19

धन्या सा स्त्री यां तथा वेत्ति भर्ता / भर्तृ-स्नेहात् सा हि दग्धा ऽप्यदग्धा

(dhanyā sā strī yāṃ tathā vetti bhartā / bhartṛ-snehāt sā hi dagdhā api adagdhā )

MEANING

"A lady whose husband knows her so well is indeed fortunate — because of his love, she lives on even though she's passed". While writing verses with long compounds is a challenge, it's as hard to write verses with short words. No word above is longer than two syllables! Also, a pun can operate in the second part, because 'sneha' both means 'love' and 'balm'. 'dagdhā' literally means 'burnt', which has a connotation in the context.

 

CONTEXT

This phrase is taken from the play Svapna-vāsavadatta of Bhāsa. Bhāsa is among the earliest of Sanskrit playwrights, and wrote approximately 2000 years ago, predating Kālidāsa. He is an example of the counterintuitive observation that in ancient Indian literature, the earliest writers are often the best. As usual, very little is known about Bhāsa — but this time, we go even further in our ignorance (a feat we'd never thought possible): in very large swathes of the Northern parts of the country, till the turn of the 20th century, all works of Bhāsa were lost! He was known only via references and partial quotations by literary critics through the ages. It was only in 1912 that his plays were discovered in a palm-leaf manuscript in Kerala. There is much debate on whether these plays really belong to Bhāsa, but for our purposes that is peripheral. Coincidentally, Cāṇakya's Arthaśāstra, a treatise that when discovered completely altered conceptions of advanced administration in ancient India, suffered a similar fate, and was unknown till it was discovered in Mysore in a similar fashion in 1904. Why, Emperor Aśoka himself, whose symbols today adorn India's national flag and emblem, had slipped out of public consciousness for more than a millennium!

Most of Bhāsa's work draws from the three epic streams: the Rāmāyaṇa, the Mahābharata and the Bṛhatkathā. His usual style is to take an incident from these epic streams, modify the events to bring out the mood he wants to portray and adapt it to the stage. The Svapna-vāsavadatta is similar, telling a story centered around the emotions of Vāsavadattā, the dear queen of Udayana, the king of Vatsa. A whimsical comparative note may help set Bhāsa's style in the context.

Kālidāsa is like the James Bond of Sanskrit literature. There's a certain style, a certain panache, an unefforted genius that is apparent in him. He is most decorous, never utters even a word that's inappropriate, and in any given situation, not just what he says, even what he doesn't say carries a lot of meaning. In essence, he's a kind of 'complete man'.

In contrast, Bāṇa is like Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is known for one thing — his powerful, complex, pun-filled, ornate prose, like the latter is for his incredible physique. He gives great joy to those who have a taste for appreciating that one thing, but it's impossible to expect him to deliver on any other front, and a great bonus surprise when does.

Bhartṛhari is the Angry Young Man. Everything he says — be it propounding an all-or-nothing philosophy or the joys of love or (a few verses later) his utter disgust at the cavortations of this not-yet-dead heap of meat and bones — is marked by great passion, an extreme conviction and force of expression. Irrespective of whether one agrees with him or not, one gets drawn in by just the magnetic certainty of the speaker. Probably based on this attraction is the adage, "The World makes way for a man who knows where he's going".

Coming finally to our playwright after this Hollywood Walk of Fame tour, Bhāsa is the quintessential Nice Guy. His plays are marked by a certain culturedness, a deep respect for emotions and mildness of touch. This mildness and civilizedness allows a breathing space for the smallest of thoughts and gestures of his characters. This chapter’s phrase appears in Act 1, Verse 15 of the Svapna-vāsavadatta play. The good and loyal minister Yaugandharāyaṇa has convinced Queen Vāsavadattā that King Udayana is too much in love with her to act decisively for the good of the kingdom (one of those necessary actions was to form a matrimonial alliance with a neighboring rival kingdom — but poor Vāsavadattā doesn't know this particular detail). He's made her agree to a plan where she and himself appear to perish in a fire, but instead escape away in disguise. The plan has worked, and they are both in an ashram, when a young monk from Avanti comes with news of Udayana. The poor king is plunged in grief and despair, he says, far more than what anyone anticipated, and in a manner certainly uncharacteristic of those times of multiple wives and harems.

The monk, however, adds this:

नैवेदानीं तादृशाश् चक्रवाका

नैवाप्यन्ये स्त्री-विशेषैर् वियुक्ताः ।

धन्या सा स्त्री यां तथा वेत्ति भर्ता

भर्तृ-स्नेहात् सा हि दग्धा ऽप्यदग्धा ॥

naiva idānīṃ tādṛśāḥ cakravākāḥ

naiva api anye strī-viśeṣaiḥ viyuktāḥ |

dhanyā sā strī yāṃ tathā vetti bhartā

bhartṛ-snehāt sā hi dagdhā api adagdhā || (śālinī metre)

"Not even the cakravāka birds are like this,

nor anyone else bereaved of their dear ones.

A lady whose husband knows her so well is indeed fortunate —

because of his love, she lives on even though she's passed"

(It's a poetic convention that cakravāka birds form lifelong pairs, and that they cannot bear to be separated from their partner)

Imagine all that's going through Vāsavadattā's mind just before she heard this. From the very beginning, guilt that she's agreed to lie to her dearest lover; constantly wondering whether she can or should do anything, even as the calming faith in Yaugandharāyaṇa valiantly tries to be a counterpoint to her fears; the heavy burden of living a lie, a fresh one at that; and an 'imp of the perverse' that's constantly tugging at her to reveal all to anyone in earshot and throw away this burden of secret! At a more superficial level, encountering difficulties of the ordinary world that she'd never imagined as a princess and queen, the physical discomfort making her mental conversations all the more harder to tame.

And now, this young monk comes with news of Udayana's sorrow! How heartbroken she must have been, to hear that her actions had caused her dearest soulmate such intense sorrow! She'd have guessed he would have been sad, but it's always a surprise when we experience in real time what we had only abstractly thought about. The voices that urge her to break the secret and throw it all away surely would have grown louder. Shouting "This is it! I can't take this anymore! All this is a lie! Tell the king I'm alive!" seems like a very easy solution to all her problems, and no one can blame her afterwards (or at least, no one would dare to). At the same time, somewhere in the background there would have emerged a tiny sliver of happiness — or is it pride, or contentment? — that Udayana loved her so much. Is this not one of the highest points of the experience of love? As a modern writer makes his messenger instruct a thick-headed hero about the need to constantly re-affirm love, "She wants to know if you love her, that’s all anyone wants from anyone else: not love itself but knowledge that love is there, like new batteries in the flashlight in the emergency kit in the cupboard."

Often when we're faced with such a bevy of thoughts, we genuinely don't know what to think. It's here that someone else's words helps us anchor to one thought-stream, and it suddenly appears more 'important' than all others. This is exactly what the monk's later words do. They draw Vāsavadattā's attention back to the positives, back to how good a person Udayana is, how much he loves her, and so, how important it is that she must now act for his good. His words succeed, and Vāsavadattā holds herself back from saying anything.

This is the genius of Bhāsa: what was actually uttered was a relatively simple verse, but the context magnifies its importance to unimaginable proportions. And note well that the most important, most praiseworthy and most deeply meaningful action in this entire sequence was Vāsavadattā's: doing nothing!

A PARTING THOUGHT 

Like tomatoes, potatoes and chillies, tobacco came to India with the arrival of the Europeans. But despite its late entry, some Sanskrit poet seems to have managed to write a ditty, expressing the Indian pantheon's poetic flexibility and state-of-the-art tastes:

बिडौजाः पुरा पृष्टवान् पद्मयोनिं

धरित्री-तले सार-भूतं किम् अस्ति ।

चतुर्भिर् मुखैर् इत्यवोचद् विरिञ्चिस्  

तमाखुस् तमाखुस् तमाखुस् तमाखुः ॥

biḍaujāḥ purā pṛṣṭavān padmayoniṃ

dharitrī-tale sāra-bhūtaṃ kim asti |

caturbhiḥ mukhaiḥ iti avocad viriñciḥ

tamākhuḥ tamākhuḥ tamākhuḥ tamākhuḥ ||

"Indra once asked Brahma, what is the most excellent thing in the world? Brahma spoke with all his 4 mouths, 'Tobacco, tobacco, tobacco and tobacco!'". Just repeating 4 words in metre is a feat in itself, but to do it in a way that's not just meaningful but also apt and funny is truly great stuff!

It's been a while since the last puzzle, so we'll start a new one. The parting thought' for this chapter and the next 2 chapters will be linked. Your task will be to figure out what the link is!