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Universality of Charyapada, Dr Shahidullah and Octavio Paz

  • Published at 08:11 pm January 12th, 2019


(Translated from Bangla by Abdus Selim)

In consideration of the amount of historically authentic information accumulated regarding the compositional timeframe, linguistic source and grammatical features of the Charyapada, discussion of its height of literary and artistic values is quite meager. What is more surprising, although there exists an abundance of physiological discussion on the Charyapada in academia, any discussion on the subject is rare in the works of mainstream poets, writers or essayists of the Bengali language. Whatever writings on the Charyapada we come across are mostly done by researchers. Despite the abundance of important information, data, observations, commentaries, footnotes etc. in their writings, they lack in discussions about the brilliance of the book in world literature and imagination, or about why the aesthetic importance of Charyapada is still superior to us. One glorious exception, perhaps, is Atindra Majumdar’s book, also named Charyapada, which contains elaborate discussion of the impact and influence of the Charyapada on the Bengali poets of successive generations. The book, however, does not portray any comparative discussion between the Charyapada and foreign literatures. Nobody before or after Atindra Majumdar has done that. Apart from its antiquity, it carries those timeless features in its ornamental, linguistic, poetic and philosophical tendencis that impress even the hearts of foreigners. Although in my writings I have mentioned Mexican poet Octavio Paz’s proclivity for this wonderful masterpiece of the Bengali language, I missed out on his observation and commentary on its tantric backdrop. It is because I wanted to write a separate essay on the subject. Why I have mentioned his interest is due to his desire to translate Bengali poetry many years ago, perhaps during his stint as Mexican ambassador to India. His desire is manifest in the preface to his book Versiones y Diversiones. The experience of poet Alokeranjan Dasgupta’s meeting with Paz also gives an inkling into that desire thus: “As I chanced to meet Paz for a few moments, he expressed his desire to move back to India by reciting bilingual (Spanish and Bengali) poems. He would make his image clearer to the audience.” (Alokeranjan Dasgupta, Rikhiya thekey Anek Durey, Alkananda Publishers, 2012, p.84). He could not do the translation. Nevertheless, he was not silent on Bengali poetry’s most ancient piece.

Before entering into Octavio Paz’s comments, observations and interpretations of the Charyapada, it is important to see from a historical perspective how the ancient Bengali masterpiece is different from its counterparts in the major European languages. It is because Paz will direct us, like Virgil, toward that big-picture evaluation while analyzing the Charyapada

We all know that poetry is the oldest genre of any language. In most languages, however, poetry was basically fables or songs. The Hilderbrandslied in German and Chansons de geste or Chansons de Roland in French bear testimony to that. Lyric launched its journey at the hands of troubadours in the French language. On the other hand, the oldest piece of Spanish poetry, Mosarabib Songs or Harcha, stretches its origin two centuries prior to the French troubadours in 12th century. Of all the living European languages, only Spanish boasts the glory of giving birth to lyrical form of poetry.

On the other hand, the Bengali language is the mother of lyric in the whole Indian subcontinent  and the Charyapada is its first poetic offspring. Given its antiquity, the Charyapada is precursor of the oldest of lyrics written in any living European languages. However, lyrics written in the otherwise neglected and marginalized Indian language at the time gave birth to “the late Vaishnavite Sanskrit and vernacular songs in one hand, and the Persian ghazals on the other.” (Buddhist Mystic Songs, Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah, Bengali Academy, Revised and Enlarged Edition 1966)

Apart from these impactful roles, the key feature of the Charyapada is its multi-layered meanings, which is missing in the Spanish Harcha. Even shallow, let alone deep, poetic sensibilities are absent in the Harcha. In the words of Pedro Salinas, major Spanish language poet, they are “very simple little songs”. They lack in the ornamental abundance of metaphors and allegories of the Charyapada. The main beauty of the Harcha is its simplicity and lyricality. In contrast, Charyapada’s main beauty lies in suggestiveness and implication of its language as well as the complexity of expressing philosophy and tantric practices in terms of metaphors and allegories. Plus, its soul always reverberates with the beauty of poetry. It does not hold any match to any of the earliest lyrics written in a European language. Another big difference between the Charyapada and the ancient poetic pieces of European languages is, while the European ones are themed on battle, campaign or love, the Charyapada embodies physicality, instead of love, as the mode of tantric meditation. In Octavio Paz’s words, “Tantrism  knows nothing   of what we call love, and its   eroticism is sacramental.’’ [El trantismo ignora lo que llamamos amor y su erotismo es sacramental.] (Octavio Paz, Conjunciones y disyunciones, Editorial Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico, Febrero 1986, P. 233.) Which means, when love and other themes were a universal feature of almost all languages, the Charyapada bypassed that beaten track to enter into the complex forest where body is a “torubor panchabi dal” (a tree with five branches). (Charya-1) Where two are blossomed in an embrace (Tiora chapi joini dey ankaboli, charya-4) and where kissing can satisfy the partners as if they are drinking the sap of a lotus. (to muho chumbi kamalarasa peebami, charya-4). In the charyas, body comes up time and again with sexual desire, but each time it is brilliant with a new and fresh meaning.

Bhonoi gundori amohekundure bira/nara nari majhe ubhilo chira(Gundari says, we are heroes in intercourse. The genital organ was raised between men and woman.--charya-4)

Deho noori bihoroi ekare ( In the city of  the body observing only one rule.-- charya-11)

Pancho tothagata kiyo kedual. Bahoho kao kahnil maajal. ( Making the five Thathagats the oar. O Kanha, carry the body like a net of illusion. --charya 13)

Kanha gait u kam chandali. Dombi to agli nahi chhinali (Kanha sings, “you are as candali woman in passion. There is no more unchaste woman than you.”--charya 18)

Dombi-er songe jo joi rotto. Khonoho no charoi sohojo unmotto. (The Yogin who is attached to the company of the dom woman does not leave ( her) for a moment, being mad with the Sahaja.--charya 19)

Botis joini tosu anga ullosiyou (Thirty two female ascetics delighted their bodies.--charya -27)

Sabaro bhuongo noiramoni dari pemmo rati pohaili. ( Sabara  is the paramour. No-soul is the public woman. The night was passed in love.--charya 28)

Mohasuhe bilosonti sabaro loiya suno mehely.. (Sabara sports with great pleasure taking the woman void.--charya 50)

There is no doubt that the idea of physical intercourse entered into the charyas from a tantric tradition. What is more, these pioneers of Bengali poetry put the physical intercourse (sensual gratification) beyond sanskara and thus set a unique example. That is, these poems entered into the comfort zone of physicality and sexuality. This is rare in any other ancient lyrics of the world to expose physical intercourse in such a vivid manner.

The Charyapada is timeless not only for its richness in content but also for ornamental beauty and linguistic smartness, in addition to its philosophical disposition of putting the reality and illusion within the same parenthesis. “Udak chand jim sach na michha” (As the moon in water is neither true nor false: Charya-29). By combining this contradictory belief of epistemological binary, the Charyapada has played a trailblazing role of the invisible layer of reality. I can see the Charyapada, like a star, exude a rare light of thought wrapped up in ornamental beauty. A proverbial line of the Charyapada is “Apona mangshey harini bairi” (The deer’s flesh is its enemy). Another line, if not proverbial as such, is very important given its ornamental significance, and that is: Joini jale roini pohai’. In the first quote, the image of a person’s beauty and wealth being his undoing is painted in a unique effortlesness. In the second verseline, we encounter such a metaphor whose poetic beauty cannot but leave us impressed. What it says in modern Bengali usage is like “Joginir jaley (kingba jonaki jaley) rajani pohay” (The night passes in the web of fireflies). This metaphor reminds us of another metaphor, which is “The web of men” in the poem “Norse”, much praised by poet Jorge Luis Borges. If we present Borges’ aesthetic interpretaion of this war-signifying metaphor, we shall get a clearer and more beautiful view of the metaphor ‘jonakir jal’ (The web of firefly). He says:

The word “web” is really wonderful here, for in the idea of a web we get the pattern of a medieval battle. We have the swords, the shields, the crossing of the weapons. Also there is the nightmare touch of a web being made of living beings. “A web of men”: a web of men who are dying and killing each other. (Jorge Luis Borges, The Craft of Verse, Harvard University Press, 2000, p-38)

By imagining a web of dots of light of fireflies, the poet’s sense of beauty not only dispels the darkness of a night, but also ornamentalizes it.

The Charyapada is the only ancient poetry that shaped up out of tantric philosophy. It sought its mukti (liberation/freedom) in being philosophically oriented, pushing tantric rituals to the background. Nihilism, that rocked the intellectual sphere of the Western world in the 20th century, found its precursor in sunyatabad in the Indian subcontinent thanks to Nagarjuna and Matsyendranath, among others. It had its bearings on some poets of the Charyapada, especially Saraha and Kanha.

Both the two Kanha and Saraha are, in fact, Nihilists. As for the madyamika Philosophers, nothing is existing, neither bhava the existence “nor nirvana” annihilation”, neither bhava the being “nor abhava’ “the non-being.” 

The verity is innate (sahaja), i.e. the “nothingness.” The Vedas, The Puranas, the traditions, the didactic treatises, in fact, in all the sciences are useless for teaching of truth. The teacher can only indicate it, but nothing can explain it, because it is beyond the pathway of words. (M. Shahidullah, The mystic songs of Kanha and Saraha the Doha Kosa, translated by Pranabesh Sinha Roy, published by the Asiatic Society, 2007, P 16-17)

Apart from Kanha and Sarah, another Charyapada poet called Krishnacharyapadanam made nihilism even wider and more profound. As he says, “Swapaney moi dekhilo tihubana suna/ghoriyo abanagabana bihuna (I saw in a dream that the three worlds were void and without the coming and going as they revolve.--36)”.

The Charyapada is rich in philosophical wealth as well as thought about language (bhabukota). The thought stemmed from the philosophy of the Buddha. Although language is considered to be a mode of expression, it sometimes stumbles on the edge of meaninglessness, ambiguity and complexity while expressing certain ideas. Shahidullah knew about the linguistic limits and limitations of the poets of Charyapada in terms of expressing tantric practices and lifestyles. He did not fail to let us know it in his research work: “nothing can explain it, because it is beyond the pathway of words.” These words of Shahidullah would remind us of Lord Buddha who, despite framing many codes of conduct for different aspects of life, was silent on some questions that he considered meaningless to answer. Perhaps, it would lead to confusion to try to answer them. So, silence was the suitable answer as it, at least, saved us from confusion. We knew from many Buddha tales that he was silent on some questions. Octavio Paz, in his bid to provide an acceptable interpretation of Buddha’s silence, says: “Buddha did not reply to it, because it is better to remain silent on some issues. Words are dialectical: if you make one affirmative, the other becomes negative. There comes a moment when you cannot call something affirmative or negative. To put it more clearly, when affirmative and negative, meaning and meaninglessness coexist, they neutralize each other. This might be the meaning of his silence.

“I think meaning and meaninglessness are linguistic traps, and silence dissolves this false dilemma. But, silence is what follows words. Or rather, it is what comes after knowledge.” (Elena Poniatowska, Octavio Paz: las palabras del arbol, plaza Janez 1998, P 109-110)

Octavio Paz succinctly expresses this silence as “knowledge of no knowledge.

Blaise Pascal was frightened of infinite emptiness and silence. His famous quote in this connection says, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”

It is not hard to understand that the source of this silence to Pascal is the limitlessness of the exterior world. The interior world of man is similarly limitless that makes linguistic expression even more complex, distant and puzzling. There is something about the wisdom deep down our interior world, which is beyond articulation. No other branch of knowledge can comprehend this limitation of language as much as poetry does, due to its hypersensitivity. Kanhapada, a poet of the Charyapada, had realized one thousand years ago that language cannot carry a special perception of wisdom very far. He says,





Shahidullah has translated this part of Charyapada thus: “How can he speak of that which is beyond the reach of the way of speech? The more it was said, the more it was subterfuge. The guru is dumb, the disciple is deaf.” No matter how simple, clear and casual this verse seems, it is actually very complex. To know why it is so, we have to navigate the domain of language in modern philosophy.

This realization of Kanhapada will remind us of the Austro-German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concern over language. He was concerned about language’s aversion to meaning, its tendency to remain safely silent sometimes.

In Wittgenstein’s book Tractatus logico-Philosophicus, published in his lifetime, he tackled some central problems regarding the world, thought and language. Through seven key proposals, he countered the problems. Now we shall discuss only the relevant proposal that can be linked up with Kanhapada’s charya. The proverbial quote of Wittgenstein was: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Routledge 1974. p-89)

This proposal, though the last, is exclusively connected to all of his other philosophical proposals. No one in the West before Wittgenstein had considered language and expression as a key problem of philosophy as he did. This remains a central idea of his whole philosophical framework. If we look at proposal no 4 and its clauses in Tractus, we shall understand the centrality of that idea:

4. A thought is a proposition with a sense.

4.001 The totality of propositions is language.

In the next paragraph, he says, “It is not humanly possible to gather immediately from it what the Logic of Language is.” He further explains, “Language disguises thought. So much so, that the outward form of the clothing it is impossible to infer the form of the thought beneath it, because the outward form of the clothing is not designed to reveal the form of the body, but for entirely different purpose.”

The question, therefore, arises: is the language in which the thought of philosophers has been expressed is meaningless? Is it a complete failure? Surprising though it was, Wittgenstein stoked the suspicion. He introduces right in the next paragraph this suspicion: “Most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical. Consequently, we cannot give any answer to questions of this kind, but can only point out that they are nonsensical.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Translated by D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness, Routledge, Revised edition 1974, p 2-23) 

Kanhapada gave a hint of such a phase in his poetry that was “unsayable”. In the words of philosophers, this “unsayable” is bound to be “nonsensical” because “jetoi boli tetobi taal”. The more you speak, the trickier it would be for language. Be it trickiness of language or not, it cannot express any meaning in the final instance. In Wittgenstein’s opinion, language is the cloth over the thought-like body. The cloth is not designed in a manner so as to reveal the body it covers. Wittgenstein thinks that most philosophers have come up with “nonsensical” ideas in their bid to expose the body. Therefore, “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.”

Long prior to Wittgenstein, the Charyapada poet Kanhapada seriously realized the discrepancy between language and thought. Instead of creating “nonsense”, Kanhapada warned us to remain silent. Otherwise, there is a chance to fall victim to the honey trap of language and in the process, become a creator of nonsense. Although they realized the same matter, the philosopher condensed the darkness of not-saying through saying while the poet gave voice to “unsaid expression” via “Ghano jamini” (dark night).

If we listen carefully, we will find that these brilliant utterances and realizations of thinkers of both our language and foreign languages are similar to those in Charyapada, for its richness of expression, as exemplified in Dendanpa’s ideas, is an unknown precursor to the artistic tendencies of many of the modern thinkers. When in one of his poems he presented our known reality inside out, he actually gave a spotless commentary on our insect-infested time. He went on to say,

“Jo so budhi sohi nibudhi jo so chor sohi sadhi.” (He who is wise is surely foolish. He who is a thief is surely an honest man—Charya 33)

Did Dylan Thomas or Jibanananda Das not come up with parallel ideas in the garb of paradox after one thousand years?

“So the blind man sees best.” (Thomas)

Or as Jibanananda said,

“A strange darkness has come upon the world today.

They who are most blind now see,

Those whose hearts lack love, lack warmth, lack pity's stirrings,

Without their fine advice, the world today dare not make a move … ”

Or take Yeats’s “The Second Coming” for example. In all its layers, it resonates of the Charyapada, though in a different light and style. 

“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

By exposing the scars of civilization’s wounds and complex reality, the poets of the Charyapada and their modern counterparts i.e. Dylan Thomas, Jibanananda and Yeats meet down the same valley of realization. Even Shakespeare sometimes seems to be ranked among them when Bhadepadanam said:

“Pekhami dahadih sabbahi suna. Chiye bihunne pap na puna.” (Charya-35)

Shahidullah translates it thus: “I see that all the ten directions are void. Without the mind there is neither sin nor virtue.”

 In the span of five hundred years, Shakespeare echoed the same sentiment when he said, “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

The poets of Charyapada have transcended time to remain relevant and contemporary even now. This, perhaps, explains why the Charyapada attracted the great Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz.

Shahidullah and Paz

We can notice Paz’s interest in the Charyapada in his 1969 book Conyunciones y Disyunciones. We can also notice his wish to translate the Charyapada in the translated collection of poems Versiones y Diversiones. This book of translated poems from various languages came out in 1974. By that time, Paz settled in Mexico, having resigned from his stint as ambassador to India. In the first edition’s preface written on March 12 in 1973, he said, 

“I lived in India for more than five years, and I had fraternity with a few acclaimed linguistic pundits. Then why didn’t I venture to translate Kavya with their help? I did two or three drafts too but wasn’t happy with them. To us the Kavya tradition is as distant as Hellenic art. I am much attracted towards the mystic vernacular verses of the poets like Kabir, Tukaram, Chandidas, Biddyapoti, and above all, enigmatic text of Saraha and Konha. If I revisit India, if ever, I would perhaps be enthused to translate some of their literary works.” 

(Octavio Paz, Versiones y Diversiones, Joaquin Mortiz, 1984, Mexico, p 5-6)

After five years when the book saw its second edition, he wrote in the preface: “The idea of translating Saraha and Kanha with the help of some experts has never abandoned me.” 

(Octavio Paz, Versiones y Diversiones, Joaquin Mortiz, 1984, Mexico, p7)

It is interesting to see how he expressed his interest in two Charyapada poets in addition to two medieval Bengali language poets, Chandidas and Vidyapati. In the preface to the second edition, he only mentioned the two Charyapada poets. It must be noted that one more edition of the book came out posthumously in 2000. This edition contained a preface written back in 1995, in which there was no mention of the Bengali language poets. He wrote in the preface dated February 25, 1995: “It is with shame I admit I have had to abandon the plan that I referred to in my previous two introductions, as a lot of time has elapsed since.” 

 (“Al correr de los años abandone, no sin pena, los proyectos que mencionan los dos notas preliminaries.” Octavio Paz, Versiones y Diversiones, Galaxia Gutenberg, 2000, Mexico, p 14)

He could not stick to his promise of translating Bengali poems, especially those written by Saraha and Kanaha. But the draft he referred to in the first edition’s preface could be seen if all his manuscripts and drafts were published in the future. Based on his writings published till date, it is safe to assume that no complete translation of the Charyapada has been done. However, there are some partial translations of the Charyapada quoted in one of his essays. Now before moving on to those samples, let us switch our attention to some curiosities (of our mind) regarding him.

It is true that he took an interest in everything Indian and he responded to his interest through his extraordinary creativity and scholarship that included his poetry, essays and pieces of translation. We will not go into details of these. Rather, we will stay focused on our central issue in line with the title of the essay. 

Partial translation of the Charyapada and mention of the Charyapada poets in his writings came through his discussion of Indian tantrism. Research books by Indian and non-Indian writers on Indian philosophy and tantric practice were the source and component of his thoughts. He referred to these sources in his writings. The multilingual essayist and researcher Dr Muhammad Shahidullah made his way on to Paz’s reference list. That he read Shahidullah’s great research work “Les chants mystique de kanha et saraha” (published by Adrien Maesonneuve, Paris, 1928) attentively is evident in one of his essays. He not only read  Shahidullah’s essay, he was also influenced by Shahidullah’s interpretation of theology and philosophical proclivities of the Charya poets, especially Saraha and Kanah. While offering reference to and analysis of philosophical and scholastic standpoints of tantric practices, he mostly accepted Shahidullah’s take on the Charyapada poets, particularly Saraha and Kanha, and made an apt use of it. Although Paz alluded to two other Charya poets, he kept them anonymous. What confirms my conviction in this regard is that he only mentioned Saraha and Kanha, as taken from Shahidullah’s essay, in the prefaces to the first two editions of his translation work Versiones y Diversiones, where he expressed his desire to translate the Charyapada

These examples corroborate my assumption that Paz had got the first taste of the Charyapada, thanks to Shahidullah. However, it is not unknown to us that Tarapada Mukherjee and Atindra Majumder started translating the Charyapada into English in the 1960s. Atindra’s translation came out in 1968 and similarly, Tarapada’s translation toward the end of the 1960s. I doubt if Octavio Paz saw any of them since they came out from publishing houses which were not internationally famous. Even if he had, they bore little importance to him as he did not make any reference to them, explicit or implicit, in his writing. The other potential essay that he might have been familiar with is An Anthology of Buddhist Tantric Song, which came out in Per Kvaerne’s translation in 1977. Since Paz’s book came out in 1969, there was little chance he had come across all those writings. Furthermore, he had prepared the manuscript one or two years before. Therefore, Shahidullah was the key source, if not the only one, for Paz to get a taste of the Charyapada. It is not impossible that he had read the Charypada in translation by Prabodh Chandra Bagchi or others during his stint as Ambassador in India. Because Paz’s essay did not mention any one of them, this remains but an assumption. Of course, for presenting religious, philosophical and epistemological interpretation of tantric tradition, he borrowed immensely from Etienne Lamotte’s Histoire du Buddhisme Indies (1958), Agehananda Bharati’s The Tantric Tradition (1965), The Hevojra Tantra (1951), translated with a foreword by D L Snellgrove, Philip Rawson’s Erotic Art of East (1960, R A Slein’s Civilisation Tibetanne (1962), Mircia Eliade’s Le Yoga, inmortalite et liberte (1954), S B Dasgupta’s An Introduction to Tantric Buddhism(1954) and Obscure Religious Cults (1962), Buddhist Texts through Ages (1954) translated and edited by Edward Conze, I B Horner, David Snellgrove and Arthur Waley. He referred to them in comments, footnotes and the reference list.

We can shift our attention to Paz’s attitude toward and interpretation of Charyapada, which he formed by reading all these books along with Shahidullah’s research work. I do not consider it irrelevant to mention one or two quotations of Paz to understand the meaning and import of body and sexuality being the central idea of the Charyapada. He said,

“Novalis said that woman is the most exalted corporeal food: is this not what the Tantric ritual also says, though it does so in literal terms?” (Octavio Paz, Conjunciones y Disyunciones, Cuadernos de Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico Segunda edicion: Febrero de 1985, p 78).

 According to Paz, 

 “Tantrism is above all a sexual ritual. The ceremony of Christian marriage is public but intercourse between bride and bridegroom is private. The Tantric ceremony consists of public copulation, either by several couples or a single couple in front of the circle of worshipers. It is practiced not with the wife, but with a yogini (a female practitioner of yogi), generally one from an inferior caste. Among Christians the act is consummated in the bedroom, that is to say, in a profane place; the Tantras specifically state that it must be celebrated in a temple or some consecrated site, preferably in places where the dead are cremated. Copulation atop ashes: destruction of the opposition between life and death, the dissolution of both in emptiness.”
 (Octavio Paz, Conjunciones y disyunciones, Cuadernos de Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico Segunda edicion: Febrero de 1985, P 78-79)

The significance of recurrent mention of body, intercourse, emptiness and dissolution in Charyapada becomes more pronounced thanks to Paz’s unparalleled comparative analysis. Highlighting the union of contradictory matters via intercourse, he said,

“Copulation is the real and genuine union of samsara and nirvana, identity between existence and emptiness, thought and non-thought.” (Octavio Paz, Conjunciones y disyunciones, Cuadernos de Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico Segunda edicion: Febrero de 1985, P 79)

While explaining the level of pleasure two individuals reach via intercourse, called ‘mahasukh’ in tantric parlance, Paz made a mention of Saraha and Kanha. He said: 

“A commentary of the poems of Sahara and Kanha says: ‘In the moment of great delight, the thought of illumination is born, that is, semen is produced.’” (Octavio Paz, Conjunciones y disyunciones, Cuadernos de Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico Segunda edicion: Febrero de 1985, P 82)

We have explored how seriously the Charyapada considers the role of language as an expression of knowledge in light of the thoughts of philosopher Wittgenstein. Although the language of Charyapada is called ‘sandhya bhasha’ (twilight language), it turned out to be a narration full of multiple symbols condensed in a single symbol played out through alteration of light and darkness. 

The body sometimes came up with the expanse of the universe and sometimes, language itself became a symbol of the body and the universe. The Charyapada is alive to us as an effervescent sea with streams of multiple symbols. While offering a deep analysis and interpretation of the entirety of multi-hued linguistic expressions, poetic impressions and symbolic implications of the Charyapada, Octavio Paz said:

“A religious geography lies beside this magic physiology that I have briefly described. 

“Here in the body are the sacred rivers: the Jamuna and the Ganges, here are Pragaya and Benares, the Sun and the Moon. In my wanderings, I have visited many sanctuaries, but none more holy than that of my body” (poem of Sahara). If the body is earth, the sacred earth, it is also language, and a symbolic language: in each phoneme and each syllable there lies a seed (bija) that emits a vibration and a hidden sense when it is actualized in speech. Rasana represents the consonants and lalana the vowels. The two veins, or canals, of the body are now the masculine and feminine aspects of speech. Language occupies a central place in Tantrism; it is a system of incarnated metaphors. Throughout these pages I have referred to the play of echoes, correspondences and equivalences of the ciphered language of the Tantras (sandhabhasa). The ancient commentators referred to this erotic-metaphysical hermeticism as ‘the twilight language’: modern commentators, following Mircea Eliade, call it the ‘intentional language.’ But specialists do not say (or even if they do, they liken it to somebody walking on burning coals) that this language is essentially poetic and obeys the same laws as poetic creation.

Tantric metaphors are not only intended to hide the real meaning of the rites from intruders, they are also verbal manifestations of the universal analogy that is the basis of poetry. These texts are governed by the same psychological and artistic necessity that caused our Baroque poets to build a language of their own within the Spanish language, the same necessity that inspired the language of Joyce and the Surrealists: the conception of writing as the double of the cosmos. If the body is a cosmos for Saraha, his poem is a body—and this verbal body is sunyata. The closest and most impressive example of this is the trobar clus of the Provencal poets. The hermeticism of Provencal poetry is a verbal veil—opaque for the ignorant and transparent for the wise who gain vision so piercing as to see the nakedness of the lady. One has to live this secret. I say: live it and unlearn it at the same time. There must be participation: weaving the veil is an act of love and unraveling it is another. The same thing happens in the case of the hermetic language of the Tantras: in order to decipher it, it is not enough to know the key but to make one’s way into the forest of symbols, to be a symbol among symbols. Poetry and Tantrism are alike in that they are both concrete, practical experiences.” (Octavio Paz, Conjunciones y disyunciones, Cuadernos de Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico Segunda edicion: Febrero de 1985, P 82-84) 

No matter how riddling and inaccessible the language and quotes of the Charyapada seem to be, it exposes the invisible layers of reality, which remains unknown to the practical realities on the surface. Since poetry does not conform to plain language, rather intends to transcend language and arrive at the “unsayable” paradise of gestures and implications, it becomes the main vehicle of symbols.  Octavio Paz analyzes this particular aspect of the language of tantric worshippers and poets thus:

“There is another aspect to which specialists, in my opinion, have not paid enough attention: the mantras are indicatives signs, sonorous signs of identification. Each divinity, each guru, each disciple, each worshiper, each concept and each moment of the ritual has a mantra appropriate to it. The poet Kanha has expressed it better than this complicated explanation I have given: the syllables (bijas) clasp the naked ankle of the yogini like a bracelet. They are sonorous attributes.”

(Octavio Paz, Conjunciones y disyunciones, Cuadernos de Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico Segunda edicion: Febrero de 1985, P 85)

Paz once again and for the last time made a mention of Kanha toward the end of this big essay and said: 

“The female partner in the rite always initiates, and she almost always comes from an inferior caste or an impure profession: the chandali or the dombi (laundress). Kanha says in one of his songs to emptiness: ‘you are the chandali of passion. Oh dombi, no one is more dissolute than you.’ Chandali here means the ‘mystic heart’ of the Tibetans: the union of the sun and the moon, the humor of the woman and the sperm of the man, the lotus of Perfect Wisdom and the lightning bolt of (com) Passion, melted and dissolved in one sudden burst of flame. Phenomenal reality is identical to essential reality: both result in emptiness. Samsara is nirvana.*” (Octavio Paz, Conjunciones y disyunciones, Cuadernos de Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico Segunda edicion: Febrero de 1985, P 86)

It must be noted that the star mark indicates a footnote, which refers to Shahidullah. It says, 

“With regard to the poems of Kanha and Sahara, see: Les Chants Mystiques de Kanha et Saraha, edited and translated by M. Shabidullah (Paris, 1921).”(*Octavio Paz, Conjunciones y disyunciones, Cuadernos de Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico Segunda edicion: Febrero de 1985, P 86)

This footnote clarifies the fact that Octavio not only read Saraha and Kanha’s charyas in Shahidullah’s translation, he took Shahidullah’s analyses and interpretation seriously. I claim so because he mentioned where he disagreed with some experts. For example, he disagreed with Ananda Kumaraswamy in the case of foreign influence on Indian sculpture and architecture, which is evident in no. 58 footnote of the book. If he disagreed with any of Shahidullah’s opinions, he would have mentioned it. However, it is not our objective to point out Paz’s agreement and disagreement in certain cases, rather to locate the outlines of his realization of the Charyapada. It is undoubtedly a significant matter for a world class poet and literary critic like Paz to have considerable interest in the Charyapada, leading to an effort to interpret and analyze it. The key reason behind its significance is the unavailability of evaluation of Charyapada’s linguistic uniqueness and poetic excellence in an international context. It became possible for Paz because he was a great scholar of various branches of knowledge, in addition to being a multilingual and creative writer. Combining and successfully applying creativity and scholarship in critical literature, he unearthed the hidden treasure of meaning and beauty of the text. Paz’s commendable unearthing of the Charyapada took place in the 1960s. But it came to the Bengali speaking readers’ notice half a century later. I am sure the Charyapada will receive laurels from more scholars in the future.


*Shahidullah was misspelled as Shabidullah in the footnote. The same error applies for the dating of the publication of the research work. The book actually came out in 1928, not in 1921 as Paz said. Undoubtedly, a lack of carefulness is to blame here.

English quotations from the book titled Conjunciones y disyunciones used in this essay are rendered by Helen R. Lane

(Liton Chakraborty Mithun helped prepare the final version of this translation)

Razu Alauddin is a poet, essayist and translator. He specializes in Jorge Luis Borges and has translated into Bengali the great Argentine writer's stories and essays from the original Spanish.

Abdus Selim is a playwright, translator and essayist.