The Murty Classical Library of India

05/02/15, New Statesman

Classical Indian literary tradition is heterodox, pluralistic, multicultural, dizzyingly multilingual, and often syncretistic. On a fundamental level, the geographical vastness of the subcontinent and the number of peoples and languages contained therein ensured this plurality. Administratively, too, a state of multum in parvo prevailed: successions of empires, dynasties, migration waves, only ever managed to rule limited, if large, parts, leaving autonomous regions under different powers. The South, for example, had a very different development from the Indo-Gangetic plain in the North. No one empire before the Central Asian clan in the sixteenth century which came to be known as the Mughal dynasty managed to bring under a centralised administration far-flung areas, but local societies continued to exist even under expanding Mughal rule. A multiplicity of cultures and ruling dispensations thus always obtained in India.

In the domain of culture, Sanskrit held a long, unbroken sway from around the beginning of the Common Era for a millennium as the language of power and culture before being contested by vernacular languages from the beginning of the second millennium. Knowledge of Sanskrit would certainly unlock a large amount of classical Indian literature to modern readers but just as Latin is known only to a very select few in Europe, so also Sanskrit in India. But Sanskrit allowed Prakrit languages – the ‘natural’ or informal languages – to flourish in a way that would, over time, give them enough power, complexity and confidence to overthrow Sanskrit as the language of literary production.

Over and above the obsolescence of Sanskrit just noted, what has been crucial in impeding a wider dispersal within the subcontinent of classical Indian literature, especially the texts not written in Sanskrit, is what I would term regionalism. India has twenty-two languages, including English; very few educated Indians now know more than two Indian languages. A native Marathi speaker, unless she were educated in, say, Telugu or Bengali, would have no access to the literatures in those languages. Because no language has ever unified India, unless we consider English and the English-educated classes, intra-language translations of these texts present problems: into which language should they be translated for widest possible readership?

Two texts have surmounted these challenges: the epics, the Ramayana (5th to 4th century BCE) and the Mahabharata (from before 300 BCE to after 300 CE). The historian A.K. Ramanujan once famously said that no Indian ever hears the Mahabharata for the first time. Both epics have an extraordinary penetration into the Indian mind: vernacular versions over the centuries; public readings and recitations; performances of dramatised episodes; film versions; children’s books (I first read the epics in beautiful Bengali versions made for children by the filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s grandfather); the well-known comic-strip series, the Amar Chitra Katha (I owe more than half of my knowledge in the Indian classics and mythologies to this series); spectacularly popular television serials – all have ensured that pretty much every Indian knows at least something from the two epics, be it a name, a reputation, a locus, or a story, however far from the original version it may be. The epics of Homer, Virgil and Ovid just do not have this kind of purchase on the European mind.

But what about the vast majority of Sanskrit texts other than the two epics? What about the ocean of vernacular literatures? Enter the Murty Classical Library of India (henceforth MCLI), published by the Harvard University Press. Modelled on the Loeb Classical Library, the series seeks to publish the great works of classical literature produced in India over almost three millennia of literary activity – the longest continuous multilingual literary tradition in the world – from the first millennium BCE to 1800. The project, possibly one of the most complex in the realm of scholarly publication, has been made possible by a generous bequest of $5.2 million from Rohan Murty, son of technology billionaire and founder of Infosys, N.R. Narayana Murthy (yes, the spellings are different for father and son). This is an extremely rare case, it must be pointed out, of Indian philanthropic support for the arts and culture.

A few words about the model for the MCLI first. The Loeb Classical Library is such a cornerstone of recent Western culture that it needs no extended introduction. An enterprise initiated and funded by the American banker James Loeb (1867-1933), it has seen into print, beginning in 1912, over five hundred volumes covering the important works of ancient Greek and Latin cultures with the aim of making them widely accessible. They were bilingual editions, Greek or Latin text on the left, translation on the facing right; in keeping with the principle of accessibility, the translations were often literal, and the critical apparatus was minimal to absent. (The often bad translations, the lack of proper introductions and critical apparatus, the earlier bowdlerisation of the texts – all these problems have been addressed in recent years). The octavo volumes, green for Greek books and red for Latin, are instantly recognisable. They were first published by William Heinemann Ltd; in 1989, Harvard University Press took over.

The Loebs set the template for several such large-series projects: the I Tatti Renaissance Library, and the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, both by Harvard University Press, and, more germane to our purposes, the Clay Sanskrit Library, published by New York University under the general editorship first of Richard Gombrich, then, from 2007, of Sheldon Pollock. The Clay Library published 56 texts between 2005 and 2009 before it folded. Professor Pollock has now reappeared at the helm of the MCLI; no abler general editor can be imagined. A Sanskrit scholar, he is Professor of South Asian Studies in Columbia University and his theory of the ‘Sanskrit cosmopolis’ in his 2006 book, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men, transformed the field of Indic studies. He has now drawn together a team of the finest international scholars to translate and edit texts for the MCLI series.

Uniformly clad in beautiful cerise jackets with a signature feather design motif wrapping around the spine and spilling over on to the front of the dustjacket and a bit more of the back, and sporting cloth quarter-binding and green silk ribbons as pagemark, the five inaugural volumes with which the Library makes its entry into the world are a perfect illustration of most of the features outlined in the opening sentence of this essay. The languages featured are Old Hindi, Pali, Kannada, Panjabi (in Gurmukhi script) and Persian; the earliest was composed in the first-century BCE and the latest in the eighteenth century; the geographical span stretches from the North West to what is now Andhra Pradesh in the south and farther south to Sri Lanka; the genres involved are history, lyric poetry, song, epic, Buddhist ‘utterances’.

Three volumes out of the five are somewhat better known, if only by name, than the other two: Abu’l-Fazl’s The History of Akbar, a translation from the Persian of Part One of his indispensable history, Akbarnama, which deals with the birth and the reign of the greatest Mughal emperor; Bullhe Shah’s Sufi lyrics, written in Panjabi; and Surdas’s Old Hindi Sur’s Ocean. The remaining two are recondite and known only to Indologists and scholars of premodern India; I had never heard of them. By that very token, it is an entirely positive thing that they have been picked to be part of the inaugural volumes – one of the great benefits of this kind of a project is to illuminate lost things, bring back to recognition the now-forgotten texts that were crucial and important. These two texts are Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women, written in Pali, and Allasani Peddana’s Telugu The Story of Manu.

Abu’l-Fazl (1551-1602) was commissioned by Emperor Akbar (1542-1605) to write a history of the Timurid dynasty that ruled over India; Timurid because the Mughals of India were descended from Tamerlane (1336-1405). Volume One, edited and translated by Wheeler M. Thackston, begins with Akbar’s birth but then loops back to trace his lineage all the way back to Adam, with extensive sections on the reigns of Akbar’s grandfather, Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India, and of Akbar’s father, Humayun. The volume ends with Akbar as an eight-month-old infant.

The Mughal emperors were good with commissioning records of their lives. Much more importantly, they, and other Mughal nobles, were excellent patrons of the arts. During the reign of Akbar, which was a period of great economic prosperity (the Mughal empire at this point was richer than the Safavid or Ottoman empires), large numbers of artists, scholars, poets, drawn by the lure of lavish patronage, moved from Persia and Central Asia to India, thus creating a rich and cosmopolitan literary culture. Abu’l-Fazl’s history remains one of the most invaluable cultural artefacts of this time.

Getting into Abu’l-Fazl’s grandiose and dense text can be a struggle for contemporary readers but two important pieces of information can facilitate matters. The first: Abu’l-Fazl was not simply recording history; he was involved in a full-scale apotheosis of Akbar. The second point is regarding Sufism: this mystical movement not only influences the style and vocabulary of Akbarnama but its philosophy and way of looking at the world are suffused by Sufism, too. Akbar, the ideal emperor, in Abu’l-Fazl’s depiction, is modelled on the notion of the perfect man in Sufism.

Sufism had a far more direct and tangible bearing on the lyrics of Bullhe Shah (d. 1758). Considered to be the greatest master of the Sufi lyric in Panjabi, Bullhe Shah was a follower of Shah Inayat (d. 1728), a prominent Sufi master who lived in Lahore. Not much is known about Bullhe Shah’s life but the lyrics, simple, direct and accessible in their style and emotional appeal, have remained popular to this day, not least because a significant part of their transmission has been oral, through performances by Sikh and Muslim singers. The chief form of Sufi poetry was the ghazal, a short love lyric with a prominent rhyme and characterised by a blurring of the boundaries between divine and romantic/erotic love. It was a form used to dazzling effect by the greatest Sufi poet, Jalal ud Din Rumi (d. 1273), and Amir Khusrau (d. 1325), the leading Persian poet of medieval India. Ghazals were sung in Sufi gatherings by professional musicians called qawwals. Their instantly recognisable form of music, called qawwali, now occupies a place in world music: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Pakistani singer who died in 1997, was a qawwal who brought Sufi ghazals to a wide international audience.

The lucid and informative introduction by the volume’s editor and translator, Christopher Shackle, takes readers through the trajectory of Sufism from Persia to India and the several orders within the movement in India. Crucially, there is a section on Bullhe Shah’s poetry itself: an explanation of kafi, the metrical form used by Bullhe Shah for his lyrics; metrical and stylistic analyses of some of them; short paragraphs on the longer poems by Bullhe Shah included in the volume. But most useful is a short essay on the themes expressed in, and the thematic unity of, the lyrics. Armed with these prolegomena, the lyrics and longer poems that follow open up in all their appeal, universal and timeless in their great theme of love, endearing in their simplicity of expressiveness.

The number of poems attributed to Surdas range from 239 in the oldest manuscript, dated 1528, to 10,000 in one from the nineteenth century. Sursagar, or Sur’s Ocean, a body of poems (called pads) of varying length, mostly short, lies plumb in the centre of the bhakti (or devotional) tradition, and deals with the life of Krishna, from his birth, his childhood, his amorous youth, right through to his crucial role in the Mahabharata. Practically nothing is known about Surdas (his name means ‘servant of the sun’). In fact, it may be entirely correct, and consistent with the available evidence, to talk about ‘Surdas’ as an authorial construct, or a collective, or to speak of a ‘Sur tradition’ instead of Surdas. The editor and the translator of this edition give their reasons for retaining ‘a sense of a single excellent poet standing at the headwaters of the Sur tradition’, although admitting that nothing can be known or reconstructed with any certainty about that individual. In a felicitous analogy, they add: ‘Perhaps … the Sursagar might better be thought of as a river than as an ocean – gathering strength in the course of time, but gradually growing more sluggish and losing a good bit of the purity that could be tasted farther upstream.’

It is of vital importance to remember that Surdas’s pads are songs; they were intended to be performed, as they are, to this day, never to be read on the printed page. The bhakti mood of most of these pads does not necessarily imply that they were performed in a temple or worship environment. Courts, streetside gatherings, homes were all spaces in which these poems were sung. This oral tradition evolved and swelled over time. ‘Poems were taught by singer to singer, and the corpus of poems known to the tradition grew rapidly from generation to generation, through the composition of new poems and the accretion to the “Surdas” corpus of poems previously ascribed to other, less famous poets,’ writes the editor, Kenneth E. Bryant. The 433 poems that constitute this volume make a cogent and coherent claim to be the pads that were known to the singers contemporaneous with Surdas as his. Composed in Brajbhasha, or Old Hindi, they have been translated with great feeling and lyricism, and extensive notes explain details, allusions, the dramatis personae and the unfolding of the gripping and beguiling Krishna narrative.

Allasani Peddana’s Manucaritramu, or The Story of Manu, written around 1520, was intimately connected to the reign of Krishnadevaraya, who ruled from 1509 to 1529, in Vijayanagara, the capital of the last imperial state in premodern south India. Peddana was Krishnadevaraya’s friend and court poet and the story of Svarochisha Manu, who was both ideal man and ideal king, ruling in a past cosmic age, was the textual manifestation of the power and culture of the Vijayanagara empire. It occupies a similar space as Virgil’s founding myth of Roman imperium and legitimisation of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The Story of Manu also marked a paradigm shift in Telugu culture on several levels: from the oral to the written; from the public experience of hearing poetry being read out to the private experience of reading it; from flat characters, who were vehicles for undisguised moralism, to three-dimensional, novelistic figures, endowed with complex interiorities; from the notion of Nature as an extension of the human world to its first depiction, unprecedented in South Asian literature, as a self-driven, independent domain.

Eloquently outlining Peddana’s groundbreaking innovations, and his acute awareness of himself as an innovator, the terrific introduction by the translators, Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman, make the point that ‘we might think of Peddana, like Dante, as the epitome of an entire civilizational moment.’ This is the first translation, into any language, of what they call ‘a true masterpiece’.

It is not surprising that of the five texts under survey, Professor Pollock is especially proud of Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women. Theris were ‘senior ones’ among ordained Buddhist women, and the therigatha, ‘poems of (these) senior women’, is an anthology of what may well be some of the oldest women’s poetry in the world. They were ‘uttered’ – ‘inspired utterances’, or udana, is the elevated genre assigned to them by Dhammapala, the sixth-century Buddhist commentator on the Therigatha – over a period of 300 years, from the end of the sixth century to the end of the third century BC.

The Therigatha has a lot of claims on our attention: it is some of the first poetry of India; some of the first poems by women in India; the first collection of women’s literature in the world. These claims, however, should not obscure the aesthetic qualities of the poems, their status as poetry. While they embody the worldview, the sensibility and morality, and the ideas of early Indian Buddhism, making them invaluable social and historical documents, they repay the poetry reader’s and literary scholar’s attention generously. The anthology is arranged according to increase in the number of verses: thus, the first section comprises poems with one verse, the second two verses, the third, three, and so on, until it ends with ‘The Great Chapter’ on Sumedha, the princess of Mantavati, who, as an adolescent, repudiates her parents’ arrangements for her marriage and chooses the path of the dhamma (the teachings of the Buddha on the Laws of Nature).

Reasons of space permit me to quote only the shortest poems. Here’s the beautiful metaphorical resonance of the name of one theri, Punna:

The name you are called by means full, Punna.

so be filled with good things, like the moon when it is full,
break through all that is dark with wisdom made full.

And here is a ribald surprise tucked into Buddhist wisdom about samsara, articulated by Mutta:

The name I am called by means freed

and I am quite free, well-free from three crooked things,
mortar, pestle, and husband with his own crooked thing.
I am freed from birth and death,
what leads to rebirth has been rooted out.

The poems get more and more complex as we proceed – there are dramatic monologues, dialogues (see ‘Chapa’, a conversation between Chapa and her husband), even miniature dramas, such as ‘Sundari’, involving several voices.
The introductions to all five volumes strike a wonderful balance between scholarly rigour and accessibility – they will delight and educate both the serious Indologist and the educated general reader who is interested in the subject. The preparation of these texts has also clearly been very much a labour of love, several light years from arid, dusty, Casaubon-like scholarship: it is impossible to miss the tone of impassioned eloquence in the introduction to The Story of Manu, or the casually inserted comment in the introduction to Sur’s Ocean that the text was four decades in the making. The latter comment is made not in a spirit of exhaustion but with committed fervour. And then there are the notes, helpful, exhaustive without ever straying near the exhausting, wearing their learning lightly. Each theri in the Therigatha, for example, gets her own little biography. The songs in Sur’s Ocean assume knowledge of Krishna’s story, as it appears in the Bhagavatapurana, in their audience; the notes are indispensable to contemporary readers, especially those born outside the Indian orbit, in making sense of the narrative.

A key innovation of the MCLI books is their true bilinguality. I stress ‘true’ for a reason. The Clay Sanskrit library reproduced the Sanskrit texts in English transliteration; the MCLI has gone for the original language, be it Panjabi or Telugu or Persian. Because of the vast range of languages that make up classical Indian literary tradition, Indic fonts had to be created and implemented for this purpose. Most of these had to be created anew for the MCLI and, thrillingly, they will all be made available, free of charge, to scholars all over the world for non-commercial use.

Empires fall, languages decay, dynasties become extinct, and the longue durée perspective gives the lie to whatever – reigns, cultures, languages – appears to be monolithic in a synchronic snapshot. This is not said in an elegiac ubi sunt kind of way but more as a way of parsing the claims with which this piece opened and also to make a point about the timeliness of the project. At a juncture when state-supported historical blindness and illiteracy – witness the Indian Prime Minister’s absurd reference to the elephant-headed god, Ganesh, as proof that transgenic cosmetic surgery was known to ancient Indians – have seen historians lose their jobs because of refusing to bow to thuggish mythologising and lies, the MCLI produces hard evidence for a complex past to counter the falling darkness.