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Posts Tagged ‘sanskrit

The death of love

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Arguably the greatest long poem (mahakavya) in classical Sanskrit is Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava (or “The Birth of Kumara”), which tells the tale of how the warrior god Skanda (the “Kumara” of the title) came to be born.  Once, the gods were suffering greatly from the attacks of the demon Taraka.  Unable to defeat Taraka, the gods approached the creator-god Brahma to ask for his help.  Specifically, the gods asked for a general who could lead them to victory against Taraka.  Brahma told the gods that they must find a way to convince Shiva the Destroyer to marry Parvati, the daughter of the mountain god.  The child of Shiva and Parvati would be the general that they were looking for.  However, Shiva was deeply absorbed in meditation and would not easily be tempted into marriage.  The gods approached Kamadeva, god of love (armed, like his Greco-Roman counterpart, with bow and arrow), and requested that he use his unique abilities to make Shiva fall in love with Parvati.  Kamadeva agreed, and went to the mountaintop where the god Shiva was engaged in meditation.  Shiva, however, sensed the intrusion of the love god.  Kalidasa describes what happened next (the Clay Sanskrit Library edition 3.69-72):

Then Three-eyed Shiva,
through his self-control
powerfully suppressing
the disturbance of his senses,
wished to see the cause
of his mind’s disturbance
and sent his gaze in all directions.

He saw Self-born Love ready to attack,
his lovely bow drawn right back
to form a circle,
his fist resting
at the corner of his right eye,
shoulder hunched,
left foot arched.

Enraged by the violation of his penance,
his frown made his face
dreadful to behold,
and from his third eye
a sparkling, blazing fire
suddenly flew forth.

“Lord, hold back your anger,
hold back!”—
even as the cries of the wind-gods
crossed the sky,
that fire born from the eye of Shiva who is Being,
reduced to ashes Intoxicating Love.

His corporeal form having been disintegrated by the fire emanating from the mystical third eye of Shiva the Destroyer, Kamadeva, the god of love, is henceforth known as Ananga, the Bodiless God.


Written by uncudh

September 7, 2009 at 7:39 pm

The depravity of the passive voice

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Concerning Sanskrit literature, William Dwight Whitney writes in the introduction to his classic Sanskrit Grammar:

Of linguistic history there is next to nothing in it at all; but only a history of style, and this for the most part showing a gradual depravation, an increase of artificiality and an intensification of certain more undesirable features of the language—such as the use of passive constructions and of participles instead of verbs, and the substitution of compounds for sentences.

Michael Coulson, in the introduction to his Sanskrit grammar (in the “Teach Yourself” series), calls Whitney a “great but startlingly arrogant American Sanskritist”, and responds to Whitney’s remarks as follows:

Why such a use of passives, participles and compounds should be undesirable, let alone depraved, is left rather vague, and while there have been considerable advances in linguistic science in the past fifty years there seems to have been nothing which helps to clarify or justify these strictures.  Indeed, Whitney’s words would not be worth resurrecting if strong echoes of them did not still survive in some quarters.

It is indeed somewhat curious that a grammarian, such as Whitney, would think it even possible to rank certain grammatical features of a language as being more or less desirable than others.  After all, upon what basis would one make such determinations?  Nevertheless, such distinctions occur in current English as well: we have had it drilled into our heads in school that the passive voice is an abomination and should be avoided at all costs.  See, for example, the highly popular style guide of Strunk and White.

It should be noted, by the way, that Whitney—who is writing in the late 1800’s—by suggesting in the above quotation that the passive voice is depraved, is (I presume and hope) not using the word deprave in its current sense of being morally corrupt, i.e.

2. spec. To make morally bad; to pervert, debase, or corrupt morally. (The current sense.) (OED)

but rather in the now no longer current sense of

1. To make bad; to pervert in character or quality; to deteriorate, impair, spoil, vitiate. Now rare, exc. as in 2. (OED)

which implies no moral judgement.  Furthermore, Whitney is surely correct in noting the tremendous increase of artificiality in medieval Sanskrit literature.  In this period the Sanskrit poets often seem to be engaged in some sort of intellectual exercise whereby they apply rhetorical devices such as alliteration, similes, puns, double-meanings, etc. in such complicated and abstruse ways as to render the poetry rather more tiresome than elegant.

Written by uncudh

May 3, 2009 at 4:23 pm

The Cloud Messenger

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The poet Kalidasa founded an entire genre of Sanskrit poetry with his lyric poem Meghaduta, or The Cloud Messenger, namely the genre of duta-kavya or messenger poems.  Messenger poems are centered around the theme of separated lovers, where one lover wishes to send a message to his/her beloved.  The poem consists largely of a picturesque description of the scenery through which the messenger will travel, along with a description of the message itself.  In Kalidasa’s The Cloud Messenger, an exiled yaksha (a sort of spirit) requests a passing cloud to take a message to his wife.  Here is one verse (2.64, from the Clay Sanskrit Library translation):

Where, with their various wonders,
the mansions are your equal:
you have your lightning
they their lovely ladies;
you have your rainbows,
they their colorful pictures;
drums are beaten in them to make music,
you have your gentle rumble;
you have water inside,
they have floors made of jewels;
you are lofty,
their turrets kiss the clouds.

Written by uncudh

December 28, 2008 at 7:51 pm

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The rainy season at Kishkindha

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The following is a beautiful passage from the Ramayana (IV 27.23 – 32, the Clay Sanskrit Library translation) describing the rainy season at Kishkindha.  Rama is impatient to continue his search for his abducted wife Sita, but he must abide the passing of the rainy season before he can resume his quest.

The forests are now filled with peacocks dancing, the boughs of the kadamba tree are now filled with blossoms, bulls and their cows alike are now filled with desire, and the earth is now filled with the beauty of its crops and forests. Rivers flow, clouds rain, rutting elephants trumpet, forests glisten, parted lovers pine, peacocks dance and monkeys rejoice.

Overjoyed at smelling the fragrance of ketaka flowers, stirred by the sound of cascading water in forest waterfalls, rutting elephants cry excitedly along with the peacocks.

Battered by the downpour of rain, bees clinging to kadamba branches gradually lose the deep intoxication so quickly gained from flower nectar. The boughs of the jambu tree, with their full-grown fruits brimming with juice and dark as mounds of charcoal, look as if swarms of black bees had alighted on them.

Making loud, deep roars, the storm clouds decked with lightning-banners are like elephants ready for battle. Wandering in mountain forests, the majestic elephant in rut who has set out on his way eager for battle turns back upon hearing the roar of the clouds, thinking he hears a rival elephant.

Falling like pearls bestowed by the lord of gods, bright raindrops cling in leaf-cups, where thirsty birds with faded wings drink with delight. Massed against other dark clouds, dark clouds full of fresh water look like firmly rooted mountains burned by forest fires, seen against other mountains burned by forest fires. Lords of elephants are in rut, lords of cattle are overjoyed, lords of forest beasts are tranquil, lords of mountains are charming, lords of men are at rest, and the lord of gods is at play with the water-bearing clouds.

Written by uncudh

December 2, 2008 at 6:56 pm

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A fragment from Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda

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Here is a verse from Barbara Stoler Miller’s translation of Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda:

Wind perfumes the forests with fine pollen
Shaken loose from newly blossomed jasmine
A it blows Love’s cactus-fragrant breath
To torture every heart it touches there.

Written by uncudh

November 15, 2008 at 9:08 pm

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