On “The Lady of the Jewel Necklace” and “The Lady Who Shows Her Love” Wendy Doniger

Since the word “Sanskritists” in the popular imagination functions to designate brainy scholars in the humanities much as “rocket scientists” does for scholars in the physical sciences, it might at first seem that “low-brow Sanskritist” is an oxymoron (or, better, an Irish bull). Walt Kelly’s cartoon ‘possum Pogo, after all, always used “Samskrimps” (perhaps a back-formation from “Sand-script,” which is what many non-Samskrimpsists call the language) to refer to high-fallutin’ mumbo-jumbo, particularly as it was dished out by dishonest politicians. But there is Sanskrit and there is Sanskrit; it is an enormous literature, of which we have barely scratched the surface, with its high-fallutin’ moments and its Pogo moments, and I have always gone for the Pogo moments. When my Sanskrit teacher at Harvard, the late, great Daniel H. H. Ingalls, introduced me to Kali·dasa’s ‘The Birth of Kumára’ (Kumārasaṃbhava), the story of the birth of the son of Shiva and Párvati, I liked it well enough, but what I loved best about it was the story, not the poetry. And when Ingalls casually remarked that the stories were also told in the Puránas—rambling, encyclopedic texts written in unadorned, often ungrammatical Sanskrit) I raced downstairs (for Sanskrit in those halcyon days was taught in Widener A, an attic room perched right in the belfry of the great library, with pigeons wobbling around and on the flat roof that was level with the bottom of the big window, their warbling forming a musical accompaniment to the Sanskrit verses we read aloud) and into the stacks. There I found the Puránas, began to read the passages about Shiva, and immediately announced that I much preferred the Puranic to the ornate kāvya version; I can still see the look of horror on Ingalls’ face as I said this, as if I had confessed to a preference for the Classic Comics version of War and Peace in place of Tolstoi’s novel. But I knew that I had found my métier, and continued for many years to pluck the stories out of the kāvya as one might husk a lobster or an oyster, discarding the outer shell in order to get to the delicious meat (or the pearl).

Not that I had no use at all for the husk, especially when Kali·dasa was the oyster. One of my first publications was an attempt to translate Canto VIII, incidentally proposing a new, impossibly complex way of translating Sanskrit compounds through what amounted to a three-dimensional text. [“A New Approach to Sanskrit Translation, with an Application to Kālidāsa’s Kumārasaṃbhava, Canto VIII” (in Mahfil: A Quarterly of South Asian Literature. Asian Studies Center, Michigan State University, 7: 3-4, Fall-Winter 1971, pp. 129-141); later reworked in “On Translating Sanskrit Myths,” (in The Translator's Art: Essays in Honour of Betty Radice, edited by William Radice and Barbara Reynolds, Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1987, pp. 121-128. ] But by and large I went for the narrative pearl. I translated many Sanskrit texts, some of them great poetry—108 hymns of the ‘Rig Veda,’ all of the ‘Laws of Manu’ and the ‘Kama·sutra,’ and large portions of Puránas, of the ‘Jaiminíya Bráhmana,’ the ‘Maha·bhárata,’ the ‘Yoga·vasíshtha’—but always aiming at the message, the plots and the thoughts, never pausing on the threshold of the language to consider the medium.

And it was in this spirit that I stumbled upon Harsha’s plays. I was always a great fan of ‘The Ocean of the Rivers of Story’ (Kathāsaritsāgara), and over the years I had come particularly to enjoy the tales of Udáyana and Vásava·datta, which delight in the plot elements of dream, sexual deception, mistaken identities, self-imitation, and masquerades, that always captivate and inspire me. I wrote about the story, first in an article in which I simply included the Harsha plays along with the other, less elaborate versions of the story [“The Dreams and Dramas of a Jealous Hindu Queen: Vāsavadattā” (in Dream Cultures: Explorations in the Comparative History of Dreaming, ed. Guy Stroumsa and David Shulman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 74-84)], and then as the second chapter of a book on self-imitation, in which I took the occasion to re-read the two plays. And at long last the light bulb went on above my head: I saw the language as something not merely to look through to get to the story but to look at. I saw that the mistaken identities, both political and erotic, are mirrored in the frequent use of paronomasia, extended double entendre, and that these verbal tricks are part of what happened in the play, events just like the moments when someone put on a mask or fell in love or told a lie. I got it. The hope arose in my mind that perhaps, at that moment, Ingalls had stopped spinning in his grave.

It may well be that no other plays than these could have won me over in that way. The language is relatively straightforward, even virile, compared with, say, Kali·dasa. It is significant, I think, that the author is not (primarily) a poet but a king, Harsha (also called Harsha·várdhana, Shri Harsha, Harsha Deva, and Shiláditya), who reigned from 606 to 647 over the kingdom of Kanauj (near modern Kanpur). There is a long-standing rumor that Harsha paid Bana, his court poet, to ghost-write the plays for him, in addition to the prose poem that Bana certanily did write about him, ‘The Deeds of King Harsha’ (Harṣacarita), which offers, hidden between the layers of fulsome praise and literary showing-off, quite a lot of information about life as it was lived at Harsha’s court. But I am persuaded that King Harsha really wrote the plays himself. Ratnāvalī and Priyadarśikā are the sorts of plays a king might well write: the plots are full of political intrigue. And though some of the poetry is quite good, refreshingly simple and straightforward (might one say commanding, or martial?), some of it—let’s be frank—is pretty dreadful (take a look at Ratnāvalī 3.11)—worse than anything that Bana or any court poet of the first order would produce, even for the sort of major money that one might be paid for that sort of thing by a great king who functioned, among other things, as the ancient Indian equivalent of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

And if we assume that a ruling king really wrote these two plays, we gain access to certain suggestive insights into their plots. Clearly they owe a great deal to the ‘Kama·sutra,’ the ancient Indian textbook of eroticism, but the ‘Kama·sutra’ itself is closely based on the ‘Artha·shastra,’ the ancient Indian textbook of politics. The fantasy of sneaking into the harem, for example, is part of a broader mythology of intrigue that the ‘Kama·sutra’ presents, a whole new erotic mythology that it creates by applying to sex the Machiavellian politics of the ‘Artha·shastra,’ composed perhaps a century, or less, before the ‘Kama·sutra.’ We can see the coterminous influence of these two great textbooks that justify Henry Kissinger’s notorious insistence that power is the greatest aphrodisiac. Take, for instance, the mysterious prediction that is mentioned at the start of Ratnāvalī but not explained until the end, the prediction that anyone who married Ratnávali would conquer the earth. Now consider the map of India. A king in Kanauj who gets, first, nearby Avánti (from Vásava·datta) and then Símhala (from Ratnávali) doesn’t need a magic prediction to tell him what he will have: these two dowries are the whole world, the whole of India.

Udáyana’s conquest of another woman (Ságarika or Arányika) is actually the conquest of another country, though he doesn’t know it at the time; he wants everything, of course, and he gets it. The jester, as usual saying more than he knows he knows, explicitly compares an erotic conquest with a political one, when he says that the news of a forthcoming rendezvous with Ratnávali will give the king even more pleasure that “his acquisition of the kingdom of Kaushámbi gave [him].” Appeasement is the key to both sex and politics; the same word is used for talking around an offended woman and conciliating a nervous potential enemy. The extreme instance of this comes in Act Four of Priyadarśikā, when the king is trying to find a way to get his girlfriend out of the prison that his wife has put her in, and the jester suggests that he simply attack the harem with his elephants and horses and foot-soldiers. The king scorns this plan, preferring to do something that will appease the queen rather than, perhaps, kill her, but the jester is simply using all the means at his disposal; all’s fair in love and total war. At the start of Act Three of Ratnāvalī, one of Vásava·datta’s women friends remarks to the jester, with bitter sarcasm: “Bravo, Prime Minister Vasántaka, bravo! You have surpassed even Prime Minister Yaugándharáyana [Udáyana’s Prime Minister] with this plot for war and peace.” The jester’s playful erotic machinations are a direct parallel to the serious political schemes of the real Prime Minister. The jester is the shadow not of the king but of the Machiavellian minister.

There are a number of suggestive parallels with European opera, such as the obvious resemblances between Ratnāvalī and Mozart/Da Ponte’s The Marriage of Figaro. Both plays have a political subtext, and both depict the complex relationship between a male ruler (Almaviva/Udáyana) and his male servant (Figaro/Vasántaka). The politics in the Indian play, however, also involve the king’s political ambitions, using women to get power. Vásava·datta, in the end, is resigned to her fate (that is, to her husband’s continuing infidelity) as the Countess Rosina is to hers. And Vásava·datta’s generosity and dignified resignation at the end makes her resemble even more closely the Marschallin in Richard Strauss/Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Rosenkavalier—an opera that is, after all, modeled on the Mozart opera. Unlike Rosina, the Marschallin and Vásava·datta officially accept the young women who are to replace them.

Finally, there is the fact of the doubling of the plays, mirroring the doubling of the characters in them. Many stanzas, and many elements of the plot, appear in both plays, but then the essential differences skew the mirror images. One might see an overarching paronomasia of the two dramas, each one referring simultaneously to itself and to the other. One could read them as an exploration of a fork in the road, two possible ways in which the same situation could be resolved, as in Peter Howitt’s film Sliding Doors (1998), which follows the two very different plots that result when a woman either catches or misses a departing subway train. I can imagine a performance of both plays in one evening, or of both played simultaneously, like the comedy and tragedy played simultaneously in Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos, or, as I once saw Hamlet and Rosenkranz and Guildenstern are Dead performed, first back to back and then, on the next night, interleaved. How very modern these plays are.