Romantic Love: Tristan and Iseult via Sunil Gangopadhyaya

Just got off the train from Rishikesh, stopped at the FRRO in Mathura and made it back to the house feeling energetic. But the weather is quite different. Rishikesh has been rainy, and when not raining, overcast and cool even though humid. Here it is hot and humid, but no real signs of rain anywhere.

In Rishikesh I did a lot of reading, but really stopped all my productive activities just for that, with perhaps only the exception of two classes in the Bhagavad-gita (Here is one.)

I gave the two lectures mostly standing up, as though I was giving a talk on TED, or a Western style sales talk. It always comes out a bit rajasika. Can't give up my nature. I would love to be more sweet and charming. I would like to be more meditative, to create an atmosphere of calmness and love. The sadhu magic.

But overall I was quite happy with my two classes in Rishikesh. Yogis make good listeners. They know how to be still and attentive. That is why all the musicians usually like to give concerts there. The audience may be small, but they give honor to the artist.


It would be easy to juxtapose the three books that I read quite easily. One is Kunja Keli by Radha Baba, a couple of translated excerpts of which I have already published on-line. I am going through slowly, primarily to accumulate Hindi vocabulary and story-telling technique.

Lately I have been reading the Hindi and Bengali with a little more attention to the "how" it is said rather than the "what". I don't know why I have this mania about wanting to be able to tell these stories in Hindi or Bengali and to do it well. I doubt that I will ever be able to do so in these languages. I will always most likely try to replicate what I do in English and kind of mentally translate as I go. But still that is what I am thinking. It would be better if I could replicate this Hindi/Bengali/Sanskrit in English. But it always comes out like the Gita class recording. A lot depends on the audience, but you have to have the intention to do one thing rather than the other. Rasa rather than siddhanta.

I may have mentioned that it is one of my life’s ambitions to master Hindi and Bengali as a public speaker. Actually, my prayer is that I will one day be able to glorify Srimati Radharani effectively in these languages, as well as of course in English.

I may also have told the story that once I was told by a Bengali Goswami that I would NEVER master these languages in the way that native speakers have, and so in fact would never achieve my goals in the Indian languages. And so I should restrict myself to my own mother tongue and do the best I could in that. The only reason that I have this foolish attachment comes from a samskara that was rooted in me already at the time of my Iskcon days, when I heard Srila Prabhupada say or write that his guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati once said that people from all over the world would learn Bengali just to relish the Chaitanya Charitamrita. And, indeed, Chaitanya Charitamrita is still my “desert island” book because it really seems to have everything.

Well, dreams are to be aspired to. This ambition has not been fulfilled as Radharani has so far deemed that no one should hear her glories from me, except in this empty, stabbing into cyberspace manner. But no matter, in this life or the next, I stick to the ambition. And, as a second best, talk about other aspects of spiritual life, too. What I like about Radha Baba is his minutia, his detailed description. In some ways, it is not really so different from Govinda-lilamrita, though he has imagined a great deal of original lila, but it is in his descriptions of the tiny things that I am trying to make some headway.

One way it does differ is in its deliberate avoidance of all erotica. To the extent that Radha and Krishna’s love is nearly all words and glances. I may have more to say about that later.


I will definitely have more to say about C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves which I have read several times now and which I have begun diaries on this site on more than one occasion. Indeed, a blog will come out of it, but I want to read it yet again. Lewis divides “love” into four basic types, affection, friendship, eros and caritas. The last could be called “love of God.” His basic premise is that all love is good, until it becomes a “god” in itself at which time it turns into a “demon.” “God is love” is a true statement, but for Lewis, “Love is God” is erroneous. He quotes Thomas à Kempis, who said “The highest does not stand without the lowest,” in order to validate all the natural loves, including eros, but without being informed by a Divine Love (charity) they all induce one into error. The book is dense with interesting insights and wide-ranging literary references that are worthy of deeper discussion. I feel once again that it definitely sheds light on the subject which interests me and so I shall return to it sooner rather than later.


For a change of taste, I started reading a Bengali book, which I enjoyed. It is Sunil Gangopadhyaya’s (Bengali) Sonālī Duḥkha, which is his own original version of the medieval romantic classic, Tristan and Isolde. Gangopadhyaya is one of Bengal’s leading novelists and authors. This novella first appeared in 1965 and I dare say helped make his reputation. Gangopadhyaya is a pleasant writer, fluid and simple (prāñjala) and a good story-teller. Near the end of the book, he makes himself out to be a romantic when he gives a little self-identification, or one who believes that love is more than knowledge.

He has also done a rewrite of the Radha-Krishna story, which will eventually merit a review on these pages, especially since I have now finished going through Chandi Das’s Śrī-kṛṣṇa-kīrtana.

Gangopadhyaya researched several versions of the story with the help of Marguerite Mathieu in order to come up with his own version. But it was fortuitous that I read it, since Lewis himself brushes past Tristan and Iseult as examples of romantic love. In a brief comment at the end of the book, he remarks on one point of similarity between this story and Radha-Krishna (as told by Chandi Das), in that the beloved in each of these cases of illicit love is the wife of the hero’s maternal uncle. I don’t think too much should be made of that point of intersection, but the power of the parakīyā mood and the inherent tragedy of that illicitness run through both stories when told in their unabridged forms. There is no reason to think that the medieval mind was not predisposed to tragedy, especially where the ideas of natural love and its power to create disruption in friendship, society and one’s own personal life seem overwhelming. Gangopadhyaya summarizes, “There is no life without love, but there is no love without unhappiness.”

It has been a long time since I read the story of Tristan and Iseult through, and I think the one I read was a turgid translation of the old French or whatever language the original is in. I don't recall enjoying it, for all that it is one of the most famous love stories of all time. This one is also written in the spirit of a bard speaking to a courtly audience of nobles and kings.

Tristan and Iseult has all the required elements: A hero who defies the odds, noble, demon and dragon slayer, loyal to his uncle, King Mark. Iseult is the niece of the demon he killed to save his uncle’s kingdom, but he comes and wins her not for himself, but for his childless uncle. The plot thickens when the love potion that was intended for Iseult and the king is mistakenly drunk by her and Tristan. But the potion has done its magic and the two are now destined to remain helplessly and tragically in love for the rest of their days. She still has to marry the king, but the two lovers carry on with their affair until finally they are caught and the angry king decides to burn the two of them at the stake.

The two escape into the forest and live a primitive life of exile, with more than one reminder of that portion the Ramayana--including a golden deer that Iseult asks Tristan to capture for her. After being frustrated in that effort, Tristan returns unwell and falls asleep with his sword beside him. When Iseult also rests, they have the sword between them. It is in this state of deep sleep that they are discovered by the king, who almost kills them then and there, but seeing their chaste posture has a change of heart and exchanges his sword for Tristan's and his ring for Iseult's.

They have been wandering in the forest together, expelled from the king's court and fugitives, suffering poverty and ostracism and the ever present danger of death, and finally they come to a big decision for each other's sake. Tristan sees Iseult suffering in poverty and thinks, "She was meant to be a queen and not live a life like this," so he takes this opportunity to brings her back to King Mark and ask him to forgive her. The lovers make some pretense that everything had been purely platonic and that any accusations of an erotic relationship were false. Iseult also thinks something similar about Tristan, that he was meant for glory and this notoriety would ruin his life. King Mark does choose to accept Iseult, but Tristan is obliged to go into permanent exile.

Of course, they could have gone to another country, even returning to the land of his birth where he would have been accepted with open arms, but somehow that idea did not get any play. So, it is like they decided to make things more miserable for themselves. It might even be said that they had an attack of faintness of heart, a lack of faith in their "religion of love", where love itself stands even beyond loyalties and religious principles.

Here again there is an incident that reminds us of the Ramayana. The people ask Mark to make Iseult undergo an ordeal fire to verify her chastity. By a small trick, she passes the test and is accepted again as the queen of Cornwall. The fires of love, however, do not stop burning in their separation.

Tristan wanders the world in a kind of miasma of hopeless loss, doomed to unhappy heroism, ever pining for Iseult, suspicious that she has found contentment without him. Finally, after one heroic adventure, he marries a princess somewhat against his will. He lives with this princess (also named Iseult) chastely, never even touching her. Though his wife loves him, she finds his behavior strange and even insulting.

One day, Tristan is pierced by a poison sword. He becomes progressively ill and finally tells his friend and brother-in-law to bring Iseult as she is the only one who can possibly cure him. As he does so, he recounts the entire story of his love to his brother-in-law. Since it will take a fortnight for him to return and Tristan will be hanging onto life by a thread, he asks him to signal from afar by showing either a white or black sail to indicate whether or not Iseult has returned with him.

Meanwhile, Tristan's wife is eavesdropping and mortified and enraged to hear that Tristan loves someone else. When the time comes, she spitefully lies about the color of the sail to Tristan who then gives up all hope and dies. When Iseult arrives shortly afterward, she falls into her lover's arms and dies along with him.

The parakiya rasa elements are of course interesting, the blameless innocence -- love is the result of an accidental drinking of a potion, and though the two are perfect for each other, it makes both of them overcome their commitments, their loyalties, their honor, etc., for the sake of love.

So Tristan and Iseult's story ends with their tragic death in each other's arms. Was such a tragic end necessary? The story is often seen as the origin of the romantic ideal in European culture. A "religion of love" where love is God, not God love. And this is what C.S. Lewis is arguing against. You can't make Love the God without having the sense that it is God that is Love, not the other way around. This is the idolization of Eros. Perhaps the medieval authors of all societies, whether European, Indian or Arab, could not tell their stories of love without giving them tragic overtones, without at once stressing the power of love as stronger than any social restraint, and yet doomed to being crushed by the weight of religion, society and obligation.

In Chandidas, Radha is so in love with Krishna at the end, but you still have to wonder, how could a comparable situation have been resolved in the real life context of medieval Bengal? How could Radha and Krishna have possibly come together? In Gopala-campu, Jiva Goswami has to invent an elaborate event in which goddesses descend to announce the truth: that the gopas were never married to real women, and that they had never touched them, and that they were in truth always destined to be Krishna's wives. Since they were non-envious, Krishna was left free to marry Radha and the rest.

Chandidas himself downplays the impossibility of it all. Like Tristan and Iseult, the only possibility would be in running away, going to some other country like the woman Maitreyi talks about in her book (Na hanyate), a relative who dumped her husband and ran off with a man she loved, creating a new life in some other part of India. It can be done if you want. Omnia vincit amor! But all these authors seem to be somewhat ambivalent about their religion of love, which only ends in death and the misery of separation.

Lewis talks about a middle way between the “debunkers” of the natural loves and their idolaters. He places himself against the 19th century romantics who put love on a pedestal as a part of their “nature religion,” but at the same time he has no place for the Stoics and others who would harden their hearts to all human relations. For him, since there is "no higher without the lower" the glory of erotic love can be fulfilled if it is harmonized with the Divine Love, but on its own it is doomed. So we will have to discuss Lewis in more depth, which I shall do shortly.


ramachandra said…
why ar you unable to imagine lord krishna in enjoying same gender sexual relationships....infact to really appreciate his eterenal adoloscant beauty it may be extremely usefull to have a homosexual identity..........who esle can be so entranced by his eternal youthfull beauty unless u have such an orientation

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