Thaathaa tells stories from India

Thaathaa (தாத்தா) means grandpa in the ancient Indian language Tamil (தமிழ்). I have lived in Germany for half a century and my grandson only since 13 years. He comes to visit me at least twice a month. It’s easy to take care of him. He is not demanding, but occasionally he asks questions that are not always easy to answer. The other day he wanted to know how a computer works. Before I could answer him, he said that he had already googled and could not find a useful explanation.

Although I am a trained and experienced computer expert, it was not easy to explain it to him. In the end, however, he was satisfied and his thirst for knowledge was quenched.

On his next visit, I decided to tell him an Indian story from the ancient sagas. It was a cloudy day and the weather forecast said it would rain 80% of the time, but it did not rain.

My grandson listened attentively to the story, it was about the saga Mahabharata* and the chant* of the Supreme Krishna. This tale is about the war between the Pandava princes and their stepbrothers, the Kauravas.

On the battlefield, Arjuna, one of the Pandava princes leading the war, throws his bow and arrow on the ground and refuses to fight, instead asking his charioteer Krishna endless questions. Krishna is the embodiment of the universe in human form, according to the narrative in the sacred saga.

Only after Krishna satisfactorily answers and explains all his questions does Arjuna realise his duty as a future king.
The next morning my daughter, the mother of my grandson, came to take him home. We went together to the “Lädle”, a kind of corner shop around the corner, to get breakfast things. We had breakfast on the terrace under the warm rays of the sun. My grandson ate his breakfast in peace and looked thoughtful.

“Well, are you dreaming about the Pandavas? And did you understand the story at all?”, I asked him. He replied, “The story was interesting, but it is not necessarily believable.” I was surprised by his remark because that is how an adult usually speaks. I liked it and replied gleefully, “You are like Arjuna, he didn’t believe everything he was told either, he asked questions when he didn’t understand or didn’t agree with something.”
“What is it about this story that you don’t believe?”, I asked him. He spoke quickly, as he usually does when he disagrees or finds something illogical.

“If Arjuna asked such important questions and Krishna answered them in detail, this conversation must have lasted for hours or days? And in all that time, the combatants on both sides just stood there and watched?” he asked. I complimented him on this observation and told him the following: “What the two warring parties saw was only Arjuna dropping his bow and arrow on the ground and picking it up again shortly afterward. The whole dialogue took place in a split second; for Arjuna it was an eternity. Arjuna realised what his duty was as a king and acted accordingly.”

After that, I tried to make him understand that the war served as a metaphor and that it is about the war within each person. It is about making the right choices, having control over one’s thoughts, freeing oneself from any addiction and realising the deeper meaning and purpose of life. But it is too early for him to understand this. After all, he is not Arjuna.

Two days ago he came to visit me again, we were going to the pumpkin festival but the rainy weather forced us to stay at home. He wanted to reach for his smartphone again to watch some videos, now I had to distract him.

“Did I ever tell you the story about the girl from the forest?”, I asked him. He shook his head in the negative and looked at me with interest.

“Long, long ago, in ancient India, there was a girl who lived in the forest…” No sooner had I started his face impression changed, probably thinking it was going to be a long story.
“It’s a short story,” I said and continued, “the girl was an orphan and was raised by a hermit as his foster daughter into a young woman. He called her Shakuntala. Hermits are people who live in seclusion in a forest with their kind. One day, when Shakuntala was walking in the forest with her friends, they came across a lost hunter lying exhausted at the edge of the forest. They gave him something to eat. When he had regained his strength, he politely thanked the ladies and behaved with great dignity. What the young ladies did not know was that this was the prince who had lost his way while hunting and had become separated from his companions.

Shakuntala fell in love with him, he was fascinated by her beauty and forgot who he was and where he was. He stayed with the hermits and when the foster father agreed, the two were married according to the usual rituals in the forest.

After some time, out of the blue, the prince remembered his duties and said goodbye to Shakuntala. He gave her a ring and promised to come back with his relatives and take her with him. He did not reveal to her that he was the heir to the throne. In the meantime, Shakuntala realised that she had become pregnant. She did not reveal it to him, however, as she did not want him to have to give up his plans to stay with her. Besides, she did not want to stand in the way of his decisions.

After a few days, a saint came by Shakuntala’s hut and asked for water to quench his thirst. It is Shakuntala’s duty to pay homage to the saint and also give him something to eat. However, she was completely lost in thought and thought only of her beloved. The saint became angry and put a curse on her. The person she was thinking about should forget about spending time with her. When Shakuntala heard the loud curses, she was frightened and seemed paralysed. Her friends heard it too and came rushing to help her. They explained to the saint what had happened and he regretted it, but he could not undo the curse. However, he softened his curse and promised that if her husband saw his ring again, he would remember everything.

A short time later, Shakuntala gave birth to a healthy boy and named him Bharata. Meanwhile, her husband was crowned king of his country, but Shakuntala knew nothing about it. When the child turned one year old, she decided to go to the capital to look for her husband.

On the way, she and her entourage rested by a river and went swimming, during which she lost the ring. Without the ring, however, her husband would not remember her, so she decided to return to the forest.

A miracle happened: a fisherman found the ring in a fish he had fished out of the river and wanted to sell the ring to the king. When the king saw the ring, he immediately remembered his wife. He gave the fisherman a rich present and traveled into the forest. There he met a child who was fearlessly playing with tigers and his mother, Shakuntala. Only then did she learn that the father of her child was the king. The united family lived in the palace from then on.

At the age of 21, Bharata became king of the empire now known as India. In the Indian languages, India is called Bharat and all Indian currency notes bear the word Bharat printed on them.

My grandchild was very taken with this story. I told him that all Indians know this story and it is taught in the school subject of history.

“Did you know that this story was also known and very popular in Europe, especially in Germany, since the 17th century?” I asked him. My grandson stared at me incredulously and questioningly. “I’ll give you a hint,” I said. “Johann read the translation from English and told his poet friend Johann about it, he was also thrilled and wrote poems full of romance. Do you know who I mean?”, I asked.

“Goethe?” he asked quietly. “Yes, exactly, and who was the other one?”, I asked. “Schiller? But his name is Friedrich,” he remembered. “His full name is Johann Christoph Friedrich Schiller*,” I said and continued….

“An Englishman named William Jones translated Kalidasa’s Indian work Shakuntala, the drama in seven acts from Sanskrit into English. Georg Forster* was a travelling writer and translated the story into German. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe* read this book, was enthralled and wrote the following poem:

Do you want the blossoms of the early, the fruits of the later year,

Do you want what excites and delights, Do you want what satiates and nourishes,

If thou wilt comprehend the heavens and the earth in one name..,

I call thee Sakontala, and thus all is said.

Goethe liked this work by Kalidasa* so much that he was inspired to write his own works Faust and Balajarde.

Herder and Schiller also became fans of Kalidasa. Franz Schubert* composed an opera fragment about Shakuntala.

All this did not interest my grandson very much, but he liked the story of Shakutala*. That is what counts.

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