The Girl with ‘Bright Thighs’
Erotic Love Poems from India amply demonstrate that Sanskrit literature is not retrograde or reactionary, and is equally the language of the play and dalliance of love
Erotic Love Poems from India amply demonstrates that Sanskrit literature is not retrograde or reactionary, and is equally the language of the play and dalliance of love
For our own era, it shows that long ago India developed a love poetry as original and vivid as that produced anywhere on the planet, writes Andrew Schelling in his book
The lovers are shown to feel not any one emotion at a time but two or three conflicting ones... their young hearts often a seething cauldron of mixed emotions with the lid tightly on
Sanskrit language and literature have over the last few decades increasingly come to be seen by many young Indians as a part of the Hindutva package and, thus, something not to be touched with a barge pole. In this perception, Sanskrit is the hoary repository of all that was backward, irrational and repressive in ancient Indian society. What aggravates the situation is that most of the so-called liberals who think so know as little about Sanskrit or ancient India as do their counterparts on the far-Right who claim, without having been within a mile of the four Vedas, that these poetic scriptures contain all the knowledges of the world available then or now. Ignorance here is well met by equal and opposite ignorance.
One pleasurable way to break out of this impasse may be to look at a text from Sanskrit which is about physical desire and its fulfilment. The title of a recent anthology of Sanskrit poetry is packed with enticing words: Erotic Love Poems from India:101 Classics of Desire and Passion. It thus seems to exploit a different kind of stereotype about India prevalent in the West, that Indian literature is erotic in a way that much other literature is not. Can one imagine, for example, a book titled Erotic Love Poems from England — or for that matter America or Germany — to have the same instant appeal?
At the same time, this perception of India co-exists in the West with another quite contrary one, that modern Indian society is sexually repressed in a way that Western society never was, or at least stopped being a few hundred years ago. To this may be added the counter stereotype that many Indians have entertained ever since the times of British Raj that in matters of sexual conduct, modern Western society is brazenly shameless and immorally promiscuous. It’s as if we have all the sexy poetry and they have all the fun.
Obviously, each of these prejudiced perceptions needs unpacking and nuancing. Does India really have more than its fair share of erotic poetry? We probably did when Sanskrit was the major language of literary composition for over two millennia, from the Rigveda (c. 1200 BC) to the Gitagovinda (12th century), and that was probably because our pre-modern attitude to sex was candid and unabashed. Not only the poets but even the wise sages spoke of love and sex as a welcome and necessary condition of life.
Thus, in ancient India, the sanctioned purpose of human life was to observe and abide by four major objectives, the purusharthas. Together with right conduct (dharma) and pursuit of prosperity (artha), engaging in and enjoying sex (kama) was an obligation which, if duly discharged, would lead to the fourth objective, moksha or ultimate liberation. Erotic love and sex were, thus, a desirable and even essential part of a healthy and wholesome life.
So, just as there was a Dharmashastra and an Arthashastra, there was also a Kamasutra. Since the sexual revolution in the West of the 1960s, the Kamasutra has become probably the best-selling Indian book in the world, answering a need of the hitherto repressed West. The (in)famous sixty-four coital positions are rather like an acrobat’s manual and fill no more than a couple of pages, but the rest of the book is about an elegant and artistic mode of erotic living, and includes elaborate sections on premarital and promiscuous sex as well as courtesans.
While the depiction of sex in the Kamasutra is shastra-like and taxonomical, more freely erotic passages are spread far and wide in Sanskrit literature right from the Rigveda through the Upanishads and the major poets even to the Panchatantra. When translating the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Max Mueller came across a passage in which the sexual act is described in terms of a yajna being performed. But even this holy ritual so embarrassed him that he rendered this passage not into English but into Latin. And I own an edition of the Panchatantra from my student days which proclaims on the cover that all the ashleela, i.e., improper and obscene, passages have been scrupulously deleted. Thus prompted, I also bought another edition in which these passages are all nicely restored.
This grand parade of Sanskrit erotica is amply represented in a recent anthology, The Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica (2017), in which half of the selected passages come from the ancient period — from Sanskrit, its sibling Prakrit, and its southern counterpart Tamil. In her introduction, Amrita Narayanan suggests that we lost this early innocent candour a little after the Bhakti period, with the rise of what she even-handedly identifies as “the Hindu and Muslim puritans” later joined by “the British puritans.” For Narayanan, however, erotic pleasure is not one among the several goals of human life but just about the only one, for the pleasure principle overrides all others. This Freudian drive may strike some of us as being equally Faustian.
The most frequently excerpted text in Narayanan’s anthology is predictably the Kamasutra but then follows Amaru, the author of this slim volume translated by Andrew Schelling. He lived in the 8th century and wrote only about 100 stanzas of four lines each, a shataka or century of free-standing verses held loosely together by the common theme of love, which are all gathered here.
The other major erotic poets in Sanskrit all have a substantially larger corpus. Bhartrihari in his three centuries of verses, Shataka-trayam, addressed love as well as right conduct (niti) and renunciation (vairagya). Hala’s Gatha Saptasati in Prakrit is a collection of seven hundred verses on love and the closest thing perhaps to Amaru’s verses. And Kalidasa, the greatest of them all of course, in his epic Kumarasambhava depicted Shiva and Parvati in an act of joyous lovemaking which lasted one hundred years. Even the less explicit Meghaduta by him had to be defended by its first English translator, HH Wilson, in 1813 against the charge of “indecency and “licentiousness” — and he did so by invoking a comparison with similarly ‘indecent’ Latin poets such Ovid, Catullus and Propertius.
But Amaru speaks to our modern times perhaps like no other Sanskrit poet does. This is because the erotic in his poetry is not only a bodily business but shot through with acute psychological insights into the minds of the lovers, especially the women. It is also because there is not only desire and pleasure in his poetry but also separation, jealousy, bitter anguish and then sweet reconciliation. In a large number of his verses, the young heroine new to love (the mugdha nayika, as she is called in Sanskrit) bursts into tears, and they are now tears of heartbreak and now tears of joy. The one word in Sanskrit which subsumes all these shades of love is shringara and it is, as in this volume, as often amatory as it is sexual.
Besides tears, there is in some verses here humour and laughter in the middle of sulking and misunderstanding. In one verse, the young woman’s resolve to be angry dissolves at the mere sight of her lover, for “on its own / this aroused body tingles”. In another, the two lie in bed overtly angry and with their backs turned to each other but secretly looking to find some way to make up when their glances furtively meet, upon which “there was a quick / unintentional laugh and the / quarrel broke / in one wild embrace”. In yet another verse, though, when he gave her a tentative smile, “she lost her nerve and broke into tears”.
In this world of fresh and tender love, what the poet seems to depict is neither union nor separation in itself but the sheer intensity with each emotion is experienced. In any case, the lovers are often shown to feel not any one emotion at a time but two or three conflicting ones at once. Their young hearts are often a seething cauldron of mixed emotions with the lid tightly on — as Bhavabhuti, a contemporary of Amaru, said Rama’s heart was after he had banished Sita.
For there is not only volatile chemistry between the lovers in these verses but a kind of alchemy going on — the keemiyagiri or the medieval semi-magical process by which base metals were purified and turned into gold. There is something like a trial by fire through which the lovers here seek to arrive at a more mature and assured love. There is nothing blasé or banal about the love portrayed here, but instead, a tremulous vulnerability which authenticates the emotion like nothing else could.
Schelling is able to convey the artful simplicity of Amaru quite well on the whole in his colloquial and idiomatic free verse which is as concise as the original. As a practising poet, he haughtily dismisses some previous translators of this work as being prosaic and “hopelessly scholastic.” But he himself is skating on thin ice where his knowledge of Sanskrit is concerned, for there is on the very first page a palpable error, made worse by being repeated in a footnote. Elsewhere, under the flag of his poetic translation, he inventively introduces some pretty poetic phrases which sometimes come off and sometimes not.
For example, when Schelling speaks of the “Milky chatter of pearls at your breast” where there was no milk nor chatter in Sanskrit, one can see that the pearls are milky white but can milk chatter or only silently swirl? Again, in “Where to / girl with bright thighs?” one wonders how the girl’s thighs are bright as she walks out into a deep-dark night (ghanénisheethé) to a secret rendezvous? It turns out that in Sanskrit her thighs aren’t bright at all but karabhoru, i.e., tapering like an elephant’s trunk — which is a stock image in Sanskrit for describing the thighs of a shapely woman. But “bright thighs” seems to work in English, what with its arresting image and half-rhyme, so one can’t complain.
Subsuming all these factors is Schelling’s unbounded enthusiasm for the poet and the kind of poetry he translates from thirteen hundred years ago. “For our own era,” he says in his introduction, “it shows that long ago India developed a love poetry as original and vivid as that produced anywhere on the planet.” This is superlative praise, and one can only hope that some Anglophone Indian readers too who pick up this volume will develop a taste and regard for Sanskrit poetry in its many alluring hues.
They may also discover in the process that Sanskrit literature is not as retrograde or reactionary as some of our ideologically over-determined radicals make it out to be, for if it is the language of Karmakanda, or rites and rituals, it is equally the language of totally secular Kama Keli, or the play and dalliance of love, as amply evidenced in this volume.
(Harish Trivedi taught English at Delhi University)
[Erotic Love Poems from India: 101 Classics of Desire and Passion. Andrew Schelling. Boulder: Shambhala 2019 reprint, pp. ixx + 114, $14.95]