The modern revivalists

Rohan Murty and Sheldon Pollock, the duo behind the Murty Classical Library of India, on the difficulties of translation, finding regional literary gems, and the politicization of Sanskrit


Murty (left) and Pollock at the launch of the MCLI in New Delhi on 15 January. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Murty (left) and Pollock at the launch of the MCLI in New Delhi on 15 January. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

As a PhD student at Harvard, Rohan Murty, son of Infosys co-founder N.R. Narayana Murthy, started reading translations of ancient Sanskrit texts, discovering, as he says, the depth of intellectual thought in ancient India. At around the same time, Sheldon Pollock, Arvind Raghunathan professor of South Asian studies at Columbia University, was on the hunt for a “bhoja raj” who would help him set up an upgraded version of the Clay Sanskrit Library—which has translated more than 50 Sanskrit texts into English. Pollock was its general editor.

Five years after Murty made a personal gift of $5.2 million (around Rs.31.72 crore now) in the form of an endowment (and is now referred to in terms that make him feel like “the Bruce Wayne of classics”), the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) launched this month in New Delhi with five books.

Murty and Pollock talked to us about their individual motivations in setting up the MCLI to bring back on the table ancient Indian texts in 15-17 languages, how Sanskrit was historically a great unifier, and apprehensions about the future of classical studies in India.​ Edited excerpts:

How did the MCLI come about? It’s very close to the Clay Sanskrit Library in spirit, isn’t it?

Pollock: With very considerable differences. I corresponded with Sharmila Sen (of the Harvard University Press) on 5 January 2009, saying that the Clay Sanskrit Library of which I had become editor was coming to an end and I wanted to find a way to build on that visionary project, but expand it for a new audience.

John Clay, the benefactor of the Clay Sanskrit Library, had decided to move on to other philanthropic activities. So the library was closed and many translators were left hanging. They had done one part of a series, Book 1 of Kadambari, Books 2 and 3 were just “sorry, bye”. The Mahabharat was not completed, The Ramayan was not completed, and so on. I want to praise John Clay for his extraordinary vision, but many people were blindsided by the sudden termination of the library and I felt that was unfair.

By the same token I felt there were features of the Clay library that were ill-considered: There was no Indian edition. How are the people of India supposed to get this book; the Indic text was in Romanized form, English letters that nobody in India could ever read, I could hardly read it; the biggest thing was that this was only Sanskrit and Indian literature was much bigger than Sanskrit.

So when John said no, I don’t want you to go raise money for me, I don’t want to continue the series, it is what it is, thank you, bye-bye—that was in October 2008—I contacted my various, you know, burra sahib type of friends. One of the first people I talked to was Gurcharan Das, an old dear friend here in Delhi—he and I are guru bhais, we had the same teacher at Harvard. He was very helpful, set up some meetings with people who cared about Indian heritage. It failed. Nobody was prepared to give anything.

The text in its original script runs alongside the English translation on the facing page.
So I wrote to Sharmila. I laid out a plan: multilingual, original Indic text in appropriate script, and that we needed money. I wanted an endowment, I didn’t want to be hand-to-mouth; I needed a bhoja raj. Over the next nine months, through a slightly circuitous process, we came to know Rohan Murty. And six years later…

The text in its original script runs alongside the English translation on the facing page.

Murty: As a PhD student in computer science, I used to read a fair bit in other disciplines quite seriously, and it was through a series of fortuitous accidents that I ended up taking a graduate course in the Sanskrit department, which is now the Indian studies department, on philosophy in ancient India, on Kumarila Bhatta’s Shlokavartika, where we studied debates between different philosophers like Kumarila Bhatta and Dignaga and Dharmakirti, and this is not something that I had ever sort of experienced.

I’d read about Western philosophy, I’d read about ancient Greece, and mathematics and so on, but to me it was a very exciting enterprise to be able to understand that there was very deep intellectual thought in ancient India.

I then started to be curious about what was science like in ancient India, what was philosophy, polity, astronomy like. And the more I read, the more excited I got, because this was a part of India that I never knew existed. Maybe I was particularly daft, but when I look back (at our school education), pretty much everything revolved around the 13th or 14th century—that too, sporadic events—and nothing before that. And certainly nothing about the diversity and richness of what I got to experience through these things.

And so for three years, every semester I would take one graduate course, and do it very seriously, something to do with ancient India. So I learnt Buddhist philosophy, Nyaya philosophy, Panini’s grammar, which, as a computer scientist, to me was extraordinary. You know, there are many parts of computer science grammar that seemed to look very much like what Panini did back in those days.

I am not well-versed in Sanskrit or any of these languages, and the only reason I was able to access most of these texts was because there were one-off efforts by people to translate them. A professor at Harvard told me of the Clay Sanskrit Library effort, which had ended by then. And I looked it up and bought a couple of books and read them. So I was very much, in my mind, ready to be part of something like this.

And then, of course, Gurcharan Das and a friend, Pavan Ahluwalia, connected me with Prof. Pollock.

Was it difficult finding translators, especially Indian translators? The first five books that you’ve launched have mostly been translated by people from outside India.

Pollock: No, we’ve signed up within a year 36 translators to produce 48 volumes, some multi-volume books. Kamban Ramayana has seven volumes, and it’s a good example, since it has seven translators. Two translators are Indian, and that proportion (around 20%) pretty much holds true across the board.

We started with people we knew. Some projects were already under way, where the authors were keen to place these ongoing projects in a series with great scholarly value and the prestige and experience of the Harvard University Press, and that partly accounts for the opening group of books. But in the long term, we are looking everywhere, high and low, for the best scholar translators we can find, wherever they may be. We have a young scholar in Bengaluru, Vanamala Viswanatha, working on an old Kannada text, Harishchandra (Kavya) by Raghavanka, a very important text.

Two things I do want to say, one a philosophical thing and one a demographic observation. There was a great poet and intellectual in early ninth century Kashmir who wrote a very famous verse (which, translated, means) it’s only small-minded people who say this person belongs to us and that person is an outsider/the noble people say that the whole world is a family.

From a philosophical point of view, we want the best people to do the work. And some of these will be people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, many will be from India. That is our hope and our desire and we continue to look high and low. And my hope is that this launch will inspire people to come forward with strong projects.

The demographic point is that Indian classics have not been cultivated in India with any intensity. Let me give you an example. When I arrived in Delhi last year, I was asked to give a lecture at the new Ashoka University in Haryana to 300 very sharp students, and I asked them how many had ever taken a course in classical Indian literature. Had they read Kalidasa, Mahabharat, Indian philosophy or Indian science? Not a single one of these best and brightest kids had ever had a single course. The knock-on effect of that is that when they become scholars they are not going to have the training and depth to do the type of work that the Murty library needs done.

Murty: Can I add to that, from my own limited personal experience, and I am not unique in this. Even at a younger age, in school, we studied The Merchant Of Venice, Hamlet, (Charles) Dickens and we even read O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman. I don’t have any complaints about any of these things. But of course when you are in the IX standard in India and you are reading about the American Civil War, you don’t know what the “civil war” really means, because of your limited understanding of their history, and you don’t really know who Abraham Lincoln is and why there is a captain of a ship. But at least in some abstract sense, we enjoyed it very much. But what is surprising is that we never had a chance to read (Indian classical texts). Maybe Kalidasa could have been one of the options.

Pollock: And the text will be there in Tamil script. And there will be kids who will be flummoxed, confused by the script, but within a weekend (they will learn it). I don’t know if you saw Chetan Bhagat’s piece in The Times Of India the other day about saving Hindi by Romanization (of the script). It was about the silliest thing I had ever read. You can learn Devanagari in approximately two days.

In addition to the Tamil text and a good translation, there will be notes to make sense of the work, and we’re trying to provide as many sources of guidance and support as we can, particularly for young people who want to recover something of these riches.

What needs to be done to improve the level of scholarship in the country?

Pollock: I want to be very careful about preaching from my seminar chair in New York City to people in India. It’s not appropriate for me to do that. This is a great civilization which has had for 2,000 years the most extraordinary contribution to world literature. I have been coming to India since 1973 and have worked with all kinds of traditional pandits whom I have found to be the most extraordinary intellectuals that I have ever met. And I have met plenty of Harvard and Oxford men. These were men of great intellectual power and accomplishment. These people are fewer now.

I have studied classical Kannada with one of the greatest Kannada scholars in the world, T.V. Venkatachala Sastry in Mysuru, for more than eight months. Once I asked Sastryji, where are the younger students, and he said there were none. I met not a single student of Venkatachala Sastry in nine months of living with him in Mysuru. So there’s some deficit; the old brilliance is now gone, there’s a deficit among younger scholars.

This is not a judgement on my part, not a prescription on my part. It is one man’s anecdotal evidence from 40 years of working in India and registering impressions. And those impressions are very unfavourable for the future of classical studies in India.

I may be completely wrong, there may be wonderful things going on of which I am utterly unaware, but the humanities capacity in India seems to have been diminished over the last 50-60 years.

How does the politicization of the Sanskrit language affect this?

Pollock: Sanskrit has a 3,000-year history, to use a conservative estimate, and over the course of this history, it has lived many lives, and the most remarkable long-lasting transformative life of Sanskrit has been as a unifier of India, not as a divider, unifying Buddhists and Jains, unifying across social orders. It was not the preserve of a narrow elite of a particular religious community. It was very, very widespread.

Not only that but Sanskrit was the engine that helped regional languages reach literacy, literary status across an area far vaster than Europe, all the way to Java and Bali. So you have a history of Sanskrit as a great unifier, and this continued into the 17th-18th centuries, when we have Persian poets who lived side by side with Sanskrit poets. The Murty classical library is an event we are celebrating. Governments will come and go.

You've been working with manuscripts in Kerala. Are there more such hidden gems you know of?

Pollock: I have just taken a digital archive of material that had disappeared from Kashmir, and is now found only in Kerala. Yes, countless such archives exist and are ignored, tens and thousands of books and manuscripts in India that have been awaiting the attention of scholars in dozens of languages. And I am hoping that the Murty library will be the place where some of these hitherto unread texts will find a place. We are publishing the first strong version of a Prakrit text—Prakrit has never been properly translated before.

Murty: The hope is that the endowment grows and whatever gains it has can be used, as Prof. Pollock is saying, to publish ad infinitum.

Besides the endowment, Mr Murty, what has been your role in the library?

Murty: Once it started, Prof. Pollock, myself and a few other stakeholders at Harvard sat down and discussed our collective vision, and what we want to achieve out of it. We all come from different vantage points. I am a good case study of what the series can do, so my interest was how do we make these books accessible to large numbers of readers in India.

I hope we will soon have a digital edition, which I personally would love to be priced as low as possible, even free if we can. (I was involved) more so in the earlier days when we were trying to figure out our larger vision and strategies to get there. But if we want this to survive all our lifetimes, we need to have an institutional framework within which it will work, so we have a governing structure where Prof. Pollock heads the editorial board, we have trustees as well. So it is literally on its own.

The Murty Classical Library of India books, priced at Rs.1,495-1,695, are available at book stores and online.

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