Saturday, May 16, 2009

Kumarasambhava: The Birth of Karttikeya

I'm now pretty deep into Kalidasa's Kumarasambhava, which tells the events leading up to the birth of Karttikeya (aka Kumara, aka Murugan, aka Skanda). I'm reading the English translation by David Smith in the wonderful Clay Sanskrit Library series.

If you like your religion hot and spicy, you can do no better than this little masterpiece by Kalidasa (whose name means "servant of Kali"), which is simultaneously sensual, sexual, and downright romantic in a way immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever watched a Latin American soap opera. There is nothing crude about Kalidasa's eroticism, but neither is there any hint of restraint, other than the meticulous restraint of a master artist at work, a restraint that only serves to make the effect on the reader all the more overwhelming.

This work celebrates the sensual dance that is embodied life, while simultaneously praising the severest forms of asceticism. One almost gets the impression that there is a (not necessarily very subtle) anti-Buddhist subtext here: Middle Way? We don't need no stinking Middle Way! In fact, when the God of Love is first summoned by Indra, Kama is eager to help Lord Sakra, the Powerful One, in any way that he can: and in his enthusiasm he launches into listing various possible assignments he could be tasked with, and he speculates that perhaps Indra has called him because "one desiring your place has aroused your jealous rage with especially long asceticism ... who, against your wishes, seeks the path of release through fear of the pains of rebirth." Against such an imagined upstart Kama offers to see to it that his asceticism is brought to an end by "lovely women's sidelong glances charming with their dancing brows."

[When I first posted this I somehow managed to swap Indra with Vishnu! My only defense is that I wrote the post while sitting in my backyard sunroom, and I was distracted by the beauties of nature.....]

Here is a sampling from Cantos 3 & 4 of the poem:

Indra to Kama:
I have two weapons:
my thunderbolt and you.
The thunderbolt is blunted
against those great
in the strength of asceticism.
You are effective everywhere...

And Madhu (Spring), O Kama, Stirrer of the senses!
because of his friendship for you,
will be your companion without being asked.
Who has to tell the wind to fan a fire?
Describing the arrival of spring:
Keeping close to his beloved,
the bee drank honey from the same flower cup,
and the black antelope
scratched his doe with his horn,

she closing her eyes to his touch.
Siva in meditation:
His lower body firm...
sitting straight and erect
shoulders slightly bowed,
through holding his hands
palm upward
he seemed to have in his lap
a full-blown blue lotus....

The fierce pupils motionless
and their brightness slightly lessened,
his eyes, directed downward,
were focused on his nose,
the eyelashes stationary,
the stilled eyes stilling the brow.

By restraints of his internal currents
he was like a cloud
without the vehemence of rain,
like an expanse of water
without a ripple,
like a lamp in a windless place
absolutely still.

The Lament of Rati after the death of her beloved Kama:
O Love, do you remember
me tying you up
with the strings of my girdle
when you got my name wrong,
or the beatings with the lotuses
that were my ear ornaments,
paining your eyes with
their flailing filaments?

You used to say:
"Hrdaye vasas iti",
[you dwell in my heart]
words dear to me.
I realize they're false.
If they were not a polite phrase,
how is it that when you have no body
Rati is unharmed?


O master of sexual delights,
I'm still wearing on my limbs
the decoration of spring flowers
you fashioned for me,
but that beautiful body of yours
is not to be seen.

You were called to mind
and called away
by the cruel Gods
before you completed
the adornment of my left foot.
Come, finish painting it.

Brahma offers comfort to Rati:
O beautiful woman!
look after this body of yours,
which will be united with your beloved,
for the river whose waters
have been drunk by the sun
is joined again with the flood
at the end of the hot season.

[Arthur Ryder's 1914 translation is available online at And the very pretty painting of Parvati, Shiva's beloved, seated in meditation, is from the Sanatan Society website.]