Families that never function: how a new library of Sanskrit texts introduces an ancient Eastern world to new readers in the modern West

Sheldon I. Pollock and Richard Gombrich, general editors
Clay Sanskrit Library/New York University Press
Review published in The Times Literary Supplement, June 19 2009, no. 5542, pp. 3–8.

The Clay Sanskrit Library is an admirable enterprise, modelled on the Loeb Greek and Latin classics. The volumes are bound in a shade between emerald and turquoise, with pale blue dust jackets sporting elegant line-drawings. They have facing page texts and translations, prefaced with brief scholarly introductions and with endnotes explaining literary and cultural allusions. They are a handy pocketbook size, and they offer realms of literary gold more wondrous, surely, even than those once evinced by a first glance into Chapman’s Homer.

Here are stories and poems of great complexity and seeming simplicity, crafted with joy in the art of storytelling and delight in the nuance and patterning of words. On offer are multiple books of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, plays, short and long poems, beast fables, story collections, Buddhist and Jain tales of exemplary spiritual lives, of the rewards and punishments attendant on action. This embarrassment of riches shows how the Indian subcontinent, an entire civilization, once defined what it meant to be human, to be moral, to take pleasure in life, and how to think about aesthetics, philosophy, power, belief and practice.

The defining impulse and temporal limits of the Clay Sanskrit Library are quite simply stated in an opening brochure for the series, from the pen of John Clay, the philanthropist who made this venture possible:

The great national epics of India, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, reached their definitive form around the beginning of the common era. By their authority and comprehensive character they dominated Hindu literature for several centuries, as familiar episodes and themes were reworked. But Buddhism and Jainism developed their own literary traditions. From early in the common era, a vast creative literature of novels, short stories, plays and poetry began to develop .... This second flowering of classical Sanskrit literature lasted for more than a millennium. We shall bring to a worldwide audience the entire text of the two national epics, and fifty or more titles from the heyday.

As with Greek and Latin, there are risks here of idealizing the classics, and of recursively assuming that the nation and the epics of its past are coterminous. There are two other issues special to Sanskrit. First, there is the problem of sheer volume, which mandates rigorous choices: aside from the enormous record in print, at the last count there were over 3 million unpublished manuscripts in Sanskrit alone in the libraries of the subcontinent. Second, there is the absence of an exact category of “literature” in the canon of subcontinental writings; categories do not exactly match the Western model of humane letters in which the classics function as cornerstone and linchpin.

The entire notion of genre, which is so important in the West, both as a means of writing literary history and as a technique of evaluating works as part of a canon, does not quite obtain in Sanskrit. The reason is fairly simple: in order to work well, categories of distinction need to be based on a feature that is a sine qua non for each category. Thus, while it is easy to mix categories and to blur the boundaries between them, there is at base a sort of classificatory table into which works can be sorted. In the Sanskriric world of discourse, there is no shortage of overarching categorical imperatives: the four goals of life, the stages of worldly life, the many versions of eightfold paths, the eighteen types of this, the sixtyfour varieties of that, on and on, spiralling out into universes upon universes that reveal the Indian genius for dizzyingly elaborate classification.

When this tradition reflects on what its texts mean and how they are to be sorted, however, it is through a consideration of affect, indeed of all the basic types of affect, called rasas in Sanskrit. The word literally means juice or essence or mood, and each rasa produces a different emotional effect on the audience – an effect which transcends the emotions of individuals. This happy coincidence of effect and affect defines the quintessence of aesthetic pleasure in Sanskrit. Is is the key to understanding how Sanskrit literature works, and it does not inhere merely in a particular metered verse or a specific genre.

In the eighteenth century, Sir William Jones excitedly proclaimed Sanskrit to be more perfect in its articulation as a classical language than Greek or Latin; he also initiated its incorporation into a certain order of discourse in the West. For scholars of varions disciplines – philology and archaeology, literature and history – the aim was to get to the empirically real, the origin, the archetype or prototype of text or social formation or legal or grammatical code. In this enterprise, millennia of living tradition and commentary and response, of living people and their concerns with their own inherited texts, were simply stripped away as uncomfortable accretions to the original, the Ur-type of text or scripture or lawbook. The antiquity of the Vedic corpus and the linguistic affinities between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin led also to a scramble to find an analogue to the biblical scriptures, leading some to posit India as the origin of religions, languages and much else besides, purely on the argument from chronology. To be fair, the savants who carried out much of this work were themselves at the forefront of knowledge for their age.

It is against this background that the Clay Sanskrit Library needs to be set. By opening with the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, around the beginning of the common era, the series sidesteps many of the difficulties of the search for origins. Yet these masterworks also challenge us to rethink what we mean by text, epic, and notion, for each involves a significant engagement with oral culture, history and performance. V. K. Sukthankar, the editor of a massive critical edition of the Mahabharata, noted in his scathing review of Mahabharata criticism the difficulties in understanding presented to scholars looking for the original nucleus of the text, for the text as national epos, the summation of a singular nation’s history and experiences, or for the moral or symbolic allegory of the story. On the contrary, Sukthankar argued, there is no Ur-text of the poem, only multiple versions that have to be taken seriously in their own right. Not that this fluid textual universe prevented Sukthankar and his team from working hard so restore a unity of composition and purpose.

The Mahabharata is, in its earliest articulalion, not a text but a telling: a series of bardic stories enriched by each ether and retold in many local and regional variants all over the subcontinent and beyond. Its composition over several centuries coincides with the spread of writing in South Asia, but, as with the Homeric poems, it is orality that is the key to understanding its significance: here was a way of telling people how things were, a way of transmitting knowledge.

The Mahabharata presents, through its overarching tale of the rivalry and battle between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, two warring branches of a single princely family, a sort of grab-bag or encyclopedia of legal and social arrangements, myths, genealogies, philosophical speculation, the way power functions, its precedents and consequences. It is also, as A. K. Ramanujan famously commented, a text that no Indian ever reads for the first time, for it is also the story of all our dysfunctional families. The dozen volumes on offer in the Clay Sanskrit Library (CSL) cover many welt known episodes, starting with the dice game in the assembly hall where Draupadi, the wife of the Pandavas, is staked, lost and publicly humiliated, the casus belli of the poem. From the Pandavas’ exile in the forest, we have the story of Rama, one epic’s recognition of the other, the story of the faithful wife Savitri who followed her dying husband and won him back from the god of death, and the wonderful dialogue of Yudhishthira with the yaksha at the magic pool in the forest.

The yaksha, the pool’s semi-divine genius loci, guards its water against all comers, and one by one the Pandavas fall dead because they fail to answer his questions before drinking. Yudhishthira, the eldest, answers the riddles one by one.

“Who travels alone? Who is born again? What is the remedy against snow? What is the great vessel?” “The sun travels alone. The moon is born again. Fire is the remedy against snow. The earth is the great vessel.”

“What is the self of a man? What is the friend made by fate? What supports his life? What is his final resort?” “A son is the self of a man. A wife is the friend made by fate. The rain cloud supports his life. Charity is his final resort.”

“What is the highest Law in the world? What Law always bears fruit? What doesn’t cause grief when controlled? The bond with whom cannot decay?” “Absence of cruelty is the highest Law in the world. The Vedic Law always bears fruit. The mind doesn’t cause grief when controlled. The bond with the good cannot decay.”

These kennings and their answers (a widespread Indo-European genre) present a world- view in which the human world is perfectly intermeshed with the social and natural order, which come together to present a course of ethical, natural action for a person, as well as principles for controlling wayward emotions. When Yudhishthira wins the contest, revives his brothers, and in turn gets to ask a question, he wants to know who the yaksha is, and the enigmatic spirit at the pool is revealed as dharma itself; a coalescence of the way things ought to be and the way things are in nature, the true subject of the poern. Dharma gives ethical, social and political coherence to this itihasa, this unruly and multibranched telling of the way things were.

The remaining volumes of the Mahabharata in the CSL cover preparations for war and the breakdown of diplomacy, the Bhagavad Gita; Krishna’s profound and theophanic revelation of right conduct to Arjuna on the battlefield; the bloody battle scenes describing the deaths of Karna, Abhimanyu, and of the great mentor Drona; the gruesome mace battle between Bhima and Duryodhana that shatters the thighs of the Kaurava prince and redresses the humiliation of Draupadi; and finally a portion of the end of the poem, the philosophical meditations from the book of peace. When complete, the thirty or so volumes of the Mahabharata alone will render almost the entire epic in English for the first time, a monumental undertaking.

The Mahabharata is a self-consciously performed text, and the elaborate and exacting procedures of mnemonic reproduction of its Vedas indicate that manuscripts are only an imperfect and late means of transmission. When we come to the other great Indian epic, the Ramayana, we find that it is here that the tradition memorializes its own creation of what it calls kavya, words put together to please the audience through theme, linguistic patterning, and all the subtleties of nuance and affect to which the poet can aspire. For Valmíki, the author of the Ramayana, is the adi-kavi, the “first poet”, and his work, of which the multi-authored Mahabharata is already aware, is the adi-kavya, the “first poem”. The moment of creation is described at the very beginning, when the sage Valmíki was meditating in the woods by the bank of the river Tamasa, with the story of the Ramayana fresh in his mind as a result of inspiration from the divine seer Narada:

Nearby, that holy man sow an inseparable pair of sweet-voiced krauncha birds wandering about. But even as he watched, a Nishada hunter, filled with malice and intent on mischief, struck down the male of the pair. Seeing him struck down and writhing on the ground, his body covered with blood, his mate uttered a pietous cry. And the pions seer ... was filled with pity. Hearing the krauncha hen wailing, he uttered these words: “Since, Nishada, you killed one of this pair of kraunchas, distracted at the height of passion, you shall not live for very long.” And even as he stood watching ... this thought arose in his heart, “Stricken with grief for this bird, what is this I have uttered? .... Fixed in metrical quarters. each with a like number of syllables, and fit for the accompaniment of stringed and percussion instruments, the utterance that I produced in this access of shoka, grief, shall be called shloka, poetry, and nothing else.”

What ensues is the story of Rama, prince of Ayodhya, the ideal man and hero, who has to give up his kingdom and go into exile because his stepmother, Kaikeyi, extracts a promise from his father King Dasharatha in order to secure the succession for her own son. In the forest, his wife Sita is carried off by the ten-headed demon king of Lanka, Ravana, and imprisoned while Ravana importunes her to live with him. In a situation and an epic battle curiously reminiscent of the siege of Troy, Rama has to win her back and return to Ayodhya in triumph as king and conqueror.

In contrast to the Mahabharata, the story represents the Indian ideal of the functional family, in which the hero bows to patriarchal authority and renounces his inheritance in order to uphold his father’s vow. Rama is everywhere the maryada-purushottama, the best of men in right conduct. For this reason, the appeal of his story transcends both religious and national boundaries, as Robert Goldman has noted, with Buddhist, Jain and Muslim authors adapting the Ramakatha (Rama’s story) to their own purposes.

The volumes published here take the story through the first five books of the Ramayana, up to and including Sita’s incarceration in Lanka. The editors of the series have wisely chosen to reprint the magisterial translation of Valmíki’s Ramayana by Goldman and his team of scholars, which includes detailed introductions and copious annotation with recourse to all the Sanskrit commentaries, available on the Clay website for reasons of space. The importance of the story cannot be overstated, for it has been told, retold, illustrated and performed innumerable times, not just in India but also throughout Asia, transmitted along the Silk Road with Buddhism to Central and East Asia and with the seafarers, merchants and princes who sailed to the lands and islands of South-east Asia.

The Ramayana is also the model for another masterpiece represented here, the Life of the Buddha by Ashaghosha, a poetic telling of the life of Prince Siddhartha, known after his enlightenment as the Buddha. Siddhartha’s growing up in sheltered luxury, his father’s attempts to enslave him to sensual pleasure in order to forestall the prophecy of world rerunciation in favour of world conquest, the young prince’s encounters with disease, old age and death, his decision to solve the problem of suffering in the world through renouncing his royal inheritance, his encounters with various forms of asceticism, his victory over temptation, Mara, and his eventual enlightenment, are shaped into a hagiography lent greater power by its versification. Nirvana has never been so elegantly presented in poetic form.

The didactic genre of the ideal life, long an overriding concern of Indian civilization, is exemplified by Handsome Nanda, also by Ashvaghosha, which this series makes available for the first time in English. In this poem, the Buddha converts his half-brother Nanda, a young pleasure-loving husband married to the lovely Sundari, to the monastic vocation. In an unforgettable scene, Nanda, who is holding the mirror for his wife as she adorns herself, starts up and walks out of the door on hearing of the Buddha’s arrival, promising to be back before her make-up dries. In the throngs outside, he finds the Buddha, who steps into a side street to avoid the crowd and hands Nanda his begging bowl to detain him. Forcibly tonsured and ordained, Nanda has then to contend with his own sensuality in order to go from libertinism to liberation in eighteen superbly polished cantos. Slowly the Buddha breaks down his attachment to pleasure by showing him its insatiability and capacity to trap humans in suffering. One of the monks helps in his own way by attacking women as alluring but vile in nature, projecting on to them all the tensions inherent in the cerebral and anti-materialist bias of early Buddhist teaching.

All of these works incorporate non-narrative discourses, ranging from legal and philosophical works to political and amatory manuals. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the various examples of story literature (katha) in CSL, from the most elaborately inclusive boxed collections of tales to the more directed preaching stories of the Buddhists and Jains, to the smallest beast fables, fitted into varying literary and religious frames. The most notable example of this last type is the Pancatantra (Five Discourses on Worldly Wisdom) and the closely allied Hitopadesha (Friendly Advice). The animal fables contained here are called niti-shastra in Sanskrit, the science of niti, a word that encompasses politics, ethics, right conduct and street smarts. The fables themselves were an international phenomenon in the pre-modern world, which went through their Persian and Arabic translations as the Kalilah wa Dimnah, into Latin as the Disciplina Clericalis by the Andalusian Petrus Alfonsi and thence into most European vernaculars. The fables were also translated into virtually every Indian language and put to use in surprising ways.

An example is the story of the old lion, now retired, who wishes only to sleep peacefully in his cave. But a naughty mouse reines out of its hole and nibbles at his mane whenever he wants to take a nap, and this drives the lion crazy. So he engages a cat, its natural enemy, to keep it at bay, and for a while things go well. One day the cat ambushes the mouse and dispatches it. Though the lion had previously fed the cat well, after the mouse is gone the poor thing starves to death. The story is recycled by, among others, Lallu Lal Kavi, the Bhakha-munshi or Hindi teacher at the College of Fort William in Calcutta around 1800.

The Bhakha-munshi, who is responsible for teaching the young sahibs of the East India Company the language they need to command Hindustan, relates it in his Hindi primer with its moral, “Never keep your master free from care”. In this situation, who is the colonized subject? Modernity needs to inscribe tradition, especially when coded in a classical language, as closed, singular and oppressive in order to define itself as the opposite. Yet when we look at stories such as these, they reveal the classical as open, both in the sense of using older materials in new situations of cultural encounter and in the expanse of what can he represented as part of the human condition.

These tendencies are most conspicuous in the larger story-collections, as in the picaresque narrative of Dandin, What Ten Young Men Did. This is a coming-of-age story, a Bildungsroman, that follows the wanderings of not one but ten young men through various adventures in love and war as they journey from adolescence to maturity. In these pages appear lusty princes and abstemious hermits, gorgeous damsels who must be won, courtesans and merchants, trickery and magic and thievery, all the people and situations of life in an outward-looking and cosmopolitan culture that is shaped as much by its inherent geography as by sea-voyaging and international trade. Dandin’s mention of Kala-yavana, the island of the black Ionians, probably Zanzibar, or coins called dinars, from the Roman denarius, point to the links of the subcontinent with Africa and the Mediterranean world since ancient times, and his mention of Chinese silk as a luxury import indicates the importance of the Silk Road as an overland trade route.

Sanskrit hagiography and narrative literature mix prose and verse, education and entertainment. The same tendency towards mixed media and purposes is noticeable in the dramatic selections in the CSL series, which are particularly rich. Aside from Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, celebrated within the canon, made famous by Goethe, and often translated into various European languages, there are great treasures here, some of them made available to the general reading public far the first time. Here, too, there are unforgettable scenes and characters, such as the courtesan Vasantasena filling the poor Brahmin’s son’s clay cart with her gold ornaments, or the wily prime minister Kautilya who suborns his arch-enemy to become his successor, or the lisping buffoon Shakara, brother-in-law to the King and hence invulnerable to criticism, or the sexual masquerades and plays within plays of King Harsha’s two courtly dramas, The Lady of the Jewel Necklace and The Lady Who Shows Her Love. These are urbane romantic comedies that share many elements. Then there is also the psychological sensitivity of Bhavabhuti’s Rama’s Last Act, in which Rama, back in Ayodhya after winning back his wife from Ravana, hears a rumour about her doubtful chastity. His dharma as a king conflicts with his dharma as a husband, and he exiles the heavily pregnant Sita to the forest despite his overwhelming love for her (an ant excoriated by modern feminist critics). Bhavabhuti’s subtle exploration of the conflict between love and duty moves also through colliding layers of truth and fiction to resolve matters through a play within a play. Harsha’s How the Nagas Were Pleased, meanwhile, draws on a story of the Buddha’s former life, and the other play in the same volume, Bhasa’s The Shattered Thighs, treats an episode in the Mahabharuta; both plays violate the rules of dramatic art in Sanskrit. Yet each justifies itself, demonstrating that this is not a doctrinaire or simplistic tradition, and enriching its hagiographic and epic sources.

If the dramatic arts are well represented, the poetic selections need some augmentation and rethinking. The series contains only a small number of familiar classics like Kalidasa’s The Birth of Kumara, Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda, and the lapidary short lyrics of Bhartrihari and Amaru. There are too few lesser-known works, such as Bhatti’s The Death of Ravana, which illustrates Paninian generative grammar through retelling the Ramayana. And we need more selections from the five mahakavyas or “great poems” recognized by the Sanskrit critics, for these were formative works that defined poetic canonicity and intersected with multiple traditions of Indian poetry in the making.

The translations work best when rendered without the constraints of metre and rhyme in English, for instance in both the Kalidasa titles, as in this verse from his Cloud Messenger describing the mountain fastness of Alaka:

When, o wanderer at will,
you see her in the lap of the mountain
as if in that of a lover,
her shawl the Ganga slipping off,
you will not fail to recognize Alaka:
at the time of your coming,
she wears in her snaring palaces
a mass of clouds raining water,
just as a lady in love wears her hair
entwined with strings of pearls.

The clustering, alliterative and synonym-rich style of Sanskrit poetry is virtually impossible to render in contemporary English in any other way, and a related problem is a lack of consistency in translating flora and fauna that are dense with symbolic associations. Some translators include an index covering these, with the terms themselves left italicized in the text, and in future volumes such a feature should be made standard.

As Wendy Doniger notes in her introduction to the plays of Harsha, Sanskrit works are not appreciated because they are not available, and they are not available because they are under-appreciated. The Sanskritists, led by Richard Gombrich and Sheldon Pollock, have done us all a signal service by breaking this vicious circle, making these texts available with facing-page translations without being held up by the anxieties of antiquarianism or paralysed by the pedantries of philology.

Several volumes contain freshly edited texts and serious reconsiderations of the manuscript evidence. It is this reviewer’s understanding that this superb series is being closed down midway through its initial plan of a hundred volumes. There is a popular saying in India about another old quarrel, the enmity between Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Sarasvati, the goddess of learning, who cannot live in the same house. Let us hope that these two goddesses may one day be reconciled, lest this splendid contribution to human letters be cut short in medias res.

Full details of all the titles in the Clay Sanskrit Library can be found at