The ten hundred petals of the lotus, which at evening,
had folded one by one, as if to count
the sun’s departing rays;
it once again now opens, curious to enumerate
the same thousand as they rise.1

एकद्विप्रभृतिक्रमेण गणनामेषामिवास्तंयतां
कुर्वाणा समकोचयद्दशशतान्यम्भोजसंवर्तिकाः ।
भूयोऽपि क्रमशः प्रसारयति ताः संप्रत्यमूनुद्यतः
संख्यातुं सकुतूहलेव नलिनी भानोः सहस्रं करान् ॥
(anargharāghava of murāri)

Mathematician Paul Erdős used to maintain that God had a book containing elegant proofs of all important theorems; and when a mathematician worked really hard, God would be distracted enough for him to sneak a peek! If Saraswatī maintains a similar book of startling imagery, I bet this wonderful verse is somewhere there. I’m also sure at least some of you must be thinking about how lotuses, elephants and moons manage to pop up in almost every Sanskrit verse! Lotuses always bloom at sunrise and close at sunset. Eyes are blue as the water-lily. Pretty maidens compete with the moon. The oceans hide treasure beneath their waves. Snakes’ hoods have jewels.

Such narrative stereotypes are called kavi-samayas “poetic-conventions”. Cliche obviously has no role in good poetry. Yet, these narrative stereotypes serve an important purpose— of providing a scaffolding for the poet. Upon this scaffolding, the poet’s imagination can then build complicated structures. This is especially needed in Sanskrit poetry where long, intricate descriptions are common. But narrative stereotypes are seen elsewhere too; for instance, limericks use the man from Nantucket:

There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.

The Greeks had some standard literary recipes konoi topoi “common places”, the Romans had their loci communes, and we even recently erected a new scaffolding for blonde jokes, Alia Bhatt! Of course, the kavi-samaya yields good poetry only when it is reinvented towards new imagery and meaning. The poet must shine a new light on an old stereotype, like Murāri did. By themselves, poetic conventions are just cliches; about as useful as the ueue in queue.

Lets now go to a verse on a favorite kavi-samaya of poets— the rabbit on the moon.

अङ्कं केऽपि शशङ्किरे, जलनिधेः पङ्कं परे मेनिरे
सारङ्गं कतिचिच्च संजगदिरे,भूच्छायमैच्छन् परे।
इन्दौ यद्दलितेन्द्रनीलशकलश्यामं दरीदृश्यते
तत्सान्द्रं निशि पीतमन्धतमन्धतमसं कुक्षिस्थमाचक्ष्महे॥
(kuvalayānanda of appayya dīkshita)

Some say it’s a rabbit, some deer;
Others say it’s mud of the ocean,
from where the moon took birth.
Some say it’s the earth’s shadow.
But this is what I think—
The moon shines night after night
drinking in darkness;
And it’s all sunk to his tummy.
That’s the moon’s black spot!
What a wonderful spin to an old story! Rabbit (shashānka) and Deer (mṛgānka) on the moon are well known. The mud needs some explanation.

The moon is said to have been born when the kshīrasāgara (milk-ocean) was churned for nectar. It apparently picked up some mud on the way! And what can one say about the beautifully simple idea of the moon drinking darkness? The merit of these kinds of verses is in their universal appeal. After all, which culture has not pointed at the moon and wondered about its spot? Which culture has not aahed at a flower blossoming with sunrise? Only literature that appeals to the universal essence of human-ness can escape the great sieve of time. This is the secret of Kālidasa, Shakespeare and Homer. Shortsighted post-modernism has much to learn from them.

There is a great deal of folklore in all cultures about the patches on the moon’s face. Indians see a rabbit or a deer; the chinese claim it’s a hare; Americans swear it’s a man. The Scandinavians say the shadows hide a boy and a girl carrying a bucket. The boy is Hjuki (pronounced juki) and the girl is Bil. They come from the Norse words jakka (“To increase”) and bila (“to dissolve”). The children are each a spot on the moon, which appear to move up and down as the moon wanes and waxes. And thus every month, Juki and Bil — or Jack and Jill — go up with a pail and then Jack falls down, and Jill comes tumbling after!

Coming back to India:

Five hundred years after Appayya, Poet K.S. Arjunwadkar had a different take on the matter in his contemporary satire kaṇṭakānjali “Offering of thorns”:

नक्तं यो धवलेन्दुमण्डलगतः संलक्ष्यते कालिमा
तं पङ्कं शशकं घनान्धतमसं मूढाः समाचक्षते |
एतन्मन्त्रिवणिक्जनैः सुकृतिभिश्चन्द्रस्य लोकं गतैः
साकं नीतमिहार्जितं भुवि पुरा कृष्णं धनं मन्महे ||

That black spot on the moon,
Fools variously call it mud,
rabbit and swallowed darkness.
But I say—
Our noble ministers and tycoons,
Complete their stay on earth
and ascend heavenwards,
Taking their black money with them.
That’s what it really is!

This adds a completely new dimension to allegations that Narendra Modi is promising the moon to voters!

Writing in fluid classical verse, Arjunwadkar leaves you in peals of laughter about everything from Indo-China relations to the marriage market. A reading of Kaṇṭakānjali ought to convince anybody that Sanskrit literature has much more to offer than just lotuses, elephants and moons. But leaving aside even that, it’s worth reading kaṇṭakānjali just to encounter the wonderfully poignant concluding verse:

स्पृष्टं स्त्री-विट-चेट-शूद्र-यवनैर् गीर्वाण-वाङ्-मन्दिरं
भ्रष्टं स्याद् इति ताल-यन्त्रितम् इदं कुर्वन्ति तेभ्यो नमः ।
किं गालीषु किम् अर्चनेषु किमु वा शास्त्रेषु किं प्रेमसु
सर्वे संस्कृत-भाषिणो यदि तदा देवाय कुर्यां बलिम् ॥

Fearing that Sanskrit’s treasure might be ruined by ‘outsiders’,
some put it away under lock and key— to hell with them.
Be it for foulest abuse, god’s praise, complicated science or mushy romance,
when Sanskrit is on everybody’s lips— I will then thank the Gods!

Could anybody disagree? With this one verse, I’m sure Arjunwadkar has won the hearts of all his readers.

Let me leave you with a little tidbit:

The Sanskrit roots of some words are fairly well known. For instance, baat/vārtā, buudha/vṛddha, kaam/karma are taught as tadbhava (derived) forms in school. But there are some surprising ones. For instance, the hindi word walla (“dabbawalla”), is actually from the Sanskrit pāla (“lokapala”) meaning guardian! So next time you go out for a panipuri, remember that the vendor actually has a rather grand title— he is the Guardian of the Pani Puri!

1. An Anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry, Daniel H. H. Ingalls.

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