Unchaste literature and the “social aesthetic”

Satyanarayana asked a very interesting question a while back. Literature (kāvya) was widely believed to be a kind of moral education, even if it “seduces us like a lover” (kāntasaṃmitatayā); other types of texts, namely scripture (śāstra) and sacred lore (purāṇaitihāsa) are even more directly didactic. But there is quite a lot of literature in Sanskrit and Prakrit that could be thought to undermine basic social and ethical values. Satyanarayana drew our attention to the topos of the asatī, the “unfaithful woman,” who is often presented sympathetically—indeed, in poems of devotion to Kṛṣṇa, the unfaithful women who cavort with Kṛṣṇa are actually “divinized.” What gives? Are we reading the literature wrong? Or do Bhoja and other theorists who assign literature an ethico-didactic function have too puritanical a view of it?

Let’s assume that “being unfaithful” is bad. If literature is to instruct us as moral subjects, then one of the messages we’re supposed to get out of it is “one should not be unfaithful.” But as Satyanarayana pointed out, the Sattasaī—which, incidentally, was one of Bhoja’s favorite texts—very often depicts men and women arranging illicit affairs. The Sattasaī very rarely censures or condones this kind of behavior explicitly. This contrasts with the Rāma story, where the virtuous Rāma is shown to prevail over the dissolute and lustful Rāvaṇa. The single-verse vignettes of the Sattasaī thus don’t lead directly to an moral judgment like “one should not be unfaithful.”

But then again, isn’t this precisely what separates literature from mere sermonizing? I have been interested lately in the various “meanings” that are found in literary texts, and above all in the Sattasaī, and here is something that everyone agrees on: there’s a lot of these meanings, even in a single verse, and sometimes they even contradict each other. (The famous example is the verse bhama dhammia, which contains both a positive and negative injunction.) One of the main protocols for reading the verses of the Sattasaī was figuring out who the speaker of the verse is, and who the verse is addressed to. The verses are often ambivalent themselves, but imagining them to be spoken by certain stock characters introduces whole new levels of meaning. And we have a rich commentarial tradition that attests to this way of reading the text. Let’s take one verse that clearly mentions the asatī, 461 (using the numbering of Weber’s editio princeps):

ua saṃbhamavikkhittaṃ ramiavvaalaṃpaḍāi asaīe
ṇavaraṃgaaṃ kuḍaṃge dhaaṃ va diṇṇaṃ aviṇaassa

Look at that—the unfaithful woman,
eager to make love,
has thrown her colorful sari over the hedges in a rush,
as if giving the banner of victory
to her own immodesty.

The commentator Pītāmbara says that this is what one woman says to another—and in that scenario, the moral judgment is clear. As an alternative, however, Pītāmbara suggests that this is what a procuress (kuṭṭanī) says to encourage the woman’s lover, who has just arrived on the scene and is wondering whether he has missed his appointment. Pītāmbara offers a few further reflections on this verse; in fact, for every verse in the anthology, he tries to elicit a moral meaning (dharma), a social meaning (nīti), and a spiritual meaning (yukti). Here the moral meaning is that “immodesty” can only happen when you stray from the right path, which you shouldn’t do anyway; the social meaning is that when you rush through things you’ll end up ruining them; and the spiritual meaning is that seekers of liberation should abandon desire since it will lead them into immodesty. Obviously, Pītāmbara is reading these verses from the perspective of conventional morality, and it is debatable whether he’s drawing meanings out of the text or putting them in.

But why should poetry about immodesty, unfaithfulness, and other morally questionable things have held the interest of so many people for such a long time? Is it really because (as Satyanarayana quotes Wendy Doniger as saying) these poems were a “fantasy”of licentiousness for their staid authors? I have nothing to say about that hypothesis, but there is at least one alternative. Let’s look at 104:

ṇippacchimāi asaī dukkhāloāi mahuaapupphāiṃ
cīe baṃdhussa va aṭṭhiāi ruirī samuccei

The faithless woman cries
as she gathers the final flowers of the
madhūka tree,
painful to look upon,
as if they were the bones of a loved one
on the funeral pyre.

The “point” of this verse, if I can be so blunt, is the realization that the woman is grieving over the loss of her trysting place under the cover of the madhūka tree. It is figuring out someone’s internal state, their bhāva as this figure is known, from their actions. Is there condemnation here? Only if you think that the word asatī is automatically a condemnation. I think the Sattasaī‘s interest in the asatī comes less from her moral dissolution than her desire to keep her affairs, and her feelings, hidden from the world—and the challenges of narration and representation that this kind of secrecy poses. What we see in this verse are just what other people in the village see; it is our job to figure out what’s going on. (I unfortunately don’t have Pītāmbara’s commentary for this section of the text; it would be interesting to see the dramatic situation that he invents.) The asatī is a case-study in vakratā: not just moral “crookedness,” but the indirection of gestures and speech that makes literature interesting.

The idea that the Sattasaī undermines conventional morality depends on a conflation of the values of the text with the values of its characters. My feeling is that there is a close relationship between these sets of values—but the text’s values are literary, not ethical. Indeed the anonymous characters depicted in the Sattasaī, mostly farmers and villagers, would never be considered to be exemplary moral subjects in the social world that the readers of Sanskrit and Prakrit literature inhabited. This moral distance allows a kind of literary magic to happen: the characters’ secrets become puzzles for us, as readers, to solve; their strategies of dissimulation and indirection come to represent a major part of the literary enterprise.

Catullus wrote:

nam castum esse decet pium poetam
ipsum, versiculos nihil necessest

“Of course a pious poet himself should be moral, but that’s not at all necessary for his verses.”

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