Urthona editor Dhivan Thomas Jones talks to two translators of the great Indian Buddhist poet

by Dhivan Thomas Jones
Urthona, Issue 26, Summer 2009
“Handome Nanda” by Ashva·ghosha. Translated by Linda Covill.
“Life of the Buddha” by Ashva·ghosha. Translated by Patrick Olivelle.

Sometimes benign coincidences bless our lives and help us convince ourselves we might be on the right track. I had just re-engaged with the task of learning Sanskrit, the classical language of India, when Chris Gibbons, administrator of the Clay Sanskrit Library, sent Urthona magazine review copies of their latest publications. The hardbound little books, with their light turquoise dust jackets and cream paper, lie in the hand like old-fashioned classics, quiet, dignified yet attractive. Both were new translations of long Sanskrit poems by Ashvaghosha, a Buddhist poet of 2nd c. India. Chris let us know that the translators were available for interview. My re-kindled interest in Sanskrit blazed into enthusiasm at this opportunity not just to read these books but to interview two experts on the material.

The bus ride from Cambridge to Oxford, the home of the Clay Sanskrit Library, is a dull drag through new towns, along dual carriageways, past light industrial estates. But then, talking to Chris over lunch in Wolfson College, I am borne to the faraway world of Indian literature. Sanskrit is an ancient language that has renewed itself in new works over millennia. There is a vast literature on all aspects of Indian civilisation; religion and philosophy, of course, but poetry and drama too. The Clay Sanskrit Library is envisaged as a way to make many of these literary riches more easily available.

Chris tells me the story. John Clay studied Classics at Oxford but then went into business. Upon retirement, however, he enacted a long cherished ambition – to sponsor the publication of a library of books with Sanskrit and English on facing pages, like the long-established Loeb library of Greek and Latin classics. A fellow ex-pupil of St Paul’s school in London, Richard Gombrich, the emeritus Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, agreed to become general editor (a task now taken on by Sheldon Pollock). John Clay’s vision was to bring out about 100 volumes of the finest Sanskrit literature, including the two Indian epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, in their entireties (in 32 and eight volumes respectively). Ashvaghosha’s epic Buddhist poetry was also high on the list.

I talk to his two modern-day translators in a room looking down over willows and a river, a very English scene. Patrick Olivelle has translated Ashvaghosha’s Buddhacarita as Life of the Buddha, a biographical poem covering the whole of the Buddha’s life. Linda Covill has translated the same author’s Saundarananda, or Handsome Nanda, a long poem about the conversion of the Buddha’s half-brother Nanda from a life of sensuality to one of enlightenment. Patrick Olivelle is visiting from Austin, Texas, where he is Professor of Sanskrit. I ask him about his interest in Ashvaghosha, and in the Life of the Buddha. ‘I came to Oxford to do the BA in Sanskrit. Coming from Sri Lanka my interest was originally Buddhism, but I began studying what could be called the mainstream Brahminical tradition of India quite by accident, and have been doing it ever since. Coming to Ashvaghosha was a return to something that I started 40 years ago. Richard Gombrich said, “Are you interested?” and I said yes.’

Patrick and I continue to discuss his translation. When I read Life of the Buddha I had noticed how it feels different to the traditional life-story of the Buddha. There is no mention of the Buddha’s many former lives as a bodhisattva, for instance; but also a sense that the Buddha-to-be is not so much on an existential quest for enlightenment but subject to an inexorable fate. Ashvaghosha seems to have his own poetical purpose in his re-telling. Patrick Olivelle comments: ‘Shakespeare in his historical plays was creating an artistic fictional narrative around what his contemporaries believed. Similarly Ashvaghosha was saying something about what happened – he knew the tradition of the story – but was making a new interpretation. In creating a work of art, an aesthetic thing, he was taking certain liberties, just like Shakespeare, but in such a way that his readers would still believe that it is true.

‘A problem that Ashvaghosha creates for himself is that on the one hand he suggests that Gautama was destined to become a Buddha, so he writes about the miracles and the divine interventions; on the other hand he has to say this is a great achievement, that there were great obstacles to be overcome, all those beautiful girls to be resisted, and so on. Now, these two things are incompatible, and Ashvaghosha has to weave a fine line between them. We should notice though where Buddhacarita ends – not with the death of the Buddha, but many hundreds of years later, with Ashoka, the first great Buddhist Emperor, worshipping the Buddha’s relics. It is like writing a life of Christ that ends with Constantine, when the world had been won for Christianity, which is the final triumph.’

This is a theme that Patrick explores in the Introduction to his translation – that Ashvaghosha represents the Buddha as the culmination of the Indian brahmanical tradition. ‘Just as Christianity says that Christ is the fulfilment of Judaism, Ashvaghosha wants to say that the Buddha is the culmination of Indian wisdom. But there’s a tension in that he wants to say that people who still believe in the brahminical tradition are misguided. In fact, the Hindu tradition seems to ignore Buddhism. There is no mention of it in the epics or in the Laws of Manu. The traditional approach was to write polemic without naming one’s opponent. Ashvaghosha’s Buddhacarita is part of this bigger, unspoken, cultural conversation; if you look at it this way you can read the poem differently. The Buddha-to-be’s departure from the palace, for instance, parallels the departure of Rama in the Ramayana. The point is that Ashvaghosha was the first close reader of the epics. And this is why his life of the Buddha is not like the traditional Buddhist stories.’

I turn to Linda Covill, translator of Handsome Nanda. ‘My interest also came from the religious side. I did my BA and MA in Indian Religions, but came to Oxford to learn Sanskrit. I chose Saundarananda as the subject for my doctoral thesis, and the translation was a part of it.’ So what had attracted her to the poem? ‘It was one of those situations where you come across something and think, yes, that’s the one for me. What particularly appealed was the poem’s theme of conversion; the way it’s presented seemed to me particularly profound. It has acute psychological observations and seemed very modern in some respects, despite being almost 2,000 years old. It spoke to me, and I felt that it was a book that I could work with for a number of years. And I still think it’s fantastic.’

I mention to Linda my perplexity about how little-known Saundarananda seems to be. ‘I’m not sure why this is,’ she replies. ‘There is a previous English translation, by Johnston, which came out in 1932, long out of print. It was not as far as people know translated into Chinese or Tibetan. Neither is there a traditional Sanskrit commentary on it, so it’s possible that in times gone by it wasn’t particularly popular. It may be because of the rather dry sections towards the end, which are expositions of the Buddhist path. The flavoursome narrative element is all in the first half, so perhaps people would start reading it and think, it’s getting a bit dry, I’ll put it aside…’ Patrick playfully interjects at this point: ‘I was lucky in that the dry part of Buddhacarita has been lost in Sanskrit. It still exists in Tibetan and Chinese translation (which I summarise), but I didn’t have to deal with it.’

So ‘Handsome Nanda’ may have been neglected even in India. But Linda qualifies this judgement. ‘The story itself, though, was always popular. It is found in the earliest scriptures – how the Buddha manages to remove Nanda from his beautiful wife, and then takes him through the conversion process to becoming a monk. It was a favourite theme for depiction in art. The frescoes in cave 16 at Ajanta, for instance, are illustrations of the Nanda story.’

There is something that I noticed about the way Ashvaghosha handled this story, though, that I wanted to ask Linda about. The traditional Buddhist emphasis of Saundarananda, and indeed Buddhacarita, is on renunciation, the giving up sense-pleasures, for the sake of enlightenment; yet especially in Saundarananda Ashvaghosha appears to take great delight in spelling out the sensual details of Nanda’s relationship with his wife. There almost seems to be a tension at work in Ashvaghosha’s poetry, between the sensuality of the descriptions and the message of renunciation.

Linda agrees. ‘There is a short section in canto 4 of Handsome Nanda, only 19 or 20 verses long, describing Nanda’s relationship with his wife, Sundari. It’s not just that there are physical and sensual descriptions, but the quality of the relationship between the two of them is so immediate and lifelike. The way they look at each other, the fooling around, the drawing a moustache on her own face, that’s such a beautiful little moment that it’s invested with feeling; somehow you think he knew what he was talking about:

At one time he arranged her jewellery on her, not to make her lovelier, but to do her a service; for she was so adorned by her own beauty that it was she who lent loveliness to her jewels. She put a mirror into his hand and said to her lover, ‘Just hold this in front of me while I do my visheshaka [make-up]. Then, looking at her husband’s moustache, she made up her visheshaka just like it, but Nanda blew on the mirror to remedy this.

She smiled to herself at her husband’s cheekiness and playful little game, but furrowed her brow as though annoyed, and with her left hand, languorous with wine, she threw the lotus from behind her ear at his shoulder. Then she smeared some of her make-up on his face and half-closed eyes

Linda continues: ‘Having described married love so attractively, Ashvaghosha’s got the difficulty of presenting the Buddhist goal of enlightenment as better than this height of human happiness in which he has invested so much description. In canto 17, when Nanda has attained enlightenment, he gives a long speech to the Buddha, a hymn of thanksgiving and praise. Here’s just an extract:

Just as I would put out a fire with water, I have extinguished the burning fire of passion with the water of steadfastness; now I have come to utter rapture, like someone slipping into a cool lake during the summer heat. There is nothing at all that is pleasant or unpleasant for me; I am not enamoured of anything, and even less am I hostile to anything. In the absence of these two I am straightway joyful, like one who is spared extremes of heat and cold.

‘To me the tension of the poem is encapsulated in parallel actions. One is in canto 4, when Nanda throws himself at the feet of his wife; she pretends to be angry with him, and he pretends to beg for forgiveness. Then in canto 18 he throws himself at the feet of the Buddha, but the Buddha lifts him up, saying, Why do you lie with your head at my feet? Your prostration does not honour me as much as your entry into the dharma. Visually we can compare these two moments, and the second seems more profound than the first. The mirroring adds to the message.’

Patrick speaks up here. ‘There is the same tension in the Buddhacarita. When Ashvaghosha describes the Prince’s first journey outside the palace, en route to the first of the “four sights”, he describes the ladies who rush to see him in very rich detail:

commotion then reigned in those balconies,
as they thronged pressing against each other,
ornaments on their bodies jingling loud,
their earrings aflutter by the jostling;

as they stretched out from the balconies,
their earrings rubbing against each other,
the lotus-faces of the women bloomed,
like lotuses hanging from the mansions;

then, with its mansions bursting with young ladies,
throwing open the windows in their excitement,
the city sparkled on all sides with splendor,
like heaven with mansions filled with apsarases [heavenly nymphs];

because those balconies were not too large,
with earrings resting on each others’ cheeks,
the faces of those excellent girls beamed,
like lotus bouquets tied to the windows.

Patrick goes on. ‘I think an interesting aspect of Ashvaghosha’s art is his ability to get into the women’s world and describe things from that point of view. Nanda left his wife to follow the Buddha, and Gotama himself abandoned his wife when he went forth. In Buddhacarita Yashodhara’s lament in Canto 8 is long and poignant; for instance:

“O how cruel and extremely hard is this man’s heart,
though his body is gentle and his mind is sharp,
That he would indeed abandon his infant son,
sweetly babbling, charming even an enemy!
My heart too must be very hard,
made perhaps of iron or stone,
That, bereft of its lord, it does not break,
when its lord, used to comforts,
has repaired to the forest,
bereft of royal splendor.”

Such writing has bred an entire literature in Sri Lanka of sung lamentations of Yashodhara.’ Linda also adds: ‘In the Saundarananda the whole of Canto 6 is Sundari’s lament for her husband who has not returned; again beautiful.’

This of course is a tension for Buddhism, between the ideal of renunciation and the family left behind. Patrick says, ‘It’s a difficult thing for the Buddhists to say – how can it be morally OK for a man who is married with children to just leave. That is not dharma, Yashodhara says; your dharma will be adharma, unrighteousness, if you leave me. Ashvaghosha is working within the Hindu tradition of Manu’s time that says, yes, you can renounce, but only when you have seen through your responsibilities. The Buddha did exactly the opposite.’

This discussion leads to the question of for whom exactly Ashvaghosha was writing. At the end of both poems he states that his reason for writing was to propagate the Buddha’s teaching. Saundarananda concludes:

This composition on the subject of liberation is for calming the reader, not for his pleasure. 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 more 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.

We agree he must be writing for a courtly audience, though Linda notes: ‘I can’t see that his intended audience would have been monks, but it is odd, because he does give long instructions on meditation, and why is this included if it’s going to be a courtly audience?’ Patrick adds: ‘In Buddhacarita you have opponents of the Buddhist tradition coming in and arguing. The king, his ministers, another king from the Magadha area, other ascetics – they all bring their own arguments against Buddhist theory, and the Buddha is able to address them.’

He continues: ‘In my introduction I look at how he plays with the multiple dimensions of the term dharma. He is clearly trying to address a larger audience, whether courtly or more general. I think he knew the Laws of Manu or something like it, which also uses this central term dharma. Something else is that in the second c. ce, Northern India was under the rule of the Kushana kings. This was an explicitly Buddhist monarchy, so Buddhism was no longer just a monastic thing. The Laws of Manu may have been one Brahminical reaction to this. Then there is Ashvaghosha coming from the other side, explaining Buddhism in a period of Buddhist ascendancy.’

Linda agrees. ‘I felt that he was aiming his work at people who were basically like Nanda. They may have been superficially Buddhist, but Ashvaghosha was trying to deepen their faith. I don’t feel his work was aimed at non-Buddhists, but he wants to encourage an ongoing conversion.’

I ask Linda and Patrick what we know about Ashvaghosha. It turns out we know nothing about him except what we can glean from his words in the two poems that survive – that he was a Brahmin probably from Saketa (Ayodhya) in northern India, who became a Buddhist monk. Then there is this tiny amount of information about him from the colophon to his own Saundarananda:

This is the composition of the Venerable Ashvaghosha of Saketa, noble son of Suvarnakshi, monk, teacher, great poet and eloquent speaker.

We have his two substantial poems, but the story of the person who wrote them is unknown. Patrick adds: ‘It happened to many Indian authors. For so many of them what survives is their work and not any biographical information.’ Linda goes further: ‘Presumably that’s what he would have wanted. He would have wanted the individual behind the poetry to disappear.’ What does survive are the two earliest long poems in classical Sanskrit, which greatly inspired later poets, even the renowned Kalidasa.

Linda Covill leaves to go back to work. Patrick Olivelle and I continue to talk for a while, but I have more than enough information for my interview. Our discussion on poetic metre in Sanskrit, on alliteration and ornament would take up most of the magazine. Chris Gibbons and I go into town to drink coffee and speak more about the fascination of Sanskrit poetry. Such talk could go on for days.

Ashvaghosha’s Handsome Nanda, translated by Linda Covill, and his Life of the Buddha, translated by Patrick Olivelle, are published by New York University Press and the JJC Foundation. Full details of the Clay Sanskrit Library are to be found at