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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Tagore's "Upagupta"-Supportive Reading

Santhosh Kumar Kana
The Poem “Upagupta” establishes the impermanence of sensual pleasures, the root cause of sorrow being attachment to material pleasures etc. and many such philosophical and spiritual truths. Tagore achieves this through the incidents in the life of a dancing girl and her meeting with an ascetic called Upagupta.

The poem presents two moments in the life of a dancing girl. The dancing girl comes to Upagupta, the disciple of Buddha on a dark night and invites him to her house. Upagupta rejects her invitation saying,
“ when the time is ripe, I will come to you”.
She is described as proud of her youth and beauty(“drunk with the wine of her youth”). She meets the ascetic again after a long time when she is stricken with black pestilence and is thrown out of the city. The ascetic comes to her and consoles her. He says that it is the right time to visit her.

The two moments shown in the life of the girl are the two cardinal moments in her life-two important phases of one’s life. The poem may appear to have no movement but it has in the case of the inner as well as the outer life of the dancing girl. A great transformation occurs in her life.

The two meetings are highly symbolic. The description of Nature adds to it. On her first meeting with the ascetic, the sky is dark, without stars and is horrid with lightning and storm. Though it is a dark night, the dancing girl is bright with her jewels shining like stars. Though she carries a lamp (light) she is in darkness (metaphorically) i.e., she is ignorant. The ascetic doesn’t need such a light because he has seen the inner light (avatara jyoti). The poet describes him sleeping in darkness. Light and darkness are used quite symbolically and ironically here. On her second meeting, the sky is bright with full moon(Buddha attained enlightenment on a full moon night), whereas her life is dark with sorrow, being stricken with ‘black’ pestilence. The darker side of life is shown here. Her very statement during her first meeting with Upagupta “the dusty earth is not a fit bed for you” anticipates her own future condition of which she is ignorant. A sannyasin knows that everything returns to the dusty earth. The body and the palaces erected on the earth are also subject to decay (“the base of the rampart”). During her second meeting with the ascetic she is seen lying down on the same dusty earth. In the first meeting she steps on the breast of the ascetic while in the second it said that she lay “at his feet”. How her life has taken an unexpected turn is well illustrated here.

The spring season too is described with symbolic undertones. The branches of the trees laden with flowers are described as “aching”. It implies that it is a burden. The period of youth in one’s life too is like the spring season. The woman described as “drunk with the wine of her youth” experiences the pain of this pride later. Youth too is a burden, an aching burden. The festival of flowers mentioned also conveys the same. The people are always after “spring”, i.e. they are after material pleasures. They approach the girl when she is young and beautiful and desert her when she has lost her charm. The young ascetic is described as walking in the “lonely street”. People are not interested in spiritual truth. Earlier too, the poet mentions that “the doors were all shut” before the ascetic.

The poem depicts the inner transformation of the dancing girl. Once she was proud of her body and its beauty but she comes to know that it is also subject to decay like any other thing in nature. But there is something which remains constant unaltered by nature or its challenges. She discovers this spiritual truth. The ascetic remains the same in both the meetings. He is not at all attached to worldly pleasures. He is aware of the happy and sad sides of life. That is why his action is described as “austerely beautiful”. It is not an action resulting from the ego. It is difficult for people to think of such an action whereas it is easy for them to understand a face described as “austerely beautiful”.

It should be noted that the ascetic asks the girl to go on her way (“go on your way”) and not on his way. He does not impose a path on her. This is the fundamental feature of Buddha’s teaching. He says, “Be a light unto you”. When the ascetic says, “When the time is ripe” he doesn’t refer to the ripe time for him but for her. Only when she realizes the impermanence of material pleasures from her own bitter experiences, the time will be ripe for her. Only then she will understand what is real and what is unreal(“serpent and the rope”). One discovers oneself only when one is free of delusions. Earlier she came to him as to any other attractive man. She was so proud of her youth that she couldn’t see his spiritual beauty. It is in the second meeting that she finds it.

The poem is rich with beautiful imagery.


Rich and Lois Neate said...

one of my favorite poems. you have expressed its deepest meaning so well.

ramakrishna said...

Excellent piece of writing. God bless you.

shubhankari said...


B. Kamna Will...... said...

Very expressive ... !!!

santhosh kumar kana said...

thank you so much everyone.

Naveen Singh said...

The underlying philosophy very nicely explained. Thanks a lot

Sumi said...

The imagery in the poem takes you to the land of the ascetic and the dancing girl Vasavadatha every bit feels as if live on stage.