The great Orientalists who educated India about its culture and its history were raised in a particular tradition. They studied the Classics of literature and history, both European and Asian. Men like Thomas Rhys Davids, whose translation from Pali of Buddha’s long discourses, the Digha Nikaya, is part of Max Müller’s superb 50-volume Sacred Books of the East series.
Müller himself studied Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, French, German and English, and of course Latin and ancient Greek. We know this because he reproduces his college timetable in his autobiography. He then learnt Pali on the job, though he writes elsewhere that it wasn’t up to the mark.
The Penguin Classics series includes more than 1,000 books
In Müller’s time, the texts of Greece and Rome were only available to those at university, because there were no simple translations. In 1946 this changed, when Penguin published E.V. Rieu’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey. Later The Iliad was translated, and this is the right order, for The Odyssey, though sequentially after The Iliad, is a poorer work and likely written before it.
Penguin Classics is today a series of over 1,000 books, and it is the greatest collection of books in the world. You can find them increasingly in Indian book stores, identifiable by their black covers and standard typography. In India most of these books sell for Rs250, half the price they cost abroad. Asked once by Penguin’s boss John Makinson what sort of books Penguin should concentrate on selling in India, I said the Classics. This was for selfish reasons, because they constitute the bulk of my reading in English.
One must read them chronologically, beginning with Homer. Then comes Herodotus, the father of history, in whose work is the story of Persia’s invasion of 490 BC which concludes when the Greeks are defeated at Thermopylae. After this was written the greatest text of history I have ever read, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Written with a cold and observant eye, he describes the savage struggle between Athens and Sparta.
Athenians loved theatre and the principal works of their playwrights have survived after 2,300 years. These writers were the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and the comic Aristophanes, who is my favourite writer of plays, better than Shakespeare. In all, Penguin Classics has about 60 books translated from ancient Greek, and another 50 or so from Latin. These sit at the core of Western civilization, and it isn’t possible to understand the West without reading them.
Back to the source: Plutarch’s dramatic material on Cleopatra, Antony and Caesar gave Shakespeare some of his plots;
After the playwrights came the philosophers. First Socrates, who wrote nothing but was made immortal by his student Plato, and then Aristotle, the two most important writers in the world. Plato is the origin of Christianity’s heaven and hell, and of Islam’s Sufism.
In India, Buddha was occupied by the same questions as Plato: Is the universe eternal? Is it infinite? Is the soul eternal? Is it separate from the body?
If we still wonder about the same things today, it shows how little we actually know. Buddha’s answer was: We don’t have enough information, and so long as we don’t, these things are unimportant. Buddha urges us therefore to ignore the world and look inward for answers instead, a lethal teaching which is responsible for India’s problems.
Socrates and Plato also rejected the senses, and the world had to wait for Plato’s disciple Aristotle to introduce the scientific method through observation. Aristotle’s works are partially available on Penguin Classics, and there are six books, including his great work on storytelling, The Poetics. Everything we know about theatre and film-making begins with this slim text.
Aristotle is a difficult writer, and, unlike Plato, it isn’t easy to read his works through. This is because what we have left, about 3,000 pages, is mainly his notes, not his finished texts, passed down to us through the great Arab scholars. But to understand how man began to think scientifically, it is necessary to read him fully.
Aristotle’s disciple was Alexander, and he inclined towards not learning, but war. Greek writers always called the occupant of the Persian throne Great (Megas), and Alexander was called The Great not because of his conquests but because he despatched Darius The Great. Alexander actually fought only two major battles: at Issus and at Gaugamela, and he was reckless in both. All of Alexander’s other battles—from those in Central Asia to the one at Jhelum—are skirmishes.
Alexander regretted that while Achilles had Homer to make him immortal, he, Alexander, would not have someone to record his equally great feats. But this isn’t true and there are three books on Alexander, by Arrian, Curtius Rufus and Plutarch. All are available in Penguin Classics.
The greatest moment in Plutarch, and one of the most dramatic in all Greek texts, is the story of Alexander meeting 10 sadhus in Punjab. Told about their wisdom, he threatens to execute them if they cannot answer his questions. Even though his 10 questions are all difficult (“Who are more, the dead or the living?”), the sadhus’ responses are superb (“The living, for the dead are no longer with us”).
Plutarch called Herodotus the “father of lies”. But Plutarch isn’t above the fib himself, and his theatrical material on Cleopatra, Antony and Caesar was lifted by Shakespeare.
Penguin Classics has plenty of Plutarch, almost all of his Greek and Roman Lives, a series of biographies, and one book of his essays, though not the one which contains the famous riddle: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
We have spoken so far about the Greek texts but the Latin ones, though not as powerful, are as entertaining. From the bawdy poems of Catullus to the speeches of Cicero. History’s most famous Roman, Julius Caesar, did not make the mistake Alexander did, and recorded his own great acts. He wrote two fine works, The Conquest of Gaul and The Civil War, referring to himself in the third person (“I came, I saw, I conquered” is Plutarch, not Caesar). These are the sort of books that can be reread, and I often go back to my collection on afternoons when there is little to do.
Penguin Classics has works as recently written as the 20th century, and the series has immense range. V.S. Naipaul said in an interview that as his first book he wanted to translate the 16th century Spanish novel Lazarillo de Tormes for Penguin Classics, but it wasn’t seen as a classic. He wrote Miguel Street instead. Lazarillo de Tormes was eventually published by Penguin Classics.
The most sensual and erotic poetry I have read—in any language—is the Gatha Saptashati, written by Hala over 1,500 years ago in Marathi Prakrit. This is one of several Indian texts on the Penguin Classics list. Another is the first Indian autobiography, Ardhakathanak, written by the trader Banarasidas during Jahangir’s reign. A third is the other contender for first Indian autobiography, Baburnama. Babur’s writing is simple and direct and, like The Iliad, with excellent action sequences.
Of our epics, the Mahabharat is also well-described, though it is not in the Penguin Classics list (there is a great 17-volume published by the Writers’ Workshop). The Ramayan is disappointing because the observation ability of Valmiki is poor. One chapter is the exception, the sensational one where Hanuman records the exhausted state of Ravana and his harem after a prolonged orgy (bet your grandmother left that out). Penguin’s Ramayan is translated and abridged by Arshia Sattar, who leaves out an important and telling detail from the Ashwamedha. Ram’s mother Kaushalya despatches a horse, separating its neck from its shoulder with three sword blows. This tells us more than a thousand verses describing her piety, and we can only learn our texts by actually reading them.
I was driven to all these great works not early in life, for Gujaratis have no use for such education. When I dropped out of high school it was not a matter for concern or comment among my friends and relatives. I do not have a degree and there is not a single graduate in my family.
But I have tried to teach myself, and done so by replicating, however poorly, the method of the Orientalists.
The only proper education is a Classical one, and it comes out of reading the primary texts. If you seek it, no matter how old you are, I hasten you towards these magnificent works.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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