Vanity thought #854. Reason to rhyme

I was wondering why almost all Vedic literature is in the form of poetry. Not all of it rhymes but all of it adheres to some kind of meter. Actually, the best kind of poetry does not have to rhyme, too, and in that sense Vedic literature might be a lot more sophisticated than appears on the surface.

Without knowing Sanskrit we can’t appreciate it, sadly, but properly composed verses have so many characteristics that Western poetry doesn’t stand a chance. I think. There was an article on Dandavats where some devotee demonstrated how he composed a verse glorifying Srila Prabhupada according to the rules of Cakra-bandha. It’s impressive, to say the least. Now think of kavis who could blabber off hundreds of such verses on the spot without the help of any kind of diagrams or visual aids.

This should give a deeper meaning to sundarim kavitam rejected in siksashtaka, we just don’t know how attractive it could be, lucky us. For us the equivalent could be giving up composing Twitter messages or texting, if we appreciate squeezing our thoughts into short, concise statements, or giving up facebooking if we just love talking and appearing smart.

It’s this push to comply with the rules what interests me today, however. Proper poetry is extremely expressive, just as intelligently constructed tweets, but very very few people can master such skill. Srila Prabhupada, for example, didn’t even try to write in meter though he did compose poems before coming to the West.

The problem is that, in general, prose is far more descriptive and precise. Even if you manage to pack all the shades of the situation in verse most people will fail to extract them back, something will always be lost. First it will be lost when you encode your message to follow the rules of poetry, then something will be lost when people fail to decode the original meaning.

Why bother at all, then?

Srila Rupa Goswami was composing his first plays for months, maybe longer than a year, and when he left Puri for Bengal he still wasn’t finished. Maybe later he mastered a way to write books faster but it’s safe to assume that simply telling the stories in prose would always be better. Or maybe stories of Krishna’s pastimes can’t be told in prose, for originally every step there is a dance and every word is a song.

Okay, but what about Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami? In Chaitanya Charitamrita he was describing events that didn’t look so poetic in real life, yet the entire book is poetry, and a very beautiful one at that. When native Bengalis recite Chaitanya Charitamrita it sounds so sweet no westerner can copy them ever. Yet it often deals with topics where simple narration would have suited better. Was it justified? Was something lost when putting straightforward description to verse and making them rhyme? All Chaitanya Charitamrita verses rhyme, btw, which is not the case with Bhagavad Gita or Srimad Bhagavatam.

Should we try to reconstruct the original situations from those verses? Should we try to find details that were discarded to fit the rules of poetry? Were there any such details?

I think it would be a fascinating mental exercise. Srila Prabhupada’s translations and purports are not poetic so he already did half the job, can we take it further? Can we try and reconstruct the episode with Amogha, who chided the Lord for overeating? Why not? There are many details in Krishnadasa Kaviraja’s verses that, when put together, would form a fuller picture than straightforward reading. We already do it when retelling these stories to others and it’s a totally legitimate practice, no one every complained about it.

Could it be said, then, that our reconstruction offers a better, more complete narrative than what we can see in Prabhupada’s translation and purports? After all, this is what we get when we listen to Bhagavatam classes – ever expanding, ever fresh stories of Krishna lilas. They all come from a few limited sources – Bhagavatam, purports, and Krishna Book, but the number of renditions is potentially unlimited.

There’s a danger lurking there, however. Imagine we constructed a complete picture of some episode from Chaitanya Charitamrita. We learned the context, we learned backgrounds of all the participants, we learned of their relationships and their individual aspirations, we also know how the story developed and how it ended and so we know who was right and who was wrong all along.

Then we say something like “In this verse Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja didn’t mention the fact that…” and in the end we make the whole episode look and feel somewhat different, which we call “complete”. You know, it’s poetry, can’t put every detail in the verses, right? Is it complete, though? And what does it mean to know the full story?

There were lots of people who knew the whole story as it unraveled in real life, knew it much better than any of us, but their opinions don’t matter. Why? Because we only want to know how pure devotee like Krishnadasa Kaviraja understood it. We need to know only the details and angles that increase our faith and devotion, not what somebody was wearing or how glamorous someone looked. If Krishnadasa Kaviraja didn’t include some details in this particular verse, it’s for our own benefit.

Similarly, there were many things happening in the world in Prabhupada’s time. World War II, Moon landing, the march of science, the birth of feminism etc. We can learn about them from books or, more likely, documentaries on History channel, but what is really important for us is to learn what Srila Prabhupada had to say about them. All other opinions combined don’t come even close in value to Srila Prabhupada’s observations. Of course they matter if you want to pass a test or show off your knowledge on r/AskHistorians or become a wikieditor but for our spiritual advancement they are all garbage.

Similarly, among all the renditions of Lord’s pastimes we hear in classes or in Ramayana/Mahabharata seminars only those that come from the tongues of pure devotees can really affect our lives. There are good storytellers that keep their audience captivated and enthralled but it will be of no spiritual benefit if their devotion is polluted.

Therefore I’m always skeptical about really engaging Bhagavatam classes, I’m afraid of the polluting effect of too many external, non-spiritual decorations that make someone’s speech from dull muttering into exciting storytelling. Intonation, rhythm carefully places pauses, sound effects – it all sounds nice but we listen to classes not to please our ears but to purify our souls. These two things are not mutually exclusive but there’s also no guarantee that they are always present together.

Therefore I don’t see much value in looking beyond what is said in Prabhupada’s translations and purports, especially if it changes the mood of the story.

Therefore I’d rather appreciate the sentiments Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami selected to express through meters and rhymes, for they are quintessence of devotion and not quintessence of useless descriptions.

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