The lotus grows in water but blossoms with the sun the poet simply writes the poem, good people make it known. Bhadanta Ravigupta
It is with such a sense of gratitude that one picks up A.N.D.Haksar’s latest translation titled Subhashitavali. Haksar has offered such treats before, with the last one being the enjoyable rendering of the popular tale of Madhav and Kama. His felicity of expression, his ability to render Sanskrit works with contemporary flavour that the modern reader can relate to, his usage of simple words which still retain the often involved imagery of Sanskrit are some of the reasons that Haksar’s work makes interesting reading. Subhashitavali: An Anthology of Comic, Erotic and Other Verse is no exception.
Subhashitanis are a well known part of Sanskrit literature. Haksar loosely translates subhashitas as ‘well said’. Or as it is said vachanam sarbhootam yat tat subhashitam uchyate … or the meaning or mood of which is complete in itself is a subhashita.
Therefore it is that a single subhashita can excite the imagination for hours, can tell an interesting story, can teach a lesson in an eloquent manner and so on. No wonder then, that compilation or collection of subhashitas seems to have been an interesting exercise undertaken across the country. Among them are Hala’s Vajjalagam and Bhartrihari’s satakas not to mention Subhashita Ratnakosha, and others. Subhastivali, a lesser known compilation, belongs to this genre. It has been compiled by Vallabhadeva, a poet from Kashmir, (the translator gives evidence to say he has been mentioned as kashmiraka in some other texts). Subhashitavali is a fifteenth century compilation and it brings within it subhashitas from over 1500 years preceding the time of its compilaton.
Vallabhadeva had obviously much to choose from and so he had to divide the riches he had in terms of subhashitas into 101 sections, topicwise. Each section has varying numbers of subhashitas and the whole compilation, a total of 3527. Like a flower that blossoms to reveal its many layers, each section looks at the subject from different angles thus giving a multi-dimensional view. Understandably Haksar has had to select further when doing his compilation in English. He has brought 600 verses into this slim volume giving reasons ranging from completeness (some subhashitas are incomplete in the original) to translatability and humour as determining his selection. This book finds 37 sections with a short prologue of invocatory verses and has a crisp and adequate introduction. A very valuable section is at the end of the book with short biographical notes on the poets whose verses have made it to the compilation. Haksar has chosen a fair and wide representation of them in his English rendition, taking care to keep the verse by Indulekha as representative of women poets also in his selection.
Some of the poets whose works find inclusion in the compilation are Amaru, Bana, Bharaviu, Bharthrihari, Bhasa, Bhattaraka, Dharmakriti, Harsha, Jalhana, Kalhana, Kalidasa, Kshemendra, Divakara, Rakshekara, Udbhata, Vallabhadeva, Valmiki, Varahamihira, Vyasa among others. The verse quoted at the beginning of this review occurs in the section titled Poets and Poetry. This is the third section after the customary Salutations and Blessings. This is followed by sections on Good people, Villians, Niggardliness, Nobility, Allegories from nature and from the animal world, Allegorical miscellany, Love in separation, Friends and go betweens, Beautiful women, Pride and placation, The seasons, Nightfall, Carousals, Love in union, Miscellaneous verses I & 2, The heroic mode, Humour and satire, Pen pictures, Verses of flattery, Verses of counsel, On dharma, The iron age of Kali, The power of past deeds, Fate, Times of trouble, On being a servant, Cravings, Transience, Derision of lust, Regrets, Aspiration and Prayers.
Moving thus across a range of subjects, the verses capture the mood of every subject very deftly. If some are wry, others are naughty. If some verses paint beauty, others condense philosophy. A few illustrative examples are:
A lion took the dear life Of Panini, grammar’s founder; an elephant swiftly crushed to death Jaimini, the philosopher and Pingala, fount of prosody, was killed by sharks near a seashore: minds stricken by ignorance have no use for merit’s store.
Tender emotions can be expressed so beautifully as in the following one: Deer, go quickly! leave this place! Why do you stop and turn your face, looking back continually? The fluttering of your eyes will not melt even a bit these wretched hunters, their hearts are hardened totally.
Is it true that love and philosophy have much in common? Here is a clever example: The sage’s word is true indeed, that all the world is transitory: else of parting from that doe-eyed girl who could bear the agony?
Love is charming in all its moods and does not need words to express itself. Silence is often more eloquent, but how to capture silence in words?
‘Beautiful, give up this pride. Look at me I am at your feet. You’ve never been so cross before.’ By her husband thus addressed, she cast a glance from half-closed eyes shed many tears, said not a word.
Or this other one attributed to Dharmakriti: She did not ignore courtesy, frown, be terse or contrary, nor say anything impolite, but when her lover clasped her in a close embrace, her eyes welled up with tears and made her anger known.
Would you call this humour or reality or just beautiful poetry: My youth went by in a whirl of bargains of beauty in markets of love; now wrinkles make a thousand patterns on the canvas of my body; only the mind discarding shame, keeps ever growing young.
The above verse appears in the section titled Regrets. In addition to offering pleasure to the senses some interesting aspects that emerge from the book are how one particular verse occurs with variations or has been ascribed to different authors. One verse, which in this collection, ascribed to Bhatta Govindaswamin is in the section on poets and poetry. Haksar translates it thus:
Patronage of kings brings kudos and repute to kings for poets the very same opens many doors to fame There is no patron better than a king for men of poetry for kings too, there can never a helper like a poet be.
In his book, The Wisdom of Poets, David Shulman quotes the very same verse from Rajsekhara’s Kavya Mimamsa and translates it thus: Kings win renown by seeking out poets
poets attain success by relying upon kings A poet has no patron equal to a king a king can find no better friend than a poet.
The second version seems to retain the four line formula and in the last line the poet is called a ‘helper’ in Haksar’s version. The word in Sanskrit is sahayah. Sahayah, according to Monier Williams could mean any of the following … one who goes along with another, a companion, a follower, adherent, ally, a helper, patron, epithet of Siva. … In this verse the king and poet are held as equals, sharing a symbiotic relationship. So perhaps the choice of words like friend, companion, ally, would have fitted better in this context. One interesting feature of subhashitas is that they appear with slight differences across the country because they anyway belonged to the oral genre. The differences add to the richness of thought. Here is an example. Haksar translates a verse attributed to Vallabhadeva, the compiler, such:
Even verses void of elegance but timely read, are brilliant thought; just as tasteless food is savoured by one with hunger overwrought.
A verse timely read, even if void of elegance or poetic craftsmanship is just as pleasing to the senses as tasteless food is to a hungry man. The simile is direct. A verse with similar thought and beginning similarly uses a bolder simile, occuring in the samyocita padyamalika. It says: A poem remembered at the right moment, however simple, glows with life (Just as) in making love, beauty unadorned is perfect.
But it is just as well that Vallabhadeva did not choose the second version for the English compilation has more than its share of the erotic. Beginning with the cover which is a picture of a couple in erotic embrace, there seems a lot more weightage given to verses that dwell on srngara. As an example I choose the section titled Nightfall since I presume it will have a lot of amorous element within it. The fifteen verses in the section, bring a selection from the sections on the Setting of the Sun and Rising of the Moon in the original which contain about 68 verses. Fourteen of the fifteen that figure in this volume dwell on srngara. In the original however there is great variety. Each one of them profiles the sun in a different manner. If one says the sun is an indiscriminate des-troyer and so why should we think it is any better than darkness, another says the sky is as heartless as a prostitute; she throws out the man who cannot pay even if he has other attributes or learning. Similarly the sky throws out the sun when he loses his lustre. Another says even when darkness envelops compulsively, the sun does not give up but divides itself as lamps in people’s houses. An opposing thought comes in the one which says, even the sun is defeated by darkness which ultimately envelops it. One verse says that if divine blessings are not there, nothing will be of use like the sun which cannot save itself in spite of its thousand arms when it begins to set. To show that prosperity is transient there is a verse which says that as long as Prabha (daylight) is with the sun, he touches everybody with his brilliance but when she leaves him, even he is impoverished, what to say of fickle Lakshmi who leaves when the situation changes. One with a contradictory mood says the sun scorches everyone, and the fortunes earned by scorching others does not stay forever. In addition to these which look at the sun in a myriad ways there are amorous verses like ones which say the nayika is glaring at the sun and so unable to bear it he sets making time for her tryst with her lover. Many dwell on the setting of the sun as the time for lovers to meet. The section on the Rising of the Moon is similar. It is not prudishness that prompts this comment but the thought that perhaps the English reader will put down the book after having a good time, but with the impression that Sanskrit subhashitas are primarily erotic in nature. The selection that occurs in the English compilation is not indicative of the gamut of perspectives that the original has sought to cover. This bias finds itself throughout the book. Nowhere is it sought to be clarified either. The bias notwithstanding, Subhashitavali is a wonderful addition to the English language library and our gratitude to A.N.D. Haksar for presenting a readable and interesting bird’s eye view into Indian literary tradition remains unstinted.
Sudhamahi Reghunathan, former Vice Chancellor, Jain Vishwa Bharati Institute, Rajasthan, is a Sanskrit scholar.