The Adikavi: Bhanubhakta’s Beads of Devotion by Jose Bolante

Bhanubhakta Acharya is a renowned poet from Nepal. Considered as the Adikavi or the original poet, he is most famous for translating the epic Ramayana from Sanskrit to Nepali. While not really the first poet to originate from Nepal, as their have been many before him, Bhanubhakta is considered the original poet as he was able to use the native language, Nepali, in literature as it was considered too bastardized to be of use in literature and was used merely as everyday speech. Bhanubhakta was able to make the important Hindu literature Ramayana, and more importantly literature as a whole, available to the predominantly Hindu Nepali people who were at that time mostly illiterate and unfamiliar with Sanskrit. His achievement with the Ramayana elevated the Nepali language to be of use in literature which is why he is considered the Adikavi.

Bhanubhakta_Acharya-copy

(Portrait of Bhanubhakta Acharya)

Known for his simplicity and strong sense of religion in his work, as well as a style that is considered more lyrical than the style normally used for poetry. One of his other known work is “Bhaktamala” or “Beads of Devotion”. An initial reading of the poem would have it read out as a prayer or a plea, and I will attempt to analyze it per stanza to see what makes it representative of Nepali, as well as South Asia as a literary piece, while also considering the given notes on Bhanubhakta’s style.

“Not that the benighted world
Is always without a sage
Whose wisdom-lamp can save
The erring human race;
Evil begets affliction
In the life to come-
Armed with this knowledge
The self-betraying man
Marches into the kingdom
Where oblivion reigns.
Let the Lord be glorified, O mankind!”

The first four lines of the stanza describes a divine figure, one that is described to be a figure of salvation who is to save mankind. Seeing as the author is Hindu, with strong leanings towards the Ramayana, one can probably assume that the figure being described here is Vishnu or at least one of his avatars (an incarnation of a god in Earth, so that he can interact with people through his mortal form). In the following lines he describes the problems with man, who even with the knowledge that evil with lead him to ruin, still goes on to commit evil as he is described as “self-betraying”. The narrator then seems to call out to mankind to let the Lord be glorified, as a plea for their repentance from this self-betraying lifestyle.

“Let the rampart of petty materialism
Not separate you from Him.
I have reached the dusk of a fleeting life,
How long, after all, could it last?
Repentant will I ever be
If I don’t take heed still.
A moment of devotion can ferry me across
The temporal ocean, boundless and deep,
Or else, into the quagmire of disaster
Will I sink.

In the lingering modicum of time
What salvation can my devotion earn?”

The narrator seems to point out what leads man towards this path, that of materialism. The poem then takes a more personal side as the narrator points towards himself, calling himself out as he is reaching the end of his own wasted life, and begins to consider repentance. The narrator states that a moment of devotion can lead him towards repentance, as if he does not practice devotion, the same imagery of disaster (similar to the affliction mentioned in the first stanza) will befall him. He questions again what little time he has in Earth, and if his devotion within this time can lead him into salvation.

“Indeed, only if the Celestial Monarch
Reveals Himself to me
As one emitting rays of benevolence
And comes forward to show a countenance
Beaming with paradisal smile
To shower upon me
The bounty of forgiveness and divine grace,
Shall I perhaps be redeemed.
A greater dunce than I
The world could not have ever seen,
Who for a sensual life
Frittered away the best.
What is the thing that most wickedly
Casts a spell on me
And turns me into its blind slave?”

The third stanza includes some of the more stronger religious imagery in the poem, as here the narrator again mentions a divine figure in the form of a divine revelation. I think it is noteworthy to say that when I discussed this poem in our class, many members of the class seemed to agree that the notion of divine revelation, as well as salvation seemed to be all too similar with the Catholics’ description of these concepts. While I have to relent that it may seem so, I could also say that these concepts may not be strictly only Catholic in nature, and the Hinduism shares it views with these concepts, although I am not too certain and further reading into Hinduism as a religion would help remedy this as well as give better understanding of this poem. Nevertheless, going back to the discussion of the poem, the narrator seems to linger on the question of whether the short amount of time he has on Earth, and the devotion he can give at that time can save him, of which the idea that only divine revelation can lead him into salvation. Divine imagery such as “rays of benevolence” as well as “paradisal smile” is used to described this image of the divine figure. The narrator again goes back to describing the troubles of the sensual life (again similar to the materialism he mentioned in the second stanza). Another figure seems to be mentioned by the narrator, something which casts a spell on him and leads him into living a petty hedonistic life, almost akin to the Catholic concept of the devil (although he might just be embodying materialism and its wiles).

“Fatuous were the world pursuits
That took away from me
What my starving soul needed most,
The timeless fruits of meditation
But meaningless are these lamentations now,
I raise within myself an image
Of a saffron-clad god
Adorned with a crown
And many an ornament,
But my feeble mind falters
And turns away from him.
How long shall I tread
The terrestrial path
In the thickening mist of despair
With longing for that beatific glimpse?”

The narrator starts out the last stanza with the recurring theme of worldly pursuits (akin again to materialism, sensual life) and how this led him to not being devotional. He finally succumbs that his complaining of these are meaningless, and again mentions the other recurring theme of divine revelation. I think this religious imagery is much more significant, Hindu beliefs wise, as they describe physically a figure associated to Hindu beliefs rather than Catholic ones. The image described as “a saffron-clad god adorned with a crown and many an ornament” is very descriptive and similar to how Vishnu is commonly drawn or painted. The narrator again laments how his mind falters, and is ended with the question of how long he shall stay with his materialistic ways as he looks for this divine revelation.

devotee

(A saffron-clad devotee, according to a google search of the word)

vishnu

(Vishnu, note the crown, ornaments, and being saffron-clad)

Understanding and enjoying Bhanubhakta’s work entails that you should at least have some background knowledge on the author’s religious beliefs to fully appreciate it, as he has strong leanings toward it. I think one of the many joys of studying a different country’s literature, especially one so foreign to us especially when it comes to theme and even more so language is that it comes with a certain level of background research on the country as well. I think it would be very difficult to understand a country’s literature by itself without taking in context the country’s culture as well as history, which makes participating in studying another country’s literature something that is both arduous and satisfying and involving as by the end, you take in more than just that country’s literature. As I mentioned above, it is quite difficult to see the imagery and statements within the poem without first having at least a little background knowledge on Hinduism and its associated beliefs and concepts. I remember one such poem, “Bring the Wine”, a traditional Chinese poem discussed in our class as well that would come out as purely hedonistic as the narrator calls out for drinking alcohol day in and day out, if not taken in the context that in his religious beliefs, wine drinking was looked up to. Although problems do arise from translations, as I think it is quite apparent that the lyrical and simple style of writing that Bhanubhakta was known for is not quite accurately depicted in this translated poem of his, the strong sense of religion, as well as with it insights on the Nepali beliefs and culture make this traditional poem of his a worthy representative of South Asian literature, as well as a great view on the diverse and culturally-charged works of Asian literature when compared to other literature in the continent.

Sources:

Acharya, Bhanubhakta. “Bhaktamala.” Modern Indian Literature. Trans. Irshad Ahmed. 877-878. PDF.

K.C., Bishnu. “Bhanubhakta: The First Poet Of Nepal.” OhmyNews. 14 July 2006. Web. 18 Mar. 2016. <http://english.ohmynews.com/articleview/article_view.asp?no=304833&rel_no=1&gt;.
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