Review: Hasyarnava-Prahasanam (The Ocean of Mirth) translated by Jyotirmaya Sharma
Sex, subversion and Sanskrit: a new translation of a bawdy Sanskrit play intrigues with its exploration of order and freedom
“Bound together by vine-like arms in sexual union, their exertion makes the unctuous sandal on their bodies gather with the steaming perspiration.” With its unabashedly sexual opening, the medieval Sanskrit comedy Hasyarnava-Prahasanam (The Ocean of Mirth) sets the tone for a riotous satire. Its outlandish humour punctures social norms, undermines hierarchies and lampoons religious strictures.
Commentators of Sanskrit literature tend to divine mystical unions with god even in the most lurid of texts. The dalliances of Radha and Krishna in the 12th-century Gita Govinda, for instance, are explained away as the merging of the individual soul with the universal consciousness. Same is the case with Urdu and Persian literature — scholars often subsume sex into the metaphysical.
Where sexuality is acknowledged, carnal descriptions are often cloaked in the garb of ‘eroticism’ to make it seem more literary. In his introduction to the anthology Erotic Poems from the Sanskrit, R Parthasarathy writes, “These poems reflect a culture that celebrates the pleasures of the flesh without any inhibition in a language that never gives offence, that never crosses the line but always observes the canons of good taste.” While such works indeed exist, there is also the crass, the offensive, which crosses the line with utter disregard for good taste and thus, does not find a spot in the literary canon. While we hear about Kalidasa and Banabhatta’s masterpieces, texts like Hasyarnava-Prahasanam remain obscure.
A new translation, however, seeks to fill this literary lacuna. Jyotirmaya Sharma, Professor of Political Science at the University of Hyderabad, has rendered the satire into English and prefaced it with an incisive commentary. Compared to a 1976 translation by Ram Dayal Munda and David Nelson, his version is more successful at conveying what he deems “the original’s sparkling quality and unsettling energy”.
The play transpires in the house of Bandhura (Inclined-Vulva), an ageing prostitute who “keeps count of paramours by counting the wrinkles on her body”. It begins with the king paying her a visit. He confesses he has not been able to keep track of civic matters because he is too busy plotting how to have sex with other men’s wives. As more characters enter the scene, we see the chaos enveloping their world. Ranajambuka (Jackal-of-War), the army chief, proudly shares his exploits of hollowing a bee with his sword, but faints at the sight of blood. Raktakallol (Joy-in-Blood), the barber, prefers cutting his clients’ arteries to their hair and nails. Mahanindaka (Might-Censurer) claims he has composed the Vedas instead of Brahma, whom he decries as silly. Two other brahmins and their pupils are among the many lusting after Bandhura’s daughter, Mrgankalekha (Streak-of-the-Young Moon’s-Crescent).
The play echoes the sexual anarchy of Marquis de Sade (albeit without the violence or cruelty). The society in which it unfolds might come across as plumbing the depths of degeneracy. It, however, is not a moralistic tale highlighting evil and incompetence to warn of their dangers. In its all-encompassing anomie, there is no ethical compass one can seek recourse to. That makes it all the more interesting and open to interpretations.
In his commentary, Sharma draws from various concepts, such as the king-brahmin relationship, in Kautilya’s Arthashastra and notions of dharma from the Mahabharata and Manusmriti among other texts to situate the satire. “It envisions disorder as the precondition for any concept of freedom,” he explains. “In exhibiting defiance, it warns us that a mindless quest for order, efficiency, safety and comfort can only lead to violence, cruelty, inequality and injustice… it offers a messy, fragile and chaotic sense of freedom.” For Sharma, this ungrounding of moral certainty anticipates the post-truth world and makes it a “political satire for all times”.
Hasyarnava-Prahasanam also comes across as a subversive manifesto for egalitarianism. Bandhura is considered well-born because “even an outcaste from the lowest caste does not drink water at her house”. The characters mock each other — even the young Mrgankalekha ridicules the old men and the king is not spared — but the narrative treats them all the same. If anything, it lauds the prostitutes while highlighting the faults of those at the top rungs of society — the king, courtiers and priests. Its mockery of the brahmin characters harks back to the critiques presented by Carvakas, ancient Indian materialists who ridiculed rituals and metaphysical claims. Kalahankura (Tumour-of-Strife) wonders what is the point of studying the Vedas, worshipping the sun, serving his guru and attaining heaven if these do not help him embrace Mrgankalekha’s “urn-like lofty breasts”.
For all its brilliance, little is known about the text or its author Jagadesvara Bhattacharya. While some have dated it to as late as the mid-18th century, Sharma weighs in on the different contentions and pegs its composition to sometime between the 14th and 17th centuries. “The usual signs used as internal evidence to date a text are unavailable. There are no references to Muslims, Jesuits, gunpowder, local gods and goddesses, folk or tribal traditions,” he explains. “Brahmins continued to write poetry and prose in Sanskrit, almost till the 19th century, inhabiting an altogether different temporality, ignoring historical events with benign condescension.”
It is unfortunate that despite the rich heritage of Sanskrit literature spanning millennia, non-scholars know little beyond the epics and ‘the Shakespeare of India’, with an occasional nudge and wink to Kamasutra. Most think of Sanskrit as a repository of religious traditions, but it is also a fount of wit, humour, engaging storytelling and startling insights.
In recent years, translators have rendered some lesser-known Sanskrit works into English. Notable among these are the publications of the Clay Sanskrit Library and the Murty Classical Library of India. While ancient Sanskrit literature from the “Golden Age” is usually foregrounded, former diplomat AND Haksar has translated medieval texts such as Srivara’s Kathakautukam, Vallabhadeva’s Subhashitavali and Kalyan Malla’s Suleiman Charitra. Srivara’s 15th-century play is an adaptation of a Persian love story that incorporates references from the Abrahamic religions and invokes Muhammad along with Shiva.
Hasyarnava-Prahasanam’s milieu might not be as eclectic, but it is an intensely fascinating, thought-provoking work. Sharma’s translation and commentary are invaluable contributions that make this satire accessible to a new generation of readers.
Syed Saad Ahmed is a Delhi-based writer, photographer and filmmaker.