Saturday, July 14, 2007

The goat and its tail

photograph by marguerita

For the goat's tail, the goat is the tail...

THAT is the first half of the first foot of a poem composed by Tenali Rama. One would think that this is just another joke by that jester and that it has no particular meaning. It is not so. It is full of meaning. Tenali Rama composed it to outsmart a vainglorious poet who came to Emperor Krishnadeva Raya one day and challenged him to see if any of his court poets would explain the meaning of a poem he had composed.

The Emperor, himself a great poet, could not understand it and sought the help of Tenali Rama who said, "Your Majesty, I have also composed a poem. If the visitor can explain its meaning, I would be happy. Let him take his time. Meanwhile, I will explain the meaning of his poem".

The visitor could not, literally, make head or tail of Tenali Rama's poem. Promising to explain it the next day, he disappeared during the night.

Tenali Rama's poem is no joke and is perhaps one of his sweetest gifts to mankind to enjoy humour in almost any kind of situation. His prescription is: look at anything from the wrong or the opposite side of things. You can then see the comical aspect of things or situations you earlier thought were grave.

Using just two words, meka (Telugu for goat) and thoka (Telugu for tail) and with the help of different prefixes and suffixes, the poet has composed this stanza that is perfect grammatically and conforms to the rules of prosody. Rendered in English, the full first foot would read: "For the goat's tail, the goat is the tail. For the goat, its tail is the goat's tail, but for the tail the goat itself is the tail".

This first foot has to be repeated four times to conform to rules of prosody, but as you repeat it at a quick pace a picture emerges of a number of goats standing in a circle, one behind the other, one goat's face right behind the tail of the goat standing in front. The poet uses the word tail and its meaning alternatively to bring out his own idea.

Shakespeare had said, "What is in a name? A rose will smell as sweet by any other name". But Indian tradition is different. Kalidasa says: "The word and its meaning are fused together inseparably like Parvathi and Parameswara" (Invocatory verse in "Kumarasambhava"). Tenali Rama adheres to both the stipulations in his poem.

It is like this: For any animal we start with what we call the head, then its neck, then its stomach standing on four legs and finally the tail. That is, the head is the starting point and the end portion is the tail.

This is the normal way to look at an animal. But, instead of the head if we start with the tail, then the whole body of the animal becomes the end portion of the tail and is consequently the tail's tail.

The comical situation is well brought out by the selection of the goat for this verse. It is well known that the goat is by and large a useless animal, although called a poor man's cow, its milk is sometimes useful and its meat is used as food. But the tail takes the cake for uselessness. Of all the animals, the goat has the most useless tail. The dog, whatever its size, shakes its tail to express its joy whenever it sees its master, or shows its sense of fear when it runs with the tail between its legs. The tail also covers its delicate hind portions. The cow's long tail can be a picture of beauty. Some cowherds even take care to comb the last portion of the tail. The cow uses its tail to drive away insects like mosquitoes, and the tail is useful in covering the hind portions. Even the elephant's tail, though absurdly short, helps the animal to protect its hind portions. The goat's tail is, however, singularly free of any such useful function. The short stub that passes for a tail, standing erect as it does, that too at an odd angle, cannot be meaningfully shaken although it is shaken a bit sometimes to ward off insects.

The way the verse is worded clearly brings out not only the uselessness of the goat's tail but the pettiness of most things man regards as great or essential. This verse is almost a commentary on one of Barthruhari's verses which reads: "We do not enjoy the pleasures, the pleasures enjoy us; we are not doing the thapas or rituals, it is the rituals that are using us; we are not spending the time, it is the time that is spending us; we are not getting our desires fulfilled, the desires are using us, (making us useless) ("Vairagya Satakam", verse 7).

One other meaning comes to mind, and that relates to mathematics. The circle is described as a line drawn by a point moving at a constant distance from a fixed point. This distance is the radius. It is possible to imagine the moving point as a fixed point and the fixed point as the moving one, which then apparently draws a circle of the same radius. This concept is useful in tackling many problems as, for instance, in computing the positions of the planets in the sky. The planets actually are circling the sun but as seen from the earth, the sun and other planets seem to be circling the earth. Astronomers first calculate the positions in the orbits around the sun, called the heliocentric positions, and then convert them into the apparent positions as seen from the earth (geocentric). Tenali Rama was an expert in astronomy and astrology as well.


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