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Usha Kishore
From Kālidāsa and Śankara
Usha Kishore

Kerala Mural: ‘Nature’ by Vishnu Vikraman
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tusahāram, Canto VI
Blooming buds of mango, his stinging arrows;
swarms of humming bees, his shimmering bowstring;
piercing the hearts of ardent lovers,
Warrior Spring thus arrives, dear heart.
Trees bursting forth in bloom, and lakes lush
with lotuses; frolicking women and fragrant
breeze; enchanting dusk and ecstatic day;
all around is alluring spring, dear heart.
Water to ponds, gem hues to girdles,
splendour to moon and sensuous women;
blossoms to mango trees thus endowed,
Spring sprinkles his bliss all around.
The male cuckoo, besotted by mango wine,
kisses his mate in drunken stupor.
The buzzing bee drowns in his lotus nest,
humming honeyed notes to his love.
Arrays of russet florets arch down from
beauteous boughs of budding mango trees,
swaying in the dalliance of breeze,
kindling desire in the hearts of damsels.
A flurry of flowers adorning their branches,
tinged in crimson coral, from core to crown,
the aśoka trees pour their yearning
into the hearts of gazing maidens.
Drunken bees kissing alluring atimukta
blooms, dangling on tender vines swaying
in the breeze, bringing a restive quiver
to the musing minds of lovelorn maids.
Envisioning a beloved mien in fleeting glory,
her winsome grace vying with kurabaka flowers;
upon beholding this beauty, dearest, which heart
is not stirred by the sharp sting of Cupid’s darts?
With arching kiśuka groves, their scarlet spikes
swirling all around in the wind, like flickering
flames, Spring arrives, spreading his cloak over
ornate earth, clad in red like a beauteous bride.
Are they not bruised enough by parrot-beaked kiśuka
blooms?  Are they not burned enough by flaming
karikāra blooms that the sweet-sting of relentless
cuckoo song should smite the hearts of lovelorn youth?
The ecstatic euphony of enraptured cuckoos,
and the dulcet rhapsody of revelling bees
kindle coy chagrined desire, rising in
momentous refrain in the hearts of courtly brides.
Swaying the burgeoning bowers of mango trees,
scattering the strains of cuckoo song here and there;
the wind blows helter skelter, the hearts of men -
fleeing is the frost, blessed is the Spring.
Like the tinkling laughter of an amorous bride,
twinkling jasmine blooms illumine the enchanted glades.
When the minds of stoic sages be spellbound here, can
youthful hearts, mired in passion, not impassioned be?
Mountains, all adorned with blossoming trees, their
lofty peaks echoing in flurries of rapturous cuckoo song,
their rocks enveiled in labyrinths of latticed lichen,
bewitch the hearts of hill folk, blithely gazing.
Resonant with the refrain of drunken bees and cuckoos,
redolent with radiant mango buds and karikāra blooms,
this season of flowers kindles the flaming desire of Manmatha,
his stinging shafts striking the hearts of haughty maidens.
With arrowed quiver of bewitching mango buds, crossbow of beguiling
kimśuka blooms, bowstring of bee swarms and parasol of silvered moon;
riding on the rutting elephant of Malaya wind, barded by cuckoo birds, may
this nebulous Spring allied enchanter of earth bestow you with eternal bliss.

Aśoka: Saraca asoca is a tree, prized for beautiful foliage and fragrant flowers.

Atimukta: The atimukta flowers have more than one equivalent in English:  fragrant atimukta jasmine or the fragrant Madhavi Lata (Madhavi creepers, also known as the Spring Herald) or Hiptage Benghalensis.

Kurabaka:  Has more than one equivalent in anglicised terms, the popular one being, amaranth or Barlaria Prinoitis (V S Apte).

Kimśuka: Butea Monosperma, also known as palash, with bright red flowers, compared to flames in Indian Literature.

Karikāra:  In Sanskrit literature, it is a tree with distinctive yellow flowers. The references here could be to: Pterospermum acerifolium (or karikāra trees, also known as kanak champa or golden champa tree, producing fragrant flowers), Laburnum (A N D Haksar) and Cassia Fistula (V S Apte).
Translator’s Commentary
The floruit of the legendary poet Kālidāsa is approximated between 4th and 5th Century CE.  Ṛtusaṃhāram is Kālidāsa’s epyllion or Khaṇḍa Khavya that celebrates the 6 Indian seasons:   Grīma (Summer), Vara (Monsoons), Śarad (Autumn), Hēmanta (early winter), Śiśira (Late winter) and Vasanta (Spring).  Sensory imagery pours out of the text as in a measured flood, the lilt of phonology (śabdālakāra) is rhythmic, the amatory mood varies with the seasons and the discerning reader is drowned in a plethora of figurative devices (arthālakāra), which lend melody and meaning to the verse.  The epyllion portrays a pastoral, verdant India of the past, with fields, glades, woods and groves, evoking in the reader a nostalgia for the rural greenery or even the rural cities of India, long before the invasion of the great Indian metropolis.    Vasanta is the 6th and concluding canto of the epyllion.  Each quatrain of Vasanta, as with the other seasons, is unique and can be read as an individual verse, evoking a miniature scene, with its own phonological and figurative devices.  The unfolding scenes are very picturesque and form a holistic picture of Spring-time, the cycle of nature and the flurry of seasonal activity.  The Vasanta canto is composed of many metrical schemes:  Vasantatilakā, Indravajrā and Upendravajrā (a combination or on their own), Vaśastha, Mālinī and the odd Śārdūlavikrīita.
My source text for the translation is the M R Kale edition (1916, Reprint 1997).  The translated excerpts presented are from the concluding part of my wider translation of the epyllion and depict natural scenes, replete with flora and fauna.  My attempt has been to maintain the quatrain structure and recreate some of the mellifluous tones of the source text.  Since the Sanskrit metrical patterns are almost inconceivable in English translation, I have resorted to free verse.  However, I have attempted to recreate the music of the original with phonological patterns of alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia and anaphora and adhered to the figurative devices like simile, metaphor and hyperbole.  I have used archaic diction to highlight the period of composition.  I have also attempted word puns or yamaka, seen often in the source text (aśokam/saśokam) that give alliterative meaning, although not in corresponding stanzas as in:  … can youthful hearts, mired in passion, not impassioned be?  I have imported the technique of interlanguage and used transliterated words in IAST to create a cultural milieu.
The most difficult and crucial stanza of the epyllion was the concluding stanza of Vasanta in the Śārdūlavikrīḍita meter, overflowing with allusions, metaphors, synonyms and sense images.  Here, I have translated the metaphor loka-jit as ‘enchanter of earth’ than the literal ‘world conqueror’ as the reference is to Manmatha, who is considered a playmate or friend of Spring as in vasantānvita (accompanied by Spring); I have translated this as ‘Spring allied.’  I have used the word ‘nebulous’ for vitanur, instead of the literal ‘formless.’   I am not referring to nebulous as dark, but as confusing; thus, highlighting the interpretative element of Manmatha or ‘stirrer of the mind/heart ’ and my translated line reads as: this nebulous Spring allied enchanter of earth.  I was determined that meaning is not lost in translation, that figurative devices are not discarded and that the English verse, to some extent, proves itself a close reading of the original. Perhaps the agony of the concluding stanza was worthwhile as with this verse, my translation of the epyllion has been completed.

I am not the mind, nor intellect, nor entity,
nor intuition;
I am not heard, nor savoured, nor scented, nor seen;
I am not the sky, nor earth, nor fire, nor air;
I am the joy ringing in eternity! I am Śiva!
I am Śiva!
I am not the breath of life or its five vital airs;
I am not the seven elixirs of the self, or the
five veils of the soul;
I am not spoken word, nor spirited deed
nor sensuous need;
I am the joy ringing in eternity! I am Śiva!
I am Śiva!
I bear no rancour, no rapture, no fervour, no ardour;
I bear no pride, no passion, no conceit, no spite;
I seek no righteousness, no riches, no desire,
no deliverance;
I am the joy ringing in eternity! I am Śiva!
I am Śiva!
I bear no virtue, no vice, no pleasure, no pain;
I seek no mantra, no sanctum; nor vēda,
nor sacrament;
I am no reveller revelling in fleeting revelry,
I am the joy ringing in eternity! I am Śiva!
I am Śiva!
I hold no fear of death; no dissent of descent
I have no father, no mother to birth me;
I have no kith, no kin, no apostle, no disciple;
I am the joy ringing in eternity! I am Śiva!
I am Śiva!
I am beyond flux, I am beyond form;
I am the infinite cloaking your finite senses;
I am not bound to being, nor am I unbound;
I am the joy ringing in eternity! I am Śiva!
I am Śiva!

Translator’s Commentary
Growing up in a Hindu household in Kerala, I was incomprehensibly drawn to the music of the oft-chanted Nirvāa akam attributed to the poet philosopher Śankara (788 CE - 820 CE). As a poet and translator, I find the philosophical, psychological and political connotations of the verse, very compelling. Śankara, also a social reformer, was considered a great champion of equality. I read Śankara as a poet, a philosopher and a social reformer, rather than a religious figure.
Nirvāa akam, also known as the Ātma akam consists of 6 quartets. The Sanskrit word akam means 6, the verse form also lending itself to the title. The poem has been interpreted as the summary of the Hindu philosophy of Non-dualism or Advaidha Vēdanta.  The poem can be considered a song of the self, interpreting the self in body, mind and soul. Structurally, the six stanzas of the poem can be read as the five strata of consciousness and the sixth eternal state, Chidhānanda Rūpa (form of eternal bliss), exemplified as pancha kōśa in the poem, with the contrast of the negation in the first 5 stanzas and affirmation in the closing stanza. This translation is a revision of my other versions previously published in Kritya (India) and The South Asian Review (US) and Fire (UK). From a religious or mythological point of view, Śiva is One of the Hindu Trinity of Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva.  Although Śiva is considered the God of Destruction, he has many aspects, exemplified in his Panchavaḳtra or Five-fold form - Iśana (Lord of creation), TatPurusha (Lord of preservation), Vāmadēva (Lord of delusion or concealment), Sadyojāta (Lord of revelation) and Rudra or Aghōra (Lord of destruction).
My translation is entitled "The Six Cantos of Eternal Bliss". Although a ‘canto’ is defined as the division of a long poem, the choice of this titular word relates to the thematic profundity of the verse. I have translated the repetitive phrase, Chidhānanda Rūpa (literally translated as ‘form of eternal bliss’) as ‘the joy ringing in eternity’, with allusion to OM, the Hindu equivalent of Amen.  The word ‘canto’ (derived from the Latin word cantus, meaning song) also highlights the phonological devices and the musical quality of the source text.
In Stanza I, line 2 of the Source text, the poet lists the anatomy of the human body as in the four sense organs - न च श्रोत्रजिह्वे न च घ्राणनेत्रे; I have chosen to translate the line from the interpretative point of the human physiology as: ‘I am not heard, nor savoured, nor scented, nor seen.’ The anatomy of the body is linked to its physiology, this is the emphasis of my translation. Similarly, in Stanza II, the line 3 - न वाक्पाणिपादं न चोपस्थपायु: is translated as: "I am not spoken word, nor spirited deed, nor sensuous need," instead of listing speech, hand, foot and organ of excretion as in the source text. In the Stanza II, the five airs and seven elements (पंचवायु and सप्तधातु) are also listed. The five airs, Pancha Vāyu, according to Hindu belief and yogic interpretation consists of the five currents of prāna or life that run through the body.  There are many interpretations to these 5 currents, one of them is as follows:  prāna (the force controlling respiration), apāna (the force dealing with elimination), udāna (the force dealing with the functioning of the brain), samāna (the force responsible for digestion and assimilation) and vyāna (an all-pervasive force within the body).    Sapta Dhāthu is based on the seven strata or elements in the body and constitute one of the principles of Ayurveda.  Dhātu from an anatomical perspective, means tissue:  Rasa (Lymph), Rata (Blood), Māmsa (Muscles), Mēdha (Fat), Athi (Bone), Majja (bone marrow) and Shura (Semen). I have used the term "seven elixirs" in my translation. The five strata of consciousness, Pancha Kōśa (literally translated as the five coverings), from a yogic perspective, consist of an ascending scale of values like material, mental, social, cultural and spiritual. In a contemporary context, comparisons can be drawn with Maslow’s hierarchy of values. I have used the term "five veils" to translate Pancha Kōśa. I would like to highlight this in the term, ‘five veils of the soul,’ also referring to the alternative title of Ātma akam. We are all familiar with Sigmund Freud’s structural model of the Psyche as Ego (defensive, perceptual, intellectual-cognitive, and executive function of the psyche), Super Ego (Individual ideals and spiritual goals) and Id (based on human instinctual drives). Perhaps the concept Pancha Kōśa known as five levels of consciousness can also be considered an Indian version of defining the psyche in terms of the five sheaths:  Physical (Annamaya), Physiological (Prānamaya), Mental (Manōnmaya), Intellectual (Vijnānamaya) and Spiritual (Anandamaya). Śankara’s psychological delineation and his poetic bridge between poetry, science, psychology and philosophy are often lost amidst the religious and spiritual attributes of the source text.
Stanza IV of the source text lists the Puruārtha or Objectives of Life: artha (wealth/riches), dharma (righteouness), kāma (desire) and mōka (salvation/deliverance).   I have adhered to this faithfully.  In this stanza, I have translated Line 3 as "I am no reveller revelling in fleeting revelry" – for अहं भोजनं नैव भोज्यं न भोक्ता – I have interpreted the bhōjana as bhōga or enjoyment or pleasure in life rather than the literal meaning of ‘food or sustenance.’ This overarching interpretation has prompted me to interpret man (human being) as a reveller or pleasure seeker (after pleasure or pleasurable objects) and Śiva as an overarching super consciousness, not seeking revelry.
Śankara presents himself as a social reformer in Stanza V.   His tenet of ‘the equality of castes’ is alluded to in the poem as न मे जातिभेदः - literally translated as ‘I do not have any disparity of faith’. Nirvāa akam is also considered Śankara’s assertion of the equality of mankind.  This is defiant (from an autobiographical context) as Śankara is said to have been ostracised by his own Namboodiri (Malayali Brahman) community when he accepted Sanyāsa and legendarily, his mother was not accorded a Brahman cremation ceremony.  I have translated this as ‘no dissent of descent.’   The dissent or bhēda among the castes is in the birth of the individual in a particular community (origin or background) that creates his caste, leading to the issues of his descent and his social status.
In the closing stanza, my translated line, ‘infinite cloaking the finite’ is a reference to tvacca, a mantle covering the five senses or indriya; interpreting विभुत्वाच सर्वत्र सर्वेन्द्रियाणाम् as covering all senses. The line also highlights the essence of the akam (6 verses) as the five senses and intuition or sixth sense (also the five strata of consciousness and the eternal form). Hence, I have used the words, infinite and finite here. The same metaphysical reading gave me the next line – ‘I am not bound to being, nor am I unbound’ for the line –   न चासङत नैव मुक्तिर्न मेय: Here, I have interpreted attachment as ‘the binding element of life’ and muti as detachment or unbinding. The being here is the measurable mēya of life and the unbinding (detachment) from life is the muti or liberation/freedom.  I have tried to incorporate the alliterative meanings here in bound and unbound as in the Sanskrit yamaka or twinning.  Here, I have translated nirvikalpō as ‘beyond flux.’  One of the meanings of nirvikalpa is ‘without change.’ The word, ‘flux’ (continuous change) is derived from the Latin fluxus, hence, giving the line an archaic feel. Kalpa is also interpreted as an ‘eon’, emphasising the temporal element and ‘flux’ also means flow (of time), prompting the interpretation of ‘I am beyond time’ for अहं निर्विकल्पो, which I had used for an earlier version of the translation.
My translation highlights the poetic element of Nirvāṇa Ṣaṭkam, which is often overlooked due to the overwhelming religious significance of the verse.  I have retained some Sanskrit words like mantra and vēda, of the original, catering to the contemporary trend of interlanguage in translation. I have also attempted to create some alliterative and assonance patterns within individual verses, along with the listing and repetition. My translation is based on my interpretation of the highly complex source text that enunciates the self in physical, physiological, mental, spiritual and sociological terms.


Issue 80 (Jul-Aug 2018)

feature Sanskrit Literature
  • Editorial
    • Usha Kishore: Editorial
    • Artwork featured in this section
  • Poetry Translations
    • A N D Haksar: From Ksēmēndra’s ‘Darpa Dalanaṃ’
    • Anusha S Rao: From ‘Saduktikarṇāmṛta’ compiled by Srīdharadāsa
    • Debjani Chatterjee: From Valmiki ‘Rāmāyana’ and Yōgēśwara
    • Kanya Kanchana and Varun Khanna: From ‘Krṣṇa Yajur Veda’
    • Mani Rao: From ‘Īśāvāsya Upanishad’ and Śankara
    • R R Gandikota: From ‘Vāyu Purāṇa’ and ‘Śankara’
    • Varanasi Ramabrahmam: Autotranslation of ‘Viṣṇu Vaibhavam
    • Shankar Rajaraman and Venetia Kotamraju: From Uddanda Śastri
    • Shankar Rajaraman: Autotranslation from ‘Citraniṣadham’
    • Usha Kishore: From Kālidāsa and Śankara
  • Conversation
    • Atreya Sarma U: In conversation with K V Ramakrishnamacharya
  • Essays
    • Atreya Sarma U: Sumadhuram, Subhashitam
    • Bipin K Jha: A Critical Review on the notion of Kāla
    • K H Prabhu: The influence of Sanskrit on Purandaradāsa’s Kannada lyrics
    • Mani Rao: Asato Mā
    • Pritha Kundu: Kālidāsa’s ‘Śakuntalā’ - ‘Lost’ and ‘Regained’ in Translation
    • R R Gandikota: ‘Cāru Carya’ of Kṣemēndra
    • M Shamsur Rabb Khan: Non-Indian Scholars of Sanskrit Literature
    • Shankar Rajaraman: ‘Citranaiṣadham’
    • Shruti Das: Ecopolitics in the Dasāvatāra in Jayadeva’s ‘Gītagovindaṃ
    • Usha Kishore and M Sambasivan: On Translating the Divine Woman
    • Vikas Singh, Dheerendra Singh and Vruttant Manwatkar: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam