09 April 2010

The Stream of Life

I was reading through Rune Johansson's Pāli Buddhist Texts and came across this little verse [1].
accayanti ahorattā
jīvatam uparujjhati
āyu khīyati maccānam
kunnadīnam va odakaṃ

Days and nights elapse
Vitality declines
Mortal life is exhausted
Like water in streams
We are used to using rivers as metaphors. We understand the idea of the ever changing stream of the river, flowing from head waters to the sea, especially if we come from moist temperate climates. But in North India there is another phenomena which may not be so familiar.

In Feb 2009 I was in Bodhgaya for the convention of the Triratna Buddhist Order. One day I took the time to walk a little out of town to cross the long bridge over the River Falgu (called the Nirañjana in the Buddha's day) to the little village of Senani (also called Sujata in association with the young women who is said to have offered the Bodhisatta some milk-rice after he gave up self-torture). In Senani the farmers still pull a wooden plough behind bullocks despite the fact the iron age began about three millennia ago and resulted in the original clearing of this land. However the fields looked green and productive on this side of the river, where there was only brown dry fields around Bodhgaya. On the edge of the village is a stūpa which was built to commemorate Sujata.

The accompanying image from Google earth [2] shows Bodhgaya and the Falgu/Narañjana, the Mahabodhi Temple complex, the bridge and Suajata's stūpa. Although the bridge is about 600 meters wide, as I walked accompanied by one of the ubiquitous 'school children' [3] of Bodhgaya, I saw only sand. The mighty river had completely dried up, and this was not even the hot season, this was during the coolish winter. This is what this image shows - the brown colour is sand, not water. At higher magnifications one can see the patterns and cart tracks in the sand, as well as the little hut next to the bridge that Śaiva sadhus occupy when it is dry. Pulling back even more one sees that the river peters out in both directions, though I think it probably forms a tributary of the Ganges during the monsoon. There is even a word for this phenomena in Sanskrit: vārṣikodaka 'having water only during the rainy season [varṣa]'.

Certainly I am not used to such contrasts. It occurred to me that the verse above had to be understood in this context - this cyclic flooding and then complete drying up of even substantial rivers. I could not have imagined life becoming exhausted like a small stream because I've (more or less) always lived on islands with abundant rainfall all year round. But in this region when even a large river can completely dry up, what chance does a small stream have? And the verse is saying that life is like a small stream in this region - it may flood, but soon is will disappear. The verse is much more compelling when seen in this context.

The use of the word jīvata is interesting. It begins as a past-participle of jīvati and therefore means 'lived', but comes to mean the life-span, or 'vitality' (itself from Latin vita 'life' and probably cognate with jīvata). The noun jīva is an important technical term in Jainism where it denotes a kind of soul which moves from life to life. The verse makes a contrast by choosing another word for life: ayu (Sanskrit āyus). We find this word in āyurveda which means something like the 'knowledge of life' i.e. a literal rending in English would be biology (though they do not quite mean the same thing!). Āyus is related to the Greek word æon, and to English 'eternal, always'. So buried in the history of these words is the notion of eternity, the belief or wish that life will go on and on.

The Canon records that these words were spoken to Māra in the Squirrel Sanctuary near Rājagaha in the heart land of the samaṇa movement. I've noted before that Johannes Bronkhorst has argued that the idea of rebirth came from this region from amongst the samaṇa groups of whom the Jains were pre-eminent in the Buddha's time [Rethinking Indian History]. Māra here argues that the jīvata rolls along like the chariot's wheel, he literally denies that days and nights pass and that life ends. The verse above is the Buddha's rely. The status of Māra is a long story - was he 'real', allegorical, metaphorical? One way we could take this story is as a psychodrama with Māra representing that part of our psyche which coined these words for life which has 'eternal' as a connotation. Māra is our refusal to face up to our own impending death. The refusal to face death is quite a common theme and I have dealth with it at least once before in my essay: From the Beloved.

However we read the verses I find it very helpful to have walked in that landscape when trying to get into the mindset I find in the Pāli texts.

  1. The reference is Saṃyutta Nikāya i.109 - pg 201-202 of the single vol ed. of Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation. [I'm tempted to offer a prize for anyone who knows what a 'felly' is without looking it up!]
  2. If you want a closer look at Bodhgaya on Google then the coordinates are: Latitude: N 24° 41.75, Longitude: E 84° 59.49
  3. The 'students' scam money out of tourists and pilgrims by asking them to buy school books for them, which they immediately sell back to the shop. This scam has a second level in which the dupe is invited to visit the school where the headmaster informs them that the child is out of school because they haven't paid their fees, which the generous dupe pays for them - 0nly to see them on the street again the next day. (It happened to a friend of mine!)
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