Friday, March 27, 2009

On Beyond Zebra: A Thousand Nights and a Night (2)

Raqa'iq al-hilal fi Daqaiq al-hiyal' (literally "Cloaks of Fine Fabric in Subtle Ruses") is a collection of parables and allegories believed to have been compiled in the late 13th or early 14th century. The anonymous compiler organized his anthology hierarchically, beginning at the top with God (whose ruses he respectfully refers to not as 'cunning' but as 'wisdom'). He works his way down, chapter by chapter, through angels and jinn and then prophets before getting to us mortals. He continues to descend the hierarchy with tales of caliphs, kings and sultans, then vizirs and governers, and finally judges, ascetics and tax collectors.

The book is full of familiar characters. Besides God, there is, of course, Satan, as well as Jacob, Gabriel, Adam, Jesus, Muhammad, Abraham and others. Some of the stories will be familiar to many readers, but others are unusual and perhaps unique to this collection (The Angel of Death, for example, uses a ruse on Moses to get his soul). Alexander the Great is here as well, as is Caliph Al-Rashid.

The stories are many and varied, with titles like "A Supposedly Impotent Man", "How to Weigh an Elephant", "The Testimony of the Tree" and "The Harmful Effects of Eloquence". Military ploys abound, with tricks used to win battles or avoid wars. "The Boxes", for example, includes a siege-ending ruse that is very reminiscent of Odysseus's Trojan Horse. Translated by Rene R. Khawam as "The Subtle Ruse: The Book of Arabic Wisdom and Guile."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

On Beyond Zebra: Epics (1)

Those already familiar with the major Western and Indian epics will enjoy "Meghanada-vadha-kavya" ("The Slaying of Meghanada"), an odd but beautiful blend of many cultural traditions. It's author, Michael Madhusudan Datta, a colonial-era Bengali author, mingled aspects of Kalidasa, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton and Tasso.

The story itself is taken from the Ramayana, though many references to the Mahabharata also appear. The story starts, not surprisingly, "in the midst of affairs" (in medias res). Like Milton, Datta focuses on the traditional "bad guy" of the epic (Ravana) and presents him in a sympathetic light. Particularly fascinating is Rama's descent into hell. Like Aeneas, Rama is conducted through hell and meets his father. The underworld he visits is the city of Yama, the Hindu god of hell, but there are clear references to Milton's "Paradise Lost" and Dante's "Inferno", as well as, according to the translator's introduction, the Bangla translation of the Bible. Other influences such as the Ramlila and characteristics of Tasso's "Jerusalem Liberata" are harder to detect, but the final canto of Meghanada is clearly based on the final canto of Homer's "Iliad", with Ravana/Priam saying farewell to his slain son Meghanada/Hector and asking for a promise of peace from Rama/Achilles.

One warning: there are many characters in "Meghanada", but not nearly as many characters as names. There is a glossary in the back of the book, but constant reference interferes with enjoyment of the epic. In canto two, for example, there is a conversation between Ambika, the hurler of thunderbolts, Katyani, Vasava, the queen consort of the skies, Uma, son of Aditi, the ideal wife of Bhavesa, and Sati, queen of queens. I found the scene confusing, and after refering to the glossary I was shocked to find that what I had envisioned as a mass meeting was in fact a conversation between Indra and Durga, a god and a goddess, neither of whom had actually been refered to by name. To make matters worse, "Indra" is occasionally used as a superlative suffix. Perhaps it is a convention of Indian poetry not to refer to characters by name, or perhaps Datta wanted to portray the two pulsating between manifestations as their moods changed. Fortunately Clinton B. Seely's translation is gorgeous. "The Slaying of Meghanada" may need a second read, but it also deserves one.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On Beyond Zebra: Dante (1)

For eight weeks in spring I, by necessity, contemplated varioushells, both Christian and Buddhist, on Tuesdays as an instructor for the class "Samurai Epic and the Traditional Noh Theatre of Japan," then on Wednesdays as a student of the Northwest Classics Society class on Dante.

It is only natural to compare the two works. As Dante did in the ‘Divine Comedy’, Genshin, in his‘Ojoyoshu’ (Essentials of Birth) gives a vivid description of the glories of paradise and the horrors of hell. In reading the ‘Ojoyoshu’ one is repeatedly reminded of Dante’s immortal work. I came across Genshin’s ‘Ojoyoshu’ while doing research for my class on the traditional Noh drama of Japan. Because the ‘Samurai Epic’ class focuses on the Japanese war tales and the plays they inspired, most of the plays we studied feature the ghost of a samurai warrior that disappears at the end of the play, having asked a monk to pray for his soul, which must return to Ashura (the Realm of Furious Demons), where the condemned engage in eternal combat. Though horrible, Ashura is not hell, but one of the six migratory states of existence. It is directly below the Realm of Humankind, the "cesspool of perdition and corruption" where we are now.

Genshin, like Dante, painted the glories of Paradise in all the beauty that his imagination could conjure up. Genshin’s vision of Paradise, however, is based on tenth century Kyoto, with lotus ponds and artistic pavilions made of "the Seven Precious Treasures."

Like Dante, Genshin gives hell an elaborate architecture with many levels. The tortures of hell increase as you descend, and to arrive completely into the lowest level, the condemned must fall head first for two thousand years, reminded the entire way of what’s in store for them and why. This is hugely vast when compared to the treck of Dante’s pilgrim. With such a great variety of hells, there is a place for every sinner, with every sinner in his or her place. Those who enter into Genshin's hell, however, do not have to abandon all hope. Time spent in tortures in the lower realms, though excrutiatingly long, are not infinite.

Like Dante, Genshin populates his hell with bizarre creatures. In Dante, these include Cerberus, Medusa, the Minotaur, Harpies, and the Titans of Tartarus. Genshin’s various levels of hell also have their share of monstrosities. There are serpents whose barking voices are like a hundred thousand thunderclaps, and an evil bird the size of an elephant called Emba. Both hells are also peopled, as it were, with devils. In Dante there is a band of antic devils who happily toss public swindlers and grafters into boiling pitch. Similarly, Genshin’s hell crawls with "hell wardens" who have sixty-four eyes and emit iron balls from the tops of their heads, or have eight oxen heads with eighteen horns attached to each head.Not surprisingly, Genshin’s hell is a place of tortures, both numerous and horrific. In a level called Receiving-Limitless-Suffering, wardens use iron shears to cut out the victims’ tongues which, like Prometheus’s liver, grow back repeatedly only to be cut out again and again. The tortures of Genshin’s hell are so awful, in fact, that "if anyone should describe it thoroughly or listen to a full description of it, he would vomit blood and die".

Like Dante, Genshin used remarkable poetic imagery. The souls of heretics, for example, are carried up into the sky by "an evil wind," twirled around like the wheel of a cart, "spinning so fast as to be invisible," then are cut into pieces "as small as grains of sand and scattered in fragments in all directions." To try to escape "is as vain as a mantis fighting against an axe, or a monkey trying to grab the moon." The punishments in Genshin’s hell can also be quite poignant. One punishment reminiscent of the tortures of Tantalus, has sinners parched by the heat reaching for water which dries up and ceases to flow or suddenly turns into flames and burns them. Many of Genshin’s sinners are served with poetic justice, and certain sections even seem somewhat self-serving (one section, for example, is set aside for "those who have burned the bedroom furniture of priests"). But for Genshin, when human beings die, they cease to be human, so the Ojoyoshi lacks the personal enmities found in Dante's Inferno.

The influence the two writers have exerted on the religious life of their times and in subsequent centuries is great. Many Jigoku Zoshi ("hell scrolls") were produced, somewhat revolting, tragically impressive scrolls pictured the different types of hells described in Genshin’s ‘Ojoyoshu’. Like illustrated copies of the Inferno, these had an enormous influence on public art.

Monday, March 23, 2009

On Beyond Zebra: A Thousand Nights and a Night 1

People who enjoyed "A Thousand Nights and a Night" should check out Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani's "Book of Wisdom and Lies." One of the first books to be printed in Georgia (the country, not the state), it is a collection of a hundred and fifty two folktales and anecdotes. Like "A Thousand Nights," there is a collection of allegorical teaching-stories to educate the son of a king.
The wise vizir suggests a mysterious stranger for the job, but the court eunuch does not approve of the stranger's bizarre teaching techniques, and the five characters - the king, the prince, the vizir, the tutor and the eunuch - argue and debate through fables and proverbs.

During his lifetime Orbeliani was a nobleman, courtier and diplomat, but also spent some time as a destitute monk. The stories reflect his life experiences and travels. Some of the stories are comic, others melodramatic. Many will recognize similarities between tales here and well-known Sufi tales ("What did you expect? I'm a scorpion!"). Other stories are of Georgian origin. A personal favorite is "The Man Who was Buried Alive and the Country of the Giants," a tale that reads like a fusion of the fourth voyage of Sindbad and Gulliver's Travels. A traveler in a foreign land marries a local, only to discover that it's the local custom to bury the surviving spouses with the deceased. He protests, but to no avail ("There's always been a lottery!"). After escaping from his wife's tomb, he enters a land of giants, and ends up in the mouth of a giant who, in turn, tells the story of hiding inside a huge skull (huge to the giant, mind you) from a true giant's giant. Katharine Vivian's translation is highly recommended.