The most encouraging feature of modem Telugu literature–evident in the works of the most outstanding among contemporary men of letters–is the happy combination of an attitude of readiness to imbibe and assimilate new alien tendencies and influences, with respectful adherence to the traditional and inherited literary forms and principles. One of the finest and most typical of Telugu poems of the 20th century from this point of view is the ‘Soundaranandam’ of Sri Katuri Venkateswara Rao and Sri Pingali Laksamikantam.
The Telugu ‘Soundaranandam’ is a complete poem of considerable length, yet not too long for modem taste and conditions of life. It is based on traditional material, a Buddhist legend which had long ago been treated poetically in Sanskrit by Aswaghosha of the classical period. But the traditional story is here treated with considerable freedom by the Telugu poets, adapted, improved and extended, with a view to express a theme of Universal and perennial–and therefore necessarily modem too–interest and significance. It is composed in traditional diction, versification and literary form, and yet it breathes a spirit of modernity in its style and structure. The poetic beauty of its verse has been recognised on all hands and the poem enjoys popularity and esteem in Andhra.
An attempt is therefore made in this article to bring out the meaning and value of its theme and the artistic excellence of the composition, with the help of free translations, into English prose, of selected passages from it, to illustrate the points made and the high poetic quality of its verse, so that it may receive the wider recognition, which is its due, as a typical and outstanding contribution of the literary genius of Andhra to the evolution of the naturally composite, but necessarily synthetic, literary output of modern India.
The theme of the poem is the beauty and value of the ethical ideal of a life dedicated to the service of suffering humanity. This ideal is presented in conflict with the aesthetic ideal of a life of beauty, love and personal happiness, to which the former is proved to be superior, and over which it is shown to triumph. The theme is in perfect accord with the traditional metaphysics of India, based on the transience and relative unreality of the phenomenal world, and the oneness, in ultimate reality, of all the Universe. At the same time the ideal of renunciation motivated by compassion and the spirit of service is only a restatement, in a language and form familiar, and therefore easily acceptable and appealing, to the Indian mind, of humanism, the only active spiritual force surviving in the rationalistic atmosphere of the modern age of science.
The theme is, besides, charged with tremendous topical significance to all Indians of the first half of the 20th century which witnessed the historic struggle for Independence, carried on to a successful conclusion, by our modern apostle of non-violence whose message of truth and love evoked in a remarkable measure the spirit of sacrifice and service among the masses as well as the intelligentsia.
Moreover the conflict between the ideal of beauty and love on one side and the ideal of renunciation and service on the other, is finally resolved in the poem by a happy reconciliation which brings out the truth of each and the mutual dependence of the two ideals. Such a happy reconciliation is rendered possible by the loftiness and purity of the love depicted, which is highly refined and poetic, and the humanity, kindness and compassion to suffering humanity, which form the motive force behind the ideal of renunciation. Love is finally proclaimed the ideal par excellence when it is free from all selfishness and sensuality, and embraces the whole of humanity and all creation in its scope.
This attractive and ennobling theme is presented to us in the poem though the story of Nanda, a cousin of Lord Buddha, and his apparently forced conversion to the monastic order by the Master himself. The substance of the poem is therefore borrowed from Buddhist legends of considerable historical value, so far as the people of India and the East are concerned, and also of proved poetic value, having been built up long ago into a poem by Aswaghosha in Sanskrit. But the authors of the ‘Soundaranandam’ in Telugu exhibit a rare originality and independence in their treatment of the story. In Aswaghosha’s poem, the central dramatic incident of the conversion of Nanda to the monastic order is professedly utilised to demonstrate the supernatural powers of the Master, and to provide an opportunity to the poet for propaganda for Buddhism and a popular exposition of the tenets of the then new religion. The modem Telugu poets, on the other hand, deal with the story realistically and psychologically, endeavouring and fairly successfully–to present the startling incident and its repercussions as the natural outcome of the characters and the peculiar situations in which they are placed. The human appeal and poetic value of the story are therefore considerably enhanced–though the authors are obliged to develop the story subsequent to the main incident of conversion along independent lines, relying upon their imagination and without any historical authority, to illustrate their chosen theme with consistency.
The most unique feature of the poem, so rare in modem poetical compositions in our regional languages, is the remarkable structural symmetry and orderly development of the theme and story, and the consequent unity of impression so essential for aesthetic delight. The achievement, in this poem, is due to the deliberate choice of a powerful theme, the happy discovery of a popular story with a dramatic central incident illustrating the theme in essentials, and the wise decision to deal with the traditional material” of the story with the freedom necessary to render it a perfect expression of the theme and a rare degree of the poetic temperament, the capacity for evolving an adequate poetic form for a powerful theme and a material of considerable magnitude. In the first canto, the main events in the historic career of Lord Buddha–his glorious renunciation, his heroic search for Truth, his enlightenment, and his efforts to propagate his new faith–are all covered briefly in a few verses, and very soon the story may be said to begin, with a description of the return of the Lord to his native city, Kapilavastu, the enthusiasm with which he was welcomed, the popularity of his message of love and compassion, and the rapid accessions to the monastic order instituted by him. Thus the scene is painted and the atmosphere created in which the dramatic events of the story have to be conceived. With admirable tact and economy, the essence of the teaching of the Buddha is here presented in a few verses which bring out the simplicity, the human appeal and the spiritual comfort conveyed to the people:
“Oh ye unfortunate victims of the bonds of illusion,
Entangled in the fine meshes of sweet family relationships,
(of son, husband, friend and relation)
Caught in the unbounded ocean of sorrow and confusion,
Involved in the endless cycle of births and deaths!
Listen to the message of Truth.”
“Tread the path of non-possession,
so that the massed clouds of sin may flee before you;
Observe the vow of truth,
potent to break through every obstacle in the path of virtue;
Take up the creed of love and non-violence,
the essence of all humanitarianism;
Accept the discipline of celibacy,
shield impenetrable to the attacks of lust;
Strive for equanimity, the sure means
to peace, patience and welfare;
Don the armour of virtue, which keeps at bay
disease, old age and death.”
This is the truth, this is eternal.
This is liberating, this is the way
To conquer death, the way to salvation.”
The people listened with rapt attention and in pindrop silence and the words of comfort sank into their hearts. They embraced the new religion, and some of them the monastic order, in large numbers.
The poets make good use of the opportunity provided by this situation to present to us the pathetic spectacle of the old King Suddhodana himself taking the lead in accepting the new religion of the Buddha:
“With eyes ever wet with tears of grief and throat ever dry with despair the old King, in a dazed condition, approached with faltering steps, calling out to his long lost ‘son’.”
But after listening to the discourse of the Lord, he bowed before the Master and said with folded hands:
“I had longed for years for a child and felt glad at your birth, which relieved me of the misery of childlessness; but now I am blessed to find in you the compassionate Teacher who can lead me to eternal bliss. Lord, initiate me into holy orders.”
and his example was followed by several others present in the gathering.
The picture of Yasodhara “approaching the Lord is even more pathetic:
“With tears welling up at the corners of the eyes, devoid of the customary collyrium and therefore of all lustre; with the hair hanging on the back in knotted braids due to the lack of all attention and any dressing to them for a long time; the feeble body, resembling a withered creeper of golden colour, trembling on account of the hurried and agitated movement; with the clear traces of tears that had been flowing on the pale cheeks; Yasodhara left the inner chambers of the royal palace, approached the Lord and stood at a distance gazing on him with vacant looks, like the very embodiment of sorrow, with her hand resting on her son.”
She too listened to the discourse of the Master, and, kneeling at his feet, placed the dust of His feet on the head of the boy and made him render obeisance to the Lord.
The second canto is devoted almost entirely to a description of the life of perfect happiness which Nanda was leading, in the fullest enjoyment of youth, beauty and love. It is a captivating picture of pure and perfect and beautiful love. The detailed description of interesting situations and sentiments to which readers of poetry in our regional and classical languages are accustomed (and in a sense entitled too, as the poetic temperament revels in this most universal and powerful human emotions, love) is available here in plenty. But the love depicted here is, quite in keeping with modern taste and refinement, absolutely free from any trace of sensuality or vulgarity. The lovers are young and beautiful and belong to the royal family. They are wedded and at the same time, most romantically attached to each other, and live in an isolated world of their own, in which the only events are their mutual endearments, mock estrangements, and happy reconciliations. They are so happy in their innocence and mutual love based on perfect harmony, secluded in their ivory tower, absolutely untouched by the misery and sorrow of the world outsside. The poets achieve remarkably fine poetic effects in depicting this perfect love:
“Like a Siddha couple enjoying their time
in the caves of the Himalayas,
Like a pair of swans swinging on the waves
of the celestial Ganga,
Like the word and its meaning
(steeped in the fount of beauty in the poet’s mind)
Manifesting perfect unison on the tongues of men,
Like the individual jiva and the universal soul recognizing each other playfully,
In the hidden recess of the innermost heart of the realising sage,
Free from all worries, supremely beautiful,
Hearts happy with the soul-bliss of absolute unity,
They enjoyed their mutual love without interruption.
“If human life is a reality,
It passed like a fascinating dream to these happy lovers.
If life were unreal and a mere dream,
It must have looked a substantial reality to them.
“Nanda culled the choicest flowers,
Which Sundari wove into beautiful garlands;
She mixed the colours on the palette,
With which he painted beautiful pictures;
He conceived the fine frenzy,
Which she expressed in fitting verse;
She developed a fine tune
As he accompanied her on the Vina.
“The love-lit glances of Nanda,
With streaks of ruby-red in his eyes,
Were like an oblation of light
To the beautiful face of Sundari, bright as the Moon.
The shy sidelong glances of Sundari
With dark collyrium on her eyelashes
Hung like a garland of blue lotuses
On the wide gateway of his chest.”
With a wonderful effect of contrast and surprise the poets introduce, towards the close of this canto, the visit of the Buddha for alms to Nanda’s palace, which is the starting point of the complication in the situation. The most formidable task in the composition is the presentation of the central incident of the forcible conversion of Nanda to the monastic order, by the Master himself, as a plausible and psychologically natural incident. This task the poets have accomplished with brilliant success. They prepare the reader very carefully for the incident. The Lord is introduced even in the first canto, to convey the atmosphere in the city at the time of his first appearance among his people, after his enlightenment, to convert them to his religion and thus save them from the misery of samsara. It is obvious that, in his view, conversion to the monastic order is a blessing and a deliverance, and even forcible conversion might be conceived as an act of charity and of affection on his part towards his nearest and dearest. His father was so converted. The people are shown to us listening to his message with rapt attention and unstinted admiration, over-powered by his irresistibly simple logic, and even more overpowering personality.
The monks are shown encamped on the outskirts of the city, moving about the streets begging for alms, and spreading their religion in the city and the neighbouring villages. The atmosphere was therefore powerfully charged with enthusiasm for the new religion, and the glamour of renunciation at the call of a great prophet. As a matter of fact, one of the monks, actually engaged in the forcible conversion of Nanda, remarks that it is the especial good fortune of Nanda to be thus personally drawn into the fold by the great Master himself, and enabled, as a brother, to be a partner of his glory. Nanda is presented to us, even at the outset, as a young man of strong affections tender impulses and refined feelings. He is outside the pale of the influence of the message of the Buddha, only because of his supremely happy circumstances and his absorption in his blissful life of perfect love. So when he learns, from an attendant, how the Lord had stopped for a moment before his mansion for alms but no one paid heed, Nanda takes it as a great misfortune for himself, and hurries to repair the injury done. Howsoever reluctant to keep away from his beloved even for a few moments he deliberately tears himself away, to pursue the Master on the roads thronged with people, and to beg his forgiveness. Before leaving, he makes a solemn promise to Sundari, “to return before the moisture in the decorative painting on her cheeks dries up”. His sense of duty, of hospitality to a monk, and his love and reverence for his brother, are shown to be as strong as his devotion to his lady love. Only, he did not realise, in the beginning, that he was called upon to sacrifice the latter for the former:
“The reverence for Buddha urged him forward
The love for his wife drew him back;
Like a swan held up between opposing waves
He could neither move nor stop.”
This is only the first phase of the conflict in his mind, which continues as he follows the Lord in mute obedience and the Lord keeps him in the monastery against his will and preaches the inadequacy of personal love. With misery in his heart and rebellion in his mind, he is yet obedient and half-ashamed of his reluctance to surrender. The Buddha too is shown to act at this juncture, as throughout, with a clear understanding of the mental situation of his brother, on the surface as well as in the depths below. He shows perfect confidence in the ultimate success of his endeavour to draw Nanda into the monastic fold, and compassion and affection for this young brother who has shown such rare capacity for love. He appears to exert only moral pressure on Nanda, actuated by sympathy and goodwill, with an absolutely easy conscience and out of purely unselfish motives. He draws him out, to express his doubts, and clears them point by point, till Nanda admits, at the end of the frank discussion, that he is convinced, and feels glad and grateful for the benefit conferred. Encouraged by the kindness of his brother, he pleads for the extension of the privilege, of enlightenment and service, to his beloved Sundari also.
With remarkable courage the poets devote two entire cantos, the fifth entitled ‘Instruction’ and the sixth entitled ‘Philosophical Discussion’, to the direct expression of the theme in the form of a dialogue between Nanda and the Buddha. Herein they show commendable capacity for the presentation of argument in verse, which is a rare talent among poets. Besides, they have managed to introduce the discussion as an inevitable development of the initial situation and the complication introduced by the dramatic incident, vouched by history, in the organic evolution of the plot and characters as conceived by them. Further; the parties to the discussion–Nanda, the champion of the philosophy of love and a typical representative of the aesthetic attitude to life, and Buddha, the champion of renunciation–are both, even at the moment, the very embodiments of their respective theses, and argue not only with logic and eloquence but sincere emotion, which lifts dry metaphysics to the high realm of poetry.
The case for renunciation and service as presented by the Buddha in his ‘Instruction’ is apparently incontestable to the Indian mind. First, he points out the transience of worldly phenomena, the futility of clinging to worldly pleasures, and the misery to which human beings are subjected, on account of disease, old age, and death. Then he condemns the life of luxury led by the rich, and by Nanda so far, as simply heartless:
“The wealth of the earth is earned by the sweated labour of the poor, driven by hunger to sell their life and blood; and how can a sensitive, merciful soul enjoy such mean luxuries heartlessly?”
Then he urges upon Nanda the duty of those gifted with an understanding mind and a sympathetic heart to endeavour to relieve the misery of the poor around them, instead of indulging in a selfish life of luxury. Incidentally, the ever-compassionate Master reveals his hope that his brother–of whose noble impulses and loving heart he has a high opinion–would, when once initiated, take the lead in spreading the new Dharma to glorious ends. It is thus he exhorts his brother:
“Look at the misery in the world, my brother; even a heart of stone should melt at the sight. Even a thousand pairs of eyes are not enough to shed tears adequately, nor a lakh of pairs of hands to lift the unfortunate out of their errors and misfortunes, and save them from their misery. Arise, therefore, and gird up your loins for the task.”
But Nanda is still unconvinced. He resents the slur cast on his previous life of absorption in love, and the injustice done to that love by its being represented as mere self-indulgence. Encouraged by his wise and loving brother, he enters on a spirited defence of his own attitude and conduct, so spirited and eloquent that the unwary reader is unconsciously carried away by sympathy for the hero:
“I know and grant that this world is full of sorrow and misery, and that it is transient. But in such a world is it proper to belittle the importance of love the only source of unalloyed happiness to man? Worry cannot approach the abode of love; love develops the noble virtues; love destroys the inner enemies by purifying and ennobling our emotions and impulses; love is the source of kindness, sympathy and delight. Love pervades the universe. It is only those who can love that can see the truth, of themselves as well as of the world, clearly as in a mirror. They only are blessed, to them the world appears beautiful and good.”
“I have been lucky enough to be blessed with the most perfect blossom of love in this world of misery. What is wrong with my decision to dedicate my life to the enjoyment of such love, such changeless and limitless delight, the goal of life even according to philosophers?”
But the great Master demolishes this imposing structure of what may be called the philosophy of love, ever dear to the aesthetic temperament, with devastating logic and penetrating analysis. With a smile of compassion and sympathy on his lips, he proceeds:
“Young man, you are presenting the instinct for sensual pleasure, common to the whole animal world, in glorious colours by your brilliant eloquence. You are a prince, handsome and youthful. So are you making much of beauty and love; but is youth eternal, even to you?
“True love is far different from sensual lust.
It does not depend on the presence of the lover,
Nor upon sensual satisfactions and endearments.
“The root of the mischief in all kinds of love,
The love of man for woman,
Or the love for parents, children, friends,
Lies in its source, in the ego. Hence is it mortal.
Each man builds his own temple for his ego;
No light or air enters that temple
One has to liberate God from such temples.
“There can be no true delight for those who are obsessed with their narrow, selfish concerns. One must gradually expand and identify his self with his beloved, his children, his parents, community, the human race, all living beings, all creation.
“You should become a son to the childless, a mother to the orphans. Protect all the destitute and the distressed, and bring down the kingdom of God on earth. This is the goal for the enlightened.
“This is the meaning and value of the renunciation I preach to you; I never discount selfless love. You are blessed with a compassionate heart and a great capacity for love. Proceed on this path and serve the world; you will be blessed.
“There is no truth greater than love;
There is no beauty greater than truth;
We are blessed with a lover of beauty in you;
Our monasteries will soon become the sanctuaries of true love.
And Nanda declares spontaneously:
“I am convinced; my mind is cleared of all doubts and confusion. I resolve to dedicate my life to the service of the suffering and to outgrow my former love. Only one request I urge. Is this life of loving service denied to women?”
Thus he won the Consent of the loving Master to admit women to the monastic order.
(To be concluded)