The two great poets of Asia, Basho and Tagore, sing of the Goddess Lakshmi, mountain, daybreak, household fire, moon and starlight, motherhood, giving birth and blessing the newborn girl.
Words of Basho and Tagore in bold face to stand out
Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet and philosopher who reshaped Bengali literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in The Gardener sings of women:
Oh woman, you are not merely the handiwork of God, but also of men;
they ever endow you with beauty from their hearts.
Poets weave for you a web with threads of golden imagery;
painters give your form ever new immortality…
You are one half woman and one half dream.
At Matsushima Bay, considered the most gorgeous scene in Japan, Basho with “threads of golden imagery” compares the pine tree trunks and branches bent to fantastic angles to a woman’s beauty.
The pines are deep green and so bent by the waves
their crookedness appears to be natural, the scene
as stunning as a beautiful women adorns her face.
“Their crookedness appears to be natural” means the crookedness is NOT inborn but appears to be. No matter how the pines are bent and twisted in the wind, they retain their inherent pine-tree straightness. So too, in a woman; she adorns her face with make-up, but the real beauty lies within, unchanging.
Though Basho is famous for his haiku and travel journals, his major poetic work was in renku, or linked verse, where he and other poets wrote stanzas complimenting each other.One of Basho’s earliest renku stanza-pair, written in 1675 when he only 30 years old, glorifies Kichijoten, the Japanese form of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi who brings success and prosperity, along with the Moon.
(BRZ 1: 105) Her name comes from the Sanskrit Laksya, ‘aim’ or ‘goal,’ so Lakshmi is a goddess of mangalam, auspiciousness, promising good fortune, the household goddess of most Hindu families, and a favorite of women. Although this is only mention of Lakshmi in Basho poetry, he frequently sings of good .
An ancient Sanskrit prayer sings of Lakshimi and the transmission of her promise of good fortune through the lifetime of females:
Every woman is an embodiment of you.
You exist as little girls in their childhood,
As young women in their youth
And as elderly women in their old age
We may be surprised to see Lakshmi in Basho’s poem since Japan was immersed in Buddhism but not in Hinduism – however Lakshmi and other Hindu deities were brought into Buddhism as it entered China and Japan, and so the ancient Buddhist temples in Nara have statues and a famous painting of Lakshimi dressed in Chinese robes.
Priya Sundaravalli, a ceramic artist living in Aujroville in India, describes her native Indian experience of this goddess:
Lakshmi is essential for the start of most Hindu rituals and everyday practice. I remember that as a young girl growing up, my grandmother would insist that I light the oil lamp in the kitchen altar, just before dusk to welcome Lakshmi into the home, she would say. I do this almost every day even now, though I am not religiousS
In the relationship of Lakshmi with Moon, four qualities converge: divine, female, shining, hope-giving.
Priya Sundaravalli, a ceramic artist living in Auroville in India, says
“The moon throws light on dark nights, so this hope-giving quality of Laksmi is subtly brought out with the comparison to the moon… the commentary is like the sprinkle of magic sparkle dust add a completeness. It brings out the full radiance of the brief poem.”
The poet Shinsho continues Basho’s adoration of Lakshmi. His stanza begins with the word atsurae which translates to "auspicious," the promise of good fortune from Lakshmi; then the Sun, still below the horizon to our eyes, shines on clouds around the high peak, so they appear as Lakshmi’s jeweled headdress. Thus the poet combines two goddess of two nations, the Indian Lakshimi and the Japanese Sun Goddess, to offer good fortune in the new day to come. The beauty of nature becomes the goddess.
Tagore wrote of love
That when you found me at last,
your age-long desire found utter peace
in my gentle speech and my eyes
and lips and flowing hair?
What fascinates me about this prose poem is how Tagore expresses consciousness of specific body parts, for Basho also focuses on the body and physical activities in his love poetry.
my slender forearm
for your pillow
Ta-makura ni / hosoki kaina o / sashi-irete
The woman in his stanza, despite the gossip and the shame gossip brings, lies in bed beside him, carefully maneuvering her arm under his head without waking him, such is the delicacy of her devotion. this woman may be caring for her lover or for her child; the stanza is especially poignant is the child is sick. Basho writes for women and for eternity.
Here is another passage of Tagore focusing on woman’s long black hair.
I had forgotten to braid my hair.
The languid breeze played with it upon my cheek.
The river ran unruffled under the shady bank.
The lazy white clouds did not move.
I had forgotten to braid my hair.
Tagore plays natural scenery as a sandwich between two identical slices of hair imagery.
Here is a haiku by Basho on woman's hair:
Wrapping rice cake,
with one hand she tucks
hair behind ear
Chimaki yuu / katate ni hasamu / hitai-gami
A woman preparing sweets for the children bends over a bucket of rice dough, forms into cones, wraps with bamboo grass, and ties with a strip of rush. Some long hair had come loose from the band in back and fallen before her face. Her fingers and palms coated with residue, without thinking or breaking her stride, she reaches up with the clean surface on the side of her hand above thumb and forefinger to tuck hair behind her ear – with nothing getting on her hair.
This haiku demonstrates four characteristics of Basho’s female-centric poetry:
1) Pure observation – without abstraction, judgment, philosophy, or religion – only physical observation
2) Focuses on a women by herself, with no male presence.
3) Highlights her body parts: hand, hair, e
4) Focuses on her activity, expressed in lively active verbs:“wrapping” and “tucks.” Some translators say “pushes her hair back,” but hasamu, “tucks (between head and ear)” is more specific, precise and delicate
Compare this prose poem in which Tagore portrays a woman in the center, her hair, and the activity of her body and clothing:
My bride has shivered and stood up,
she clasps my hand and comes out
her hair flying in the wind, her veil fluttering,
her garland rustles over her breast.
Rabindranath Tagore speaks for women in The Home and the World,
and Basho expresses a similiar awareness in this stanza-pair:
Arising to blow on embers,
(BRZ 5: 268) Before going to bed, she banked the fire, covering coals with ashes to remain alive till morning when she awakens them with her breath. Her husband wakes up the town, but Basho has eyes only for the wife, getting up in the freezing winter dawn to, like a goddess, awaken the hearth fire. She may be blowing directly onto the coals, or through a bamboo tube. As usual, Basho focuses on the physical activity of a woman. Throughout the ages in every land before gas, electricity, timers, sensors, remote and automatic controls, women have gotten up early to awaken the fire as the wife does here. She is eternal, a goddess of fire, proclaimed by bells.
Basho’s follower Ranran continues this woman’s day: come evening she alerts the town to her child being lost. Both stanzas focus attention on the woman, her breath and her activity expressed by an abundance of lively active verbs. The stars in the night sky resemble the glowing embers in the ashes of the hearth.
Tagore praises not only the beauty of women, but also their power.
The heroines created by Tagore, in the short stories, during the third phase of his literary career (1913-41) are bold and emerge in a different image than as submissive ones. They are more emancipated and empowered to change and encounter their situations with self- defiance. This made Tagore a visionary for the cause of 'feminism' ... He has shown a remarkable understanding of a woman’s psyche, perceives the injustice of an unequal social structure, and advocates for gender freedom and decision making power of women in the family and in larger society.
Basho in renku also was a visionary for the cause of feminism; he not only praises the beauty and divinity of women, but also empowers women to act together in solidarity. The stanza before the following was about a boat:
Imagine a woman standing on the shore watching a boat carry away her lover. She tries to reach it with pebbles – i.e. her love – but her slender arm cannot throw them any distance against the wind. From the weakness of the lone woman, Basho switches to a chorus of women allowing one woman to lead them, so their sound – their power, their truth – goes far.
May Basho’s stanza, with or without the previous one, become an anthem for women’s choral groups as well as for social and political movements. Women with power over your selves, join together in solidarity to repair the insanity male dominance has produced in this world. Who are the women who will lead us in chorus?
Another poet and Basho wrote this beautiful ode to the female creation of life in 1683:
(BRZ 3: 158) Seeds of rice sprout, looking like ordinary grass, with no sign that four months later they will yield the staple food of Asia. We go from rice sprouting to woman giving birth to the child she loves, then return to Mother Earth giving birth to countless billion plants. Woman merges with Earth, each making herself beautiful, and within her beauty is the power of regeneration, the power to nurture life.
Tagore in a poem called The Beginning compliments Basho's image of "giving birth to love in the world" and also leads us to the Basho's tanka which follows.
Tagore, in the Gardener, offers
From your breast you have fed us
with life but not immortality
that is why your eyes are ever wakeful.
Basho also wrote about breastfeeding while gazing at the baby to see into the future.:
Kao bakari / sanae no doro ni / yogosarezu
chi o nomu hiza ni / nani o yume miru
This peasant woman emerges from the “pond of knee-deep sludge,” to nourish her child from her breasts. Her entire body is soiled and roughened by everyday dirt and mud, with only hard mineral-laden water for washing ― yet she tries to keep her face clean and pretty, for baby to behold. The poem translated with “”my” and “you” is a personal communication from soul of mother to soul of baby: “my” prayer that “you” escape the constant work and ever-present grime of village life, an intergenerational message of hope for a brighter and more prosperous future. Has any other male poet produced so exquisitely feminine a poem? Feminine in concern for facial beauty and cleanliness, the femininity of women at work, women with breasts, women nourishing life, and women’s dreams and hopes for children’s future, all wrapped up in five short lines.
Basho wrote the following tanka in the spring of 1690 to bless a newborn baby girl:
(KBZ, vol. 71, page 285) ‘Layers of blossom-kimono” has three areas of meaning - and women in India may transfer from "kimono" to "sari."
1) the two layers of kimono over an inner robe robe 2) the succession of blossom-kimono one woman passes through from bright to sedate as she ages;
3) the kimono passing onto her daughter and granddaughter, the next layers of herself,
Also “wrinkles” are both in the kimono and her skin.
Now your time begins, stretching to infinity before unfocused eyes. Soon you’ll be laughing and playing in the sunshine – that is, if no wars come and natural disasters, fatal illness, and financial ruin stay away too. (We recognize the hope in 17th century Japan that the peace enforced by the Tokugawa Shogunate will continue. So this tanka as an Ode to Peace, the blessing unfolds for newborn Kasane and all newborn girls.)
One spring in youth, you shall be given your first blossom kimono. A formal kimono is a two layer silk robe meticulously folded and tucked around the body in flat, even layers. The colors and pattern are chosen in harmony with the woman’s age. A blossom-kimono for a girl entering womanhood might be a soft pink with bold cherry blossom design on the lower portion. A thick brocade sash of a darker contrasting color encircles her waist. The red inner robe, suitable for a party, shows at the neckline, and where the left side of the skirt covers the right, margins of the kimono lining appear and disappear as she walks.
The springs shall come and go Each year as you sit with legs folded under you on the straw mat under the cherry trees, creases shall form in the fabric. Carefully, as your mother shows you, restore its silky smoothness for another year. May the day come for you to pass this youthful robe onto your daughter, the next ‘layer’ of yourself, while you wear one moderate in color and pattern – and this too passes onto her, and you to the dark sedate kimono of an old woman. May our nation remain at Peace and the happiness in your family pile up layer upon layer until wrinkles in the fabric no longer smooth out and you see wrinkles of old age cross your face. Do not despair, my child, for you live again and again as spring passes by and your granddaughters laugh and chatter in their blossom kimono.
The tanka offers Hope to the smallest females — Hope for a childhood without misfortune, Hope that she will grow into womanhood and see grandchildren. In his few simple words Basho speaks of what concerns women: the succession of life, the happiness of children — the conditions of peace, both social and family, in which little girls can dress up and party with relatives and friends, and life and prosperity goes on generation after generation.
The tanka SPRING PASSES BY offers Hope to small females —Hope for a childhood without misfortune, hope that she will grow into womanhood and see grandchildren. Basho speaks of what concerns women: the succession of life, the happiness of children -- the conditions of Peace, both in society and in family, in which little girls can dress up and party with relatives and friends, and life goes on generation after generation.
In less than a single tweet, Basho encapsulates the life of one woman from newborn to wrinkles. Someday, if enough people ever know it exists, this poem may be recognized as the greatest work of Asian literature, a work so great it transcends the bounds of literature and culture to become a prayer for all humanity.
Priya Sundaravalli is creating a work of ceramic art based on Basho's Kasane tanka for a private residence in southern India. She says
And I am hand 'making' hundreds of ceramic cherry blossoms... This repetitive meditative act of making multitudes of pink blossoms one by one, so as to be able to create 'layers upon layers' of flowers, seems to resonate with the 'hope-giving' name Kasane.
From the villages where life goes on at a natural pace, young folk migrate to the Big City where competition and the high cost of living make life rough (but more fun than in the village) so they must “calculate” to survive. City people, in their endless calculations, lose their natural feeling toward their young, so for a son they sent out a birth notice, but not for a daughter. In much of Asia, throughout the millennia, only boys were cherished while girls were considered a liability and might be strangled immediately after birth or abandoned to die from the cold.
In 1990 (exactly 300 years after Basho wrote the tanka SPRING PASSES BY) Indian economist Amartya Sen shocked the world with his article More than 100 Million Women are Missing in the New York Review of Books. Professor Sen proposes that the failure to give infant females equal food and medical care —whether this be the overt failure in abandoning the child, or the equally fatal practice of denying the breast and its milk designed for human babies, giving the female baby only cow-milk substitutes mixed with water that should be boiled, but may not be (although even boiled water contains toxins) leads to the shortage of women in most of Asia. Basho’s tanka teaches us to cherish the infant female, and make every effort to halt this crime against humanity.