The place of Sanskrit in India today is much like that of Latin in the West. It is part of the bedrock of our history and its words are the root words of our contemporary speech, but it has long ceased to play a role in the commerce of daily life and, like all dead languages, it has become the preserve of priests and schoolchildren. Many of the greatest works of Indian literature are written in Sanskrit, but apart from the Ramayan and the Mahabharat, their influence upon us is muted because the language itself has fallen silent.
Now an ambitious new publishing project, the Clay Sanskrit Library, brings together leading Sanskrit translators and scholars of Indology from around the world to celebrate in translating the beauty and range of classical Sanskrit literature. Two dozen volumes of a projected 100 titles have been issued already. Published as smart green hardbacks that are small enough to fit into a jeans pocket, the volumes are meant to satisfy both the scholar and the lay reader. Each volume has a transliteration of the original Sanskrit text on the left-hand page and an English translation on the right, as also a helpful introduction and notes.
Alongside definitive translations of the great Indian epics—30 or so volumes will be devoted to the Mahabharat itself—Clay Sanskrit Library makes available to the English-speaking reader many other delights: The earthy verse of Bhartrihari, the pungent satire of Jayanta Bhatta and the roving narratives of Dandin, among others. All these writers belong properly not just to Indian literature, but to world literature.
One work of Sanskrit literature that for long has belonged to world literature is Kalidasa’s great play, Abhigyanashakuntala, or, The Recognition of Shakuntala. Translated into English for the first time in 1789 by British scholar William Jones, then translated by a high court judge in Kolkata, the play found a wide audience in Europe and was swiftly retranslated into several other European languages.
The great German poet Goethe was struck by the beauty of Kalidasa’s verse and enthused, “If you want heaven and earth contained in one name/I say Shakuntala and all is spoken.” Goethe put into his play, Faust, a prologue similar to the one in Shakuntala, in which a director and an actress mull over what to play for an audience of “sophisticated spectators”, before deciding on a play with a plot “devised by Kalidasa”.
Sanskrit is a notoriously difficult language to translate and, since the 18th century, many other translators have grappled with the power of Kalidasa. Somadeva Vasudeva’s elegant new translation of Shakuntala for Clay Sanskrit Library is the latest of several extant translations, such as the one by Arthur Ryder, translated in 1912.
Kalidasa, court poet of the 5th century Gupta emperor, Chandragupta II, took the plot line for his play from an episode in the Mahabharat, changing it slightly for his dramatic purposes. On a hunting expedition in the forest, the king Dushyanta—Kalidasa’s heroes are always kings, their actions having ramifications not just for themselves, but for the entire world—meets, in a hermitage, the beautiful “forest-dweller” Shakuntala, daughter of a nymph. They fall in love and marry secretly.
Dushyanta leaves behind his signet ring with Shakuntala, but because of a sage’s curse, he is unable to recognize her when she later arrives at his court, pregnant, but having lost the ring. Shamefully abandoned and alone, Shakuntala is lifted up into the heavens by the gods. When the ring is later found in a fish’s belly, the king’s memory returns. But Shakuntala is gone. Many years later—Kalidasa draws out the time-scale of his plot to create an affecting emotional arc—the valiant but grieving Dushyanta fights a war on behalf of the gods and is then reunited with Shakuntala and his young son.
The 7th century poet Banabhatta remarked, “No one fails to feel delight when Kalidasa’s verses are recited; they are sweet and dense, like clusters of buds.” Banabhatta’s flower metaphor is especially apposite, because Kalidasa was a great poet of nature. His work is full of beautiful descriptions of birds, trees, flowers and seasons, sometimes extended to the human realm through metaphors, as in the description of the king as a great tree, that “endures with its crown fierce heat/and cools those sheltering in the shade”. This new translation of Shakuntala presents freshly an evergreen poet in whose work, to quote one of his translators, “all life, from plant to god, is one”.
These are among the two dozen titles from the Clay Sanskrit Library:
What Ten Young Men Did by Dandin
A coming-of-age narrative about the exploits of 10 young princes. Whether describing the workings of “love’s sweet way”, or how a woman cooks rice, Dandin evokes the life of 7th century India in startling detail.
The Emperor of the Sorcerers by Budhaswamin
Another adventure story about a prince, played out in courtesans’ bedrooms and merchant ships as much as the royal palace. The hero, we are told, is to amass 26 wives, but the story breaks off while he is in pursuit of the sixth.
Messenger Poems by Kalidasa, Dhoyi and Rupagoswamin
This collection of three texts about separated lovers communicating through a messenger includes Kalidasa’s famous Meghdootam ( Cloud Messenger).
Love Lyrics by Bhartrihari and Amaru
Bhartrihari is considered, alongside Kalidasa, to be the greatest of the Sanskrit poets. His sensual love poems also reflect his immersion in Hindu and Buddhist culture.
Much Ado About Religion byJayanta Bhatta
A satirical work by a 9th century Kashmiri writer, it features debates between proponents of different religions.
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