Bodhisattva is an unusual long poem by the Indian English poet and translator Tapan Kumar Pradhan on the theme of Gautama Buddha's attempts at nirvana or liberation through a succession of many births or incarnations. Pradhan won the Upasika Kamaladevi Prize for Buddhist Literature from the Mahabodhi Society for his essays based on the theme of Bodhisattava poem. The original poem in Oriya has a number of parts, each of which was published under different pseudonyms of the poet in various Oriya magazines during 1992 to 1993. The poem series was subsequently translated into English by the poet himself, and an abridged version was published in various journals, including the Journal of the Poetry Society.
Excerpts from the poem
It's the birds now chirping in the bowers of Jetavana,
guess, their rising cacophony's lost all meaning
such meaning they had, I remember I was a child
handsome young prince, used to sing to their tune
when I returned with my queen to watch'em make love
secretly. That was but another day, another life, within
this one life there've been so many lives, perhaps
a thousand lives - how easily one forgets them though,
How can I forget the One radiant with peace -
In these very woods He had said Jetavana
is full of wisdom, and so is the whole world
full of knowledge. What you see is illusion,
to see here truth you need only to renounce.
And so I said no to my desires
said "no" till woman's caresses
troubled no more, neither
pain nor passion, only
the desire to be alive - I went
to hamlets with a bowl, I fasted
forty nine days to subdue
this desire too; I had
no more of it, only
to be like Him ! Ah, only
I had to wait - but, wait
how many lives ?
In a previous life I'd been a hangman too
you hang the body - not the soul, Atman
is Deathless, isn't it - ah, to be like Him !!
But then .... how many lives?
I was becoming so unlike
everything that was not Him....
That night I went to the river's edge
to watch the flames lap up the body
of the young man, the father wept
I told the mother, it is illusion
I was becoming so unlike...
everything'd seemed so full
of meaning when I had
not learned to seek
any meaning at all.
And how far I have come
since the day I was a bird
a mindlessly chirping bird
before a thousand births
long, long ago ?
Comments and criticism
The poem is written in the narrative style with flashback and is replete with allusion and symbolism which are typical of Dr. Pradhan's works. The poem questions Lord Buddha's doctrine that annihilation of one's desires through self-control and self-abnegation can lead to the goal of emancipation or nirvana. Boddhisattva is a state of worldly incarnation prior to the final stage of attaining enlightenment or Buddhahood.
The state of Buddha or complete enlightenment remains a mystery, and is unknown to the common person. But the stages of struggle and self-doubt typical of a Boddhisattva is easy to understand by the laiety. The poem compares the state of a "mindlessly chirping bird" at the beginning of the Boddhisattva's journey with that of an old renunciate who is yet to find liberation in spite of years of self-control.