Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Teiji Sakata

Teiji Sakata, Professor Emeritus of Hindi Language at Takushoku University, was at Jai Singh Ghera yesterday for the Rasa Lila performance. Shrivatsa Goswami introduced him as the leading figure for Indological studies in Japan, who has written or edited 50 volumes about North Indian language and culture. According to Shrivatsa Maharaj, Sakata has practically single-handedly introduced the culture of North India to Japanese society.

Small in stature, he was dressed in distinctly Japanese dress, a kind of navy blue tunic that folded over like a banian with knee length shorts. Unusual for India, but perfectly suited for the weather. After giving his warmly welcomed talk in perfect though heavily accented Hindi, Prof. Sakata sat humbly in the middle of the crowd, taking occasional notes and photos, but generally absorbed in the play.

I met with the professor after the performance. Like so many scholars, despite his age (73) he is vibrant, enthusiastic and interested in everything connected with his field of study. He was recently in Delhi to present a paper from his latest edited volume in the Japanese Studies on South Asia series, The Historical Development of the Bhakti Movement in India, Theory and Practice (Manohar, 2011).

Prof. Sakata began his studies of Braj Bhasha at Benares University and came to Vrindavan in 1979 for the first time. Interestingly enough, he was introduced to Shrivatsa Goswami by John Stratton Hawley, whose book on Vrindavan Rasa Lila performances we have been quoting over the past few days.

On his return to his teaching role in Japan, Prof. Sakata was able to attract many students to the study of Hindi and by 1986 had a number of Ph.D. candidates, three of whom he brought to Vrindavan to share in the experience of the Chaurasi Kos Parikrama. He told me that he deliberately forbade any interaction between his Japanese students during the day, telling them only to mix with the other yatris so that they would improve their Hindi language skills. Then at night they were allowed to speak to each other in their own tongue.

All of these students have gone on to be professors in their own right, including Takako Tanata of Kyoto University of Education, an ethnomusicologist who has recently published her work on the Samaj Gayan Tradition of the Haridasi sampradaya of Tatia Sthan.

Actually, since my camera had become useless due to the battery dying... again... I was hoping to borrow a few of his pictures. So I showed him Vrindavan Today and he was eager to help, but we couldn't hook up his camera to my computer. Another fail. But a feeling of warm friendship passed between us. I told him a bit of what I was doing, particularly how I was interested in comparing the different versions of the Radha and Krishna story. He is also currently researching and comparing folk stories as they are told in different dialects from Braj to Bhojpuri.

Again, in humility, he said that he always felt that those who were brought up in Buddhist families in Japan and came to Indological studies (and there are many working on Buddhism) had a better intuitive understanding of India than people like himself who were secular. He said that greater insight can be had by someone who is a genuine "participant observer" than one who is simply an outsider looking in.

It was getting late and Prof. Sakata had to leave early the next day, and I also have to bicycle across town, so I had to leave with my appetite to know the professor rather unsated. But as his friendship with Shrivatsa Maharaj is well marinated -- he comes to Vrindavan at least once a year, he said, and Shrivatsa often stops over in Japan when returning to India from the American west coast -- the chances of seeing him again are good.

One thing is certain, Shrivatsa Maharaj has made Jai Singh Ghera a kind of international hub that attracts scholars and students from around the world, giving them facilities to research the Braj culture and make its delights better known throughout the world.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Lord Rama speaks to Swami Veda

I have been working a bit more intensely on the Yoga Sutra, as Swamiji will be leaving Rishikesh in a few days. He wants to have the finished, formatted edition ready by mid-May so it can be handed to Mr. Jain at Motilal. Yesterday, I worked in the library in order to have access to the original texts Swamiji has used, and afterwards had supper with him, Swami Radha and his secretaries, Swami Chetan Bharati and Medha.

From Jagat Jindagi

On offer was a heaped up bowl of freshly churned makkhan, which looked to Ma Radha like a pile of vanilla ice cream. One taste and I was thinking, "This is worth stealing!" Though I did not air this thought, the conversation did turn to Krishna and his butter stealing ways.

Swamiji took great pleasure in reciting a bit of Surdas's maiyā maiṁ nahiṁ mākhana khāyau, ("Mommy, I didn't eat the butter!") and telling of other instances of Krishna's naughtiness.

That led to the legends of Surdas,the blind bard of Braj, with a little detour into Slumdog Millionaire, where one of the poor boys with a good singing voice is deliberately blinded in order to improve his begging value. His song is perhaps Surdas's most famous: āṁkhiyāṁ tava darasane kī pyāsī ("My eyes thirst for a vision of you").

Swamiji told the story about how Krishna would always come to listen to Surdas sing without his knowledge. Then one day, being blind, Surdas fell into a well. He was calling out for someone to save him when a little boy called from above, "Grab my stick and I will pull you up."

Surdas could understand that if a little boy with a little stick could pull him out of such a deep well, then it must be none other than Krishna. So once he had climbed out with his help, he immediately grabbed the boy and said, "Now I've got you, Kanaia, you won't get away from me now!"

But once again Krishna escaped. Then Swamiji quoted the Braj Bhasha verse, "You may be able to get away from me, that is no great feat. If you can leave my heart, I will consider it a miracle!"

I had heard this story a different way. There is a Sanskrit verse attributed to Bilvamangal in the second century of Kṛṣṇa-karṇāmṛta, and I was fishing around in my memory for it. I could only come up with the first line, but Swamiji knew the whole thing:

hastam ākṣipya yāto’si
balāt kṛṣṇa kim adbhutam |
hṛdayād api niryāsi
pauruṣaṁ gaṇayāmi te ||95||
You may thrust aside my hand by force, O Krishna, what is so wonderful about that? If you can escape my heart, then I will consider that an accomplishment of some merit."

Ma Radha Bharati Swami
Of course, this was all conducted with some hilarity. Swamiji spent a year in the Arya Samaj center in Mathura in the early 40's, during which time he had occasion to hear many a kathā vācaka reciting Bhāgavata, and so he started to explain to Ma Radha how these things are conducted.

"It is all about rasa, you see. You have to understand rasa," he said. "Like Surdas sings, nisi dina barakhata naina hamāre, 'Rains are pouring from my eyes, day and night' when the gopis are separated from Krishna. Because in union there is less variety. There are so many ways to be separated!

"And one thing," he said, "is that people enjoy crying. Later, when I was in Guyana in the 1950's, I was often called on to give Rāmāyaṇa recitals. Because I was Arya Samaj, we only did Valmiki Rāmāyaṇa, no Tulasi Das... 

"Once I gave the same recital a few days apart. Exactly the same. But the first time, people cried and they came up to me and said how wonderful it was. A few days later, something was missing. Afterwards, the people came up to me and said, 'It was very good of course, but you know, we didn't cry.'"

Swamiji started reminiscing more about Guyana and Surinam, about how even after several generations they had still kept so much of their Bhojpuri culture, one of the features of which was these recitals of Rāmāyaṇa and Bhāgavata. Being an import from India, he was in great demand and had regular invitations to speak.

Swamiji went silent for a few minutes. Then he started again, "In those days, Guyana was not just underdeveloped. It was undeveloped, period. Most of the people lived on the coast, and there are many big rivers that could only be crossed by ferry. The roads... you think the roads were bad in India...

"I had made my ashram in a village some distance from Georgetown in order to provide a school for the children of the local Indian expatriates, mostly from Bihar, Bhojpuri speaking. This was in 1958. For a great part of the year, much of the countryside would be flooded, making communications even more difficult. The ashram was far enough from the beaten path that there was no mail delivery, and I would have to drive some distance to pick it up. Usually I only went once a week, sometimes less often.

"One time I had been invited to another village to give Rāmāyaṇa, so though it was a bit of a detour, I decided to go to the post office as I had not picked up my mail for more than two weeks. When I got there, I found a telegram that had been sitting in the office for at least ten days. I opened it, and saw the news that my father had died.

"You know," Swamiji said, "in my line of work, you are there to hear the problems of others. But there is not always someone you can share your feelings with. Nor was the telephone system in those days anywhere near adequate. So I could not call home all the way to Ludhiana.

"So I just went on to the other village where elaborate arrangements had been made for Rāmāyaṇa kathā. I took my shower and went and sat on the Vyāsāsana. In those days, I had the habit of just opening a book randomly when I had to lecture. And that is what I did..."

Swamiji had been speaking somewhat introspectively. Now he looked at us and said, "And what do you think? The Rāmāyaṇa opened on the very page where Bharata comes to the forest to announce the death of Dasharatha to his exiled brother! (Ayodhyākāṇḍa, chapters 96ff). And then describes Rama's grief and then his instructions and consolation to Bharata.

"I had been feeling that I had no one to talk to, and then it felt so much that Lord Rama had come personally to talk to me and comfort me in that difficult moment."

I said, "I'll bet you made the people cry that day!" Swamiji just laughed.

Good story for Hanuman's appearance day.