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 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.

Posted in Bhutan, Buddhism

Praying for the cranes

While most of the world is busy destroying itself, its wonderful to know of a monastery where Buddhist monks spend their time praying for black-necked cranes! A few days ago I saw a great programme on NatGeo on Bhutan, and was intrigued by the story of these cranes.

The Gangtey gompa  in central Bhutan is a monastery specially for them.They  return here every winter and have been doing so for centuries. Near the gompa are marshlands, the natural habitat of the cranes.
There are  15 crane species, including the black-necked cranes.Black-necked cranes are thought to live up to  80 years and mate for life. As they reach the monastery, they are said to circle it three times, before they touch ground, as Buddhists circle sacred sites .
After they arrive, pairs of cranes dance, and throw objects towards each other, a strange gift- giving ceremony.
Near the monastery  in Bhutan, the cranes are protected. Killing a crane leads to imprisonment.When the cranes arrive safely, it indicates a good year for Bhutan.

The black-necked crane festival is celebrated every year in November.