Trans-Himalayan poetic heritageWe should evoke the great classical poetic tradition to replenish the values of life.
I was invited to present a paper at the Second China-South Asia Literature Forum on Trans-Himalayan Literary and Cultural Connectivity, held in Kathmandu, from 15–20 October 2019. I presented a paper on trans-Himalayan poetic culture. As a great lover of Chinese poetic classics and the epic culture of the Indic region, especially that represented by the great epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, I dwelt on the underlying strength of these poetic works and heritage. With the temptation of sharing the thoughts about the classical poetic traditions of China and South Asia that can be inspiring and energising in today's world dominated by the capital and profit-oriented culture, I am presenting some excerpts and gist about the poetic heritage presented there.
Great poetic traditions exist in the countries of the trans-Himalayan region. Unlike several traditions of art and culture, the traditions of epics and poetry of shorter length have continued to be effective. Astonishingly enough, these traditions have continued to exist and impact human minds despite the adversities and negligence that these great poetic traditions have suffered. The single reason for such continuity is the strength of these traditions, and their profound impact on our cultures, behaviours and on various forms of art that we practice and enjoy in our lives. This article examines, albeit briefly, the epic traditions of the Indic region and China and also mentions Japan to suggest that the classical heritage of poetry has the power of reviving the lost creative moments and developing an essential culture of creative sharing of heritage.
One subject that has generally evaded our attention is the question of epic poetry, and its relation with other kinds of poems, which are not linear in their narrative form and short in length. Sheldon Pollock in a recently published Penguin Viking book What India and China once Were (2018) says and it is common knowledge, ‘like the absence of epic in China, like the absence of historiography in India… have been a cliché of orientalism from the time of the German philosopher George Frederich Hegel (1770-1831), here is a divergence of genre in the two traditions that markedly contrasts with what unites their lyric poetry.’
Pollock very rightly calls it an orientalist cliché, a way of looking at the poetic traditions of Asia by the Western scholars. Though Pollock says, there are no epics in China; there is the power of the creative energy that shapes a poem. Epic tradition of the Indic region, especially the tradition of the Ramayana has been written and rewritten in vernacular languages. Nepal’s Bhanu Bhakta Acharya translated the Sanskrit Adyatma Ramayana into Nepali. After studying the translation with interest, my conviction of Acharya being a powerful and authentic translator of poetry in Nepal stands reconfirmed. I believe his method should be discussed more widely in today's forums of scholars.
Pollock cites the example of Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), written by Sima Qian which he says, ‘is not the earliest example of extended historical writing in China, but, like the ancient European and Indian epics, it defined the past and provided material for future iterations of antiquity’. What is important to see, he says, is that epic does not stand alone; ‘it is contingent on a larger knowledge of surrounding history/myth.’ As printing came early in China, reading or reciting long oral long narratives was restricted by the need for reading slowly.
Chinese poetry should be seen from its pervasive nature in time and space. An exciting clash between classical imaginaire and a desire to create familiar experiences in poetry marks the character of Chinese poetry. I referred to the complete but smaller and crucial translations and compilations of Chinese poetry. Some of these important works show the Chinese poetry from before the 15th century BCE to 12th century CE. The Judeo-Christian worldview of the West, the Taoist cosmology and the Indic epic traditions show how poetry in the classical times not only created the fabric of productive vision of the world but also sustained it by making poetry a subject that can be inherited, shared and reinterpreted. The great secular, spiritual and aesthetic tradition of classical poetry is equally compelling today. I read them with the same interest as I read the poetry of contemporary times in the West and the East.
The classical epic tradition of the Indic region has binding power. The essence of the tradition is that the epics written in ancient Sanskrit evoked the interest of poets to transform them into their vernaculars and to interpret the macro forms into microforms. Such translations are printed in books, but they retain the orality, the strength of repetition and singing of the epic verses even today. The oral epics after going through a process of printing, and getting couched into the language of the canon sometimes make their way back to orality. One outstanding example of that is the Nepali Ramayana of Bhanu Bhakta Acharya, which is translated from the Sanskrit Adhyatma Ramayana, as mentioned earlier, into Nepali. The verses of this Ramayana are used orally that people with no access to letters have produced folk hybrid forms, some of which are popularised by the troubadours or Gandharva.
There is one remarkable difference between Chinese classical poetry and the Indic epic traditions that have generated so many variations. The Chinese classical and oral poems as I have understood from reading the English translations and interpretations is the continuity of the same great forms through centuries. Classical Chinese poetry stands as it is; it neither creates delusions nor shows propensity for free, almost anarchic interpretations. Reading them is like reading the poetry of any trends and times. On the other hand, the concept of history associated with the famous Indic epics Ramayana and Mahabharata is unclear, for it moves closer to myth and importantly, to imaginary spheres with poetic value.
We should evoke the great classical poetic tradition to replenish the values of life that are ebbing away slowly in the once-great trans-Himalayan culture.
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