Confluence between Prudential Hedonism and Utter Asceticism in Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala’s Sumnima

Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala, aside from one of the charismatic democratic leaders in Nepali politics, is a renowned writer in Nepali literature. As a prolific writer, he has made a great contribution in the field of literature through his short stories, novels, and poems. His all writings have received critical attention from the very outset of their publication by host of scholars and critics both from home and abroad. His following brainy quotes are thought-provoking ones.

  • I am a socialist in politics and an anarchist in literature.
  • In literature even the emperor is naked.
  • Nationalism is not the territories of the nation but the power of its people.
  • Man cannot live by bread alone. 

Among host of other brainy quotes by Koirala, these particularly have enthralled the mind of conscious citizens and the intellectual community across the globe. They also reflect the true character of Koirala as an intellectual par excellence both in politics and literature.

writer : File photo

This article makes an attempt to explore the idea of prudential hedonism and utter asceticism in Koirala’s magnum opusSumnima, which has been widely discussed and debated among the critics and scholars. This is an ideologically-driven novel in which the main characters, Somdatta and Sumnima represent Aryan ideology and Kirati ideology respectively. One gives privilege to asceticism while the other gives premium to hedonism. Sumnima is guided by pleasure-seeking tendency, who frequently talk about bodily pleasure without any hitch whereas Somdatta regards bodily pleasure as sin and he is on the road to suspend his sensory pleasure under Aryan ideology to achieve divinity through utter penance. These two ideologies undergo with the sense of hostility in the beginning. However, through their continuous collusion there is a unique confluence between the otherwise polar-opposite ideologies at the end. Before delving deep into the text, it is imperative to discuss about hedonism and asceticism.

The term ‘hedonism’ is taken from a Greek word, ‘hedone’ that refers to pleasure. In modern literature, however, it is used as non-philosophical and philosophical ways. Non-philosophically speaking, hedonist is a person who seeks out pleasure for himself or herself without thinking rationally about their own future well-being, or for the well-being of others. They are not even concerned about the consequences. They just tend to enjoy life at its fullest to derive pleasure. Philosophers also take this as folk hedonism which is exclusively concerned with deriving pleasure without thinking potential consequences. By the same token, philosophical definition of hedonism is guided by its value. Value hedonism holds the belief that despite the fact that happiness is not possible for all, everyone should aim to achieve as much pleasure as possible in one’s life. In other words, this school of thought argues that all and only pleasure is fundamentally valuable and all and only pain is fundamentally not valuable.

In the same vein, hedonistic utilitarianism argues that unless pleasure is gained through making others feel pain, it is not pleasure at all. This school of thought does not give any room to ethics and morality.  It is criticized as sadistic pleasure and is not recommendable by philosophers. In the same way, motivational hedonism claims that human behaviors are consciously and unconsciously guided by pleasure-seeking and pain-averting tendency while hedonistic egoism drives people to achieve pleasure at whatever cost, even if it means hurting others. This line of thought asserts that one should get pleasure at any cost disregarding others.

Having discussed different types of hedonistic ideas and ideals, this article invokes J.S. Mill’s theory of prudential hedonism that focuses on the quality of the pleasure, rather than the amount of it.  It is also discussed as qualitative hedonism, which strongly holds the belief that only pleasure intrinsically contributes positively to well-being. This school of thought is primarily concerned with deriving pleasure putting all evil tendencies of a person at bay. Enjoying life without inflicting agony to other is a fundamental logic of prudential hedonism. 

Asceticism, on the other hand, is a term taken from Greek word ‘askesis’ that means “to exercise,” or “to train” with a view to renouncing so-called worldly pleasure to reach to the pinnacle of spiritualism. Hindu tends to practice it to control mind and body withdrawing the sense, practicing yoga of self control, inner purity, proper conduct and renunciation. They involve in host of ritual practices in order to get rid of the bondage of the vicious cycle of life and death paving a glorious path to eternity. In this sense, the true votaries of Hinduism are expected to abstain themselves from all kinds of worldly pleasure assimilating the idea that they are full of illusion and deception that block the eternal journey to divinity.

This article focuses on the protagonists of the novel, Somdatta and Sumnima, who are the ardent pursuers of  asceticism and prudential hedonism. Somdatta being  a devout Hindu simply practices the Hindu rituals and he flatly denies physical pleasure thinking that it is a poison. He conforms with Hindu value system in such a way that he  disregards youthful desire and bodily pleasure. By leaving hermitage, he involves in the act of doing penance so as to control his senssory perceptions. He is lean and thin. The pleasure of any kind is impediment for his ascetic life. He remains untouched by the youthful hue of Sumnima. When she makes an attempt to attach with him, he is shrugged. He lets his body undergo with trial, trouble and tribulation just for emancipation from the bondage of sensory pleasure. As an ardent  Hindu, he simply involves in sexual act for procreation and that too, is to beget a son as a sucessor.  He even becomes unsuccesful to conceive his wife. In the novel, Somdatta is in ambivalent situation, which stops him from taking the decision either to go to the line of Sumnima to enjoy pleasure in life or suspend all sensory organs. Because of his dilly-dallying attiude, he has invited his own trouble. Later on, neither he can follow the Aryan cult of life nor can he adopt Kirati cult of life. He simply becomes confused and confined suffering silently. 

Sumnima, on the contrary, is leading a happy life who gives privilage to body. She holds the belief that one should not  give pain to body as body is to enjoy pleasure. She is guided by prudential hedonism as she believes in getting pleasure to satisfy oneslef and be happy in life without harming others. Human beings should live like humans not like gods. As a Kirati girl, she knows well that the earth itself is pleasant and one should be pragmatic to enjoy life at present as the future is unknown terrain. She does not find Somdatta reading and chanting slokas from Upanishads to have a son as down to earth. Even after ceaseless efforts to beget a son by applying Hindu rigid rituals, Somdatta ramains unsuccessful. This leads him in despondent and frustrated mood. The root cause of his being frustrated is the so-called impractical method of  ritual sex. Sumnima attempts to make Somdatta practical from the beginning so that he will not self-turture his body and enjoy this life practically but of no use. Sumnima’s this idea reminds us of the famous line of Victorian poet, Robert Browining in his “Pipa’s Song”:

God’s in His heaven –

All’s right with the world!

As a victorian optimist, Browning does not hesitate to be practical and enjoy this life by saying that god is in the heaven, he is not less happier than god on this earth. It shows how life is to get pleasure and enjoy it without any complaint. After being unsuccessful in begetting a son following Hindu ritual, Somdatta succumbs to Bijuwa, the father of Sumnima. As per the guidence of her father, Sumnima takes Somdatta to dive into Manuwadaha and masages his body with oil and other herbal items. She makes him disguised in the form of Bhilla with different attires. She then gives him a gentle kiss to arouse sexul urge in him. After that Somdatta involves in the act of passionate and sensuous sex with Puloma in disguised form. This not only gives him immense pleasure but also helps beget the son. Somdatta as a practitioner of Hindu asceticism holding holy books taking recourse to  bodily pleasure reminds us of Omar Khayyám, a hedonistic poet of  Persia and his famous lines:

A book of verses underneath the bough
A flask of wine, a loaf of bread and thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness
And wilderness is paradise now.

These lines give the greatest premium to reading books, eating and drinking and dancing that can lead one to extreme pleasure and that will be the heavenly pleasure. In the mentioned novel, Somdatta finally has to take refuge into practical life of enjoying pleasure at the cost of self-torturing and utter disciplined life dictated by Hinduism. These lines also remind us of the idea of Indian writer, Khushwant Singh, who in an interview in BBC once said that in order to lead this life happily one needs “sex, scotch and scholarship”. This idea of Singh is also in the line of seeking pleasure through reading, drinking and making love. In Kirati culture, the act of eating, drinking and merry-making in the community is very common whereas they are supposed to be a far cry in Aryan culture. Aryan culture is guided by reading holy books and assimilating them into practical life. Somdatta, who is seen all the time reading holy books finally takes recourse to bodily pleasure and thus becomes delighted. In the novel, Koirala has intensely dramatized the fusion of hedonism and asceticism through their constant conflict and conglomeration. The writer has shown Somdatta being succumbed to Sumnima and her father’s idea of enjoying life through sensory pleasure. He has also shown the cultural assimilation through the textual reference of Sumnima upbringing Somdatta’s son and giving her daughter’s hand to him.

To cut the entire matter short, one can safely say that Sumnima craftily dramatizes the confluence between prudential hedonism and utter asceticism through the protagonists, Sumnima and Somdatta, who represent Kirati and Aryan culture, two polar-opposite ones: one gives privilege to heart, pleasure and pragmatism and the other gives premium to self- denial, asceticism and rationalism. In the beginning of the novel, these are seen as hostile forces but when the plot proceeds with continuous tussle and tension, these opposite ideas come to the compromising point with give-and-take relationship. This finally leads to the unique confluence between prudential hedonism and utter asceticism. By doing so, Koirala seems to be trying to inculcate the idea that through the distinct admixture of mind and body, hedonism and self-denial, rationalism and pragmatism, human life becomes healthy, wholesome and productive. Through this novel, Koirala also wants to express and expose the idea that assimilation of cultural diversities leads to communal harmony which has been the immediate demand in the contemporary world.

The writer is associated to Nepal Sanskrit university, Balmeeki Campus, Kathmandu, Nepal ([email protected])

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