Series Editor’s note:   
COVID 19 and the lockdown has halted our regular interaction with each other and suddenly isolated us from each other. The situation has been tense and has triggered various kinds of reactions in people like stress, anxiety, and distress. However, the greatest danger which COVID 19 and social distancing might lead to is of ‘social amnesia’ where we can forget the experiences of togetherness and see the ‘other’ person only as of the source of infection.

Therefore, it is important that we should recollect the thinkers, poets, and philosophers of the past and the present so that we can reclaim the space where we belong together. As philosophers, poets, and literary figures have emphasized the finitude and fragility of human existence therefore it is important to communicate with them in this confusing time. The possibility of friendship springs from sharing vulnerability which binds us together. In these vulnerable times, we hope to foster the friendship with past thinkers and the present people on the basis of this series.

In the series we are starting today inviting my colleagues to write for this coloumn, first I present the conversation imagined and written by Dr Shankar Rajaraman on the Sanskrit poet Abhinanda hailing from Bengal, and who lived in the 9th century AD  – Dr Saurabh Todariya

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“An Imaginary Dialogue with with the Sanskrit poet Abhinanda”
by Dr Shankar Rajaraman
Care Consciously! # DEFEAT CORONA

It is now more than a month and a half since the lockdown on account of COVID-19 took effect. As I stood gazing at the empty road in front of me from the safety of my window, dark clouds gathered in the sky, their shade providing a much-needed relief from the sweltering summer heat. Seeing the density of that celestial gathering, I knew it would rain any moment now. And sure enough, I felt the first drops of rain splash against my face through the open window pane.

What started as a light drizzle soon turned into a heavy downpour, complete with lightning and thunder. It seemed we all had become doubly housebound – by the lockdown and by this sudden shower, both of which, at that moment, showed no signs of easing down. An excess of anything is bad, I thought. The initial days of the lockdown were, I must confess, quite enjoyable. There was so much one could do sitting at home. I, on my part, took to painting and writing poetry more than ever before. Over time, however, I came to realize what I had lost in bargain for the forced “holiday”. The long-drawn physical separation from those with whom we can share what we really care about in life cannot be compensated by any other means.

If this is what I, a person living in the 21st century with access to all sorts of gadgets that make communication so easy, feel, I wondered how Rama must have spent his days on the slopes of Mt. Mālyavān, waiting for the monsoon to end so he could continue the search for his beloved wife, Sita, who had been abducted by the demon king Ravana. The pounding rains had put Rama in a lockdown situation as it were, rendering futile any attempt to locate the whereabouts of Sita. While the clouds wet the parched ground, they sucked him dry of the last drop of confidence. As I was thus lost in this newfound analogy between our lockdown and Rama’s loneliness my mind naturally wandered towards Abhinanda. Abhinanda is one of my most favourite Sanskrit poets. Sadly, he remains unknown and unsung even within the Sanskrit fraternity. Hailing from 9th century Bengal (probably), Abhinanda authored a long (untranslated as yet into any language) epic poem of more than 4000 verses called Rāmacarita. Surprisingly for its size, the poem does not narrate the story of Rama in its entirety. It takes off from a point in the story when the rains have receded to make way for fresh autumn. “Atha mālyavataḥ prasthe” (“So, on the slopes of Mt. Mālyavān”) – I muttered to myself, remembering the first line of Rāmacarita, only to hear someone complete the verse with “kākutsthasya viyoginaḥ durnivāśrusaṃyogo jagāma jaladāgamaḥ” (“the rainy season, that had brought in its wake uncontrollable tears, came to an end for the lovelorn Rama”). I turned behind to see who it was and to my surprise, there stood Abhinanda (and I could immediately recognize him as such) in front of me.

I kept looking at him wonderstruck, unable to utter anything. Abhinanda broke the ice between us by extending his greetings.

Abhinanda: Namaste

Me: Namaste, O King among poets!

Abhinanda: You were humming my verse. Weren’t you?

Me: Yes. I am a great fan of your poetry. The dramatic way in which you begin your poetic work is something I rarely see in Sanskrit epic literature. I have heard scholars argue that the Rāmacarita as they have in front of them is incomplete because the story begins abruptly. But, to me, it is this abrupt beginning that is greatly appealing. Those initial verses of Rāmacarita haunt me forever – verses in which you compare Rama’s plight with happenings in the natural world as autumn replaces the rainy season. I would love to listen to them from your own mouth. Can you explain those verses to me?

Abhinanda: Why not, my dear friend? A sincere listener is the poet’s most valuable possession. (Looking at the manuscript in his hand) Here they are –

“The rains ceased on the mountain’s slopes but tears continued to rain down incessantly from Rama’s eyes. The peacock’s plaintive call could no longer be heard but Rama’s wail continued unchecked. The sun and the moon shone brilliantly but the two sons of Dasharatha appeared listless, bereft of lustre. The lotuses bloomed once again but the faces of Rama and Lakshmana withered away. The wind brought Rama the fragrance of jasmine blossoms but the Wind god’s son, Hanuman, didn’t as yet bring him the whereabouts of Janaka’s daughter. The slender river streams laid bare their banks to inform Rama that they had not hid Sita within. The clouds disappeared because they were remorseful that Rama’s life was put into danger on account of them. The Sky pulled her veil of clouds aside and enquired Rama about his condition by way of cranes’ cries. The Earth’s heart cracked as she saw Rama’s pitiable state. The Lotus was united with the Swan after an eon of separation ended but Sita and Rama continued to suffer in isolation. The mountains muted their cascades as if to hear Rama speak clearly once again. A row of playful wagtails reminded Rama of Sita’s fickle glances”

Me: Wonderful! And then Lakshmana attempts to cheer Rama up.

Abhinanda: Yes. Can I dwell upon a few verses from that context?

Me: Sure. It’s my pleasure.

Abhinanda: Lakshmana says “The delightful dawn stares at us yonder. The night of monsoon has drawn to a close. It is time for your confidence to bloom like a lotus. This is the right moment for the sun’s rays to fall on the earth and your arrows to fall on the enemy. Believe me when I say that the clouds are not going to return back. The directions are darkened not by them but by flocks of parrots that are in search of rice fields. Why are you staying put in this place? Let us proceed forward in a direction that is favourable to our mission. What we want to achieve will not come to us of its own accord. Shake off these locks of matted hair – moistened by drops of water falling from the tip of forest leaves – that reach your shoulders. Remove the hand that rests on the cheek. Loosen the bark garment’s knot over the shoulder. Climb down from this mountain slope. Kill the ten-headed monster with arrows that pierce through the ten directions. The revered lady is surely keeping well. And your enemy is as good as dead. Do not put yourself down since the triple worlds look up to you for succour. What can that lowly demon do if you decide to string your bow? Your lassitude has turned out to be a blessing for him. You have spent your monsoon months crying, swooning, and wailing. Now is the time to act. Great men who trust their arms do not practice self-restraint. You are a lordly elephant among men and the clouds that shackled you like chains are broken. So, rush forward without further delay.  Return to your normal self and continue with life. I am always there by your side to carry out your every command. The longer you take to resume your responsibility, the longer will our enemy evade the fangs of Death. We know who our enemy is. And we have heard that the blessed lady is still alive although we are still unaware of the deceitful demon’s abode. But the Monkey king has promised us help even on that front. And you, Sir, know pretty well what to do if he does not keep up his word. Collect your senses. Conquer this confusion that threatens to dampen your spirits. Realize who you are. The ocean of misery is too small for you. Nay, you have already crossed it.”

Me: What a piece of poetry coupled with wholesome advice! Instils hope in us during these trying times. I have heard about your abiding faith in the doctrine of Advaita. Surely, you must have incorporated its teachings in Ramacarita too.

Abhinanda: Yes. As you must be aware of, I have authored the work Yogavāsiṣṭhasāra – an attempt at culling out the essence of the philosophical work Yogavāsiṣṭha. In Ramacarita too, I find an excuse or two to make my characters indulge in Advaitic contemplation. My Vibhishana, for instance, instructs Sugriva about the need for finding peace in difficult times by resorting to the philosophy of non-duality. He implores Sugriva, who is grieving at the apparent “death” of Rama and Lakshmana, bound by the serpent noose, to meditate on the essential nature of reality. Vibhishana says – “Plunge into the waveless nectarine ocean of non-duality. Why do you submerge yourself in the billowing salty sea of duality? Dear friend! The non-existent can never become and the existent never ceases to be. We speak of appearances and disappearances only with respect to the distinct configurations that the existent moulds itself into. Duality can thrive only as long as one’s gaze is tenaciously fixed on the external. Waves arise only in the presence of a bank. Why do you grieve at the collapse of a single city? Search for the supremely capable Lord residing in that city. The all-encompassing expanse of his grandeur is immeasurable. Ignorance has so concealed the subtlest principle that people’s sense of self is fixed on things that are gross. The universe is an appearance of Brahman – this is a teaching that can appeal to fools alone. The wise, on the other hand, abide in unchanging bliss – bliss that doesn’t appear as anything else. Why, dear brother, do you tire yourself by enacting in the show? Sit down. Become a spectator instead.”

Me: Ah! Can philosophy ever be made more poetic? I am amazed by your ability to describe situations vividly and at great length. You seem to go on and on about anything you choose to delineate. And you never become repetitive. What is the secret behind this, if I may ask?

Abhinanda: Absolutely, my friend! If the world is a play, the poet must first of all learn to become its spectator. To become a spectator one must maintain some distance – psychological in this case – from the actors, a distance that is just right for appreciation without endangering either participation or apathy. Poets carry on with their lives like everybody else but they take time to reflect on their experiences. In everyday interaction, we generally tend to club together individual experiential moments into larger blocks that can be communicated to others using an agreed-by-all label. For example, we say “I spent the night there” as if night were a unitary event without parts. To the poet in meditation however, the night is composed of innumerable poetically potent moments. The poet must tease out these moments by recalling his past experience of several nights, moments he himself might have forgotten. And by describing them, make the reader remember those forgotten moments. The greater the capacity of a poet to recall multiple experiential moments, the more variegated his description will be.

I must now take leave of you, Shankar. It’s time for me to go.

Me: Not before I recite two beautiful verses from Ramacarita. The first verses describes a bee that has finally managed to enter a nectar-filled lotus and the second the sun’s plight at twilight.

luloṭha dhūlīṣu papau madhūni pakṣmāṇi līḍhāni punarlileha |                                                   
āgantave stokamapi dvirephaḥ sthito dadau nāntaramabjamadhye ||

The bee rolled over the pollen bed and drank as much nectar as he could;                                                            
he licked all the filaments again even after licking them once;                                                               
and he gave not the slightest room for another bee, waiting outside, to enter the lotus.

jarjaraṃ tyajati vāsaraplavaṃ na prasārayati mantharānkarān |                                   
etyadṛṣṭamavalambya kevalaṃ vyomavārinidhiśeṣamaṃśumān ||

The Sun abandons his worn out ship – the day;                                                                                      
He does not spread out his weak ray hands;                                                                                                 
Relying on unseen fate alone, he manages to cross the sky-ocean’s remaining distance.

As I recited these verses, Abhinanda waved in acknowledgement and disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared. And I opened my copy of Ramacarita with excitement – once again.

Abhinanda (also known as Abhinandana, Gauḍābhinanda, Āryāvilāsa, Vilāsa, Śātānanda), hailing from Bengal, lived in the 9th century AD. He was patronized by the Pala ruler Hāravarṣa. His verses are quoted in several ancient Sanskrit anthologies. He is the author of the 50-canto long epic poem Rāmacarita and probably also kādambarīkathāsāra and Yogavāsiṣṭhasāra. The Jaina poet Soḍhḍhala describes him as “Vāgīśvara” (“Master of words”). His style is unhurried, simple, and often characterized by assonance. He is an adept in handling the 8-syllable Anuṣṭubh meter. He is also fond of making his characters indulge in long conversations.

Disclaimer: The opinions endorsed by the speaker is solely the author’s and not in any way endorsed by the Institute/Programme.