-- Shreedhar Lohani
Life, Love, and Death in Muna Madan
In Muna Madan (1935), Devkota (1909-59) creates a dazzling picture of Lhasa with its fiery peaks, dancing flowers, rippling waterfalls, and carpets of softest grass along with the local damsels with ivory skin and rose blossom cheeks. He had never been to Lhasa. He takes real geographical space and creates it imaginatively. A real place becomes a poetic creation. On the other hand, he takes an old created fiction and populates it with real human beings. Devkota thus reverses the categories: the real is imagined and the imaginary is made real. Likewise, life is presented as an illusion and death as a gateway to reality. The final impact of this homely short epic is philosophical.
The poem begins with a series of arguments. Madan argues with his young wife Muna that he has to go to Lhasa to seek his fortune so that he can fulfill his old mother’s pious wishes and give a solid economic foundation to his poor household. Muna, however, tearfully pleads with him to stay because she says a contented life is better than having bags of gold. In answer Madan can only appeal to her sentiments saying he’s doing it for the family’s sake, and the poet foreshadows a tragic ending when Madan says if he dies on the way for doing good, they will meet in heaven. The reversal is it is Muna who dies. When Madan comes back from Lhasa with two bags of gold—“the dirt on hands”—his old mother is taking her last breath and Muna is dead, killed by a town ruffian’s letter to her saying that Madan has died on the way. So, the ominous words of the beginning come out to be tragically true at the end.
The poem ends with a series of realizations culminating in Madan’s gaining of deep philosophical insight and knowledge. When Madan knows Muna is dead, his grief is beyond consolation. His sister consoles him saying that death is the supreme reality and the flower of the earth dies so that it can blossom up in heaven. Man is born to suffer, and purified by suffering he attains immortality (52-53). Madan’s anger bursts out against the injustice of God who seems to create only to destroy. He had always thought Muna was so beautiful that she would never die. He almost loses his sanity and anticipates suicide. When the sister says Muna has not really died and has become a portion of the cosmos itself and she has now passed into the gardens of spring in the form of light, Madan suddenly realizes death tears away the veil that separates a person from Reality, and he wants the veil to be lifted soon so that he can go to meet her in heaven (53-54). Passing from various stages of pain, anger, anguish, death-wish, insanity, resignation, and ultimately spiritual awakening, he realizes the nature of Maya or illusion and calmly waits for the worldly curtain to be drawn for him so that death can release him into everlasting life and unity with his beloved wife:
I am veiled, obstructed by the curtain of death,
I shall not weep, I shall set out to meet her tomorrow,
Lift the curtain, oh Fate. (54)
Muna Madan clearly posits the philosophical doctrine that in life Reality or Truth is covered by a veil of illusion. It is only after qualifying oneself by love and suffering leading to purification and knowledge and dedicating oneself to one’s duty that the veil of illusion is lifted. Only the Light is real and Death is actually the process of waking up from the divine dream we call life. In the Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna says that the body is just an outer covering, and the soul inside is immutable and indestructible, immortal and imperishable. Death is therefore not a catastrophe but a natural process. Suffering is sacred.
In Muna Madan death functions as an inevitable cultural exploration of mortality. The antidotes to death as presented in the poem are love, beauty, and imagination. Love challenges death, and imagination and beauty work against the ravages of time. The poem exhibits a restless tension on the one hand between Death as the destroyer of illusions about Life and so necessary for knowing the Ultimate Reality, and on the other hand it argues against the power of time and death by positing the powers of love, beauty, and imagination. This conflict between philosophical acceptance of death as a gateway to heaven and the artistic preference for the permanence of human love, beauty, and imagination creates the intense drama of this narrative. Like a great elegy, Muna Madan mourns the death of the young lovers and at the same time it meditates on how such young and beautiful lovers can die. The poem probably reflects Devkota’s own anxiety as a twenty-five year young poet and his fear that he too could be cut down in his prime before he can create the art that will be his heritage.
Muna Madan enshrines a deep desire for the eternal and unalterable of Nature through death. This is exemplified in the last stanza of the poem:
The clouds parted, a lovely moon smiled down,
It peered with the stars through the window,
The clouds drew together, Madan slept forever,
Next day, the sun rose in the clearest of skies. (55)
It is a typical instance of Romantic idealism. Devkota synthesizes the eternal recurrence of natural phenomenon with death, which is in fact a moment of existence. Romantic idealism favors this hermeneutic and phenomenological outlook and a considerable part of Muna Madan exhibits how internalized nature creates exteriorized aesthetic longings. It blends nature and life and sustains this synthesis with love.
The deep meditation on life and death has been facilitated in the short epic by including just a few solitary characters. Almost all the characters are solitary in some way. This is perhaps because Devkota himself was a solitary person and although he enjoyed the company of a select few, he was happiest in the company of Nature. This may be why he prefers solitary figures in his poetry, and testifies to his idea of poetry as coming from within and not “made”—poetry as emotion, not clever use of words. Secondly, most of his solitary individuals are ordinary rustic people who are usually mostly in nature’s company. The altruistic Bhote as opposed to the town ruffian is a rustic character—simple, natural and noble, whereas the town ruffian as a foil to the Bhote is a villain corrupted by “civilization” and potentially dangerous to life and society. Devkota’s admiration for the man's goodness is the key point of the poem. And thirdly, Devkota is suggesting here that although appreciation of nature is important, it is also desirable to relate to people. He wants a beautiful synthesis of humanism and nature worship.
Devkota’s faith in the value of art relating to people is instrumental in the creation of the most memorable heroine in all literature—Muna in Muna Madan. Muna, a victim figure, seems to be wholly at the mercy of the male figures in her life. Although we cannot wholly blame Madan for the tragedy of the poem, but for Muna’s death his innocence must be questioned. In his treatment of Muna, Madan swings between his immense love for Muna and the cruelty of forgetting her being captivated by the beauties of Lhasa. Money and culture cannot easily be separated and the brute power of money pushes culture into retreat. Even Madan’s philanthropic Lhasa quest is symbolic of his male ego to prove himself, as Muna muses later in the poem:
Why did he enter the whirlpool of money?
Why did he leave his heart’s treasure for Lhasa?
Money! . . . The security of evil men.
What if he has forgotten me, entranced by wealth?
Has another led him astray and robbed me of my life? (40)
But a dutiful wife in a patriarchal society she quickly adds:
My mind wanders like a bee.
How can I trust it? May I not be blamed: it is my mind that sins. (40)
The tragedy is due in part to Madan’s male ego and Muna’s adherence to society's conception of the silent women. It is not that Madan does not love her—there cannot be a greater lover, but he is true to himself as a conventional male. The old mother in her death bed gives a mature picture of the society and women’s role in it as she consoles the distraught Muna:
And this you must bear:
Be not trapped by the snares of grief,
Practise devotion which illumines the final path. (45)
What else can the poor women do, but cherish virtue and bear all suffering patiently hoping to be rewarded in heaven after death for their good deeds! Obedience and silence are very much part of the patriarchal conception of femininity. In a system where women are the weaker, dependent sex, Muna has no resources to deal with Madan’s absence. Convention robs her of autonomy and she retreats into stoic resignation to escape from reality.
However, in this poem at the end the gender roles are reversed and it is Madan who is the true victim. The patriarchal society of Kathmandu stifles him to retain a masculine side only and repress his emotional feminine psyche, and as a result he loses control over his life. In the end, he defeats himself in his death. By dying as a true lover for Muna (he dies of heart break when he knows she is dead), Madan combines his masculine and feminine polarities which have been evident and separate throughout the poem. Muna too refuses to adhere to the role of a weak female when she confronts Naini. Far from being the silent woman, she makes her voice heard, challenging Naini with a masculine aggression. As a matter of fact in Muna Madan, the distinctions between masculine and feminine are blurred. Madan and Muna swap roles. They continually embrace both their masculine and feminine selves and so experience a bonding of souls. They cross gender boundaries while retaining their sex roles as man or woman.
Muna’s nobility is not passive but an act of will. Her refusal to blame Madan for his terrible silence from Lhasa, when she even in a sense suspects him of betrayal, (and Nepali traders in actuality used to have Tibetan wives also):
You have forgotten me, my Krishna
Harden your heart and tell me: How was it that you strayed? (39).
It must not be looked down as subservience but it is a willed refusal to accept a bad opinion of the husband she has loved. She stands by her acceptance of her love for him as something sacred. To Naini’s
What honour does that gadabout do you
When he flits around like a bee? (31),
she answers with a martyr-like determination:
Pull down the moon, raise up the mountains,
But do not trick and unsettle my thoughts.
The heart is no longer a bud, when it has blossomed like a rose,
Once it becomes another’s trust it is no longer your own,
I shall come through the flames of his pyre,
I shall pass the woman’s trial
--an obvious reference to Sita, the ideal woman and wife, of the Ramayana. She thus obeys her own heart rather than patriarchal rules, extending this determination through to death. She dies for a love that cannot be tainted. It is through the character of Muna that Devkota really depicts death as an assertion of self-hood and an act of defiance to the patriarchal laws. Her death becomes an act of triumph over the town ruffian or anybody who takes woman as a mere plaything. Through death Muna not only transcends the world of oppression and fate, but defines death as a positive act of the will.
Through his representation of womanhood in the character of Muna, Devkota transcends the stereotypes of his own time and gives a heightened awareness of what it means to be a woman. Muna Madan celebrates the trials and tribulations of love--from conjugal bliss to aesthetic love bordering on spirituality. Mahakavi Devkota ruminates on the influence that Muna and Madan have on one another, and on the power of love, the great force that binds one person to another. It is precisely this aspect of the short epic that ensures that it does not become dated, and nor will it become so in the years to come, because it is about love that sustains both life and death and lights up both heaven and earth.
All page references within parentheses are from Michael Hutt, Devkota’s Muna Madan (Lalitpur: Sajha Prakashan, 1996).
First published in Devkota Studies 12 (April 2012): pp. 20-25.
x x x
-- Rajendra Kumar Panthee
Bapu by Laxmi Prasad Devkota: A Discourse from the Margin
Laxmi Prasad Devkota is one of the most prolific writers in the history of Nepali creative as well as critical writing and Bapu, a collection of sonnets on Mahatma Gandhi, testifies to this fact. In 1949, he composed sonnets on Bapu, a great freedom fighter and teacher of non-violence, after being touched by the assassination of this great leader in Delhi by a Hindu fanatic, Nathu Rame Godse, on the 30th of January 1948. Bapu reflects the poet’s new and innovative social, political and religious ideas. This paper reads Devkota’s Bapu as a discourse from the margin against the mainstream discourse prevailing at the time in terms of concept of man, religion and politics, that is, from the perspective of New Historicism, a method of literary interpretation that regards history as text and text as history.
Bapu was written at the time of democratic and other nationalist movements inside and outside the country. This background matters a lot while making a new historical reading of the text as it is based on a parallel reading of literary and non-literary texts. Greenblatt, one of its proponents, says, “New Historicism is an intensified willingness to read all of the textual traces of the past with the attention traditionally conferred only on literary texts” (qtd. in Barry 172-173). The Nepali people were fighting against autocratic Rana regime and the liberation war in India was just over. Due to the autocratic Rana regime, life was harsh for the Nepalese people. Despite everything, they fought bravely for a free and liberal life. Devkota himself had to leave Nepal to live in exile in India where he composed these sonnets. Ram Hari Joshy writes, “These Sonnets on Bapu (Mahatma Gandhi) were written by Sri Laxmi Prasad Devkota while in exile during Rana regime in the year 1949” (Preface). Since the very spirit of the time was to lead a free life, the poet found the spirit of freedom and liberty reflected in Bapu. Moreover, Bapu also reflects the attainment of godhood by a simple human being through the service of fellow human beings. This inspires the poet to take Bapu as his role model and to reject other beliefs and ideas prevailing in contemporary society. Where the majority of Nepalese find their God in Bhanubhakta’s Ramayana, Devkota finds Him in the living form of Gandhi and says:
We shall not cry an Idle Krishna, Rama,
A God-cry for a crust, all idle show. (5)
This made other people accuse him of being an atheist but the reality was that his concept of divinity was different from that of others. For him, the God was not an inhabitant of the temple or of a page of religious books; rather, He manifested Himself through forms of service to poor and needy people.
This new and innovative idea of God is in keeping with the Renaissance humanism, which was in a striking contrast to the biased medieval emphasis on the sinful nature of man. Man was now considered infinitely great and valuable. One of the central figures of the Renaissance, Marsilio Ficino exclaimed, “Know thyself, O divine lineage in mortal guise!” (qtd. in Gaarder 166). Similarly, Pico della Mirandola wrote Oration on the Dignity of Man, “Throughout the whole medieval period, the point of departure had always been God. The humanists of the Renaissance took as their point of departure man himself” (qtd. in Gaarder 167). Due to such beliefs, man felt at home in the world and did not consider life solely as a preparation for the hereafter.
Devkota sees different avatars within a single Bapu because of the very concept of new humanism. Sometimes he regards him as an invaluable thing, “Kohinoor of our Indian crown” (1) that is the source of pride and can not be bought, a priceless thing, whereas, at other times, “a saintly man” (1). He sees godly light in him and regards him as a true king of the people, “Thy light is on our soul, O people’s King!” (1). He even takes him as the father as well as light, “Fatherly to the Race of Man. Thou wert a light” (1). He even regards him “Á personality of soul not flesh/ A naked beggar with a saintly flesh” (4). He finds him just like Buddha, “… a demi-Budhha” (5). He regards Bapu a great hero, saint, father of whole humanity, teacher of non-violence, liberator of human beings, and enlightener of the human race.
Like the concept of new humanism, the literary movement in which Devkota comes up with this collection of sonnets is also equally responsible for the realization of immense potentiality in mortal beings in general and artists in particular. This background plays a crucial role while interpreting Bapu from a new historical perspective because
Instead of asking what a particular text means in and of itself, New Historicists ask what it does within the ensemble of social relations in which it is embedded. Rather than focusing on the masterpieces or on the author of masterpieces, these critics attempt to understand the lived social reality of the era being studied. (Leitch 2250-51)
The prevailing literary tradition of the period was Romanticism and Devkota was a staunch follower of this movement.
Since Romanticism, Europe’s last common approach to life, is a product of the Renaissance humanism, there are many similarities between them. Regarding one of the similarities between them, Gaarder writes, “A typical one was the importance of art to human cognition” (288). Hence, Romanticism believed that an artist can provide something that philosophers can not express. Similarly, the Romantics believed that only art can bring us closer to ‘the inexpressible’ (qtd. in Gaarder 288) and they compared artists to God in that they create their own reality. Devkota’s Bapu also reflects the immense power of art and artists. In sonnet No. 23, he writes:
I am a poet, want to write in gold
Imperishable letters, letters that can speak
To all eternity my voice that seek,
Quickening, pulsing, making Heaven bold.
I want to tell in every word God’s spell.
Immortalize myself in my soul … (12)
He realizes such a great power in himself that he can even create heaven in his poetic frenzy and do such a great work that can not be done even by the most powerful heroes in the world, “I am the maker of the Heaven you know” (15).
In the course of seeing god-like power in Bapu as well as in realizing the great power in himself, Devkota goes against the traditional concept of religion. Due to the assassination of Gandhi by a Hindu fanatic, he loses faith in established religion and writes, “And Religion is just a game of mar” (9). This idea of religion originates from the division of India into India and Pakistan and the killing of so many people in the religious riots all over India and Pakistan. When all these things were going on, Devkota was closely observing Bapu who visited riot-torn areas, consoled the victims, tried to rehabilitate the communal riot victims and tried his best to restore communal harmony in the country. Despite all this, Bapu got himself killed by a religious fanatic. Having experienced such a bitter reality, Devkota abandons old religious ideas and develops a new one: true religion is the way to God, a way to universal good, and a balm that heals the wounded human heart. Being inspired by Gandhi’s new religion, Devkota writes:
Religion is the way to Truth and God.
The way to universal good, the healing balm.
It lies in doing good to another Man,
In turning soul of service to His rod.
Not in the field of conflict, not in war,
Not in the pride of race, Religion lies. (8)
Devkota afterwards becomes an ardent supporter Bapu’s religion, which, instead of being confined by the narrow walls of the self, is based upon the soul itself: “Bapu’s Religion is the soul’s you know” (9). There is only love in this soul’s religion, and there is the possibility of peace, harmony and unity among creatures in the world. Gandhi believed that this is possible only when the hearts of the people are pure. Such purity of heart must be achieved at the individual level to start with: “Self-purification therefore must mean purification in all the walks of life. And purification being highly infectious, purification of oneself necessarily leads to the purification of ones surroundings” (An Autobiography 463-464). Not only this, all the religions become one in it. Devkota writes:
In Love, in variety, no racial war.
The Koran is a Veda, Bible too. (8)
Later on, Devkota advocates this concept of religion in almost every sonnet in Bapu as well as in other poems like “Yatri” and “Marga” to name a few. Through this religion, he believes, there can be unity and harmony among people and human beings can obtain the height of God here and now. He teaches that helping the poor and needy is the greatest religion in the world and asks people to follow this principle.
Devkota also puts forward the new concept of politics after being inspired by Bapu. “Bapu believed in nonviolence as he saw” (8) instead of following the dogma and violence centered politics that was prevalent in the world. Bapu, while fighting against the English, took part in party politics through the Indian National Congress and emerged as the leader of Nationalist India. He practiced passive resistance in India after World War I to overthrow the British rule and he was frequently imprisoned in the process. His program of nonviolence and non-cooperation with the British government electrified the whole of India and thousands of Satyagrahis defied the laws and cheerfully lined up for prison. Gandhi, regarding the nonviolent and passive resistance of the 6th of April 1919, writes, “The whole of India from one end to the other, towns as well as villages, observed a complete hartal on that day” (423).The nationalist struggle in India led by Bapu then entered its last crucial phase with the break of World War II. When India was about to become a free and secular nation state, it was divided into two nation states: India and Pakistan, and there was communal violence in which many innocent people lost their lives. Gandhi did not agree with what happened and remained firm in his idea of nonviolence. He tried his best to teach people about the power of nonviolence. From Bapu, Devkota learnt that politics is not the exercise of brute power that kills; rather, it is the practice of the power of nonviolence. Devkota is thrilled by this notion and writes:
Nonviolence killeth more than brute or king.
The soul destroys with power of its thought.
And kills by its energy more than war. (8)
Bapu taught how one could fight for freedom and liberty without applying any means of violence. Devkota supports this idea of nonviolence, which promotes a spiritual upbringing rather than degrade human beings. He appreciates the power of nonviolence that is pro-life and regenerative: “Non-violence speaks mankind’s great rebirth” (13).
To sum up, Devkota’s Bapu is a discourse against contemporary mainstream discourse. It is the reflection of new and innovative ideas regarding politics, religion and the concept of God in man himself and these ideas belonged to the margin in the contemporary Nepalese society. This discourse played a great role to shape up the very text and Bapu can not be understood when it is isolated from these perspectives which shaped the non-literary text of the period. Bapu in itself may appear to be an abstract text when it is taken in itself as the poet puts forward the concept of new man, God, religion and politics, but when it is read in its historical, political, cultural and intellectual background of its production, it becomes concrete and meaningful. By creating a discourse on Bapu, Devkota historicizes his discourse on Bapu and textualizes the historical figure Bapu.
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 2nd ed. New: York: Manchester UP, 2002.
Devkota, Laxmi Prasad. Bapu: Sonnets. Kathmandu: International Forum, 1991.
Gandhi, M. K. An Autobiography or the Story of My Experiments with Truth. Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 2003.
Gaarder, Jostein. Sophie’s World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy. Trans. Pauletter Moller. Great Britain: Phoenix, 1996.
Joshy, Ram Hari. “Preface.” Bapu: Sonnets. Kathmandu: International Forum, 1991.
Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001.
[From: Devkota Studies 5 (November 2008): pp. 26-30.]