The nataraja of Siva
Monday, October 24, 2011


Siva’s dance of the nataraja, depicted above, is a dance that prepares for the destruction of the world, and a new creation. So unless you take the view that the end-times are a good thing, it’s not something particularly joyous. Fr. Andrew Greeley wrote a novel called Lord of the Dance, and prefaced it with a hymn of the same name by Sidney Carter. There is a considerable difference between the dance of Siva and the dance of the hymn.

The Mahabharata is an Indian poem that was written over an extended period of time. It has various layers and accretions that I can’t possibly begin to discuss. The University of Chicago some years ago began publishing a complete translation of the work some years ago, but the translator died, and the work languished. I can’t recommend the translation to the general reader in any case because it contains too much commentary, and will overwhelm the reader who is simply looking for the story.

The epic is written in Sanskrit, a predecessor to one or more of the Indian languages. Like the ancient Greek and Latin epics it’s written in verse. While the ancient epics were written in dactylic hexameter, unrhymed verse of seventeen syllables, the primary metrical unit of the Mahabharata is the sloka, a verse of thirty-two syllables. The prosody is based on quantity (vowel length) rather than quality (accentual position).

English verse does not accommodate such a long line. The longest line in English poetry is the fourteener, or iambic heptameter, a line of fourteen syllables with seven stresses. Examples can be found in Golding:

“Now have I brought a work to end which neither Jove's fierce wrath,
Nor sword, nor fire, nor fretting age with all the force it hath
Are able to abolish quite. Let come that fatal hour
Which (saving of this brittle flesh) hath over me no power,
And at his pleasure make an end of mine uncertain time.
Yet shall the better part of me assured be to climb
Aloft above the starry sky. And all the world shall never
Be able for to quench my name. For look how far so ever
The Roman empire by the right of conquest shall extend,
So far shall all folk read this work. And time without all end
(If poets as by prophecy about the truth may aim)
My life shall everlastingly be lengthened still by fame.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses 15.984-95, tr. Golding)”

A more popular example is the theme to Gilligan’s Island.

“Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip
That started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship.”

The problem with the fourteener is that it is said to break down. There is frequently a caesura, a break, between the third and fourth feet, or the fourth and fifth feet, so that it become ballad meter, alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. I don’t know if the sloka breaks down like the fourteener does, but Johnson, the translator, says that the sloka is usually printed as two sixteen syllable lines, that can be considered as four lines of eight.

The reader who wishes a synopsis of the epic can find one here. The present chapter deals with the final battle in the war. After the Pandavas, the good guys, if you will, have apparently defeated their opponents, the Kauravas, they are slaughtered in their sleep, and in the morning the remaining warriors on each side confront each other and unleash ultimate weapons that have the capacity to destroy mankind.

The Western reader who comes to the two epics, particularly the Mahabharata, with expectations based on the epics of Greece and Rome will be disappointed. The action in the Western epics is more immediate for one thing. The narrator is a pretty standard invisible, except for the invocations, narrator who speaks in the third person. In the Mahabharata, the narration, for the book containing the Gita, and for the Sauptikaparvan consists of someone who has been given clairvoyance, or omniscience regarding the battlefield, narrating the events to a spectator. So we have the poetic narrator, and the narrator within the poem creating a more layered texture than in the Western epics. There is a fair amount of speech in both epic traditions. There is an embassy to Achilles, various speeches and pleadings, and even a number of narrations within the main body of the poem in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Indian epic, in the sections I’ve read, has more speech, and less violent action its Western counterparts. The Mahabharata seems more distant from the violent action of the story, and it achieves this effect through the layering of the narrators. The effect, to this Western reader, is less emotionally involving than the stories in Homer and Virgil and Ovid. That, however, may simply be the result of familiarity.

Next up, some vampire and horror stories. We’ll start with a volume of stories written between 1819 and 1838-9 by John Polidori, a friend of Lord Byron’s, and some other writers of the macabre. That will be followed by a modern fantasy novel of monsters and ghoulies.