In Memory of Bhanubhakta: The Literary Pioneer

On July 12, 2014:

This year marks the 200th birth anniversary of Bhanubhakta Acharya, the nation's Aadikavi, who led an audacious vision towards whole-heartedly adopting a refreshingly pure tradition of verse composition exclusively in the language of Nepali. While majority of the well-diversified contemporary literary community organizes annual education-oriented programs aimed at discussing his lasting contributions to enriching Nepali literature, a growing section of the literary critics has been unanimous in its blatant censure of Bhanu's provincial point of view towards the notion of gender equality and women's identity in the society. Despite the emergence of substantial evidence supporting the criticism, it is important that the upcoming generation be well-acquainted with his superlative literary contributions and the scope of his stupendous efforts towards glorifying the sublime richness of Nepali language in the historical context.

The inspiring story behind the gradual making of an illustrious poet in Bhanubhakta is of utmost relevance even today. Although having born in a relatively affluent, traditional Brahmin family in the district of Tanahun that cultivated strong religious leanings at a young age, Bhanu fostered a great sense of responsibility towards the society only when he interacted with an industrious grass-cutter. This subsequently sowed the seeds of Bhanu's aspiring writing career in pursuit of genuine dedication towards social well-being and strong desire for posthumous love and recognition. Consequently, he penned a beautiful poem in sheer honor of the grass-cutter's diligence, which later got translated in English as well: "This grass-cutter has opened my eyes today, my life is worthless if memory of my existence fades away."

Bhanubhakta's advent in the Nepali literature was a cornerstone of the changing Nepali society severely afflicted with the ignominious Anglo defeat, and starkly divided on opinions post two year-long war. Under these strained circumstances, his masterpiece, Bhanubhakte Ramayan, that he toiled for 24 years to translate from Sanskrit to Nepali united the frustratingly diverse minds of the Nepali people. A fair amount of hard work he put in to translate the Hindu epic occurred even behind the bars, when he spent few months in the prison battling corruption charges. While in the prison, he wrote multiple poems, including a well-renowned verse from his letter for the Prime Minister detailing out his inner frustrations and false accusations: "Many tomorrows passed. Please fill this empty bag of mine, I beg." Instead of the court that continually kept delaying the legal process, Bhanu's petition in the form of a poetic letter earned him a major win: the corruption allegation turned out to be a flagrant error.

In spite of his immense contributions to the Nepali literature, the growing minority of literary critics have recently denounced Bhanubakta's writing in Badhu Sikshya as inherently backward, questioning his sexist viewpoint against the characterization of women and their stable path towards empowerment and liberty. Some of the notable verses suggest his absolute support for male polygamy, child marriage and Sathi-Pratha. More importantly, one of his lines in Badhu Sikshya imply that women should be deprived of the freedom to smile whole-heartedly, thus giving rise to vehement hostility among the young readers today. While these well-grounded accusatory remarks are undeniably valid, it is important to understand the context under which these ideas were presented.

The incessant assessment on Bhanubhakta's provincial outlook in some of his compositions, however, sheds profound insights on deep-rooted superstitious beliefs prevalent among the Nepali households more than hundred and fifty years ago. Specifically, it is important to delve into the male-dominated context under which Badhu-Sikshya was written, including Bhanu's unfortunate experience with the household: lack of hospitality he faced while requesting to stay for the night, and the constant bickering he witnessed among the in-laws and the male in the house.

Even today, wayfarers and guests are considered different forms of the god, according to the Nepali culture. While outright cultural dissidence he observed in the household motivated him to write Badhu-Sikshya, it is worth noting that the lessons imparted in the book were aimed at women of the ancient Nepali era. At a time when we are continuously striving for nationwide gender equality, Bhanubhakta's literary career should be evaluated more on the subtle richness, great simplicity and elaborate beauty of his writing, and less on his viewpoint inherently shaped by the environment he lived in.

Despite the prominence of posthumous accolades for his insurmountable role in the Nepali literature, the government has, however, resorted to commemorating Bhanubhakta solely with bombastic remarks and vague promises. The government's lack of strong interest to renovate his ancestral house that still lays empty and dilapidated within the 60 hectares-wide area of Bhanu Community Forest Committee (BCFC) is a case in point. In spite of the annual government budget provision, Bhanu Birthplace Development Committee (BBDC) appears to have made inconsequential progress in the entire renovation process, thus questioning the state's commitment towards preserving the history of the literary pioneer. This necessitates that governmental course of action goes beyond performing little pent up work and partial renovation solely during anniversaries.

In conclusion, Bhanubhakta has rightfully earned the title of Aadikavi, mostly based on the general consensus of the Nepalese population. Although Motiram Bhatta vigorously advocated to give Bhanu the due he deserved and Juddha Samsher later tacitly agreed on the title, it was never deemed completely official. Yet, Bhanu's global appeal and the magical aura evident from his simple, yet elegant writing rests in the bastion of universal love he received all over Nepal, eastern India and Bhutan. While this substantially adds to his credibility as a poet, what's clearly missing is the government's active work towards preserving his old heritage.

As the new generation has increasingly shifted interest towards the English literature, it behooves the government to lead a path of cultivating a vibrant culture on enhancing literary well-being. This includes expanding the readership of Nepali literary pioneers and preserving the old heritage to encourage extensive research among aspiring students. This is the only way towards dignifying our genuine love and respect for Bhanubhakta Acharya, the hallmark of Nepali literature.