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The Curse Upon Me

From: Manoa
Volume 25, Issue 2, 2013
pp. 40-41 | 10.1353/man.2013.0059

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

śāpānto me bhujagaśayanād utthite śārṅgapāṇau
    śeṣānmāsān gamaya caturo locane mīlayitvā
paścād āvāṃ virahaguṇitaṃ taṃ tam ātmābhilāṣaṃ
    nirvekṣyāvaḥ pariṇataśaraccandrikāsu kṣapāsu

  • śāpa-anto. (at) curse’s end

  • me. my

  • bhujaga. serpent

  • śayanāt. from a couch or bed

  • utthite. (is) when he rises

  • śārṅga-pāṇau. Vishnu, “armed with a bow”

  • śeṣān-māsān. remaining months

  • gamaya. (second-person imp.) cause to go past, permit to pass

  • caturo. four (with months)

  • locane. (your two) eyes

  • mīlayitvā. having closed

  • paścād. afterwards

  • āvāṃ. our

  • viraha. separation

  • guṇitaṃ. completed

  • taṃ tam. this and that (those)

  • ātma-abhilāṣaṃ. our desires

  • nirvekṣyāvaḥ. we will enjoy, release, settle (as in a payment)

  • pariṇata-śarat-candrikāsu. (bv. cmpd. with kṣapāsu) at the time of the full autumn moon

  • pariṇata. full, ripe

  • śarat. autumn

  • candrikāsu. moon

  • kṣapāsu. during the hours, twenty-four hours, a day

The curse upon me ends
when Vishnu
rises from his serpent bed.
Close your eyes, let
the four remaining months
drift past. Then
all those desires
ripened by separation
we’ll slake at night
beneath the huge harvest moon.

In Kālidāsa’s poem of 111 stanzas, Meghadūta, the lovers have fallen under a curse. Exile will separate them through the rainy months, the period of the year when Vishnu sleeps on the coils of a cosmic serpent.

Kālidāsa has hidden a notable pun here. The śeṣān-māsān (remaining months) are also the serpent months. Śeṣa means snake or serpent, but originally refers to the snake’s sloughed skin. The word thus means remainder, leftover, the slough. The opening lines of this stanza are astronomical and refer to the night sky. In autumn Vishnu, śārṅga-pāṇi (holder of the horn-bow) wakens or rises above the horizon, coinciding with the appearance of both harvest and hunter’s moons. Similarly, in Occidental astronomy, the hunter Orion becomes vivid in the Northern Hemisphere’s night sky with the onset of autumn. A nearly universal language of symbols links poets across Eurasia and the Americas, many of these symbols traceable to archaic hunting cultures.

Recent studies of vocabulary spanning the Northern Hemisphere have some linguists proposing a distant ancestral language they call proto-Eurasian, dating back 15,000 years, to the last “glacial maximum” or Ice Age. Comparing words for mother, milk, and a few other extremely common terms that apparently change very slowly over time, they think they’ve found evidence that the most wide-flung languages have a kinship that began when the caves at Lascaux were being painted. I suspect that only slightly less basic would be vivid words like serpent, archer, moon, love. If a single archaic language did stretch through Europe, across the width of Asia, over the Bering Strait, to where the Inuit live—the range proposed for this proto-Eurasian tongue—a poem like this verse of Kālidāsa’s might offer a glimpse into its songs.

Andrew Schelling  

Andrew Schelling, born in 1953 at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington, D.C., has written, edited, or translated twenty books. Early opposition to American involvement in Vietnam, plus an encounter with India’s texts, set him on a lifelong engagement with Asian literature. He studied Sanskrit at the University of California at Berkeley, and began to translate from its classical poetry tradition around 1978. His first book, Dropping the Bow: Poems of Ancient India, received the Academy of American Poets translation award in 1992, the first time the Academy had honored work done from an Asian language. Schelling’s own poetry and essays emerge from the Southern Rocky Mountain bioregion in which he lives. Recent books of poetry wrangle with the Arapaho language as a way of reading landscape and the natural cycles; they include From the Arapaho Songbook and A Possible Bag. He has edited The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature and Love and the Turning Seasons: India’s Poetry of Spiritual and Erotic Longing (forthcoming from Counterpoint Press). Living on...



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