Ancient History & Civilisation


Their unity in India—Fables—History—Tales—Minor poets—Rise of the vernacular literature—Chandi Das—Tulsi Das-Poets of the south—Kabir

Prose is largely a recent phenomenon in Indian literature, and might be termed an exotic corruption through contact with Europeans. To the naturally poetic soul of the Hindu everything worth writing about had a poetic content, and invited a poetic form. Since he felt that literature should be read aloud, and knew that his work would spread and endure, if at all, by oral rather than written dissemination, he chose to give to his compositions a metric or aphoristic form that would lend itself to recitation and memory. Consequently nearly all the literature of India is verse: scientific, medical, legal and art treatises are, more often than not, presented in metre or rhyme or both; even grammars and dictionaries have been turned into poetry. Fables and history, which in the West are content with prose, found in India a melodious poetic form.

Hindu literature is especially rich in fables; indeed, India is probably responsible for most of the fables that have passed like an international currency across the frontiers of the world.* Buddhism flourished best in the days when the Jataka legends of Buddha’s birth and youth were popular among the people. The best-known book in India is the Panchatantra, or “Five Headings” (ca. 500 A.D.); it is the source of many of the fables that have pleased Europe as well as Asia. The Hitopadesha, or “Good Advice,” is a selection and adaption of tales from the Panchatantra . Both, strange to say, are classed by the Hindus under the rubric of Niti-shastra—i.e., instructions in politics or morals; every tale is told to point a moral, a principle of conduct or government; usually these stories pretend to have been invented by some wise Brahman for the instruction of a king’s sons. Often they turn the lowliest animals to the uses of the subtlest philosophy. The fable of the monkey who tried to warm himself by the light of a glowworm, and slew the bird who pointed out his error, is a remarkably apt illustration of the fate that awaits the scholar who exposes a popular delusion.

Historical literature did not succeed in rising above the level of either bare chronicles or gorgeous romance. Perhaps through a scorn of the Maya events of space and time, perhaps through a preference of oral to written traditions, the Hindus neglected to compose works of history that could bear comparison with Herodotus or Thucydides, Plutarch or Tacitus, Gibbon or Voltaire. Details of place and date were so scantily recorded, even in the case of famous men, that Hindu scholars assigned to their greatest poet, Kalidasa, dates ranging over a millennium.59 Living to our own time in an almost unchanging world of custom, morals and beliefs, the Hindu hardly dreamed of progress, and never bothered about antiquities. He was content to accept the epics as authentic history, and to let legend serve for biography. When Ashvaghosha wrote his life of Buddha (theBuddha-charita), it was legend rather than history; and when, five hundred years later, Bana wrote his Harsha-charita, it was again an idealization rather than a reliable portrait of the great king. The native chronicles of Rajputana appear to be exercises in patriotism. Only one Hindu writer seems to have grasped the function of the historian. Kalhana, author of the Rajatarangini, or “Stream of Kings,” expressed himself as follows: “That noble-minded poet alone merits praise whose word, like the sentence of a judge, keeps free from love or hatred in recording the past.” Winternitz calls him “the only great historian that India has produced.”60

The Moslems were more acutely conscious of history, and left some admirable prose records of their doings in India. We have mentioned Alberuni’s ethnographical study of India, and Babur’s Memoirs. Contemporary with Akbar was an excellent historian, Muhammad Qazim Firishta, whose History of India is our most reliable guide to the events of the Moslem period. Less impartial was Akbar’s prime minister or general political factotum, Abu-1 Fazl, who put his master’s administrative methods down for posterity in the Ain-i Akbari, or “Institutes of Akbar,” and told his master’s life with forgivable fondness in the Akbar Nama. The Emperor returned his affection; and when the news came that Jehangir had slain the vizier, Akbar burst into passionate grief, and cried out: “If Salim (Jehangir) wished to be emperor, he might have slain me and spared Abu-1 Fazl.”61

Midway between fables and history were the vast collections of poetic tales put together by industrious versifiers for the delectation of the romantic Indian soul. As far back as the first century A.D. one Gunadhya wrote in one hundred thousand couplets theBrihatkatha, or “Great Romance”; and a thousand years later Somadeva composed the Kathasaritzagara, or “Ocean of the Rivers of Story,” a torrent 21,500 couplets long. In the same eleventh century a clever story-teller of uncertain identity built a framework for his Vetalapanchavimchatika (“The Twenty-five Stories of the Vampire”) by representing King Vikramaditya as receiving annually from an ascetic a fruit containing a precious stone. The King inquires how he may prove his gratitude; he is asked to bring to the yogi the corpse of a man hanging on the gallows, but is warned not to speak if the corpse should address him. The corpse is inhabited by a vampire who, as the King stumbles along, fascinates him with a story; at the end of the story the vampire propounds a question which the King, forgetting his instructions, answers. Twenty-five times the King attempts the task of bringing a corpse to the ascetic and holding his peace; twenty-four times he is so absorbed in the story that the vampire tells him that he answers the question put to him at the end.62 It was an excellent scaffold on which to hang a score of tales.

Meanwhile there was no dearth of poets writing what we should call poetry. Abu-1 Fazl describes “thousands of poets” at Akbar’s court; there were hundreds at minor capitals, and doubtless dozens in every home.* One of the earliest and greatest was Bhartrihari, monk, grammarian and lover, who, before retiring into the arms of religion, instructed his soul with amours. He has left us a record of them in his “Century of Love”—a Heinelike sequence of a hundred poems. “Erstwhile,” he writes to one of his loves, “we twain deemed that thou wast I and I was thou; how comes it now that thou are thou and I am I?” He did not care for reviewers, and told them: “It is easy to satisfy one who is ignorant, even easier to satisfy a connoisseur; but not the Creator himself can please the man who has just a morsel of knowledge.”63 In Jayadeva’s Gita-Govinda, or “Song of the Divine Cowherd,” the amorousness of the Hindu turns to religion, and intones the sensuous love of Radha and Krishna. It is a poem of full-bodied passion, but India interprets it reverently as a mystic and symbolic portrayal of the soul’s longing for God—an interpretation that would be intelligible to those immovable divines who composed such pious headings for the Song of Songs.

In the eleventh century the vernaculars made inroads upon the classical dead language as a medium of literary expression, as they were to do in Europe a century later. The first major poet to use the living speech of the people was Chand Bardai, who wrote in Hindi an immense historical poem of sixty cantos, and was only persuaded to interrupt his work by the call of death. Sur Das, the blind poet of Agra, composed 60,000 verses on the life and adventures of Krishna; we are told that he was helped by the god himself, who became his amanuensis, and wrote faster than the poet could dictate.64 Meanwhile a poor priest, Chandi Das, was shocking Bengal by composing Dantean songs to a peasant Beatrice, idealizing her with romantic passion, exalting her as a symbol of divinity, and making his love an allegory of his desire for absorption in God; at the same time he inaugurated the use of Bengali as a literary language. “I have taken refuge at your feet, my beloved. When I do not see you my mind has no rest . . . . I cannot forget your grace and your charm,—and yet there is no desire in my heart.” Excommunicated by his fellow Brahmans on the ground that he was scandalizing the public, he agreed to renounce his love, Rami, in a public ceremony of recantation; but when, in the course of this ritual, he saw Rami in the crowd, he withdrew his recantation, and going up to her, bowed before her with hands joined in adoration.64a

The supreme poet of Hindi literature is Tulsi Das, almost a contemporary of Shakespeare. His parents exposed him because he had been born under an unlucky star. He was adopted by a forest mystic, who instructed him in the legendary lore of Rama. He married; but when his son died, Tulsi Das retired to the woods to lead a life of penance and meditation. There, and in Benares, he wrote his religious epic, the Ramacharita-manasa, or “Lake of the Deeds of Rama,” in which he told again the story of Rama, and offered him to India as the supreme and only god. “There is one God,” says Tulsi Das; “it is Rama, creator of heaven and earth, and redeemer of mankind. . . . For the sake of his faithful people a very god, Lord Rama, became incarnate as a king, and for our sanctification lived, as it were, the life of any ordinary man.”65 Few Europeans have been able to read the work in the now archaic Hindi original; one of these considers that it establishes Tulsi Das as “the most important figure in the whole of Indian literature.”66To the natives of Hindustan the poem constitutes a popular Bible of theology and ethics. “I regard the Ramayana of Tulsi Das,” says Gandhi, “as the greatest book in all devotional literature.”67

Meanwhile the Deccan was also producing poetry. Tukaram composed in the Mahrathi tongue 4600 religious songs which are as current in India today as the Psalms of “David” are in Judaism or Christendom. His first wife having died, he married a shrew and became a philosopher. “It is not hard to win salvation,” he wrote, “for it may readily be found in the bundle on our back.”68 As early as the second century A.D. Madura became the capital of Tamil letters; a Sangam, or court of poets and critics, was set up there under the patronage of the Pandya kings, and, like the French Academy, regulated the development of the language, conferred titles, and gave prizes.69 Tiruvallavar, an Outcaste weaver, wrote in the most difficult of Tamil meters a religious and philosophical work—the Kurral—expounding moral and political ideals. Tradition assures us that when the members of the Sangam, who were all Brahmans, saw the success of this Pariah’s poetry, they drowned themselves to a man;70 but this is not to be believed of any Academy.

We have kept for the last, though out of his chronological place, the greatest lyric poet of medieval India. Kabir, a simple weaver of Benares, prepared for his task of uniting Islam and Hinduism by having, we are told, a Mohammedan for his father and a Brahman virgin for his mother.71Fascinated by the preacher Ramananda, he became a devotee of Rama, enlarged him (as Tulsi Das would also do) into a universal deity, and began to write Hindi poems of rare beauty to explain a creed in which there should be no temples, no mosques, no idols, no caste, no circumcision, and but one god.* “Kabir,” he says,

is a child of Ram and Allah, and accepteth all Gurus and Firs. . . . O God, whether Allah or Rama, I live by thy name. . . . Lifeless are all the images of the gods; they cannot speak; I know it, for I have called aloud to them. . . . What avails it to wash your mouth, count your beads, bathe in holy streams, and bow in temples, if, whilst you mutter your prayers or go on pilgrimages, deceitfulness is in your hearts?72

The Brahmans were shocked, and to refute him (the story runs) sent a courtesan to tempt him; but he converted her to his creed. This was easy, for he had no dogmas, but only profound religious feeling.

There is an endless world, O my brother,

And there is a nameless Being, of whom naught can be said;

Only he knows who has reached that region.

It is other than all that is heard or said.

No form, no body, no length, no breadth is seen there;

How can I tell you that which it is?

Kabir says: “It cannot be told by the words of the mouth, it cannot be written on paper;

It is like a dumb person who tastes a sweet thing—how shall it be explained?73

He accepted the theory of reincarnation which was in the air about him, and prayed, like a Hindu, to be released from the chain of rebirth and redeath. But his ethic was the simplest in the world: live justly, and look for happiness at your elbow.

I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty;

You do not see that the Real is in your home, and you wander from forest to forest listlessly!

Here is the truth! Go where you will, to Benares or to Mathura, if you do not find your soul, the world is unreal to you. . . .

To what shore would you cross, O my heart? There is no traveler before you, there is no road. . . .

There there is neither body nor mind; and where is the place that shall still the thirst of the soul? You shall find naught in the emptiness.

Be strong, and enter into your own body; for there your foothold is firm. Consider it well, O my heart! Go not elsewhere.

Kabir says: Put all imaginations away, and stand fast in that which you are.74

After his death, runs the legend, Hindus and Mohammedans contended for his body, and disputed whether it should be buried or burned. But while they disputed some one raised the cloth that covered the corpse, and nothing could be seen but a mass of flowers. The Hindus burned a part of the flowers in Benares, and the Moslems buried the rest.75 After his death his songs passed from mouth to mouth among the people; Nanak the Sikh was inspired by them to found his sturdy sect; others made the poor weaver into a deity.76 Today two small sects, jealously separate, follow the doctrine and worship the name of this poet who tried to unite Moslems and Hindus. One sect is Hindu, the other is Moslem.

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