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Throwing Light on Decay and Death – The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 24, 2012

The term “Vairagya” refers to a deeply ruminative cynicism arising out of wisdom, knowledge and awareness about the ways of the world especially its perplexing transience and man’s search for meaning in the grand scheme of things. No other topic engenders as much vairagic thinking as does the imponderability of life’s purpose, its relevance and meaning. The manifestation of this thinking can be seen in prose tracts, poetry, schools of philosophy, expositions, sayings and aphorisms. Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat belongs to this manifestation.

In its form and structure a rubai is a quatrain with four lines where the endings of first, second and fourth lines rhyme. However, there is no hard and fast rule on the rhyming order. It is said that a rubai is actually a two sentence composition, which for the sake of poetic effect is broken into four parts. Here is how a rubai looks in both forms:

 “Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
“Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.”

Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
“Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.     (Source Edward Fitzgerald’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam)

Notwithstanding the form and structure, the rubaiyat are elegant, elevated, questioning, probing, moving, startling, deep, of exceptional literary beauty, poetic imagery and power, full of wry conclusions and above all a great joy to read. Given the syncretic nature of relationship that South East and South Asia had with West Asia, the rubaiyat have been reasonably well known in this part of the world for a long period of time. However, in the Western world the rubaiyat seem to have gained significant popularity through the translations of Edward Fitzgerald. It is said that the soldiers marching to the battlefronts in World Wars knew the translated versions of rubaiyat by heart. With uncertainty, trauma and death staring in face, anybody would have found the rubaiyat a great comfort and full of meaning and relevance

There are many translations of Rubaiyat. The three that I know are by:

  • Edward Fitzgerald first published in 1889 containing around 100 quatrains
  • Peter Avery and John Heath Stubbs in 1979 containing 235 quatrains.
  • Nectar of GraceSwami Govinda Thirta (original name A.M.Datar – before assuming monkhood) containing 1096 quatrains. The book besides having the rubais also has very comprehensive chapters on the history and prevailing social conditions around the period Omar Khayyam lived and gained his fame

All three of them are a pleasure to read. However, in its comprehensiveness, coverage, organization, background and supporting material Nectar of Grace scores really high. Very little is known of Swami Govinda Thirta except that he was a polyglot scholar with depth in Sanskrit, Persian, Marathi and English. The first translation of Omar Khayyam’s rubaiyat he attempted was from Persian to Marathi at the behest of his teacher and upon request of his friends then proceeded to translate the rubaiyat from Persian to English. At the time of translation Swami Govinda Thirta was employed as a clerk in the Finance Ministry of Nizam of Hyderabad. He was supported and sponsored by Nawab Hydar Nawaz Jung Bahadur who himself was a great admirer the rubaiyat. The 1096 quatrains are organized topically and cover the following areas: Praise of God, The Wheel of Time, The Youth (Lyrical) , Decay and Death, The Clay and Cup (Matter and Form), The Fate, The Chastening, The Kharabat (Tavern: Open Sufi assembly), The Maikhana (Mystic Shrine), Personal and Polemic, Prayers and Miscellaneous

With death as the final and unyielding reality it was but natural for Omar Khayyam to bring out the perplexing nature of human existence and passions there in for questioning in his rubais. There is a constant reference to impermanence of life and attempt to laugh at the fleeting nature of relationships; man’s craving for possessions and the need to accept death as a natural process of life. I have found a similar thought on the need for acceptance of death in the brilliant essay “Death in the Open” by Lewis Thomas in his wonderful book ‘The Lives of a Cell” where he writes the following:

 We will have to give up the notion that death is catastrophe, or detestable, or avoidable, or even strange. We will need to learn more about the cycling of life in the rest of the system, and about our connection to the process. Everything that comes alive seems to be in trade for something that dies, cell for cell. There might be some comfort in the recognition of synchrony, in the information that we all go down together, in the best of the company”  

For me it is one of those exhilarating occasions when a modern man of science and a philosopher-mathematician of Middle Ages are tending to arrive at a point of concurrence filled with wisdom on a topic that is bewildering, perplexing and dismaying  

While I have chosen ten of the sixty odd rubais that cover the topic of death and decay as organized by Swami Govinda Thirta, I have found equally wonderful and elegant rubais on the same topic elsewhere which I will cover in my blog some other time. For now here is my selection:

That castle high which scraped the azure blue,
Where princes crept as inmates of a zoo;
I see now possessed by an ugly owl,
I hear it hooting:” Where is Who is Who?”

I saw a quail amidst the battlefield
It nestled safe beneath a broken shield;
It spake to royal skulls in great disdain:
“Where is the pomp ye wield, what is the yield?”

This rosy garden soon will run to waste,
And cotton seeds will vie with pearls so chaste;
Rejoice, this mortar-mill of rolling world,
Will grind our name and fame to finest paste.

This house has lost the comrades and their fun,
And death has trampled on them one by one;
In feast of life they drank the wine with me,
A round or two before me they are done.

Alas! this buxom body is but frail,
This Dome and Candle are a fairy tale;
When life and death are playing tug-of-war,
The rope, our breath, would snap at last and fail

And in this ruined Inn these faces gay,
With wistful eyes desire some time to stay;
But then they read a warning on the board:
“Wayfarers should not stop but clear away”

“A “grew his gardens, but was goaled away, 
“B “built his barracks, but was bowled away;
I asked how “C “is faring, but was told:
“Now here you are! for ‘ C “is sold away.”

A pining fish said:” O my duck! may be,
When brook will cycle back, we swim in glee.”
Replied the duck: They roast us now on spits,
What boots if world be then mirage or sea!”

With thirsty soul no cooling cup I meet,
Desire has roamed but found no safe retreat;
This heart which plied despondent all along,
In sheer despair, at last has ceased to beat.

My youth has passed and all its pomp in haste,
The grapes are sour and yet I long to taste;
My stature’s bent, Ah! what a pliant bow,
And chorded by the staff I drag to waste!

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2 Responses to “Throwing Light on Decay and Death – The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”

  1. Sanjay said

    Any idea where I can find the Marathi translation of the Rubaiyat by Datar? There is another translation into Marathi by Madhav Patwardhan. I am looking for either/both.

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