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Ancient But Contemporary: On Translating Sanskrit Classics

Former diplomat AND Haksar has translated the works of Kalidasa, Bhartrihari and Vatsyayana, among others. Here, he writes about what he has discovered in the course of translating Sanskrit classics into English

books Updated: May 25, 2018 16:42 IST
AND Haksar
AND Haksar
Hindustan Times
Kalidasa would have been transfixed: Amaltas or the Indian laburnum in bloom in Delhi. (Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times)
Ritusamharam; Kalidasa; Translated by AND Haksar; 176pp, Rs 399; Penguin

Summer has arrived, my dear.
The sun is fierce, the moon sought after;
to plunge in pools of shaded water
is to be immersed in pleasure;
lovely is the end of day
when desire calmed does stay.

Translations from classics can open new doors, both for the reader and the translator. The verse above is from my translation of Kalidasa’s Ritusamharam, which came out this April as a Penguin Classic subtitled ‘A Gathering of Seasons’. It gave me a glimpse of the great poet’s fresh and unadorned approach to nature, and will hopefully do the same for the reader. My latest, it follows the Shatakatraym, that is Three Hundred Verses, of Bhartrihari, published in the same series last year. The Raghuvamsam of Kalidasa and the Suleiman Charitra of Kalyana Malla were published in the preceding years. Most of my books have come out in this popular series.

The first three are great works from what is generally regarded as a peak period of classical Sanskrit. They are all well known texts and the second and third have been frequently translated. The last, composed a thousand years later, is little known. Except for an excerpt, it had never been translated before. Moreover, it is based on external sources from the Middle East rendered into the classic Sanskrit idiom. This should give readers an idea of some of the more famous aspects of the ancient language, and others that often remain in the shadows.

The aspects presently best known are the religious and the philosophic. Apart from the celebrated Bhagavad Gita, and the two great epics, these include many other scriptural works, and also some liturgical texts, especially hymns. Some classics from the peak period are also a part of general knowledge. But others in prose and poetry, like satires, comic and erotic verse, and narratives in more colloquial languages are little known or translated so far.

Watch more: AND Haksar on his translation of 5th century Sanskrit poet Bhartrihari’s Three Thousand Verses

I discovered this gradually in the course of my translation efforts. These began much earlier when I was trying to revive my Sanskrit knowledge through translating from popular works studied long ago in school. Some publisher found them of interest. The first was Tales from the Panchatantra (NBT), followed by some Bhasa plays (The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays). This encouraged attempts to translate other popular works I had never studied before, and also discover new dimensions of the language.

The first was the Dasa Kumara Charitam of Dandin in prose, followed by the fables of the Hitopadesa and Simhasana Dvatrimsika or stories of King Vikramaditya, all of which I had never read before. By then, I was also keen to bring lesser-known or translated works into the mainstream of modern reading. The first of these was Shuka Saptati, or Seventy Tales of the Parrot (Rupa). Unlike usual classics, these tales are often set in common everyday backgrounds, in some rural area or in small towns, and use common and occasionally vulgar language. The next was Arya Shura’s Jatakamala (Harper Collins), the first set of Buddha stories told in Sanskrit rather than Pali. It was followed by Madhavanala Katha, a love-story in simple language, never before translated into English, and published as Madhav and Kama (Roli).

These were followed by a selection from the Subhashitavali, a Sanskrit verse anthology compiled in 16th century Kashmir. Apart from extracts from famous classics, it included stanzas that were religious and philosophic, romantic, didactic, and erotic, satiric and comic, and some that reflected a cultural intermingling. This work provided further discoveries. Here is a comic satiric verse in common language:

‘Doctor, I am sick with fever,
say what is the remedy.’
‘Drink a cup of some strong liquor,
and bring another one for me.’

AND Haksar ( Courtesy Penguin )

A further pursuit of Sanskrit satire led me to those by the multifaceted writer Kshemedra from 11th century Kashmir. These are four remarkable works that reveal an aspect seldom associated with the language of the gods. The shorter ones were translated as Three Satires from Ancient Kashmir, and the fourth as Samaya Matrika or the Courtesan’ Keeper. The former focuses on corruption in government, hypocrisy in religion and greed in business a thousand years ago, in terms that could find resonance even in the present age. The latter dwells vividly on the night life of the times with a directness of style described by a reviewer as brilliant and naughty. Another, by the same author, was Darpadalana or The Ending of Arrogance, also translated for the first time (Rasala).

In the course of my work, I was asked by Penguin to do a fresh translation of the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana for their classics series. This was another discovery. Contrary to the notoriety this book acquired in the last century and a half, it is not just about sex, which constitutes merely one of its seven sections. It is rather a manual for both men and women, covering all aspects of love, sex, social life and relationships, treating pleasure as a natural end, and enjoyment as an art.

I am currently exploring yet another example of cultural intermingling in Sanskrit, regarded by many as a self-contained language. This work invokes the Prophet of Islam as Paigambar Shiromani or the crown jewel of prophets. It is a Sanskrit rendition of a famous text in Persian based on Arabic and Biblical sources. I hope to write more about it once it is fully translated.

First Published: May 25, 2018 16:37 IST