Amaru and Bhartri-hari,
translated by Greg Bailey
Bilhana, edited and translated by Richard Gombrich
Clay Sanskrit Library: New York University Press, 2005
380 pp.; $22.00 (cloth)
At one point Henry David Thoreau may have owned the single largest collection of Sanskrit books on our continent. A British friend and disciple, Thomas Cholmondeley, had sent them from London, the gift of an admirer who thought he might assist Henry’s spiritual growth. Thoreau built a bookcase with his own hands and proudly displayed the strange volumes to visitors. He never bothered to learn the language, not even the alphabet, telling one friend that for all he knew he had the world’s wisdom in his bedroom. What if he learned the tongue and discovered all he owned was a bunch of old books?
Since at least Thoreau’s day, we North Americans have been fascinated with India’s juicy spiritual traditions, its poetry of excruciating desire, its magnificent music, wild folk arts, medicine, and glittering metaphysics. Anyone hoping to consult the original languages, though, finds the resources frustratingly limited. Living in Colorado, as I do, if I want to dig into that “paradise of texts,” I have to travel a distance about the width of India to raid a library. Very few collections of Sanskrit deep enough for research are housed anywhere in North America. Now, twenty-five hundred years after the death of Shakyamuni Buddha, the ambitious Clay Sanskrit Library may remedy this state of affairs.
The Clay is a series of winsomely compact, hardbound volumes, in turquoise dust jackets. They have been modeled in size and format on Harvard University’s bilingual Loeb classics, which issues ancient Greek in green and Latin in red. Published by New York University Press, the Clay series will amount to a hundred uniformly designed volumes over the next three years. The project will include all of the two major epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and dozens of spiritual, dramatic, and satirical volumes that most Americans have never heard of. Buddhist biographies and folklore will appear; Kalidasa’s plays; intricate volumes of Hindu mythology. And happily, for the enthusiast, much of the notablekavya (poetry) produced in India between the fourth century and about the twelfth. The original Sanskrit—this holds true for every volume—will not appear in devanagari, the standard North Indian script. The editors decided to romanize it, which is good news for anyone who doesn’t know the Indic alphabet. That way anyone can sound out a bit of verse or wisdom text, which is a profound opportunity since the Sanskrit science of word magic is one of its highest accomplishments.
Harvard’s Loeb Classics are mostly quite old now. Their translations range from the unpretentious to the sort of fusty, neo-Victorian “englishing” that twisted Sappho of the bright-petaled foot and wily-minded Odysseus into objects of torture, and rendered Catullus—tender, angry, libidinous Catullus—toothless. The Clay will benefit by having up-to-date translations, free of the squeamishness that neutered the Victorian era’s pioneer Sanskrit books. Love Lyrics, one of the first volumes in the Clay Library to appear, contains the full output that survives by three principal poets of old India, Bhartri-hari, Amaru, and Bilhana. It is a good place to experience some deeply human poetry in readable modern versions.
Very little factual or biographical detail is known of these poets. They largely exist as the books they left behind in their passage through life. All three are scored with grace, complexity, love—and furrowed with pain and insight. Bhartri-hari, from possibly the third or fourth century, is the growliest poet in Sanskrit.
In the womb it exists in pain,
Limbs contracted in the midst of piss and shit.
Enjoyment in youth is variable,
Mixed with misery following separation from one’s beloved.
Even venerable old age is unsatisfactory,
One dwells in the laughter and derision of lovely-eyed women.
Hey! Men, speak up,
If there is the slightest happiness in transient existence.
When the Chinese pilgrim and folklore hero Hsuan-tsang braved central Asia and the Hindu Kush to get to India during the T’ang Dynasty, managing to score a rucksack full of Mahayana Buddhist manuscripts to smuggle home, he learned of Bhartri-hari. Back in China he reported him a Buddhist, a poet, and a linguist.
It is hard to tell what Bhartri-hari was, but his three hundred surviving poems fit neatly into three discrete collections: Politics, Passion, and Disenchantment. A hundred poems of worldly advice. A hundred poems on the torments of love in India’s sumptuous pleasure gardens. A further hundred on renunciation as he haunts the headwaters of the Ganges amid Himalayan rock. His renunciation seems no less tormented than his love affairs, and his accounts of samsara (a word he’s quite fond of) resound with the Diamond Sutra: “In this dreamy transient existence where any result is uncertain / There are two paths for the wise.” The first, of course, is “the ambrosial liquid of true knowledge,” the other a life devoted to sexual pleasure.
Amaru, of the seventh or eighth century, never doubts for a moment which path to follow. This makes him one of our planet’s finest love poets. Not a trace of religion stains Amaru’s Shataka or “hundred poems,” only a gentle derision. Curiously, each of these three poets has a verse that dismisses the traditional deities of Hinduism, finding them irrelevant in the face of sexual passion—a gesture that seems Tantric in origin.
Of a slender woman,
Lovemaking just completed in the male position,
Eyes languid at the end of sex
Bindu almost removed by a subtle spray of moisture
Disheveled tendrils of hair
May it long protect you.
Gods—Vishnu, Shiva and Skanda—
Amaru is new to Americans. My research has turned up no translations into English poetry of Amaru before this year. Then in January I published a translation of the hundred poems (actually a hundred and one) as Erotic Love Poems from India (Shambhala), and now Greg Bailey’s collection appears. We have used two different versions (there exist four altogether), so anyone interested won’t find our books redundant. With a poet like Amaru—tender, unbridled, tossed with anguish, explicitly erotic, syntactically complicated—every translator is likely to discover a different poet anyhow.
The third poet, Bilhana, is an eleventh-century Kashmiri. His book of fifty poems, translated by Richard Gombrich, is a tight affair. They are the recollections of a man on death row, about to be executed for carrying on an affair with a prince’s daughter. Legend says that as he was led forth to be publicly hung or dismembered, he recited these verses—so touching that the prince not only forgave him, but wed him to the royal daughter. Gombrich takes the poems—each a four-line verse in the meter known as vasanta-tilaka, or “ornament of spring”—and reproduces them in rhymed, iambic pentameter, six-line verses.
Still could I see once more, as day declines
My loving mistress of the fawn-like eyes,
Carrying like two nectar-laden jars
Her swelling breasts, I would for such a prize
Renounce the joys of royalty on earth,
Heavenly bliss, and freedom from rebirth.
I have attempted to convey something of this formal strictness by adopting a rather exacting rhyming scheme and rigid metre. In this I differ from my colleagues, especially my American colleagues. Partly it is a question of national and individual taste. In translating Sanskrit, the “elaborated” language, I do not think it necessary to eschew poetic diction.
Despite his quite constrained form and bizarre assumptions (poetic diction is iambic pentameter), some of Gombrich’s versions are pretty good. But too many read not so much stiffly as cartoon-like. I laud Gombrich’s intent to portray “both the manner and the matter of the original as nearly as may be.” But his exacting scheme is neither British (as opposed to American) nor is it about formal precision. After the twentieth century with its terrific advances in poetic form, its discovery of subtle sound patterns adapted to our own contemporary ears, his selection of rhyming pentameter sounds old fashioned, overstuffed, and in a funny way childish. End rhyme, after all, came in with the Norman French, disrupting the genius of English and American poetry as much as enhancing it. Finally seen as not much fun any longer, it has largely died out of our practice. Neither Bilhana nor any of the Sanskrit poets worked with end rhyme. Sanskrit verse is measured by quantity, not by stress; it works with complex patterns of internal rhyme, and sounds more like Louis Zukofsky than like Professor Longfellow.
One of my own concerns as a translator of India’s poetry is the abyss that separates scholars of South Asian languages (including both Sanskrit and Tibetan) from the magnificent discoveries of twentieth-century verse. By comparison, think how many fine poets have gone to Chinese and Japanese: Pound, Waley, Rexroth, Cid Corman, Burton Watson, Gary Snyder, Arthur Sze, our coyote master Red Pine, the reclusive David Hinton, Wang Ping, Jane Hirshfield, and Sam Hamill. All these poets have contributed significantly to the spread of Buddhist thought in America. I could add another twenty names to the roster of poets who have brought East Asian poetry to North America. So why have so few poets migrated toward South Asian poetry? Maybe it is the lack of poets with whom to fraternize that has prevented South Asian scholars from recognizing how to bring current poetic practice into their own work.
Perhaps with the appearance of the Clay Library-hopefully filling city libraries and bookstores across this North American Buddha-land-aspiring poets, scholars, and contemplatives will begin to get hold of the classics of India in good bilingual editions. Who knows what might happen if people begin to carry them around in their pockets, learn a bit of the language of the gods, and try their hands at a version or two? After all, it is clear these books have been explicitly designed to fit the rear pocket of your Levi’s. And you can have three of India’s finest poets for far less than the cost of a tank of gas.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.