Friday, February 25, 2011

The Blithedale Romance

Sacred Grove at Sadhana Forest

So, I've been away from blogging for a few weeks now and feeling a bit guilty about that.  

I know part of the reason for my absence has been because I've been thinking about a big complicated scholarly blog that I want to write about sacred groves and their cultural meaning.  This would be infused with my experience at the sacred grove in Sadhana, and the information I learned while there from a fascinating Tamil doctor of Siddha medicine who gave us a bio-heritage talk about sacred groves.  Dr. Thirunarayanan (say that 3 times fast) left me with his power point and pages of notes I took  during his enthralling lecture on the topic!  And all that's a little intimidating.  I mean, I can do it but I know to do it the way I want to do it (right) this will take hours.  

Since I've jumped with both feet back into my semester at PSU and am finding my non-teaching moments swamped with committee and planning meetings, this hasn't happened.  Weekends have been full of re-connecting with Michael, my mother, friends.  I guess I'm just not good at setting aside blog time, I confess.  Still, I love it and I miss it.  I WILL get to the sacred groves... just not this week, or the next.  But I am still thinking about FORESTS and INDIA, a lot.  Amidst other topics.  And I miss the simplicity of that life -- despite LOVING my job and all the good stuff I get to do!   Just to give you an idea...

This week I taught courses on Hinduism & Wife Burning in India (Sati), the Spanish Conquest of the Aztecs (Medieval Catholicism and Mexica cosmology), and on "How we teach values in the social studies classroom" (to my methods kids).  I gave a public talk on the history of Egpyt (focusing a lot on the Crusades from the Muslim perspective).  I taught a Sunday School class about Joshua Tumbling the Walls of Jericho ("is it right to kill in God's name?") and watched a movie about the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in the 19th century by American fruit robber barons (Damn Dole!).  I attended a great lecture on the White Mountain School, notions of the sublime in art, and health tourism. I spent hours emailing/planning a program to kick-off Women's History Month March 1st: a public reading of African American Women's Words (so I've been reading/researching poems and essays). I lectured on the non-carnal and cosmic spirituality of erotic temple sculpture and the advent of vernacular print capitalism in Uttar Pradesh (focusing on mass media, pornography and advertisements related aphrodisiacs).  This is alongside spending 5+ hours work for a new faculty search committee I'm on, or the other 6+ hours in other committee meetings and with students conferencing about their papers for my Sex and Empire class.  Topics there are interesting too, ranging from topics on British vs. Indian colonial concepts of obscenity, legislation concerning Age of Consent, prostitution, and conjugal rights, to the historic analysis of the Kamasutra and Victorian/Hindu views on homosexuality in late 19th century. WOW.  This is, by the way, a pretty typical week for me.

The point is, I think, that I've been putting off blogging (not only because like everyone else I meet these days, I'm busy) BUT because I've got 'performance anxiety' and I think I'm putting too much pressure on myself to blog.  So I've been avoiding.  Maybe even blocking. Who the heck knows, probably even PROJECTING... and an assortment of other unhealthy and unproductive things that psychologists have recently named in the last few decades! I'm doing them.

So instead of writing a long blog or a terribly interesting blog, I've decided to keep it (relatively) short and just check in about some things I've been thinking about.  Just in case anyone out there is still following this crazy blog thing I've kept since late December 2010, I want you to know I'm still here.  Originally, the purpose of this blog, of course, was to reflect on the WOODS and the idea of LIVING SIMPLY as I was preparing to take a group of my college students to India to live in the forest on a sustainability ashram.  Before departing, I was inspired by Thoreau and his Walden experience, but Sadhana was anything but silence and solitude.  We went, we lived, we came back -- overwhelmed and grateful for the indescribably intense experience.  There in the Indian forest, we were learning about permaculture and living in radical simplicity while exploring Indian culture, Hinduism and ideas related to spiritual ecology (which we had studied for a semester before).  We lived in community with 100 other seekers and we realized the challenges to that.  We visited temples and sacred groves and village shrines.  The trip went well -- more or less -- and last week my students gave a presentation to the campus that confirmed that indeed they had learned a lot and it was a worthy experience for them.  I should get a copy of the power point to post here (somehow) and share it with you.  They made me kinda proud!

Now, technically, I'm off the blogging hook, I guess.  The trip  is over. But, the thing is, I'm kinda hooked! I mean, I like having a platform to share my ideas about the sacred and the spiritual.  I like blogging.  And these ideas are still whirling around as I process what happened there and what it means for my own development (something I didn't get to focus a lot when I was 'supervising' everyone else's experience).  I like having a place to talk about nature and what the forest means to me.  With only 16 followers on this blog, I imagine that these topics might not be too hot or high priority to others but for some reason, the blog remains important to me.  Also, oddly enough, I see that since December 26th this blog has been viewed 792 times!  OH MY.

Now that's not so impressive to the REAL BLOGGERS but to me, that was sort of a delightful surprise. Okay, so at least half of those views are mine and 1/3 of those left over 'views' are thanks to Michael, my partner... but that leaves a few hundred views unaccounted for.  So I thank my 'followers' and the occasional good-times, fair-weather friends who check on me.  And I send out my love and gratitude.  
I guess I'll keep going, why not?

One reason to continue is that I'm trying to put together a lot of jumbled thoughts about transcendentalism, nature, and eco-spirituality for a service I'm facilitating at my "church" March 13th.  Providentally, I've been invited to coordinate the whole service on that Sunday, soup to nuts, as they say.  I even get to pick the theme/message and I am elated.  Not so much nervous as excited.  This is something I've wanted to do for a long time.  Heck, it is why I joined the Worship and Music committee, in large part.  And here it is.  My chance to say something meaningful and inspire other spiritual seekers.  Whoa.

And while I'm pretty excited about pursuing this theme of transcendentalism and eco-spirituality, I'm looking for ideas for music and readings and sermon topics so if you read this and you have some, email me! PRONTO.
Just to give you a little context for my service, I should explain that I attend a Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Plymouth, NH.  Ever heard of the UU's?  Don't call them, YoYo's, they get peevish.  Also, we say Fellowship, we don't say Church, 'cuz it isn't just Christians.  Everyone is welcome to seek their own truth and worship with us.  We've got guiding principals, for sure, but we avoid the dogma thing.  We don't try telling people what type of relationship they need to have with the Divine.  We don't write rule books, call people sinners or ask for confessions.  That's between you and the cosmos.  I guess that's one reason it appeals to a broad spectrum of spiritual people, and I dig it.

Also, here in Plymouth, we have an incredible congregation of well-read, well-traveled, good- hearted folks from various faith traditions (Jewish, Buddhist, Catholic, Episco, pagan, athiest, etc.).  The congregation is, overall, highly conscientious and active when it comes to promoting issues related to social justice and the environment.  People are civicly minded and globally aware.  We quote scriptures from all over the world, from all times, and we recognize there were a lot of wise sages besides J.C. and the Boys.  We are a "welcoming congregation" that means we welcome everyone to worship regardless of gender (trans-included), socio-economic class, creed, race, ethnicity, and/or sexual orientation.  And we say that, really clearly, at the beginning of each service.  I love that.
UU symbol of faith: chalice with flame in the middle.  The flame can symbolize witness, sacrifice, testing, courage, and illumination.  It means different things to different beholders!

I grew up Episcopal but think I was always sort of UU (even when I was in love with Jesus) because I love the global, liberal, progressive way UU's think.  Jesus is a fine and beautiful being, maybe Divine, maybe not.  Who knows?  What is sacred is his message.  That being said, he isn't the only truth and his path is not the only path.  At least, that is what I've come to believe.  And I'm okay with others not believing that.  I don't think they'll burn in hell or suffer eternal damnation or be miserable forever.  Unitarian Universalism is so tolerant, open minded and highly inclusive.  It makes room for everyone, no matter where they are in their spiritual journey.  If you haven't checked it out, check out wikipedia for some basics:

UU's are proud of the fact that their roots run deep in the New England soil.  We acknowledge the transcendalists as our intellectual/spiritual forefathers -- and being a lover of Thoreau, Emerson, and Fuller, this gives me warm fuzzies.  A lot of what I have been thinking about in the last few months has been wrapped up in ideas about transcendentalism and nature so I thought it might be best to do a Sunday service on all this jazz.  One might even say I feel called to do it.  But that's a whole other bucket of worms...

So I thought, why not channel this love of the wild and the spirit into a sermon?  I might use my recent experience/research on Indian ecological spirituality and combine my wisdom of Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, the Mother, and Sri Aurobindo?!  Why the heck not?
Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) novelist, early feminist, transcendentalist
Questions still arise for me about what this stuff all means, even having read about the late 19th century in America for years.  What did they want? These young naturalists and idealists who waxed poetic about a life less driven by consumption and the evils of an industrial/materialist/capitalist society?  They dreamed of a UTOPIA where people didn't feel so alienated from their labor and from each other.  They asked important questions that we should still be asking today.  How do the choices we make about the lives we lead here in this temporal plane shape our spirituality?  What lessons, if any, can we learn from the sages who opted out of this rat race (for communes, or ashrams, or cooperative socialist experiments?) -- or from those who opted for a life less driven by individualism and hedonism?  Many sages in India, America and Britain were writing books, letters, essays and novels in that period that suggested we might escape the spell of this wicked world and transcend into a higher consciousness.  Sounds like a bargain -- or is it a pipe dream?

What does it mean to be transcendental?

What did the transcendentalists of the late 19th century (both in New England and India) seek?

Why didn't they find it?  Can anyone?

My buddy/colleague, Rebecca Noel, who is a US historian specializing in the 19th century (my favorite century), also attends the UU fellowship.  Her office is also next door to mine at the university and she has an amazing collection of books on the period and the T. movement.  Last week, she loaned me a slew of Margaret Fuller books and also Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Blithedal Romance (based on the Utopian community that existed at Brook Farm in West Roxbury, MA) to help me prepare.  I found out about Brook Farm last year when I did a performance at the UU fellowship as Maggy herself!  I also used to live in West Roxbury and never knew this community existed there in the 1840's.  

The edition Becky gave me of the Blithesdale Romance is impressive.  What I love about this version, the Bedford Cultural Edition, is that in addition to Hawthorne's Novel, the book has several essays from the period to give the story context.  Woot! I drink up Primary Sources.  There are essays by famous social reformers, abolitionists, spiritualists and thinkers in the period -- Karl Marx, Theodore Parker, and William Lloyd Garrison.  There are essays with ideas about living in community from Utopianists and/or people who visited Brook Farm, like Robert Owen, Ralph W. Emerson, Joseph Smith and Louisa May Alcott.   Not to mention additional essays from Hawthorne and Fuller, herself!
Hawthorne was a founding member of Brooke Farm and lived there in 1841.
He wrote Scarlett Letter in 1850 and died in PLYMOUTH, NEW HAMPSHIRE in 1864.

From an early age I've been interested in the idea of Utopia.  When I was 8 or 9 I created one, on paper, called MORGANIA.  It had a complex social system, agrarian infrastructure and benevolent monarchical governance hierarchy.  I created a language for my land, spending months filling notebook pages with basic English words and their Morganian translations.  I drew intricate maps of the island where the kingdom existed, with explicit details as if from memory.  I even invented a cosmology and theology, based around a omniscient and beneficent magical unicorn deity named, of course, MORGAN.  This may have all happened a year or two before I read the Narnia Chronicles series but I was not surprised to learn that other magical kingdoms like mine had been invented when I later met C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. When I got to university I wanted to 'figure out' what was the most fair and efficient economic and political system, so I read everything I could about that  -- and in graduate school I started reading Fourier, Owen, and Marx.  Even part of me now longs for a Brook Farm experience, as short lived and unsuccessful as I know it was. And that's saying a lot having survived, recently, a challenging experience of 'living in community' for three weeks in the woods in India.  I'm curious to see if some of the same issues that plagued our experiment in Sadhana may have also reared their heads at Brook Farm in West Roxbury, MA.

I'm curious about the Blithedale Romance because I understand that Hawthorne was a member of the community (Blithedale = Brook Farm) and then wrote the novel, mostly as satire. He left the community before the end of one full year -- he greatly disliked the physical labor and he held some of the people he met there in contempt, despite respecting their ideals.  He based the character, Zenobia, they say, on Margaret Fuller.  Her pride is much an issue in the novel.  He loves her spirit but criticizes her ego.  She has a disastrous end (the real one and the Zenobia in the book).  I think Hawthorne may have something to say here about EGO and its dangers...

If anyone reading this blog has read this novel, please pipe up and put in your two cents!  Mixed metaphor, sorry.  Here's a quick plot summary for those of you who are unfamiliar:

Abjuring the city for a pastoral life, a group of utopians set out to reform a dissipated America. But the group is a powerful mix of competing ambitions and its idealism finds little satisfaction in farmwork. Instead, of changing the world, the members of the Blithedale community individually pursue egotistical paths that ultimately lead to tragedy. Hawthorne's tale both mourns and satirizes a rural idyll not unlike that of nineteenth-century America at large.

and this one... also none too cheery... from a book review on Amazon

Brook Farm was only the best-recorded of the many utopian communities founded in the USA in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Some of them were based on religious enthusiasms, some were philosophical, but several were essentially built around pre-Marxian communism. Brook Farm was launched as a joint stock commune of philosophical bent and evolved in a few years into a rigid socialism that disappointed "free spirits" among its founders. Hawthorne was in fact one of the founders and a member of the board, so to speak, but he withdrew in dismay after less than a year. Literary scholars of the 20th C have tended to treat Hawthorne as a "conservative" who rejected social and political reform. In 'Blithedale', the 'reformer' Hollingsworth is a man of talent and integrity who is 'diminished' by his reform monomania. But the 'anti-reformer' Coverdale, the failed poet narrator, is equally diminished by his inability to commit his talents and energies to anything worthwhile. Hawthorne himself was a study in ambivalence and irresolution, as peculiar and variable as any of his characters.

Well... I've got Blithedale and I've got these delicious essays for the weekend.  

I'm like a kid in the candy store.  And because I spent most of today (a snow day) catching up on emails and other 'responsible' things, I think I'll spend all day tomorrow reading this great novel and some of the juicy essays in this collection.  Whoopee!  And maybe I'll come to find some more answers to my questions...
What is a Utopia?  Why do we seek Utopia and is "out there" or "in us"?

What is dystopia? 

Does living in community (like Sadhana or Brook Farm) bring us closer to Utopia?  Closer to ourselves?

In addition to reading Hawthorne, I have also been re-reading Walden, Walden II (by Skinner) and a funny novel entitled "Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff, Christ;s Childhood Pal" (just to keep the balance). Gotta laugh too!

I find that the best sermons our Minister, Sarah, gives are those well researched, historical, intense/sincere, personal, funny and philosophical, with a dose of good practical example.  So maybe I can find something worthwhile in these pages and in reflection.  Let's see.

The fire crackles in my stove, our pooch is snoring curled up on the couch between us.  Snow falls gently.  The trees in my wood are mystical white as the sun sets.  I miss the green and lush tropical evergreen forest.  But I'm happy.  Michael is here with me.  He is also jealous that I am hogging the Blithedale Romance and all these essays about the 19th century -- he eyes my stack covetously -- he is a sucker for the transcendent.  

Still, he knows the answers to my questions without reading any of this.

He'd tell me our  UTOPIA IS RIGHT HERE, BABY.  And he is probably right.

At least this weekend, he is.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Love in the Wood (Shakuntala Part II)

...Continued from last blog post... Love in the Woods (Shakuntala, Part I)...

The King departs for the city, leaving Shakuntala behind with the promise that he will send for her.  Before he leaves, she also makes him promise that the child born of their union would be granted full rights to the Kingdom as his heir (she must have been psychic or sumtin’).  He agrees.  And leaving his ring with royal insignia as a troth of his love, he tells her he will send a royal escort to bring her to his palace soon.  Trustingly, she obeys his decision and agrees to wait.  Here, Shakuntala strikes me as amazingly cooperative, or just plain naive.  Nevertheless, the Hindu epic lauds her for having trust in her hubby and for maintaining her blissful obedience.  There are clearly gendered normsbeing taught here in this famous epic!
2009 Comic Book of Shakuntala by Sayantan Halder

Shortly after Shakuntala’s adoptive father, the sage, returns.  He is, surprisingly, quite okay with the Ghandarva marriage arrangement his daughter has entered into during his week long absence. Some sources say he predicted the conjugal union, and thus he accepted it as Destiny.

Despite his discomfort at his daughter’s growing belly -- she is a single mom, after all - Kanva blesses his sweet daughter and his grandchild to be.  Time passes and no word comes from the King.  Shakuntala spends many hours and many days daydreaming of her beloved and imagining their reunion…

Shakuntala dreaming of her man, hanging out with friends in forest

Writing love poems on leaves,  R.R. Varma

Shakuntala waiting & dreaming, by Raja Ravi Varma

One day, while lost in the revelry of her love-thoughts, she fails to notice the arrival of a much revered holy man who comes from afar to stay at the ashram.  The rishi, Durvasha, is famous for being a hot headed hermit.  When Shakuntala fails to perform her duties as hostess and greet the man with water and food, the holy man explodes into a fury and castes a curse on her.  The curse, meant to punish her for daydreaming instead of doing her duty, is pretty mean (especially coming from a Saint's lips!) :

He of whom you are thinking, he for whose sake you have forgotten the most elementary laws of hospitality, he will forget you.  Like a drunk man, who can no longer remember what he has said, or done, he will ransack his brain, but to no avail, he will no longer remember you!”

The Curse!

The angry sage turns to leave; Shakuntala is paralyzed by her shock.  Her best friend, Priyamvada, runs and prostrates herself before the holy man. She implores him to forgive her love-lorn friend.  Please, she pleads, Shakuntala is an innocent who has never offended anyone before.  Seeing this friend's devotion, he softens a bit but refused to remove the curse, completely.  Instead, he adds a condition the curse (a codicil if you will).  He promises that the effect of the curse will cease the moment someone presents the man in question with a small token of remembrance.  Feeling proud of his compassion, the hot headed hermit stomps off.

More days passed and still no one from the palace came to fetch Shakuntala, who is growing more and more round with child.  Her father, at long last concerned about the family honor, decides he will send her to the court to reunite her with her husband.  Shakuntala is, again, obedient and agrees to leave her family. She is also delighted that she will be reunited with her true love.  All the ladies of the ashram gather to decorate her in the finest clothes that these simple folk can muster.  They bedeck her with garlands of flowers from the forest.  They remind her to take the King’s ring with her and slip it upon her finger.  She bids farewell to her woodland friends and the sages of the ashram as she preparea for the long, arduous journey to the big city.

Kalidasa’s prose (adapted in my Auroville version) about the young bride’s departure are so poetic and potent.  They remind me of the many tear filled departures I’ve read about in Indian wedding stories when a young woman leaves her parents to join her husband’s family. I am also struck, again, by the importance of the forest and the trees in this tear-jerking scene. Shakuntala must not only leave her adoptive father and her maiden friends, but she must also leave behind her extended family, the forest, which causes her much heartache:

“You were ready to leave… Priyamvada had dressed you in a large silk robe, pale white and soft as the moon.  Then Old Gautami, whom everyone in the ashram called Mother, had placed resplendent bracelets on your arms.  No one in the ashram had ever seen such precious ornaments and it was whispered that they had been given as an offering to the sage by certain mysterious inhabitants of the forest.  Dawn broke.  When Kanva returned from the river after his daily ablutions, he had blessed you, and the child you were carrying… Then followed by all the sages he walked you to the very limits of the sanctuary.  What an escort, Shakuntala!

They were all there for you, Shakuntala, to surround you, carry you, uplift and cradle you one last time.  The great sage while walking cast his deep gaze on each tree. Oh! His eyes Shakuntala!  It was by plunging into their depths that you had learnt what immensity was, you had never seen the ocean.  His gaze traveled from tree to tree, addressing each of them silently, with a sweetness that had overwhelmed you.  For you understood that secret language and knew that he was asking them to accept and bless your departure…

And it seemed that you had all been moving forward to the rhythm of a sacred chant and that the whole forest was resonating with the sage’s powerful voice.  Then abruptly, as if in response, a long flute-like note of a bird was heard.  Consent had been granted.  Something in you bowed down.

You stopped briefly, one last time to caress the small tree that you had baptized Light of the Forest (jasmine) and gave it over to the care of your two friends.

It did not take long to reach the limits of the hermitage.  The sage led you quietly into the shade of a Kshira (medicinal fig) tree.  There you fell at his feet.  The story you had been told of the transplanted sandalwood tree came to your mind.  Deprived of the native soil of its sweet-smelling hill it had perished in a foreign land.  You now understood what an uprooting was.

The time had come to leave.  You plunged your gaze one last time into the eyes of the sage, like a traveler about to cross the desert, drinking one last time at a well…” pp 38-40

On a ferry ride crossing the river on her way to the palace, Shakuntala was seduced by the deep blue waters.  She reached down to caress the beguiling waters and the King’s ring fell off into the murky depths below where a large fish gulped it down in one glorious chomp.  She was none the wiser.

Shakuntala arrived at the King’s palace and was given an audience with the King, who claimed that he had no memory of this young girl whatsoever.  Shakuntala was hurt and surprised by the King’s denial of their love and their marriage.   In her despair and anger, she says to King Dushyanta:

“My Lord, why have you deceived me?”

The King replies, “How can I ever accept her when she is carrying another rman’s child? May the Lord protect me from committing the crime of desiring another man’s wife.”

Shakuntala insists that she is carrying his child and reminds him of their union in the forest.

The King, at this point, makes the famous pronouncement thatFalsehood is natural to all members of the other sex!

And Shakuntala, not to be one-upped by this toad, replies, “Vile Man! You resemble a well-hidden pit covered by rank grass into which the unwary traveler falls!”


Things descend into realms far more nasty after this, and in some accounts of this scene the King goes so far as to call her a whore.  She hoped that having his ring would help her prove the King’s promise to her and to her son. She reaches for the royal ring, ready to offer proof of her story but the ring is not on her finger.

Indignant and bereaved, Shakuntala walks out of the palace.  Now she is alone, pregnant and homeless.  She knows she cannot return to the ashram and dishonor her family there.  Even today, many Indian girls in the rural areas are not accepted back into their natal home after they've married and left to be with their husband and his family, it is just bad form.  Shakuntala also refuses to beg for a single crumb from the King’s table despite carrying the Prince.  So, she returns to a lonely place in the forest, there to give birth to her son and raise him among the wild animals of the wood.

The King, quite upset himself after this encounter, is at a loss.  Struck by the intensity of this woman’s feelings and pronouncements, but unable to find the least hint of recollection, he enters a serious depression and retires to his chambers.  There is hole in his heart and he knows not why, but he feels that he is only half of the man he should be.  He longs for someone but knows not who.  He falls into a grief that swallows his hope.

Shakuntala’s son grows healthy in the forest without any human company other than his mother.

 "All around in the jungle he encountered wild animals, plants and trees. He developed into a fearless, strong, and active child. Lions and tigers were his friends, and he used to ride them as we ride horses! The mother taught him, as a prince should be taught, skills in archery, and use of other weapons; as also acquainted him with Scriptures: Vedas and Upanishads. Bharata soon grew up as a handsome, intelligent and fearless youth - a prince in exile!

But the story doesn't end here! Thank the gods!

A few years later, a fisherman arrives in the royal court begging an audience with the King to tell him about a special fish he caught in his nets – a fish whose belly held a golden ring with royal insignia upon it!  Hoping for a small reward, the fisherman hands the ring over to King Dushyant and the King lets out a shout as he takes the ring into his hand.  It is as if he has experienced a sharp pain deep inside; an explosion of release. Immediately the veil of forgetfulness is torn away from the King’s mind and he remembers everything.

A rush of memories floods over the King as he recalls his love for Shakuntala.  The aching emptiness he has felt since her visit to his Court is replaced, filled with joyful remembrance.  The moments together in the forest, the promises he had made, the dreams he had once savored of a future together with his beloved wife, now all wash over him and he is once again made whole.

The King orders his chariot and gallops full throttle to the forest.  In the Kalidasa version of the story, the god of War, Indira, intercepts Dushyant on his way and requires him to wage battle against some trouble-making heavenly hordes before reuniting him with Shakuntala.  This symbolic battle with the enemies of the gods (Titans?) may have been injected by Kalidasa as a form of penance for the King's mistreatment of the saintly Shakuntala, some scholars suggest.  Kalidasa's version definitely tries to soften the story, the cruelty of the king and the suffering, overall.  

Once the King has defeated the ‘demon armies of darkness’ the gods reward the King with a radiant chariot that flies through the air and is fitted with a celestial GPS system to find Shakuntala.

Dushyant zeroes in on the secret, sacred grove where his beloved and his son abide.  There he finds the young, precocious Bharata toddling among tigers, opening their mouths, counting their teeth and giggling all the while.  The proud father is amazed by his son’s fearlessness and strength.  He tries to engage the little chap in conversation but the boy is not used to strangers.

Bharata among the lions of the forest (Raja Ravi Varma, late 19th century)

Dushyant tells the boy that he is his father, the King, and the disbelieving boy takes him by the hand to meet his mother so she can settle the matter.  When Shakuntala sees her hubby she is not bitter at all.  She smiles.  At this point, we receive evidence from Kalidasa's version of the tale that Dushyant has wised up quite a bit.  He falls to Shakuntala’s feet (good move, I think) and begs her pardon. She lets him stay there a little bit, groveling, before offering full forgiveness.

He spoke of the power of illusion (maya), of how his soul had been a prisoner of the shadows…” 

Then she calmly says, “Rise, my Lord” and with a few tears on her 'delicately curved lashes' she reaches out to him and takes his ringed hand.  Of course she recognizes that gold ring.  He offers to take it off and put it on her finger but, smiling, she shakes her head, refusing to place her faith in that ring again.  She says it is for the King to wear and from it never again to part. "After all, and here in indefinable glimmer crossed her eyes, the ring was too big for her." (p.76)

A.H. Muller (1878-1952), ‘Dushyant & Shakuntala,’ oil on canvas, 36 1/2 inches x 49 3/4 inches. Estimate: $ 19,600-$26,100. Image courtesy of Bid & Hammer.

In some versions of the tale, the family returns to the ashram to get the blessings of the sage (better late than never).  In other endings, the family takes the heavenly taxi back up and into the skies and there reside for awhile before coming back to earth to reign in their golden years.  I like the Kalidasa ending, where they go back to the palace, raise their son to be a good and righteous king, and live happily ever after.

The sage (to the king). My son, enter with child and wife the chariot of your friend Indra, and set out for your capital.

King. Yes, holy one.

Sage. For now
May Indra send abundant rain,
Repaid by sacrificial gain;
With aid long mutually given,
Rule you on earth, and he in heaven.

King. Holy one, I will do my best.

Sage. What more, my son, shall I do for you?

King. Can there be more than this? Yet may this prayer be fulfilled.
May kingship benefit the land,
And wisdom grow in scholars' band;
May Shiva see my faith on earth
And make me free of all rebirth.

And so it is...

Bharata, of course, inherits his father's kingdom and becomes the king of all of ancient India. He is known as a holy and humble king.  Righteousness and justice prevailed everywhere under his rule. There was no want, no misery, nor any disease in his kingdom. Since then India is also known as Bharatavarsha - the Land of Bharata.

 Bharata would father the famous line of men who would become the Kauravas and Pandavas, whose epic bloody battles would fill the rest of the Mahabharata.  It was from his lineage that Arjuna, the greatest warrior that ever lived, would descend.  Arjuna would become famous as the hero of the 
Bhagavad Gita (The Song of God)  and as the pupil of Lord Krishna, his teacher and charioteer. On the battleground, Krishna would teach young Arjuna the supreme lesson of dharma (universal harmony and duty).  The text of the Gita is revered most among all Hindu scriptures and, nearly two thousand years later is, today, remembered as one of the most important lessons to all of humanity...

But that story will have to wait for another day…

Love in the Woods (Shakuntala Part I)

Love in the Woods…(Shakuntala Part I)

A week has passed since my return from Sadhana Forest and I find my mind wandering to thoughts of those lush green woods.  We returned to snowy New Hampshire and snow covered naked forests.  I couldn’t help but feel that our forests felt dead, having spent a month amidst the sacred lushness of India.  I knew, however, that the trees are not dead; they merely slumber and wait for warmer, longer days before they allow the safe return of their holy leaves.

I have received two more student journals and am uplifted by them.  Dr. Thirunarayanan, the Siddha doctor and botanist who presented to us on sacred groves, has also sent his power point lecture to me.  I hope to return to the sacred grove lessons I have learned once I review his talk and back to my notes, again, and then to blog here more about sacred groves to share with you.

In the meantime, I have been reading some of the books that I purchased in Auroville during my visit.  I’m enjoying a lovely collection of stories and paintings in a single volume devoted to my favorite Hindu deity: Ganesha, remover of obstacles and Lord of auspicious beginnings.  It has reaffirmed my adoration for this sweet-loving, elephant-head, big-bellied, lovable god.

photo I took of Lord Ganesha at Chidambaram Temple 

Also, I’ve read a lovely retelling of the classic Hindu legend, Shakuntala, based on the play of Kalidasa.  Shakuntala is the story of love in the woods… love discovered, consummated and lost (later found again)!  It is a tragic tale about a young beauty who lives on an ashram in the forest and the forgetful King who woos her and then leaves her.  It has a happy ending though (at least in Kalidasa’s play) and many people think of Shakuntala as the model of feminine perfection as she is portrayed as strong, loyal, honorable and unafraid to fight for the truth.  There are many versions of her story but the original was written about 2000 years ago as a part of the Greatest Hindu Epic ever written: The Mahabharata.

It is said that the Lord Ganesh broke off his tusk to write the Mahabharata -- “the Great tale of the Bharata dynasty” which was told to him by the sage, Vyasa, around 400 BCE.  Bharat is also the official name of the Republic of India today.  Bharata was the first Emperor of India who united the subcontinent, according to legend, and whose empire stretched all the way into Central Asia and Persia. He was the son of Shakuntala, born of the Kshatriya (warrior/kingly) caste, and ancestor to the great Pandava family.  Bharata means “the cherished” which is, I think, kinda... sweet. 

The most famous version of the Shakuntala tale was re-told by Kalidasa who lived in the 4th century CE, or a bit earlier.  He is ancient India’s most revered poet and play-write.  He re-wrote the epic tale of Shakuntala as a play about 1,700 years ago.  The story has been recited, performed, re-interpreted, re-written and put into comic book form, movie form, love songs and cartoons thousands of times.  I can’t do it justice here but will give my own retelling of the story with some lovely images I’ve found scattered about the world wide web.  (Please forgive me, copyright permission gods for borrowing these for my blog. But most of these are over 100 years old and in the Public Domain, anyhow.
(See: : )

The story strikes me as yet another loving tribute to the forests of India… and the magic that lives within them!

The play, Shakuntala, was the first Indian drama to be translated into a Western language (English), by Orientalist scholar Sir William Jones, in 1789. In the next 100 hundred years, there were at least 46 translations in twelve European languages!  The version I offer here is based on the translation of the French, C. Devin, adaptation from the 2009 Auroville Press Publication.

Shakuntala by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)

The forest is a central character in the story of Shakuntala and in many other Hindu epics. 
Vedic scriptures of this kind portray the forest as a place of heroism, enlightenment, refuge and hermitage (for those seeking greater spiritual consciousness).  The various Hindu scriptures also catalogue the botanical diversity and medicinal value of the forests quite explicitly.  In our class on eco spirituality and sustainability (Fall 2010), I had the students read several articles in the Hinduism and Ecology text (Chapple & Tucker, eds., 2000) about the value of forests to Indian notions of identity, spirituality and environmentalism.  I was quite surprised, myself, to learn how much botany existed in the Mahabharata and Ramayana – two the most important pieces of Hindu literature.  It opened my eyes and heart to learn more and I was delighted to find this story again, after so many years, in the bookstore at Auroville.  Sometimes the cosmos sends us what we need to see...

Sakuntala (1909), d'après un carton de Sandor Nag
I was first been introduced to Shakuntala as a young impressionable girl of 18 by an Indian friend (my first crush) in college.  Late at night we'd gather in his lab and he'd regale me with tales from ancient India, romantic epics and amazing legends. I fell in love with India listening to these stories. Years later, another Indian beau would introduce me to the famous painting of Shakuntala by the amazing artist Raja Ravi Varma of Kerala.  This Travancore king/painter is one of my favorite artists and I've included a lot of his work here in this blog.  Redisovering the story of Shakuntala again a week ago, I'm moved to write it down here and share it with the people I love.  She has been with me at many stages of my life and I'm happy now to share her with Michael, my true love.  Today, after reading a short book entitled "Shakuntala, or the Ring of Remembrance" based on Kalidasa's play, I am ever more enchanted by her tale, especially as I have recently spent quite a bit of time, myself, in the woods of India…

I dedicate this blog to my Bunkie because he loves a good love story (just like I do).

The God Indira looking down on the sweet seduction of the forest hermit
by the irresistible, vivacious, sassy wood nymph.  This is how Shakuntala's story begins!

Shakuntala is, herself, a woman who derives her sense of security, power, and passion from the forest.  As the daughter of a great sage and an apsara (divine nymph) Shakuntala is a unique manifestation of the worldly and the celestial.  Her holy father, however, is angered by the fact that he was seduced by this nymph (sent to earth by a mischievous god who purposely wished to distract the holy man) and feels cheated after all his years of strict asceticism.

Shakuntala’s parents: the King-turned-Sage, Vishwamitra, 
and her nymph mother, Meneka, in the forest.

When Vishwamitra (dad) learns that the nymph is with child, he abandons mother and child (a theme we’ll see repeated later) and returns to his hermit lifestyle.  Menaka (mom) the nymph cannot stay on earth and leaves her child in the forest when she returns to heaven. 

 Begone beguiling sprite!  I reject the wood-nymph LOVE CHILD you claim is mine!

There, on a riverbank in the Himalayas, the girl child is left alone and raised by peacocks, until she is found by the holy man, Kanva, who takes her into his forest ashram to raise as his own.  He names her Shakuntala (in Sanskrit, Shakunton means birds) and she grows up in his loving care to become one of the most beautiful women to ever walk the earth.  

Shakuntala is raised in an ashram in the forest where worldly visitors are not too frequent.  She keeps deer as her pets and is adored by all woodland creatures.  Her sense of isolation and detachment from the cruelty of the world makes her at once vulnerable and strong (never having known injustice, she is courageous in the face of hardship).  Shakuntala is, in short, a child of the wilderness – humble and strong.

Shakuntala loved the forest, the animal of the forest and cared deeply for the trees…
Shakuntala working in the forest, pausing near a banyan tree

One day, a King hunting a deer in the forest nearby the ashram saw Shakuntala in the distance and was mesmerized by her beauty.  King Dushyant of the Puru Kingdom stops to take rest and to talk to a few hermits from the ashram he meets there.   He is delighted to learn that the beautiful woman he has seen is the ‘daughter’ of the holy man who runs the place.  He is invited inside so that he may be greeted by the girl who, as luck would have it, serves as hostess to ashram arrivals.  Shakuntala has been told to meet visitors while the sage, her adoptive father, is away for a few days.  The king enters the hermitage expectantly:

Everything indicated that they were approaching one of those revered places found in the forests of ancient India that were called ashrams.  At once university and monastery, community and sanctuary, an ashram was dedicated at the same time to study, discipline and research.  It was a privileged place where both the youth most avid for knowledge and the most remarkable men of the time came to receive teachings…” (p19)

Upon entering the sacred precincts, the King was overcome with a sense of calm, his fatigue disappeared, and he felt ‘an intense desire to shed himself of all encumbering ornaments, all that was useless.’  He handed over his bow and quiver to his charioteer, removed all his jewels and walked alone, on foot, ‘like a humble pilgrim.’

Inside the ashram, the King ‘admired the splendid vegetation and the grace of the flowering shrub trees that had been planted by the members of the community.  One could feel that each tree had been protected, taken care of and tended by loving, expert hands.” (This quote from the story reminded me so much of Sadhana Forest and our gardens, I had to smile!)

Then the King heard girlish laughter and feminine voices coming his way.  He looked up and saw Shakuntala there with two of her maiden friends and quickly hid behind the leaves of a mango tree to watch her secretly.  The girls are dressed simply, in robes of bark (similar to the robes Rama and Sita wore in the forest in the Ramayana epic).  The girls carry earthen pots upon their hips. gracefully.  They are watering the flowers and trees in the ashram.  A troublesome bee began to agitate Shakuntala and she starts swatting, then fleeing from the bee, as her friends tease her and laugh.  She runs right towards the mango tree and practically into the arms of the handsome King who is hiding there.  Regaining her composure, and remembering her duty as hostess, Shakuntala welcomes the guest.  Dutifully, she offers the weary traveler fresh water to drink.

First meeting, Shakuntala offers the king water. Jute weaving.

The King begins asking the fair maiden questions about her background and family, and her chattering friends offer all the details of her royal birth and humble arrival to the ashram.  The King is delighted – it would not be seemly for him to pursue the love of a girl from a caste other than his own, however, learning that she is of royal lineage lifts his spirits.  He is assured Shakuntala will be his.  In fact, Shakuntala is quite taken by the King, too, and when they aree forced to part for a few hours, she finds she can think only of him.  She becomes physically ill with this infatuation, over-heated, listless and unable to speak (we’ve all been there).  Her friends try to get her to come around and perk up but she is weak with the ‘torment of love’ and can, she claims, only be refreshed by the sight of her beloved.

In the era of pre-text messaging and before FB status up-dates, Shakuntala does what any love-sick girl would do in these circumstances– she grabs a lotus leaf and writes a letter to the object of her obsession:

“I know not your heart. And yet, O thou cruel one, Love consumes me night and day, and my desires have no object but you!”  She stood back once she had finished it and read it aloud to her compatriots.

Just then, a movement in the shrubbery!  That tricky King was lurking about in the foliage (he seemed to do this a lot).  Out leapt King Dushyant, who had been spying on the young ladies from behind the leaves again.  He took Shakuntala in his arms.  Her tactful companions bowed out of the scene and let the two lovers go at it like the love-sick pups they were.  Well, in various versions of this story, actually, there are some interesting interpretations of what happens here...

Most stories simply say ‘they were married in the ashram’ at this point.  Nevertheless, what many versions fail to reveal was that there was no ceremony, no priest, no formal religious ritual to bless the wedding.  It is clear that they both loved each other and wanted to marry but for some reason, they were in a bit of a HURRY it seems.  They didn't even pause to get witnesses when they exchanged their vows...

In some versions of the tale, Shakuntala begs that they wait, before consummating their love. She asks that they wait for a few days for  her father to return to the ashram so that he might give them his blessings.  But the King, for unknown reasons, is anxious to get back to court and declines to wait any longer. 

He tells her he that since their love is true, their union is blessed and that is all that matters (how many times have we heard that before, ladies?).  So, they seem to come to an agreement and the King offers her his golden ring as a sign of his fidelity and love.  They are wed before the gods and nature in their own secret and private ceremony in the forest.

The happy couple on their marriage night.  12th century manuscript tapestry, Nepal.

In fact there was precedent for such a thing in the scriptures, it seems.  This ancient ceremony between a man and a woman (with Mother Nature as the only witness) was referred to as a ‘Ghandarva' marriage.

Interestingly, the Ghandarvas are male nature spirits who are the husbands of the apsaras (nymphs).  They are magical, part beast and part sprite, and very musically inclined.  One might imagine what lovely melodies wafted through the wood that day when Shakuntala and her beloved King united!

Painting of King Dushyant and Shakuntala by Raja Ravi Varma (late 19th century)

To be continued... (in next blog)!  Love in the Woods: Shakuntala (Part II)