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The Arrow and the Poem


New York University Press

Toward the end of the Sakuntala, the most famous of the three surviving plays by Kalidasa--the poet usually considered the finest in ancient India--the hero Dushyanta offers this poignant self-analysis:

Like someone staring at an elephant
who says, "There is no elephant here,"
and who then, as it moves away,
feels a certain doubt
and later, seeing its footprints,
is certain: "An elephant
has been here"--
such are the subtle
workings of my mind.

Or of any mind--the rueful king speaks for all of us. We almost always miss the elephant in front of us. By the time we make our retrospective deduction from the footprints, it's usually too late.

Dushyanta is describing the results of a self-inflicted trauma. There was a woman whom he loved more than a man has ever loved a woman; but for various reasons that have a lot to do with the above-mentioned elephant, when Sakuntala, this beloved woman who is pregnant with Dushyanta's child, turns up in the royal court, the king fails to remember who she is. Some might say that this lapse is paradigmatic of men generally. In any case, for the rest of the play Dushyanta gives voice to his sorrow, his guilt, and his hopeless longing in some of the most lyrical verses in world literature.

If Kenneth Branagh can make a compelling modern film of Hamlet and Trevor Nunn can produce a miraculously contemporary Twelfth Night, someone can surely produce a film version of the Sakuntala, using Kalidasa's text verbatim in a good poetic translation. (Perhaps one of the fine contemporary Indian directors, say Adur Gopalakrishnan, should do it in one of India's spoken languages.) But it will be a long wait before this happens, and so we would be wise in the meantime to search for a clean, readable, modern translation of this great play--and not only of it, but of all the great classics in Sanskrit, the ancient language that shaped Indian civilization. Sanskrit literature, taken as a whole, is--it seems almost ridiculous to have to say this--a surpassing cultural achievement, like ancient Greek literature (though the Sanskrit corpus is, at a conservative estimate, a thousand times larger than what has survived in Greek), and like the literary monuments in classical Chinese or classical Arabic, to say nothing of comparatively young literatures such as we find in English, German, French, or Russian. The astonishing fact is that cultivated readers of the latter tongues may have never heard of Kalidasa, or of the no less important Bhavabhuti, Bharavi, Magha, and Sriharsha.

Happily, help has now arrived. In the last decade, a new library of translations from Sanskrit has begun to appear. It is called the Clay Sanskrit Series, named after the generous donor who has made it all possible, John P. Clay, who took a degree in Sanskrit from Oxford University many years ago. More than thirty volumes have already appeared in this extraordinary project, with another twenty or more in the pipeline. And so, for the first time in English, we have the beginnings of a representative canon of Sanskrit literary works, for the most part well translated and accessible to a wide public.

The Clay volumes are patterned after the justifiably celebrated Loeb Classical Library for Greek and Latin: small, elegant books, beautifully printed, sparsely annotated, and bilingual--the Sanskrit, transliterated into Roman characters in a system devised by the Clay editors, sits on the left page, facing the English translation on the right. This arrangement naturally delights students of Sanskrit, who may dispense, at least temporarily, with their dictionaries and grammar books; but you do not have to know Sanskrit to enjoy reading these volumes. Indeed, their raison d'être is to win for the Sanskrit classics an audience outside India, and certainly beyond the limited scholarly circles that have, for the last two centuries or so, studied these works, produced critical editions and philological commentaries, and sometimes also translated them into Western languages, almost invariably badly.

The sheer awfulness of most earlier translations from Sanskrit can help to explain the profound ignorance of Sanskrit literature among Western readers. What is not easy to explain is why the standard of acceptable translation was, from the very beginning, set so low--in marked contrast, for example, to translations from classical Chinese and Japanese. A part of the trouble no doubt stems from the particular difficulties of Sanskrit--its forbidding morphology, its fondness for extraordinarily lengthy nominal compounds, its vast lexicon, its daunting syntax, and above all its somewhat exotic, or in any case distinctive, world of thought and imagination.

Sanskrit may always have attracted just the kind of fussy, pedantic minds that make for the worst possible translators. They produced versions of Sanskrit poetry that were hardly likely to entice: "Shall I set in motion moist breezes by (means of) cool lotus-leaf-fans which-removed languor? Or placing thy feet, brown as the lotus, O round-thighed (maiden), in (my) lap shall I rub them soothingly?" That, believe it or not, is another verse from the play by Kalidasa that I mentioned at the start. The translator, Sir Monier Monier- Williams, held the Boden Chair in Sanskrit at Oxford during the second half of the nineteenth century, and he famously produced one of the major dictionaries for the language, still very much in use. But clearly, like most people, he had no idea how to translate.

Sadly, the vast majority of translations from Sanskrit poetry into European languages--with a few honorable exceptions, among them Peter Khoroche's outstanding translation of Aryasura's Jataka-mala, a set of stories about the Buddha's previous lives--offer the same off-putting mélange of hyperliteralism, barbaric diction, and hackneyed confabulations of honey-soaked lotuses and plump female thighs. But the Clay translators have set out to change all this, and most of the new volumes do succeed in conveying--for the first time in English--something of the toughness and the elegance of Sanskrit at its best. Listen, for example, to Isabelle Onians's rendering of an exciting moment in Dandin's seventh-century novella What Ten Young Men Did:

One day, when I was tenderly giving Raga-manjari little drinks to pacify her love piques, I continued drinking in sips of liquor delivered up in love from her mouth, one after another. Intoxication had me in its grasp. It is traditional that drunkenness and overexcitement make one lose the plot even in one's habitual actions. Which is why, as

my madness mounted, I announced:

"In just one night I am going to reduce this city to poverty and fill your house with riches!"

My darling was deeply distressed, but I paid no heed to her prostrations, protestations, and imprecations. I was like a rutting elephant breaking free of my chains. Rather ill-equipped, I charged forth at top speed with a sword as my companion....

Without thinking, I fought off the city police who happened to cross my path. Crying thief, they began to beat me, but I did not lose my temper completely. I only struck down two or three playfully with my sword before it fell from my hand, feeble with drunkenness, and I fell myself, my vision a crimson whirlpool.

Dandin's full-blooded heroes and heroines--mordant, passionate, self-ironic--should easily disabuse anyone of the romantic notion that classical India was a world set up for soppy spiritual exercises. And consider the following lecture, from the same work, offered by a courtesan to a hopelessly innocent sage intent on liberating his soul from the bonds of worldly suffering:

As for pleasure, it is the particular sensation of supreme bliss between a man and a woman focused entirely on sense objects. Its context is everything that is gorgeous and splendiferous in the world. And its reward: the highest joy, born from mutual friction, sweet to remember, increasing one's self- respect, perfect manifest bliss, and only experienced in and by oneself. It is for the sake of this pleasure alone that distinguished men perform gruesome mortifications, give enormous gifts, fight horrific battles, make terrifying sea voyages, and so on and so on.

Not surprisingly, the sage rapidly undergoes a far-reaching existential transformation and begins "to act like a man in love, renouncing all desire for independent action, and disconsolate if without her for even a moment."

Western readers who happen to know something about India's ancient literature tend to recognize the titles of the two great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, both apparently composed--if that is the right word--sometime in the last centuries B.C.E. and the early centuries C.E. (This fuzziness in dating, unthinkable in China or the Mediterranean world, is perfectly normative for classical India. We are lucky if we can identify the century, more or less, in which a great poet may have lived.) Both are large- scale works that helped to articulate the major tensions and ideals of an entire civilization, and to offer compelling models for identification and action on the part of ordinary people.

Both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are, not surprisingly, integral parts of the Clay Sanskrit Library. Since the Mahabharata is so vast--some 100,000 verses--its volumes are appearing in the series piecemeal, and we must hope that the Clay project lasts long enough to complete the entire set: 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. Copies of the work are often kept outside the house, on a porch or in some other relatively safe repository, lest it set the home on fire.

When the Clay edition of the Mahabharata volumes is finally published, it will be the first time that the whole great epic will be available in readable English. (There is an earlier Indian translation associated with the publisher P.C. Roy, in what is today a quaint dialect perhaps distantly related to English. The University of Chicago Press embarked on a full translation some decades ago, but the prime translator, J.A.B. van Buitenen, died about a third of the way through the text.) And the Clay series is also reprinting the good Ramayana translation, in seven volumes, that Princeton University Press has been publishing since the mid-1980s. When friends going to India for the first time ask me what they should read in preparation, I always tell them: begin with the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. They are the keys that open the doors. Travelers will now be able to carry the lightweight, handsome Clay volumes in their handbags, if handbags are still allowed on planes.

One of the most attractive features of the Clay series is a certain adventurousness in selection. By virtue of its visibility, this project will put in place a new canon of classical Sanskrit works to be integrated into the honors lists of "great books" and thus taught in university courses, stumbled upon in good bookshops, and devoured by bold and curious readers in far-flung places with decent libraries. Let me explain. The Ramayana is considered by the tradition to be the adi-kavya, the first finely crafted, linguistically elevated, and fully autonomous long poem in its language. Its author, Valmiki, was moved to utter poetry--an unconscious, spontaneous eruption--by the grief that he felt on seeing a bird, happily playing with its mate, shot down by a cruel hunter; and this notion of the traumatic origins of art competes in the Indian tradition with other, later images and theories, including one centered on the apparent drive toward ecstatic self-expression on the part of the goddess of music and poetry, Sarasvati, who inspires human poets.

In any case, the Ramayana inaugurated the millennia-long production of large- scale masterworks in the intensified, incandescent language of the royal courts and the great Brahminical temples--both of those institutions serving as prominent sites for classical theatrical performances, for example. Thus we have already in the second century C.E. a deeply moving poetic biography of the Buddha, the Buddhacarita, by Asvaghosha (translated here by Patrick Olivelle). Asvaghosha also composed one of the most engaging of all Sanskrit literary works, "Handsome Nanda" (well translated for the Clay series by Linda Covill), which tells the almost tragic story of how the Buddha's brother Nanda was tricked into leaving his fetching young wife and kidnapped, or seduced, by promoters of the rather more austere joys of Nirvana. In subsequent centuries--including the period of the imperial Guptas, which lasted from the fourth to the sixth century C.E., usually considered the acme of classicism in north India--we find an immense production of plays, long narrative poems, prose romances such as Bana's great Princess Kadambari (which will be translated by David Smith), anthologies of fairy tales, adventure stories, and tall tales such as Somadeva's The Ocean of the Rivers of Story (translated by James Mallinson), gnomic fables (Friendly Advice, translated by Judit Torzsok), satires, love poems and erotica, mystical allegories, and much more.

The texts universally acknowledged as great are for the most part included in this series; but the editors have also ventured out into lesser-known domains of Sanskrit literature to include works such as Bhanudatta's "Bouquet of Rasa" and "River of Rasa" (translated by Sheldon I. Pollock, the American scholar who has overall responsibility for the series) and Jinaratna's exquisite Epitome of Queen Lilavati (R.C.C. Fynes, in two volumes), from one of the major heterodox traditions opposed to Brahminical religion. Such little- known classics have been redeemed by these translations from the limbo that they have always inhabited outside of India and, to some extent, even within the Indian mainstream.

It is difficult, of course, to bring a Sanskrit verse alive in English on the printed page. One always has to remember that these ancient works were invariably intended for oral recitation and performance. "Recitation" means singing, and not the declamatory style that has, for mysterious reasons, established itself as standard for English and indeed for most European poetry in our time. India is a civilization that even today has not lost the sense of the charged, mantic force of the well-spoken word or syllable. In the south of the subcontinent, in languages such as Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam, this innate power of poetic language is so great that entire cultures have organized themselves around it, and gone to extraordinary lengths to create institutional arenas in which it could do its work.

I am sure that the translators in this series have all experienced first-hand the magic of Sanskrit poetry in a live setting--for example, as a verse emerges from the lips of one of the sensitive Pandit scholars who embody the tradition (and who usually know many of its classics by heart). Such omniscient connoisseurs are becoming rarer in modern India, but you can still meet them in out-of-the-way towns and villages as well as in the great centers such as Varanasi, Mysore, and Pune. Typically, as with any superb poetry, a sung Sanskrit verse issuing into an interactive space will produce an immediate, physical effect on the listener:

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.

That is Nannecoda, a Telugu poet from the turn of the second millennium. He would have recognized a kindred soul in Isaac Babel, who has the hero of his story "Guy de Maupassant" remark that "no iron can stab the heart with such force as a full stop put just at the right place."

If you take this principle to its logical conclusion, you will have plays such as Bhavabhuti's Rama's Last Act (from the eighth century), here beautifully translated by Sheldon Pollock. I think the playwright aimed, by linguistic as well as trans-linguistic means, to make God--that is, Rama, incarnating the ancient deity Vishnu--present on the stage. I am not sure that any such theophany will occur if the play is read (and silently at that) in English, but I am not sure that it won't, either. Sanskrit theoreticians of poetry had their own ways of explaining the kind of transformation that should overtake you when you hear a poem or see a play. They tended to think that the artistic medium allows for selftranscendence, the momentary shedding of our natural egoistic concerns--and, as a result, a strangely delicious selfcoincidence, or a connectedness to deeper, innate levels of our being; but their point of departure was the less grandiose and more empirical observation that when you leave the theater after a good performance, you are not the same person you were when you went in. This was as true in ninth-century Kashmir as it is (or should be) true today.

Given this sense of the deeper reaches of Sanskrit literature, I recommend that readers approach these volumes with something more than the contemplative intellection that is, I fear, our natural default when we open a new book-- especially one from a culture very distant from our own. Sanskrit poetry also offers endless food for thought. There are the brilliant aperçus of Kshemendra, the Kashmiri polymath of the eleventh century; the psychological insightfulness of Bana and of Kalidasa; the penetrating metaphysical intuitions of Asvaghosha and Bhartrihari (fifth century). It would be easy to go on in this celebratory vein. But at its best a Sanskrit poem says, and does, much more than what it seems to be saying. Here, again, is Bhavabhuti, a word-necromancer with strong philosophical inclinations, as he reaches toward a definition of human love:

That state when two become one
in joy as in sorrow,
where you find rest together
and feelings never age
but deepen and ripen as you move
through the layers of time,
that rare state of human fullness
is real. You may find it, once,
in life.

This is no simple, abstract enunciation of a reason to be hopeful. If you have not been flooded by the fullness he is "describing" as you read or, better, sing the verse, then you have not actually heard it, or maybe you cannot hear it. I am not sure anyone can hear it, fully, in English.

Bhavabhuti puts the words in the mouth of Rama, that is, God himself, in a wistful mood that precedes his greatest act of cruelty. The educated reader knows that Rama is just about to drive his innocent and beloved wife Sita into exile. The play will take us through the many stages of remorse, self-delusion, and inescapable blindness that this god has to undergo before he gets his beloved back. And we, the spectators, are there in order to help him to get her back.

Please do not misunderstand. I am the last to put forward a mystical protocol for reading Sanskrit literature. In fact, given a choice, I naturally gravitate to the skeptics, and I am rather inclined to intellection myself. All I am suggesting is that when you pick up a book like Bhavabhuti's Rama's Last Act, you try to let its intimate, subtle tones and voices do their work, in and out of the mind. At least at moments it should feel something like the way Bhavabhuti's hero, Rama, describes the happy nights he spent with Sita in the wilderness:

Whispering wonderful whatevers
in any which order,
cheek touching cheek,
arms totally enmeshed
from so much loving,
we never knew the hours passing
when suddenly--night itself
was over.

Of course, not everyone goes in for intimate whatevers as their holiday or bedtime reading, let alone for their course assignments in World Literature 101. There will be those who prefer the hard-nosed tone of Bhallata's bitter allegories, as in the following verse from Somadeva Vasudeva's fine translation of Sanskrit satires:

Ah, good tree! Why were you born at
    a crossroad?
Why did you have to be rich in shade?
Being rich in shade, why did you bear
Being laden with burdens of fruit,
        why did you have to bow down?
Suffer now, for your own misdeeds,
    my friend,
        as people drag, shake,
        bend, and break the tips of your

Here is a lucid voice from late-ninth-century Kashmir. It does not take much effort to decipher the coded message. Altruists and donors, beware! The Sanskrit original is, not surprisingly, even more pointed and lyrical. No whispers there.

For that matter, who among us would fail to recognize himself or herself in another of Bhallata's sardonic examples?

Probably many of our losses, and our sleepless nights, are the issue of such tiny droplets.

These are but a few of the riches that this important new collection opens up for the adventurous reader. I hope there will be many such readers, from all over the globe. And so I suppose I should also be clear about a few warnings of a general nature. First of all, inevitably, not all the translations are of the same high level. One or two are positively unacceptable. And as in the Loeb volumes, the Clay translators often tend to the plain and the literal, with consequent flattening effects on the usually sparkling originals. I doubt that this was part of the instructions given to the translators, but it is hard not to notice a certain leveling. Also, the introductions to the first twenty or so volumes in the series are at best skimpy; the reader is very much on his or her own with the translated text and the translator's annotation, which is in some cases quite rich and in other cases minimal. This parsimony in introducing the texts has been corrected in more recent volumes--for example, in Pollock's very interesting introduction to Bhavabhuti.

One truly problematic editorial decision was the recommendation that translators reproduce double-entendre phrases or verses--one of the special effects of Sanskrit poetry, taken at times to astonishing lengths--by the awkward graphic device of two-tier italics-cum-modified colon. The result, evident on page after page, is that verses are sometimes reduced to a sort of lunatic babble in place of the complex but still limpid original:

Take from here
the priceless scent of the sandal trees
and leave the forests of Malaya's
quickly enough for these selfish snakes
enjoying amorous frolics
not to
    use their hoods to:
    pretend that you are their food and
drink you in gulp by gulp.

This is from Dhoyi's "Wind Messenger," from twelfth-century Bengal, in which a lovesick girl asks the wind to deliver an imagined message to her distant royal lover. Such messenger poems belong to a major genre pioneered, again, by Kalidasa. I suppose that with a lot of good will and patience, a certain adeptness at imaginative exercise, and the help of the translator's laconic note ("Snakes are said to eat air"), an innocent reader might actually be able to figure out what this verse says. But really there is no excuse for this kind of failure. Even elaborate bi-textual double entendres--or slesha, as they are called in Sanskrit--are amenable to translation if you work at it. Some of the translators have found ingenious solutions, which are, after all, what is minimally required.

Still, these occasional lapses hardly detract from a cultural enterprise of the first order, and on a monumental scale. Here is a chance--actually, many varied chances--to go beyond the surface images of a romanticized India and to touch something real. By "real," I mean complex, dissonant, unexpected, vivid, concrete, confusing, opaque, unsettling--all these elementary things. It's a bit like going to India for the first time, or the twentieth. There is also the sense of entering into cultural settings that are put together very differently from the ones familiar to us--alternative worlds, driven by experiences and ideas integral to their distinctive systems, informed by a logic of their own. To fail to know them, or at least to taste them, even if only in translation, is to constrict, for no good reason and unbearably, the core of our own humanity.

You can also, if you read the books in something like chronological order, put these worlds together historically, following the development of the classical Sanskrit poets from the inspired geniuses of the epics (and before that, of the ancient Vedic literature) to the highly professional and sophisticated craftsmen of the early medieval courts, with their ideal of ullekhana--a polished perfection, seen as a completely human achievement that comes from refining and intensifying language to a pitch perhaps unique among the literatures of the world. (Readers who seek an overview of the literary and cultural history of Sanskrit should immediately repair to Sheldon Pollock's extraordinary and pioneering book The Language of the Gods in the World of Men. ) You can also see how later poets channeled this heightened expressive power into very personal, often iconoclastic modes, using Sanskrit to reflect back on itself and its long tradition. Here, for example, is the thirteenth-century philosopher-poet Vedanta Desika, from the Tamil south, singing of his sorrow to the living goddess whom he names "Compassion" (the poem comes from one of the still unpublished volumes in the series, by Yigal Bronner and myself):

Take all those classical poets--
    from Valmiki on.
They came all the way up
to a vast ocean of experience,
the experience that is you,
but they never even dipped their toes.
Compassion: shouldn't you pay me
some attention? I jumped in,
I can't touch bottom,
I'm drowning, and God
sits there smiling.

You know the feeling. In this case it is what gives Vedanta Desika an edge over his illustrious predecessors. To feel the full force of the verse, you would do well to read Valmiki's Ramayana, and then something of Asvaghosha and Kalidasa, and then maybe Bhavabhuti or another one of the great innovators, such as Bharavi or Magha or the exotic maverick Murari. Then see what a bold and eloquent poet such as Vedanta Desika has done with his immense poetic inheritance.

Lately there has been some talk of closing down the Clay series after the publication of the fiftieth volume, scheduled for next year. This would be a disaster, leaving many masterpieces languishing, unfinished or unpublished. We must hope that a way will be found to allow this visionary enterprise to go on. For a whole library, a whole literature, hot off the press, is now at last open and available to readers of English. It is more than two hundred years since Goethe remarked, after reading some very inadequate translations, that all earthly beauty is condensed into Kalidasa's Sakuntala. Was he exaggerating? Now you can make up your own mind.

David Shulman is Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His book, Spring, Heat, Rains: A South Indian Diary will be published by University of Chicago Press this fall.

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By David Shulman