This Valentine’s Day Take Some Help From Sanskrit Poetry

The poets of yore are here to lend a hand. Let us learn from the approach of the professionals when it comes to love!

पाण्डुर् असि निशि न शेषे प्रतिदिनम् आविष्करोषि तनिमानम् ।
वयम् इव किं त्वम् अपि सखे! शशाङ्क! ताम् एव चिन्तयसि? । ।
(Subhāṣitāvali 1260)

You are pale, friend Moon,
And do not sleep at night,
And day by day you waste away.
Can it be that you too
Are only thinking of her?

Valentine’s day is here! All geared up to woo the moon-faced, lotus-eyed beauty of your choice, are you? Well, let’s have a little test then: In how many ways can you compare your darling’s Face to the moon?

You have five minutes.

Well? You’ve probably got to “her face is like the moon” and “her face is the moon”. You probably tried to remember what synecdoche was, but found your memory to be a fuzz. If you were one of the cleverer ones, you might have inverted the comparison— “The moon is like her face”. Nevertheless, I’m quite sure most of you are disappointed with your performance. But no matter! The poets of yore are here to lend a hand. Let us learn from the approach of the professionals. So what went wrong? The first step is to identify the two objects you want to compare. Easy, that’s in the question: the moon and your darling’s face. The next step is to put down a list of all the qualities of the two objects. Here’s a list:

You probably got fixated on the bright and beautiful, right? That was your big mistake. Now that we have this table, it’s essentially a game of finding links between the two columns. For instance, lets match M8 (moon in the skies) and D6 (darling on the earth). Now, lets see, how could we possibly link the two? This is how the Hanumannāṭaka does it—

वदनम् अमृत-रश्मिं पश्य कान्ते तवोर्व्याम्
अनिल-तुलन-दण्डेनास्य वार्धौ विधाता ।
स्थितम् अतुलयद् इन्दुः खेचरोऽभूल् लघुत्वात्
क्षिपति च परिपूर्त्यै तस्य ताराः किम् एताः । ।

against the moon, my love,
The moon shot up
You came down
And the creator’s still sprinkling
the counterweights called stars.

Simple and brilliant! We only wanted the first part, but the poet’s also thrown in the delightful bit about the stars in the sky. This technique of providing an unexpected cause for a well known phenomenon is often a good recipe for making magical verses. Lets see what happens when that recipe is used on M3 (Moon waxes and wanes). So why does the moon wax and wane? A poet has an answer—

तस्या मुखस्यायतलोचनायाः कर्तुं न शक्तः सदृशं प्रियायाः
इतीव शीत-द्युतिर् आत्म-बिम्बं निर्माय निर्माय पुनर् भिनत्ति ।।
(Subhāṣita Ratna Koṣa 458)

The moon tries every month in vain
To paint a picture of your face;
And, having failed to catch its grace,
Destroys the work, and starts again.

Lovely, isn’t it? While the moon in the sky is doomed to this Sisyphean exercise, the one on Shiva’s head stays stubbornly crescent. Strange. Now why could this be? A Buddhist poet Dharmapāla explains—

स पातु विश्वम् अद्यापि यस्य मूर्ध्नि नवः शशी ।
गौरी-मुख-तिरस्कार-लज्जयेव न वर्धते ।।
(Subhāṣita Ratna Koṣa 64)

May he protect the universe
upon whose head the crescent moon
from shame of being shamed by Pārvati’s face
never grows full.

We can also view the waning and waxing in a different way. If her face is so much like the moon, surely the face must wane and wax too. Does it? Well, yes —

जइ कोत्तिओ सि सुंदर सअल-तिही-चंद-दंसण-सुहाणं ।
ता मसिणं मोइज्जंत-कंचुअं पेक्खसु मुहं से ।।
यदि कौतुककोऽसि सुन्दर! सकल-तिथि-चन्द्र-दर्शन-सुखानाम् ।
तन्-मसृणं मोच्यमान-कञ्चुकं प्रेक्षस्व मुखं तस्याः ।।
Gāhā Sattasaī (Kāvyamāla 7.72)

Young man,
If you want to enjoy at once
the beauty of every phase of the moon
Look at her gentle face
As she slowly lifts her gown

The three verses we saw above had refreshingly new ideas. Chances are, you had never thought of any of them. However, even cliches can often be made attractive if packaged properly. Consider this old cliché, for instance—

She’s like the moon, except the moon has spots.

Now see what the Gāhā Sattasaī turns it into—

घरिणीएँ महाणसकम्मलग्गमसिमलिइएण हत्थेण।
छित्तं मु हंहसिज्जइ चन्दावत्थं गअं पइणा । ।
गृहिण्या महानसकर्मलग्नमषीमलिनितेन हस्तेन ।
स्पष्टं मुखं हस्यते चन्द्रावस्थां गतं पत्या ।
Gāhā Sattasaī (Kāvyamālā 1.13)

The husband smiled at his wife’s face
Which, smudged with soot from the kitchen,
Now looked like the moon.

This verse overrides the cliche because it’s not telling, it’s suggesting. If she started looking like the moon after smudging her face, we can only wonder how beautiful she must really be! Even the boring “She is more beautiful than the moon” can be made attractive. It’s all in the phrasing—

एमेअ जणो तिस्सा देइ कवोलोवमाइ ससिबिंबम् ।
परमत्थविआरे उण चन्दो विअ वराओ ।।
एवमेव जनस्तस्या ददाति कपोलोपमायां शशिबिम्बम् ।
परमार्थविचारे पुनश्चन्द्रश्चन्द्र इव वराकः ।।
(Quoted in the Dhvanyāloka)

Let others thus compare
her cheek to the moon.
Yet if they really compare, the moon
is no more than the poor old moon

While all these poets are championing the flawlessness of their maidens, there is one poet who insists that his darling’s face is blemished. How could he possibly justify that? Lets take a look—

सोऽयम् अभ्युदितः पश्य प्रियाया मुख-चन्द्रमाः ।
यस्य पार्वण-चन्द्रेण तुल्यतैव हि लाञ्छनम् ।।
(Subhāṣita Ratna Koṣa 396)

Behold the face-moon of my darling,
wherein the blemish is
that I’ve compared it to the blemished moon.

How ingenious! Poetic conventions can also be used to good effect. For instance, there is a poetic convention in Sanskrit that moonlight makes the lotus close. For this reason, the moon is called the enemy of the lotus. The poet Dharmākara provides us some background about this hostility—

मनसिज-विजयास्त्रं नेत्र-विश्राम-पात्रं
तव मुखम् अनुकर्तुं तन्वि वाञ्छा द्वयोश् च ।
इति जनित-विरोधाद् भूत-कोपाद् इवायं
हरति तुहिन-रश्मिः पङ्कजानां विकाशम् ।।
(Subhāṣita Ratna Koṣa 410)

The lotus and the moon, pretty girl,
each seek to imitate your face.
From this stems their rivalry,
Making lotuses close at the moon’s sight.

I’ll present today’s last verse on the moon as a riddle. After Ravana’s defeat, Rama and Sita are crossing the sea on a flying vehicle. Sita is eager to see the bridge built by the monkeys. She peeks down at the waves, but there’s no sign of a bridge. “Where is the bridge?”, she asks Rama. “It’s right there”, says Rama, looking down at the sea. Sita looks, but there’s no sign of a bridge. This exchange continues for some time, till Sita finally realises what’s happened and breaks into a smile. Question: Why couldn’t Sita see the bridge?

“दृष्टोऽयं सरितां पतिः प्रियतम! क्वास्ते स सेतुः परं?”
क्वेति क्वेति मुहुर् मुहुसस् सकुतकं पृष्टे परं विस्मिते ।
अत्रासीद् अयम् अत्र नात्र किमिति व्यग्रे निज-प्रेयसि
व्यावृत्तास्य-सुधानिधिः समभवन् मन्दस्मिता जानकी ।।
(Hanumannāṭaka)

The ocean swelled upon seeing her face-moon and the bridge was hidden under the waves!

That’s all for today. Next week, we shall continue the story of Vidyākara, whom we met in the previous column. I take leave of you this Valentine’s day with a warning—

आरोपितः पृथुनितम्बतटे तरुण्या
कण्ठे च बाहुलतया निविडं गृहीतः ।
उतुङ्गपीनकुचनिर्भरपीडितोयं
कुम्भः करीषदहनस्य फलानि भुङ्क्ते । ।
(Subhāṣitāvali 994)

For riding on her rounded hip,
Encircled tight by her arms,
Pressed against the maiden’s breasts
The pitcher has to enjoy the fruit
of being fired in the potter’s kiln!

Sources:
Some translations are from, or inspired by the following books:
1. Anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry, D. Ingalls
2. Poems from the Sanskrit, John Brough