Love, death and Sanskrit literature

The Monkey King Vali’s Funeral Pyre (Nainsukh) – Wikimedia Commons

In romantic literature across the world, we frequently read about lovers who would die rather than be apart.  In the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, Pyramus kills himself, believing Thisbe to be dead.  When Thisbe finds the dead body of Pyramus, she also kills herself.  Romeo and Juliet, based on this story, and many other tales of world literature, follow a similar pattern.

Another version of the lovers who cannot live without each other, which is less melodramatic yet somehow more interesting from a physiological perspective, is the idea of the lovers who die of heartbreak from separation from each other.  This is the case in the popular story of Layla and Majnun, which originates in Arabia and has been widely adapted across other regions.  Here, the lovers are not able to be together, causing Majnun to descend steadily deeper into madness, and ultimately both lovers die of heartbreak.

Indeed, this idea of dying from a broken heart has recently been attested to have a scientific basis. As Dr Sandeep Jauhar explains in his book ‘Heart: A History’, the effect of the death a loved one can actually cause a change in the shape of the heart, leading to additional stress and elevated short-term mortality risk.

In Kalidāsa’s great poem, Kumārasambhava, we find a similar account of how Rati becomes distraught and faints when her husband, Kāma, the god of love himself, is burned to ashes by Śiva before her eyes.  When revived, she fondly reminisces about their romance together, contrasting this with the extreme grief she now feels, and at first she sees no prospect of hope for her own future.

Now the wife of Kāma, who had been swooning and helpless, was revived by fate, which ordained her the unbearable pain of newly experienced widowhood.

“Do you remember, Smara, when you called me the wrong name and I tied you up with my belt?  Or how I whipped you with lotus-garlands, and bits of flower got into your eyes?”

“I will go the way of you who have just departed to the next world.  I have been cheated by fate, as human pleasure is wholly dependent on you.”

“Smara, when I think about how we arranged sneaky cuddles with a nod, and also about those secret rendezvous, there is no peace for me.”

[Kumārasambhava Canto 4 Verses 1, 8, 10, 17; my own translation]

Indeed, we might not be surprised by such a strong emotional reaction to the death of a dearly loved one.  Love is among the most powerful of the emotions that give meaning and purpose to our lives and motivate us to go on living.  However, we may find hope to go on living courageously in the face of death, drawing inspiration from a verse of the Rig Veda which depicts the funeral of a much-loved member of the community.  As well as acknowledging the tragedy of death, we find a way to turn back to the world of life and happiness.

We the living have turned back from the dead.  Our invocation to the gods has been successful. We have come forth to dance and laughter, getting longer life for the future.

[Rig Veda Maṇḍala 10 Sūkta 18 Mantra 3 by Ṛṣi Saṅkasuko Yāmāyana; my own translation]

Most of all, the spouse of the dead person is most strongly affected and the widowed wife must be comforted by friends when she lays down alongside her husband at the cremation site –

Let these women, who are not widows, who have good husbands, approach with ointment, with ghee.

Without tears, without grief, with jewels, let the women climb up to the resting place –

“Rise up, lady, to the world of the living.  You are lying next to one who has passed away.  Come back.”

[Rig Veda Maṇḍala 10 Sūkta 18 Mantras 7-8ab by Ṛṣi Saṅkasuko Yāmāyana; my own translation]

In this way, the trauma of death perhaps becomes an opportunity for internal transformation and a kind of rebirth.  Indeed, for the Buddha, it was by seeing the effect of ageing on a person, the effect of disease, and finally the sight of a dead corpse, which inspired him to take up a spiritual path that led him ultimately to spiritual enlightenment.

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