Translation as Rapture: The Radiance Sutras by Lorin Roche
In the fall semester of my junior year of college I embarked on a six-month study abroad program in India. Towards the end of the trip I stayed in Varanasi, the “holiest of the seven sacred cities,” where I, as a Religious Studies major, earnestly gorged on as many of the city’s 2,000 crumbling temples as I could, attended evening fire arthis and dawn ablutions on the great and stinking Ganges, did strenuous Yoga and pranayama, and closet-smoked mango-flavoured beedis on the roof of my hotel.
One night I attended a lecture by Kashmir Shaiva scholar-practitioner Mark Dyczkowski. He played his sitar, propped up a painting of Kali lactating blood into the mouths of tiny Brahmins, and then talked about her body and attributes, the play of the sacred and transgressive in her image and myths. Afterward, I approached him about my own research on Indian Classical dance, and he proposed I meet him at his home the next day.
He lived on Narad Ghat in a building overlooking the Ganges, capped by a massive black mural painted with a red Yantra (or a red mural with a black Yantra – I can’t remember which). I’d done interviews with dancers and artists and scholars, had practiced the dance in India and with a teacher back home, and was trying to make their accounts and my experience jive with all the seductively heady theory I’d ingested from books and articles. Or, more precisely, I was trying to shoehorn the theory into the practice because I wanted so badly for it all to be true. We sat on the floor and, punctuated by a few shouty phone calls conducted in Italian to negotiate a villa rental, Dyczkowski gave a long, layered, funny, slow-winding, relentlessly brilliant, raga-like improvisation on Tantra and the body, performance, and mystical union through rasa.
I can’t recall one word or salient idea from the talk. I took notes and it all made sense at the time – but it was a kind of spiralling, intuitive ‘sense’ held together with the slightest of linear threads that are meant to dissolve like surgical stitches from the mind and release a deeper realisation into the heart and blood. I do remember that he gave me a copy of his translation and commentary on the Aphorisms of Shiva to borrow, and then morphed into a solicitous Englishman and offered me a ride to the hotel on the back of his scooter. I found a shop with a xerox machine where I could make an illegal copy of his book, and upon returning the original a few days later, he recommended I also find a translation of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra.
So I did. When I returned to Delhi I made a tour of the Motilal Benarsidass publishing company where I scooped the Jaideva Singh translation of the VBT, an edition guided by Dyczkowski’s own root teacher, Swami Lakshmanjoo, and a score of other books. It sat entombed in my luggage, along with the dozens of other books and weird Ayurvedic pills and pastes I’d collected, until the end of the trip.
The idea of the Bhairava Tantra, a conversation between lovers extolling 112 practicable and embodied pathways to the Divine was, and remains, very compelling to me. It was in sync with my attraction to Yoga and dance: The body as vehicle of transformation; The body as instrument to be cultivated, sensitised, and made more conductive of life energy for the purposes of awakening. That journey sounded inherently erotic, and I anticipated finding some of this rasa, this ‘taste’ of body magic in the text.
Instead, I found the Singh translation parched and clinical, adhering to an academic idiom, and scrubbed of sensuality and the more shadowy allusions to Tantric practice. (The skull cup used by tantrikas is called a “cranium bowl.”) It was hard for me to enter the verses or ground them in a practice. Harder still to find the juice.
I offer this big preamble to communicate some of my gratitude for what I discovered in Lorin Roche’s Radiance Sutras: the power of a translation whose final form is inseparable from the process by which it was made, and whose process was aligned with the deepest heart and teaching of the original text. It is, as Roche calls it, “Translation as rapture.”
Like Dyczkowski, Roche is a scholar of Sanskrit and a technician versed in theory. They are also, it would appear, creatures of intense devotion. By his own account, Roche surrendered himself to this text, lived and danced with it for decades until it was ready to live and dance through him.
The result is accessible, ecstatic poetry in the ‘Banter‘ ‘Yukti’ and ‘Insight‘ verses, and a ‘Transmission‘ commentary – riffs on Sanskrit lifted from each of the Yuktis – that are both rigorous and playfully extemporary.
His relationship with the text allowed me to feel the primal elements of the poetry, and begin to play with some of the practices. In fairness, the dryness of the Singh translation could be a product of respectability politics, or the tone Indian scholars of previous generations felt was necessary when presenting to a Western audience a part of their tradition that had been as commodified, bastardised and sexually freighted as Tantra. Roche, given our time and context, might be liberated from some of those constraints and able to deliver a far groovier interpretation.
Like Dyczkowski’s lecture/transmission, the The Radiance Sutras appeals to the intellect while bypassing it at the same time. It asks for another kind of attention, open and game, and to be read as one would read poetry or fiction, in willing submission to whatever spell it might cast. His transparency about his process helped dissolve the old binaries I’ve often created between theory and practice, idea and experience, between what is written and previous and what is sensed and now, between what you think you should want and what you really do. (Or between dutifully ujjayi-ing on a yoga mat and happily sucking down beedis on the hotel roof.) Under Roche’s guidance the work becomes Devi – a feminine movement, descending down and in and through the body, instead of floating above, at the altitude of the mind’s choosing.
Under Roche’s guidance the work becomes Devi – a feminine movement, descending down and in and through the body, instead of floating above, at the altitude of the mind’s choosing.
The final structure of the work as a whole is similar to a cycle of worship in a Hindu puja, where, as you enter and stand before the altar, you first encounter a many-armed god or goddess. The attributes of the deity are encoded with wisdom: The arms held up and back tell you something about the nature of the universe. Bhairava’s Banter verses constitute this ‘backdrop’ philosophy:
“I am beyond space and time…There are no directions to me…I am the nourishing state of fullness…I am not covered up, not even by a billion galaxies…”
The hands placed in front, often held in a mudra or grasping a book or mala, are showing you skillful means, or what you can do about it – this immutable truth of the universe. The hands in front are the Yuktis, the instructions or practice:
“The instant a thought springs up/ Abandon it and move on. / Don’t let the mind rest anywhere./ In this way gain entry to the bliss/ Of the silent depths beneath the surf.”
The Insight Verses are the darsan, or the loving and penetrating gaze of the deity. After you have offered your gifts and prayers, you are supported and beheld – literally ‘being held’ by divine sight. It is an intimate and personal gaze meant to develop your relationship with the deity and the private orientation of your devotion:
“The real transmutation,/ The most sacred offering,/ Is to pour the elements of your body/ All of your sensual impressions,/ Into the fire of the Great Void.”
And finally, Roche’s Yukti Transmissions, are the prasad, the offering that has been digested through the body of the deity and is being offered back – a plump coconut laddu or a kaju katli, a final sweet gift – to take on your journey:
“On Bhakti: Bhakti yoga says that you can be in an erotic, passionate relationship with God; you can be friends and equals with God; you can even feel parental and protective of God. All rivers flow to the ocean.”
Through Roche’s translation I was finally able to experience the eroticism of the initiating conversation between Devi and Bhairava. Aligned with the conventions of classic bhakti poetry and narratives, the Banter Verses begin with the aspirant/lover (Devi) in a state of viraha, or protracted, overwhelming desire – a metaphor for the ache of longing for union with the divine. This honey-held-on-the-tongue-tip feeling is the the duende, the aliveness that comes from unmet desire. Or in the words of a sevdalinka musician, (Sevdah is the Bosnian verison of duende) you are “Feeling good because you feel like shit.”
The Shaivite myths describe the god and goddess getting down to love, but Bhakti poetry revels in elaborate foreplay. I recall one text in which Siva actually takes on the feminine role; He adorns himself with Devi’s earrings and rouge and dress and dances for her. Devi makes a coordinate change, sitting in a meditation pose and enjoying the show.
In Roche’s translation I could feel Devi’s initial question, “Yet still I am curious./ What is this delight-filled universe/ Into which we find ourselves born?” not as a genuine question, but as an erotic appeal, as an expression of her desire to start their play. Devi knows the nature of the universe, just as Siva is intimate with manifest creative power, or Shakti. But she’s inciting him, signalling her openness by taking up the polarity – Shiva plays Master, Devi plays dumb – as a prelude to their “embrace.” It is Devi’s version of, “Can you help me with my zipper? I just can’t seem to reach back there…”
The Transmissions, an infusion of Roche’s own voice into the text, seem the product of immersive focus that then spontaneously gives rise to impressions harmonious with the text itself. In a recent interview, Kashmir Shaivite scholar, Paul Muller Ortega, describes the “modes of knowing” laid out in Indian philosophical texts: the perceptual and the inferential. But he delineates a third category, bhavana, or the “knowledge reality has of itself.”
This spontaneous knowing arises from the body and cannot be “born of our surface intellect or cleverness,” but emerges “fully shaped.” It occurs after a process of profound psychic cleansing, at which point the aspirant has created the terrain where they might “invite sequences of insight” by placing their inquiry at the “door of the absolute.”
This intimate spring of insight and knowledge – and its improvisatory freedom – comes from deep study and rigour, from years of steeping oneself in a text or practice.
It is akin to a technique of literary criticism that has been used in China for centuries, Yi Jing, a way of intuitively collaborating with another artist to unearth the true meaning of their work. Yi means ‘mind or consciousness’ and Jing means ‘space or environment.’ It is a process of recording what is called the “pictorial environment” in the mind when reading a text or looking at a piece of art. The critic/audience incorporates the experience of their empathic witnessing with their reflections on the text. It is an intuitive, full-body and generous way of seeing that is about focusing on one’s felt response; the intent is a blending of one’s consciousness with that of the artist and in order to create new forms. A kind of next-level fan fiction, with some hardcore spiritual prep. Yi Jing, like bhavana, requires a great emptying and opening, a willingness to let go and be taken over.
I recently did a search for Mark Dyczkowski, and by the grace of Vimeo, there he was, white-haired now and plushly bearded, giving a teaching from his Aphorisms called “The Heart.” I was listening while making a big pot of soup and my ears pricked up when he said in his ragbag accent, “We don’t have this alternation between theory and practice in India. We have the alternation between attention and inattention.”
Roche’s method, his rapture, his particular and heartsome way of attending to this work, is the reminder that if we listen openly and devote ourselves to paying attention – if we play hard and love harder – a text, like the world, like the universe, might invite us in and body forth its full revelation.