Chronicle of Higher Education, 00095982, 3/3/2006, Vol. 52, Issue 26

When I was young and amorous, I fell in love with Sanskrit. I was unworthy, and I left it, but I don't regret our meeting. It was a glorious and passionate affair.

I first met Sanskrit at the end of The Waste Land, reciting with Eliot “Datta,” “Dayadhvam,” “Damyata” (“give,” “sympathize,” “control”) and “Shantih shantih shantih” (“peace peace peace”). I picked up the mantra “Om” from Hesse’s Siddhartha and discovered “karuna” (“compassion”) on Aldous Huxley’s utopian Island. I saw that Sanskrit was smart, sophisticated, and out of my league. Yet I dared to hope.

Sanskrit has long had a starry reputation. Schopenhauer vaunted the Vedas and Upanishads, Nietzsche the Laws of Manu. Emerson was carried away by the Bhagavad-Gita. I respected those guys but noted that they had been dependent on translations. I had to wonder: What about Sanskrit itself? What did it sound like? How did it feel on the lips and tongue?

Hard to get, is what it is, and well protected. Its standard alphabet is a thicket of characters and ligatures. The literature is so phonic that words change spelling to adapt to sounds that come before and after. Nouns compound into words a line long. Ten classes of verbs throw off showers of participles.

Difficulty was one of Sanskrit’s attractions for me. In 1974 it lured me and 11 other undergraduate and graduate students to a seminar table at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, eager to get closer to it. In a week we were 10; in two weeks, six and faltering. Some lost heart at irregular conjugations, others were sunk by syntax, and one decided that his heart belonged to Japanese. By the time we finished simple fables, our dozen was down to three.

We left flirtation far behind with Vedic, the most ancient Sanskrit, 4,000 years old. We worked through the Soma hymns of the Rig Veda, as if our souls depended on it. Soma was a god, who lived in a drink of the same name that gave worshipers visions (the ancestor of the soma of Huxley’s Brave New World). We parsed, translated, and drank beer, lots of beer, trying every trick to relive old-time religion.

The next spring, we leaped forward to a 12th-century AD erotic epic poem: Jaya-deva’s Gita Govinda. Here was Krishna, another incarnation of the diety Vishnu, divinely sensual, in love with Radha:

Punish me, lovely fool!
Bite me with your cruel teeth!
Chain me with your creeper arms!
Crush me with your hard breasts!
Angry goddess, don't weaken with joy!

Still, devotion flickered, and I strayed - because I could court Sanskrit literature faster through translation. I grew dependent, like Nietzsche and Emerson.

My own avatar appeared at just the right time: In 1973 the University of Chicago Press began to publish a complete translation of the magnificent Sanskrit epic Vyasa’s Mahabharata. Volume 2 appeared in 1975, Volume 3 in 1978. Wendy Doniger brought out her selection of hymns, The Rig Veda: An Anthology, with Penguin in 1981. In 1984 Princeton University Press commenced a translation (still in progress, with the latest volume translated by Robert P. Goldman and Sally J. Sutherland Goldman) of the other great Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana of Valmiki.

I might as well admit that deep down I still love Sanskrit. I have long consoled myself that further translations will eventually reconcile us. Now, it seems, love is once more within my grasp.

Late last year, New York University Press launched the Clay Sanskrit Library, now at 15 volumes. The library bears the name of its guiding genius and financier, John Clay, a scholar-millionaire who studied Sanskrit at the University of Oxford, graduated with honors, then made a fortune by investing in Japan when Japanese business was moving into high-end engineering. In November 1999, Clay contacted Richard Gombrich, a professor emeritus of Sanskrit at Oxford, and proposed that they undertake a tremendous project. He envisioned 100 handsome books, every one a fresh translation of a Sanskrit classic. Clay wanted affordable editions that could be read with pleasure. Gombrich, who loved the idea, is now general editor of the series.

What James Loeb did for the Latin and Greek classics, Clay intends to do for Sanskrit. “There’s a new Bhagavad Gita every two weeks,” Doniger told me, but the Clay series is “big news.” The eminent Sanskrit scholar Sheldon I. Pollock told me that it is “the most important development in the popularization of Sanskrit studies in the West since their inception two centuries ago.” Doniger has signed on to translate Harsha’s plays; Pollock, who translated two volumes of the Princeton Ramayana, will contribute five volumes of other works. Clay and Gombrich have further enlisted other notable translators from Europe, Australia, and North America.

The 15 volumes out to date lure like Loeb’s, with translations that tempt you to try the originals. The Sanskrit text appears on the left page and an English translation on the right. To help matters further, the Sanskrit texts in the Clay books are accented and transliterated, and show word and compound divisions. The books line up on my shelf like bright Bodhisattvas ready to take tough questions or keep quiet company. They stake out a vast territory, with works from two millennia in multiple genres: aphorism, lyric, epic, theater, and romance.

Why care about Sanskrit literature? It is candid about sex, appreciates the power of money, and confronts the duplicities of war and religion. Its indispensable word is “dharma” - duty, calling, or moral law. It is boisterous and fantastic, like the novels of John Barth, who has been praising Sanskrit fiction for decades.

The Clay volumes will soon include three fifth-century works by Kalidasa, the most celebrated of Sanskrit poets. The first, already out, is his long poem, The Birth of Kumara (translated by David Smith), a court epic in which the war god Kumara is not yet born but is anticipated in the meeting and wedding of his parents, Uma and Shiva. Love, ascetism, eroticism, and spirituality all come together. Due soon are the shorter poem “The Cloud Messenger” (translated by Sir James Mallinson), which delves into the many moods of love, and the play The Recognition of Shakuntala (translated by Somadeva Vasudeva), which presents the wooing of a modest young woman by a mighty king.

Isabelle Onians gives us especially good notes, the better for being plentiful. Her volume is Dandin’s What Ten Young Men Did, an adventure book. A teenage prince suddenly disappears, and his nine friends scatter in all directions to look for him. When they reunite, each has an amazing story to tell. Mantra-Gupta, for example, recounts persuading a foolish old king to bathe in a lake to make himself young and handsome; then the youth kills the king and takes his place. Dharma is one thing, but success another.

Vasudeva’s translation of Kshemendra’s The Grace of Guile (in the volume Three Satires) gives early proof that the Clay series will introduce works seldom seen on lists of Sanskrit classics. In this strange manual, Muladeva, a master thief, is hired to teach a young man how to get ahead. The first lesson is sanctimony; the second, greed; and so on through depravity, deception, and quackery. Only after those can virtue be appreciatively taught.

The series also amply demonstrates that Sanskrit literature allows imagination to range. For an early sighting of a flying machine, look to the translation of Budhasvamin’s The Emperor of the Sorcerers, translated by Mallinson.

Other books introduce portions of the Sanskrit epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The volumes of the Ramayana are reprinted under license from Princeton, which has itself announced but not yet scheduled three more volumes. At roughly half the price, the Clay volumes - so far Ramayana Book One: Boyhood (translated by Robert P. Goldman), Ramayana Book Two: Ayodhya (translated by Pollock), and Ramayana Book Four: Kishkindha (translated by Rosalind Lefeber) - are more likely to lure the shy. A fourth volume is due out soon.

The Mahabharata is very deep and very long - longer than the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Thebaid, Beowulf, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and even The Da Vinci Code combined. It has been often abridged and retold, and translated into English more or less in its entirety twice before, in the 19th century, first by K.M. Ganguli and then by M.N. Dutt. But for the aspiring lover, those translations can baffle as much as the Sanskrit original.

Clay approached Chicago to license its translations of the Mahabharata, but Chicago declined. So Clay began his own. His Mahabharata starts in the middle of things, with the last quarter of the third book of the epic’s 18 books. It is an inspired choice. Translated by William J. Johnson, the volume contains four distinct episodes, each important within the epic’s internal machinery, and indicative of the boggling variety of Sanskrit literature. Here are the stories of Savitri, who brought her husband back from the dead; the virgin birth of Karna, son of the Sun; the trial-by-riddle of Prince Yudhisthira; and the Mahabharata’s capsule version of the Ramayana.

Meanwhile Chicago is pressing ahead with its translations. The Chicago Mahabharata began in 1973 as a project of J.A.B. van Buitenen, who proposed to translate all of it himself. He completed only five of the 18 books before he died, and the project stalled. Now a student of his, James L. Fitzgerald, has taken over the project. In 2004 he brought out a volume containing The Book of the Women and the first part of The Book of Peace, 850 pages of painstaking scholarship and fine-tuned translation. He has also lined up commitments from his own distinguished team to translate the remaining volumes.

Which Mahabharata will finish first? Fitzgerald hopes that the Chicago set will be complete by 2012. Clay and NYU hope to beat that by two years. The Chicago set will have 10 copiously annotated volumes; the editors of the Clay series estimate that their set will need 32 compact volumes. The two projects are thus very different.

In the last pages of “What is a Classic?,” Sainte-Beuve imagined literary paradise. He saw Virgil, Horace, Montaigne, and others conversing on a hill, while Voltaire paced about impatiently. First among them all was Homer, “likest a god”; with him were Vyasa and Valmiki, the legendary authors of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, “so long ignored by us.” Today excuses for ignorance are fast disappearing.

As with true love, the seductions of Sanskrit do not fade with time. I still thrill at the pleasures that Sanskrit literature gives me. If you are looking for new passion, try something old. Sanskrit literature is coming to us in splendor.

A Selection of Recent translations from Sanskrit

The Birth of Kumara, translated by David Smith (Clay Sanskrit Library, New York University Press, 2005)

The first volume of translations of the poems of Kalidasa.

The Mahabharata, Volume 7, edited and translated by James L. Fitzgerald (University of Chicago Press, 2004)

This volume resurrects of Chicago edition of Vyasa’s Mahabharata, begun in 1973 but dormant since 1981.

In addition, the Clay Sanskrit Library has begun its own translations of the Mahabharata, starting in the middle with Book Three, translated by William J. Johnson, and Book Nine, translated by Justin Meiland (Clay Sanskrit Library, New York University Press, 2005).

The Ramayana, Book One, edited and translated by Robert P. Goldman; Book Two, edited and translated by Sheldon I. Pollock; Book Four, edited and translated by Rosalind Lefeber (Clay Sanskrit Library, New York University Press, 2005)

This translation of the first parts of India’s most beloved epic, by Valmiki, is licensed from the Princeton University Press and also includes the transliterated Sanskrit text.

The Rig Veda: An Anthology: One Hundred and Eight Hymns, translated and annotated by Wendy Doniger (Penguin Books, 1981)

Doniger’s well-annotated translation of selected hymns gives a good idea of the Rig Veda, the tarproot of Sanskrit literature. Penguin Classics has brought out a 2005 selection of her translations, The rig Veda.

What Ten Young Men Did, edited and translated by Isabelle Onians (Clay Sanskrit Library, 2005)
The story by Dandin (sixth to seventh century) is a romp and indicative of Sanskrit fiction, in which hard facts and unfettered fantasy take turns.

About the Author
Willis G. Regier is director of the University of Illinois Press. He is editor of Book of the Sphinx (University of Nebraska Press, 2004) and of Masterpieces of American Indian Literature (re-issued by the University of Nebraska Press, 2005).
Clay Sanskrit LibraryNYU Press© 2005-2017 The Clay Sanskrit Library.
Co-published by New York University Press and the JJC Foundation.