The West tends to think and speak of ancient India as a spiritual lot, as a place and time which gives extraordinary importance to religion, and other dimensions of otherworldliness. The poet R Parthasarthy goes to the texts, different from the usual epics, that engage with love in all its corporeality. His newest anthology, Erotic Poems from the Sanskrit: An Anthology, brings together the work of over seventy poets who wrote between fourth and seventeenth centuries in India. The collection includes several anonymous and women poets as well as the expected males.
While there a few anthologies of translated Sanskrit poetry available to poetry enthusiasts and scholars, Parthasarthy’s collection is admirable for making Sanskrit poetry relevant and accessible once again. He notes in his Introduction that his aim is to offer
a new verse translation that introduces the richness and variety of Sanskrit poetry to a new generation of readers in a robust, contemporary English idiom that captures, insofar as possible, the tone and register of the Sanskrit originals. The translations are, above all, English poems that can be read with pleasure by readers of poetry.
These tender pieces both praise love and whine about it, celebrate the body and condemn it, and swear by the beloved and sing of infidelity.
Parthasarthy makes Sanskrit poetry relevant and accessible once again.
This last contrast is particularly arresting because of the way the poems capture women’s sexuality, bordering on the scandalous. Parthasarthy notes it is
not surprising to find poets writing about illicit love in a society where a woman’s chastity is closely guarded, both before and after marriage. Ancient Indian women, like women elsewhere, wanted ownership of this bodies, which patriarchy did everything in its power to deny. Nowhere is the battle of the sexes more valiantly fought than in these little-known stanza poems, some of which have miraculously survived into our own time.
Vallana, the poet thought to have lived in Bengal between 900 and 1000 CE, is represented by two poems in the anthology. The poem “Sea of Shame” goes:
Once he had peeled my clothes off,
my arms could not hide my breasts;
his chest became my only covering.
When his hand plunged below my hips,
who could have saved me, drowning in a sea of shame,
but the god of love himself who teaches us how to faint?
The intensity of love is described in terms typical of the standards of good taste in Sanskrit poetry. Parthasarthy’s introduction to his selection clarifies that erotic poetry in both literary Sanskrit and the more vernacular Prakrit, are very suggestive; they work very well in the way they use all the resources of the language to evoke pleasure without crossing the line. “These poems,” Parthasarthy writes,
reflect a culture that celebrates the pleasures of the flesh without any inhibition in a language that never gives offence, that never crosses the line but always observes the canons of good taste.
The currency of interpretation in Indian aesthetics works along the lines of the evocation of an emotion: while purging the emotion of its impurities, the poet invokes the rasa (the mood) through dhvani (suggestion). The emotion of desire in the poem “Sea of Shame” evokes the sringara rasa (erotic mood) through the suggestive tropes of “peeling” of clothes. The poem ends with the suggestion of mating, and successfully and powerfully so, because it does not spell out the details.
Vallana’s second poem included by Parthasarthy is “On the Grass”:
Having thrown your shawl on the grass
by the pond, traveler, you sit on it.
Aren’t you tired? The way is difficult,
with no village in sight; besides, it’s getting late.
No longer covered by the shawl, your thighs show
as you raise your knees to your stomach.
It is twice as unseemly as if you were sprawled out.
I too am alone. What are we to make of this?
Within a span of a few lines, the poem packs the desolate situation, time and place. The woman has brought to the traveler’s notice that they are alone and tactfully asked him what that means. She has described both the parties in singular terms and in her question, brought them together by speaking of them together.
The use of suggestion, as opposed to a direct statement, is intrinsic to poetry everywhere. Parthasarthy’s introduction includes examples from around the ancient world literature: the Greek poets Asclepiades (4th century BCE), Sappho (600 BCE) and the Latin poet Sulpicia (1st century BCE). Philodemus’s (110-30 BCE) poem “The Unfaithful Wife” speaks of adultery in a similar vein:
In the middle of the night
I stole from my husband’s bed
And came to you, soaked with rain.
And now, are we going to
Sit around, and not get down
To business, and not bill and coo,
And love like lovers ought to love?
Though the element of desire and its expression through suggestion and its reading or reception in arousal and pleasure are universal, Parthasarthy’s handpicked pieces are gems of love in the way they proclaim Indian sensibilities of lovemaking and longing. This slender volume is as delightful and passionate as the experience of love itself can get.