The Six Cantos of Eternal Bliss

 by  Sankara

Translated by Usha Kishore

I am not the mind, nor the intellect, nor an entity,
                                                        nor any psyche;
I am not heard, nor tasted, nor smelt, nor seen;
I am not the sky, nor the earth, nor fire, nor air;
I am the joy ringing in eternity! I am Shiva!
                                                          I am Shiva !


I am not the essence of life, nor its five airs ;
I am not any of the seven elements , nor the
                           five strata of consciousness ;
I am not spoken word, nor physical deed,
                                                nor erotic need;
I am the joy ringing in eternity! I am Shiva!
                                                   I am Shiva!


I am not hatred, I am not love, nor envy,
                                                 nor greed;
I have no vanity, I have no dignity;
I have no duties, I have no riches, nor desires,
                                                 nor any salvation ;
I am the joy ringing in eternity! I am Shiva!
                                                       I am Shiva!


I am not good, I am not evil; I am not content,
                                                 I am not grief;
I am not mantra , nor any place of pilgrimage;
                          nor am I veda , nor sacrificial rite;
I am not sustenance, I am not sustainable, nor am I,
                                      the act of sustaining;
I am the joy ringing in eternity! I am Shiva!
                                                       I am Shiva!


I have no fear of death, I have no disparity
                                                    of faith;
I have no father, no mother; nor am I born;
I have no relative, I have no friend, no guru ,
                                                no shishya ;
I am the joy ringing in eternity! I am Shiva!
                                               I am Shiva!


I am timeless, I am formless;
I am the infinitude, stretching across
                                 your finitude ;
I am all-encompassing tranquillity,
beyond bondage, beyond liberation;
I am the joy ringing in eternity! I am Shiva!
                                                I am Shiva!

- One of the Hindu Trinity - Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Although Shiva is considered the God of Destruction, he has many aspects, exemplified in his Panchavaktra or Five-fold form - TatPurusha, Varna Deva, Aghora, Ishana and Rudra are the five faces depicted in the five-fold form. Varna Deva, the eternal form of Shiva , is portrayed in this poem.
The five airs - Pancha Vayu - According to Hindu belief, the air or essence of life that runs through the body has five aspects - prana (inhalation and exhalation), apana (the force dealing with the digestion and excretion), udana (centred in the throat - that deals with the air during sleep), samana (circulation) and vyana (all pervasive)
The seven elements - Saptha Dhathu - This is based on the seven liquid essences in the body like blood, bile, mucous etc. This is one of the principles of the Indian medical system of Ayurveda. Parallels can be drawn to the medieval humoural medicine.
The five strata of consciousness - Pancha Kosha - literally translated as the five coverings - this is the ascending scale of values like -material, mental, social, cultural and spiritual. In a contemporary context, this can be paralleled with Maslow's hierarchy of values.
Duty, wealth, desire and salvation - are called the Purushartha or Objectives of Life - They are dharma (duty), artha (wealth), kama (desire) and moksha (salvation).
Mantra - chanting of prayer
Veda - literally translated as Knowledge, (Vid - to know). Vedas are Hindu scriptures.
Guru - teacher
Shishya - student/disciple
Infinitude and finitude - This is based on my interpretation of the text, alluding to the Prakriti-Purusha (Nature and Supernatural) dichotomy of Hindu philosophy. Another interpretation could be Atma-Paramatma (Soul and Supersoul) duality. The line literally translates as "I am all pervasive/ I am beyond all senses."

Translator's Commentary


Growing up in a Hindu household, I was incomprehensibly drawn to the oft-chanted Nirvana Shatkam ( a Sanskrit religious verse)  composed by the South Indian (Kerala) poet and philosopher Sankara (788-820 AD). Now, as a self-appointed student of Sanskrit Literature, I find the philosophical content of the verse and its political connotations[1], very compelling. This translation highlights the poetic element, in Hindu Sanskrit texts, overlooked due to their overwhelming religious significance. In India, Sanskrit is still considered the devabhasha (language of the Gods).  I have always felt that if the divinity is taken out of Sanskrit, what remains is pure poetry.

Sanskrit is a phonic language[2] and while translating from Sanskrit into English, sound patterns like onomatopoeia and alliteration would inevitably be lost. However, I have managed to give an incantatory quality to my translation. There are other translations of this verse, from a religious standpoint, which are more literal. I have approached the verse from a literary perspective, paying attention to the metaphoric content; not neglecting the religious element or digressing from the meaning. The difficulties encountered in my translation arose from the fact that I did not want "to lose the poetry". I have retained some indigenous terms[3] and adhered to the following aspects of the original poem:

        each stanza in the form of a quatrain (to a certain extent)

        the listing and repetition

        the contrasts (the negation and affirmation)

        the double negatives (common in Sanskrit - I have used them for phonic effect and to reinforce the negation in the poem.)

My translation is entitled - "The Six Cantos of Eternal Bliss". Although "the canto" is defined as the division of a long poem, the choice of this titular word relates to the depth of subject-matter.  Nirvana Shatkam   - literally means "Six verses of Eternal Bliss".  (Shatka - six).  I have translated the repetitive phrase, "Chidhananda Rupa[4]" as "the joy ringing in eternity", with allusion to OM[5] (the Hindu equivalent of Amen). Structurally, the six stanzas of the poem can be read as the five strata of consciousness (exemplified as pancha kosha in the poem) and the sixth eternal state (Chidhananda Rupa). 

This being a cross cultural translation, I have provided notes to the poetic references. My endeavour has been to give a contemporary feel to the text.

[1] Sankara, also a social reformer, was a great champion of the equality of the castes.  His tenet of "equality of castes" is alluded to in the poem as Na me jathibedha: - "I do not have any disparity of faith". Many critics consider the Nirvana Shatkam as Sankara's assertion of the equality of mankind.

[2] One aspect of the study of Sanskrit scriptures is Shruthi (melody or sound), the other being Smrithi (memory).

[3]  The Sanskrit terms retained in the English translation are Shiva (One of the Hindu Trinity), mantra (chant), veda (Hindu scriptures, literally translated as knowledge), guru (teacher) and shishya (student).  This retention of indigenous terms is very common in contemporary Indian English poetry.

[4] Chidhananda Rupa - literally translated as "form of eternal bliss".

[5] OM - "In the beginning was the word".  OM can be interpreted as the Divine, with many manifestations. In Hinduism, OM is considered the primal sound, from which all else arises. OM is the mantra or chant often used in meditation and is chanted at the beginning of many Hindu prayers. OM also contributes to the Shruthi (Footnote 4) aspect of Sanskrit scriptures. 

Usha Kishore :---Born and brought up in Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala), Usha Kishore is now resident on the Isle of Man (UK) where she lectures in English at the Isle of Man College. Her poetry and critical articles have been published in the UK, Ireland and India. A few of her poems are also online.



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