THE BIRTH OF THE WAR-GOD
The Birth of the War-god is an epic poem in seventeen cantos. It consists of 1096 stanzas, or about 4400 lines of verse. The subject is the marriage of the god Shiva, the birth of his son, and the victory of this son over a powerful demon. The story was not invented by Kalidasa, but taken from old mythology. Yet it had never been told in so masterly a fashion as had been the story of Rama’s deeds by Valmiki. Kalidasa is therefore under less constraint in writing this epic than in writing The Dynasty of Raghu. I give first a somewhat detailed analysis of the matter of the poem.
First canto. The birth of Parvati.—The poem begins with a description of the great Himalaya mountain-range.
God of the distant north, the Snowy RangeO’er other mountains towers imperially;Earth’s measuring-rod, being great and free from change,Sinks to the eastern and the western sea.
Whose countless wealth of natural gems is notToo deeply blemished by the cruel snow;One fault for many virtues is forgot,The moon’s one stain for beams that endless flow.
Where demigods enjoy the shade of cloudsGirding his lower crests, but often seek,When startled by the sudden rain that shroudsHis waist, some loftier, ever sunlit peak.
Where bark of birch-trees makes, when torn in stripsAnd streaked with mountain minerals that blendTo written words ‘neath dainty finger-tips,Such dear love-letters as the fairies send.
Whose organ-pipes are stems of bamboo, whichAre filled from cavern-winds that know no rest,As if the mountain strove to set the pitchFor songs that angels sing upon his crest.
Where magic herbs that glitter in the nightAre lamps that need no oil within them, whenThey fill cave-dwellings with their shimmering lightAnd shine upon the loves of mountain men.
Who offers roof and refuge in his cavesTo timid darkness shrinking from the day;A lofty soul is generous; he savesSuch honest cowards as for protection pray,
Who brings to birth the plants of sacrifice;Who steadies earth, so strong is he and broad.The great Creator, for this service’ price,Made him the king of mountains, and a god.
Himalaya marries a wife, to whom in course of time a daughter is born, as wealth is born when ambition pairs with character. The child is named Parvati, that is, daughter of the mountain. Her father takes infinite delight in her, as well he may; for
She brought him purity and beauty too,As white flames to the lamp that burns at night;Or Ganges to the path whereby the trueReach heaven; or judgment to the erudite.
She passes through a happy childhood of sand-piles, balls, dolls, and little girl friends, when all at once young womanhood comes upon her.
As pictures waken to the painter’s brush,Or lilies open to the morning sun,Her perfect beauty answered to the flushOf womanhood when childish days were done.
Suppose a blossom on a leafy spray;Suppose a pearl on spotless coral laid:Such was the smile, pure, radiantly gay,That round her red, red lips for ever played.
And when she spoke, the music of her taleWas sweet, the music of her voice to suit,Till listeners felt as if the nightingaleHad grown discordant like a jangled lute.
It is predicted by a heavenly being that she will one day become the wife of the god Shiva. This prediction awakens her father’s pride, and also his impatience, since Shiva makes no advances. For the destined bridegroom is at this time leading a life of stern austerity and self-denial upon a mountain peak. Himalaya therefore bids his daughter wait upon Shiva. She does so, but without being able to divert him from his austerities.
Second canto. Brahma’s self-revelation.—At this time, the gods betake themselves to Brahma, the Creator, and sing a hymn of praise, a part of which is given here.
Before creation, thou art one;Three, when creation’s work is done:All praise and honour unto theeIn this thy mystic trinity.
Three various forms and functions threeProclaim thy living majesty;Thou dost create, and then maintain,And last, destroyest all again.
Thy slow recurrent day and nightBring death to all, or living light.We live beneath thy waking eye;Thou sleepest, and thy creatures die.
Solid and fluid, great and small,And light and heavy—Thou art all;Matter and form are both in thee:Thy powers are past discovery.
Thou art the objects that unrollTheir drama for the passive soul;Thou art the soul that views the playIndifferently, day by day.
Thou art the knower and the known;Eater and food art thou alone;The priest and his oblation fair;The prayerful suppliant and the prayer.
Brahma receives their worship graciously, and asks the reason of their coming. The spokesman of the gods explains to Brahma how a great demon named Taraka is troubling the world, and how helpless they are in opposing him. They have tried the most extravagant propitiation, and found it useless.
The sun in heaven dare not glowWith undiminished heat, but soAs that the lilies may awakeWhich blossom in his pleasure-lake.
The wind blows gently as it canTo serve him as a soothing fan,And dare not manifest its power,Lest it should steal a garden flower.
The seasons have forgotten howTo follow one another now;They simultaneously bringHim flowers of autumn, summer, spring.
Such adoration makes him worse;He troubles all the universe:Kindness inflames a rascal’s mind;He should be recompensed in kind.
And all the means that we have triedAgainst the rogue, are brushed aside,As potent herbs have no availWhen bodily powers begin to fail.
We seek a leader, O our Lord,To bring him to his just reward—As saints seek evermore to winVirtue, to end life’s woe and sin—
That he may guide the heavenly host,And guard us to the uttermost,And from our foe lead captive backThe victory which still we lack.
Brahma answers that the demon’s power comes from him, and he does not feel at liberty to proceed against it; “for it is not fitting to cut down even a poison-tree that one’s own hand has planted.” But he promises that a son shall be born to Shiva and Parvati, who shall lead the gods to victory. With this answer the gods are perforce content, and their king, Indra, waits upon the god of love, to secure his necessary co-operation.
Third canto. The burning of Love.—Indra waits upon Love, who asks for his commands. Indra explains the matter, and asks Love to inflame Shiva with passion for Parvati. Love thereupon sets out, accompanied by his wife Charm and his friend Spring. When they reach the mountain where Shiva dwells, Spring shows his power. The snow disappears; the trees put forth blossoms; bees, deer, and birds waken to new life. The only living being that is not influenced by the sudden change of season is Shiva, who continues his meditation, unmoved. Love himself is discouraged, until he sees the beauty of Parvati, when he takes heart again. At this moment, Shiva chances to relax his meditation, and Parvati approaches to do him homage. Love seizes the lucky moment, and prepares to shoot his bewildering arrow at Shiva. But the great god sees him, and before the arrow is discharged, darts fire from his eye, whereby Love is consumed. Charm falls in a swoon, Shiva vanishes, and the wretched Parvati is carried away by her father.
Fourth canto. The lament of Charm.—This canto is given entire.
The wife of Love lay helpless in a swoon,Till wakened by a fate whose deadliest stingWas preparation of herself full soonTo taste the youthful widow’s sorrowing.
Her opening eyes were fixed with anxious thoughtOn every spot where he might be, in vain,Were gladdened nowhere by the sight she sought,The lover she should never see again.
She rose and cried aloud: “Dost thou yet live,Lord of my life?” And at the last she foundHim whom the wrathful god could not forgive,Her Love, a trace of ashes on the ground.
With breaking heart, with lovely bosom stainedBy cold embrace of earth, with flying hair,She wept and to the forest world complained,As if the forest in her grief might share.
“Thy beauty slew the pride that maidens cherish;Perfect its loveliness in every part;I saw that beauty fade away and perish,Yet did not die. How hard is woman’s heart!
Where art thou gone? Thy love a moment onlyEndured, and I for ever need its power;Gone like the stream that leaves the lily lonely,When the dam breaks, to mourn her dying flower.
Thou never didst a thing to cause me anguish;I never did a thing to work thee harm;Why should I thus in vain affliction languish?Why not return to bless thy grieving Charm?
Of playful chastisements art thou reminded,Thy flirtings punished by my girdle-strands,Thine eyes by flying dust of blossoms blinded,Held for thy meet correction in these hands?
I loved to hear the name thou gav’st me often’Heart of my heart,’ Alas! It was not true,But lulling phrase, my coming grief to soften:Else in thy death, my life had ended, too.
Think not that on the journey thou hast takenSo newly, I should fail to find thy track;Ah, but the world! The world is quite forsaken,For life is love; no life, when thee they lack.
Thou gone, my love, what power can guide the maidenThrough veils of midnight darkness in the townTo the eager heart with loving fancies laden,And fortify against the storm-cloud’s frown?
The wine that teaches eyes their gladdest dances,That bids the love-word trippingly to glide,Is now deception; for if flashing glancesLead not to love, they lead to naught beside.
And when he knows thy life is a remembrance,Thy friend the moon will feel his shining vain,Will cease to show the world a circle’s semblance,And even in his waxing time, will wane.
Slowly the mango-blossoms are unfoldingOn twigs where pink is struggling with the green,Greeted by koïl-birds sweet concert holding—Thou dead, who makes of flowers an arrow keen?
Or weaves a string of bees with deft invention,To speed the missile when the bow is bent?They buzz about me now with kind intention,And mortify the grief which they lament.
Arise! Assume again thy radiant beauty!Rebuke the koïl-bird, whom nature taughtSuch sweet persuasion; she forgets her dutyAs messenger to bosoms passion-fraught.
Well I remember, Love, thy suppliant motion,Thy trembling, quick embrace, the moments blestBy fervent, self-surrendering devotion—And memories like these deny me rest.
Well didst thou know thy wife; the springtime garland,Wrought by thy hands, O charmer of thy Charm!Remains to bid me grieve, while in a far landThy body seeks repose from earthly harm.
Thy service by the cruel gods demanded,Meant service to thy wife left incomplete,My bare feet with coquettish streakings banded—Return to end the adorning of my feet.
No, straight to thee I fly, my body given,A headlong moth, to quick-consuming fire,Or e’er my cunning rivals, nymphs in heaven,Awake in thee an answering desire.
Yet, dearest, even this short delay is fatedFor evermore a deep reproach to prove,A stain that may not be obliterated,If Charm has lived one moment far from Love.
And how can I perform the last adorningOf thy poor body, as befits a wife?So strangely on the path that leaves me mourningThy body followed still the spirit’s life.
I see thee straighten out thy blossom-arrow,The bow slung careless on thy breast the while,Thine eyes in mirthful, sidelong glance grow narrow,Thy conference with friendly Spring, thy smile.
But where is Spring? Dear friend, whose art could fashionThe flowery arrow for thee? Has the wrathOf dreadful Shiva, in excess of passion,Bade him, too, follow on that fatal path?”
Heart-smitten by the accents of her griefLike poisoned darts, soothing her fond alarm,Incarnate Spring appeared, to bring reliefAs friendship can, to sore-lamenting Charm.
And at the sight of him, she wept the more,And often clutched her throat, and beat her breast;For lamentation finds an open doorIn the presence of the friends we love the best.
Stifling, she cried: “Behold the mournful matter!In place of him thou seekest, what is found?A something that the winds of heaven scatter,A trace of dove-grey ashes on the ground.
Arise, O Love! For Spring knows no estranging,Thy friend in lucky hap and evil lot;Man’s love for wife is ever doubtful, changing;Man’s love for man abides and changes not.
With such a friend, thy dart, on dainty pinionOf blossoms, shot from lotus-fibre string,Reduced men, giants, gods to thy dominion—The triple world has felt that arrow sting.
But Love is gone, far gone beyond returning,A candle snuffed by wandering breezes vain;And see! I am his wick, with Love once burning,Now blackened by the smoke of nameless pain.
In slaying Love, fate wrought but half a slaughter,For I am left. And yet the clinging vineMust fall, when falls the sturdy tree that taught herRound him in loving tenderness to twine.
So then, fulfil for me the final missionOf him who undertakes a kinsman’s part;Commit me to the flames (my last petition)And speed the widow to her husband’s heart.
The moonlight wanders not, the moon forsaking;Where sails the cloud, the lightning is not far;Wife follows mate, is law of nature’s making,Yes, even among such things as lifeless are.
My breast is stained; I lay among the ashesOf him I loved with all a woman’s powers;Now let me lie where death-fire flames and flashes,As glad as on a bed of budding flowers.
Sweet Spring, thou camest oft where we lay sleepingOn blossoms, I and he whose life is sped;Unto the end thy friendly office keeping,Prepare for me the last, the fiery bed.
And fan the flame to which I am committedWith southern winds; I would no longer stay;Thou knowest well how slow the moments flittedFor Love, my love, when I was far away.
And sprinkle some few drops of water, givenIn friendship, on his ashes and on me;That Love and I may quench our thirst in heavenAs once on earth, in heavenly unity.
And sometimes seek the grave where Love is lying;Pause there a moment, gentle Spring, and showerSweet mango-clusters to the winds replying;For he thou lovedst, loved the mango-flower.”
As Charm prepared to end her mortal painIn fire, she heard a voice from heaven cry,That showed her mercy, as the early rainShows mercy to the fish, when lakes go dry:
“O wife of Love! Thy lover is not lostFor evermore. This voice shall tell thee whyHe perished like the moth, when he had crossedThe dreadful god, in fire from Shiva’s eye.
When darts of Love set Brahma in a flame,To shame his daughter with impure desire,He checked the horrid sin without a name,And cursed the god of love to die by fire.
But Virtue interceded in behalfOf Love, and won a softening of the doom:’Upon the day when Shiva’s heart shall laughIn wedding joy, for mercy finding room,
He shall unite Love’s body with the soul,A marriage-present to his mountain bride.’As clouds hold fire and water in control,Gods are the fount of wrath, and grace beside.
So, gentle Charm, preserve thy body sweetFor dear reunion after present pain;The stream that dwindles in the summer heat,Is reunited with the autumn rain.”
Invisibly and thus mysteriouslyThe thoughts of Charm were turned away from death;And Spring, believing where he might not see,Comforted her with words of sweetest breath.
The wife of Love awaited thus the day,Though racked by grief, when fate should show its power,As the waning moon laments her darkened rayAnd waits impatient for the twilight hour.
Fifth canto. The reward of self-denial.—Parvati reproaches her own beauty, for “loveliness is fruitless if it does not bind a lover.” She therefore resolves to lead a life of religious self-denial, hoping that the merit thus acquired will procure her Shiva’s love. Her mother tries in vain to dissuade her; her father directs her to a fit mountain peak, and she retires to her devotions. She lays aside all ornaments, lets her hair hang unkempt, and assumes the hermit’s dress of bark. While she is spending her days in self-denial, she is visited by a Brahman youth, who compliments her highly upon her rigid devotion, and declares that her conduct proves the truth of the proverb: Beauty can do no wrong. Yet he confesses himself bewildered, for she seems to have everything that heart can desire. He therefore asks her purpose in performing these austerities, and is told how her desires are fixed upon the highest of all objects, upon the god Shiva himself, and how, since Love is dead, she sees no way to win him except by ascetic religion. The youth tries to dissuade Parvati by recounting all the dreadful legends that are current about Shiva: how he wears a coiling snake on his wrist, a bloody elephant-hide upon his back, how he dwells in a graveyard, how he rides upon an undignified bull, how poor he is and of unknown birth. Parvati’s anger is awakened by this recital. She frowns and her lip quivers as she defends herself and the object of her love.
Shiva, she said, is far beyond the thoughtOf such as you: then speak no more to me.Dull crawlers hate the splendid wonders wroughtBy lofty souls untouched by rivalry.
They search for wealth, whom dreaded evil nears,Or they who fain would rise a little higher;The world’s sole refuge neither hopes nor fearsNor seeks the objects of a small desire.
Yes, he is poor, yet he is riches’ source;This graveyard-haunter rules the world alone;Dreadful is he, yet all beneficent force:Think you his inmost nature can be known?
All forms are his; and he may take or leaveAt will, the snake, or gem with lustre white;The bloody skin, or silk of softest weave;Dead skulls, or moonbeams radiantly bright.
For poverty he rides upon a bull,While Indra, king of heaven, elephant-borne,Bows low to strew his feet with beautiful,Unfading blossoms in his chaplet worn.
Yet in the slander spoken in pure hateOne thing you uttered worthy of his worth:How could the author of the uncreateBe born? How could we understand his birth?
Enough of this! Though every word that youHave said, be faithful, yet would Shiva pleaseMy eager heart all made of passion trueFor him alone. Love sees no blemishes.
In response to this eloquence, the youth throws off his disguise, appearing as the god Shiva himself, and declares his love for her. Parvati immediately discontinues her religious asceticism; for “successful effort regenerates.”
Sixth canto. Parvati is given in marriage.—While Parvati departs to inform her father of what has happened, Shiva summons the seven sages, who are to make the formal proposal of marriage to the bride’s parents. The seven sages appear, flying through the air, and with them Arundhati, the heavenly model of wifely faith and devotion. On seeing her, Shiva feels his eagerness for marriage increase, realising that
All actions of a holy lifeAre rooted in a virtuous wife.
Shiva then explains his purpose, and sends the seven sages to make the formal request for Parvati’s hand. The seven sages fly to the brilliant city of Himalaya, where they are received by the mountain god. After a rather portentous interchange of compliments, the seven sages announce their errand, requesting Parvati’s hand in behalf of Shiva. The father joyfully assents, and it is agreed that the marriage shall be celebrated after three days. These three days are spent by Shiva in impatient longing.
Seventh canto. Parvati’s wedding.—The three days are spent in preparations for the wedding. So great is Parvati’s unadorned beauty that the waiting-women can hardly take their eyes from her to inspect the wedding-dress. But the preparations are complete at last; and the bride is beautiful indeed.
As when the flowers are budding on a vine,Or white swans rest upon a river’s shore,Or when at night the stars in heaven shine,Her lovely beauty grew with gems she wore.
When wide-eyed glances gave her back the sameBright beauty—and the mirror never lies—She waited with impatience till he came:For women dress to please their lovers’ eyes.
Meanwhile Shiva finishes his preparations, and sets out on his wedding journey, accompanied by Brahma, Vishnu, and lesser gods. At his journey’s end, he is received by his bride’s father, and led through streets ankle-deep in flowers, where the windows are filled with the faces of eager and excited women, who gossip together thus:
For his sake it was well that ParvatiShould mortify her body delicate;Thrice happy might his serving-woman be,And infinitely blest his bosom’s mate.
Shiva and his retinue then enter the palace, where he is received with bashful love by Parvati, and the wedding is celebrated with due pomp. The nymphs of heaven entertain the company with a play, and Shiva restores the body of Love.
Eighth canto. The honeymoon.—The first month of marital bliss is spent in Himalaya’s palace. After this the happy pair wander for a time among the famous mountain-peaks. One of these they reach at sunset, and Shiva describes the evening glow to his bride. A few stanzas are given here.
See, my belovèd, how the sunWith beams that o’er the water shakeFrom western skies has now begunA bridge of gold across the lake.
Upon the very tree-tops swayThe peacocks; even yet they holdAnd drink the dying light of day,Until their fans are molten gold.
The water-lily closes, butWith wonderful reluctancy;As if it troubled her to shutHer door of welcome to the bee.
The steeds that draw the sun’s bright car,With bended neck and falling plumeAnd drooping mane, are seen afarTo bury day in ocean’s gloom.
The sun is down, and heaven sleeps:Thus every path of glory ends;As high as are the scaled steeps,The downward way as low descends.
Shiva then retires for meditation. On his return, he finds that his bride is peevish at being left alone even for a little time, and to soothe her, he describes the night which is now advancing. A few stanzas of this description run as follows.
The twilight glow is fading farAnd stains the west with blood-red light,As when a reeking scimitarSlants upward on a field of fight.
And vision fails above, below,Around, before us, at our back;The womb of night envelops slowThe world with darkness vast and black.
Mute while the world is dazed with light,The smiling moon begins to riseAnd, being teased by eager night,Betrays the secrets of the skies.
Moon-fingers move the black, black hairOf night into its proper place,Who shuts her eyes, the lilies fair,As he sets kisses on her face.
Shiva and Parvati then drink wine brought them by the guardian goddess of the grove, and in this lovely spot they dwell happily for many years.
Ninth canto. The journey to Mount Kailasa.—One day the god of fire appears as a messenger from the gods before Shiva, to remonstrate with him for not begetting the son upon whom heaven’s welfare depends. Shiva deposits his seed in Fire, who departs, bent low with the burden. Shortly afterwards the gods wait upon Shiva and Parvati, who journey with them to Mount Kailasa, the splendid dwelling-place of the god of wealth. Here also Shiva and Parvati spend happy days.
Tenth canto. The birth of Kumara.—To Indra, king of the gods, Fire betakes himself, tells his story, and begs to be relieved of his burden. Indra advises him to deposit it in the Ganges. Fire therefore travels to the Ganges, leaves Shiva’s seed in the river, and departs much relieved. But now it is the turn of Ganges to be distressed, until at dawn the six Pleiades come to bathe in the river. They find Shiva’s seed and lay it in a nest of reeds, where it becomes a child, Kumara, the future god of war.
Eleventh canto. The birth of Kumara, continued.—Ganges suckles the beautiful infant. But there arises a dispute for the possession of the child between Fire, Ganges, and the Pleiades. At this point Shiva and Parvati arrive, and Parvati, wondering at the beauty of the infant and at the strange quarrel, asks Shiva to whom the child belongs. When Shiva tells her that Kumara is their own child, her joy is unbounded.
Because her eyes with happy tears were dim,’Twas but by snatches that she saw the boy;Yet, with her blossom-hand caressing him,She felt a strange, an unimagined joy.
The vision of the infant made her seemA flower unfolding in mysterious bliss;Or, billowy with her joyful tears, a stream;Or pure affection, perfect in a kiss.
Shiva conducts Parvati and the boy back to Mount Kailasa, where gods and fairies welcome them with music and dancing. Here the divine child spends the days of a happy infancy, not very different from human infancy; for he learns to walk, gets dirty in the courtyard, laughs a good deal, pulls the scanty hair of an old servant, and learns to count: “One, nine, two, ten, five, seven.” These evidences of healthy development cause Shiva and Parvati the most exquisite joy.
Twelfth canto. Kumara is made general.—Indra, with the other gods, waits upon Shiva, to ask that Kumara, now a youth, may be lent to them as their leader in the campaign against Taraka. The gods are graciously received by Shiva, who asks their errand. Indra prefers their request, whereupon Shiva bids his son assume command of the gods, and slay Taraka. Great is the joy of Kumara himself, of his mother Parvati, and of Indra.
Thirteenth canto. Kumara is consecrated general.—Kumara takes an affectionate farewell of his parents, and sets out with the gods. When they come to Indra’s paradise, the gods are afraid to enter, lest they find their enemy there. There is an amusing scene in which each courteously invites the others to precede him, until Kumara ends their embarrassment by leading the way. Here for the first time Kumara sees with deep respect the heavenly Ganges, Indra’s garden and palace, and the heavenly city. But he becomes red-eyed with anger on beholding the devastation wrought by Taraka.
He saw departed glory, saw the stateNeglected, ruined, sad, of Indra’s city,As of a woman with a cowardly mate:And all his inmost heart dissolved in pity.
He saw how crystal floors were gashed and tornBy wanton tusks of elephants, were strewedWith skins that sloughing cobras once had worn:And sadness overcame him as he viewed.
He saw beside the bathing-pools the bowersDefiled by elephants grown overbold,Strewn with uprooted golden lotus-flowers,No longer bright with plumage of pure gold,
Rough with great, jewelled columns overthrown,Rank with invasion of the untrimmed grass:Shame strove with sorrow at the ruin shown,For heaven’s foe had brought these things to pass.
Amid these sorrowful surroundings the gods gather and anoint Kumara, thus consecrating him as their general.
Fourteenth canto. The march.—Kumara prepares for battle, and marshals his army. He is followed by Indra riding on an elephant, Agni on a ram, Yama on a buffalo, a giant on a ghost, Varuna on a dolphin, and many other lesser gods. When all is ready, the army sets out on its dusty march.
Fifteenth canto. The two armies clash.—The demon Taraka is informed that the hostile army is approaching, but scorns the often-conquered Indra and the boy Kumara. Nevertheless, he prepares for battle, marshals his army, and sets forth to meet the gods. But he is beset by dreadful omens of evil.
For foul birds came, a horrid flock to see,Above the army of the foes of heaven,And dimmed the sun, awaiting ravenouslyThe feast of demon corpses to be given.
And monstrous snakes, as black as powdered soot,Spitting hot poison high into the air,Brought terror to the army underfoot,And crept and coiled and crawled before them there.
The sun a sickly halo round him had;Coiling within it frightened eyes could seeGreat, writhing serpents, enviously gladBecause the demon’s death so soon should be.
And in the very circle of the sunWere phantom jackals, snarling to be fed;And with impatient haste they seemed to runTo drink the demon’s blood in battle shed.
There fell, with darting flame and blinding flashLighting the farthest heavens, from on highA thunderbolt whose agonising crashBrought fear and shuddering from a cloudless sky.
There came a pelting rain of blazing coalsWith blood and bones of dead men mingled in;Smoke and weird flashes horrified their souls;The sky was dusty grey like asses’ skin.
The elephants stumbled and the horses fell,The footmen jostled, leaving each his post,The ground beneath them trembled at the swellOf ocean, when an earthquake shook the host.
And dogs before them lifted muzzles foulTo see the sun that lit that awful day,And pierced the ears of listeners with a howlDreadful yet pitiful, then slunk away.
Taraka’s counsellors endeavour to persuade him to turn back, but he refuses; for timidity is not numbered among his faults. As he advances even worse portents appear, and finally warning voices from heaven call upon him to desist from his undertaking. The voices assure him of Kumara’s prowess and inevitable victory; they advise him to make his peace while there is yet time. But Taraka’s only answer is a defiance.
“You mighty gods that flit about in heavenAnd take my foeman’s part, what would you say?Have you forgot so soon the torture givenBy shafts of mine that never miss their way?
Why should I fear before a six-days child?Why should you prowl in heaven and gibber shrill,Like dogs that in an autumn night run wild,Like deer that sneak through forests, trembling still?
The boy whom you have chosen as your chiefIn vain upon his hermit-sire shall cry;The upright die, if taken with a thief:First you shall perish, then he too shall die.”
And as Taraka emphasises his meaning by brandishing his great sword, the warning spirits flee, their knees knocking together. Taraka laughs horribly, then mounts his chariot, and advances against the army of the gods. On the other side the gods advance, and the two armies clash.
Sixteenth canto. The battle between gods and demons.—This canto is entirely taken up with the struggle between the two armies. A few stanzas are given here.
As pairs of champions stood forthTo test each other’s fighting worth,The bards who knew the family fameProclaimed aloud each mighty name.
As ruthless weapons cut their wayThrough quilted armour in the fray,White tufts of cotton flew on highLike hoary hairs upon the sky.
Blood-dripping swords reflected brightThe sunbeams in that awful fight;Fire-darting like the lightning-flash,They showed how mighty heroes clash.
The archers’ arrows flew so fast,As through a hostile breast they passed,That they were buried in the ground,No stain of blood upon them found.
The swords that sheaths no longer clasped,That hands of heroes firmly grasped,Flashed out in glory through the fight,As if they laughed in mad delight.
And many a warrior’s eager lanceShone radiant in the eerie dance,A curling, lapping tongue of deathTo lick away the soldier’s breath.
Some, panting with a bloody thirst,Fought toward the victim chosen first,But had a reeking path to hewBefore they had him full in view.
Great elephants, their drivers goneAnd pierced with arrows, struggled on,But sank at every step in mudMade liquid by the streams of blood.
The warriors falling in the fray,Whose heads the sword had lopped away,Were able still to fetch a blowThat slew the loud-exulting foe.
The footmen thrown to ParadiseBy elephants of monstrous size,Were seized upon by nymphs above,Exchanging battle-scenes for love.
The lancer, charging at his foe,Would pierce him through and bring him low,And would not heed the hostile dartThat found a lodgment in his heart.
The war-horse, though unguided, stoppedThe moment that his rider dropped,And wept above the lifeless head,Still faithful to his master dead.
Two lancers fell with mortal woundAnd still they struggled on the ground;With bristling hair, with brandished knife,Each strove to end the other’s life.
Two slew each other in the fight;To Paradise they took their flight;There with a nymph they fell in love,And still they fought in heaven above.
Two souls there were that reached the sky;From heights of heaven they could spyTwo writhing corpses on the plain,And knew their headless forms again.
As the struggle comes to no decisive issue, Taraka seeks out the chief gods, and charges upon them.
Seventeenth canto. Taraka is slain.—Taraka engages the principal gods and defeats them with magic weapons. When they are relieved by Kumara, the demon turns to the youthful god of war, and advises him to retire from the battle.
Stripling, you are the only sonOf Shiva and of Parvati.Go safe and live! Why should you runOn certain death? Why fight with me?Withdraw! Let sire and mother blestClasp living son to joyful breast.
Flee, son of Shiva, flee the hostOf Indra drowning in the seaThat soon shall close upon his boastIn choking waves of misery.For Indra is a ship of stone;Withdraw, and let him sink alone.
Kumara answers with modest firmness.
The words you utter in your pride,O demon-prince, are only fit;Yet I am minded to abideThe fight, and see the end of it.The tight-strung bow and brandished swordDecide, and not the spoken word.
And with this the duel begins. When Taraka finds his arrows parried by Kumara, he employs the magic weapon of the god of wind. When this too is parried, he uses the magic weapon of the god of fire, which Kumara neutralises with the weapon of the god of water. As they fight on, Kumara finds an opening, and slays Taraka with his lance, to the unbounded delight of the universe.
Here the poem ends, in the form in which it has come down to us. It has been sometimes thought that we have less than Kalidasa wrote, partly because of a vague tradition that there were once twenty-three cantos, partly because the customary prayer is lacking at the end. These arguments are not very cogent. Though the concluding prayer is not given in form, yet the stanzas which describe the joy of the universe fairly fill its place. And one does not see with what matter further cantos would be concerned. The action promised in the earlier part is completed in the seventeenth canto.
It has been somewhat more formidably argued that the concluding cantos are spurious, that Kalidasa wrote only the first seven or perhaps the first eight cantos. Yet, after all, what do these arguments amount to? Hardly more than this, that the first eight cantos are better poetry than the last nine. As if a poet were always at his best, even when writing on a kind of subject not calculated to call out his best. Fighting is not Kalidasa’s forte; love is. Even so, there is great vigour in the journey of Taraka, the battle, and the duel. It may not be the highest kind of poetry, but it is wonderfully vigorous poetry of its kind. And if we reject the last nine cantos, we fall into a very much greater difficulty. The poem would be glaringly incomplete, its early promise obviously disregarded. We should have a Birth of the War-god in which the poet stopped before the war-god was born.
There seems then no good reason to doubt that we have the epic substantially as Kalidasa wrote it. Plainly, it has a unity which is lacking in Kalidasa’s other epic, The Dynasty of Raghu, though in this epic, too, the interest shifts. Parvati’s love-affair is the matter of the first half, Kumara’s fight with the demon the matter of the second half. Further, it must be admitted that the interest runs a little thin. Even in India, where the world of gods runs insensibly into the world of men, human beings take more interest in the adventures of men than of gods. The gods, indeed, can hardly have adventures; they must be victorious. The Birth of the War-god pays for its greater unity by a poverty of adventure.
It would be interesting if we could know whether this epic was written before or after The Dynasty of Raghu. But we have no data for deciding the question, hardly any for even arguing it. The introduction to The Dynasty of Raghu seems, indeed, to have been written by a poet who yet had his spurs to win. But this is all.
As to the comparative excellence of the two epics, opinions differ. My own preference is for The Dynasty of Raghu, yet there are passages in The Birth of the War-god of a piercing beauty which the world can never let die.