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  • Fate
  • Translated by Andrew Schelling (bio)

priyasakhi vipaddaṇḍaprāntaprapātaparaṃparā    paricayacale cintācakre nidhāya vidhiḥ khalaḥmṛdam iva balāt piṇḍīkṛtya pragalbhakulālavad    bhramayati mano no jānīmaḥ kim atra vidhāsyati

  • priya. dear

  • sakhi. friend

  • vipaddaṇḍaprāntaprapātaparaṃparāparicayacale. (bv. cmpd. with wheel) literally, which turns by its contact with a series of strokes from the staff-tip of misfortune

  • vipad. adversity, misfortune, calamity

  • daṇḍa. (m.) stick, handle, staff, rod, scepter; also sovereignty, power, authority

  • prānta. point, tip

  • prapāta. movements, startings

  • paraṃparā. series, succession

  • pari-caya. heaping up, contact

  • cale. moving, turning, loosing

  • cintā. anxiety

  • cakre. on a wheel

  • nidhāya. having placed

  • vidhiḥ. law, rule, fate (here personified)

  • khalaḥ. lowly, mischievous, cruel

  • mṛdam. earth, clay

  • iva. like, as

  • balāt. with force, forcibly

  • piṇḍī. lump, ball

  • kṛtya. having done, made

  • pragalbha. resolute

  • kulāla. (m.) potter

  • vat. like

  • bhramayati. (causative) he moves, sets in motion

  • mano. (my) heart

  • no. not

  • jānīmaḥ. we (I) know

  • kim. what

  • atra. here

  • vidhāsyati. he will form, make, build [End Page 30]

Fate is a crueland proficient potter,my friend. Forciblyspinning the wheelof anxiety, he lifts misfortunelike a cutting tool. Nowhaving kneaded my heartlike a lump of clay,he lays it on hiswheel and gives a spin.What he intends to produceI cannot tell.

Why is it that the potter’s wheel, the cartwheel, the wheeling stars, or the roulette wheel remain the most potent symbols of chance or fate? Vidyā takes the image a step further by naming adversity or calamity the shaping force, the instrument that sets the wheel in motion. The lengthy compound word that characterizes the wheel literally means “which revolves when touched by a series of strokes from the staff-tip of misfortune.” The original Sanskrit holds the term in a compressed economy; there are no articles or prepositions to slow your perception.

Throughout India the body has been likened to a clay pot. For a short spell it holds the juices of life. Kabir (1398–1448?) sang of the body as a clay pot moistened with spit and semen. Broken, it returns to earth. Likewise Dadu Dayal, Kabir’s contemporary, spoke of the pot with nine holes, wickedly asking, “Did you think it would last forever?” When a corpse has been consumed by fire on the burning ghats at Varanasi, a priest lifts a clay pot over his head and dashes it to pieces on the smoldering ash.

The word vidhi, best thought of here as fate or destiny, also means custom, convention, law. It is the name given to the Sanskrit subjunctive mode, vidhi liṅ (liṅ is a code-term referring to the verb). In English this would encompass the range of duty, conduct, hesitation, or excuse covered by ought, should, could, would, might, may. An underlying note therefore sounds through the poem: social expectation and prejudice are what “throw” one on the wheel.

“I should, I could, I ought, I would; I may have, I might have, I would have.” These demands unhappily shape the poet, thrusting themselves between her life and her desires as the wheel revolves. [End Page 31]

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...


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