Thursday, December 25, 2014

BUDDHACARITA 13.21: Of (Ash-Covered) Ascetics and Grey Elephants (Au Naturel)

¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−   Upajāti (Indravajrā)
bhasmāruṇā lohita-bindu-citrāḥ khaṭvāṅga-hastā hari-dhūmra-keśāḥ |
lamba-sphico vāraṇa-lamba-karṇāś carmāmbarāś caiva nirambarāś ca || 13.21

Grey as an ashen dawn, spotted with red marks;

Carrying their skulls-and-backbones in their hands [or trunks];
having the smoky-coloured hair of monkeys;

With pendulous hips and pendulous elephant-ears;

Clothed in hides, and with nothing on;

Today's verse, taken element by element, could be about any number of things. 

Ostensibly the first half of the verse, as EHJ noted, seems to describe Śaiva ascetics. But bhasmāruṇāḥ (EHJ: "ash-grey in colour") could also describe the beautiful ashen hues of the first light of a grey dawn; khaṭvāṅga-hastāḥ (EHJ: "carrying ascetics' staves") could also describe Zen practitioners going on hands-and-knees to perform prostrations (i.e. supporting 'backbones' in their hands); and hari-dhūmra-keśaḥ (EHJ: "with hair smoke-coloured like  monkeys") could also describe the tawny manes of lions.

The single solution to all the cryptic clues in today's verse, however, might be to understand that, below the surface, Aśvaghoṣa has in mind nothing but real elephants. 

The ostensible gist of today's verse is conveyed by the translations of EBC and EHJ (I cannot quote PO since I left my Clay Sanskrit Library translation in France).

Copper-red, covered with red spots, bearing clubs in their hands, with yellow or smoke-coloured hair, with wreaths dangling down, with long pendulous ears like elephants, clothed in leather or wearing no clothes at all;
Ashy-grey in colour, tricked out with red spots, carrying ascetics' staves, with hair smoke-coloured like a monkey’s, hung round with garlands, with pendent ears like elephants, clad in skins or entirely naked;

Once again, then, Aśvaghoṣa has crafted a verse which on first reading seems to describe something grim and goulish but which, when we take the time to investigate it, turns into the description of something naturally wonderful. In this way, we are not merely informed by Aśvaghoṣa's words; we are transformed by the difficult process of working to penetrate them.

As with all difficult processes, the task is best broken down into manageable pieces.

  • bhasmāruṇāḥ, grey as an ashen dawn
EBC's “copper-red” is based on the old Nepalese manuscript's tāmrāruṇāḥ. EHJ amended this to bhasmāruṇāḥ, based on the Tibetan and based also on the Chinese which has
作 became
土 earth

EHJ's amendment, along with the Chinese, thus works well as a description of an ash-covered Śaiva ascetic, and also as a description of an elephant's natural skin colour.

  • lohita-bindu-citrāḥ, spotted with red marks
This phrase could describe a Śaiva ascetic's use of red face paint, to make tilaka, or bindi -- the same kind of red mark that Sundarī paints on herself in Saundara-nanda. 

But equally the MW dictionary gives, for one meaning of bindu, a spot or mark of coloured paint on the body of an elephant.

  • khaṭvāṅga-hastāḥ, carrying their skulls-and-backbones in their hands [or trunks] 
khaṭvāṅga-hastāḥ ostensibly means “bearing clubs in their hands” [EBC] or, more to the point, “carrying ascetics' staves” [EHJ]. The MW dictionary defines khaṭvāṅga as a club or staff with a skull at the top (considered as the weapon of śiva and carried by ascetics and yogins).

But equally, again, the MW dictionary gives, for another meaning of khaṭvāṅga, simply “the back-bone.” And -hasta at the end of a compound is given firstly as “holding in the hand” but secondly as “holding with the trunk.” Can we suppose that Aśvaghoṣa observed in detail how elephants behave, and so knew how some elephants use their trunks for postural support?

I couldn't find any strong evidence on youtube of an elephant putting its trunk on the ground for support –  as a Zen practitioner uses his or her hands when doing a prostration  though the elephant in the background here seems at times to be standing on three legs with his trunk on the ground. 

This clip shows an elephant standing on two legs to tug on a high branch, in which condition the elephant is in some sense carrying his skull and vertebral column in his trunk. Cloacal reflexes may be relevant here. These reflexes, I heard from Ray Evans, help an elephant centre its pelvis for mating. They might also be useful,  Ray thought, for Zen elephants who wish to keep their snouts and tandens aligned in sitting. 

  • hari-dhūmra-keśāḥ, having the smoky-coloured hair of a monkey
The description of an elephant having hair that is the smoky colour of a monkey's hair is more easily confirmed, by this webpage which answers the question Why do elephants have hair on their head? The answer, apparently, is to keep cool. 

  • lamba-sphicaḥ, with pendulous hips
  • lamba-srajaḥ, with garlands hanging down
EHJ notes that the first word of the 3rd pāda (in EHJ's text lamba-srajo) is uncertain, but the garlands, if -srajo is correct, may be garlands of skulls.

The Tibetan translation indicates lamba-sphicowhich seems to mean something like “with buttocks hanging down” or "with pendulous hips." The Chinese translation has 或象耳負山which Beal translates as “some with ears like elephants, with humps like mountains,” but which more literally means “some, with elephant ears, bearing a mountain.”
 bearing, carrying on the back

The Tibetan and Chinese translation thus both seem to point an anatomical feature rather than to wreaths or garlands. 

This abstract of a scientific paper about an elephant's gait states that “At low speeds ... work is reduced by a pendulum-like exchange between the kinetic and potential energies of the centre of mass...”  Could Aśvaghoṣa have been referring to this lumbering elephant's gait with the phrase lamba-sphicaḥ, “with pendulous hips”?

  • carmāmbarāś caiva nircambarāś ca, clothed in hides and with nothing on 
What is less in doubt, finally, is that, after all the above uncertainty and hard work, the 4th pāda of today's verse rewards us with something akin to the punch-line of a good joke. Aśvaghoṣa seems on first reading to be describing two kinds of creature, some of whom are clad in leather hides, and some of whom are naked. But Aśvaghoṣa's real intention might be, just as we describe a naked man in English as “wearing his birthday suit,” to describe in two ways one elephant in its natural state.

Read like this, the 4th pāda truly belongs at the fourth phase, partly because it delivers a punch-line, but more profoundly because it points to every elephant's ultimate aim, which is to come back to his or her original state.

So back we come in the end, again, by another long and winding route, to the teaching of pratītya-samutpāda. 

If pratītya-samutpāda were a doctrine, like "dependent origination," then the task would be to understand the doctrine and to help others understand the doctrine. But the task is more difficult if pratītya-samutpāda is not so much a doctrine as a happening. If pratītya-samutpāda, as I submit, means everything springing up together, then how best can we serve it? 

If I knew the answer to that question, I might not, as I run out of verses to translate day by day, be suffering again from a nagging pain in the stomach. 

I try to reassure myself by reminding myself that, even though I don't know what to do, at least I have a clearer idea than I did about what NOT to do. But for an imperfectly developed bloke of chequered karma in an uncertain world, this does not seem like very much to go on. 

tāmrāruṇāḥ (nom. pl. m.): mfn. “copper-red” [EBC] ; m. a coppery red dawn
tāmra: mfn. of a coppery red colour
aruṇa: mfn. reddish-brown , tawny , red , ruddy (the colour of the morning opposed to the darkness of night)
bhasmāruṇāḥ [EHJ] (nom. pl. m.): “ash-grey in colour” [EHJ]
bhasman: n. " what is pulverized a or calcined by fire " , ashes
lohita-bindu-citrāḥ (nom. pl. m.): speckled with red spots
lohita: mfn. red ; made of copper , copper , metal
bindu: m. a detached particle , drop , globule , dot , spot ; a spot or mark of coloured paint on the body of an elephant ; a coloured mark made on the forehead between the eyebrows
citra: mfn. variegated , spotted , speckled (with instr. or in comp.)

khaṭvāṅga-hastāḥ (nom. pl. m.): carrying back-bone staffs in their hands
khaṭvāṅga: mn. “a club shaped like the foot of a bedstead " i.e. a club or staff with a skull at the top (considered as the weapon of śiva and carried by ascetics and yogins) ; m. the back-bone
khaṭvā: f. a bedstead , couch , cot
aṅga: n. a limb of the body
hasta: m. the hand (ifc. = " holding in or by the hand ") ; an elephant's trunk (ifc. = " holding with the trunk ")
hari-dhūmra-keśāḥ (nom. pl. m.): their hair the smoky colour of a monkey
hari-dhūmra: mfn. yellowish brown
hari: mfn. fawn-coloured , reddish brown , brown , tawny , pale yellow , yellow , fallow , bay (esp. applied to horses) , green , greenish; m. yellow or reddish brown or green (the colour) ; a horse ; a lion ; a monkey ;
dhūmra: mfn. smoke-coloured , smoky , dark-coloured , grey , dark-red , purple
keśa: m. the hair of the head ; the mane (of a horse or lion)

lamba-srajaḥ (nom. pl. m.): with wreaths hanging down
lamba: mfn. hanging down , pendent , dangling
sraj: f. garland, wreath
lamba-sphicaḥ (nom. pl. m.): with buttocks hanging down
sphij: f. a buttock , hip
vāraṇa-lamba-karṇāḥ (nom. pl. m.): with elephants' ears hanging down
vāraṇa: m. an elephant (from its power of resistance)
lamba: hanging down
karṇa: m. ear

carmāmbarāḥ (nom. pl. m.): with leather clothes
carman: n. hide , skin
ambara: n. circumference , compass ; clothes
ca: and
eva: (emphatic)
nirambarāḥ (nom. pl. m.): with no clothes , naked
ca: and

或似明星光 或身放煙火
或象耳負山 或被髮裸身

1 comment:

Mike Cross said...

Further evidence that elephants have hairy heads: