Audio excerpt (MP3, 248k) " India there are no tragedies...."

Audio excerpt (MP3, 211k) "...Perhaps you will commence two journeys, not one, at commencement...."

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2002 Senior Assembly

by Kannan Jagannathan

May 10, 2002

The lovely Shakuntala tends the saplings near the forest dwelling of the sage, her foster father, Kanva. It happens that the sage is out for a few months on a pilgrimage, specifically to ward off misfortunes that he foresees will befall his daughter. King Dushyanta, on a hunting expedition, stumbles onto the grounds chasing an antelope. He sees Shakuntala, and she him. Their passion is instantly kindled in the opening scene of Abhignana shaakuntalam, the Recognition of Shakuntala, a play by the Sanskrit poet, Kalidasa. Kalidasa’s date is uncertain, but is not later than the 5th Century. He is regarded by many as the greatest poet and dramatist in Sanskrit. And shaakuntalam is uniformly regarded as his masterpiece. I offer three reasons for picking this topic today: It will be an exercise in close reading for this, your last lesson, at the College; It is the ‘Other’ with a vengeance — it is ancient, alien, and completely dead; And yet it may have a little something to do with the present occasion. Because we are all eager to get on with the festivities in store for this evening, after setting up the background, I shall confine myself to the import of just three syllables in the play.

First, a quick plot summary: The King has only four days in the forest because his mother sends word that she expects him back for "Mother’s Day" — it is not just Hallmark — an observance called ‘putrapindapalana’ is coming up. One of Shakuntala’s friends tells the king the story of Shakuntala’s less than respectable birth. She, it turns out, is the daughter of Menaka, the enchanting courtesan of the gods, and a different sage Kausika, whose spiritual progress she was sent to destroy. As goddesses of psychological stability and instability, the four principal celestial courtesans have as their main work the disruption of the ambitions of humans and demons. Kausika realizes the plot when it is too late, and in chagrin, abandons his daughter. Menaka has heavenly duties to perform, and she too takes off. It falls to Kanva to raise the girl. To the lovelorn Dushyanta it seems a splendid thing that the object of his affections is the offspring of a heavenly nymph. With help from her friends, he persuades a willing Shakuntala that in the absence of her father, it is permissible to enter into a traditional marriage by secret ceremony — called a Gandharva rite. Shakuntala worries that when Dushyanta returns to the palace and the pleasures of the harem, he would forget her. He gives her his signet ring, and says, "Count one syllable of my name each day, and the day you finish, a royal party will be at your door to escort you to the palace with all due honor and pomp".

A couple of days after king’s departure, an irascible sage, Durvasa comes by the hermitage. Shakuntala, too distracted by love, fails to pay any attention to the guest. Durvasa pronounces a terrible curse, "May the one who has caused you to forget your duty, in turn, forget you!" Shakuntala does not hear, and would not know of the curse until the final Act. Her friend, Anasuya, does hear, and begs the great sage’s forgiveness. Though his rage subsides quickly, as always, the curse cannot be taken back. So by way of mitigation, Durvasa provides that the sight of the signet ring will bring back Dushyanta’s memory.

I should mention here a few conventions of ancient India about the economics of spiritual power. One acquires such power through the practice of self-control and austerities. The nobler aim of these practices is, of course, salvation, which in most Indian traditions is a cognitive act. The lesser, but still largely admirable, aims are virtue, wealth, and pleasures of the senses, in that order. Typically, in a contest, spiritual power trumps physical or material power. The exercise of spiritual power towards these lesser aims diminishes it. So does losing one’s mental poise, as when one flies into a rage. In addition, the gods get nervous when someone accumulates great spiritual power. They adopt means, fair and foul, to thwart a person who aims to get spiritually strong.

Return to the story. Some months pass, and Kanva returns from his pilgrimage. Shakuntala is with child as they used to say in the old days. Kanva has already intuited what transpired and what is to come. He arranges to send his daughter to her lover with a suitable party of escort. Anasuya pointedly reminds Shakuntala to make sure that she has the ring on. She does not understand the fuss over the ring. If Dushyanta felt a tenth as strongly about her as she about him, what need is there of trinkets and tokens, she thinks. When they reach the palace, as expected, the king spurns Shakuntala, though he cannot help but admire her arresting beauty. His memory of her has been totally obscured by Durvasa’s curse. Gautami, her foster mother, prompts Shakuntala to show the king the signet ring, but alas, it is not on her finger! It must have fallen in the lake where she bathed, says Gautami. Dushyanta sarcastically praises her quick wit, suspects some sort foul scheme by the saintly folk from the forest to pawn off a girl in obviously questionable circumstances on to him. Harsh words are exchanged. Shakuntala’s position rapidly deteriorates, as neither the king, nor her own kin want her back.

If this were Romeo and Juliet, she would kill herself, and soon after, as we will see, so would the king. But this is India, where there are no tragedies! The pride of place among the nine canonical literary sentiments goes to the Erotic. The Tragic, though well represented and important, is usually a passing thing. There is a funny throw away line in King Lear where Edmund mocks Edger’s arrival: "Pat he comes like the catastrophe of the old comedy". Presumably a would-be-tragedy can be averted by a clumsy device at the very end of the play, inviting Shakespeare’s derision. That is not the typical course of classical Indian drama, however. Rather, the natural or supernatural turn away from tragedy is taken in the middle of the play. This turn is the beginning of a transformative journey that is often the main point of the play. And it takes real time as well as narrative time to develop.

In this instance, Shakuntala’s divine mother swoops down as a streak of lightning and carries her off to the semidivine regions. There, in time she would give birth to a splendid son, the all-conquering Bharata. The land that he would one day rule will be named in his honor - Bhaarata, the Indian name for India. Meanwhile, at the palace, somewhat impressed though the people on the ground are, they shrug off the odd, but convenient, disappearance of Shakuntala. A few months later, the king’s guards bring a fisherman in chains to the magistrate. They laugh at his feeble tale: He caught a Rohita fish, and when he cut it open, he found the priceless ring with the king’s name inscribed, he says. Some fish story they say, and beat him some more. The haughty magistrate, with much derision and out of a perfunctory sense of duty, takes the ring to show the king. The king deeply affected by the sight of the ring, gives the fisherman a mighty reward. The magistrate and the guards immediately change to fawning supplicants of their erstwhile prisoner. They propose fine establishments in the city to which they can all go to drink and to celebrate the fisherman’s good fortune.

The rest of the tale is what you might suspect it is. Love in separation matures as Shakuntala and Dushyanta are pining away for each other. In the process they grow in spirit and ardor even as their bodies are emaciated from neglect, and they are eventually reunited in the semidivine regions. The only aspect of the rest of the play that I wish to bring up is the change in the character of Shakuntala. She has hitherto been an object — somebody’s abandoned daughter, somebody’s adored and later abandoned foster daughter, the king’s great passion only to be completely forgotten by him later. In the spirit of a third-wave feminist reading, now she has to find herself as a subject. She needs to recognize herself — or I should say, re-cognize herself — as nobody’s object, not even her own. Abhignana in the title has those connotations. Thereafter, she may become free to relate to her son or husband as objects of her affection.

The play is in seven Acts. Of these, the fourth Act is generally regarded as the best expression of Kalidasa’s literary gifts. This is the Act where Kanva is preparing to send Shakuntala to the palace. In it there are four stanzas, all sung by Kanva, that are held to be the most exquisite in the play. I will be focusing on the third of those four stanzas, the one where Kanva sends a message to the king:

Asmaan sadhu vichintya samyamadhanaan uccheh kulam cha aatmanah
Tvayyasyaah katamapyabhandhavakrtam snehapravrittim cha taam
Saamaanya pratipatti purvakamiyam daareshu dasyatvaya
Bhaagyaayattam atahparam na khalu tadvachyam vadhubandhubhih

Some apology for the clunky prose translation…

(Literal): Bearing in mind that our riches consist in self-control, considering your exalted status, and the fact that your relationship came about without the involvement of the family, you must regard her with common respect among your wives; that is all the bride’s people can say, the rest is what fortune brings.

In particular, I want to talk about the word ‘common’ in the third line — ‘you must regard her with common respect’. Well, it isn’t ‘common’. I did not know how to translate it the way it should be. The Sanskrit word is ‘saamaanya’. Those are the three syllables I mean to talk about today. Saamaanya is cognate with ‘sameness’ — common. However, Sanskrit is one of those languages in which you can run words together. They are often combined by precise rules about the transformation of the syllables that merge. Saamaanya is also two words — Saa and maanya. That would mean ‘she is to be treasured’. You must regard her as a treasure. The word maanya is from the Indo-European root for mind, mana — held in the mind, literally. Saamaanya is also three words — saa, maa, anya — "Do not her as another" regard. That could mean she is no stranger though she may appear to be, or it could mean she is unique, like no one else you have dealt with before. She will turn your life upside down and backwards. The imperative negation — maa — has a tone of urgency and foreboding. In Sanskrit it has the same immediacy as "Look out" does in English*.

"Overdetermination of the signifier", Brandon Hicks, a psychoanalytic/lit crit. friend of mine said when he heard me describe this bit of exegesis. I incline more to sans-crit than to lit crit., I guess.

Why torture the syllables and fuss over the words? Well, I don’t know. May be some of us are like kittens, and like to catch a little thing and play with it, turn it around this way and that. There is some pleasure to be had in that.

But there is a more serious way to look at the situation here. Kanva is a subject of the king, and as such, must address him with due deference; he is a loving father, and must convey his pride and affection as well as his anxiety for his little girl; he is also a sage with foreknowledge, and must warn the king of the terrible loss he will suffer if he treated Shakuntala as he would a stranger — anya, an alien. At once, the three syllables accomplish these difficult and subtle tasks with enormous compression.

Foreknowledge and agency, there is a pair — a mutation of the infamous pair: determinism and freewill. They may not exactly be contradictory, but there is some tension between them. As the mathematicians might say, certain constraints of consistency must be obeyed if one is to have a little of both. Given his perfect foreknowledge, the sage has no true agency. So it is not for him to tell what he knows. It is not mere humility of manner that makes Kanva trail off at the end of his message.

Traditional commentaries either do not notice the play on words, or like the snark they look gravely upon a pun. They dismiss it. They pick the common meaning as the only tenable one. In all the years that I have known the play, I have tended to view the stanza I quoted as far more significant. To explain, I can do no better than borrow an image from another of Kalidasa’s works — not a drama, but a court epic. At a certain point in this work he is describing the beauty of pubescent Uma, the incarnation of Siva’s consort. A very thin line of freshly sprouted luminous hair comes up from below and enters her navel — ‘like the shooting rays of the central gem’ says the poet. One imagines Uma wearing a garment knotted well below the omphalos. Perhaps held there by a golden belt with a bejeweled buckle that has at its center an emerald or sapphire. Or perhaps he means something else altogether. All we have is ‘shooting rays of the central gem’ — madhyamanerivarchih.

That is the imagery that the tripartite reading of ‘saamaanya’ in shaakuntalam brings to my mind. Set in the very center of the play, it is the source of shooting rays that illuminate the whole play in three complementary lights: As a common romance of a forest girl; as a tale where the protagonist is abandoned and treasured alternately and thereby sent on an outward journey; and as a tale of transgressive and impetuous love that invites punishment, but is redeemed at the end of an arduous journey of the spirit — an inward journey.

In light of Saamaanya, other words and plot devices take on shades of meaning that they might not have had; they are enriched and lend depth to an otherwise unoriginal tale. Just to cite an example from the present satnza, take ‘we are rich in self-control’ - samyamadhanah. Crudely, the guy is saying, we don’t have any money, can’t give you any dowry. Or may be he is engaged in a less crude formality of presenting himself as lower in station and unworthy, but well-behaved. Perhaps it is the father saying, normally we are restrained, but there are limits. If you treat this girl badly, that would be a circumstance in which we will lose our self-control and come after you. Or, you have married her without my consent. I could be mad at you, but I am restrained. Yet again, it might be that the self-restraint has given me powers, as you know, that allow me to see the torments you will face in the future, but it also stops me from telling you explicitly. So be smart, and understand the veiled message.

My own message is not so clever or original, but it is brief. After all, there is only one clichéd message at graduation. It is just the packaging that varies. Class of 2002, now brace yourselves for some shocking news. We, the faculty, are not sages despite the fact that we have tried hard to convince you otherwise these past four years. We have little agency and less foreknowledge. We do not know what will become of you. We discharge you into the world telling it that you are, each of you, common; that you are, each of you, to be treasured; and that you are, each of you, unique. You are pregnant, expecting, perhaps expecting that you have greatness to deliver. Will the world recognize you? What of the signet ring that is your Amherst education? Will it be there to be shown when you need to do so? What divine mother will swoop down to protect you when the world does not recognize you - rejects you - despite your obvious charms? We wish we could be more definitive on these pressing questions.

Perhaps you will commence two journeys, not one, at commencement — an outward journey into the world, and an inner journey into yourself. The second can be quite dangerous, beset by the fog of narcissism and other sentimental perils. Perhaps the inward journey too will take you to an undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns — at least no traveler returns unscathed. But you must go. The rest, as the last line of our stanza says is what fortune brings, and not for us to tell.