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Vidyapati Thakur, one of the most renowned of Vaishnava poets, composed the wreath of songs, the theme of which is the same as that of Gita Govinda, the courtship of God and the soul, under the names of Radha and Krishna. The story of love told in the poems is an allegorical representation of the yearning of the human soul for the Divine.
The poetry of Vidyapati arrested Coomaraswamy's attention for translation, although translation was otherwise least of his callings. Perhaps he felt the need to convey through the English language the multi-layered symbolism of these seemingly simple verses revolving round the loves of Radha and Krishna.
Vidyapati gave a spiritual significance to the ordinary chores of rustic India. His Radha is a village girl in love and loveplay with divinity. Similarly, Krishna is not a historical figure but infinity incarnate, the principle of unity and totality: the girls of Braj are none but the finite multiple forms of his infinite form.
The book in its present form, has the original Bengali version, with its English translation and Devnagari transcription.
Vidyapati Padavali is the seventh book in the series of the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts programme of reprinting the collected works of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy.
About the Author
Son of a Tamil father and an English mother, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy was bon in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1877. A man of prodigious learning, Coomaraswamy was equally at home in Vedic, classical, mediaeval European and Islamic literatues. With a B.Sc. degree from the University of London, he came to the field of art by way of science. Conversant with French, German, Finnish, Sanskrit, Pali, Greek, Latin, Italian, Gaelic and even Icelandic, he was an art critic, a historian, a philosopher and metaphysician whose mind encompassed the sum total of the Eastern and Western traditions of learning and thought. An exponent of the Philosophia Perennis - where all traditional philosophies are seen as the dialects of the same spiritual heritage - Coomaraswamy has left behind a plethora of writings on philosophy, metaphysics, religion, iconography, music, geology, theatre and the place of art in society.
While many have praised Coomaraswamy the meticulous cataloguer of art objects, particularly paintings and the interpreter of meaning in symbolic 'form', others have commented extensively on the metaphysical writer of Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power and Time and Eternity, few have recognized that there was also a warm sensitive poet and artist in A.K. Coomaraswamy.
While rocks and stones attracted him as geologist and historian, the plaintiff strains of the mystical poetry of Kashmir and Punjab and the sensuous poetry of Vidyapati enchanted him.
He was drawn to these through his travels as also his interest in Latin and English verse. The poetry of Vidyapati arrested his attention for translation although translation was otherwise the least of his callings. Perhaps he felt the need to contain through the English language the multi-layered symbolism of these seemingly simple verses revolving around the loves of Radha and Krishna.
Pertinently in his introduction, he takes pains to contextualise Vidyapati in the Vaisnava tradition. He drawns attention to Jayadeva and the Gita-Govinda as also to the anonymous creative streams of folk-poetry and song. He assesses the place of Vidyapati as a poet, both as interpreter of the legacy of Jayadeva as also a pioneer of new trends culminating in the work of Chaitanya and Chandidasa.
But Coomarswamy naturally cannot rest content with the historical and cultural contextualisation. His is a deeper concern for discerning the mystical significance of these poems.
The Gita-Govinda was a masterpiece, last in the great classical tradition where the dimensions of the sacred and the profane, the transcendental and the mundane, the mystic and the erotic moved in a harmonic unison. Vidyapati went further in giving a spiritual significance to the ordinary everyday chores of rustic India. His Radha is a village-girl in love and love-play with divinity. The imagery of Jayadeva evocative of cosmic play of natural phenomena gives place to a rustic imagery which also communicates the yearning of the human for the divine.
Coomaraswamy attempts to convey these many layers of meaning of the imagery through a conscious use of quaint archaisms. Naturally, he eschews literal translation. Drawing upon his vast acquaintance with Dante, Nietzche, Black and Tagore, he succeeds in communicating through his translation that Vidyapati's Krishna is not a historical figure but Infinity incarnate, the principle of Unity and Totality: the girls of Braj are none but the finite multiple forms of his Infinite form.
Sri Aurobindo too was drawn to the poetry of Vidyapati for these reasons. The tow translations seveal the being of the translators as much the flavour of the original in their distinctive ways.
The materials at Coomarswamy's command at the time of writing were both scanty and fragmentary. He depended on a single edition, reconstructed Vidyapati's life from sources available and state of scholarship on Maithili and Benguali literature. Over these years, many more editions have been published. Many definitive critical works have appeared. Dr. Vidya Niwas Mishra, on our request, has provided a most illuminating introduction in Hindi to this volume. The introduction places Vidyapati in the history of Indian literature, Vaishnava thought and philosophy, as also the sociopolitical cultural climate of his times. The restoration of the original text was not easy. This has taken time. I am glad that despite the difficulties which came in the way of both the text, the calligraphy, transliteration the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts has been able to reprint this volume.
Vidyapati Thakur is one of the most renowned of the Vaishnava poets of Hindustan. Before him there had been the great Jayadeva, with his Gita Govinda made in Sanskrit; and it is to this tradition Vidyapati belongs, rather than to that of Ramananda, Kabir and Tulasi Das, who sang of Rama and Sita. Vidyapati's fame, though he also wrote in Sanskrit, depends upon the wreath of songs in which he describes the courtship of God and the Soul, under the names of Krishna and Radha. These were written in Maithili, his mother tongue, a dialect intermediate between Bengali and Hindi, but nearer to the former. His position as a poet and maker of language is analogous to that of Dante in Italy and Chaucer in England. He did not disdain to use the folk-speech and folk-thought for the expression of the highest matters. Just as Dante was blamed by the classical scholars of Italy, so Vidyapati was blamed by the pandits: he knew better, however, than they, and has well earned the title of Father of Bengali Literature.
Little is known of Vidyapati's life. Two other great Vaishnava poets, Chandi Das and Umapati, were his contemporaries. His patron Raja Shivasimha Rupanarayana, when heir-apparent, gave the village of Bisapi as a rent-free gift to the poet in the year 1400 A.D. (the original deed is extant). This shows that in 1400 the poet was already a man of distinction. His patron appears to have died in 1449, before which date the songs here translated must have been written. Further, there still exists a manuscript of the Bhagavata Purana in the poet's handwriting, dated 1456. It is thus evident that he lived to a good age, for it is hardly likely that he was under twenty in the year 1400. The following is the legend of his death: feeling his end approaching, he set out to die on the banks of Ganga. But remembering that she was the child of the faithful, he summoned her to himself and the great river divided her in three streams, spreading her waters as far as the very place where Vidyapati sat. There and then he laid himself, it is said, down and died. Where his funeral pyre was, sprang up a Shiva lingam, which exists to this day, as well as the marks of the flood. This place is near the town of Bazitpur, in the district of Darbhanga.
Vidyapati's Vaishnava padas are at once folk and cultivated art - just like the finest of the Pahari paintings, where every episode of which he sings finds exquisite illustration. The poems are not, like many ballads, of unknown authorship and perhaps the work of many hands, but they are due to the folk in the sense that folk life is glorified and popular thought is reflected. The songs as we have them are entirely the work of one supreme genius; but this genius did not stand alone, as that of modern poets must - on the contrary, its roots lay deep in the common life of fields and villages, and above all, in common faiths and superstitions. These were days when peasants yet spoke as elegantly as courtiers, and kings and cultivators shared one faith and a common view of life - conditions where all things are possible to art.
It is little wonder that Vidyapati's influence on the literature of Eastern Hindustan has been profound, and that his songs became the household poetry of Bengal and Bihar. His poems were adopted and constantly sung by the great Hindu lover, Chaitanya, in the sixteenthe century, and in Bengali, in the Vaishnava tradition, of which the last representative is Rabindranath Tagore. A poem by the latter well resumes and explains the theory of the Vaishnava lovers:
This leads us to the subject of the true significance of poems such as Vidyapati's. It is quite true, as Mr. Nicholson says, that students of oriental poetry have sometimes to ask themselves, 'Is this a love-poem disguised as a mystical ode, or a mystical ode expressed in the language of human love? Very often this question cannot be answered with a definite 'Yes' or 'No': not because the poet's meaning is vague, but because the two ideas are not at all mutually exclusive. All the manifestations of Kama on earth are images of Pursuit or Retunr.
At Vidyapati himself says (No. 63):
The same flower that you cast away, the same you use in prayer,
And with the same you string the bow.
It is quite certain that many poems of Vidyapati have an almost wholly spiritual significance. If some significance. If some others seem very obviously secular, let us remember that we have no right to detach such poems from their context in books and still less any right to divorce them from their context in life.
We may illustrate this point by a comparison with the poetry of Western Europe. Take for example a poem such as the following, with a purely secular significance (if any true art can be said to be secular):
Had this been current in fifteenth century Bengal, every Vaishnava would have understood the song to speak as much of God and the Soul as of man and maid, and to many the former meaning would have been the more obvious.
On the other hand, there are many early mediaeval Western hymns in which the language of human love is deliverately adapted to religious uses, for example:
Here the 'new love' is Christ.
Finally, there are other Western lyrics, and very exquisite ones, that could equally be claimed as religious or secular, for example:
The Western critic who would enquire what such a poem meant to its maker and his hearers must be qualified by spiritual kinship with him and with them. Let us demand a similar qualification from those who propose to speak of Oriental poetry:
if not in physical presence, at least in spirit.
In ecstasy, man is beside himself: that this momentary escape from 'himself' is the greatest gift life offers, is a promise, as it were a foretaste, of Release, warranting us that Nirvana is something more than annihilation. At the same time, be it well understood that such ecstasies are not rewarded to those who are followers of pleasure, nor to those that cling to self-will. In Vaishnava literature this is again and again emphasized. It is not till the ear creases to hear the outside world, that it is open to the music in the heart, the flute of Krishna.
If the objection is still made that our poet sings rather of human than divine love, -and we do not deny that he worships physical beauty, albeit the critics have told us that Rabindranath Tagore is the first Indian poet to do so - we answer with him that Love is One, and we would also quote the very splendid passage of the Prema Sagara where the doubt is resolved, "How could the love of a certain milk-maid have brought her salvation, notwithstanding that her love for Krishna was paramount, and she knew him not as God, but as man?" The answer is given as follows:
Sri Krishna sat one moonlit night at the edge of a deep forest, playing his flute with intent to lure the milk-maids from their homes. The Braj girls could not rest nor resist the call, and abandoning the illusion of family and the ties of duty, they hurried in confusion from their homes to the forest. But one was seen and detained by her husband; yet she, the first to reach Him. Perceiving the love of her heart, He gave her final release.
The king to whom the story has been thus as far related, remarks that the milkmaid did not worship Krishna knowing him to be God, but regarded him as an object of senuous desire, and asks, 'How then was she saved by her love?' The answer is given that even they who worship Krishna unawares obtain emancipation, just as the water of life makes the drinker immortal, without question whether he knows or does not know its virtue. Should anyone with any purpose worship, he will be emancipated. Shri Krishna was reverenced in many ways, and in each was salvation obtained. Thus, "Nand, Yashoda and others knew him as a child, the milk-maids as a lover, Kans worshipped him by fear, the cowherds called him their friend, the Pandavas knew him as an ally, Shishupal worshipped him as a foe, the Yaduvamsis thought him one of themselves, the Yogis, Yatis and Munis meditated upon Him as God; but at last everyone of these obtained deliverance. What wonder then if one milk-maid by devotion to Him, was able to cross the sea of life, - to reach the further shore?"
This pure humanism is the Vaishnava equivalent for: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto these, ye have done it unto Me," and "The worship of God is
loving the greatest men best."
We may also give here the Indian answer to the objection sometimes raised respecting the morality of Krishan Himself,- much as the Pharisees questioned the right of Christ to pluck the ear of corn. The Bhagavata Purana in one place answers as Black or Nietzsche might, that dharma is not the same for the great and the small. More than this, it is a fault in logic to subject to ethical criticism a power who is by hypothesis Infinite, beyond the pairs of opposites. As Purnendu Narayan Sinha expresses it: "Nothing that we know, nothing that we are composed of, nothing that shapes our experiences, that causes our likes and dislikes, limits Krishna. He is the absolute, for the relatives we know of, or which we may even think of, have no place in Him." And indeed, this ought to be obvious to anyone that understands the language of mythology; for te multiplication of Krishna's form in the circular dance, and at Dvaraka, and the fact already alluded to, of His accessibility in every form, are clear indications of His Infinity. It is nowhere suggested that the illusion of family and the ties of duty may be abandoned except in self surrender to Him.
It must also be remembered that the Krishna Lila is not a historical record (as Nilakantha remarks, 'The narration is not the real point'); His Lila in Brindaban is eternal, and Brindaban is the heart of man. We are thus concerned with ideas and symbols, and not with history. The most that an objector could then adduce would be to suggest that the symbolism may be unwisely chosen, and may be misunderstood. I should treat this objection with respect, and would agree that it may be valid from the standpoint of the objector. But I do not think it is valid from the standpoint of the lover. I would not even say, let those who are able to take this passionate literature only in a carnal sense (and we have admitted that much of it has a carnal as well as a spiritual sense), therefore ignore it; for if the worship of loveliness is not Love, it is none the less a step on the way to Love. Again, however, it is not meant to imply that the pastoral and romantic conditions indicated in Vaishnava literature do not exist, and have never existed, anywhere in India. On the contrary, if India is the classic country of lyrical poetry, this is because she is also the classic country of love. Love is certainly of more significance to the Indian consciousness than to the European, and the Western fear of voluptuousness is hardly known in the East. But just as beauty was never in India glorified as an end in itself, so romantic love never obtained there such hold and possession over life and art as it has in the West. To put the same conclusion in other words, the Indian culture is nowhere corrupted by sentimentality. The reason for this is to be found, I think, in a widespread and deep rooted consciousness of the principle of Impermanence. It is just this consciousness of evanescence which gives to the voluptuous and passionate art of Ajanta the spiritual significance is a greater quality than non-participation. Where life is transparent, the enjoyment of life is never a spiritual bondage. One might almost believe that to the Ajanta painters and the Vaishnava poets had been granted the prayer of Socrates, - "O beloved Pan, and all ye other gods of this place, grant me to become beautiful in the inner man, and that whatever outward things I have may be at peace with those within."
A few words are needed to explain the method of translation. The rendering is line for line, and often word for word, but whenever a choice lay between expressing the letter and the spirit of the original, the latter has been considered of the first importance. Vidyapati reflects a certain view of life: it is this, rather than the form of his utterance, however perfect, that touches us most nearly. A single word in the original is often rendered by two or three in the translation, for the terseness of the Bengali could rarely be repeated. Notwithstanding that our translation does not pretend to be metrical, much care has been taken with the phrasing, to make it readable: for it would appear that alike in music and poetry, rasa is more closely bound up with phrasing than with a regular division into bars or feet. At the same time, a few examples of the original text are quoted in the 'Notes,' in order to give the reader some idea of their form.
It should be noticed that the songs here translated are but a part of Vidyapati's Bangiya Padabali. Two hundred and two songs are given in the edition of Kaliprasanna Kavyavisharad, which we have chiefly used; and there are over nine hundred in that of Sri Nagendranath Gupta published in Nagari characters for H.H.the Maharajah of Darbhanga - to whom I am indebted for a copy of the copy of the edition. The order of our versions follows that of Kaliprasanna Kavyavisharad; the songs omitted are those, which are almost repetitions of those translated or of which we could not make a satisfactory rendering.
It has been very difficult to find such words as can express Vidyapati's transparency. English since the Elizabethan age has grown poor in purely lyrical words and idioms, for modern literature, like modern plastic arts or music, rarely deals with unmixed feelings. To present Vidyapati in English in a form at all comparable with the original would require all the facility and elegance of the Elizabethans joined to nearly all the seriousness of the earliest English lyrics. I say nearly all, for Vidyapati is a very conscious artist, with a considerable sense of humour, and though he is certainly far more serious than the elegant Elizabethans, he is not in any sense a primitive.
The rendering of certain words in the original demands a brief explanation. Sakhi (the cheti of Mr. Bain's beautiful Sanskrit imitations), meaning a girlfriend and confidante of the heroine, usually used in the vocative, is translated as 'my dear'. Dutika, the messenger or go-between, is a sakhi or any woman who carries messages between the lovers: but often, too, the poet himself is the messenger, and in this case there is perhaps a conscious reference to the artist as go-between God and the soul. The gopis are the milkmaids of Gokula, of whom Radha is Krishna's beloved.
Anchala, meaning the upper part of the sari, thrown across the breast and over the soulder, also forming a head-veil, we have translated, not quite accurately, as 'wimple,' for want of a better word. Nibibanda, which means the knotting of the sari round the waist, in rendered as 'Zone' or 'girdle ', through it is not properly a separate garment.
The word rasa can never be adequately translated into English, and perhaps it should be adopted there as a loan-word, together with such others as karma, yoga, dharma, samsara, nirvana. Rasa, like the word 'essence,' has both a concrete and an abstract significance; it has, amongst others, such meanings as juice, nectar, essence, taste, flavour, savour, lust, and in an abstract sense, appreciation, passion, ecstasy, love and so forth. Rasa is equally the essential element in love and in art. It would be defined from the Indian standpoint as an emotion provoked by the recognition of reality. From rasa are derived the two important words rasika ( a connoisseur, lover), and rasavanta or rasamanta ('possessing rasa,' said either of an individual or of a work of art).
It is a canon of Indian dramatic criticism, not only that rasa is unique, but that those only can experience rasa who are temperamentally qualified to do so by virtue acquired in a former life, - Poeta nascitur non fit. All these associations give great weight to Vidyapati's splendid aphorism: Rasa bujhai rasamanta
'None knoweth love but the lover, none ecstasy save the ecstatic'.
If we apply this to life and art, it means what Blake meant when he said that enthusiasm is the first and last principle of criticism.
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