Anatomy of Love
Monika Varma
Nov-Dec 1978, volume 3, No 3

This book by Lee Siegel has been sponsored by the Inter-Faculty Committee for South-Asian Studies, University of Oxford. On the first page is a verse which ends with the lines: ‘Sacred is this state of human fulfil­ment, which we find if ever.’ The Gitagovinda does not deal with the aspect of practical-cum-material ful­filment. The Gitagovinda deals with Radha and Krishna. The Indian tradition treats them not as humans but as some­thing apart and the humans listen, watch, and think of Radha and Krishna as apart from the mundane world of living. And it is thinking which makes something profane or sacred. Lee Siegel has read and studied a great deal, quoted with great insight from various texts but he has been unable to think along the lines of Indian trad­ition and then to analyse it and come to a conclusion.

Any conclusion can be personal but according to Indian tradition it must be backed by some valid authority—in original and not from the inter­pretation of another. Admittedly, Dr Siegel is writing in the western tradition but, when dealing with the Indian tradi­tion, at least the thinking has to be on some factual basis. Dr Siegel has based his conclusions on the lines expressed by other western writers and thinkers, who have all translated the Sanskrit words and thoughts conditioned by their own west­ern milieu and thinking.[ih`c-hide-content ihc_mb_type=”block” ihc_mb_who=”unreg” ihc_mb_template=”1″ ]

The present-day western writers when taking up writing on Indian subjects and traditions seem inclined to begin from a premise of their own conception and then, instead of doing research with an open mind—with the question ‘why is it not what I say it is’, turn the Indian texts to fit in with what they say. Lee Siegel does not accept the answers given by a scholar and practising Vaishnavite of Puri who was asked by Dr Siegel to answer ques­tions and explain the Gitagovinda. Dr Siegel writes about what some tourist­-guide says—and then one is faced with the horror of an extract and illustrations from a Hindi ‘comic,’ something which is hardly ever read by any educated person as these are meant really for children and semi-literates, unlike in the West where the ‘comic’ is more a way of life rather than a way of reading.

The Introduction ends with the lines: ‘Gitagovinda is a poem, a literary work and not a philosophical tractate’. Earlier one reads, ‘The Gitagovinda is not a sacred or profane work, it is a sacred and profane work.’ Dr Siegel has also written: ‘The Gitagovinda is neither a religious allegory nor a purely secular erotic poem (although both these interpretations are common).’

It should have been added that it is a western mind, not understanding Indian traditions, which calls the Gitagovinda a purely secular (therefore ‘profane’) erotic poem and it is Indian tradition which calls it allegorical, therefore to be under­stood as ‘sacred’.

However, the Indian tradition does not see life in black and white, in God and Satan, in light and darkness. The Indian tradition says: Bring in the lamp of, wisdom and the darkness of ignorance will disappear.

By what standard does the clinical writer of a different mental culture turn the sacred into the profane, or the pro­fane into the sacred? If human thought in the wisdom of devotion and bhakti sees Radha’s lamentations of separation as the lamentation of the human for Krishna and Love, someone like Chaitanya becomes Radha and weeps for Krishna. Only by understanding this way of thinking could this book have been valuable. As it stands, it remains crippled by its lack of fundamental understanding of the very spirit of sacred love in the Indian tradi­tion.

Lee Siegel has quoted from the Chris­tian traditions: St Paul and St Augustine, and has written: ‘Human Love is a simile for divine; the chasm remains between the sacred and the profane, a reflection of the gap between the spirit and flesh, eternity and tempora­lity … but the human is like the divine.’ The Indian tradition turns the thinking, to a subtle level and says: Man is divine provided he knows by wisdom, knowledge and factual experience through Yoga and other spiritual practices, that this is so. It is in this tradition that Chaitanya be­comes Radha, Meerabai sings abandoning herself to her Giridhara Gopal or the Alvars of South India are drunk with love, and the singers of Krishna-Kirtans weep.

There are many extremely interesting pages where Dr Siegel has compared the various Greek and Latin and other wes­tern writers and thinkers. Through all this Dr Siegel has failed to see that, in the Indian tradition, the profane love: ‘cupi­ditas’ ceases to exist when the sacred love: ‘caritas’ is present. The Indian tradition would say: How can there be darkness when there is light or a Shankaracharya would make the remark: How can it be claimed that this is the son of a barren woman?

Lee Siegel has dealt with the subject of ‘soul’, ‘atma’, ‘jiva’, ‘purusa’ in the chapter ‘The Meanings of Love’. Argu­ments have been used to break down the claim that the Gitagovinda is either an allegory or ‘sacred’. Extremely interesting and scholarly arguments are given but again Dr Siegel has missed the spirit behind the phrases of the quoted Indian texts. The way of Bhakti is also a way and method of ‘sacred’ love and devotion. Admittedly atma and Brahman, and the loves of Radha and Krishna are not the same, just as the sthitapragya of the Gita is still not the Brahman because the Brahman is the Para. It is wordless in speech when there is no separate Radha, no Krishna, only Brahman. Therefore, there can be no names, no characters in the divine drama, no poem, no Gitagovinda. So a discussion of the philosophy of Brahman is not possible and cannot be discussed along with words and phrases of the different Sargas of the Gitagovinda for the Brahman is the Ultimate—in poetic words, a singing silence.

In conclusion, Lee Siegel’s book is very interesting, well written in language, style, scholarship and presentation. How­ever, her translation of the Gitagovinda is, as a poem, appalling. It is horrifying when one thinks of the original. A foot­note in the Introduction says: ‘I have found it necessary to translate the Gita­govinda because no literal translation of it into English has been made (although it has been translated into mediocre Eng­lish ‘poesy’ quite useless for textual ana­lysis).’

As examples:

sweetly kisses the beloved on the surface of his cheek which was oblig­ing with bristling hairs; here Hari plays carried-away by whirling-about with a great amount of joy jumping in the ‘rasa’ was passionately kissed by Radha who was blind with love, having ardently embraced his breast, having said, ‘wonderful! your mouth voice consists of nectar! under the pretext of praising his song; may Hari, ravish­ing with his smile, protect you!

Monika Varma is an Indian poet, author of Dragon Flies Draw Flame and translator of Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda.