Sunday, February 11, 2007

Two Sanskrit themes in SF

I'm probably the last person to find this out, but in case you didn't know already - the words in Battlestar Galactica's theme tune comprise one of the most famous (and one of the most ancient) Sanskrit mantras, the Gayatri Mantra from the Rig Veda.
You can watch and hear the Battlestar Galactica title sequence on YouTube.

The words are:

There seems to be a multitude of translations for the Gayatri Mantra. Wikipedia gives these four:
Ralph T.H. Griffith
"May we attain that excellent glory of Savitr the God:"
"So may he stimulate our prayers."

Kavikratu Tattva Budh
"Almighty Supreme Sun impel us with your divine brilliance so we may attain a noble understanding of reality."

Gayatri Pariwar
"O God, Thou art the giver of life, the remover of pain and sorrow, the bestower of happiness; O Creator of the Universe, may we receive Thy supreme, sin destroying light; may Thou guide our intellect in the right direction."

William Quan Judge
"Unveil, O Thou who givest sustenance to the Universe, from whom all proceed, to whom all must return, that face of the True Sun now hidden by a vase of golden light, that we may see the truth and do our whole duty on our journey to thy sacred seat."

The translations certainly fit the theme of Battlestar Galactica.

The last time I heard a Sanskrit theme in Science Fiction was the wonderful music that signaled the struggle between dark and light forces in The Phantom Menace. I loved Darth Maul, and the music, called the Duel of the Fates, was tremendous. You can hear a snippet for free here. The words were taken from the ancient Welsh poem, the Cad Goddeu or Battle of the Trees, with which I was familiar, having read Robert Graves' The White Goddess. Ancient Welsh not being enough for Lucas, for some reason, a line was translated into Sanskrit as the lyrics for Duel of the Fates.

Khara Matha Khara Rath Amah
Khara Rath Amah Yuddha Khara
Khara Syada Rath Amah Dai Ya
Khara Ki La Dan Ya
Niha Ki La Khara Rath Amah
Syada Ki La Khara Rath Amah
Khara Dan Ya Khara Rath Amah
Khara Dan Ya Khara Rath Amah
Niha Ki La Khara Rath Amah
Syada Ki La Khara Rath Amah
Khara Matha Khara Rath Amah
Khara Dan Ya Khara Rath Amah
Niha Ki La Khara Rath Amah
Syada Ki La Khara Rath Amah

You can find meanings for each word out on the web, but lining up the meanings with the words sung doesn't really add up to an unambiguous image. The original line (when not in Welsh) was supposed to be "Under the tongue root a fight most dread, and another raging, behind, in the head." The rest of the poem follows:

The Battle of the Trees
translated by Robert Graves

The tops of the beech tree have sprouted of late,
are changed and renewed from their withered state.

When the beech prospers, though spells and litanies
the oak tops entangle, there is hope for trees.

I have plundered the fern, through all secrets I spy,
Old Math ap Mathonwy knew no more than I.

For with nine sorts of faculty God has gifted me,
I am fruit of fruits gathered from nine sorts of tree -

Plum, quince, whortle, mulberry, respberry, pear,
black cherry and white, with the sorb in me share.

From my seat at Fefynedd, a city that is strong,
I watched the trees and green things hastening along.

Retreating from happiness they would fein be set
in forms of the chief letters of the alphabet.

Wayfarers wandered, warriors were dismayed
at renewal of conflicts such as Gwydion made;

Under the tongue root a fight most dread,
and another raging, behind, in the head.

The alders in the front line began the affray.
Willow and rowan-tree were tardy in array.

The holly, dark green, made a resolute stand;
he is armed with many spear-points wounding the hand.

With foot-beat of the swift oak heaven and earth rung;
"Stout Guardian of the Door", his name in every tongue.

Great was the gorse in battle, and the ivy at his prime;
the hazel was arbiter and this charmed time.

Uncouth and savage was the fir, cruel the ash tree -
turns not aside a foot-breadth, straight at the heart runs he.

The birch, though very noble, armed himself but late:
a sign not of cowardice but of high estate.

The heath gave consolation to the toil-spent folk,
the long-enduring poplars in battle much broke.

Some of them were cast away on the field of fight
because of holes torn in them by the enemy's might.

Very wrathful was the vine whose henchmen are the elms;
I exalt him mightily to rulers of realms.

Strong chieftains were the blackthorn with his ill fruit,
the unbeloved whitethorn who wears the same suit.

The swift-pursuing reed, the broom with his brood,
and the furse but ill-behaved until he is subdued.

The dower-scattering yew stood glum at the fight's fringe,
with the elder slow to burn amid fires that singe.

And the blessed wild apple laughing in pride
from the Gorchan of Maeldrew, by the rock side.

In shelter linger privet and woodbine,
inexperienced in warfare, and the courtly pine.

But I, although slighted because I was not big,
Fought, trees, in your array on the field of Goddeu Brig.

To me the single line that Lucas used seems fairly clearly to refer to a Bard's thoughts rather than a physical battle, but I guess it was fighty enough to set the battle between Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi against Darth Maul.

Shame Maul didn't win though.

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