. possessing or yielding the best fruits
vara-nārī:f. the best woman , a most excellent woman
vara-yuvatī: f. a beautiful young woman or girl
vara-yoṣit: f. a beautiful woman
vara-varṇa: m. or n. " best-coloured " , gold
vara-strī: f. an excellent or noble woman
varāṅga: n. " best member of the body " , the head
urāṁsi = acc. pl. uras: n. the chest , breast , bosom ; the best of its kind
jaghnuḥ = 3rd pers. perf. pl. han: to strike , beat (also a drum) , pound , hammer (acc.)
kamalopamaiḥ (inst. pl.): m. lotus-like
kamala: mn. a lotus , lotus-flower , Nelumbium ; mfn. pale-red , rose-coloured
upama: mfn. (ifc.) equal , similar , resembling , like
karaiḥ (inst. pl.): m. " the doer " , the hand
sva-pallavaiḥ (inst. pl.): with their own shoots
pallava: mn. a sprout , shoot , twig , spray , bud , blossom (met. used for the fingers , toes , lips &c )
vāta-calāḥ (nom. pl. f.): moving in the wind
vāta: m. wind
cala: mfn. moving , trembling , shaking , loose
latāḥ (nom. pl.): f. a creeper , any creeping or winding plant or twining tendril Mn. MBh. &c (the brows , arms , curls , a slender body , a sword-blade , lightning &c are often compared to the form of a creeper , to express their graceful curves and slimness of outline)
[No corresponding Chinese]