On “Handsome Nanda” Linda Covill

“Handsome Nanda” (Saundarananda) was composed by the Buddhist monk Ashva·ghosha in the 2nd century CE. It is an unashamed piece of proselytism geared to the tastes of a cultured audience, though we do not know how popular or successful it was. It was not translated into Chinese or Tibetan, nor was it the subject of any commentaries. But it was preserved, and has come down to us, and for that we can be grateful. When I first came across the Saundarananda several years ago, I had one of those rare moments of immediate recognition. Here was a work that was rich enough, complex enough and poignant enough to invite familiarity, a work with which one could happily spend a large amount of time without becoming bored. It is small-scale, intimate and psychologically acute, yet it deals with the biggest subject imaginable—the possibility of overcoming one’s own particular set of limitations and achieving human perfection. And it is so powerful that it ought to come with a health warning: “This poem could seriously damage your love life.”

My mother was one of the first people to proof-read my preparatory material for “Handsome Nanda”. As she turned over the last page, I asked her what she thought, and she replied with a question of her own: “Why couldn’t the Buddha just leave them alone?” She was distressed that the love affair between the hero Nanda and his lovely wife Súndari is terminated by the Buddha’s abrupt intervention. It is a very pretty love affair between two gorgeous young people whose passion for each other shines through their good-humored teasing and fooling around:

She smiled to herself at her husband’s cheekiness and playful little game, but frowned at him as though annoyed, and with her left hand lazily 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. (4.15–16)

When the Buddha comes knocking but receives no reply, Nanda feels duty-bound to follow him out into the crowded street. The events that follow form the content of canto 5, one of my favorite sections. The Buddha hands his begging bowl to Nanda. Now what can Nanda do? He has said what he came to say and badly wants to go home to Súndari. But he is holding the precious almsbowl of the Buddha, an object of veneration and respect. He can’t just put it down on the ground, or thrust it back at the Buddha. So he decides to take it with him, and thinking that the Buddha isn’t watching, he starts to walk away. It is at this moment that the Buddha steps out in front of him and blocks his path to stop him going home. The Buddha then leads him to the monastery, assuring him that his current contentment is not only unreliable and transitory, but an obstacle to true happiness:

“There is no fetter like affection, no torrent like desire for sweeping one away, and no fire like the fire of passion. If these three did not exist, bliss would be yours.” (5.28)

Nanda dithers, but eventually voices his refusal to become a monk. Yet he is ignored, and his head is shaved while tears stream down his face. When we next meet him, in Canto 7, he is wandering dejectedly in an idyllic forest setting. Ashva·ghosha’s sure feel for human psychology is evident once more, for Nanda, in the solipsistic manner common to lovers, interprets everything he sees as pertaining to his own situation:

When he noticed a delicate priyangu creeper bashfully shying away, another plant beloved by his beloved, he recalled her tearful face, pale as priyangu blossom, and wept. Seeing a cuckoo alighting on the flower-decked top of a tilaka tree, he imagined it as a lock of his darling’s hair against her white tunic as she leant from the palace. Next he noticed a cheerful atimuktaka creeper entwined around the mango-tree at its side, and he thought, “When will Súndari hold me like that?” (7.6–8)

Nanda looks at the beauty of nature all around him and everything that he sees reminds him of Súndari. Yet this kind of romantic imagining, this invention of pleasant scenarios in his head, is exactly what he must stop doing in order to be “free”, in the Buddhist context. Very soon he realises quite how strong is “the steely snare of love” (7.15). And in Nanda’s case it is not just the emotional pull that he finds hard to master, but also his overpowering sexual urges. The Apsarases are the prime embodiment and focus of Nanda’s sex drive, and Nanda is forced to confront them in Canto 10, again at the Buddha’s instigation. The Apsarases are popular subjects of Indian art and sculpture. Dancing, smiling, pouting over one shoulder or adjusting their scanty clothing, these ancient pin-up girls adorn the caves at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka, and the temples at Borobodur in Indonesia and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. But though they are flirtatious, ravishing and in every way desirable, being made to watch these heavenly women is a painful experience for Nanda. His heart blazes with a fiery passion, he is scorched by ardour, and would be burnt up there and then were it not for the Buddha’s power. Ultimately, he begs the Buddha to save him:

“For I have been bitten in the heart by the snake of lust, which has worthlessness for its coils, destruction for its eyes, infatuation for its fangs and dark ignorance for its burning venom. Great physician, prescribe a remedy!” (10.55)

It is clear by now that lust is Nanda’s particular malady, the character flaw that limits his development. Time and again we hear of Nanda’s enthrallment to lust and passion, from his very first appearances in the poem onwards. In 2.60 he is the embodiment of lust, kāma, as against the Buddha who embodies truth. As he grows up, he for ever idles away his time in pleasures (2.63). Making love is his sole preoccupation (4.1), his main concern is with lust and passion (12.3), he is in the clutches of passion (11.10); indeed, the entire story line of the Saundarananda hinges on Nanda’s lustful nature. Nanda’s malady feeds off itself, since the more he indulges in sensual pleasures, the greater his longing for such pleasures becomes. That is why ordinary human happiness is fundamentally inadequate:

There is no fulfillment for those who constantly hanker for sensory experience in the world, like dogs in their hunger, voracious for more. The village of the senses never has enough of sensory experience, just as the ocean is not full though rivers perpetually fill it. (13.39–40)

If Nanda can conquer his longings, one thought at a time, he will win the state which in Buddhist discourse is often termed enlightenment, liberation or nirvana. Ashva·ghosha prefers the word śreyas, the best or the excellent. Spurred on by the Buddha’s exhortations in cantos 13 to 16, Nanda goes to war in canto 17 and fights a battle with himself in the battleground of his own mind, an allegory that is spun out in stanza after stanza of military imagery. Upon attaining the experience of liberation, which he does toward the end of canto 17, Nanda can see for himself that the bliss offered by that experience is indeed superior to his previous everyday joys:

“For having tasted this pure, peaceful bliss, my mind does not crave lust-born pleasures, just as, after tasting divine nectar, the mind of a heaven-dweller does not crave even the finest earthly fare that is not eaten by the gods. Oh, the world is blinkered through the blindness of its knowledge, and does not see that in a different garment there is utter bliss! It throws away the security of inner happiness, and labours instead for sensual gratification.” (18.44–5)

My mother is not the first person to voice misgivings about the Buddha’s strong-arm tactics. Ashva·ghosha himself is aware of potential criticism, and makes several justifications in defense of the Buddha’s actions, frequently by appeal to paternalistic imagery of the Buddha as a physician or other care-giver. His primary argument, however, is that the end justifies the means, because Nanda now has access to a state of bliss that is far superior to ordinary domestic happiness. Whether you agree with Ashva·ghosha or not depends on whether you buy into the Buddhist point of view, which is that desire and its fulfillment never provide more than a second-rate temporary pleasure. Whatever one’s viewpoint though, the reader is sure to be both rewarded and challenged, as I have been, by an encounter with “Handsome Nanda.”

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