Imagine sitting down to write the story of your life. Most likely, as you think about what to write, your mind would drift to other autobiographies and memoirs you’ve read. You’d ask yourself: What kinds of incidents did other writers discuss? What kind of literary conventions and styles did they use? Essentially, what was an autobiography supposed to look like?
Now, imagine: what would it be like to write the story of your life if you had no other previous model to follow?
In the winter of 1641, in the grand Mughal city of Agra, a Jain merchant, poet, and philosopher named Banarasi Das faced this exact question.
Banarasi Das lived from 1586-1643 CE in urban north India: mostly in the cities of Jaunpur and Agra. For Jains, a “full” human lifespan is 110 years, and Banarasi wrote his autobiography when he was 55. Thus, he titled his text Ardhakathanak, meaning Half Story (unfortunately, he died two years later).
The Ardhakathanak is the earliest known autobiography written in a South Asian language. It’s a truly fascinating look into what life was like during the peak of the Mughal Empire, from the perspective of a citizen, not a ruler. In this post, I’ll highlight a few sections from Rohini Chowdhury’s translation that stood out to me as particularly interesting or surprising.
Most people identify Saint Augustine’s Confessions as the first-ever autobiography, written around 400 CE in Roman North Africa. In South Asia, the autobiography has a comparatively more recent history. The Baburnama may have been the first autobiography written by someone living in South Asia; it is the journal of Babur (1483–1530 CE), the founder of the Mughal Empire. Babur wrote in Chagatai Turkish about his life in central Asia, and later his invasion of India and establishment of an empire. Babur described India in great detail, but he was essentially writing from the perspective of a foreigner.
While the Ardhakathanak may not be the first autobiography to describe South Asia, it is the first known autobiography written in a South Asian language. Banarasi Das wrote the Ardhakathanak in Braj Bhasha, an ancestor of modern Hindi and one of the major literary languages of northern India before the 19th century. So, who was he? I’ll let him introduce himself:
Introducing Banarasi Das
जैनधर्म श्रीमाल सुबंस | बानारसी नाम नरहंस
तिन मन मांहि बिचारी बात | कहौं आपनी कथा बिख्यात
jain-dharm śrīmāl subans bānārasī nām nar-hans tin man māhi bicārī bāt kahauñ āpnī kathā bikhyāt
A Jain from the noble Shrimal family,
That prince among men, that man called Banarasi,
He thought to himself,
“Let me make my story known to all.” (4)
Back in Chicago! I’m taking a break from unpacking to write this quick blog post on the occasion of Rama Navami, the Hindu festival dedicated to the god Rama. I’m working on a longer, more in-depth piece on Rama and the Ramayana, but I thought I’d just share a couple of thoughts today.
Rama today is a polarizing figure in South Asia and in the diaspora: deeply revered by many, but now also reviled by a growing number of people. On one level, he is essentially the “Eagle Scout of Hindu mythology,” as Philip Lugendorf wittily writes in his essay “The Secret Life of Ramcandra of Ayodhya”: he is “courteous, kind, obedient, brave, clean, and reverent.” Especially in contrast to Krishna, the rule-breaker, love-maker, and fun-haver, Rama is generally seen as the “god of the status quo.” The ideal son, brother, husband, king, friend — for many devout Hindus, Rama encapsulates them all.
At the same time, Rama is seen by many as representing some of the most oppressive and violent aspects of Hindu society. Rama’s treatment of his wife Sita in many versions of the Ramayana — in particular, his repeated testing of her “purity” — has been widely criticized by both modern feminists and authors dating back many centuries. The mutilation of Shurpanakha has been critiqued by some Dalit-Bahujan feminists, who identify the asuras/rakshasas of the Ramayana as representing the lower castes and indigenous people of South Asia. For many Dalit-Bahujan thinkers, Rama is also an embodiment of caste violence and Brahminical supremacy, embodied in Rama’s killing of the shudra Shambuka. In contemporary Indian politics after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the very phrase “Jai Shri Ram” (“Victory to Lord Rama”) has become a symbol for a violent Hindu nationalist movement. I can’t list all the objections to Rama and the Ramayana here, but you get the idea.
So, is Rama a figure to be worshiped, or an oppressive relic of India’s past, to be cast away? I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, in the context of religion, politics, and culture. Simple good/evil binaries do not make sense in most cases, unless we ignore the complexities inherent in every culture. With this mind, I want to share a few examples of literature and scholarship on Rama and the Ramayana that complicate the good/evil binary that we, as humans, instinctively seem to prefer.
1. Rama’s Smile
First, I want to share a brief excerpt from the Ramavataram, the most well-known Tamil retelling of the Ramayana, composed by the 11th-century poet Kamban. I came across this charming stanza on Twitter, in which Sita describes seeing Rama for the first time:
இந்திர நீலம் ஒத்து இருண்ட குஞ்சியும்
சந்திர வதனமும் தாழ்ந்த கைகளும்
சுந்தர மணி வரைத் தோளுமே அல
முந்தி என் உயிரை அம் முறுவல் உண்டதே.
indra nīlam ottu iruṇḍa kuñjiyum chandra vadaṉamum tāzhnda kaigaḷum sundara maṇi varai-t tōḷumē ala mundi en uyirai am muṟuval unḍadē
“His hair was dark, like a deep blue sapphire
His face radiant as the full moon, his arms long and lean
His shoulders, dark and strong, like massive gems, but—
it was his smile that captured my soul.”
To me, this stanza highlights a Rama which is often neglected: a gentle, loving, compassionate Rama. Instead, the image of Rama we are so often confronted with today is an unsmiling, martial figure, with bow and arrow in hand, ready to slay his foes at any second. Sita’s description of Rama doesn’t shy away from describing his his strong shoulders and long arms, but she adds that what truly captivated her was his smile, nothing else. In my opinion, this image of Rama as a lover — as someone whose most captivating trait is his smile — is rarely, if ever, highlighted.
One reason for this, of course, is that Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) groups have made a concerted effort to make Rama the poster boy for violent, muscular, Hindu nationalism. This wasn’t always the case, though, as this anecdote narrated by Ashis Nandy illustrates:
Once, in course of his only visit to a RSS shakha (branch of a major Hindutva organization), Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi looked around and found on the walls of the shakha portraits of some of the famous martial heroes of Hindutva such as Shivaji and Rana Pratap. Being a devotee of Ram, Gandhi naturally asked, ‘Why have you not put up a portrait of Ram as well?’ Those were not the days of the Ramjanmabhumi movement and the RSS leader showing him around said, ‘No, that we cannot do. Ram is too effeminate to serve our purpose’.
Perhaps what we need in order to counteract Hindutva’s Rama is this more “effeminate”, compassionate, loving Rama. This is the Rama who is loved by some hijras as a symbol of acceptance. This is the Rama who is worshiped by the Rasik Sampraday, a small esoteric sect which worships Rama and Sita as a symbol of ultimate love, just as Radha and Krishna are often worshiped today. This is the Rama who, according to a popular South Indian folktale, expresses his love and gratitude to even a small squirrel who helps build his bridge to Lanka.
Also, if you liked that stanza, you can read more ancient and medieval Tamil poetry here.
2. Three Hundred Ramayanas
I’ve also been revisiting A. K. Ramanujan’s seminal essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” which is now notorious for being banned from Delhi University’s history curriculum under pressure from conservative Hindus and Hindutva groups. Nevertheless, Ramanujan’s essay is definitely worth a look: it’s an eye-opening introduction to the sheer diversity of the Ramayana tradition. Today, when so many of us have grown up with the idea that there is just one, authoritative Ramayana story, whether it’s communicated through Amar Chitra Katha comics or through an anime film, Ramanujan’s essay is a reminder that there is so much more out there! This is one of my favorite anecdotes:
To some extent all later Ramayanas play on the knowledge of previous tellings: they are meta-Ramayanas. I cannot resist repeating my favourite example. In several of the later Ramayanas (such as the Adhyatma Ramayana, sixteenth century), when Rama is exiled, he does not want Sita to go with him into the forest. Sita argues with him. At first she uses the usual arguments: she is his wife, she should share his sufferings, exile herself in his exile and so on. When he still resists the idea, she is furious. She bursts out, ‘Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one where Sita doesn’t go with Rama to the forest?’ That clinches the argument, and she goes with him (Adhyatma Ramayana 2.4.77-8; see Nath 1913, 39). And as nothing in India occurs uniquely, even this motif appears in more than one Ramayana.
“Three Hundred Ramayanas” shows us that the Ramayana tradition has always been evolving to answer new questions and remain relevant in new contexts. Today, when we ask so many questions of past Ramayanas, and when so many previous retellings of the Ramayana contain material we would rather not pass down to future generations, I think Ramanujan’s essay prompts us to ask: what is stopping us from recreating, reinterpreting, retelling a new Ramayana? If we have a retelling of the Ramayana story that emphasizes values of inclusivity, love, equality, empathy, and justice — does that make it any less of a Ramayana? I think Ramanujan’s answer would be “no.” Check out the essay here.
3. Arshia Sattar on the Ramayana vs. Mahabharata
Arshia Sattar is an Indian translator and author who has written prolifically, and almost exclusively, on the Valmiki Ramayana. I’ve been listening to a few of her lectures on YouTube, and something that struck me recently was her comparison of the Ramayana with South Asia’s other great epic, the Mahabharata:
“In the Mahabharata, you know there are problems. You know that dharma is sukshma (subtle), they tell you that right off the bat. The characters are always talking about dharma, endlessly, and… they’re always doing the wrong thing. Right? They think, think, think, think, think… and then they do the wrong thing. Right? And it’s like, “Well, why did you spend so much time thinking? You bored me!”
[People say] “The Mahabharata has so much moral ambiguity, it’s so difficult to know what is right…” Fair enough, but I think for me why the Ramayana is actually much harder to deal with, and [why] it’s also a much more profound text, is because everybody in the Ramayana does the “right thing,” and it still goes wrong. So what do you do then: when you act from the best part of yourself and you hurt the people you love most? That, to me, is really, really, the challenge of being human. That, to me, expresses the human condition far more poignantly than the idea of “I don’t know what is right and what is wrong.”
In the Ramayana, everybody knows what is right, everybody does the right thing, but it just doesn’t work out! And that, to me, is the life lesson. We can always say, “I did what I thought was right, but then why is the world such a bad place?” So, in that sense, I think the Ramayana is much more profound than the Mahabharata.
For Sattar, the Ramayana’s main dilemma is: what happens when you think you’re doing the right thing, but you end up hurting the people you love most? This, to me, is a very appealing way of viewing the Ramayana. I don’t have a whole lot more to say on this, and I haven’t read any of Sattar’s work yet, but I hope to do so soon.
Like I said, I hope to have a much more coherent piece on Rama and the Ramayana published soon — these are just a few semi-connected thoughts of mine. Let me know what you think!
Happy Valentine’s Day (or should I say eid al-hubb) from Rabat, Morocco, where I’ve been studying abroad for the past several weeks! Living in Morocco has been an incredible experience, and I have quite a few posts lined up about what I’ve been learning here about Morocco and myself. For now, though, I just want to share a very short and sweet Malayalam song, called “Manikya Malaraya Poovi.”
This song is from an upcoming Malayalam film titled Oru Adaar Love, but it’s actually an adaptation of a song originally written in 1978 by P.M.A. Jabbar — a Malayali poet who, quite unexpectedly, works as a clerk in a general store in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia! The song belongs to a traditional genre called Mappilla paattu: songs sung by Muslims of the Malabar Coast in northern Kerala on special occasions, such as weddings and family gatherings. The language of Mappilla paattu songs mixes Malayalam with Arabic and other languages such as Persian, Tamil, and Hindi-Urdu. This article states that “the lyrics of Mappila Pattu songs often praise prominent Islamic religious figures, recount anecdotes from the Prophet’s life and recollect historic battles. A leading proponent of the Mappila Pattu tradition was 19th-century poet Moyinkutty Vaidyar, most well known for his battle songs.”
The original song describes the love story of the Prophet Muhammad and Khadijah, his first wife. It begins with describing how “Khadijah sent a representative to the Prophet’s uncle Abu Talib, as a formal proposal, who promptly gave his consent” and ends with Khadijah dressing up for her wedding and the couple receiving divine blessings. The section of the lyrics used in the film song describe the couple’s first meeting, where Khadijah falls in love with Muhammad at first sight. Khadijah herself is a fascinating figure: a wealthy businesswoman in Mecca who was fifteen years older than Muhammad, and first hired him as a business agent before marrying him. She’s one of the most important women in Islam, and was the first person to accept Muhammad’s message, thus becoming the first Muslim.
In the past few days, this song has gone viral in India (17 million views on YouTube as I type this) for a couple of different reasons. Quite simply, the video depicts two students flirting in a crowded hall through glances and gestures. At one point in the video, the lead actress, 18 year-old Priya Prakash Warrier, winks at her love interest, played by Roshan Abdul Rahoof, and people are going crazy over it. (That wink has inspired many, many memes so far.) The song has been described as “an ode to the cheekiness of young love,” one which fits neatly into Indian cinema’s long tradition of romance communicated purely through eye contact.
An article on Scroll.in describes the classic eye-contact scene as such: “man/boy or woman/girl spot each other in a public place and cannot look away any more. They keep staring at each other unmindful of the world around them, communicating their mutual ardour in visual code. The tune plays out in the background. Time freezes and the people and objects around the lovers disappear – the ultimate state of being in love.”
Besides its depiction of young love, however, the song has also sparked controversy. A few Muslim men in Hyderabad felt that it was inappropriate to include this song in a film, because its lyrics describe the love between the Prophet Muhammad and Khadija, his first wife, and they filed a police complaint against the film. Omar Lulu, the director of the film, had this to say: “My mother has always loved this song and it was a part of my growing up… there has been some opposition from some old Muslims in the community. They feel that a love song that is about the Prophet Muhammad and his wife in a film is insulting to Islam. But these people are in a small minority. I think the song is now reaching more people than it did originally.”
Finally, this song is also serving a unique, almost-subversive purpose among parts of Indian society. For the past several years, Hindu nationalist groups have violently protested against Valentine’s Day, arguing that it is “indecent” and against “Indian culture.” These organizations, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, choose to conveniently ignore the long history of publicly celebrating love in India. For example, Kalidasa, the most celebrated playwright in all of Sanskrit literature, wrote in the fourth century AD of spring festivals dedicated to Kamadeva, the Hindu god of love. In opposition to the Uttar Pradesh state government’s crackdown on young couples in public (called “anti-Romeo squads”, a pet project of the state’s chief minister Yogi Adityanath), popular writer on Hindu mythology Devdutt Pattanaik pointed out a verse in Valmiki’s Ramayana implying that “a city devoid of lovers in parks [is] a sad city.”
Of course, facts and history don’t matter to right-wing groups; this is evident in the United States as much as it is in India. Hindu nationalists have, in general, exhibited an obsession with controlling love among Indians, whether it is between people of different religions (the infamous “love jihad” hysteria), different castes, different sexualities… basically almost any consenting adults. This Valentine’s Day, many Indians pointed to the popularity of “Manikya Malaraya Poovi” — a film song celebrating young, carefree love, with roots in a traditional Muslim art form — as signifying the type of India they want to belong to. Jignesh Mevani, prominent activist and lawyer, Dalit leader, and politician in the state of Gujarat, tweeted about the song:
Happy Valentines Day ❤️❤️ Viral hit of ‘Manikya Malaraya Poovi’ is the answer to RSS's Valentines Day protest and Again Indians have proved that they like to love more than hating someone. Enjoy this beautiful video. #ValentinesDaypic.twitter.com/QtWqqqm8zt
Finally, here’s the song itself, with a translation of the lyrics below. I don’t know Malayalam myself, but I was able to piece together something which roughly conveys the message of the song, I think. Let me know if you know of any more accurate translations, and enjoy the song! Happy Valentine’s Day — and eid al-hubb mubarak from Morocco!
My cousin Parnika is three years old, and even at her young age she’s showing signs of being kind of a genius (in my family’s opinion, at least)! In addition to learning English nursery rhymes at her daycare, her dad has been teaching her Hindi children’s songs (like lakdi ki kathi, which I also learned as a kid), Telugu songs, Muthuswami Dikshitar’s Sanskrit nottuswaras, and even some Tamil songs! When they came over to our house the day after Christmas, she insisted that I accompanied her on violin while she sang some nottuswaras and other songs: Tyagaraja’s vara leela gana lola, Dikshitar’s shakti sahita ganapatim, and a few others… stay tuned for when we hit the concert stage together in a couple years. That same evening, her dad told me about this Telugu song, Muddugare Yashoda. I hadn’t heard it before, but after looking it up I thought I had to make a blog post about it! (I also needed some way to procrastinate on packing before I go study abroad in Morocco this upcoming quarter.)
Muddugare Yashoda is a bright, simple song in Telugu, attributed to the fifteenth-century poet-saint Annamacharya (colloquially called Annamayya). Annamayya lived at the hilltop temple of Tirupati, where he composed thousands of songs to the god Venkateswara. He is largely responsible for pioneering a new poetic genre, the padam, which rapidly spread throughout south India. Around his lifetime, something like thirteen thousand (!) of his poems were inscribed on copper plates and stored in a vault inside the Tirupati temple, where they remained hidden until the twentieth century. Although we no longer know their original melodies, many of Annamayya’s compositions were set to music in the twentieth century, and they’ve become a popular part of the Carnatic repertoire. I’ve written about some of his songs in previousposts. David Shulman and Velcheru Narayana Rao have written extensively about Annamayya and translated many of his compositions; if you’re interested, check out their books God on the Hill: Temple Poems from Tirupati (2005) and When God is a Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs by Ksetrayya and Others (1994).
Many of Annamayya’s compositions are soaked in shringara (romantic and erotic love), and they’re written from the point of view of a female lover of the god. However, Muddugare Yashoda is quite different from Annamayya’s romantic padams. Instead, this song praises the young Krishna in a unique way; by comparing him to the Nine Gems (navaratna in Sanskrit) that have traditionally been prized across South and Southeast Asia.
The Navaratna (Nine Gems)
As their name suggests, the navaratna are a collection of nine gemstones that have a unique cultural significance in India and beyond. Bear with me as I try to summarize Hindu astrology as briefly as possible. Just like other astrological traditions, Hindu astrology is premised on the idea that celestial bodies can influence our lives (Yes, I’m rolling my eyes too). These are called the navagraha (“nine influencers”), and they’re worshipped as deities: the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn, and the two “lunar nodes.”
It’s believed that wearing certain gems can have an astrological value; they can counteract negative influences from certain planets, and harness positive energy from others. Each of the nine gems in the navaratna group corresponds to a different planet, and when worn together, the grouping was believed to act as a talisman, protecting the wearer from negative energy and attracting positive influences from the heavens. Thus, navaratna jewelry arrangements have been popular since at least the tenth century AD, though the grouping may in fact be much older. Here’s the list of the navaratna and their Telugu names (they’ll be useful later on):
Ruby (māṇikyamu) for the Sun
Pearl (mutyamu) for the Moon
Emerald (pacca, garuḍapacca) for Mercury
Coral (pagaḍamu) for Mars
Topaz/yellow sapphire (puṣyarāgamu) for Jupiter
Diamond (vajramu) for Venus
Blue sapphire (nīlamu, indranīlamu) for Saturn
Hessonite (gōmēdhikamu) for the ascending “lunar node”
Cat’s eye (vaiḍūryamu) for the descending “lunar node”
The navaratna arrangement has traveled widely beyond India, and enjoys significance in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and some parts of Malaysia, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian countries. In fact, the Order of the Nine Gems (Noppha Rat Ratcha Waraphon) is the highest title granted to Thai citizens by the royal family of Thailand!
The term navaratna also has connotations beyond physical gemstones. It’s been used to describe a group of nine special people in a royal court: the navratna of the Mughal emperor Akbar’s court (a century after Annamayya’s time) included the musician Tansen, the poet Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana, and Raja Birbal, the subject of many popular Indian folktales. Navratan korma is a popular north Indian dish that uses nine different vegetables. But anyway, back to the song…
Despite what Hindu nationalists may want you to believe, satire and mockery has always been one way through which Hindus have related to their gods and goddesses. In fact, for most Hindu traditions, the philosophy and expression of bhakti (devotion) is actually incomplete without humor (hasya).
Earlier this year, in the weeks leading up to the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, a legal complaint was filed against Indian celebrity hair stylist Jawed Habib under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code for “insulting and demeaning” Hindu deities. Habib is the owner of a nationwide chain of beauty salons, some of which ran newspaper advertisements depicting the goddess Durga and her family enjoying a day at the salon in preparation for the festival.
Right-wing Hindus and Hindu extremist groups objected to this advertisement, and extremists soon vandalized at least one salon in Uttar Pradesh. Following massive backlash on social media, Jawed Habib publicly apologized on Twitter and ordered all franchise locations to retract the advertisement.
Why was this cartoon so controversial? The fact that a Muslim-owned business released a cartoon depicting Hindu deities would, of course, be an immediate source of anger for many conservative Hindus. However, many Hindus also described the advertisement itself as “derogatory and insulting”; they felt that depicting Hindu gods and goddesses engaging in the mundane activity of visiting a salon was an insult to their faith.
Yet, whether or not Jawed Habib’s advertising team was aware of this, such “blasphemous”, lighthearted depictions of Hindu gods and goddesses have been a surprisingly common way through which the Hindu pantheon has been approached by devotees and nonbelievers alike. In fact, the very idea of bhakti (devotion), as it has been formulated and expressed in many Hindu traditions, is actually incomplete without humor.
Humor in South Asian literature
The earliest traces of humor in South Asian literature can be located in the Ṛg Veda, which contains verses comparing Vedic chanting by brahmins to the croaking of frogs; other Vedic texts abound with riddles and “verbal games” (Gerow 173). Yet, for the most part, South Asian literary traditions have been dominated by śṛṅgāra, the rasa (aesthetic flavor) corresponding to romantic and erotic love. Despite this primary focus on the experience of love, humor also had its place in the south Asian artistic and literary imagination.
The Nāṭyaśāstra (2nd century BCE to 5th century CE), the foundational text of Indian aesthetics, defines eight dramatic rasas (aesthetic flavors), one of which is the comic rasa (hāsya-rasa).According to the Nāṭyaśāstra, just as different ingredients combine to produce a dish with a unique taste, a work of art or literature allows a connoisseur to experience a specific rasa through its depiction of various emotions and dramatic effects (Pollock 50-51). The comic rasa is linked to the emotion of amusement or mirth (hāsa).
Throughout history, śṛṅgāra has been upheld as the most important of the rasas, such as the tenth-century Kashmiri philosopher Abhinavagupta. However, the Nāṭyaśāstra itself makes an interesting claim about the relationship between the comic and erotic rasas; it states that hāsya arises from śṛṅgāra, as a parody of love(Pollock 51). It is this mockery which is “the essence of the comic sentiment” (Siegel 32). To paraphrase Abhinavagupta, “the ‘comic’ is found in counterfeiting something ‘serious'” (Gerow 176). Just as hāsya is found in the “counterfeiting” of the “serious” experience of love, perhaps hāsya can also be found in mockery directed at gods and goddesses, who are arguably the most “serious” subjects of all.
Wendy Doniger argues that if we divide the vast, interconnected web known today as Hinduism into textual, “pan-Indian” traditions on one hand, and oral-based “village traditions” on one hand, “village traditions and local folk traditions … in fact constitute most of Hinduism and are one of the main sources even of the so-called pan-Indian traditions,” not least because most Indians live in rural areas (Doniger 382). It is in “village Hinduism”—in oral folktales, festivals, and rituals—that “we will find the comic vision of the common people, glorying in Hinduism’s ability to laugh at its own gods, defying the piety of the more puritanical members of the tradition” (Doniger 382). One such folktale, popular even today in south India, is the story of Tenali Rama and the goddess Kali.
When were stories poking fun at the gods first told, and when did they begin to be written down? It’s quite likely that throughout history, people have delighted in the humorous aspects of their gods and goddesses. The dilemma faced by historians is that the majority of surviving premodern texts come from elite settings; in the Indian context, this means most premodern texts were authored by upper-caste men in royal courts or wealthy temples. Generally, it wasn’t considered proper for courtly poetry to depict aspects of life connected to villages and the “common people”; thus, many of these writers were rather distant, both physically and through literary conventions, from the humor of “village Hinduism”.
What is clear, however, is that by the “medieval period” of South Asian history, a number of written texts began to demonstrate how “Hindu gods (even uppercase Gods, like Siva and Visnu) [began] … to become not merely human but banal” (Doniger O’Flaherty 72). This article focuses on how two particular types of literature use humor to approach the gods: Sanskrit muktaka poems and Telugu ninda-stutis.
This quarter, I’ve been taking a class on premodern South Asian literature. It’s the first in a two-part sequence: this class deals with literature in Sanskrit, Prakrit, Tamil, and Telugu, while the next class will cover Persian, Hindi/Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi, and other north Indian languages. It’s been one of my favorite classes in college so far, and I’ve been learning so much about South Asian history, linguistics, and religion in addition to literature! We’ve been reading translations from the “Five Great Poems” (pañca-mahā-kāvya) of the classical Sanskrit canon, Prakrit love poems, Sangam poetry, a satirical 15th-century Telugu play, and many more. Next week, we’ll be discussing Telugu padams and devadasi songs, which I’m so excited about!
Needless to say, this class has given me many ideas for future blog posts. For now, though, I just want to share a small selection from one of the first works we read: Kalidasa’s play “The Recognition of Shakuntala” (Abhijñāna-śākuntalam), arguably the most famous work in all of Sanskrit literature.
Very little is known about Kalidasa’s life, but it is generally accepted that he lived around the 4th-5th centuries C.E., and resided for at least part of his life in the city of Ujjain in central India. Barbara Stoler Miller, one of the most eminent 20th-century scholars and translators of Sanskrit literature, writes in her 1984 anthology Theatre of Memory: The Plays of Kalidasa that he is “the acknowledged master-poet of Sanskrit”.
I’m not going to summarize the plot of Shakuntala, which you can read here. The selection I want to present comes from the very beginning of the play, when the audience first meets the male hero (King Dushyanta) racing through a forest in his chariot, chasing after an antelope. Describing the following scene, Miller writes: “we witness the king hunting a fleeing antelope in the sacred forest where Śakuntalā dwells. The movement of the chase creates a sense of uncertainty and excitement for the mind’s eye as it is drawn deeper into a mythical world. The poet’s intention to pierce the boundaries of ordinary time and space is suggested by the king’s description of the way in which his perspective is altered as he enters the forest.”
Leaving my own views on hunting aside, I have to say I really loved these three verses, and the last one is my favorite, just for the mental image it creates. The king’s exclamation that “split forms seem to reunite, / bent shapes straighten before my eyes” sounds almost like what someone would say while riding a roller-coaster!
Translated by Barbara Stoler Miller herself, these lines are spoken at the beginning of Act One of The Recognition of Shakuntala (Abhijñāna-śākuntalam). I’ve decided to only include the Sanskrit original for the poetic verses, leaving the prose lines in English. I have some longer blog posts coming up, but for now enjoy these action-packed verses!
As a kid, I loved reading about mythology: Greek, Egyptian, Hindu, you name it. I grew up reading the Percy Jackson books alongside Amar Chitra Katha comics. What I enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) most about mythology was the richness, diversity, and depth of its characters, and the ways in which modern authors were able to flesh out and humanize these gods and heroes in so many different ways. Rick Riordan (author of the Percy Jackson series) had a very different take on the Greek pantheon than Kate McMullan (the Myth-o-Mania books). Similarly, Indian authors today have been exploring the literary possibilities in Hindu mythology and epics; I’ve particularly enjoyed reading Amish’s Shiva Trilogy and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s women-centric retellings, like Palace of Illusions.
However, the more I learn about South Asian history and literature, the more I’ve come to realize that this isn’t just a modern phenomenon. People have been playing with mythology and sacred narratives, emphasizing different aspects, changing up the settings, and adding totally new details and characters, for as long as these narratives have existed! This may seem obvious to everyone else, but it’s been quite a revelation to me. I want to share a wonderful passage from classical Telugu poetry, written around nine hundred years ago, that illustrates this exact phenomenon. But first, some background…
Nanne Choda, a forgotten poet
The poet whose work I want to feature in this post is Nanne Choda; I came across his writing in an anthology of classical Telugu poetry spanning a thousand years, translated by David Shulman (whom I interviewed earlier this summer) and Velcheru Narayana Rao.
Very little is known about Nanne Choda; in fact, his poetry had been lost to history until one of his works was discovered and re-published in the early 1900s by the scholar Manavalli Ramakrishna Kavi (1866-1957). Ramakrishna Kavi claimed that Nanne Choda actually lived before Nannaya, who is generally believed to be the first Telugu poet. While Shulman and Rao acknowledge that “there is an archaic quality to his verses,” they tentatively place Nanne Choda in the twelfth century AD, a century after Nannaya.
He seems to have been the ruler of a small kingdom called Orayuru, which some people associate with the city of Tiruchirappalli in the center of Tamil Nadu. Modern Telugu poets have given Nanne Choda the title of Kavi-raja Shikha-mani (“Crest-Jewel of the King of Poets”), but Shulman and Rao write that “his book seems to have disappeared from the horizon of literary discourse already in medieval times; later poets never mention him.”
The Birth of Kumara
The only surviving work of Nanne Choda is his epic poem Kumara-sambhava, “The Birth of Kumara.” Kumara (also called Skanda, Murugan, Kartikeya, Subramanya) is the son of Shiva and Parvati, and younger brother to Ganesha; he is the god in the Hindu pantheon who symbolizes courage and valor. “The Birth of Kumara” is about the intricate sequence of events that led to Kumara’s birth.
In composing his Telugu narrative of Kumara’s birth, Nanne Choda seems to have taken inspiration from the much more well-known Sanskrit Kumara-sambhava that was composed by the legendary poet Kalidasa (fifth century AD) around seven hundred years prior. Kalidasa’s Kumara-sambhava is considered by some to be “the greatest long poem in classical Sanskrit, by the greatest poet of the language.” Although I don’t think Nanne Choda’s work has been given such hyperbolic praise, hopefully the following selection will surprise you in a number of ways.