An arrow shot by an archer
or a poem made by a poet
should cut through your heart,
jolting the head.
If it doesn’t, it’s no arrow,
it’s no poem.
The poet is Nannecoda, the time is the late 10th or early 11th century, the language is Telugu, I think, but Sanskrit scholar David Shulman uses this poem to describe classical Sanskrit literature. The poem can be found in this review of the Clay Sanskrit Library in The New Republic.
The Clay Sanskrit Library is an ongoing series of translations of classical Sanskrit literature, with 41 volumes published since they started three years ago. The two centers of the series are the great early epics, the Ramayana (which will fill 8 volumes) and the Mahabharata which requires 32. 32! There has never been a complete Mahabharata in English, and Shulman says that “the Indian tradition tells us that the text is so powerful, and potentially so destructive, that is positively dangerous to attempt to translate it, or even to read it, from beginning to end.” They’ve got 13 volumes done now, so wish them luck.
Shulman could hardly be more enthusiastic about having these works available in English. He admits that most past English translations of classical Sanskrit books are terrible, sometimes close to unreadable (like “Shall I set in motion moist breezes by (means of ) cool lotus-leaf-fans which removed languor?”). He has some criticisms of the CSL series, but for the most part he thinks that English readers now have a way in to a difficult but rewarding literature.
The updated versions of the playwright Kalidasa seem like must-reads to me, especially Goethe’s favorite The Recognition of Shakuntala. But there is also a long list of works that are new to me, and although Shulman does not literally recommend them all, his advice is to just dig in. He even recommends reading chronolgically, using Sheldon Pollock’s The Language of the Gods in the World of Men as an overview. This is my kind of review - useful.
The Clay Sanskrit Library would make a great blog project, hint hint. Who wants to blog the Mahabharata? You will have at least one reader, I promise. This will not be my project, no no no, since I have publicly declared that I will read Asian literature non-neurotically. I’ll just check the library, dip in, and see what’s what.
I’ve read the William Buck adaptation of the Mahabharata and the R. K. Narayan Ramayana, both of which reduce the huge mass of poetic material to fast-moving stories in 300 pages or so of prose. These are both wonderful books. The Mahabharata is akin to, roughly, a Homeric epic, while the Ramayana, with its beloved monkey god Hanuman, is more of a mythological story. I can hardly imagine, though, what the originals must be like. The Clay Sanskrit Library Mahabharata, for example, will be somewhere around 10,000 pages in English.
A friend who grew up in India has told me that although everyone knows the stories of the two great epics, it is typically through comic books or movies. The comic books often emphasize specific ethical lessons. The sacred Bhagavad-Gita is actually an episode of the Mahabharata, although I don’t think the entire epics are thought of as sacred books. Or are they?
My real question is, how do people actually read them? I know the stories already, so should I just pick a volume at random?
I described Shulman’s article as essential. If you are at all curious about classical Sanskrit literature, it really is.
I was actually planning to make a point linked to what I have been discussing all week, the use of a literaty education. But I find myself more curious about these books than in the ideas they suggest to me. Maybe that's my point.