Found in translation: 100 Sanskrit verses

The recently released translation of 1,300-year-old Sanskrit erotic poetry offers us an opportunity to transcend our ‘pale moralising’

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In the 8th century CE, the city of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) witnessed the second Arab siege. The Nara period began — and ended —  in Japan. Paper-making made its way from China to the city of Samarkand in modern-day Uzbekistan.

Closer home, Shantideva, a student monk at the university of Nalanda, composed the Bodhicharyavatara, or Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life. The tantric master Padmasambhava introduced Buddhism to Tibet.

In literature from the period, the female ascetic Atreyi in Bhavabhuti’s play Uttararamacharita undertook an arduous journey from the banks of the Ganges to Godavari’s. Upon reaching there, she reported pedagogical neglect under her former teacher, the celebrated Valmiki.

She complained of two “great hindrance[s] to the course-of-studies (adhyayana)”: the new pupils Kusa and Lava had “captivated the inmost heart” of her teacher, and he wasn’t adequately pitching his instruction to others. He had also been too engrossed in composing the Ramayana. Her quest: “to acquire the Upanishad lore” from the renowned Agastya.

On the quest for a different mastery, a Kashmiri king named Amaru composed—or compiled— a series of verses about sexual love under the prosaic title Amarushataka, literally “one hundred poems of Amaru”.

 Found in translation: 100 Sanskrit verses

Wife awaits her Husband, Verse 76, Amaru Shataka by Amaru, early 17th-century painting. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The recently released Erotic Love Poems from India: 101 Classics in Desire and Passion is a translation of the Amarushataka from Sanskrit into English by poet and translator Andrew Schelling, a professor of religious studies at Naropa University.

It was first published in 2004 by the Boulder-based Shambala Publications and brought out as a revised edition earlier this year. The original work comprises an interlocked series of four-line verses that are read as a single poem.

In Dhvanyaloka, the seminal treatise on Sanskrit poetics from the 9th century, the work is placed among the highest in its genre: “a single stanza of the poet Amaru… may provide the taste of love equal to what’s found in whole volumes.”

Schelling’s account of Amarushataka’s origin in the introduction sets the stage for its central textual concern— the tension between metaphysical and sexual experience— embodied in the figures of the monastic and the householder.

Legend has it that the master of Advaita Vedanta, Adi Shankara, was engaged in a public philosophical argument with Mandanamishra from the rival school of Mimasa. Spirited public debates between the orthodoxy and its heterodox opposition were common at the time, and often had political consequences. Shankara held the fort until his opponent’s wife entered the fray. She silenced the celibate yogi with a series of metaphysical questions couched in metaphors of sexual love.

Women’s agency and experience were not confined to the sexual domain. Historical studies of the period provide ample evidence of their participation in public life.

For example, historian Devika Rangachari has argued that medieval Kashmir provided a political and social context “that enabled Kashmiri women to subvert the patriarchal edifice time and again”. Women were important actors in the court, and influenced the success(ion) of male princes by employing marital and kinship alliances.

In the original story, Shankara then asked for a hundred days to prepare his comeback, during which time he resided in the physical body of just-deceased Amaru. As Amaru, he spent his days studying Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra, and each of the hundred nights gaining first-hand sexual experience with a different lady of the court (plus a few additional ones, for good measure).

Leaving Amaru’s body, he returned as Shankara to the still-open debate and emerged victorious. He then wrote a poem each to memorialise the lessons of the hundred-odd nights, and signed the collection in Amaru’s name.

The poems evoke Shringara, the erotic rasa, in descriptions of the stages of sexual love: desire, anticipation, satiation, separation, loss, and union. Among the eight canonical rasas— erotic, comic, pitiful, heroic, fearful, disgusting, furious, and wonderful—Amarushataka is predominantly concerned with the first.

However, as Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock has pointed out, a classical literary work, even while aiming to produce a single dominant rasa or emotional state, is expected to show a range of subordinate ones. Thus, through metaphors evoking the turning seasons, Amaru also weaves a rich tapestry of other emotions such as helplessness, anger, and envy.

Indeed, envy powers some of the most hard-hitting verses: “In bed he whispers/ the wrong name” (23); “Why fall at my feet?/ You can’t hide/ the unguent from her nipples/ streaking your chest” (24).

Women aren’t the only ones afflicted with jealousy, nor is infidelity solely the domain of the male lover: “Instructed by servants—/ skilled liars—/ she chatters a quick excuse to her/ skeptical husband” (43); “Darling, I’m a pluckier girl…/After you’re gone you may hear/ what I see fit to do with my/ love life” (52).

The poems soar in depictions of the homosocial bonds between women— a web of relationships other than those of competition for the affections of men. There are friends who get admonished when their advice backfires: “What were you thinking, friends—/ goading me to/ treat him so harshly?” (98).

And friends who counsel sexual audacity: “Develop some pride,/ take a risk./ With a lover you need to be forthright” (82); “Why be timid?…/ try some crudely explicit suggestion/ and make/ him your own” (9).

This social world is rife with intrigue and gossip: “the household parrot/ chatters it out to the in-laws” (15). And there is the all-too-familiar complaint: “But now it’s time to enter the bedchamber/ and relatives/ won’t stop their dull conversation” (86)!

Other reins on sexual expression are even tighter. Authoritarian control is often embodied by parents: “the lovers stand thwarted./Parents like embankments/ hold them back” (60); “Yet in front of the parents they/managed to keep up/ appearances” (69).

But the ubiquitous conflict between instinct and authority, or love and reason, also unfolds at a more personal level. Oftentimes, the former wins, and the lover is unable to restrain her own body: “I refuse words but/ my rebellious face softens./ …and on its own/ this aroused body tingles” (26).

However, as Schelling pointed out in an interview with Tricycle magazine published in January, understanding the lovers’ choices in terms of a conflict between the mind and the body misses the point. “I don’t think ancient India had such a hard and fast line between spiritual wisdom and carnal pleasure,” he said. The poems emerged at a time of “exploration of physical love as a pathway to liberation or enlightenment”.

Indeed, in a second account of the work’s origin, Schelling shows how the text transcends the physical/ metaphysical binary. In this story, Shankara visits the court of the famed sensualist Amaru, and delivers a spiritual lesson in terms his host would understand: couched in the conventions of erotic poetry.

When Amaru’s courtiers mock him for breaking his vows of celibacy, “Shankara fills with rage at their small-mindedness” and delivers a spiritual commentary on the poems (Introduction).

Thus, we can conclude with Schelling that classical art “comfortably holds contradictions that pale moralizing or humourless logic find intolerable…” But even he concedes that it is “very hard for Western civilization to comprehend this”.

Reading the poems in contemporary India, I reckon the incomprehension hits much closer home. In 2014, it led Penguin to agree to pulp all remaining copies of the book The Hindus: An Alternative History by religious studies professor Wendy Doniger.

Doniger cautioned that a “pious view” of Hinduism, informed by a vigilantly curated canon of classical texts, “declares most of Hinduism heretical and therefore irrelevant”. It dismisses as “filthy paganism” many aspects like “polytheism, erotic sculptures, spirited mockery of the gods, and rich, earthy mythology”.

This narrowly defined piety has little room for a work like Amarushataka, where a sated lover declares that his beloved partakes of the immortal nectar (amrita), and “the gods— fools—/ churned the ocean for/ nothing” (4). Immersing ourselves in this literary and philosophical world thus offers a release from narrow-mindedness.

My favourite is the verse on reconciliation, applicable alike to amorous, philosophical, and political squabbles:

“Each turned aside

on the bed

silently suffering

secretly hoping to reconcile but

afraid to lose face.

At some point their furtive eyes met—

there was a quick

unintentional laugh and the

quarrel broke

in one wild embrace.” (21)

May we learn to laugh through our differences, and break our quarrels with an embrace.

Swati Chawla is a historian of modern South Asia and a fellow at the American Institute of Indian Studies.

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