Amaru and Bhartri-hari,
translated by Greg Bailey
Bilhana, edited and translated by Richard Gombrich
Clay Sanskrit Library: New York University Press, 2005
380 pp.; $22.00 (cloth)
At one point Henry David Thoreau may have owned the single largest collection of Sanskrit books on our continent. A British friend and disciple, Thomas Cholmondeley, had sent them from London, the gift of an admirer who thought he might assist Henry’s spiritual growth. Thoreau built a bookcase with his own hands and proudly displayed the strange volumes to visitors. He never bothered to learn the language, not even the alphabet, telling one friend that for all he knew he had the world’s wisdom in his bedroom. What if he learned the tongue and discovered all he owned was a bunch of old books?
Since at least Thoreau’s day, we North Americans have been fascinated with India’s juicy spiritual traditions, its poetry of excruciating desire, its magnificent music, wild folk arts, medicine, and glittering metaphysics. Anyone hoping to consult the original languages, though, finds the resources frustratingly limited. Living in Colorado, as I do, if I want to dig into that “paradise of texts,” I have to travel a distance about the width of India to raid a library. Very few collections of Sanskrit deep enough for research are housed anywhere in North America. Now, twenty-five hundred years after the death of Shakyamuni Buddha, the ambitious Clay Sanskrit Library may remedy this state of affairs.
The Clay is a series of winsomely compact, hardbound volumes, in turquoise dust jackets. They have been modeled in size and format on Harvard University’s bilingual Loeb classics, which issues ancient Greek in green and Latin in red. Published by New York University Press, the Clay series will amount to a hundred uniformly designed volumes over the next three years. The project will include all of the two major epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and dozens of spiritual, dramatic, and satirical volumes that most Americans have never heard of. Buddhist biographies and folklore will appear; Kalidasa’s plays; intricate volumes of Hindu mythology. And happily, for the enthusiast, much of the notablekavya (poetry) produced in India between the fourth century and about the twelfth. The original Sanskrit—this holds true for every volume—will not appear in devanagari, the standard North Indian script. The editors decided to romanize it, which is good news for anyone who doesn’t know the Indic alphabet. That way anyone can sound out a bit of verse or wisdom text, which is a profound opportunity since the Sanskrit science of word magic is one of its highest accomplishments.
Harvard’s Loeb Classics are mostly quite old now. Their translations range from the unpretentious to the sort of fusty, neo-Victorian “englishing” that twisted Sappho of the bright-petaled foot and wily-minded Odysseus into objects of torture, and rendered Catullus—tender, angry, libidinous Catullus—toothless. The Clay will benefit by having up-to-date translations, free of the squeamishness that neutered the Victorian era’s pioneer Sanskrit books. Love Lyrics, one of the first volumes in the Clay Library to appear, contains the full output that survives by three principal poets of old India, Bhartri-hari, Amaru, and Bilhana. It is a good place to experience some deeply human poetry in readable modern versions.
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