Monday, April 07, 2008

The Clay Sanskrit Library in India

I've just received Random House India's 2008 catalogue, and I'm delighted to see that Random House will soon be distributing the new and old releases of the Clay Sanskrit Library series in India. You will soon be able to buy these titles in your local bookstore at Rs.500-800 each.

As I've mentioned in earlier reviews of individual CSL titles, the Library is one of the most significant publishing projects of our age, bringing under one imprint a massive corpus of a millennium-worth of secular literature in Sanskrit, in new translations by some of the foremost scholars of our day.

The beautiful green hardback editions are small enough to fit into a handbag or even a good-sized pocket, and durable enough - in both the physical and the textual sense - to be enjoyed by your grandchildren.

Among the most enjoyable features of the editions are that they are facing-page translations (the original Sanskrit is presented in Roman script on the left-hand page), which makes it possible for the reader to get some sense of the sonic qualities of the original (and even teach himself or herself a bit of Sanskrit). Also, each edition is copiously annotated by the translator; textual cruxes are explained, and connections are made between the text and philosophical and aesthetic theories of the time.

For instance, in one text a character is described as being thirsty for battle, when the usual way of expressing this sentiment in English is "hungry for battle". The translator remarks that perhaps this difference in the metaphorical phrasing of a state of want and eagerness reflects "the desires of a hot and dry climate versus a cold and damp one". I have spent many enjoyable hours just browsing through these notes, one set of which is here.

A full list of Clay Sanskrit Library titles in alphabetical order is here (their Mahabharata will run into 20 volumes and their Ramayana to seven), and their April 2008 releases are here. Also, here is the essay "Seduced by Sanskrit" by Willis Regier ("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.") and Robert Goldman's long introduction to the Ramayana.

And two older posts, on Kalidasa's Shakuntala and Dandin's enthralling pan-Indian adventure story Dasakumaracharita.


Space Bar said...

Thanks for this, Chandrahas. Looking at the list, it appears that nearly all the translators are of nationalities other than Indian (notable exceptions being Velcheru Narayana Rao and a couple of others).

I bring this up for two reasons: one, because it seems to be impossible to talk about Sanskrit literature in India without being tarred with the Hindutvavadi brush, however lightly; and two, because we have no sense of the variety of secular literature there is in Sanskrit because the only Sanskrit we all know is the sacred, and even that is mostly incomprehensible to us.

Most of the names on that list we might dimly remember from boring history lessons in class 5 or 6. I am really looking forward to reading many of these titles.

Sonia Faleiro said...

Did the ruddy collection hold you in such thrall that you failed to notice the more beautiful, less green paperback featuring your friend, just a few pages on?

Chandrahas said...

Space Bar - As I see it, the translation project becomes even more important against the immediate context of Hindutva, which has the doubly distorting effect of making some Hindus chauvinistic about their religion and other Hindus apologetic about their Hinduism. Good books are a moderating force on bad ideas.

But of course, ancient Sanskrit texts are also Buddhist and Jain texts, not just Hindu ones, and they advance the specific characteristics of those particular worldviews.

Chandrahas said...

Sonja - There's no need to get all hot under the collar now, especially when one considers that you have your photo in the catalogue, while Kalidasa, Dandin, Bhartrihari, Valmiki, Ashvaghosha and Jayadeva have no author photos at all.

If I owe you anything, it is eternal gratitude for the most excellent kabobs, devilled eggs, sausage pulao, baked chicken, cigarillos, campari and blueberry liqueur I consumed at your grand dinner on Friday. Are there any leftovers still around?

Uncertain said...

Thanks for this post. Initiatives like these might still save Sanskrit from complete extinction.

Curious that I am - here are some questions:

1) What is the immediate context of Hindutva?

2) When you speak of 'distortion' - what is the standard against which you consider feelings of apology and chauvenism as distorted?

3) What is the standard for "good" books and "bad" ideas? (except your own ofcourse)

4) When you distinguish between Buddhist and Jain literatures as not being Hindu literature - are you taking a west european perspective of religion as socially legitimated code of behavior and beliefs? What about the Indian perspective of Hinduism as a way of life (as apparently ruled by the Indian Supreme Court) over and above codes and norms of beliefs and behavior. Seen from a perspective less rooted in Semitic religions, one might consider Buddhist and Jain literatures as distinct but within the umbrella of Hindu literature.

Chandrahas said...

Uncertain - To answer your questions in a different order from which you ask them:

As you say, even the Buddhist and Jain texts published within the series can certainly be seen as existing under the umbrella of Hindu literature. But their separateness is not argued for by me but by the texts themselves.

Just as Buddhism and Jainism were in a way both offshoots of and criticisms of Hinduism, so too these texts advance the specific propositions of the Buddhist and Jain worldviews.

"The immediate context of Hindutva" is the politics of our country in the last twenty years, especially since 1992. This has led many people to be defensive about "Hindu books" or books about Hinduism, which are now subsumed to the general militant air.

The standard for "good" books and "bad" ideas is not simply my own, although that does not mean I don't take responsility for them. Many of the core arguments of Hindutva, although they reflect the thinking of a not insignificant section of our population, don't stand up to serious scrutiny - a point that political groups that espouse this ideology themselves concede when they resort to violence rather than reasoned argument. Nor can we make the mistake of dividing up our society into first- and second-class citizens as is the case in so many of our neighbouring countries (whether they are dictatorships or democracies), and those in the Middle East and in Africa.

When I speak of the distortion of Hinduism by Hindutva, the standard by which I make this judgment is also my own, as a practising Hindu with a sense of the religion's thought and traditions.

This is the only standard, moderated and deepened by reading and debate, by which a person can judge the past and present of his religion, even if it is a more Uncertain one than what a majority of the people around him or her are saying.

Uncertain said...

Thanks for your response. Your clarifying thoughts give me a better sense of your premises and allows me to better appreciate your inferences.

That said, in the general spirit of discussion, I will post a reply shortly, once I have had some time to think over and digest your ideas in light of your reply.

Chandrahas said...

Uncertain - Good to hear that my thoughts have been of use to you as yours have been to me.

Write back again by all means, and if you'll email me at we can also talk.

Uncertain said...

Hi again,

There are merits of a general abstract discussion like the one we have been indulging in and then there are demerits, one of them being that it's difficult to pin anyone down to a precise point of view which can be then examined. Therefore it's entirely likely that you and I are implicitly referring to different sources while making our general claims.


Forgive me for my very late response. After reading your reply, I was impelled to 'go back to the masters' before formulating my reply and that coupled with general lethargy to which I am wont led to the delay.

It appears to me that you make the following assumptions:
a. It is possible to adjudge one view as better than the other by means of a debate informed by logical reasoning.
b. Equality is an ideal that India ought to espouse.

To me, both the assumptions seem to be problematic, the first more so than the second.

You see, the "immediate context of Hindutva" is often treated as an aggregation of the ideas and opinions of 'fevered minds' (in other words a psychological only phenomenon) in the highly opinionated and critically underthought editorials of the Indian English media. However, if I were to treat it as a societal phenomenon (in other words a sociological + psychological phenomenon), then it seems to me that the whole disconnect between the two camps concerns the question of 'what it means to be a good Indian?'. As you can imagine, different answers to this question will lead to different ways of organizing society, legal, financial and government institutions - in short the entire institutional structure of India. This is evident more so when one reads 'saffron' books oneself rather than rely on opinions of that literature.

Now coming to your first assumption: It doesn't seem to me that any answer to that question can be deduced from any more fundamental axiom. In fact, the answer to the question is the fundamental axiom from which all other propositions of Indian life have to be generated. And as philosophers of science, notably Kuhn and Rorty, have noted, divergent axioms lead to incommensurate propositions. This means that in the absence of an overarching meta-theory, the propositions of one axiomatic system cannot be logically evaluated against those from the other axiomatic system. Most comparisons as reported in the Indian English media derive the metrics of comparison from one system [predictably from the liberal pink axioms] and then damn the other system with respect to those. This is as nonsensical as a Euclidean geometrician proclaiming the superiority of her geometry over Riemannian geometry.

Sociologists have long noted that most idea wars cannot be fought logically and are fought on other turfs [like military power, rhetorical power etc.]. And it comes as no surprise to me that the immediate context of Hindutva does not involve logical reasoned debate - since one doesn't seem possible.

I am not even opening the issue of the hegemony of logic that is implicit in our conversation. Several scholars of post-modern, critical and feminist hue [I must ask Prannoy Roy, Jyotirmaya Sharma et al precisely what hue that is] have brilliantly and logically deduced that the hegemony of logic itself is not a logical proposition and furthermore is an artifact of particular societies. However you recently expressed aversion to this hue and so I'll let this be.

As far as equality is concerned, I have yet to read a coherent and cogent account of precisely why equality is an ideal that India ought to espouse. Again, as you can imagine, equality is one organizing axiom among others and it's difficult to ascertain how one might demonstrate the superiority of one over the others.

To sum up, your critique of the core ideas of the so called saffron brigade seems like an attempt to reconcile incommensurate propositions. I hope that Indian English media in general and you in particular might demonstrate some sensitivity to divergent axioms of being an Indian and not indulge in axiomatic fundamentalism.

But as they say, if wishes were horses...