The Ending of Arrogance
Ksemendra’s Darpa Dalanam
Poetry in Translation
Translated by A N D Haksar
Bangalore: Rasala Books. 2016
Pp 151 | Rs 350
A satire and a social critique of 11th century Kashmir
Darpa Dalanam is the latest addition to the Rasala tradition of publishing relatively unknown Sanskrit texts in translation. The poem is an unusual poetic work in classical Sanskrit from 11th century Kashmir that is a satire and a social critique of the times. “The Darpa Dalana was first published in the original in 1890, and translated into German in 1915. Though quoted in works like A.K. Warder’s Indian Kavya Literature of 1992, its full text is translated into English perhaps for the first time in this Rasala edition” (Rasala Website).
A N D Haksar’s translation of the 11th Century Sanskrit poet Ksemendra is a labour of love.
The important factor here is the translation of Sanskrit satire, which is little known in wider literary circles. Although Ksemendra’s satirical work has been lauded in his time, his work in this genre has been almost ignored by contemporary scholars of Sanskrit, who dwell on his poetics and prosody. Ksemendra, considered one of the greatest satirists of Sanskrit Literature, often fails to woo contemporary audiences. Rasala’s attempt has been to re-introduce Indian readers to Ksemendra’s satire. Previously, A N D Haksar has published three satires of Ksemendra, in English translation. Darpa Dalanam is a continuation of Haksar’s work and his enthusiasm to popularise Ksemendra’s work.
Darpa Dalanam can be considered a Niti Kavya, comprising satire and moral instruction. The genre of Niti Kavya constitutes a didactic dimension; the word Niti can be translated as ethics, wisdom, politics and morality among others. Darpa Dalanam is divided into seven cantos or chapters, called vicaras or thoughts that explore the causes of arrogance. The poem consists of 587 verses. Each vicara consists of a fable, not dissimilar to a morality tale to illustrate the poet’s perspective. The poet attributes satire to various characters, who narrate fables or morality tales. The morality tales feature gods, human beings, (kings, nobles and commoners) and animals. Furthermore, some of these vicaras consist of maxims and epigrams, quoted in various other anthologies, as is characteristic of Sanskrit literature. Ksemendra’s expertise in metrical work that satirises, exposes and ridicules is non-pareil. The satire encapsulated in verse is brutal in places, compassionate in others. The seven vicaras in Darpa Dalanam fall under the categories of Thoughts on: Family, Wealth, Learning, Beauty, Heroism, Charity and Holy Penance.
As is typical of Ksemendra, poetic paraphernalia is juxtaposed with wit and cynicism. It is little wonder that Ksemendra is dubbed the “Father of Social Satire.” Darpa Dalana, translated as Ending of Arrogance, begins with a prologue that introduces the poem as an antidote for darpa or arrogance:
Arrogance is a sickness
for the treatment of which
Ksemendra has attempted,
out of love for all his friends,
this sweet medicine of sayings…
This work Darpa Dalana,
has been writ to take away
the pride that possesses men
and spirits, and to bring them peace.
Ksemendra’s cutting edge humour, full of wit and cynicism has been highlighted in Haksar’s translation. The poetic paraphernalia of upama (simile) and utpreksha or rupaka (metaphor) is juxtaposed into the wit, generating a unique satirical verse:
I am a good debater,
by the wise respected
for imparting knowledge,
a poet whose maturely flowing
language frolics like a hamsa
in the heart-lakes of lily-eyed girls.”
Thus does the ghoul of arrogance
get inside men’s minds (“Thoughts on Family”)
The poet does not spare himself from satire, a timely warning to poets of all times to beware of the ghoul of arrogance. The satire reaches its zenith in “Thoughts on Learning,” when Ksemendra pokes fun at poets, perhaps at himself:
Poets are like greedy pimps that prostitute the muse of language – decking her up with flourishes and tropes and reducing her to a means for their patrons’ gratification.
There is also a philosophic touch to Ksemendra’s mockery. One example is the ending of Thoughts on Family” encapsulating the Tale of Tejonidhi:
Do not obsess over a family name,
it is but a snake slithering in empty bluster’s morass.
Restraint, forgiveness, generosity, compassion,
these are the hall marks of real class.
Myths and legends are drawn into “Thoughts on Wealth” and the fickle nature of wealth:
‘When their realms with all their treasures,
which could shame even Kubera,
were lost in ancient times, we hear;
Nala, Rama, Pandu’s sons,
in shame suffered forest exiles:
and Indra, at his treasure loss ashamed,
hid within a lotus stalk.
Who can trust wealth?
Guard it as you will, it always flees.’
And Buddhist teaching is imparted through Tathagatha’s advice to Candana:
Those who immerse their mind in greed,
do not share their wealth, have no compassion…
“Thoughts on Beauty” take the reader on a tour of Indra’s celestial court and the dance of the apsara Urvasi, whose beauty and grace are the envy of the goddesses Rati and Saci, who veil the eyes of their husbands Kama and Indra respectively from the sensuous apsara. Ksemendra’s poetry attributes human qualities to these immortals:
Seeing Kama prickle with excitement as he watched her dancing, Rati blew a cloud of pollen from the mango blossoms to screen his view. Saci too, upset to see her spouse Indra’s many eyes fixated on Urvasi, angrily shook the lotus she held, dislodging the bees within to form a veil of darkness between them.
Ksemendra’s musings on Heroism draws examples from Vedic myths, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to convey the message that heroism is transient:
The one who stood proud yesterday, with all his rivals vanquished, is today frightened and has lost his nerve. Vrtra swallowed Indra whole on the battle field, but Indra slew him with the sea’s foam… Even Rama, desperate to win an ally, ate humble pie and sought refuge with the monkey Sugriva… As Bhima drank the blood of Duhsasana, Duryodhana’s mighty generals stood by, like helpless girls. (“Thoughts on Heroism”)
The reader becomes a participant of the unfolding burlesque in Ksemendra’s work. He/she is invited to partake of the poet’s ironical sketches, to revel at handsome Siva’s mockery of the ascetics in “Thoughts on Holy Penance”, to marvel at the mongoose’s advice to Yudhisthira in “Thoughts on Charity” and to laugh at the humbling of the pride of King Dambhodbhava in “Thoughts on Heroism.”
Ksemendra’s poetry has never been more relevant than in current times, where the politics of the world spins off in money, heroics and bravado. In contemporary times, when one mocks the world on social media and the business of the world is recast in fake news, it is not difficult to appreciate Ksemendra’s candid satire. Ksemendra is a rigorous re-writer, juxtaposing wisdom, morality, politics, myth, legend, fable and anecdote into his satire. The tone of disaffection that springs from Ksemendra’s satire speaks to us with urgency; the metanarratives hidden beneath his myths and fables highlight the follies of his age and our own.
Ksemendra’s satire is not lost in translation; Haksar’s English version renews the quintessence of his verse. The translator has faithfully followed Ksemendra’s verse that is full of craft and guile, offering unflinching satire and moral truth. Haksar’s translation highlights the didactic dimension of Niti Kavya and bridges the centuries to bring us age-old Indian satire, which is the fore-runner of contemporary political and moral caricatures. Haksar’s is a convincing voice that argues with conviction for the contemporary significance of Sanskrit literature.