Sadāsvāda - 38

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Mohan K.V

Jul 7, 2013, 1:07:49 PM7/7/13
to, Shreevatsa



भ्रश्यत्-खाण्डव-रुष्ट-पाण्डवम् अहो को न क्षितीशः स्मरेत् ?


bhraśyat-khāṇḍava-ruṣṭa-pāṇḍavam aho ko na kṣitīśaḥ smaret?)


“Which king will not think of the Pāṇḍava (Arjuna) angry at the Khāṇḍava forest, which is being destroyed by the dances (tāṇḍava) of the flames arising from the swarm of arrows dispatched by (his) springing Gāṇḍiva bow?” Phew! The breathlessness of the phrase, the ingenuity of alliterating a big ‘āṇḍava’ sound, the majesty that builds up almost along with the compound -- Who is the genius behind this? Read on!


Today's phrase is taken from the Bhāminī-vilāsa of Paṇḍitarāja Jagannātha. Jagannātha is a very famous scholar, poet and technical polemicist from the Andhra region, and lived about 400 years ago. Born in a village in today’s East Godavari district, he travelled widely and spent a majority of his life in Delhi, in the Mughal courts of Jahangir and Shah Jahan. There are many apocryphal legends on how he got there. One story goes that he came to Delhi looking to earn a livelihood, and just as he arrived, a commotion broke out. Two Mughal soldiers were quarreling, and soon it escalated into a war of words. It was decided that they would go straight to the emperor to ask for justice. Everyone in the crowd who was watching the quarrel, including Jagannātha, was hauled up as witnesses. The emperor Jahangir asked the witnesses what happened, but being the commonfolk that they were, nobody gave a coherent answer. Jagannātha’s turn came up, and he narrated the exchanges between the soldiers verbatim! The emperor was pleased and asked him a follow-up question, and it came to light that Jagannātha did not even know Persian! Jahangir was very impressed by Jagannātha’s memory, and instantly inducted him into the court.

The grateful Jagannātha stayed on, and was also a court poet of Jahangir’s son, Shah Jahan. Even his title, ‘Paṇḍitarāja’, was earned at the Mughal court. He was a tutor of Shah Jahan’s gifted son, Dara Shikoh, and was an influence behind the latter’s huge effort at translating the 50 Upanishads into Persian. A Frenchman then translated the Persian into Latin, and Europe in the time of Schopenhauer for the first time had access to the light of the East.

Jagannātha’s poetic work has very distinct and sometimes peculiar qualities. Foremost in all his works is the emphasis on mādhurya -- sweetness. A combination of alliteration and rhyme is almost universally present in his verses, and gives it a distinct musical quality. Less universally praised qualities are his ego, apparent small-mindedness and sharp tongue: very much in contrast with tradition, Jagannātha appears not to have had even a whit of humility, and liberally salted and peppered his works with sharp pokes. For example, at the end of his Bhāminī-vilāsa, a collection of his miscellaneous verses, he writes:

दुर्वृत्ता जारजन्मानो हरिष्यन्तीति शङ्कया ।

मदीय-पद्य-रत्नानाम् मञ्जूषैषा कृता मया ॥

durvṛttā jārajanmāno hariṣyantīti śaṅkayā |

madīya-padya-ratnānām mañjūṣaiṣā kṛtā mayā ||

“Suspecting that vile bastards will steal them, I collected my verses into this archive.”

This might appear distasteful and small-minded in a contemporary -- but to us who are far removed in time and space, it is funny to see such concerns voiced out. For sure, nobody would object to the content of this message, just the form. Still, it affords a hearty chuckle!

At times, Jagannātha’s audacity is seen in his praise of his patrons as well. One story goes that he first served under Maharana Jagat Singh at Mewar, and then moved to the more powerful Delhi court of the Mughals after he defeated Islamic scholars in an argument. Such mobility across India was quite common, especially for learned men. Someone asked him if he would consider moving to some other king’s court. His reply:

दिल्लीश्वरो वा जगदीश्वरो वा मनोरथान् पूरयितुं समर्थः ।

अन्यैः नृपलैः परि-दीयमानं शाकाय वा स्यात् लवणाय वा स्यात् ॥

dillīśvaro vā jagadīśvaro vā manorathān pūrayituṃ samarthaḥ |

anyaiḥ nṛpalaiḥ pari-dīyamānam śākāya vā syāt lavaṇāya vā syāt ||

“The lord of Delhi or the lord of the entire world alone are capable of satisfying one’s wishes. The gifts given by other kings can barely pay for the salt and veggies! [they are so meagre]”

“salt and veggies” sounds like a distinctly South Indian expression! ‘Jagadīśvara’ could also refer to his former benefactor, making adjustments to accommodate his own past. :-)

Sometimes, his boasts thinly veiled as complaints are his most exquisite creations! An example:

विद्वांसो वसुधातले परवचः श्लाघासु वाचंयमा

भूपाला कमला-विलास-मदिरोन्मीलन्-मदाघूर्णिताः ।

आस्ये धास्यते कस्य लास्यम् अधुना धन्यस्य कामालसः

स्वर्वामाधर-माधुरीम् अधरयन् वाचां विपाको मम ॥

vidvāṃso vasudhātale paravacaḥ ślāghāsu vācaṃyamā

bhūpālā kamalā-vilāsa-madironmīlan-madāghūrṇitāḥ |

āsye dhāsyate kasya lāsyam adhunā dhanyasya kāmālasaḥ

svarvāmādhara-mādhurīm adharayan vācāṃ vipāko mama ||

“Learned men become very restrained in their words when it comes to praising anyone.

Kings on the other hand reel with the intoxication of sporting with Lakṣṃī (wealth).

On whose tongues will my words, which exceed even the lips of heavenly damsels in their sweetness, dance with grace?”

So much circumambulation to say, “I don’t think anyone’s smart enough to appreciate what I’ve written”!! But look at how eloquently this message is delivered -- vācaṃyamā “restrained in speech” is a beautiful new compound; the -sya- alliteration in the third line and the -dha- alliteration in the fourth are also very well done. Just goes to say that if we keep our ears and minds open, Jagannātha can offer us a rich bounty -- just that humility won’t be part of it :-) It does make us wonder though -- John Steinbeck once said this:

It has always seemed strange to me... the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.

Jagannātha was an active exponent of Alankāra-śāstra (rhetoric), and his most famous work is the Rāsa-gangādhara. He bitterly disputed old exponents’ ideas such as Ruyyaka’s and Mammaṭa’s, and also engaged in many quarrels with near-contemporaries such as with Appayya Dīkṣita. Rivalry with Appayya was so intense that an entire series of legends have been spun around it -- but they are mostly just figments of imagination, because Jagannātha almost certainly began his career after Appayya died, and only engaged with his written works. It is likely that Appayya’s and Jagannātha’s many students are the source of this mischief!

Jagannātha’s poetic output consisted mainly of muktakas and songs of praise -- either of the eternal class, as his verses on Lord Krishna, the river Ganga, etc., or the more worldly kind, where he praised various characters in the Mughal court such as Asaf Khan, the father-in-law of Shah Jahan. A verse from his famous Gangā-laharī:

त्रपन्ते तीर्थानि त्वरितम् इह यस्योद्धृतिविधौ

करं कर्णे कुर्वन्त्यपि किल कपालिप्रभृतयः ।

इमं तं मामम्ब त्वम् इयम् अनुकम्पार्द्रह्र्दया

पुनाना सर्वेषाम् अघ-मथन-दर्पं दलयसि ।२८।

trapante tīrthāni tvaritam iha yasyoddhṛtividhau

karaṃ karṇe kurvantyapi kila kapāliprabhṛtayaḥ |

imaṃ taṃ māmamba tvam iyam anukampārdrahrdayā

punānā sarveṣām agha-mathana-darpaṃ dalayasi |28|

“Mother, sacred waters become embarrassed when they try to purify me (I am so vile and corrupt).

Shiva and other deities hold up their palms to their ears, as if they don’t want to hear my pleas (My sins are so wicked that even gods fear any association with me)

You, oh compassionate mother, tear apart all their pride at destroying sins (You can take me to salvation where others fail)”

Jagannātha’s reverence for and humility before the Gangā, all the more striking in light of his general arrogance, make the Gangā-lahari a difficult poem for us personally, for a very different reason. The subject of Jagannātha’s poem is not only a mythical river-goddess or abstract idea, but also a physical river, the reality of which we can unfortunately go and see today for ourselves. It is hard to reconcile the reverence towards the Gangā, of Jagannātha and others, with the fact that we have pretty much turned it into an open sewage drain. Year after year, study after study plaintively wails that the ecosystem of the once-magnificent river is being recklessly butchered. Levels of toxins near major cities on its course surpass even the levels in concentrated industrial effluents in developed countries.

This is a distinctive feature of the decline of our times. We worship symbols, but brutally ravage the real things that those symbols represent. This is not merely hypocrisy -- this is an advanced stage of dissociation, where thoughts, words and deeds have no connection to themselves or to each other. The Kannada saint-poet Basavaṇṇa summarized it thus:

kalla nāgara kaṇḍare hālanere ennuvaru

diṭada nāgara kaṇḍare kollembarayya

“They ask me to ritually offer milk to a stone statue of a snake

But if they see a real snake, they ask me to kill it.”

There is a way of making peace with such dissonance -- and it is in noting that we understand very, very little of the real world anyway. All our perspectives of the world, be they positive or negative, are hopelessly simplistic. If we really understood the world in all its horrific detail, not even the most hard-hearted of us could remain sane. H. P. Lovecraft writes:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Even if we don’t rush into a new dark age, we can recognize our limited capacity and the benefit of hoping for a simpler, better world. Therefore, let us not go looking for ugliness, and instead enjoy the beauty we do have access to and improve what we can. The beautiful serenity prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr goes:

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and wisdom to know the difference.

The Kannada poet DVG says much the same:

nagunaguva kaṇgaḷige hogeyanūdalubēḍa

jagava suḍugāḍenuva kaṭutapasu bēḍa |

maguvu tāytandekaṇmunde naḍevante naḍe

migecinte taleharaṭe - mankutimma |833|

“Don’t blow smoke into smiling eyes,

Don’t hold tight to a conviction that the world is a wretched burning ground.

Be like a child playing in front of his parents --

Worrying is idle nonsense.”

The child lives in the moment, free of pointless worry and anxiety about things he cannot possibly change. He’s naturally curious, optimistic and enthusiastic. He deals with things as they come, and doesn’t engage in needless abstract thinking. Follow him, the poet says (and we would silently smile and add, “if you succeed in doing this, tell us how.” :-) ).

Lest we leap off on yet another jeremiad, back to Jagannātha now. :-) The Bhāminī-vilāsa consists of 4 sections -- the first is a collection of unconnected allegorical verses, the second a description of women, the third is of the pathos of loss of a loved one, and the last is about renunciation. There is much speculation that these sections mirror events in the poet’s life.

Of the four, the first is by far the most interesting. Though the poet is clearly inferior in using allegory (anyokti) than poets like Bhallaṭa and Bhartṛhari, his musicality and force of expression give him a unique charm. Consider for example this verse of gratitude to an unexpected favour:

आरामाधिपतिः विवेक-विकलो नूनं रसा नीरसा

वात्याभिः परुषी-कृता दश-दिशः चण्डातपो दुःसहः ।

एवं धन्वनि चम्पकस्य सकले संहारहेतावपि

त्वं सिञ्चन् अमृतेन तोयद कुतोऽप्याविष्कृतो वेधसा ।३०।

ārāmādhipatiḥ viveka-vikalo nūnaṃ rasā nīrasā

vātyābhiḥ paruṣī-kṛtā daśa-diśaḥ caṇḍātapo duḥsahaḥ |

evaṃ dhanvani campakasya sakale saṃhārahetāvapi

tvaṃ siñcan amṛtena toyada kuto'pyāviṣkṛto vedhasā |30|

“The gardner was devoid of intelligence. The soil was barren.

The ten directions were roughened by harsh winds, and the burning sun was intolerable.

Thus, just as every condition for destruction was met for the delicate Campaka flower in the desert,

O cloud, you came sprinkling your ambrosial rain drops -- what magic of the Creator is this!”

Jagannātha almost seems to be reading our minds -- the Creator better get busy arranging for an ambrosial rain cloud to come by us soon :-)

Here again, the microscopic artistry is very apparent. In his non-ornate verses, Jagannātha sometimes touches on very deep ideas:

नापेक्षा न च दाक्षिण्यम् न प्रीतिः न च सङ्गतिः ।

तथापि हरते तापं लोकानम् उन्नतो घनः ।३८।

nāpekṣā na ca dākṣiṇyam na prītiḥ na ca saṅgatiḥ |

tathāpi harate tāpaṃ lokānam unnato ghanaḥ |38|

“[It has] No expectation of return, no obligation, no love and no attachment --

And yet, the high cloud takes away the heat of the world [removes pain]”

Things that greatly help us or hurt us very often do not care for us, or even know that we exist. This is possibly the greatest lesson of progress in the history of modernity: ideas, policies and discoveries often have effects completely unrelated to the intention behind them. We ought to judge policies solely by their results, and people by their intentions. We err when we judge policies by their intentions. The economist Milton Friedman and his Indian counterpart B. R. Shenoy spent much of their professional life trying to enlighten new governments to this fact. Winston Churchill summarized the idea of their efforts best: “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” :-)

Today’s phrase appears near the end of the first section, and is a demonstration of the poet’s wordsmithing capabilities:


ध्वसोद्दण्ड-विपक्ष-मण्डलम् अथ त्वां वीक्ष्य मध्येरणम् ।


भ्रश्यत्-खाण्डव-रुष्ट-पाण्डवम् अहो को न क्षितीशः स्मरेत् ।१२६।


dhvasoddaṇḍa-vipakṣa-maṇḍalam atha tvāṃ vīkṣya madhyeraṇam |


bhraśyat-khāṇḍava-ruṣṭa-pāṇḍavam aho ko na kṣitīśaḥ smaret |126|

“When the see you in the battlefield, destroying a fierce circle of enemies with the terrible arrows fired from the mighty quivering bow strung by your powerful arms,

Which king will not think of the Pāṇḍava (Arjuna) angry at the Khāṇḍava forest, which is being destroyed by the dances (tāṇḍavas) of the flames arising from the swarm of arrows dispatched by (his) springing Gāṇḍiva bow?” The destruction of the Khāṇḍava forest and the might of the Gāṇḍiva bow are both well-known tales from the Mahābhārata.

This verse is presumably spoken to a mighty king after a demonstration of his skill in archery. Just intone the breathless majesty of these lines -- the years of hard work the king put in at attaining mastery in archery would have seemed completely worth it just to hear this description! :-)


Earlier this edition, we turned our noses up at Jagannātha’s reason for compiling his poems. We may judge the person as egoistic because of his intention, but we must necessary celebrate the action as the single most beneficial and wholesome deed that a poet could possibly undertake, ranking nearly equal to writing great poetry in the first place! Today, there are thousands upon thousands of beautiful muktakas scattered in arbitrary places and dying for want of attention, all because its authors didn’t do enough to publicize them. Consider this gem, which is attributed to Jagannātha himself, but which is not in this collection:

"कस्त्वं लोहित-लोचनास्य-चरणो?" "हंस:" "कुतो?" "मानसात्"

"किं तत्रास्ति?" "सुवर्ण-पङ्कज-वनान्यम्भ: सुधासन्निभम्।

रत्नानां निचया: प्रवालमणयो वैडूर्यरोहाः ..." "क्वचित्

शम्बूका: किमु सन्ति?" नेति च बकैराकर्ण्य हीहीकृतम्॥

"kastvaṃ lohita-locanāsya-caraṇo?" "haṃsa:" "kuto?" "mānasāt"

"kiṃ tatrāsti?" "suvarṇa-paṅkaja-vanānyambha: sudhāsannibham|

ratnānāṃ nicayā: pravālamaṇayo vaiḍūryarohāḥ ..." "kvacit

śambūkā: kimu santi?" neti ca bakairākarṇya hīhīkṛtam||

“Who are you, O red faced, red eyed, red-footed one?” “I am a swan” “Where are you from?” “From the Mānasa Sarovara”

“Oh what’s there?” “Golden lotus ponds, water that’s like nectar,

heaps of jewels, all kinds of corals and cymophanes and...” “Well,

do you have crabs there?” When the swan answered no, the cranes all laughed derisively (literally, they “hee-hee’d” :-))

The small-minded cranes know nothing of the value of the things the swan describes, and mock it!

This is probably not Jagannātha’s, but it would have been lost had it not been misattributed to him!!

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