The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Read an excerpt from Maya, a Buddhist novel of self-discovery

by C. W. Huntington, Jr.
December 31, 2015
Thu, 12/31/2015 - 10:00 -- C. W. Huntington Jr.

“Excuse me, Anantacharya-ji.”

“Yes? Please speak up.” He raised both bare feet off the floor and tucked  them in under the folds of his dhoti.

“I was taught—maybe I simply assumed—that Indian philosophers wrote in verse to make it easier to memorize the texts. Is that so?”

He studied my face. “And why we should memorize now, when written word is so easy to find?”

“Well,” I began, intensely aware that I was wading into deep waters. Anantacharya had repeatedly lectured me on the value of memorization. “Maybe the custom survives from a time when everything was passed along orally, before things were written.”

“Survives?” He tipped his head to one side, like that dog in the old RCA Victor ads. “You are suggesting our Indian custom of philosophical poetry is anachronism?” He pronounced the word slowly, as if taking the full measure of its weight on his tongue. “An old tradition we might want to avoid now, in modern world. Is that it? Is that your meaning?”

“No, well not exactly.” I was on the spot. The truth was that I had always more or less taken it for granted that classical Indian philosophy was composed in metered verse. I suppose I thought of it as a form of scholasticism. Anantacharya seemed to be hinting at something more.

Neither of us said anything. For a while he pulled at one earlobe, then switched to massaging the tip of his nose.

“Mr. Stanley,” he said at last, “let us consider Raghuvamsha. Raghuvamsha is epic poem, mahakavya. You will find only five mahakavya in whole of Sanskrit literature, for there are many strict requirements. An epic poem must begin with salutation, as we are just now reading together. Subject of mahakavya must be some very important event. There must be great councils, messengers and embassies, armies engaged in battle. Mahakavya must include cities and villages, seas, mountains, and change of seasons, sunrise and sunset. And moonlight. Yes, Mr. Stanley,” he smiled knowingly, “moonlight must be there. Moonlight is necessary for scenes of amusement in garden, scenes of drinking sharab and dalliance between man and woman. This is raga, Mr. Stanley. What do you say in English? Passion. Love. But not only joy. Raga means also sadness and grief, from losing all those things we love. Mahakavya must show us both joy of victory and misery of defeat.”

Here he halted long enough to cough once or twice, catch his breath, and call out for a glass of water. The glass appeared in seconds, delivered by one of the younger boys who handed it to him, hanging back just long enough to smile shyly in my direction. Anantacharya took a long drink and deposited the glass on the floor next to his cane. He cleared his throat with alarming force—I thought for a moment he might be choking—then adjusted himself in the chair and rubbed one palm over his freshly shaven crown.

“Philosophy and poetry—they are having the same subject: life. But not only some abstract idea of life. They speak to me of my life, the life I am living, here and now. Is it not so? For if the poet is skillful, then the story he is telling becomes my story. I see the meaning of his words in my own life.”

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