Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Body's Soul & Earth Is Heaven

R. M. Challa is a man of many parts. He is a scholar of the Vedas, various oriental and occidental languages including English, German, Persian, Sanskrit and Telugu, a literary and music critic, essayist and poet. "Let's tune in R. M. Challa", his literary column in the Indian Express in the sixties through the eighties used to be a piece of masterly erudition and educative to readers on diverse subjects from literature to philosophy and linguistics to phonetics. The column ran for about a quarter of a century, which is a first in Indo-Anglican journalism. “Body’s Soul & Earth’s Heaven”, is his review of Pandit Narayana Das’ “Rubaiyat” of Omar Khaiyam.
The question that most exercises thinking men’s minds is: Has the human life any prior or posterior subsistence outside of the visible birth, growth and death?

Poets and philosophers, saints and savants, have speculated on the problem and given us as many interpretations as are conceivable of our mortal existence. Some of these theses are based on reason; some on experience. Some are inspired by intuition; some by imagination.

Nonetheless, whatever projection or proliferation of man’s thought-processes found expression on paper, the fundamental fact remains that neither beatitude or after-life nor soul or spirit is tangible and that, while the dead are completely dead to give us any report of heaven and hell, the body has to possess the breath of life to be able to talk of ‘soul’.

In the midst of so much conflict and controversy that the off springs - God and Religion - of metaphysical intellect provoked, it is refreshing and rewarding to note that literature could boast of a few votaries who sincerely tried to translate the soul’s entity into the body’s function and to transfer the joys of Heaven to the life on earth.

Among these blessed souls, it is our pleasure now to consider two poets whose life and work ran along parallel courses, in a manner of speaking, and who, by a happy chance, appeal to us in brighter perspective thanks to the labour of love the latter-day translator-poet accorded to the medieval astronomer-singer.

In rendering into two different Telugu and Sanskrit versions the Persian original and its English translation by Fitzgerald, Narayana Das not only did something unique but also gave rebirth to the essentially mystic content of Omar Khayyam and at the same time paid a sporting tribute to the Englishman who, despite the liberties he took with the Persian’s pristine intent, brought the latter’s heart-warming verse to worldwide attention.

True, the way things exist and excel in this world no author can be justified in pleasing himself in the first place and in thinking of the reader as an unimportant factor as far as the former’s main purpose is concerned. To this extent, one cannot help observing that the Andhra bard had somewhat sacrificed readability and intelligibility to scholarship and erudition.

The modern mind asks itself the question: As long as a thing isn’t good enough for me, I couldn’t care less about how good it is; so if a writer wants to create something, which doesn’t submit to my understanding, what do I have in common with someone who merely pleases himself?

However, some of the greatest literary compositions remain closed books to the laymen and yet retain their usefulness to the learned man. Narayana Das purposely wrote his translation with the scholarly reader in his mind. And in doing so he succeeded as only a genius like him could have.

As already indicated, the chief aim of Narayana Das in undertaking such a laborious task was to vindicate the true message of the original which was a little distorted, albeit well-meaningly, in the popular English translation.

Of course on the apparent essence of Omar’s hedonism both the Englishman and the Andhra are agreed, as we see:

Fitzgerald sums up: “While the wine Omar celebrates is simply the juice of the grape, he bragged more than he drank of it, in very defiance of that Spiritual Wine which left its votaries sunk in hypocrisy or disgust”.

Narayana Das observes: “The quintessence of Omar’s poem is the enjoyment of wine, woman, and music, which are really substantial; but paradise is only ideal…Man is predestined for happiness or misery; but good or bad is only in his nature”.1

Fitzgerald depended on the original merely as a potter depends on clay; whereas Narayana Das provided a mirror to the original, which only the two oriental languages could offer convincingly to its sister language of the East. Thus one may maintain that the Englishman wrote for Englishmen and the Indian for Indians.

Since the English version is as well known as Shakespeare or the Bible, there is no further need to discuss about it here. Let us henceforth confine our attention to the Telugu and Sanskrit renderings of the Rubaiyat(s).

The actual publication under review consists of the Persian original and its English transliteration and Fitzgerald’s English quatrains (Narayana Das followed the second edition, perhaps because he could not lay his hands on the authoritative fourth edition which now enjoys universal patronage) - both printed on the left-hand side pages; the Sanskrit translation into anushtup metre of Fitzgerald and into giti metre of Omar, followed by Desyandhra (Accha Telugu) translation into Kanda metre of Omar and Bhujangi metre of Fitzgerald - which appear on the right-side pages. The book also includes (1) a brief foreword by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan (2) the translator’s prefaces in English, Sanskrit and Telugu (3) alphabetically arranged glossary giving Sanskrit, English and Telugu equivalents of Omar’s vocabulary and (4) an index supplying common Telugu meanings of the more intricate Accha Telugu words in the Narayana Das versions. Comprising 328 pages, and priced at Rs.25, the book is a must on every public library shelf (those who wish to buy copies may apply to U. Suryanarayana Rao, Andhra Prabha Correspondent, Pandit Narayana Das’s House, Vizianagaram).2

With my modest knowledge of Persian and Accha Telugu and thorough understanding of Sanskrit, I can corroborate the Harikathapithamaha’s claim that his translations “are true to the original to a great extent”. What is more important, Narayana Das has ennobled Omar’s image. I mean, a reading of Fitzgerald’s Omar creates the impression of an epicurean who, according to the translator, mainly exclaimed “Let us drink, for tomorrow we die” on the other hand Narayana Das portrayed Omar who is “strictly a monotheist and believes the soul is eternal”.

In other words, Edward Fitzgerald’s accent was on the bliss of the drunken ‘Masti’. A. Narayana Dasa’s emphasis rested on the ‘Masti’ of the divine oneness of the individual and universal selves as embodied in the union of man and woman. The latter concept was exquisitely depicted in Brihadaranyaka Upanished, (4-3-2-1). And Narayana Das revealed his knowledge of this great Advaitic teaching in his translation as, for example in, the 72nd quatrain (second edition) which reads:

Heav’n but the vision of fulfill’d Desire,
And Hell the Shadow of a Soul on fire,
Cast on the Darkness into which Ourselves,
So late emerged from, shall so soon expire.

Both English and Persian versions were given a monistic touch in the Andhra’s rendering which roughly states: The world is maya; Brahman alone is Truth: the former is like immaterial sparks emanating from the latter’s essential fire. Ignorance (Avidya) of this truth enslaves man; and knowledge (vidya) delivers him from earthly bondage.

All honour to the souls of Omar Khayyam, Edward Fitzgerald and Adibhatla Narayana Das, who have so lucidly enlightened our lay minds on the high wisdom of discovering the Soul in the Body, of finding Heaven on Earth!

1In his biographical sketch of Omar Khaiyam, Pandit Narayana Das qualified these: “Of all enjoyments devotion towards the Almighty is the happiest; therefore Omar encourages wine, woman and music, which mean divine service, a pure mind and meditation”

2The review was written in 1967. Sri U. Suryanarayana Rao, Pandit Narayana Das’ grandson died in 1970.

*Reproduced from the "Harikathapitamaha Srimadajjada Adibhatla Narayana Dasa Satajayantutsava Sanchika" (1967), the souvenir published by the Samskruthi Samithi, Chirala to commemorate the great man's birth centenary.

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