Otto Steinmayer: Classic Ground

In the beginning was the word

[New Straits Times, 2 October 1991]

kama WHEN I began this column, I took my stand that a classic is something said once for all time. Each people of the earth has given mankind a special expression of wisdom or beauty. The Greeks and Romans hardly had a monopoly of Classics.

Sanskrit is the closest relative of ancient Greek, as close together as two fingers on a hand. Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, German, and English, and countless other languages all derive from a single ancestor, what we in the trade call "proto-Indo-European." English speakers like me say "gable" (originally "head," now "ridge of a house"), the Germans say "Kopf," Romans "caput," Greeks "kephalos," and the ancient Indians "kapala," which has come into Malay. One word, from here to England.

From the beginning, Indians have always placed paramount importance on the word and speech. The world was called into existence by the mystic syllable om. The words of the ancient Rig Veda are charged with spiritual power and poetic beauty.

...Towards you, Dawn, joyous driver away of foes, we have
awakened with understanding, with songs of praise.

The good woman has appeared with her rays like a scattering herd of cows.
Dawn, you have filled the broad heaven.

Shining out on the world you have uncovered the darkness with your light.
Dawn, show us favour again...

The roots of language, and the grammar that combines them into utterance are alive. The universe is full of speech (vak "voice"), the consciousness of the universe. The roots of words look into its nature.

Perhaps India's greatest intellectual contribution to the world is the science of linguistics, already in 500 B.C developed by the grammarian Panini to a point the West reached only in the mid-19th century, and only after absorbing Indian teaching.

Will you allow me, reader, to say so much about grammar? I love it, and I share that love with the pandits. Grammar is a giant toyshop filled with glittering doo-dads. Grammar is more fun than Lego.

Panini analyzed and settled the rules of the language derived from the Vedas. Through his work, the high Indian language became "samskrta," that is, "perfected, established." Its grammar has not changed since. Just as the peoples of India use English today as a language that transcends local boundaries, so Sanskrit was the common language of communication and literature.

There exists more literature in Sanskrit than in Latin and Greek combined. The huge and wonderful epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, each run much longer than all of Homer's works put together. Among the stories are stanzas of great lyrical beauty. Here, Rama longs for the missing Sita:

Blow, wind where my love is, touch her and then touch me.
In you the touch of her body, in the moon the beholding of her face.
This is much for a lover, by this he can live,
That she and I at least walk the same earth.

Poets neglected Sanskrit after the time of the epics. Perhaps they were simply overawed by their volume and splendour. But some hundreds of years later, Sanskrit had a rebirth, and poets began writing with renewed vigor and genius. Of all these, the greatest is Kalidasa.
Kalidasa probably worked at the court of the emperor Chandragupta II, around 400 A.D. Alone of all the Sanskrit poets, Kalidasa succeeded equally with both mahakavya (epic) and drama.

The Sanskrit mahakavya differs from Greek epic and the great Indian epics by being less warlike and more lyrical. Kalidasa's Birth of Kumara tells the story of the god who will defeat the demons that threaten to overrun the world. Shiva, the ascetic god, must be the father. To waken up his feelings, the gods in council send Kama, god of love, to the mountain where Shiva meditates, to shoot him with the arrow of desire. As Kama and his troop approach Shiva's grove, all nature feels the force of Love:

In their crooked branches the trees too
Received the embraces of their creeper wives--
Wives with full breasts of bunched flowers,
Heartstealing with lips of trembling leaves.

The Indians highest honoured drama. In drama poetry combines with music, dance, gesture, costume, and spectacle to awake the intensest emotions in the audience. The Indians felt the force of drama as rasa, the "juice" or "taste" of emotion purified of the confused passion of everyday existence.

Indian psychologists and critics classified emotions with great precision. Each emotion had its rasa, and the essence of rasa, even such as the "sorrowful" or "disgusting," was pleasure. Plays built on the "sorrowful" rasa come close to tragedy, but even these avoid it. All drama ends happily. The mature worldview of ancient India found a way where evil disappears in good.

The most famous of Kalidasa's dramas is Shakuntala.
Love, the cause of my torment,

Has become the author of my joy,
As a sultry, lowering day
Ends by washing away the heat of summer. (Coulson)

Besides drama and epic, the ancient Indians also their tiny forms, vehicles for instruction, comment, or the emotions of daily life. These they called subhasita, "well-turned words." It would be interesting to study how much influence these subhasita had on the pantun, which they resemble so closely.

Ask a pandit even now for advice and he may answer you with an appropriate sloka, or stanza, on your question, like proverbs in verse. Young students of Sanskrit first read a collection of animal fables, the Hitopadesa, or "Fitting Instruction."

Even a caterpillar, by sticking to flowers, climbs to the head of good people,
Even a stone reaches godhood when set up by great men.

Poets also composed subhasita in a wide variety of beautiful metres for their own amusement and to express their feelings. Not long ago scholars discovered a large anthology of subhasita, the Treasury of Vidyakara, in palm-leaf manuscript. Vidyakara organized this like other Asian anthologies, according to the themes of the poems: praise of the Buddha and the gods, the seasons, the times of days, love, nature, human character. Modern readers will probably turn first, as we did when we studied them at Yale years ago, to the chapter of erotic poems.

Sanskrit erotic poetry treats sexuality tenderly, without any of the guilt, prurience, or snickering that spoils erotic poetry in other languages---perhaps English in particular. Sanskrit poets were interested in the drama and the feeling.

The bashful lover, almost fainting from his exercise
in the full give and take of love,
has suddenly completed all his duty.
His bolder partner, overcome by passion,
writhes and cries out and turns aside her face,
her sidelong glances flashing with disappointment. (Ingalls)

The Natyashastra, or "Handbook of Drama," says that anything bright, holy, splendid, or beautiful belongs to the erotic rasa.
Jayadeva describes the love of God, the love for God, by the young Krishna's love for the cow-girls. Sanskrit poetry is a poetry of love, and it gave that flavour to the vernacular languages of India, to Kabir and to Tagore, and to Indic Southeast Asia. Love brought the world into being, says the Rig Veda, and Love found the words to express it in speech.

[Daniel Ingall's translation of Vidyakara's Treasury is published by Harvard University Press. Penguin publishes several volumes of translations: the Rig Veda, Three Sanskrit Plays, and Poems from the Sanskrit.]