The Shishupala Vadha by Magha might just be the most complex and beautifully-wrought poem ever written. So why hasn’t anyone heard of it?
“Oh! Infinite is the variety of language, even though it is made up of only a few letters, just as music, though it is made up of only seven notes.”
– Magha’s Shishupala Vadha, II. 72
The Shishupala Vadha, an epic poem written in Sanskrit in either the seventh or eighth century, is undoubtedly one of the most complex and beautiful poetic works ever created. This masterpiece of Sanskrit poetry follows the story of Krishna as he marches to Indraprastha, on his way to attend the great sacrifice held by his friend Yudhisthira, who is being crowned the King of the World.
This story from Krishna’s life, taken from an episode of the epic Mahabharata, begins with a brilliant light descending from the clouds, and all the people of the world pointing and marvelling.
“The townspeople watched, amazed, all saying ‘the path of the sun is horizontal. Its fire burns from on high, as we all know. But this light spreads itself in all directions, and falls to earth. What is it?’”
This light is the great sage Narada, who descends from heaven in order to warn Krishna that the terrible demon king Ravana, the grand evil of the Ramayana, has been reborn as a man. His name is King Shishupala, and his evil deeds are already known throughout the world.
“The character always follows the man,” Narada tells Krishna.
“Like an actor taking on another role, this scheming one has returned in another birth, and, though he is the same, is thought by everyone to be a different man, for his personality has been born under the name of Shishupala.”
This is high drama at its finest. From the inciting incident of Narada’s appearance, the story blossoms forth in all its florid abundance. It is unstoppable, ebullient, bubbling forth in all directions.
Now Krishna must make a choice: does he attend the great sacrifice to which he has been invited, or does he march his army to defeat the evil-doer? He consults his older brother Balarama, who counsels him to march to war.
“The man who does nothing when a fierce enemy practises hostility against him, he is lying down to sleep in the grass once it has caught fire,” says the choleric mace-wielder.
Then, Krishna consults the wise man Uddhava, who advises greater caution and wisdom. A prince, he says, must at first hide his agitation when confronted by enemies.
“But when the right time comes, he shows his rage and he is as invincible as a disease. Although he has been treated poorly by others, he must not let them know his aggravation at first, but when the crisis occurs he must violently rage, and there must be no cure for his wrath.”
These passages have the feel of “mirrors for princes” or specula principum such as Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince that became popular among European nobility during the Medieval and Early Renaissance eras. They form a manifesto of what it is to be an effective ruler, a shrewd diplomat, and a cunning tactician in battle.
Finally, after much deliberation, Krishna decides that he will take his army to the sacrifice. After all, Shishupala will surely be there, and his famous recklessness will doubtless give Krishna the opportunity to strike.
From this remarkable set-up, the march of the great army takes more than ten long chapters. Magha has an amazing ability to paint all the chaos of an army on the move into his poetry, zooming out to pan across all the noise and clamour of the men and animals, the elephants and chariots, the cavalry and supply wagons, all preparing to leave the city, and then zooming back in to pick out a single happening: the army’s “banners lowered as they threatened to crack the high arches of the city’s gateways”, or “a cat, ducking and remaining still among a group of carved birds in order to stalk among the parapets of the houses”.
This remarkable attention to detail seems to belong to a much more modern work, as does the inner conflict Krishna feels as he begins his march. There’s also a beautiful self-reflection and coyness that could almost be post-modern. For instance, when Krishna’s army camps beneath the holy mountain Raivataka, and all the soldiers marvel at its supernatural beauty, Magha claims “The great height and beauty of the mountain need none of the false, exaggerated embellishment of a poet” – before progressing, for the best part of 100 verses, to extol its great beauty and height in the most extravagant terms.
“The mountain sprouted trees, in whose branches magnificent peacocks lounged, around the trunks of which large snakes were twined, and from which the tips of many vines swung like pendulums.”
There’s also a Chaucer-like cheekiness to some of the detailed episodes that dot the army’s chaotic march:
“Shying away from an elephant cow, a donkey reared up violently as all the people laughed, and the harem lady riding upon him fell from the loosened saddle, while the robe on her hips slipped down.”
However, it’s not the beauty of the poetry or the skill of the storytelling that has impressed scholars throughout the ages, but the metrical skill involved in its creation. Magha was a manipulator of the Sanskrit language who knew no equal. This can perhaps best be demonstrated by the following verse, in the 19th chapter of the poem:
Now, if you reverse the lines as though placing a mirror beneath them, this forms a palindrome in four directions: the most complex poetic device ever created.
|(and the lines reversed)|
“[That army], which relished battle (rasāhavā) contained allies who brought low the bodes and gaits of their various striving enemies (sakāranānārakāsakāyasādadasāyakā), and in it the cries of the best of mounts contended with musical instruments (vāhasāranādavādadavādanā).” (Trans. George L. Hart)
The same chapter ends with a verse written in the tortuously difficult wheel design, or chakrabandha. If you rearrange the syllables in the form of a wheel, there is a message hidden among the spokes: “This is Śiśupālavadha, a poem by Māgha”
There are also stanzas written using only one consonant:
|दाददो दुद्ददुद्दादी दाददो दूददीददोः ।
दुद्दादं दददे दुद्दे दादाददददोऽददः ॥
|dādado duddaduddādī dādado dūdadīdadoḥ
duddādaṃ dadade dudde dādādadadado’dadaḥ
“Sri Krishna, the giver of every boon, the scourge of the evil-minded, the purifier, the one whose arms can annihilate the wicked who cause suffering to others, shot his pain-causing arrow at the enemy.” (Trans. Vijay)
The second canto, in which Uddhava delivers his princely advice, also contains a famous verse with a string of adjectives that can be interpreted differently depending on whether they are referring to politics or grammar. The entire 16th canto, in which Shishupala sends a message to Krishna, is intentionally ambiguous and can be interpreted in two ways — as a humble apology in courteous words, or a declaration of war:
“I am enraged by not having the chance to pay Krishna what he deserves,” Shishupala says, the whole chapter embodying his duplicitous, two-sided nature.
Today, the Shishupala Vadha is still unobtainable in English. There is a fantastic version in German, by Eugen Hultzsch, on which my translations are based, and another in French by Hippolyte Fauche. Unfortunately, until some Sanskrit scholar of greater knowledge and patience than I comes along to translate it, the secrets and wonders of one of the world’s greatest poetic works will forever be obscure to us.
All translations are my own, except when stated otherwise. All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.