Let’s read some more translation of those age-old Charyās. I did not translate with original meaning in mind, neither depending on Munidatta’s interpretation made in 12–13th century. To me, they carry poetic value which can be interpreted in different ways — thousand years after they were originally composed. I interpreted them my way, without pondering occult symbolism.
The composer of the following pada is Birua pa. He existed during the regime of Devapala. Scholars say, he created these Charyās around 830 AD. He was a person from Triur, probably current Tripura. Even today the locals in Tripura makes country wine following own method. Birua pa name is famous as an author of many books. Some of them are Dohakosh, Amritasiddhi, Biruabajragitika etc.
Raga – Gabara
She pours wine from the narrow-spouted pitcher
Drinking in serenity makes one eternally mightier
How a drinker enters the room on his own –
When the sign for tenth door is aptly shown?
Wine is served in each of sixty four cups;
Drinker can’t leave though life is in a flux.
Wine poured through narrow spout of pitcher,
Birua tells that’s route to be followed for better.
The one compiled by Gundrari pa illustrates Tanric idea of intermingling with the immortal formless being symbolized by mortal lovemaking:
Raga – Aru
O Yogini, in your arms my life finds meaning
Let me make love with you entire evening
I cannot live without your company;
Kissing your face feels sucking honey.
How does one devote to love if not insane?
Happiness comes through love mundane.
Shut mother-in-law indoor to be able to flee
Sun and moon will turn your lock and key
Gundari says – I’m champion of passionate love
Amidst man and woman flies the flag above.
Unfortunately, we do not get much information about Gundari pa. Probably he was not as wise as other Siddhas. We don’t even know whether he had authored any book. We will remember him as a poet – probably as a bold 9th century poet. He was a person either from western part of Bengal or Bihar.
Next one is by Chatila pa – another Siddha about him we don’t know much. Probably he lived around 850 AD in southern part of Bengal but that is not beyond doubt. Following one is the only verse of him that we could access.
The deep river of mortality flows fast;
Both sides of it sunk in polluting mud.
Upholding dharma, Chatil makes bridge;
Traveler crosses fearless through the ridge.
Mat is made splitting tree of obsession;
Rope of Nirvana binds non-duality strong.
Once in bridge, one cannot deflect;
Wisdom attained as you reflect.
Those who search route to wisdom –
Follow Chatila who leads therefrom.
Bhusukupa, on the other hand is a familiar name among Siddhas. He used to live by 770-850 AD. Researchers from northern India associates him with Bihar and some are of the opinion that was a teacher of Nalanda. Many others place him in different parts of Bengal.
Who are you staying with, who have you left?
All corners try to catch you lonely and bereft.
The stag’s own flesh turns its enemy;
Bhusuku the hunter doesn’t leave any.
Stag neither eats grass, nor does it drink;
Doesn’t even know where the doe lives,
The doe tells the stag to leave the forest
Freedom shows the way to bliss earnest
The stag’s hooves remain hidden under the wave
Bhusuku tells- unwise can’t find the meaning grave.
Kanhapa or Kanupa or Krishnapada is the most familiar name among all Charya composers. Among the fifty, 13 are written by him. He is believed to be a wise man who had written many books. He was probably from Karnataka region; came to Magadha for higher studies and did not go back.
Truth and untruth block path of wisdom
Where shall Kanhupa find his sanctum?
One who is wise, is unwise at the same time
Separate are heaven, earth and hell for certain
Kanhu tells that all should be sanctified –
Those who once came had to leave albeit.
Comings and goings make Kanhu depressed
Kanhu knows the garden of bliss comes ahead
How one reaches the garden unhurt?
Kanhu cannot enter own true heart.
Charyās, being the first literary example of several east-Indian languages, became reason of regional academic conflict since long. The history of that conflict is no less interesting; hence trying to draw a simple sketch of the age old arguments.
After the discovery of Charyās by the Bengali academician MM Haraprasad Sastri, Bengali scholars had the first chance of deciphering those. After MM Sastri, Sunitikumar Chattopadhyay proved in his publication ODibil (1926) that those were composed in Proto-Bengali but other eastern languages were originated from that language. Md. Shahidullah did his research on Charyā in French which brought him d-lit in 1928, but it created a new interpretation of the songs as well. Later Prabodhchandra Bagchi and Santi Bhikshu Sastri presented another interpretation based on a Tibetan translation. Again in 1966, Sukumar Sen published his research based on a Japanese version, which obviously presents a completely different interpretation.
In Assam, many scholars claimed Siddha as Assamese Buddhist monks. In fact Tantrik Buddhism was widely practiced in Assam in comparison to other eastern regions. Dr. Parikshit Hazra published his research work claiming Charyās to be based on Kamrup region. Even in 1981, Dr. Satyendranath Sharma claimed Charyās to be the origin of Assamese literature.
Scholars of Odisha were no less confident. The research paper by Dr. Khageswar Mahapatra in 1965 mentioned the influence of those Charyās language on Odia. In his work Pratnaodia in 1979 on Odia grammar he proved those to be composition in Proto-Odia. Dr. Karunakar Kar’s research also tsays the same. In general Charyās are considered to be the earliest example of Odia language and literature.
Maithili was associated to Charyās since long. Nepali scribes used to make palm-leaf manuscripts knowing those to be written in Maithili, but no research was done claiming it to be Maithili till 1949. Dr. Jaikanta Mishra was the first scholar who established the Maithili origin of those songs in his work on ancient Maithili literature denying the Bengali declarations.
Hindi-speaking scholars initiated largest discourse on Charyā-songs. Rahul Samkrityan’s many papers on this deserve special mention. He defined the language of these verses and Eastern Hindi. Bihar or Magadh was the abode of many of the Charya composers. Nalanda as a university became the center of Buddhist studies where many Buddhist scholars from many parts of the country assembled together. Dharamvir Bharati’s work published in 1945 also claimed that Charyas are composed in proto-Hindi.
Charyāgiti are very much based on Buddhist occult philosophy, the language of which reveals remarkable dependence on symbolism. Gaining control over body and mind was considered to be the way to eternal bliss and life of the Buddhist tantrics were supposed to be spent in search of this that bliss. Naturally they developed own symbolic rituals as well as connotation of words to signify particular practices. The word “Aalikali” is used to the process of Inhaling and Exhaling, “sabara” and “Sabari” for Wisdom and Nothingness, “Ganga-Yamuna” – knowledge to be received and Recipient.
Still they could not completely avoid mentioning worldly affairs – sometimes symbolically, to explain their philosophy. Life on the banks of a river obviously associated with boats and its different parts, boatmen, boat making as profession. Similarly, weaving, hunting, woodcutting, wine-making are frequently referred which had obvious association with village life. Robbers and women sex-workers are often mentioned which makes us assume their existence as well. When the monastic Charyāgiti-composer mentions different jewellery, loud wedding procession, musical instruments, bull cow and elephants as domestic animals, cultivation, people’s drinking habit, love-making and expresses concern about women’s losing chastity, we have reason to believe that they stayed in close association with so-called worldly affairs as well.
We don’t have idea whether people outside India found the spiritual approach most interesting or worldly content. But these gained immense popularity as carrier of particular branch of Buddhist philosophical thought, developed after inclusion of occult in the monastic religion in neighbouring geographies as well. Charyās were translated in Tibetan, Japanese and Mongolian. Buddhist scholars started visiting East-Asian countries long back. As Buddhism started being admired in all those countries, the later developments in the religious philosophy were also accepted with same admiration. The first Tibetan Buddhist monk visited Mongolia being invited by a Mongolian emperor in 9th century AD and preached the religion there. And then Mongolian Buddhist scholars traced Tibetan manuscripts containing Charyā-songs. These were being widely translated in Mongolia, Vietnam and Korea in 18th century too.
Charyā- songs influenced Islamic Sufism as well. Sufism is believed to be originally developed in Iran. Many Islamic scholars call Sufism the ‘Tantric’ (occult) branch of Islam. They are of the opinion that Buddhist “Shunyabad” (theory of Nothingness) was main influencing factor behind the birth of Sufism. But how did it go that far? The Iranian scholar Abu Raihan Al-Biruni came to India in 11th century AD and carried knowledge of Indic philosophies and religions back. His book Tarikh Al-Hind mentions not only Brahmanic philosophical schools but also Buddhist theories along. Buddhist monasticism with their occult branches was still influential by the time he came to India. He had no reason to ignore them. Secondly Eastern part of Iran, i.e. Afganistan was very much influenced by Mahayan Buddhism. The giant sized Buddha idol curved in their mountain caves carry the evidence of that. Theory of Nothingness along with the monastic religion didn’t have many hurdles to cross to reach to West Asia.