Vidyakara: Cameos of Wisdom

By Eloise Hart

Religious dedication did not prevent the 11th century Buddhist abbot Vidyakara from enjoying the sensuous realism and delicate artistry of the Sanskrit poetry he found in the library of his monastery at Jagaddala in East Bengal. When visiting neighboring scholars or entertaining traveling poets he invariably sought to exchange favorite verse and to discuss subtle meanings. Over the years he meticulously copied 1,738 of the best from earlier and contemporary poets into an anthology, "Treasury of Well-Turned Verse," of which two different copies have miraculously survived. The older, dated possibly 1100 A.D. and inscribed on narrow palm leaves, is believed to have been secretly carried into central Tibet a century or so after Vidyakara's death when Moslem conquerors destroyed much of his village. It was supposedly stored in a barn adjoining the Ngor monastery. The other copy is a valued possession of the Rajguru Library in Khatmandu, Nepal.

Apparently lost for centuries this Ngor anthology was discovered in 1934 by Rahula Sankrtyayana, among other manuscripts in Tibet, but it was not until 1946 that photographs of it were made available at the Bombay University. Although these were poorly focused and unevenly developed, Professor V. V. Gokhale made out the name of the 5th century poet, Bhartrhari, verification of whose stanzas his friend, D. D. Kosambi, was at that very time searching for. Together these two scholars studied blurred enlargements trying in vain to decipher the illegible script.

Fearing that the Tibetan original might suffer the fate of many manuscripts in that country, where ancient writings are considered sacred, to be worshipped unread or sold in fragments as charms to pilgrims, Professors Gokhale and Kosambi wrote innumerable officials seeking to obtain clear photographs. These were difficult years politically so that even though Prof. Gokhale himself was in Lhasa for 18 months, while on duty with the Indian mission there, all efforts were unsuccessful. Finally in desperation they appealed to Premier Jawaharlal Nehru, and through his personal interest the negatives of the Khatmandu copy were secured. Now with those of the palm leaf codex for comparison they set to work with increasing enthusiasm to prepare the collection for publication. But yet other obstacles arose and the entire venture seemed impossible of accomplishment until a professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University, Daniel H. H. Ingalls, hearing of their work invited them to issue it as Volume 42 in the Harvard Oriental Series. Thus it came off the press in 1957 as The Subhasitaratnakosa.

When he read this Sanskrit text, Professor Ingalls was so charmed with its sophisticated style and poetic beauty that he immediately began translation into English, and after six years published Vidyakara's complete collection, together with a valuable introduction and interpretation, An Anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry (Volume 44 of the Harvard Oriental Series, Harvard University Press). Its enthusiastic reception led him to select 836 of the most interesting and appealing verses in a smaller volume for general readers, Sanskrit Poetry (Harvard University Press).

These books opened the vast treasure-house of classical poetry which had been unfortunately overlooked by 19th and 20th century scholars in their concentration on the philosophic and historical writings of the Vedas, the Upanishads and the heroic epic poems, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Sanskritists East and West were delighted to discover herein verses of over 200 poets whose work was believed to have been lost. Even in translation these stanzas retain their original lively spirit and give insight into Indian courtly attitudes and sensibilities of the pre-Muslim period.

Vidyakara was no pious idealist. His selection revealed the wide interests of a realist and a scholar. The poems he included on love and nature, the sketches of village life, the humorous epigrams and verbal puzzles, even the moral maxims and religious lyrics might have been written today -- the heartache, longings, joys and contentment of medieval India are common to all mankind. We might find in any country town 'strong peasant girls turning the rice mill,' 'fields of mustard turning brown,' a great 'bull pushing his way against the driving rain,' or an 'old woman shivering in her hut.' Nor does poetic fancy differ: 'The cloth of darkness inlaid with fireflies,' 'waves ride on the ocean top, pearls lie deep'; and 'The moon with bright mane flying in the forest of the night is like a lion . . .' was written by Panini long before William Blake penned 'Tyger, Tyger: burning bright in the forests of the night.'

The restraint of the wife's joy when her long-absent husband returns, the realism of a faithful horse, and the pathos of a deserted tree will always touch the heart:

Her husband has returned across the trackless desert;
the mistress of the household looks upon his face
with eyes unsteady from her tears of joy.
She offers to his camel palm and thornleaf
and from its mane wipes the heavy dust
with the hem of her own garment, tenderly. -- Kesata (?)
The horse on rising stretches backward his hind legs,
lengthening his body by the lowering of his spine;
then curves his neck, head bending to his chest,
and shakes his dust-filled mane.
In his muzzle the nostrils quiver
in search of grass. He whinnies softly
as with his hoof he paws the earth. -- Bana
The little birds have left, whom it had placed in honor on its head;
the frightened deer are gone, whose weariness it once dispelled by granting of its shade.
Alas, the monkeys too have run away, fickle creatures, once greedy for its fruit.
The tree is left alone to bear the brunt of forest fire. -- Author unknown

As a Buddhist, Vidyakara had little patience with the would-be ascetic too concerned with his own salvation to give thought to the suffering of others. He probably copied the following verse with a wry smile, then posed a question in the next from the Silhana collection:

He has crossed all rivers of desire
and contemned all pain.
With grief at parting from his joys assuaged
and impure thoughts removed,
he has reached happiness at last and with closed eyes
attains complete contentment. Who?
Why, a fat old corpse in a graveyard.
Can that be judgment where compassion plays no part,
or that be the way if we help not others on it?
Can that be law where we injure still our fellows,
or that be sacred knowledge which leads us not to peace?

Writing in the 'Perfected' Sanskrit language, the Indian poets distilled the vital essence of familiar experiences into miniature one-verse poetry so skillfully that it vibrantly reflected a timeless and universal quality. Its charm, like that of Chinese painting, is obtained by an illusive suggestiveness. One polished phrase, a single brush stroke, leads us from the mundane to heights of philosophical contemplation. How masterly Yogesvara, for instance, transports us with three or four words, from a cottage kitchen, where the family cat licks cream from a saucepan, to distant space where moonlight and lightning enchant our imaginations:

Now the great cloud cat,
darting out his lightning tongue,
licks the creamy moonlight
from the saucepan of the sky.

Carl Sandburg wrote 'The fog comes on little cat feet,' and T. S. Eliot: 'The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, . . . Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening, . . .' Yet neither launched the human spirit as successfully as does the short Sanskrit poem.

The largest section of Vidyakara's "Well-Turned Verse" is devoted to love. Poems dealing with its every aspect, from the innocent coquetry of a young girl blooming into womanhood, the longing for an absent beloved, the excitement of love's intimacy and its joyous fulfillment, to the bodhisattva's selfless compassion, are delicately described, each with its own special beauty and woven together into the variegated tapestry of Indian life.

The Western reader raising an eyebrow at the idea of monastic scholars enjoying -- even composing -- erotic verse fails to understand the Eastern mind which finds no incongruity with celibate purity. Which finds, indeed, love and religion synonymous. For while to them religion externalized man's inner aspirations and conflicts, love unites each human individual with the grand harmonies of universal life. The Hindu artist suggestively depicting a lofty pantheon of deities in voluptuous posture, and the Sanskrit poet describing physical and emotional pleasure, are both expressing metaphorically a mystical recognition of the oneness, interdependence and importance of life.

To them personal suffering was the karmic reaction to voluntary disruption of cosmic harmony, and could be overcome only by its restoration through right and noble living. Thus Vidyakara's anthology encompassed the aspiring pilgrim who seeks to follow the way of the divine-human Buddha; who would tread the lonely path of self-conquest to enlightenment:

No one rides before, no one comes behind
and the path bears no fresh prints.
How now, am I alone? Ah yes, I see:
the path which the ancients opened up by now is overgrown
and the other, that broad and easy road, I've surely left. -- Dharmakirti

But for those who find the thirsts for life too strong, he quotes the Hitopadesa and, with a typically Indian-Buddhistic stoical indifference to pleasure and pain, advises them to seek stability in living a moral life:

The body marches forward
but the restless heart flies back
like the silken cloth of a banner
that is borne against the wind. -- Kalidasa
Firmness in misfortune and in success restraint;
skill in speech and bravery in battle;
concern for honor and a love of holy writ . . . -- Hitopadesa

These Sanskrit poems contain such intensity of feeling, such depths of meaning, one wishes to retain them all in some corner of the mind, to take them out from time to time and like rare cameos of wisdom savor their beauty in quiet reflection.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, September 1970. Copyright © 1970 by Theosophical University Press)

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