Ascetic Upagupta Lay once down to sleep In the lee of the walls Of Mathura metropolis. Gusty winds had then extinguished All city lamp flares And all city doors Had closed against comers As the stars in the night sky By dense clouds lay obscured In the rain-month of Sravana.
Whose anklet-ringing feet Struck sudden at his breast? Awoke the monk with a start Inertia by dreams inculcated In an instant fled away. Light of a lamp, so severe Shone into his eyes, So beautiful with forgiving mercy. Drunk with the wine of youth Her form draped with stuff Of the densest blue. And jewels trilling and tinkling The city danseuse going to a tryst, Her feet striking the slumbering monk Came to a stop Basabdatta.
Lifted she her lamp To behold his fair young form, Countenance tranquil tender smiling And his bright forehead Where like moonlight Radiated calm serenity.
Spoke she in pleasing voice Her eyes tinged with shame “Forgive me, my young sir, Have pity, come to my home. This rigid hard earth Is no place for you to sleep.
In compassionate tones spoke the monk, “Oh lady, loveliness embodied, Now is not yet my time Go where you must, prosperous one. At the right time will I come To your arbour Without invitation. Suddenly the storm in flames of lightning Revealed its mammoth face And the woman shuddered in dread. On the wind sounded the storm’s conch of doom, In the firmament, thunder roared a laugh In mockery intense.
………………………………………………………… The year not quite ended Was an evening in the spring month Chaitra. Breezes drifted demented, delirious Buds adorned the branches Of trees on the highway. In the king’s bower bloomed bakul And parul and fragrance of the evening ,the tuberose.
Far-off came the intoxicating tones Of bamboo flutes, borne on the wind. None left at home, all the citizens Had gone to the flower-festival At the Madhuban. The city deserted, seeing which Silently smiled the full moon.
On the empty road, in the light of the moon Alone travelled the ascetic. In the tree-clad avenue, above his head The cuckoo called ceaseless. Had his long-awaited night of tryst Arrived at last?
The city left behind, staff in hand. He went the way to outside the walls. Stood on the edge of the moat- In the shadows of the mango-grove Who was that abandoned on one side Almost his feet?
Dreadfully diseased, all her frame Covered with pox pustules she lay Her form darkened By the shadow of scourge. City people had brought her here To outside the city walls abandoned Her presence to them a poison.
The monk sat down and took up Her stiff head upon his lap. On the parched lips he poured water Recited benedictions upon her head He anointed her form lovingly With cooling paste of sandalwood.
The mango-buds dropped off the branches one by one Sang the cuckoo incessantly All the earth with moonlight lay inebriated. The woman asked, “O merciful one Who are you that have come?” “Tonight the time is apt And I am here, Basabdatta”, Replied the monk.
Recitation by Bratati Banerjee, from a video on Youtube.
This poem is from the book of poems called Katha published in 1900 in which Tagore recreated several Buddhist legends. Tagore responded to Buddha’s teachings in quite a few works, among which are Chandalika and Shyama, the two magnificent dance dramas. He found great relevance in the universality in Buddha’s message especially in the modern world so taken up with the pursuit of power and wealth. The theme of sensuality being transcended by spirituality is the cornerstone of this lyrical work.
As far as historical facts go, Upagupta was a latter day orthodox Buddhist saint who lived in Mathura sometime between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD. He is thought to have lived during the reign of Emperor Ashoke and to have been a special object of his devotions. Basabdatta also finds mention in some texts but the story more often related about them is somewhat different and tinged with much baser emotions than presented by Tagore.