Phra Abhai Mani :

A Brief Introduction

By Montri Umavijani

THE poet Sunthorn Phu took more than 20 years to write his masterpiece Phra Abhai Mani. It has often been criticised as being a story without end, written to earn a living. On the one hand, it is the story of the protagonist's strange loves with four women, namely, the Sea Giantess, the Mermaid, the Eastern Princess Suvarnamali, and the Western Princess Laweng.

Interestingly, Phra Abhai Mani had two prodigious sons, Sin Samudr and Sud Sakorn, born of the Sea Giantess and the Mermaid respectively. With the gentle Princess Suvarnamali, he had twin daughters. The charming and cun-ning Princess Laweng bore him an ungrateful and misguided son. Consequently, she repulsed any further amorous advances from Phra Abhai Mani lest they should have another bad child.

On the other hand, Sunthorn Phu's work presents a picture of the world governed by science and technology. There are things anticipating machinegun, ocean liner, aeroplane and technological warfare. The whole work is permeated with things which could be interpreted in technological terms.

In spite of the diversity of stories and interests, the work is held together well thematically. It rests on a new concept of education which Sunthorn Phu believed in and propagated.

At the very beginning, Phra Abhai Mani and his younger brother Sri Suvarna set out to acquire knowledge. The kind of knowledge that was thought fit for princes in Thai stories then was the silpasat, which is equivalent to general knowledge or liberal education. The two Princes took up special studies instead. Phra Abhai Mani mastered the art of music, especially flute-playing, while Sri Suvarna was trained in the art of self-defence, in particular cudgel-fighting. Such specialisations were not known or appreciated then and, as a result, the two Princes were turned out of the kingdom by their own father.

Afterwards, the two Princes met three Brahmins who also professed special sciences. One of them could shoot seven arrows at the same time and make them all hit the mark. They exhibited their special excellences of which Phra Abhai Mani's outshone the rest. At this point, Phra Abhai Mani and Sri Suvarna were separated from each other and had different adventures. But they kept themselves from harm by virtue of their special knowledge. Their lives were also shaped by what they had learnt.

The point about specialisation was actually preached to Sud Sakorn by the wise and powerful Hermit who was his teacher. Being innocent, Sud Sakorn was deceived by the naked fakir who promised to teach him supernatural knowledge. He was then lured to a cliff and pushed off it to die. The Hermit came to his rescue and taught him as follows : "Put not your trust in any mortal, for their wiles are immeasurable. Even the most tortuous creepers round the hoariest tree are not as crooked as a man's heart. True love among mortals is only to be found in the love of a father or mother. The only support you can rely upon is yourself. So you must be careful and wise, my boy. There is no better armour than knowledge, for it is best to know how to keep oneself from harm.

The above statement is at the core of Phra Abhai Mani. At variance are two kinds of education : the education which gets one through and the education which does not get one through. Sunthorn Phu, of course, preferred the former. And this is not opportunism either. In the Buddhist tenets, the knowledge that gets one through even to the Enlightenment or Nirvana is the highest.

The world of Sunthorn Phu's masterpiece is based on this technological concept of education. The characters remain consistent to their specialties and perform their different tasks. It is a world technologically conceived, and operates on a technological basis.

Likewise, when Laweng raised a military alliance to invade the city of Phra Abhai Mani, called Paleuk, she enlisted people of special skills. And in the following Paleuk War, also caused by a woman like the Trojan War, arts were waged against arts and sciences against sciences. The fate of the city hung on a very delicate balance. It was only when the heroes on Phra Abhai Mani's side fought in unison, taking turns to defeat the opponents, that they could finally win the war.

When the war was at its worst, the Hermit miraculously appeared and preached to all parties. He told them that without control of one's desires and without compassion for one's fellow-men, there would be no peace at all in the world, only incessant strife and war. This is a warning to the modern world of technology. The special arts and sciences can easily be used for the total destruction of mankind. The welfare of the world depends not only on the special duties that one performs, but also on the sense of morality that one observes. If the world of technology is a world without love and faith, it will be a world without hope for regeneration,likeT.S.Eliot's"WasteLand." The truth of this hasbeen attested by two long world wars with a brief restless period of peace in between.

The English poet William Wordsworth has made a remark on the function of poetry as follows : "Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge-it is as immortal as the heart of man. If the labours of men of sciences should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the poet will sleep then no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the man of science, not only in those gen-eral indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself."

According to Wordsworth, poetry will have to collaborate with science. Whatever science produces, poetry must humanise. In this respect, Sunthorn Phu has done more than is required of him as a poet. In Phra A bhai Mani, not only has he imagined a world in which science and technology rule, but he has also forestalled any dangers they might cause to the human world.

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