The text below is from the fifth chapter of the ‘Harshacharita’ (Deeds of Harsha) as translated by E. B. Cowell and F. W. Thomas. Bana recounts the death of Harsha’s parents, King Prabhakaravardhana and Queen Yashovati. The king had dispatched his elder brother, Rajyavardhana, to fight the Hunas in the northwest. Harsha followed his brother but did not enter the fray of battle, spending time hunting wild beasts in the forests of the Himalayas. It was then that he received news of his father’s illness, a sudden and raging fever. The young prince hurried back to Thanesar, to wait upon his sire. Bana narrates the great agony of the king, the many cures, remedies and medications administered to him, and the lamentations of the courtiers and royal family.
The part describing Queen Yashovati’s decision to immolate herself, Harsha’s protest, and the Queen’s reply are very moving. The self-immolation ritual carried out by Yashovati reminds one of the practice of Sati. Wives of Hindu kings and nobles committed Sati when their husbands passed away. Usually, this was done by the wife (or wives) entering the flames of the funeral pyre, burning themselves alive, alongside their deceased consort(s). But Queen Yashovati chose to immolate herself before King Prabhakarvardhana’s death, on a pyre built especially for her. Her justification (in her address to Harsha) underlines the symbolism of Sati. Widows who committed Sati were seen as virtuous and chaste women, utterly devoted to their lords. Bana provides readers an insight into the social and cultural values of a feudal society, where custom, honour and piety held sway.
Subsequently the king one day summoned Rajyavardhana, whose age now fitted him for wearing armour, and, as a lion despatches his whelp against the deer, placed him at the head of an immense force and sent him attended by ancient advisers and devoted feudatories towards the north to attack the Hunas. For several stages my lord Harsha followed his march with the horse. When however his brother had entered the region which blazes with Kailasa’s lustre, being at youth’s adventure-loving age, he spent several days away from camp on the skirts of the Himalaya, where lions, sharabhas, tigers, and boars are plentiful, a fawn-eyed hunter with his bright form dappled by the radiant glances of love-smit wood-nymphs. His bow drawn to the ear, he emitted a rain of shining shafts, which in a comparatively few days left the forests empty of wild creatures.
One day however at the fourth watch of the night, dawn being almost come, he saw in a vision a lion burning in an overpowering forest fire, which reddened the whole sky with a sea of flickering flame. Into that same fire he saw the lioness, leaving her cubs, hurl herself with a plunge. At this the thought arose in his heart, ‘Stronger of a truth than steel are the bonds whose tissue is love, when even brutes are drawn on by them to acts like this.’ On awakening his left eye incessantly throbbed; a mysterious tremour overspread his frame; his heart started without cause from its internal moorings; for no reason at all a profound dejection came over him. What could it mean? Various conjectures wracked his mind, until losing all self-command he bowed his face in thought. A void as it were was in his heart during that day’s sport, and, when the sun had ascended to mid-day, he returned home, where, lying on a bamboo couch stretched on the ground with a pillow white as moonshine and cool sandal unguent covering its frame, he remained with small hand-fans softly waving on either side, full of apprehension.
Anon he beheld afar off a certain Kurangaka approaching with a billet tied in a forehead-wrap of rags of deep indigo hue. Weariness and heat had combined to give him such a blackness of body, that he seemed turning into charcoal through some inner fire of grief. Disguised as the dust excited by the quick trot of his hurried approach, the very earth appeared to pursue him out of curiosity to learn news of its king. Flapped by the opposing breeze, the long hem of his robe fanned both his flanks, just as if his rapid advance had given him wings. Impelled from behind by his master’s charge, drawn on from the front by prolonged emissions of weary breath, his body empty of every sense, as if he had dropped them in his haste, he stumbled vacantly upon an even enough road, as though overweighted by the purport committed to the letter. One might compare him to a fragment of a black cloud soon to let fall a thunderbolt of ill-news, a smoke whorl of a fire of sorrow soon to blaze, a seed of a paddy of sin soon to bear its harvest; a very courier of ill-omen.
At that sight Harsha’s heart was cloven by a terror taking shape from the previous succession of evil omens. Approaching with a bow, Kurangaka presented first the despondency seated in his looks and then the writing, which the prince took in his own hand and read. With its contents affliction penetrated to his soul, and, looking the picture of desolation, he inquired what was his father’s sickness. With eyes dropping tears and lips the faltering accents Kurangaka made a two-fold answer, ‘It is, my lord, a violent fever.’ At this news Harsha’s heart was instantly splintered into a thousand pieces. Anxious for the preservation of his father’s life, he rinsed his mouth and conveyed to Brahmans the whole of his regal equipage, jewels and gold and silver to a vast amount. Then without taking food he started up and calling to a youth who stood in his presence sword to forehead, ordered him to saddle his horse. The grooms having hastily run up to bring it, he mounted and set out alone with a tremour at his heart.
Startled by the conch’s sudden call to horse, the cavalry made ready in haste, and came galloping in, troop after troop, from every side, filling the abyss of heaven with the loud tramp of resonant hoofs. On the way deer, passing from right to left, foreshadowed the approaching end of the lion king. Facing the sun’s flaming circle, a crow on a burnt-out tree uttered its dreadful cry, as if to cleave the prince’s heart. Straight against him came a naked Jain, bedecked with peacock’s tail-feathers, a fellow all lampblack as it seemed with the collected filth of many days besmirching his body. This inauspicious celebration of his departure deepened the prince’s apprehensions. His heart softening with filial love, surmising now this, now that: his eyes immovably fixed upon his horse’s shoulder; followed in silence, for all amusing talk was at an end, by his royal escort; he in a single day accomplished a distance amounting to many days’ journey. When the adorable sun, despondent as it seemed at the news of the king’s sickness, bent downwards with waning splendour, he refused, despite the frequent admonitions of Bhandi and the other affectionate nobles, to take food. Footmen being sent ahead to secure a relay of villagers to show the best way, he passed the night in the saddle.
On the morrow at noon he reached the capital, but its sounds of triumph were departed, sunk the booming of its drums, checked its minstrelsy, its festivity expelled. No troubadours sang, no merchandise was exposed for sale in the shops. Here and there gleamed the smoke whorls of the Kotihoma rite, which, twisted by the force of the wind, resembled crumpled horns of Yama’s buffalo ploughing up the place. Overhead roamed flocks of crows, which, cawing harshly in the day time, like the tinkle of iron bells adorning Yama’s buffalo, announced the approach of calamity. Here loving kinsmen were keeping a fast to appease Ahibradhna, lying before his image. There young nobles were burning themselves with lamps to propitiate the Mothers. In one place a Dravidian was ready to solicit the Vampire with the offering of a skull. In another an Andhra man was holding up his arms like a rampart to conciliate Chandi. Elsewhere distressed young servants were pacifying Mahakala by holding melting gum on their heads. In another place a group of relatives was intent on an oblation of their own flesh, which they severed with keen knives. Elsewhere again, young courtiers were openly resorting to the sale of human flesh. Thus the capital seemed polluted with the ashes of cemeteries, encircled by ill-omens, pillaged by fiends, swallowed up by the Kali age, hid beneath mounds of sin, sacked by the raids of demerit, victimized by the taunts of transience, appropriated by the mockeries of fate; vacant, wrapped in slumber, robbed, abashed, deluded, fallen in a swoon.
No sooner had he entered than in the bazaar street amid a great crowd of inquisitive children he observed an inferno-showman, in whose left hand was a painted canvas stretched out on a support of upright rods and showing the Lord of the Dead mounted on his dreadful buffalo. Wielding a reed-wand in his other hand, he was expounding the features of the next world, and could be heard to chant the following verse:
Mothers and fathers in thousands, in hundreds children and wives
Age after age have passed away: whose are they, and whose art thou?
With this still further rending his heart Harsha arrived in due course at the palace door, now shut to all the world. Dismounting, he perceived a young physician named Sushena coming out with a disquieted mien, like one reft of his senses. After receiving his salute the prince asked whether there was any improvement in his father’s condition or not. ‘Not at present,’ was the reply, ‘but there may be when he sees your highness.’ So amid the salutations of the chamberlains he slowly entered the palace. There he found people bestowing all their goods in presents, worshipping the family gods, engaged in cooking the ambrosial posset, performing the Six Oblation sacrifice, offering tremulous Durva leaves besmeared with clotted butter, chanting the Maha-Mayuri hymn, purifying the household, completing the rites for keeping out the spirits by offerings. Earnest Brahmans were occupied in muttering Vedic texts; Shiva’s temple resounded with the murmur of the Hendecad to Rudra; Shaivas of great holiness were bathing Virupaksa’s image with thousands of vessels of milk. Seated in the courtyard were kings, distressed in mind at failing to obtain a sight of their sovereign: bathing, eating, and sleeping had become mere names to them, and their clothes were foul from neglect of the toilet, while they passed day and night motionless as though pictured, awaiting bulletins from the king’s personal attendants who came bursting in from the inner apartments. On the terrace was a woe-begone group of less intimate servants, discussing the king’s sad plight in whispers: here was one imagining errors on the part of the doctors, there one reading out descriptions of incurable diseases, one recounting bad dreams, one imparting stories of demons, one publishing communications from astrologers, one droning out portents; one again reflecting upon the transiency of things, chiding this mutable world, censuring the mockeries of the Kali age, and accusing fate; another indignant with dharma and reproaching the gods of the royal household; a third commiserating the lot of the afflicted young nobles. Scanned by his father’s servants with eyes that brimmed with fast flowing tears, the prince passed on into the third court, where he now detected an odour of boiling oil, butter and decoctions emitting a steam scented with various herb draughts.
In the White House a deep silence reigned. Numerous lackeys thronged the vestibule; a triple veil hid the salon; the inner door was closed; the panels were forbidden to creak; closed windows kept out the draughts. Anguished attendants, chamberlains furious at a tramp of footsteps on the stairs, all orders issued in noiseless signs. Not quite near the king sat a man in armour; in a corner stood one bearing a gargling bowl, flurried by frequent summons; in the Moon Chamber crouched the silent ministers of state; the screened balcony was occupied by women of the family distracted by profound grief; in the quadrangle a cluster of despondent servants. A few loving friends had been admitted. The physicians were in terror at the deep-seated ravages of the disease, the king’s advisers sunk in dejection, the purohit stupefied; friends despaired, pandits were torpid, faithful feudatories in agony; the chowrie-bearer had lost his wits, the bodyguard was emaciated with grief. The favourites saw the accomplishment of their wishes fade away; beloved princes, having out of loyal affection abandoned sustenance, fainted with loss of strength; young nobles were prostrate on the ground from night-long watching. Grief lay heavy on a group of heirs to ancient houses; the chamberlains were shrivelled up with sorrow; the court poets had laid aside their glee; confidential servants uttered despairing sighs; from the pale lips of the king’s mistresses the betel stain had fled.
The head cook was intent on the preparation of the diet ordered by perplexed physicians. Attendants were drinking streams of water from uplifted cups in order to distract the pain of the king’s dry mouth. Gourmands were being fed to relieve his craving. All the dealers were busy in providing a pharmacopoeia of drugs. One might infer the sick man’s fearful thirst from the incessant calls to the waterman. Butter-milk was freezing in pails packed in ice; a collyrium stick had been cooled with camphor powder placed on a moist white cloth; in a new vessel besmeared with wet clay was whey for a gargle. Water trickled from soft bundles of fibres covered with delicate red lotus leaves; on the ground where were cups of drinking water, lay bunches of blue lotuses with their stalks. Boiled water was being cooled by passing in a stream from cup to cup; red sugar diffused a pungent odour. On a stand stood a sand jar for the sick man’s eyes to rest upon; fresh water-plants were coiled round a dripping globe: a crystal platter gleamed with parched groats and barley-meal; a paste of flour and curds was held in a yellow emerald cup; a collection of crystal, pearl, and shell vessels was sprinkled with powders and infusions of cooling herbs. Piles of myrobalans, citrons, grapes, and pomegranates were at hand. Lustral water was being scattered by fee’d Brahmans. A flat stone was stained with forehead unguents which a maidservant was pounding. There he saw his sire preparing, by a camp lustration, as it were, of burning fever, for the conquest of the next world. On a couch uneven from his restless movements he tossed like venom-tortured Shesa on the Milky Sea. Like the drying ocean of doomsday, he was white with a dust of pearl powder; but black death was uprooting him, as the black demon uprooted Kailasa. As they touched him, the hands of the attendants engaged in ceaselessly smearing him with sandal were as white in the palm as if turned to ashes by contact with his burning limbs: while in the guise of the sandal ointment his abiding glory seemed to be saying farewell on his departure to another sphere. Incessantly applied petals of red, white, and blue lotuses seemed to blot his body with the falling glances of death.
On his head a thick silken cloth bound round his hair told of never-ceasing shocks of pain, and, swollen with intolerable anguish, a network of dark veins stood out upon his forehead’s page, a dreadful spectacle, as if death’s finger were drawing lines to show the number of days ere the end. As if in horror at the sight of death’s approach, the pupils of his eyes had retreated a little inwards. A tongue darkening, as if scorched by burning breath, bespoke the convulsions of an appalling complication. On his breast lay gems, pearl-necklaces, sandal, and moonstones, for the sight of death’s emissaries. Tossing his arms in the contortions of his agony, he sought to cool the feverish heat. All about him, noted by the physicians, were symptoms of death. On the eve of the Great Journey, he was leaving to his kinsmen’s hearts the inheritance of his pains. Against him disease had concentrated its powers; emaciation let fly all her darts. Helplessness had taken him in hand: pain had made him its province, wasting its domain, lassitude its lair. Stung was he by dejection, appropriated by self-abandonment, enslaved by sickness, dandled by death, the target of the south; quaffed by qualms, devoured by sleeplessness, swallowed by sallowness, gulped down by spasms; mortality had taken his measure, affliction seized her advantage, distraction made him her dwelling; he was on the confines of doom, on the verge of the last gasp, at the outset of the Great Undertaking, at the portal of the Long Sleep, on the tip of death’s tongue; broken in utterance, unhinged in mind, tortured in body, waning in life, babbling in speech, ceaseless in sighs; vanquished by yawning, swayed by suffering, in the bondage of wracking pains. Seated by his side and touching him on head and breast was queen Yashovati, her eyes swollen with ceaseless weeping, her body grey with various medicinal powders, fanning him, though her hand grasped a chowrie, only with her sighs, and crying again and again ‘My lord, are you asleep?’
At this spectacle the prince’s mind, devastated by the first shock of grief, became apprehensive of destiny, and he deemed his father already a dweller in the realm of death. For a moment he was as it were divorced from consciousness. Discarded by firmness, tenanted by agitation, left empty of delight, mastered by despondency, he seemed to have a heart of fire within him. Stricken as it were by deadly poison, his swooning senses left him in a darkness beyond the gloom of hell, a vacancy exceeding that of space, and he was at a loss how to act. He brought his heart into contact with fear, and his head with the earth. As soon as the king perceived his darling son while still at some distance, swayed even in that extremity by overpowering affection, he ran forward in spirit to meet him, and putting out his arms, half rose from the couch, calling to him ‘Come to me, come to me.’ When the prince hastily drew near with dutifully downcast looks, he raised his son’s head by force, and, taking him to his bosom, seemed in his fondness to plunge into the heart of the moon’s disc. Limb pressed to limb, cheek joined to cheek, closing eyes which flowed with incessant drops forming on their lashes, he held his son in a long embrace, forgetting all the torment of the fever. At length reluctantly released, the prince drew apart and bowed low; then, having greeted his mother, returned and sat down near the couch, where his father gazed upon him with eyes that seemed to drink him in with their fixed unblinking look. Again and again he touched him with trembling palms, and, speaking with some difficulty, for his throat was dry through sickness, ‘My boy,’ he said, ‘you are thin.’ Whereat Bhandi explained that it was three days since the prince had taken food.
At this the king, after a long sigh, found strength to say in tear-choked accents, ‘I know, my boy, your filial love and exceeding tender heart. At times like this overmastering, all-afflicting family affection distracts even a sober man’s mind. For this reason you must not give yourself over to sorrow. Consumed as I am by the fever’s fierce heat, I am still more so by your distress. Your leanness cuts me like a sharp knife. Upon you my happiness, my sovereignty, my succession, and my life are set, and as mine, so those of all my people. The sorrows of such as you are a sorrow to all people on earth; for no families of small worth are adorned by your like. You are the fruit of stainless deeds stored up in many another life. You bear marks declaring the sovereignty of the four oceans, one and all, to be almost in your grasp. By your mere birth my end is attained, I am free from the wish to live. Only deference to the physicians makes me drink their medicines. Furthermore, to such as you, who through the merits of a whole people are born for the protection of all the earth, fathers art a mere expedient to bring you into being. In their people, not in their kin, are kings rich in relatives. Rise therefore, and once more attend to all the needs of life. Not till you have eaten will I myself, take my diet.’ At these words the flame of sorrow blazed up still more fiercely in the prince’s heart, as if to consume it. One short moment he paused, and then being again charged by his father to take food, he descended from the White House with these thoughts in his mind, ‘This great crash has come without warning, like a bolt from a cloudless sky. Even a common grief is a breathing death, a disease without antidote, a plunge into fire without being reduced to ashes, a living abode in hell, a shower of coals without light, a sawing in twain without cleavage, a lancet’s stroke that leaves no sear. What then of deeper afflictions? What shall I do now?’
Escorted by one of the king’s officers, he proceeded to his own apartments, where he partook of a few mouthfuls, mouthfuls which, as if of smoke, evoked tears, as if of fire awoke a burning in his heart, as if of poison brought on swoons, as if of mortal sin aroused disgust, as if of alkali inflicted pain. While rinsing his mouth, be ordered his chowrie-bearer to fetch tidings of his father’s state. Having gone and returned, the man reported that the king still remained as before: whereat the prince in distress of mind rejected the betel, and when the sun inclined to setting, summoned all the physicians in private, and with a despairing heart inquired what steps under such circumstances should be taken. ‘Your highness,’ they answered, ‘reassure yourself; in a very few days your father will be reported restored to his proper self and pristine condition.’ Among their number, however, was a young doctor of Punarvasu’s race named Rasayana, a youth of about eighteen years of age, holding a hereditary position in the royal household, in which he had been cherished like a son by the king. He had mastered the Ayur Veda in all its eight divisions, and, being naturally of an acute intellect, was perfectly familiar with the diagnosis of diseases. He now stood silent and tearful with downcast looks. Being appealed to by the prince, ‘Friend Rasayana, tell me the truth, if you see anything at all unpromising,’ he replied ‘To-morrow at dawn, your highness, I will state the facts of the case.’ At that very instant the keeper of the palace lotus pools, comforting a ruddy-goose, chanted aloud an Aparavaktra, couplet:
Fortify, O bird, thy heart; freely abandon grief; pursue the path of discretion
With the beauty of the red-lotus pools the sun hies himself to Sumeru’s peak.
Versed in the omens of words, the prince on overhearing this relaxed his hopes for his father’s longer life. The physicians gone, he lost all fortitude, and at nightfall went up again to his father’s presence, where in anguish of heart he spent a sleepless night prolonged by grief, listening without cessation to his father’s cries such as, ‘The heat is terrible, bring pearl necklaces, Harini! Place jewelled mirrors on my body, Vaidehi! Anoint my brows, Lilavati! With bits of ice, give me camphor powder, Dhavalakshi! Apply a moonstone to my eye, Kantamati! Set a blue lotus on my cheek, Kalavati! Give me a rubbing with sandal, Carumata! Make a brisk breeze with a cloth, Patalika! Assuage the heat with lotuses, Indumati! Refresh me with wet clothes, Madiravati! Bring lotus fibres, Malati! Wave a palm leaf, Avantika! Bind tight my whirling head, Bandhumati! Support my neck, Dharanika! Place an ice-cooled hand upon my bosom, Kurangavati! Shampoo my arms, Valahik! Squeeze my feet, Padmavati! Clasp tight my body, Anangasena! What hour, Vilasavati? Sleep will not come, tell stories, Kumudvati!’
At dawn the prince descended, and, though a horse was held in readiness by a groom advancing to the palace door, went on foot to his own quarters. There in hot haste he despatched express couriers and swift camel riders one after another to procure his brother’s coming. After washing his tear-soiled face he rejected the toilet appurtenances brought by the servants. Hearing from distracted young princes standing before him an indistinct murmur, ‘Rasayana, Rasayana,’ he asked, ‘Well, friends, what of Rasayana?’ whereat they all at once became silent. Being further pressed, however, they with sorrowful reluctance explained, ‘Your highness, he has entered fire.’ The prince became ashy pale, as if scorched by an inner fire, and his grief-blinded heart, torn up by the roots, refused to be steadied. ‘A noble man,’ he thought, ‘would rather not be than like an ordinary person utter unwelcome and distressing words. His generous nature, maintained in trying circumstances, has like unadulterated gold acquired a greater brilliance by entering fire.’ Again he thought, ‘Rather was this to be expected of his love. Was not my father his father, my mother his mother, we his brothers? Even when other masters are taken away, a life retained is a cause of shame in the world: how much more in the case of my auspiciously-named father, who was to his dependents ambrosia itself, a veritable kinsman, unfailing in favours! In burning himself he has acted as the time demanded. Nay, what does fire destroy of him who abides in glory steadfast to the world’s end? He has but fallen in the flames, ’tis we who are burnt. Blessed indeed is he, a chief among the fortunate: but hapless this royal house, deprived of such a noble youth. As for me, what exacting task, what relic of duty, what preoccupation prevents this unfeeling life from even now going its way? What hindrance is there that my heart bursts not in a thousand parts?’ Thus sorrow-stricken, he went not to the royal lodging, but disregarding every duty, threw himself upon a couch and remained wrapped in his shawl from head to foot.
Such being the prince’s state and the king’s condition remaining the same, the hands of the people seemed rivetted to their checks, streams of tears modelled upon their eyes, their looks fastened on the ends of the noses, sounds of wailing graven in their ears, lamentations a natural growth upon their tongues, sighs budding on their mouths, syllables of woe painted upon their lips, sorrows stored up in their hearts. Frighted, as it were, by the fire of scalding tears, sleep dwelt not in the hollows of their eyes: smiles vanished, as if dissipated by the wind of sighs: speech, as if consumed to nothingness by hot pain, went not forward. Even in tales no jests were heard: none knew whither musical parties had gone. Dances were as much forgotten as if they belonged to the past of previous births; even in dreams no finery was used. There was not even a rumour of pleasure: the very name of food was unspoken. Groups in taverns were like flowers in the sky: troubadours’ voices seemed conveyed to another world: recreation appeared to belong to a different cycle of existence. Again, it seemed, was Kama scorched by a fire, that of sorrow: even by day none left their couches. In slow succession too there appeared in the world portents many and great together on every side, betokening the fall of a lofty spirit and filling all creatures with apprehension of the king’s death.
Thus first the earth, heaving in all her circle of great hills, moved as though she would go with her lord. Next the oceans, as though remembering Dhanvantari, rolled with waves noisily plashing upon each other. High in the heavenly spaces, apprehensive of the king’s removal, appeared comets like braided locks with awful curls of far-extended flame. Beneath a sky thus lowering with comets the world seemed grey, as with the smoke of a Long Life sacrifice commenced by the sky regents. In the sun’s circle, now shorn of its radiance and lurid as a bowl of heated iron, some power, studious of the king’s life, had presented a human offering in the guise of a horrid headless trunk. The lord of white effulgence, gleaming ‘mid the round rim of his flaming halo, seemed to have raised a rampart of fire in alarm at Rahu’s greedily opening jaws. The quarters, won by the king’s valour, glowed red as though they had in anticipation entered fire. All crimsoned with flowing showers of bloody dew, the earth, his spouse, appeared to have shrouded herself in a gown of red cloth to die with him. The portals of the heavens were blocked with untimely masses of dark cloud, as though the regents, fearing the tumult of the monarch’s death, had closed their iron door-panels. Loud grew the awful, heart-riving bursts of thunder-storms, crashing like the patter of drums that are beaten at the out-goings of the king of the dead. The sun’s brilliance was dimmed by dust-showers brown as camel-hair, which started up, as it were, beneath the hoofs of Yama’s approaching buffalo. Rows of jackals lifted high their muzzles in a discordant howl. In the royal mansion the images of the family goddesses, seemed to be manifesting their grief by dishevelled locks. A swarm of bees, ranging feverishly about the Lion Throne, produced the illusion of Kalaratri’s tossing plaits. Never for an instant ceased the croak of crows hovering above the women’s quarter. From the centre of the white umbrella’s circle an old vulture, screaming on high, tore with nimble beak a bit of a gem, the kingdom’s life as it were, red as a piece of juicy meat.
Distressed by these mighty signs, the prince could scarce live through that night. On the morrow a woman approached from the palace with a tinkle of ornaments breaking in her hurried advance. The clash of her anklets, as they moved on her hurrying feet, set the craning hamsas of the palace cackling, as if from a respectful distance they were asking, ‘What? What?’. Her forehead having been cut in collisions with unnoticed doors, a mass of blood like a red shawl’s fringe covered her weeping face. Her cane, which she was casting away, looked like a stream from her golden bracelet, melted apparently by the heat of grief. Her fluttering shawl, waving in the wind of her breath, suggested a snake trailing its slough behind. Hanging over her sloping shoulders, tossed by the wind, and black as strips of tamala bark, her hair covered her bosom in a dangling, unbraided mass in keeping with her grief. She incessantly waved her hand, which through the pain of beating her breasts was swollen and dark almost like copper in the palm. She seemed to bathe in her eyes’ broken cascade, as if they were soon to enter the fire of sorrow. It was Vela, Yashovati’s head attendant, inquiring of everyone where the prince was. Welcomed by the people’s despairing looks, she drew near, and letting both hands fall upon the mosaic, she bent her head, ‘Help, help, my lord,’ she cried; ‘though her husband lives, the queen has taken a certain resolution.’
At the news of this further grief the prince, as if his strength of mind had given way, lost all power of action. With returning consciousness, ‘Callous that I am,’ he thought, ‘the assault of grief, oft as it falls upon my heart, yet like a hammer’s stroke upon hard flint, evokes fire indeed, but reduces not my frame to ashes.’ Rising, he went in haste to the women’s apartments, where while still at a distance he heard cries like these from queens resolved to die, ‘Beloved Mango, take thought to yourself, your mother is seeking another home! I am going, darling Jasmine Cluster, bid me farewell! Without me, Sister Pomegranate by the house, you are now to be defenceless! Forgive, Red Ashoka, my kicks and sins in plucking your sprays for ear ornaments! I see you, Vakula, wayward child as you are become through those mouthfuls of wine! Clasp me tight, dear Priyangu Creeper; I am passing beyond your reach! Friend Mango at the porch, you must render me the funeral libation of water, since you are my child! See you forget me not, Brother Parrot in your cage! What say you? I am taken away from you. May we meet again, Sharika, in dreams. To whom shall I entrust the Peacock who clings in my path? Nurse, you must fondle this pair of Hamsas like children. Ah hapless me! Not to have enjoyed the marriage festivities of this couple of ruddy geese. Go back, Fawn Deer, mother’s darling! Chamberlain, fetch my favourite lute, I must embrace it! Take a good look at me, Chandraseni! Vindumati, this is my last greeting! Let go my feet, girl. Venerable old widow friend, why do you weep? I am in the hand of fate. Chamberlain, old friend, why pass respect, fully round an unlucky woman like me? Control yourself, foster sister, why do you fall at my feet? Cruel, I have not seen my dear friend Malayavati! This humble greeting, Kurangavati, is for goodbye! Sanumati, this is my last obeisance! This, Kuvalayavati, is our final embrace! Pardon, friends, our lovers’ quarrels.’ Entering with these sounds burning in his ears, he saw his mother issuing forth, after giving away all her wealth and assuming the vestments of death, with the purpose of entering the fire, like Sita, before her lord. Like the sky with its double twilight tints, she wore two saffron-brown robes. Enveloping her form, like a silken shawl, she wore the tokens of her unwidowed death. Hanging between her breasts was a red neck cord. At every step she scattered in dropping bracelets, farewell presents to the family goddesses. From her neck down to her instep hung wreaths of strung flowers, as if she were mounted on a death-swing with garlands for cords. Her hand carried a picture representing her husband, which she held as steadfast as her heart. Like a pennon of wifely love, she clasped her lord’s spear-haft, reverently tied with waving strings of white flowers. She was giving instructions to her husband’s ministers, who grasped them with difficulty, their eyes being stopped by torrents of tears that welled up as they fell at her feet.
‘Mother,’ cried the prince while still afar, his eyes filling with tears, ‘Do you also abandon hapless me? Be merciful and turn back,’ and so in the act of speaking fell at her feet till his crest was almost lovingly kissed by the light of her jewelled anklets. As he lay there with his head touching her feet, her youngest and dearest son in such distraction of mind, Queen Yashovati, propped up by a great frenzy of grief like a mountain, carried away into the darkness of a swoon, overborne by the tide of love, could not in spite of all her efforts check the torrent of her weeping. Her bosom heaved convulsively, betraying grief; her throat was choked distressfully with sobs; her lip quivered with exceeding agony, and her tightened nostrils repeated the tremor; closing her eyes, she deluged her clear cheeks with flowing rills of tears; then raising her face a little, she covered it with the hem of her shawl. Loud and long she wept like some mean woman, while with anguished heart and dripping breasts she recalled to mind from the day of his birth all the childish years when he lay in her bosom. Then, as her thought recurred to home and kin, full oft she moaned, calling aloud upon her parents, ‘Mother! Father! Look not upon me as a sinner that in my sore affliction I have set out for the other world.’ Crying to her dear elder son far away, ‘Alas darling! That I, all ill-fated, see you not.’ Lamenting her daughter, now settled in her father-in-law’s house, ‘Defenceless are you now.’ Reproaching fate, ‘Merciless power, how have I offended? No woman has had such an evil portion as I’. Suddenly reviling death, ‘Remorseless one, thou hast stolen me away!’
When this outburst of grief had died away, she lovingly raised her son, and with her hand wiped his streaming eyes. Her own eyes also she wiped, again and again refilling, by a trickling succession of tiny drops. Then she set behind her ear a curl, pushed aside a mass of tresses entangled with a disordered and fallen ear-ornament, drew back with her hand a shawl which had somewhat slipped, bathed her lotus face with water poured from a silver flamingo-mouthed vessel tilted, wiped her hands on a white cloth, stood for some time with her eyes fixed immovably upon her son’s face, and then after many long sighs spoke. ‘It is not, dear, that you are unloved, without noble qualities, or deserving to be abandoned. With my very bosom’s milk you drank up my heart. If at this hour my regard is not towards you, ’tis that my lord’s great condescension comes between us. Furthermore, dear son, I am not, like glory or the earth, a requisite of sovereignty, ever craving for the sight of another lord. I am the lady of a great house, born of a stainless ancestry, one whose virtue is her dower. Have you forgotten that I am the lioness mate of a great spirit, who like a lion had his delight in a hundred battles? Daughter, spouse, mother of heroes, how otherwise could such a woman as I, whose price was valour, act? Upon this head have the subservient wives of countless feudatories poured coronation water from golden ewers. This forehead, in winning the honorable fillet of Chief Queen, has enjoyed a thing scarce accessible to desire. Upon the heads of rival wives have these feet been set; they have been adored with diamond-wreaths of diadems by the bending matrons of a whole capital. Thus every limb has fulfilled its mission: I have spent my store of good works, what more should I look to? I would die while still unwidowed. I cannot endure, like the widowed Rati, to make unavailing lamentations for a burnt husband. Going before, like the dust of your father’s feet, to announce his coming to the heavens. Nay, what will the smoke-bannered one burn of me, who am already on fire with the recent sight of his heart-rending pains? Not to die, but to live at such a time would be unfeeling. Compared with the flame of wifely sorrow, whose fuel is imperishable love, fire itself is chilly cold. How suits it to be parsimonious of a life, when that life’s lord, majestic as Kailasa, is passing away? Not in the body, dear son, but in the glory of loyal widows would I abide on earth. Therefore dishonour me no more, I beseech you, beloved son, with opposition to my heart’s desire.’ So saying she fell at his feet. But the prince hastily drew them away, and bending down, held her in both his arms, and raised her prostrate form. Pondering the inevitableness of grief, deeming that act to be the better part befitting a lady of rank, recognizing her fixed resolution, he stood in silence with downcast looks.
True is it that, even when made timorous by affection, a noble nature resigns itself to what accords with place and time. Having embraced her son and kissed his head, the queen went forth on foot from the women’s quarter, and, though the heavens, filled with the citizens’ lamentations, seemed to block her path, proceeded to the Sarasvati’s banks. Then, having worshipped the fire, she plunged into it, as the moon’s form enters the adorable sun. The other, distracted at his mother’s death, departed ‘mid a throng of kinsmen to his father’s side, and found him with his vital forces nearly spent. Overcome with an excess of intolerable grief, robbed by affection of all self-control, he clasped those lotus feet which had been fondled by the assembled crests of all proud kings, and uttering a cry, burst like a common man into a long fit of weeping, raining from clouded eyes a most pellucid stream of tears. It seemed as if an inner fire were melting his moon-like face. The king, whose eyes were closing, recovering consciousness as the sound of the prince’s ceaseless weeping fell upon his ear, uttered in faint tones these words, ‘You should not be so, my son. Men of your mould are not infirm of heart. Strength of soul is the people’s mainstay, and second to it is royal blood. With you, the vanguard of the stout-hearted, the abode of all preeminence, what has weakness to do? To say you are the lamp of our line were almost depreciation of one whose brilliance compares with the god of day. To declare this earth yours is almost a vain repetition, when your bodily marks proclaim a universal emperor’s dignity. To bid you take to yourself glory is almost contradictory, when glory has herself adopted you. ‘Succeed to this world’ is a command too mean for an intending conqueror of both worlds. ‘Make prize of the feudatory kings’ is almost meaningless, when your virtues have made prize of all beings. ‘Support the burden of royalty’ is an injunction unbecoming for one accustomed to support the burden of the three worlds.’ With these words on his lips the lion king closed his eyes never to open them more. In that hour the sun too was reft of the brilliance which was his life. Ashamed as it were of his own sinfulness involved in the taking of the king’s life, he now bent low his face. As if scorched within by a fire of sorrow for the monarch’s decease, he assumed a coppery hue. Slowly, slowly he descended from the heavens, as if in compliance with earthly usage to pay a visit of condolence. As though to present an oblation of water to the king, he drew nigh to the western ocean.
With radiance thus subdued, as if the mighty emperor’s death had brought on a deep distaste for life and colour, the light-coroneted god entered the hollows of the mountain caves. Cool grew his heat, as though moistened by the gathering storm of the people’s tears. The world assumed a lurid tinge, as if from the colour of all humanity’s tear-flushed eyes. The day grew black, as if scorched by the heat of countless people’s burning sighs. From the day-lotuses their glory departed, as though it had started to follow the king. As the shadows passed on, the earth became dark as with grief for her lord. Like a banner of the dead, the twilight came all ruddy with a lurid expanse spreading far and wide over the heavens. A night black in all its quarters was mysteriously built up, like a pyre with black beams of aloe wood. With smiling faces the beauteous night lotuses adorned themselves in ivory-petalled buds and formed for themselves white garlands of wreathed filaments, like wives in readiness to follow their lord to death. Like the tinkling bells of the gods’ descending chariot were heard the voices of birds settling in their nests in the treetops. In the eastern quarter the moon appeared in sight, like the umbrella of Indra come forth to welcome the king on his journey along the heavens. At that hour the feudatories and townsmen headed by the family priest, taking upon proffered shoulders the bier of the king, bore him to the river Sarasvati, and there upon a pyre befitting an emperor solemnly consumed all but his glory in the flames. As for my lord Harsha, through all that night, terrible as Bhimarathi, he sat with the princes sleepless on the uncushioned ground, surrounded by all the connections of the royal household in a dumb sorrowing company. In his heart be thought, ‘Now that my father is taken away, the world of the living has reached its goal; a chasm sunders the progress of mankind; veiled are the portals of joy. Truthfulness is lulled to sleep, vanished is the love of heroism, sweet speech annihilated. Banished are all kinds of manly sports, ended is delight in battle, pleasure in virtue is laid low, men of trust are an exhausted stock. No place is there for great feats, no profit in the Shastras, no prop for the spirit of heroism. Fruitless now is the birth of those who live by the sword. Without my father whence are to come those gatherings of heroes? Would that even in a dream I might once more see his lotus face with its long red eyes! Even in another birth might I but clasp again those arms more massive than pillars of steel! Even in another world might I but hear his voice, deep as the roar of the churned Milk Ocean, calling me son.’
While the prince was engaged in these and other meditations, the night drew to a close. Anon the cocks began to clamour wildly, as if in grief. The courtyard peacocks precipitated themselves from the tops of the trees on the garden mounts. The birds, forsaking their homes, started forth for the forest. The lamps, as their oil failed, inclined towards extinction. Robed in the bright red bark dress of the dawn, the sky seemed to have betaken itself to a mendicant’s life. Like the fragments of the king’s bones, the stars, grey as a swallow’s neck, were being gathered up by the appearance of morning. Like a funeral pinda ball of pure white rice, the moon dropped upon the verge of the western ocean. Roused by the appeals of groups of wise kings, like the lotus beds by awaking flamingos, my lord Harsha started up, and passed with eyes aflame out of the palace. In the women’s apartments only a few sorrow-stricken chamberlains were left, and the domestic hamsas were dumb and inert now that the tinkle of anklets had ceased. In the court stood his father’s servants, like a herd of wild elephants whose leader is fallen. In the empty audience chamber the clamorous cry of ‘Victory’ was still. Thus the prince passed on to the Sarasvati’s bank, and having bathed in the river, offered water to his father. After the funeral bath, he stayed not to wring his hair, but having put on a pair of white silk robes, proceeded home full of sighs, umbrella-less, with none to clear his path, and, though a horse was led up, on foot.
On the same day the king’s favorite servants, friends, and ministers, whose hearts were held tight by the bonds of his many virtues, went forth, and in spite of the remonstrances of tearful friends, abandoned their loved wives and children. Some consigned themselves to precipices; some stationed themselves at holy fords. Some in agony of heart spread couches of grass, and quieted their great sorrow by abstinence from food; some, beside themselves with passionate grief, plunged like moths into the flame. Some, in whose hearts burnt a fire of fierce pain, took vows of silence and sought refuge on the mount of snows; some to cool their heat lay on couches of twigs along the Vindhya slopes. Some assumed red robes and studied the system of Kapila; some, tearing off their crest jewels, bound the ascetic’s knot upon their heads, and made Shiva their refuge. Others finally took vows, and roamed as shaven monks. My lord Harsha’s condition underwent no change. Wild with grief for his father, he turned away from all the avocations of life, regarding glory as a curse, the earth a mortal sin, royalty a disease, pleasures serpents, home a hell, family ties a bondage, life an infamy, the body an infliction, health a blot, vigour a result of sin, food a poison, sandal a flame, love a saw, heartbreak a felicity. He was closely attended by young nobles of ancient houses. Under their influence the prince was never allowed even in thought to follow the dictates of grief, and through their solicitations he gradually lost his distaste for food and the other dues of life. His thoughts recurring to his brother, thus he mused, ‘Pray heaven my brother, when he learns of our father’s death, may not after a bath of tears assume two robes of bark! Or seek a hermitage as a royal sage! Or enter a mountain cave! Though his lotus eyes brim with a flood of tears, may he yet look upon the lordless earth! Never may indifference due to the transitory nature of things lead him to slight the advances of sovereign glory! All aflame with the fire of pain, may he have recourse to the coronation bath! Once arrived here may he not, when pressed by the kings, display a contrary mind!’ Amid these and other thoughts he could scarce pass the time, waiting with longing heart for his brother’s advent.
PS: Though the text is taken from the English translation by E. B. Cowell and F. W. Thomas, I have made minor changes to make it easier to read and understand. This required the removal of entire paragraphs in between (mostly literary hyperbole), and the substitution of certain words (archaic or confusing).
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is a painting showing Ramabai, wife of Madhavrao I Peshwa (r. 1761-1772 CE), committing Sati. Madhavrao I ruled over the Marathas, one of the most influential groups in 18th century India. He, like Prabhakaravardhana, fell ill (in this case, due to tuberculosis). After his death, his wife, Ramabai burnt herself on his funeral pyre. Unlike Prabhakara (who was a Kshatriya, member of the warrior caste), Madhavrao I was a Brahman (member of the priestly caste). Later on, a memorial was built to honour Ramabai. It is to be found in the temple town of Theur, near the city of Pune (in Maharashtra). The painting itself was finished between 1772 and 1775.
- The Harshacharita of Bana translated by E. B. Cowell and F. W. Thomas (1897)
- Banabhatta: A Monograph by K. Krishnamoorthy (1976)