A Library That Can Salvage So Much For India

Published: March 10, 2015 01:50 IST

Phiroze Vasunia is Professor of Greek at University College London and the author, most recently, of  'The Classics and Colonial India' (Oxford, 2013).

In order to understand the importance of the Murty Classical Library of India, we should look to the success of the Loeb Classical Library.  In the Anglophone world, without the Loeb Classical Library, and without series such as the Penguin Classics, the popularity of Homer and Virgil in schools and universities would be a fraction of what it is today.  The Loeb Classical Library, in particular, is consulted by students and teachers, scholars and laypersons; it has opened up the field of Greek and Roman antiquity to thousands if not millions of readers.  For many ancient Greek and Roman authors, the standard edition is the edition that appears in the Loeb series; in many cases, the definitive English translation can be found in the Loeb version.  As early as 1917, Virginia Woolf referred to the Loebs as "a gift of freedom".  The difficulty of classical Greek was so great, she added, that "we shall do well to recognize the fact and to make up our minds that we shall never be independent of our Loeb".  To the delight of students, the early practice of bowdlerizing obscene passages or turning them into French or Italian, rather than English, has long since been discarded, and Loebs now contain accurate English translations of Sappho, Catullus, and the erotic poets of the Greek Anthology.

No such series has existed for any of the major Indian literatures.  A beginning was made with the Clay Sanskrit Library, but that series came to an end in 2009, and in any case it included Sanskrit texts only.  John Clay, the founder, himself died in 2013.  So, it is exciting to learn of the Murty Classical Library of India and the publication of its first five volumes by Harvard University Press, which also publishes the Loeb series. The MCLI will cover not just works in Sanskrit and not just the literature of antiquity, but will provide texts and English translations of works composed before 1800 in Bangla, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Tamil, Telegu, and a number of other languages.

 The texts are in the original script (not in transliteration, as in the Clay series); the translations are accompanied by introductions and notes.  A whole new generation of readers is going to discover the historical literature of South Asia.

Sheldon Pollock, the general editor of the series, supposes that the books just might slow down, or even reverse, the erosion of humanistic learning that has been taking place in India.  A few years ago, Pollock said that "the house of Indian classical language study is not only burning, it lies almost in ashes".  He has a point, and only the most blinkered would deny the truth of his claims.  But at least he and the scholars, editors, and publishers involved in the MCLI are attempting to stem the tide before it's too late.  Of course, one series alone will not revive the study of historical Indian literature or even bring it to parity with the study of Greek and Latin literature outside of India.  And of course, scholars will continue to read the texts in the original languages and not need to rely on translations.  But translation is both a vital component of scholarship and a great disseminator, and the arrival of MCLI is a landmark in the field of Indian letters.

While the understanding of classical Indian languages and literatures is in a relatively frail condition in South Asia, the study of classical Greek and Latin is flourishing in Europe and North America.  We could spend hours discussing why this is so, and talk about the lure of filthy lucre, long histories of colonialism, and differences in educational systems and in cultural priorities.  But the lack of good translations and scholarly resources is among the factors responsible for this melancholy state of affairs in India.  And one reason for the current vitality of the Greek and Latin 'Classics' outside India is that the basic texts of the discipline are widely distributed, edited to a high standard, and readily available in translation.  If the MCLI establishes itself, more students and scholars than ever before will gain access to the written literary traditions of South Asia in their linguistic and regional diversity.  If that happens, MCLI actually will help turn around the declining fortunes of classical Indian literature in India.

Pollock remarks in his preface to the series that India has "the single most complex and continuous multilingual tradition of literature in the world".  Thomas Macaulay was not impressed by this tradition.  I have heard colleagues say that Macaulay would have changed his mind if he had been able to read the translations that appear, or will appear, in the Murty Library.  I doubt that: Macaulay was too convinced of the superiority of Western literature to have his mind changed on the point.  Indeed, he would have felt vindicated by the decision to render the translations into English, a language which he thought better worth knowing than Sanskrit or Arabic.  I can understand why the editors decided to choose English as the default language, given the international ambitions of the project.  But it will be interesting to see if any of the texts in the MCLI will be turned into other modern languages as well as into English.

I have also heard commentators say that those who make claims about spaceships and medical cures in Indian antiquity are likely to find their views challenged once these texts are widely disseminated.  No amount of evidence, however rigorously presented, is going to alter the beliefs of "experts" who want to find every conceivable scientific achievement in ancient India.

But for the rest of us, wherever in the world we may live, the Murty Library presents a chance to read and appreciate a multilingual literary history that stretches over some two millennia.  It is a cause to celebrate.

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