Epic Poets from India: Nandi Timmana and Tulsidas in the Murthy Library Indian Classics

Theft of a Tree, Nandi Timmana, Harshita Mruthinti Kamath (trans), Velcheru Narayana Rao (trans); The Sea of Separation: (Ramayana), Tulsidas, Philip Lutgendorf (trans) (Harvard University Press, February 2024) Theft of a Tree, Nandi Timmana, Harshita Mruthinti Kamath (trans), Velcheru Narayana Rao (trans); The Sea of Separation: (Ramayana), Tulsidas, Philip Lutgendorf (trans) (Harvard University Press, February 2024)

When Mark Twain interviewed the leader of the Mormon Church, Brigham Young, in 1861, he found the religious patriarch mightily preoccupied with the problems of equal treatment for his 56 wives. Young told Twain of gifting a handkerchief or a fan to one woman; before long, all the other wives clamored for similar attentions. Polygamy’s downside provides the starting point for the epic poem, The Theft of a Tree, composed in classical Telegu by Nandi Timmana for Krishnadeveraya, ruler of the 16th century, south Indian, Vijayanagara empire. Surely the maharaja, with three documented consorts, could relate to the problem described by Brigham Young. And surely, he would have been enchanted by the poetic treatment accorded to it by his court poet.

A mischievous sage, Narada, presents Lord Krishna with a magic flower that makes a woman irresistible. The man-God (an avatar of the supreme God Vishnu) bestows the flower on his official queen, Rukmini. Word of this favor gets back to the equally beautiful and beloved Satyabhama, who retires to her boudoir and spitefully ruins her splendid looks. Krishna playfully revives her good humor, but promises to acquire a whole tree of these flowers from the closely guarded garden of the god Indra.

Timmana, in courtly Indian tradition, revels in erotic lyricism. The Theft of a Tree is imbued with the perfumes of jungle flowers, heady brews, elephant ichors and musk. Beautiful women wait until nightfall to play tricks on their husbands. Beads of sweat drop from their bodies like so many pearls, and their muslin saris cling to their curves even when unloosed in agitation. The god of love, Kama, appears to be the most powerful of all the deities, despite the ancient primacy of Indra, chief of the Vedic gods, and the ascendancy of the Vishnu-Krishna devotion in Vijayanagar.

 

Tulsidas’s Ramayana tells the tale of another, earlier avatar of Vishnu, Ram, and how the demon Ravana carries Ram’s beautiful bride Sita off to Sri Lanka. Ram enrolls the monkey king Hanuman to invade the island and recover his chaste queen. The tone is very different in this work, although composed at roughly the same time as the Krishna tale. Tulsidas, a wandering sage, frequently performed this poem not at royal courts, but in prayer meetings and meditative retreats. Composed in a vernacular language of the day, Braj (a precursor to modern Hindi), Tulsidas could be easily understood by the common man. Though his narrative roughly follows that of the more extensive Ramayana by Valmiki (composed in classical Sanskrit in the early centuries of the Common Era), he uses the epic mostly to propound ethical maxims.

When Ram slays one of the monkeys, it’s ostensibly a punishment for the sin of lust. He consoles the monkey’s widow by reminding her of the soul’s indestructibility. Ram is ever the exemplary human being, who never angers, exacts revenge out of duty but not passion, and accepts the setbacks he encounters with equanimity. The demon Ravana falls victim to all the temptations that Tulsidas warns us against: anger, lust, pride, cupidity. Sita is a perfect wife who preserves her honor and that of her husband in captivity.

Tulsidas has much to say about women—his views come in for criticism in modern times. The best of women see their husbands as gods incarnate; the less good ones are respectful or at least faithful in behavior, if not in their hearts. The adulteresses, whose goings on are so artfully depicted in Timmana, go directly to a karmic hell, according to Tulsidas. The poet also warns men, “the body of a young woman is like a flame that can consume a whole forest,” and so men should stifle desire, meditate and offer prayers.

 

Despite these differences, both epics employ memorable poetic rhetoric. Timmana’s women display their lovers’ bite marks like triumphant inscriptions on a monumental pillar; Tulsidas’s Ram regrets the distant thunder which reminds him of his separation from the beloved Sita. In both epics the poets channel the magnificent combat scenes of the earlier Mahabharata, to describe battles that mobilize gods, demons, apsaras and gandharvas. One hears and visualizes the breaking of swords, the snapping of chariot harnesses, the twanging of arrows—almost as if it were on a wide screen and in technicolor. At the conclusion of the battles, the man-God triumphs over his enemies. Krishna leaves Indra abashed for having failed to recognize his superior divinity, and returns to his palace to the general joy of his 16,000 wives. Ram destroys Ravana, and brings his chaste bride safely back from Lanka. Clearly there is a different sentimental life for maharajas and the rest of us.

Whether one’s orientation is towards polyamory or chastity, what lies behind these twin stories of Vishnu’s avatars, is the devotion of the soul to God, evoked by the love of Sita for Ram and Satyabhama for Krishna. The lover longs for acceptance, fulfillment, and annihilation. This is the state experienced by God’s wives, and the poetic retelling of their stories help the listeners draw closer to the godhead. Both poems, the courtly, sophisticated Theft of the Tree, and the homespun, melodramatic Sea of Separation, convey the same spiritual message.

Readers will enjoy both books as an entry way into India’s superb tradition of storytelling, spirituality and lyricism. Extensive endnotes explain the many unfamiliar epic and religious references. Some of the stories buried in the footnotes will prick readers’ curiosity for more.


David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.