The subhashita verse is a popular feature of Sanskrit literature. Composed in isolation or as part of larger work, it is essentially a miniature poem which encapsulated a complete thought, mood or image in single stanza. These verse epigrams have a wide range of themes.
This selection from the Subhashitavali, a celebrated verse anthology complied by Vallabhadeva in c. fifteenth-centrury Kashmir, offers a rich variety of erotic poetry and a wealth of cyrical satire seldom available in English renditions. Also included are invocations and allegories, panegyrics and pen-picture, sage observations and stark musings. The sweep of these verses is matched by the eclectic array of contributors-from illustrious poets like Vyasa and Valmiki, Kalidasa and Bana to others now mostly forgotten.
These verses of jollity and wit, ribaldry and bawdiness, snide sarcasm and wry comment showcase the fact that Sanskrit literature, generally perceived as staid and serious, can also be flippant and fun.
Aditya Narayana Dhairyasheel Haksar was born in Gawalior and educated at the Doon School and the universities of Allahabad and Oxford. A well-known translator of Sanskrit classics, he has also had a distinguished career as a diplomat, serving as Indian high commissioner to Kenya and the Seychelles, minister to the United States, and ambassador to Portugal and Yugoslavia.
His translations from the Sanskrit include Hitopadesa and Simhasana Dvartrimsika, both published as Penguin Classics, Jatakamala published by HarperCollins India, and the first-ever rendition of Madhavanala Katha, published by Roli Books as Madhav and Kama. He has also compiled A Treasury of Sanskrit Poetry, which was commissioned by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.
The Sanskrit word subhashita can be translated literally as ‘well said’. It is often used for an epigrammatic stanza, the meaning or mood of which is complete in itself. Such a verse, also known as muktaka, could be an independent composition or part of a larger work. Its themes had a large variety, but its from was a constant two metric lines of equal weight, sometimes presented in four sections because of their length. At its best it combined brevity with a felicitous compression of thought or emotion. Many such verses passed into literature as maxims, proverbs or just memorable, quotable poetry.
Subhashita verses are a characteristic and popular feature of classical Sanskrit literature. A recognized art from, they occur in the great epics, as a part of longer poems, and in plays and prose works. Much esteemed in cultured intercourse, they lent themselves to collection in anthologies. A number of these, compiled in various parts of the country during the last one thousand years, are extant. Prominent among them is Subhashitavali, or circlet of well-said verse, from which a selection is presented here in translation.
The contents f some subhashta compilations are confined to a single theme or attributed to a single author. Others brings together verses by numerous authors on a wide range of subjects. Subhashitavali is of the second type. It is a collection of 3527 verse epigrams, grouped under 101 subject headings, and ascribed by name to 362 poets, apart from the many which are anonymous.
Academic opinion dates Subhashitavali to c. fifteenth century CE. Its compiler was Vallabhadeva, who is described in some texts as a kashmiraka, a person from Kashmir. Little else is known about him but the anthology’s Kashmiri connection is also evident from a number of authors and verses that feature in it. The former are noted in the appended list of poets and some of the verses, such as vv. 118, 243, 332 and 452, are included in the present selection. The subject of one is clearly Sultan Zainu’l Abidin, a famous ruler of Kashmir who is known to have patronized Sanskrit learning in medieval Kashmir.
The Subhashitavali verses span a period of at least 1500 years preceding the time of its compilation. Those extracted from the epic-Mahabharata and Ramayana-are probably much older. The variety is immense. The anthology begins and ends on a devout note of divine invocations. In between, there are reflections on poets and poetry, on virtue and wickedness, nobility and meanness. There are numerous allegorical epigrams and verses on nature. Not unexpected, there is a rich collection of erotic poetry on all aspects of love, symbolic heroic, humorous and satiric verses, panegyric and pen-pictures, and sage observations on worldly conduct. Finally there are musings on the human condition, on its transience and insignificance, and on moral duty and renunciation.
The tone of these epigrams ranges from the pious to the profane, the lyrical to the sententious, the earnest to the cynical, the elegant to the somewhat coarse. Some are drawn from famous works; others are known only from their presence in this collection. The authors, likewise, include celebrated poets like Valmiki and Vyasa, Kalidasa and Bana, as well as many who are no more than names.
In modern times, a manuscript of Subhashitavali was located by the British scholar Peter Peterson with Pandit Durga Prasad of Jaipur, who had studied it in Kashmir. Collating it with other manuscripts from the same land and elsewhere, Peterson edited and published the anthology’s Sanskrit text in 1886 at Mumbai. Still the only critical recension in existence, it was reprinted in 1961 by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute of Pune, and forms the basis for the present translation.
Though reputed in academic circles, Subhashitavali is little known to general readership. According to available records, it has never been translated into English, except for a few stanzas from its corpus included in some histories of Sanskrit literature or in some selections of Sanskrit poetry. Thus its treasure of epigrams remains largely inaccessible to modern readers. The present work attempts to ameliorate this situation by providing a representative sampling in contemporary English from the anthology’s poetic cornucopia.
The selection presented here consists of 600 verses, or just under a fifth of the original. This size seemed optimal for publication, but some mention of the criteria of selection would still be appropriate. Within the limits of space, choice was based mainly on the consideration that translations of poetry should as far as possible be readable on their own, without requiring supplementary explanations about their intent and context. Thus, verses which rely for their impact on Sanskrit figures of speech and linguistic device like paronomasia and alliteration, and others of the type vakrokti or oblique language, based on multiple meanings of words or suggestions, were largely left out. So too were most verses with mythological or other esoteric allusions which may be unfamiliar to the general reader. Some incomplete or unclear verses in the text were also excluded.
As for the actual selection, the effort was to make it representative of the original anthology as a whole by drawing verses from all its subject headings. Quality, translatability and, in some cases, historical interest were other considerations in choosing individual stanzas for translation. Additional attention was given to the hasya section of the original, which deals with humour and satire, as there are few English translations of this genre of Sanskirt verse.
The verses selected have been grouped under thirty-seven subject headings. Most of these correspond, in the same order, to the individual headings from the original’s suchipatra or table of contents, but there has been a measure of clubbing together in two instances, which requires further elaboration.
The first is the original’s s section on anyapadesa, or the allegorical epigram. The characteristic of this composition, to quote the American Sanskritist D.H.H. Ingalls, ‘is that the person or situation which is not mentioned, but to which the moral or the point of the verse applies’. For example, an epigram about the lion suggests that true excellence is innate and not dependent on any endorsement by others, The anthology has twenty subject headings under this section, describing specific animals and natural phenomena to suggest human qualities and situations. These have been combined here in three headings as allegories form nature, the animal world and a miscellany.
The second is the anthology’s section on sringara, or the erotic mode in its manifold aspects. The anthology has no less than fifty-two subject headings under this section, here combined into nine. The first of these clubs four original headings on the pangs of separation suffered by lovers. The second encompasses six from the original list about the trials faced by separted lovrs, the questions and admonitions of friends, and the need to resort to messengers, often a girl who may well try to supplant the beloved in the lover’s attentions.
The third heading in the present selection combines eighteen from the original, including sixteen on the anatomy of feminine beauty. It was conventional to describe this in minute detail with traditional comparisons and the anthology has separate headings for various parts of the female body, from the forehead to the feet, and much that lies in between. These have been put together to present an overall picture without excessive and repetitive attention to mintutiae.
The next combination is of three original headings about the woman in love feeling offended, the placatory efforts of her lover and their exchanges. Following it, six original headings on the seasons are clubbed under one, and three on trysts at night under another single heading. The final combination brings together seven original headings, from the exchange of endearments to the commencement, the climax and the end of love-making, with the verses selected ranging over the full erotic cycle. It is followed by a miscellany, the second of the three which are included in the original anthology.
The number of epigrams under humour and satire is marginally the largest of all in this selection. The reasons, as already mentioned, is that such verses have been little translated and remain comparatively unknown. Sanskrit literature, with the overall scholarly emphasis o its religious and philosophical content, is generally perceived as staid and serious. It s lighter, more flippant side has normally been overshadowed by great and solemn works. Here this side can be glimpsed in stanzas of jollity and wit, ribaldry and satire, harsh sarcasm and earthy bawdiness. Without condoning the sexism reflected in some of them, such verses have been included to enable subhashita poetry to be seen in its totality.
The other subject headings of this selection need little comment. Each has a separate counterpart in the same order in the original, and most are self-explanatory. The word dharma, left as in the original, has multiple meanings, but its sense here is mainly moral duty and virtuous conduct. The word Kali refers to the present age in Indian mythology, which is a time of extreme degeneration in contrast to the ages which preceded it. The next heading which preceded it. The next heading which reads karma in the original draws on the concepts that the present condition of all determined by their past deeds.
My translations have endeavoured to combine fidelity to the original verses with the requirements of modern English usage. IF some are longer than the others it is because this was necessary for giving due expression to the ideas or images necessary for giving due expression to the ideas or images compressed in individual stanzas. Inflection, compounding and syntax in Sanskrit give greater scope for such compression and than is possible in English, and the two or four lines of an original stanza sometime needed up to twelve in English to fully convey its meaning and intent. I have also used a variety of verse forms to reflect as far as possible some of the colour and flavour of the originals instead of literal renditions in prose.
The ascription of the verses presented here has been shown exactly as it occurs in the original. In many cases there is none. In others authors are named with or without titles or in both forms, for example Valmiki and Valmiki Muni. In a few cases the reference is to a work and not an author. Present scholarship shows that some of the complier’s ascriptions, perhaps based on the information available to him at the time, are not correct. These have been pointed out as far as possible in the notes. Seventeen verses in the original bear the name Vallabhadeva, but it is difficult to say with certainty which of them are by the complier and which writers with the same form c. tenth-century Kashmir. Peterson assigned the two stanzas in the anthology’s prologue to the complier, though his edited text gives them as anonymous.
Standard diacritics have been used in spelling the names of poets and the titles of texts, but otherwise confined largely to the indication of long vowels. Name in common usage, like Krishna and Shiva, have been spelt in this form which is easier to read. A brief background to the gods and goddesses mentioned in the verses is given at the beginning of the notes. Individual notes give information on specific verses, mainly their sources where known. The serial number of each verse, as given in the original anthology, has been shown at its right to facilitate reference to the Sanskrit text.
In preparing the notes and the details of the poets, I have relied mainly on Peterson’s erudite annotations and some information on writers derived from D.D. Kosambi’s introduction to the Sanskrit text of another anthology. I also benefited from consulting R. Malaviya’s edition of the Peterson text with notes and translations in Hindi, though his identification of our compiler with his tenth-century namesake needs further research for a definite conclusion.
Like any good anthology of poetry, Subhashitvali contains verses for all tastes and occasions. Some are of the highest quality, others may seem pedestrian by modern reckoning, but all are epigrammatic, clipped and to the point. It is not difficult to imagine that they were compiled to be read for pleasure and to be used for reference or quotation on appropriate occasions. I have enjoyed reading Vallabhadeva’s original collection over the years, and am glad to share it with others through this translation.
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