Posted in Books, Buddhism, India, Pali texts, Sahitya Akademi

A wonderful gift


Some time ago I had written about the translations of the Sahitya Akademi and how much I appreciated them. I had their selected collection of Medieval Indian Literature and  a month ago, a good friend sent me a wonderful gift–the Ancient and Modern selections, each in three volumes. The ancient series has selections from Vedic Sanskrit, Pali, classical Sanskrit, Prakrit, Apabhramsa, Tamil and Kannada, while the modern series has the whole range of languages, which had not developed in ancient times.

Here is one of my favourite quotes from the Sutta Pitaka, a Pali text, on dialogues with the Buddha. Potthapada puts a question to the Buddha. ‘Is the world eternal? Is this alone the truth and any other view mere folly?’

‘That, Potthapada, is a matter on which I have expressed no opinion.’ Then Potthapada asked each of the following questions: ‘Is the world not eternal? Is the world infinite? Is the soul the same as the body? Is the soul one thing, and the body another? Does one who has gained the truth live again after death? Does he not live again after death? Does he both live again and not live again after death? Does he neither live again, and not live  again after death? ‘ And to each one the Exalted One made the same reply: ‘That too, Potthapada, is a matter on which I have expressed no opinion.’

‘But why has the Exalted One expressed no opinion on that?’

‘The question is not calculated to profit, it is not concerned with the dhamma, it does not redound even to the elements of right conduct, nor to detachment, nor to purification from lusts, nor to quietude, nor to tranquilization of heart, nor to real knowledge, nor to insight, nor to nirvana. Therefore I express no opinion about it.’


Posted in India, Kanakadasa, Udupi



As women today are trying to gain entry into two temples in India where their entry is restricted, one is reminded of the problem of temple entry over the ages. Dalits now have the official right to enter temples, though customs and traditions sometimes still bar their way. Some of the stories of the past of those such as Nandanar, Kanakadasa, and others who wanted to enter temples and could not do so are very moving.
Regarding Kanakadasa, a sixteenth century saint, I had visited the Krishna temple at Udupi in Karnataka some years ago and seen the miracle said to have been created by him. Kanakadasa was a great singer and composed beautiful songs and verses in Kannada. According to the story, as he was not allowed within the temple because of his caste, he stood outside its western wall, and sang to the deity that he was unable to see. And one day, the wall cracked, a chunk fell out of it, and the image of the deity turned his face to the west, so that Kanaka could see him. Even today, the image remains in that position, and is viewed through a grilled window on the western wall.
Kannaka is said to have been a Kuruba by birth, though later sources, probably to elevate him to a higher status, said he was originally a Beda or Nayaka, and was once a warrior. His devotional songs in Kannada include Haribhaktisara, Mohanatarangani and Ramadhanya-charite, among others. This last is based on a folk tale and compares ragi (a form of millet) and rice, ending in praise of ragi. The god Rama sees that ragi has more strength, and names it Raghava-dhanya, later abbreviated to ragi.
Kanakadasa’s devotional compositions are still popular today. In one of his songs, he says:
‘This body is Yours, so is the life within it;
Yours too are the sorrows and joys of our daily life.
Whatever sweet word or Veda or story of law that we hear,
The power to hear them is Yours.
The eye that gazes on the beauty of form,
That vision too is Yours.’

Kanakadasa saw god in every living being. When a dog entered his house, and stole a roti [unleavened bread], Kanakadasa, saw the dog too as the Lord, and ran after him with ghi [clarified butter] and gur[unrefined sugar], calling ‘Lord, do not eat dry bread, have this on your bread too’.

Posted in History, India, Republic Day



India became a republic 66 years ago!

(The passage below is a small  extract from my book The Puffin History of India , vol 2, 1947 to the Present. This book tells the story of the new nation and its ongoing journey, and this passage is part of Chapter 1, on India’s first Republic Day.)

‘In August 1947, India had full independence, but acknowledged the British king as the symbolic head. On 26 January 1950, India became a republic and a sovereign nation. Her own constitution, which had been completed on 26 November 1949, was formally adopted. From now on the government of India, and many of India’s programmes and policies would be based on this constitution.
A great day
It was a great day and celebrations in Delhi began the previous night, with a mile and a half long torch-light procession. The whole city was decorated with arches, flowers and flags, and with multi-coloured electric lights on bushes and trees, it was transformed into a fairy-land.
In the morning a grand ceremony took place in the Darbar Hall. There the outgoing governor general, Rajagopalachari, and the new president-to-be, Rajendra Prasad, sat on golden chairs crowned with Ashokan capitals, with a stone statue of the Buddha behind them. Watched by 700 distinguished guests from India and abroad, the governor general read the proclamation announcing the birth of the new republic. Then the chief justice administered the oath of office to the new president, 31 guns boomed in celebration, and the Presidential flag unfurled on Government House, now renamed Rashtrapati Bhavan.

One journey is over, another begins
In a message to the nation on this day, Jawaharlal Nehru said, “Undoubtedly, January 26, 1950, is a day of high significance for India and the Indian people. It does mean the consummation of one important phase of our national struggle. That journey is over, to give place to another and more arduous journey”. Nehru saw the struggle to build a new nation as a journey, a road to be travelled on. ‘

Posted in Festivals, Hardwar, India, Kumbh Mela, Uttarakhand

Ardh-Kumbh at Hardwar

The Ardh-Kumbh is scheduled to begin at Hardwar, Uttarakhand [India] on Makar Sankranti, 14 January 2016. Hundreds of thousands of people will arrive for this.
The newspapers are full of the arrangements for the Kumbh, the much needed revenue for the state that will be one of the results, and the problems that still exist.
Some interesting aspects:
The police to be deployed will be given a six-day crash course in English to enable them to help tourists. What will they learn in six days? The focus will be on asking questions with ‘five ws and an h’–where, when, what, who, why, and how. They will also learn to introduce themselves in English.
The railways: the number of trains on the Laksar-Hardwar route will be increased to 60, and there will be 40 additional ticketing windows.
The sewage problem: handling all the waste is a huge problem, and it is hoped the Ganga will not be further polluted.
The Pari akhara: a woman’s akhara may be allotted land for the first time, and the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad is against this.
Dev Prayaga: this has been included as a site for the kumbh for the first time, but there are few facilities there. The bridges over the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers, the sources of the Ganga, are shaky, the ghats and changing rooms are not ready, and the chains haven’t been placed for pilgrims to hold on to while bathing in the icy river. Without these there is a danger of being washed away.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Kumbh Mela is a Hindu festival, held in rotation at four sacred places, Prayaga ( Allahabad), Hardwar, Nashik, and Ujjain. At each place the festival takes place once in twelve years, while an Ardha-Kumbha, or half-Kumbha, is held every six years, and a Maha Kumbh every third year. Legends associate the festival with the churning of the ocean of milk for Amrita or divine nectar. When it finally emerged from the ocean the Asuras [beings opposed to the gods, often wrongly translated as demons] and Devas [gods], who had forgotten their enmity and joined together to get this nectar, now struggled for its possession. In the course of the struggle, twelve drops fell on the earth, four of them at the above places, and the Kumbh Mela commemorates this event.
Some date the Kumbh Mela to the time of Harshavardahana, a king who ruled over north India from 606-647 CE, but this is doubtful, as Harsha was a Buddhist. He did hold a large gathering at Prayaga [Allahabad] where a Buddha statue was set up on the first day, on the second day of Adityadeva or Surya, and on the third of Ishvaradeva or Shiva. Large amounts were distributed in charity to Buddhist monks, brahmanas, Jains, members of other sects, and wandering mendicants, after which alms were given to the poor, the orphans and the destitute, by which time Harsha’s entire treasury was exhausted.
According to other accounts, it was Shankara of the ninth century who first organised the Kumbh Mela.
Contemporary references to the Kumbh exist from the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries.
It is also originally said to have been a fertility festival, in which pots of grain were dipped in the river to ensure a good harvest. Each Kumbh Mela, spread over several weeks, is visited by lakhs of people, and it is considered particularly auspicious to bathe in the sacred river at these places.

Posted in Books, Buddhism, India, Manimekalai, Tamil

Manimekalai — a Tamil epic of south India

Here is the introduction of a short book I am planning on the text, Manimekalai.

Tamil belongs to the group of Dravidian languages and Tamil inscriptions in Brahmi script date back to at least the second century BCE.
The earliest Tamil literature available today is known as Sangam literature, believed to have been composed at three sangams or assemblies of writers and poets held at the city of Madurai. These may have been the first literature festivals! Much of this literature has disappeared, but some parts of the third sangam still exist. These include the Pattupattu (Ten Idylls) and Ettutogai (Eight Anthologies). A Tamil grammar, Tolkappiyam also belongs to the end of this period. Two Tamil epics, Sillapadikaram and Manimekalai mark the next stage of Tamil literature. The Tirukural of Tiruvalluvar is another important early work. Jivakachintamani, another epic, was composed by a Jain poet.
The Tamil alphabet does not follow the same sequence of letters as most other languages of India. Some of its consonants have no equivalents, and also are pronounced differently depending on the context. Thus the consonant ‘k’ can be pronounced as ‘k’, ‘h’, or ‘g’. The palatal ‘c’ can be ‘s’, ‘ch’ , ‘j’ or can represent the Sanskrit ‘sh’ or ‘s’; the retroflex ‘t’ is pronounced as ‘d’. Some letters have no equivalent sound either in English or Sanskrit, for instance ‘l’ . The method of transliteration into English, therefore differs. Alternative spellings are often used, for instance, Tamizh instead of Tamil, Cankam instead of Sangam, Matavi instead of Madhavi. Here we have used spellings that are closer to the way the words are pronounced, or are more familiar to readers in English. Alternative spellings are provided in brackets.
Manimekalai is the sequel to the Silapaddikaram [Cilappadikaram], a verse epic, that narrates the story of Kovalan and Kannaki, a married couple. Kovalan fell in love with the dancer Madhavi, and spent all his money on her. Kannaki however remained faithful to Kovalan, and penniless, the couple reached the city of Madurai. Kannaki then took off one of her anklets, and gave it to Kovalan to sell, but in the market he was accused as a thief, as the queen had lost a similar anklet. The falsely accused Kovalan was put to death, and Kannaki, when she heard of it, stormed through the city in grief. Finally she was taken to the king, and when she showed him her remaining anklet he realised he had falsely condemned an innocent man. ‘I am no king’ he said, and in shock he fell down dead. Kannaki then tore off one of her breasts and threw it in the city, which went up in flames. Thus she destroyed the king and his city, and finally retreated to a hill where she died a few days later, rejoining her husband in heaven. Kannaki is worshipped as the goddess Pattini in the Tamil region, a symbol of a wife’s chastity, devotion and loyalty to her husband.

Manimekalai, written by the merchant Shattan [Cittalai Cattanar], tells the story of Manimekalai, the beautiful young daughter of Kovalan and the dancer Madhavi. After Kovalan’s unjust death, Madhavi, once a courtesan, became a Buddhist nun. Manimekalai, despite her beauty, shunned the pleasures of the world, and sought truth, finally gaining ultimate knowledge. The story is set in the second century CE in the Tamil region, when the Chola, Chera and Pandya dynasties ruled the region of south India where most of the action takes place. The text itself has been dated by various scholars between the second and sixth centuries CE.The text consists of thirty verse chapters.

Posted in Books, Buddhism, India, Religion

Books and texts of India

As I read and write on history and historical themes, I am always amazed and in awe of the people of the past, who did so much, gained some recognition in their lifetime, and now are hardly remembered. Perhaps they were as brilliant as those who remain famous today, but for some reason, they are not known to the same extent.

There are artists, musicians, leaders, prophets, and of course, writers. And there are books. I will be trying to make some of these books from India better known, dating from the earliest to the modern.

There are the Vedas and all related Vedic texts; The Mahabharata and Ramayana in their innumerable different versions in regional languages; the Puranas and their stories; and the poems and writings of so many more in all different languages. Right now I am writing something on the Manimekalai, an epic in Tamil. It has a Buddhist theme, but also tells us a lot about women in early south India, and about religion and life in general.