Sunday, February 29, 2004

Of dreams & diverse images
B.N. Goswamy

A dream image of an owl in a Pahari painting, possibly from Nurpur, ca 1700
A dream image of an owl in a Pahari painting, possibly from Nurpur, ca 1700

THIS is a piece not so much about dreams as about their interpretation through images.

When Indian philosophical texts speak of turiya, the ‘fourth’ or the highest state of the spirit, that which is pure and impersonal, they imply the existence of the first three, those of waking, dreaming and deep-sleep, each defined by a precise term. Svapna is the word that refers to the state of dreaming and, through it, to ‘seeing a vision in a dream’. The Rig Veda, the most ancient of Indian texts, refers to it; later , the Atharva Veda has a whole chapter, the 68th, on dreams. The entire visible world around ourselves can, following the philosophical doctrine of maya or illusion, be seen of course as a svapna-prapancha, something ‘spread out like a dream’. But at a lesser, everyday level, there is also this consuming interest in dreams, for are they not pointers too, rising from some mysterious levels of the mind, foretelling things, presaging developments? There are some things, the texts state, which are perceptible to the mind only when in a state of sleep or dreaming. At the same time, svapnas can be seen as having been all too real for many, for over a long period of time in Indian history, they seem to have affected minds, guided actions, led to major decisions, changed the very course of events.

Portrait of a photographer
February 8, 2004
The curling roots of time
January 25, 2004
Looking at medicine through art
January 11, 2004
The uncertain world of valuation
December 14, 2003
Seasons of longing
November 16, 2003
Greed in the land of antiques
November 2, 2003
Of elegant walks & sculpted silks
October 19, 2003
Pattern-drawers of Benares
October 5, 2003
Kaghaz ki kahani
September 21, 2003
The rains in poetry and painting
September 7, 2003

Dreams, everyone understands, are complex things, opaque, defying easy access, elusive and layered at the same time. They need to be interpreted, therefore, and thus a whole body of works related to them, as much as an array of categories of wise men who ‘know’ them, the svapnavid-s. Even that most famous of all ‘Indian’ dreams – for it travelled to every corner of the world to which Buddhism spread – that of queen Maya, mother of the Buddha-to-be, seeing a white elephant enter her body, had to be interpreted by wise men who were called in for this purpose by her kingly husband. Clearly, to the interpreters, the dream foretold the birth of a world conqueror from the queen’s womb. Far more elaborate, however, and thus requiring careful reading, were the dreams associated with the birth of the great ascetic-teacher, Mahavira, the virtual founder of Jainism as we know it. The mother of the future saviour dreamt fourteen auspicious dreams, and they had to be interpreted. But, in this case, the relationship of the dreamt objects with what they stand for is direct, easily comprehended. This is not always the case with dreams, however; and the Books of Dreams, that appear at a later point of time, explore other, more layered, aspects of the subject.

Slowly, it all begins to merge with other areas, and means, of foretelling the future. In fact, it would be difficult to think of many ways of divination, of attempts at seeing past the fog that is the future that cannot be found in the Indian subcontinent. Omens have been as much a part of many peoples’ lives as have been auguries; astrology has been a major concern, a distinct branch of learning, for more than a score of centuries; soothsayers abound as much as horoscope-casters do; as many people follow the Islamic practice of taking out a fal, omen, from opening a book of poems by Hafiz as they do in other parts of the Islamic world. The future is sought to be foretold, in one manner, through one means, or the other. Not everyone believes in this, and countless lives are led without recourse to these devices. But the interest in knowing the future is palpable.

Of obvious interest, in the midst of all this, are images which tie in with these concerns, with foretelling and presaging. One knows a great many of them, and they are not exclusive to any one faith or sect or class. Astrological charts and representations – geometric or figural – belonging alike to Hindu, Buddhist, Jaina or Islamic strains, are among the most sumptuous things rendered by the painters of the past: signs of the zodiac, personifications of planets and constellations, the movements of the stars in their course through the heavens. But, in a category apart, are whole books of dreams with each leaf illustrated, each dream envisioned. One knows of old texts, even though not always illustrated, like Svapna-chintamani, Svapna-pariksha, Svapna-darshana, Svapna-phalaphala, each related, as is obvious from the titles, to svapna-s or dreams. Closely allied to these are others which deal with shakunas and prashnas: omens and random queries. To these again, whole texts are devoted, some of them illustrated. At some point, in this context, it is to be understood that dreams and omens and ‘questions’—svapna-s, shakuna-s, and prashna-s— merge. For a dream could be seen as an omen, an omen might appear in a dream; and so forth. Boundaries are fluid here, and many things converge. Especially in the area of visual imagery. Interesting in this context is the fact that in this body of material, all images are single, isolated. Dreams do not figure in the form of narratives, and there are no references – at least direct ones – to states of mind, as they generally are in the west. The images could take any form: an owl, a human representation of a planet, a man dancing, a crow pecking at a fruit, a tiger standing under a tree, and the like. And more often than not, in these illustrated texts, they are interpreted simply as being ‘auspicious’ or ‘inauspicious’, foretelling the turn that events are likely to take.

I could go on in this strain for long, for there is much to write and tell, but cannot, at least not here. At the same time, I find the paintings in these texts irresistible.

Simple prognostication

Of these another time, perhaps. But, in fairness, I should cite at least one example or two. The text at the back of a Pahari picture of a tiger, thus, pronounces in terse terms: "Bhala 11. Simhe de darsane dhan labh hoye, sukh hoye, sada labh visekha kari hoye" (Auspicious. 11. If the image in the dream is that of a tiger, the gaining of wealth, of happiness, in fact of all kinds of gains, will follow.) The text at the back of the image of Saturn reads: "Manda 41. Sanichare de darsane dukh vyadhi hyoe, agni da chor da bhaya hoye, apamoha hoye" (Inauspicious. 41. If the image is that of Sanichar, i.e. Saturn, grief and illness, fear of fire and of thieves, and a state of confusion will follow.)

Considering this, wouldn’t many of us wish that one could choose one’s dreams?

This feature was published on February 22, 2004