Poetry as Medicine in Ashvaghosha’s Handsome Nanda: Chandrahas Choudhury
Few texts in Indian literature are as pointed and yet as paradoxical as Saundarananda (Handsome Nanda), written in the second century CE by the Buddhist monk Ashvaghosha and recently published in the Clay Sanskrit Library series in a translation by Linda Covill. This vivid and beautiful “conversion narrative” is both a story and a sermon; both a paean to sensual pleasure and a bitter denunciation of the deceptions of sense experience; both a work of literature – rich in metaphor, poetic language, and dramatic counterpoint – and yet an attack on literature from within.
The protagonist of the story, Nanda, is a handsome and pleasure-loving prince, a scion of the king of the Shakyas. Handsome Nanda has an equally gorgeous wife, Sundari; he is also a half-brother of the Buddha, “the Realised One”, who is creating a tumult across India with his revelatory perception of the nature of human suffering. An entire chapter of Ashvaghosha’s story is devoted to a recapitulation of the life of the Buddha. In one of the hundreds of metaphors with which this precept-heavy text is strewn, we are told that Buddha is the seer who had “passed over the fathomless sea of faults – which is watered by conditioned existence, which has anxious thoughts for fish, and which is disturbed by waves of anger, desire and fear”, and who wants to take us across too.
Sundari and the Buddha represent, respectively, the two poles of extreme sensuality and spiritual ambition that vie for Nanda. This conflict is realised in the story’s most dramatic scene, in which we see Nanda at home sporting with his wife even though his brother has arrived in the town of his birth to teach the dharma. The two lovers are so rapt in each other’s presence that, we are told, “they rubbed off their cosmetics through caressing each other” (like St. Augustine in the Christian tradition, Ashvaghosha seems to have clearly drunk deeply of the well of pleasure before abandoning it for the cave of austerity).
When the Buddha comes home to visit Nanda, he finds all the housemaids enlisted in this carnival of sensual pleasure: “one woman was grinding body-unguents, another was perfuming clothes, one was preparing a bath, and others were weaving fragrant garlands”. He sees the time is not right for him and leaves, but word of his appearance and abrupt departure reaches Nanda and disturbs him, and he seeks his wife’s permission to seek out his brother. Sundari, tantalising as ever, lets him go on the condition that he return before her make-up has dried. As Nanda makes himself presentable and leaves, we are given this matchless description of a man giddy with indecision and then another who has conquered his own self:
Reverence for the Buddha drew him on, love for his wife drew him back again. He hesitated, neither going nor staying, like a king-goose pushing forwards against the waves. However, once she was no longer in his sight, he came briskly out of the palace, only to hang back again, his heart contracting, at the sound of her anklets. Kept back by his passion for love, and drawn forward by his attachment to dharma, he proceeded with difficulty; being turned around like a boat going upstream on a river.
Then setting out with long strides, he thought “The guru can’t possibly not be gone by now!” and “Perhaps I’ll be able to hug my darling girl, whose love is so special, while her visheshaka is still wet.”
Then on the road he saw him of the ten powers, free from pride even in his father’s city, and with all arrogance similarly gone, stopping everywhere and being worshipped like Indra’s banner in a procession.
Indeed, Nanda’s unfulfilled hope that the guru has disappeared from sight might be seen as a foreboding of what lies in store for him, for in fact this is the last time he is to see his wife. The Buddha, when approached, seeks to rescue his brother from slavery to the senses, and after a brief sermon asks his monks to ordain Nanda “so that he may find peace”.
Weeping copiously, writhing in agony, sighing and grieving at the memory of his wife, Nanda enters the realm of monkhood with his glorious locks are shorn from his head and his fine clothes taken away. Ashvaghosha memorably describes his gloom in cosmic terms: “wearing a faded garment of tree-bark and depressed as a newly-captured elephant, Nanda resembled the full moon moving into the dark half of the month, at the end of the night, daubed with the light of the early morning sun”.
That Nanda is a monk only in shell and not in spirit works to the advantage of Ashvaghosha, for the rest of the text is devoted to the depiction of his conversion in slow, shuffling stages. Burning with sensuality and worldliness, the reprobate Nanda is given the most elaborate working-over by the Buddha and his monks. First he is led forward by false inducements and promises that appeal to his pleasure-seeking nature, then gradually his hopes are disappointed and his illusions stripped away, and he is driven on until he learns to see the truth of the dharma for himself. This dramatic situation allows Ashvaghosha to present an elaborate exposition of the Buddhist view of the self and of suffering, of the cycle of rebirth and the route to liberation, of the tyranny of the senses and the necessity of mindfulness. And of course it is not just Nanda who is being persuaded of the duplicitous nature of “conditioned existence”, but also the reader.
Indeed, the distinctive feature of the text is the intensity of its attack on “the six roving senses” and “the glittering show of sense objects” – the very foundation of our experience of the world. “The village of the senses never has enough of sensory experience, just as the ocean, though rivers perpetually fill it, never has enough water,” preaches the Buddha. “As fluidity inheres in water, solidity in earth, motion in wind, and constant heat in fire, so does suffering inhere in the mind and body. [...] Who could sleep without worry in the world of humankind, ablaze with the fires of death, sickness and aging, any more than in a burning house?”
And the emphasis of Buddhism not on an external deity, law, or commandment but on personal agency, practical action, and self-sufficiency is sounded in the Buddha’s revelatory assertion that “the reason for this suffering during one’s active life in the world is not a God, not nature, not time, not the inherent nature of things, not predestination, not accident, but the host of faults such as desire.” The antidote to this suffering is mindfulness: “The mind unguarded by mindfulness can be regarded as defenseless, like a blind man stumbling over rough ground without a guide. [...] Whatever it is that a person continually thinks about, his mind, through habit, will develop a leaning towards it. Therefore, you must give up what is unwholesome and concentrate on the wholesome…”
A spiritual novice to begin with, even a rebel, Nanda gradually becomes an initiate, then an adept, and finally a realised being himself, a self-conqueror. Dramatically, this is the least interesting section of the text, but Ashvaghosha partially compensates for this by showing Nanda rooting out the essential truths of existence, ascending to revelation, through his own journey of striving and discovery: what the Buddha has already said once, Nanda confirms through his own means and in his own language.
Nanda’s story has a curious double conclusion. One is sounded by the Buddha, who marvels at his accomplishments and asks him to go out into the world and carry his “lantern of learning” among the ignorant. The other is voiced by Ashvaghosha himself. Ashvaghosha declares in the last two paragraphs of the text that, knowing the predilections of his audience, he has deliberately made use of a questionable means to achieve a worthy end, and drawn upon the sweetness of literary form and poetic language to make palatable the austerity of his message. “This composition on the subject of liberation is for calming the reader, not for his pleasure,” he announces:
… It is fashioned out of the medicine of poetry with the intention of capturing an audience whose minds are on other things. Thinking how it could be made pleasant, I have handled in it things other than liberation, things introduced due to the character of poetry, as bitter medicine is mixed with honey when it is drunk.
Seeing that the world generally holds the pleasure of sensory experience uppermost and is resistant to liberation, I, holding liberation to be paramount, have described the truth in the guise of poetry. Knowing this, that part which relates to peace should be carefully extracted from it, not the entertaining part; serviceable gold necessarily comes from ore-born dust.
But which kind of reader is the real object of this moralising message? Is it the lay reader with his mind “on other things”, as claimed by Ashvaghosha? Or could it be that this passage is meant to disarm the Buddhist monks and teachers who were Ashvaghosha’s contemporaries and who may have frowned upon his elaborate depictions of sensuality and indeed his apparent love of language, rhetoric, and metaphor as ends in themselves?
The material character of Ashvaghosha’s text suggests an approach towards worldly and sensory experience more ambiguous than its explicit message, and while Ashvaghosha himself acknowledges and rationalises this, there is something expedient about his logic. Poetry, in this marvellous but apparently reluctant poet’s description, is a kind of addiction and corruption, just like sense experience, yet knowledge of the weakness of human nature has prompted him to take recourse to it to convert the masses. But in doing so Ashvaghosha seems to have supplied an escape clause not just for himself but for others. Why should the reader, even if converted to peace by the narrative, not claim the same immunity as Ashvaghosha, and steep himself in poetry with the intention of extracting the worthy part from it?
And isn’t poetry, heightened language, itself an antidote to conditioned existence and to idle sensory dalliance? Is poetry only a glittering wrapper for the truth, and not a form of truth in itself? Might we not be changed or redeemed by poetry as we might by faith or by right action? Poetry may be cited in Saundarananda as only a vehicle for an answer to the problem of suffering, but form and content are not as easily separated as Ashvaghosha seems to suggest, and there is one condition then that his “medicine of poetry” cannot cure and in fact furthers, which is the love of such sweet-tasting medicine.