Razu Alauddin is a poet, essayist and translator. He specializes in Jorge Luis Borges and has translated into Bengali the great Argentine writer's stories and essays from the original Spanish.
Abdus Selim is a playwright, translator and essayist.
Universality of Charyapada, Dr. Shahidullah and Octavio Paz Part II
If we listen carefully, we will find that these brilliant utterances and realizations of thinkers of both our language and foreign languages are similar to those in Charyapada, for its richness of expression, as exemplified in Dendanpa’s ideas, is an unknown precursor to the artistic tendencies of many of the modern thinkers. When in one of his poems he presented our known reality inside out, he actually gave a spotless commentary on our insect-infested time. He went on to say,
“Jo so budhi sohi nibudhi jo so chor sohi sadhi.” (He who is wise is surely foolish. He who is a thief is surely an honest man—Charya 33)
Did Dylan Thomas or Jibanananda Das not come up with parallel ideas in the garb of paradox after one thousand years?
“So the blind man sees best.” (Thomas)
Or as Jibanananda said,
“A strange darkness has come upon the world today.
They who are most blind now see,
Those whose hearts lack love, lack warmth, lack pity's stirrings,
Without their fine advice, the world today dare not make a move … ”
Or take Yeats’s “The Second Coming” for example. In all its layers, it resonates of the Charyapada, though in a different light and style.
“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
By exposing the scars of civilization’s wounds and complex reality, the poets of the Charyapada and their modern counterparts i.e. Dylan Thomas, Jibanananda and Yeats meet down the same valley of realization. Even Shakespeare sometimes seems to be ranked among them when Bhadepadanam said:
“Pekhami dahadih sabbahi suna. Chiye bihunne pap na puna.” (Charya-35)
Shahidullah translates it thus: “I see that all the ten directions are void. Without the mind there is neither sin nor virtue.”
In the span of five hundred years, Shakespeare echoed the same sentiment when he said, “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
The poets of Charyapada have transcended time to remain relevant and contemporary even now. This, perhaps, explains why the Charyapada attracted the great Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz.
Shahidullah and Paz
We can notice Paz’s interest in the Charyapada in his 1969 book Conyunciones y Disyunciones. We can also notice his wish to translate the Charyapada in the translated collection of poems Versiones y Diversiones. This book of translated poems from various languages came out in 1974. By that time, Paz settled in Mexico, having resigned from his stint as ambassador to India. In the first edition’s preface written on March 12 in 1973, he said,
“I lived in India for more than five years, and I had fraternity with a few acclaimed linguistic pundits. Then why didn’t I venture to translate Kavya with their help? I did two or three drafts too but wasn’t happy with them. To us the Kavya tradition is as distant as Hellenic art. I am much attracted towards the mystic vernacular verses of the poets like Kabir, Tukaram, Chandidas, Biddyapoti, and above all, enigmatic text of Saraha and Konha. If I revisit India, if ever, I would perhaps be enthused to translate some of their literary works.”
(Octavio Paz, Versiones y Diversiones, Joaquin Mortiz, 1984, Mexico, p 5-6)
After five years when the book saw its second edition, he wrote in the preface: “The idea of translating Saraha and Kanha with the help of some experts has never abandoned me.”
(Octavio Paz, Versiones y Diversiones, Joaquin Mortiz, 1984, Mexico, p7)
It is interesting to see how he expressed his interest in two Charyapada poets in addition to two medieval Bengali language poets, Chandidas and Vidyapati. In the preface to the second edition, he only mentioned the two Charyapada poets. It must be noted that one more edition of the book came out posthumously in 2000. This edition contained a preface written back in 1995, in which there was no mention of the Bengali language poets. He wrote in the preface dated February 25, 1995: “It is with shame I admit I have had to abandon the plan that I referred to in my previous two introductions, as a lot of time has elapsed since.”
(“Al correr de los años abandone, no sin pena, los proyectos que mencionan los dos notas preliminaries.” Octavio Paz, Versiones y Diversiones, Galaxia Gutenberg, 2000, Mexico, p 14)
He could not stick to his promise of translating Bengali poems, especially those written by Saraha and Kanaha. But the draft he referred to in the first edition’s preface could be seen if all his manuscripts and drafts were published in the future. Based on his writings published till date, it is safe to assume that no complete translation of the Charyapada has been done. However, there are some partial translations of the Charyapada quoted in one of his essays. Now before moving on to those samples, let us switch our attention to some curiosities (of our mind) regarding him.
It is true that he took an interest in everything Indian and he responded to his interest through his extraordinary creativity and scholarship that included his poetry, essays and pieces of translation. We will not go into details of these. Rather, we will stay focused on our central issue in line with the title of the essay.
Partial translation of the Charyapada and mention of the Charyapada poets in his writings came through his discussion of Indian tantrism. Research books by Indian and non-Indian writers on Indian philosophy and tantric practice were the source and component of his thoughts. He referred to these sources in his writings. The multilingual essayist and researcher Dr Muhammad Shahidullah made his way on to Paz’s reference list. That he read Shahidullah’s great research work “Les chants mystique de kanha et saraha” (published by Adrien Maesonneuve, Paris, 1928) attentively is evident in one of his essays. He not only read Shahidullah’s essay, he was also influenced by Shahidullah’s interpretation of theology and philosophical proclivities of the Charya poets, especially Saraha and Kanah. While offering reference to and analysis of philosophical and scholastic standpoints of tantric practices, he mostly accepted Shahidullah’s take on the Charyapada poets, particularly Saraha and Kanha, and made an apt use of it. Although Paz alluded to two other Charya poets, he kept them anonymous. What confirms my conviction in this regard is that he only mentioned Saraha and Kanha, as taken from Shahidullah’s essay, in the prefaces to the first two editions of his translation work Versiones y Diversiones, where he expressed his desire to translate the Charyapada.
These examples corroborate my assumption that Paz had got the first taste of the Charyapada, thanks to Shahidullah. However, it is not unknown to us that Tarapada Mukherjee and Atindra Majumder started translating the Charyapada into English in the 1960s. Atindra’s translation came out in 1968 and similarly, Tarapada’s translation toward the end of the 1960s. I doubt if Octavio Paz saw any of them since they came out from publishing houses which were not internationally famous. Even if he had, they bore little importance to him as he did not make any reference to them, explicit or implicit, in his writing. The other potential essay that he might have been familiar with is An Anthology of Buddhist Tantric Song, which came out in Per Kvaerne’s translation in 1977. Since Paz’s book came out in 1969, there was little chance he had come across all those writings. Furthermore, he had prepared the manuscript one or two years before. Therefore, Shahidullah was the key source, if not the only one, for Paz to get a taste of the Charyapada. It is not impossible that he had read the Charypada in translation by Prabodh Chandra Bagchi or others during his stint as Ambassador in India. Because Paz’s essay did not mention any one of them, this remains but an assumption. Of course, for presenting religious, philosophical and epistemological interpretation of tantric tradition, he borrowed immensely from Etienne Lamotte’s Histoire du Buddhisme Indies (1958), Agehananda Bharati’s The Tantric Tradition (1965), The Hevojra Tantra (1951), translated with a foreword by D L Snellgrove, Philip Rawson’s Erotic Art of East (1960, R A Slein’s Civilisation Tibetanne (1962), Mircia Eliade’s Le Yoga, inmortalite et liberte (1954), S B Dasgupta’s An Introduction to Tantric Buddhism(1954) and Obscure Religious Cults (1962), Buddhist Texts through Ages (1954) translated and edited by Edward Conze, I B Horner, David Snellgrove and Arthur Waley. He referred to them in comments, footnotes and the reference list.
We can shift our attention to Paz’s attitude toward and interpretation of Charyapada, which he formed by reading all these books along with Shahidullah’s research work. I do not consider it irrelevant to mention one or two quotations of Paz to understand the meaning and import of body and sexuality being the central idea of the Charyapada. He said,
“Novalis said that woman is the most exalted corporeal food: is this not what the Tantric ritual also says, though it does so in literal terms?” (Octavio Paz, Conjunciones y Disyunciones, Cuadernos de Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico Segunda edicion: Febrero de 1985, p 78).
According to Paz,
“Tantrism is above all a sexual ritual. The ceremony of Christian marriage is public but intercourse between bride and bridegroom is private. The Tantric ceremony consists of public copulation, either by several couples or a single couple in front of the circle of worshipers. It is practiced not with the wife, but with a yogini (a female practitioner of yogi), generally one from an inferior caste. Among Christians the act is consummated in the bedroom, that is to say, in a profane place; the Tantras specifically state that it must be celebrated in a temple or some consecrated site, preferably in places where the dead are cremated. Copulation atop ashes: destruction of the opposition between life and death, the dissolution of both in emptiness.”
(Octavio Paz, Conjunciones y disyunciones, Cuadernos de Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico Segunda edicion: Febrero de 1985, P 78-79)
The significance of recurrent mention of body, intercourse, emptiness and dissolution in Charyapada becomes more pronounced thanks to Paz’s unparalleled comparative analysis. Highlighting the union of contradictory matters via intercourse, he said,
“Copulation is the real and genuine union of samsara and nirvana, identity between existence and emptiness, thought and non-thought.” (Octavio Paz, Conjunciones y disyunciones, Cuadernos de Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico Segunda edicion: Febrero de 1985, P 79).
While explaining the level of pleasure two individuals reach via intercourse, called ‘mahasukh’ in tantric parlance, Paz made a mention of Saraha and Kanha. He said:
“A commentary of the poems of Sahara and Kanha says: ‘In the moment of great delight, the thought of illumination is born, that is, semen is produced.’” (Octavio Paz, Conjunciones y disyunciones, Cuadernos de Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico Segunda edicion: Febrero de 1985, P 82)
We have explored how seriously the Charyapada considers the role of language as an expression of knowledge in light of the thoughts of philosopher Wittgenstein. Although the language of Charyapada is called ‘sandhya bhasha’ (twilight language), it turned out to be a narration full of multiple symbols condensed in a single symbol played out through alteration of light and darkness.
The body sometimes came up with the expanse of the universe and sometimes, language itself became a symbol of the body and the universe. The Charyapada is alive to us as an effervescent sea with streams of multiple symbols. While offering a deep analysis and interpretation of the entirety of multi-hued linguistic expressions, poetic impressions and symbolic implications of the Charyapada, Octavio Paz said:
“A religious geography lies beside this magic physiology that I have briefly described.
“Here in the body are the sacred rivers: the Jamuna and the Ganges, here are Pragaya and Benares, the Sun and the Moon. In my wanderings, I have visited many sanctuaries, but none more holy than that of my body” (poem of Sahara). If the body is earth, the sacred earth, it is also language, and a symbolic language: in each phoneme and each syllable there lies a seed (bija) that emits a vibration and a hidden sense when it is actualized in speech. Rasana represents the consonants and lalana the vowels. The two veins, or canals, of the body are now the masculine and feminine aspects of speech. Language occupies a central place in Tantrism; it is a system of incarnated metaphors. Throughout these pages I have referred to the play of echoes, correspondences and equivalences of the ciphered language of the Tantras (sandhabhasa). The ancient commentators referred to this erotic-metaphysical hermeticism as ‘the twilight language’: modern commentators, following Mircea Eliade, call it the ‘intentional language.’ But specialists do not say (or even if they do, they liken it to somebody walking on burning coals) that this language is essentially poetic and obeys the same laws as poetic creation.
Tantric metaphors are not only intended to hide the real meaning of the rites from intruders, they are also verbal manifestations of the universal analogy that is the basis of poetry. These texts are governed by the same psychological and artistic necessity that caused our Baroque poets to build a language of their own within the Spanish language, the same necessity that inspired the language of Joyce and the Surrealists: the conception of writing as the double of the cosmos. If the body is a cosmos for Saraha, his poem is a body—and this verbal body is sunyata. The closest and most impressive example of this is the trobar clus of the Provencal poets. The hermeticism of Provencal poetry is a verbal veil—opaque for the ignorant and transparent for the wise who gain vision so piercing as to see the nakedness of the lady. One has to live this secret. I say: live it and unlearn it at the same time. There must be participation: weaving the veil is an act of love and unraveling it is another. The same thing happens in the case of the hermetic language of the Tantras: in order to decipher it, it is not enough to know the key but to make one’s way into the forest of symbols, to be a symbol among symbols. Poetry and Tantrism are alike in that they are both concrete, practical experiences.” (Octavio Paz, Conjunciones y disyunciones, Cuadernos de Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico Segunda edicion: Febrero de 1985, P 82-84)
No matter how riddling and inaccessible the language and quotes of the Charyapada seem to be, it exposes the invisible layers of reality, which remains unknown to the practical realities on the surface. Since poetry does not conform to plain language, rather intends to transcend language and arrive at the “unsayable” paradise of gestures and implications, it becomes the main vehicle of symbols. Octavio Paz analyzes this particular aspect of the language of tantric worshippers and poets thus:
“There is another aspect to which specialists, in my opinion, have not paid enough attention: the mantras are indicatives signs, sonorous signs of identification. Each divinity, each guru, each disciple, each worshiper, each concept and each moment of the ritual has a mantra appropriate to it. The poet Kanha has expressed it better than this complicated explanation I have given: the syllables (bijas) clasp the naked ankle of the yogini like a bracelet. They are sonorous attributes.”
(Octavio Paz, Conjunciones y disyunciones, Cuadernos de Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico Segunda edicion: Febrero de 1985, P 85)
Paz once again and for the last time made a mention of Kanha toward the end of this big essay and said:
“The female partner in the rite always initiates, and she almost always comes from an inferior caste or an impure profession: the chandali or the dombi (laundress). Kanha says in one of his songs to emptiness: ‘you are the chandali of passion. Oh dombi, no one is more dissolute than you.’ Chandali here means the ‘mystic heart’ of the Tibetans: the union of the sun and the moon, the humor of the woman and the sperm of the man, the lotus of Perfect Wisdom and the lightning bolt of (com) Passion, melted and dissolved in one sudden burst of flame. Phenomenal reality is identical to essential reality: both result in emptiness. Samsara is nirvana.*” (Octavio Paz, Conjunciones y disyunciones, Cuadernos de Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico Segunda edicion: Febrero de 1985, P 86)
It must be noted that the star mark indicates a footnote, which refers to Shahidullah. It says,
“With regard to the poems of Kanha and Sahara, see: Les Chants Mystiques de Kanha et Saraha, edited and translated by M. Shabidullah (Paris, 1921).” (*Octavio Paz, Conjunciones y disyunciones, Cuadernos de Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico Segunda edicion: Febrero de 1985, P 86).
This footnote clarifies the fact that Octavio not only read Saraha and Kanha’s charyas in Shahidullah’s translation, he took Shahidullah’s analyses and interpretation seriously. I claim so because he mentioned where he disagreed with some experts. For example, he disagreed with Ananda Kumaraswamy in the case of foreign influence on Indian sculpture and architecture, which is evident in no. 58 footnote of the book. If he disagreed with any of Shahidullah’s opinions, he would have mentioned it. However, it is not our objective to point out Paz’s agreement and disagreement in certain cases, rather to locate the outlines of his realization of the Charyapada. It is undoubtedly a significant matter for a world class poet and literary critic like Paz to have considerable interest in the Charyapada, leading to an effort to interpret and analyze it. The key reason behind its significance is the unavailability of evaluation of Charyapada’s linguistic uniqueness and poetic excellence in an international context. It became possible for Paz because he was a great scholar of various branches of knowledge, in addition to being a multilingual and creative writer. Combining and successfully applying creativity and scholarship in critical literature, he unearthed the hidden treasure of meaning and beauty of the text. Paz’s commendable unearthing of the Charyapada took place in the 1960s. But it came to the Bengali speaking readers’ notice half a century later. I am sure the Charyapada will receive laurels from more scholars in the future.
*Shahidullah was misspelled as Shabidullah in the footnote. The same error applies for the dating of the publication of the research work. The book actually came out in 1928, not in 1921 as Paz said. Undoubtedly, a lack of carefulness is to blame here.
English quotations from the book titled Conjunciones y disyunciones used in this essay are rendered by Helen R. Lane
(Liton Chakraborty Mithun helped prepare the final version of this translation)