(Concluded from the previous number)
In this poem, the character and psychology of Sundari fascinates the reader even more than that of Nanda. The poets deal in three cantos with her reaction to the great misfortune in which she is caught up unawares, as a passive victim, at the height of her connubial bliss. The Canto entitled ‘Nirikshana’ is devoted to her immediate reaction to the calamity, and describes the first shock and the succeeding mood of anxious longing for Nanda’s return. The last but one book entitled ‘Anujna’ shows her cultivating resignation, and reconciling herself to her situation. She attempts to understand and appreciate her lover in his transformation, and is eager to emulate his example. The last canto, entitled ‘sahadharmacharyam’ reveals her as an initiated disciple of the monastic order, having renounced her wealth and dedicated herself to the service of the destitute and the distressed.
The verse prefixed to the 4th book reveals the importance the poets attach to the psychological development of Sundari:
“You have separated the precious stone embedded in the golden jewel, cast the gold in the fire and purified it, placed the diamond on the anvil and polished it. What superb jewel do you intend to fashion this time, Lord?”
The first reaction of the tender and loving lady to the delay in the return of her husband is a kind of worry compounded of disappointment, doubt, fear, hope and eagerness, usual to lovers in separation, a theme on which poets are so fond of exercising their imaginative and poetic talent. The shock to her sensitive and trustful nature, when she learns gradually the truth that her husband was led by the Master to the camp of the monks and there converted to the monastic order, is heartrending and pathetic in the extreme.
She reproaches Nagda, as well as Lord Buddha, in verses of exquisite grace and pathos, which express her grief as well as her love for Nanda, her resentment as well as her reverence for the Lord.
Addressing Nanda in her imagination she reproaches him:
“Oh, you faithless one! If you had been a votary of the ideal of renunciation and aspired for the life of a monk in the forest, why did you pretend love for me, and win my heart by graceful endearments, only to forsake me thus abruptly?”
“You have mixed poison in the cup of nectar, alas!
If you had no mind to drink out of the cup,
Why should you first fill it with nectar?”
But she cannot bring herself to believe that he has proved faithless to her:
“In spite of all appearances, I cannot believe that the conduct of my lord, while he delighted me with his Beautiful love, was all pretence and hypocrisy. He cannot be staying away from me, the shadow of his soul, by an act of his own volition.”
“My lord is master in the art of love, infinite and flawless; knowing his heart and his loyalty, if I doubt him, I will be guilty of unforgivable sin.”
And in a mood of despondency–“After all his affection, the fondling, the endearments, if my lord has forsaken me, what can I say to the fickle lover except to bow to him and curse my misfortune!” Again she is filled with tender self-pity for her foolishness in her previous conduct:
“Unwilling to lose sight of your charming face, I was reluctant to close my eyes in your presence; but afraid of tempting the evil eye, I withdrew my glances from your face with effort. I dared not let go your hand for a moment, lest you should give me the slip unawares; but I hesitated to clasp your hand tight, lest your tender palm should be hurt. Verily have I been treading on the edge of a knife in my loving regard for you. And now you have forsaken me heartlessly. Do you hope to earn credit for virtue and salvation for yourself!”
And again, she feels it is a case of injustice to her:
“I left behind my brothers and sisters, and diverted all my affection towards you; I forsook the arms of my companions, and leaned solely on your shoulders; I turned away from my revered parents, and trusted to your feet as my sole refuge; I neglected the worship of the worship of household gods, and devoted myself exclusively to your service. All my tender emotions of affection friendship, reverence and devotion, I have sacrificed on the altar of my love for you. Now where am I to turn? Whom can I blame? I should blame myself for my foolishness.”
In the frenzy of her grief she cannot spare even the Lord Buddha with whom she expostulates with admirable naivete and adroitness:
“Report goes, Lord, that you are the master of sweet words, kind glances, and a merciful heart, out of which love flows in endless streams; but the report is falsified in the case of this poor sister of yours. When a brother bows at your feet in love and reverence, should you not bless him with good wishes for a long life, happiness and prosperity! How could you turn him into a monk and teach him to renounce the world? When, at the time of my marriage, I bowed at your feet, along with my beloved, I recollect you blessed me thus: ‘May you enjoy inseparable companionship with your husband, like truth with non-violence!’ Now you have falsified your own blessing, by separating us.”
(We have to note that eventually the blessing of the Lord comes true, in spite of the renunciation of both Nanda and Sundari).
Such was the immediate reaction of Sundari to the misfortune which overtook her abruptly. But very soon she tries to cultivate the spirit of resignation, characteristic of Indian womanhood, and to observe ascetic indifference to all worldly pleasures, traditional to Indian women when separated from their husbands for any reason:
“She desisted from her music, which she had cultivated assiduously only to please her lord; she neglected the garden creepers she had tended carefully only for his delectation; she veiled from sight the many beautiful pictures she had painted along with her lover, while they stood cheek resting on cheek. Like a faded painting or a withered flower, she was passing her time in her inner chambers. When the ladies of the city visited her to condole with her, she shed no tears, showed no sadness in her bearing, but remained silent. They took it she had reconciled herself to her situation, cultivated resignation and overcome her passion or love; but they did not know: her love was working a mighty transformation in her.”
In course of time,
“She began to attend regularly the discourses of Suddhodana, the royal parent of the Lord, in which he expatiated on the doctrine of the Buddha; she would listen attentively, and reflect upon it at leisure; she tried to imbibe and assimilate the tenets of the creed for which Nanda had forsaken her. She would discuss with her companions the reports of the tours and the discourses of Lord Buddha and his disciples. Thus she cultivated assiduously an intelligent interest in the new faith and learnt to appreciate it and attempted to follow it. She began to dwell, with admiration in her mind, on the blessed souls that had taken up the work of the Lord; and she imagined her lover in the forefront of the ranks of the Lord’s disciples.”
The change in her outlook and conduct was remarkable:
“She discarded her fine robes and donned ochre; she dressed her hair simply, in one braid, without flowers or ornaments; she explained the teachings of Lord Buddha to her companions and attendants. She visited frequently Yasodhara, the consort of the Lord, and compared notes with her. She took every opportunity to honour the monks, gathered all the news of the monasteries, hoped and longed for a casual visit from Nanda, in the course of his wanderings as a monk.”
There was a transformation in her love and in her grief, as also her appearance:
“Her glossy body grew lean
and began to radiate a new lustre of peace;
Her gait lost the old grace
and learnt a new hurry in her zest to succour the needy;
Her captivating glance lost its old dazzle
and cultivated the calm of compassion;
In her endless hankering after spiritual beauty,
The whole world appeared to her aesthetically perfect.
The smile on her face raining compassion all round,
Wearing the simple garbs of ochre,
The timid lady would seek out and enter the haunts of misery and grief,
Like the dawn to dispel the darkness of night.”
She began to reflect:
“It was madness on my part to have thought of appropriating, for my exclusive delight, the mighty stream of Nanda’s love, destined to spread over the whole world. Let him bless the world with his loving service; would I object to it? No; but why should he deny me all share in it and exclude me altogether from his company? Am I not competent and entitled to help him in his work, to welcome him and labour to provide relaxation to him when he returns home in the evening, after his daily rounds of service to the poor and ignorant? He has taken to the forest and rendered my home a wilderness; would I not make a temple of the forest where he dwells?”
Thus she was already mentally converted, and prepared for a new life, a life of companionship with her lord in loving service of humanity, when a monk came from the compassionate Master to initiate her also into the monastic order, in compliance with the express, wish of Nanda.
And she welcomed the opportunity with open arms.
The last canto shows the gradual but voluntary renunciation of Sundari, to follow in the footsteps of her lord and to prepare and qualify herself for companionship with him in his new life of spiritual progress:
“She distributed an her wealth, in charity, to the needy. She turned her courtyard and garden into a shelter for the vagrant cows and dogs, and her house into an asylum for the blind, deaf and maimed beggars, and an hospital for the sick. She would enter the houses of the dead in the city, to console the bereaved and rescue the destitute, so that her dwelling became a school for the orphans, an hospital for the sick, and a veritable temple for the deity of compassion, where she was the dedicated priestess.”
Finally, she embraced holy orders and became a nun.
The story has come to a close. But the poets have provided an agreeable surprise for us in the last scene. Nanda the monk and Sundari the nun are brought together, by an accident, in the course of their humanitarian activities. They meet beside the death-bed of a poor mother where each of them has been drawn by pity: Nanda by the little daughter of the dying woman and Sundari likewise by the little son, each without in the least expecting to meet the other. The Lord himself appears on the scene to witness the reunion of the romantic lovers in the new setting, and to bless their fresh dedication to a life in holy companionship, and in service to suffering humanity.
The Lord’s earlier blessing at their wedding is fulfilled by this true companionship and mutual loyalty of the wedded couple, a true marriage of souls.
The romantic love of youthful lovers is enlarged in scope, and transformed into selfless and limitless love; and the dramatic incident of forcible conversion to the monastic order turns out, in its ultimate consequences, a fruitful struggle leading to the fulfillment of the personal love in a new direction towards the orphaned children of the destitute mother.
A noble theme in a beautiful poem!