Tuesday, March 10, 2015

BUDDHACARITA 14.24: Praise Be to the Mighty Elephant (Beaten by Brahmin Feet)

vāhyante gaja-bhūtāś ca balīyāṁso 'pi dur-balaiḥ |
aṅkuśa-kliṣṭa-mūrdhānas tāḍitāḥ pāda-pārṣṇibhiḥ || 14.24

As elephants, again, they are driven,

Though they are the mighty ones, by the weak,

Who torment their heads with hooks,

And beat them, with foot and heel.

Ostensibly, as also in yesterday's verse, bhūta as a suffix means “become,” i.e, “born as.” So ostensibly gaja-bhūtāḥ means “when born as elephants” (EBC) or “those who become elephants” (EHJ), in which case the gist of today's verse is plain enough. Ostensibly the bodhisattva is talking about elephants in the animal kingdom which have been trained to become submissive to the will of physically weaker human beings.

Below the surface, mirroring yesterday's verse, gaja-bhūtāḥ means “being like elephants,” in which case to be like an elephant is not to be an elephant. 

From a technical standpoint, it is fortunate that the English word “as” is broad enough to cover both the ostensible meaning and the hidden meaning of -bhūta

But to what exactly is that hidden meaning alluding? Who is like an elephant? 

In general – very far from being, as Patrick Olivelle has asserted, the consummation of Brahmanism – the Buddha's teaching was always and has remained completely antithetical to maintenance of the caste system, animal sacrifices and other such Brahmanical traditions. And this, as Prof. Richard Gombrich clarified in a recent BBC Radio 4 “In Our Time” discussion of King Aśoka, is why in the centuries after Aśoka's death, the powers that be in India caused Aśoka the Great to be totally buried and forgotten. Aśoka stood for one dharma. The rulers that succeeded Aśoka wanted to maintain the divisive caste system in India, and these rulers have won -- at least so far. 

For a graphic representation of the suppression of the non-violent elephant by the violent lion, these rock carvings spring to mind: 

The correspondence between these images and today's verse is not exact, since today's verse makes no mention of lions. But in the background may have been Aśvaghoṣa's intuition that the suppression of buddha-elephants and bodhisattva-elephants in India would not necessarily be due to any want of firmness or constancy or integrity on the part of the mighty elephants, even as they were driven away. 

On further reflection, the double-meaning of pāda – as a foot, and as a line of a four-line verse – may also be relevant. Which is to say that, from where Aśvaghoṣa sat, it may have been apparent that a work of epic verse like the Rāmayāna threatened to be instrumental in kicking the elephant out of India. This in fact may have been part of Aśvaghoṣa's motivation for presenting the Buddha's teaching in the form of his own two epic poems – using his own feet, as it were, to kick the lion back. 

Apropos of which I received some news last week from B. M. Deb that his book The Peacock In Splendour - Science, Literature and Art in Ancient & Medieval India has just been published (ISBN 978-81-7522-452-0; 624 pages). Happily, some translations of Aśvaghoṣa from this blog were included, though I haven't seen the book yet. 

B. M. Deb is a multi-disciplinary scientist interested in Theoretical Chemistry, Chemical Physics, Atomic and Molecular Sciences, Science Education in India, and aspects of human civilization. He has a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Chemistry from Calcutta University, India, followed by a D.Phil. in Mathematics from Oxford University. 

Come on Dumbo! 

vāhyante = 3rd pers. pl. passive causative vah: to cause to bear or carry or convey or draw, drive (a chariot) , guide or ride (a horse) , propel (a boat) , go or travel by any vehicle
gaja-bhūtāḥ (nom. pl. m.): as elephants
bhūta: mfn. become; (ifc.) being or being like anything
ca: and

balīyāṁsaḥ = nom. pl. m. balīyas: mfn. (compar. fr. balin) more or most powerful , or mighty or strong or important or efficacious
api: even
dur-balaiḥ (inst. pl.): m. an impotent man , weakling

aṅkuśa-kliṣṭa-mūrdhānaḥ (nom. pl. m.): heads tormented by the ankus
aṅkuśa: mn. a hook , especially an elephant-driver's hook
kliṣṭa: mfn. molested , tormented , afflicted , distressed
kliṣ: to torment , trouble , molest , cause pain , afflict
mūrdhan: m. the forehead , head in general , skull , (fig.) the highest or first part of anything

tāḍitāḥ (nom. pl. m.): mfn. struck , beaten , chastised
taḍ: to beat , strike , knock , strike (with arrows) , wound , punish
pāda-pārṣṇibhiḥ (inst. pl.): with heels of the foot
pāda: m. the foot ; a quarter , a fourth Part (the fourth of a quadruped being one out of 4); a verse or line (as the fourth part of a regular stanza)
pārṣṇi: f. the heel; a kick

傷體膿血流 飢渇莫能解 
[Relation with Sanskrit tenuous]  


Rich said...

Ringling Brothers Circus just announced they will be retiring their 20 something elephants to a preserve in Florida over the 3 years.

Mike Cross said...

Thanks Rich.

Maybe I won't bother with that talk in Oxford, after all.