Monday, October 6, 2008

Ashvaghosha's Life of the Buddha - a shower of flowers fell fragrant and water-filled

I have followed my own advice and read a volume of the Clay Sanskrit Library. Ashvaghosha's Life of the Buddha (1st or 2nd century) was by no means my first choice, but the university library I relied on, a serious place, mostly, owned exactly two volumes, which is pathetic.

No regrets, though, since Life of the Buddha was a poetic work of high quality. It's a genuine epic poem on the subject, written several hundred years after the fact. A rough analogy would be a late Roman or Byzantine epic on the life of Christ, with non-scriptural sections borrowing from not just the Old Testament, but the Aeneid or the Odyssey. Or imagine that Milton had extended Paradise Regained to cover all of the Gospels. Oh boy, says any English major reading this, Paradise Regained at ten or twenty times the length. What a shame we don't have that.

There are some cantos of Life of the Buddha that include some theological heavy lifting, but there were also a lot of delightful things. Here are some women racing up to the roof to see the young Siddhartha pass by:

they gathered curious and unabashed,
hampered by the slipping of girdle strings,
eyes dazed by the sudden rousing from sleep,
ornaments slipped on at hearing the news;

frigtening away the bevies of house-birds
with the clatter of steps on the stairways,
with girdles jinging and anklets tinkling,
and rebuking each other for their haste; (Canto 3, p. 65)

That's vivid writing. There are a lot of great bits with women, actually. The king, Siddhartha's father, wants to keep the prince from becoming a holy man, so he swamps his son with women, each of whom has a different seduction strategy:

One of the girls feigned to stumble,
and with tendril-like arms,
hanging loosely from her drooping
shoulders, embraced him by force. (p. 95)

Another, pretending she was drunk,
repeatedly let her blue dress slip down.
Flashing her girdle, she gleamed,
like the night with lightning streaks. (p. 97)

Another parodied his bearing
by stretching the bow of her brows
upon her beautiful countenance,
mimicking his resolute mien. (p. 99)

I can hardly believe that last one did not work, but the prince has discovered sickness, old age, and death, so it's the ascetic life for him.

One odd aspect of the book is that the complete epic survives in Chinese and Tibetan translations, but only the first half is extant in Sanskrit. So the translation konks out halfway through; brief prose summaries of the last fourteen cantos finish the book. I would have been happy to read a second volume of the epic, but I was also content to move on to another book. With Life of the Buddha, I had reached inner peace.

As the flower-bannered one fled defeated
  along with his cohorts,
passion-free, the great seer stood victorious
  and dispelling darkness,
the sky sparkled with the moon,
  like a girl with a smile,
and a shower of flowers fell
  fragrant and water-filled. (Canto 13, p. 399)

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