The New Indian Classics

Will the Murty Classical Library avert a crisis in Indian classics?

By Kanishk TharoorApril 13, 2015

    Sufi Lyrics by Bullhe Shah. Harvard University Press. 496 pages.

    Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition by Surdas. Harvard University Press. 1072 pages.

    The History of Akbar, Volume 1 by Abu’l-Fazl. Harvard University Press. 656 pages.

    The Story of Manu by Allasani Peddana. Harvard University Press. 656 pages.

    Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women

    AT AN ANNUAL CONVENTION of Indian scientists in Mumbai this January, one speaker made a startling claim. Anand J. Bodas argued that as far back as 7,000 years ago, Indians were flying aircraft. These planes, he claimed in a lecture titled “Ancient Indian Aviation Technology,” had 40 engines, sophisticated radar, nimble exhaust systems, and were capable of exiting the earth’s atmosphere to visit other planets. Bodas didn’t cite archaeological or other empirical data in making his case. Instead, he pointed to the ancient Sanskrit scriptures known as the Vedas, interpreting certain sections as manuals for the construction and equipment of planes.

    The speech won national attention mostly for its absurdity, widely ridiculed and parodied with Twitter hashtags. But it also sparked some serious conversations about how Indians understand their history. As eccentric as Bodas’s lecture may seem, its unswerving mytho-historical nationalism has many adherents, including the current prime minister. When still chief minister of the state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi wrote a foreword to school textbooks claiming that the flying chariot of Rama in the epic tale The Ramayana was proof that Indians zipped around in aircraft thousands of years ago. As recently as last October, Modi reiterated his belief that ancient Indians were schooled in plastic surgery, since the god Ganesh has the body of a human and the head of an elephant. Such woolly statements seem almost quaint, but they are part of the ruling party’s larger aim to define heterogeneous India by a Hindu civilizational identity. The foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, demanded in December that the Bhagawad Gita, a much-loved Hindu scripture, be declared a “national book.”

    One of the paradoxes of modern India is that, while there is on the surface tremendous interest in the country’s ancient history, there is also the dwindling ability and appetite to engage with the past seriously. Mytho-nationalist claims about the achievements of ancient Indians rest on interpretations of historical texts, but most Indians, including those who seek to defend history from the crude uses of politicians, have never read these texts, nor are they even capable of reading them. Bodas can be accused of willfully (and wishfully) misreading the Vedas, but at least he tried to read them.

    Some of the best-selling books in the country are “mythological thrillers,” a genre made famous by the writer Amish Tripathi (who, like a Brazilian soccer star, goes only by his first name Amish). His Shiva trilogy has sold millions of copies and been translated from English into local languages. It peddles a fantasy of the god Shiva as a man hacking and slashing across the breadth of ancient India. Its popularity stems not simply from its vigorous action, but also its insistent and inventive descriptions of ancient architecture, dress, and customs. That visceral connection to another time — however chimerical — is what the trilogy’s fans crave, a simulacra of the Hindu past.

    In an entirely different arena — the bureaucratic wranglings of state governments — one observes similar phenomena. India is the only country in the world to give “classical status” to languages. There are 22 “scheduled,” or official, languages in India, six of which are now deemed classical. The material benefits of classical status are nominal, but it bestows the prestige of antiquity upon a language’s speakers. With a literary tradition stretching back several millennia, Tamil was the first to win this status in 2004. Sanskrit, which remains only a literary and liturgical language despite quixotic attempts in the mid-20th century to revive it as a living tongue, was given the status in 2005. Subsequently, four other languages — Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, and Oriya — have become “classical” after successful petitions. Campaigns are underway for other languages, including Bengali, Marathi, and Kashmiri. One can see a time not too long from now when almost all official languages will be deemed classical, obviating any meaning that the category might have had.

    For anybody with interest in the study of premodern India, this scramble for honorifics is dispiriting. Classical status is seen as an end in itself, a kind of cultural validation, proof of one’s glorious heritage and connection to the land. It taps into the basest impulses of retrograde nationalism. And worse, it has very little to do with producing real knowledge.


    In India, the desire to have a past outstrips the desire to know anything meaningful about it. As a scholarly vocation, the study of the premodern period is in woeful shape. Where once there were many scholars of repute toiling in India’s vast pool of historical manuscripts (which archivists estimate to contain as many as six million texts), their numbers have shrunk considerably. A conference organized in 2009 by the Indian Institute of Advanced Study struggled to find many India-based scholars seriously engaged in the literary study of premodern texts in languages as large as Bengali, Punjabi, Malayalam, Urdu, even Tamil and Hindi.

    “If Indian education and scholarship continue along their current trajectory, the number of citizens capable of reading and understanding the texts of [the pre-1800 era] will very soon approach a statistical zero,” writes Sheldon Pollock, a professor at Columbia University and one of the world’s leading scholars of Sanskrit. He sketches the problem in his essay “Crisis in the Classics” (published in the academic quarterly Social Research in 2011), a cri de coeur for the importance of philology and the study of historical languages in modern society. “India,” he warns, “is about to become the only major world culture whose literary patrimony, and indeed history, are in the custodianship of scholars outside the country.”

    The reasons for this decline warrant an entirely separate piece. Pollock cites several, including the decay of the older disciplines of Indology in the wake of postcolonial studies; the absence of productive centers of classical translation; “Nehruvian materialism,” nativist movements, and “slash-and-burn globalization” in post-independence India; the lack of scholarship translated into and out of local Indian languages; and the sad fact that high-achieving students are dissuaded from pursuing studies in the humanities in general (and the premodern period in particular) for fear of poor job prospects.

    One way to revivify the study of ancient India is to make its literary glories more available to the public. Pollock’s “Crisis in the Classics” essay provided the intellectual and moral urgency for the launch of the Murty Classical Library of India, founded with a generous donation from the family of Indian tech billionaire Narayana Murthy and supervised by Pollock himself. The series promises to publish annually several new English translations of Indian “classics” in bilingual editions. It echoes what the Loeb Classical Library (also published by Harvard University Press) has done for Latin and Greek. The Murty Classical Library’s remit, however, is much, much larger.

    The first five volumes in the series were released this January. Their range demonstrates the great diversity of India’s polyglot literary traditions, featuring texts in Pali (a dead language that was the idiom of the earliest Buddhist scriptures), Telugu, Persian, Brajbhasha, and Punjabi. Texts in a host of other languages, from Tamil to Kashmiri to Sanskrit, await publication in future installments of the Library.


    The oldest text of the five is the Therigatha, an austere and revelatory compendium of poems composed over two thousand years ago by Buddhist nuns, while the youngest, an anthology of the Punjabi Sufi poet Bullhe Shah, dates to the 18th century. The Library’s working definition for “classical” seems to include the entire sweep of literary production before India came under British rule in the late 1700s. That moment of rupture is important for many reasons, not least of which is the unfortunate post-1800 bias of contemporary Indian scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.

    Why read classical texts? In his essay, Pollock argues against the conventional Western paeans to the classics. He quotes Hans-Georg Gadamer, who celebrated the classic as “a kind of timeless present that is contemporaneous with every other present,” and refers to T.S. Eliot’s belief in the fundamental “universality” of the classic, before proposing a completely opposite view.

    To me “classic” means precisely the opposite of what my predecessors understood: a work is classical by reason of its resistance to contemporaneity and supposed universality, by reason of its capacity to indicate human particularity and difference in that past epoch. The classic is not what tells me about shared humanity — or, more truthfully put, what lets me recognize myself as already present in the past, what nourishes in me the illusion that everything has been like me and has existed only to prepare the way for me. Instead, the classic is what gives access to radically different forms of human consciousness for any given generation of readers, and thereby expands for them the range of possibilities of what it means to be a human being.

    Each of the books published by the Library can be explored in the way Pollock hopes, as strange, wondrous gardens hedged in by footnotes and scholarly context. Implicit in the above quotation is an argument against canonization, against tracing the sorts of clean lineages that crystallize in Great Books classes (or, in India, in the projection of modern identities onto antiquity).

    Indeed, we cannot help but feel elsewhere in some of these texts, so far removed from Gadamer’s “timeless present.” Abu’l Fazl’s The History of Akbar — a hagiography of the 16th century Mughal emperor Akbar — spirals on for hundreds of pages in dense and ornamented prose, reminding readers how Persian was for so many centuries the language of power in India. Though elegantly rendered in English by the eminent translator Wheeler M. Thackston (a scholar well known to all students of Persian), the text is a jumble of panegyric, chronicle, geographical description, and horoscope. Its early chapters include a sprawling five-page block of metaphors praising Akbar that range from the formulaic (“eye of the sun of sainthood,” “ennobler of the seed of Adam”) to the bulky (“he who gives splendour to the litter that travels in the homeland”) to the curiously metaphysical (“confidant to the secrets of whiteness and blackness”). Pollock hopes that readers approach a historical text on its own terms. This is easy in the case of The History of Akbar, since it allows few other forms of approach.

    But some of the other texts in the series invite more open readings. The Therigatha records voices of nuns in the earliest Buddhist monasteries. Most of the poems express the relief felt at entry into monastic life. Since ending the cycle of reincarnation is the ultimate Buddhist goal, the phrase “I have become cool, free” recurs as the final line of many poems, and becomes an incantatory refrain over the course of the collection. “The name I am called by means freed,” says one nun, “and I am quite free, well — free from three crooked things, / mortar, pestle, and husband with his own crooked thing. / I am freed from birth and death, / what leads to rebirth has been rooted out.”

    Following Pollock’s suggestion that the classic “gives access to radically different forms of human consciousness,” one could use the 2,000-year-old Therigatha as a window into the way women renounced the world to enter the fledgling Buddhist religious establishment. That reading, however, risks missing the oceanic sadness that wells up from every page. Take, for instance, these verses from a former prostitute:

    As much as the country of Kasi was worth,
    My price was just the same;
    while that was once my value,
    after too many customers
    my worth was cut by half.
    By then I had enough
    of what my body brought
    and wearied I turned away.
    May I not be reborn again and again
    In endless and inevitable births.

    A poem like this became part of a Buddhist corpus because it traced the arc of a human life from the sordid to the sublime, to self-realization and release from the world. There is meant to be great joy in the knowledge of that achievement. And yet as a reader, one cannot help but be touched by the anguish palpable in the poem, the bitterness that would make a woman dread a litany of “endless and inevitable births.” Many of these poems bring us close to female lives beset by eternal problems: abuse, abandonment, poverty. They feel immediate — dare we say contemporary? — in how spiritual triumph rests tragically on a universe of grief.

    A very different text, The Story of Manu, by the 16th-century Telugu poet Allasanni Peddana, throbs with worldliness in its vivacious medley of prose and poetry. Composed in the royal court of the Vijayanagara kings of southern India, the work tells the story of the birth of Manu, a mythological figure seen as one of several progenitors of the human race. Its major drama is the imperviousness of Pravara, a Brahman, to the temptations of Varuthini, an immortal spirit, who tumbles in love with him at first sight. “She stared at him. / Like tiny bursts of smoke / that proved she was burning / with love, the hairs on her body / stood on end.” An unabashed sensuality fills The Story of Manu, one that readers of Western texts from a similar period may find surprising. The story drifts away from its protagonists into a roaming prose description of a world trembling with love: “Women, willingly acceding to their lovers’ wish, made love to them on top, like a man; sweat pouring from their exhausted bodies melted the colors that were painted on them and settled as beads on their skin, and as the moonlight was reflected off these drops they took on the white beauty of dried, cracked sandal paste.” Gazing at Pravara, Varuthini is so overcome that she sheds her immortal being.

    Like the beetle that,
    from concentrating on the bee, becomes
    a bee, by taking in that human being
    she achieved humanity
    with her own body.

    The image of a beetle becoming a bee by “concentrating on the bee” speaks to the culturally specific conceit of bhramara-kita-nyaya, described in the endnotes as “transformation through mental obsession.” Readers don’t need to know that to appreciate its evocation of the very human power of desire. In moments like these, there is no tension between the particularity and universality of the text. Those dimensions are happily mingled.

    Pravara escapes from Varuthini, claiming that if he surrenders to her, he will fail in his duties to maintain the priestly fires and perform the daily rituals required of him as a Brahman. “Don’t speak to me about these fleeting pleasures,” he says to her, “like honey / on a mustache.” His stubbornness is a victory for the normative order. But in a text that so relishes sexual detail, that conjures a natural and heavenly world drenched in desire and the achievement of desire, it’s difficult to shake the sense that both the poet and his audience are laughing at Pravara’s prudishness.

    V.N. Rao and David Shulman’s nimble translation makes what otherwise might have been a baroque and chaotic text a pleasure to read. It also gives readers access to historical literature from southern India, a region whose written traditions rarely win the same national recognition as those from the North.

    The last two texts in the series are both from the North; they are also the most recent, and by far the best known. Sur’s Ocean, a collection of poems from the 17th century attributed to Surdas but likely composed by various poets over a period of time, tells the famous story of Krishna, the avatar of Vishnu, as he loves and wars over the Gangetic basin. And the 18th century verses of the Punjabi Sufi poet Bullhe Shah remain popular today. Both the poems of Surdas and Bullhe Shah crossed boundaries of faith and were celebrated by Hindus and Muslims alike. Many Muslim rulers of late Mughal India knew the tale of Krishna and read Surdas’s stories in illuminated manuscripts (in the recently re-opened Islamic galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, you can find an exquisite miniature of Krishna raising a mountain above his village to shelter it from the wrathful rain of the god Indra). A devout Sufi, Bullhe Shah sought what was common to all: “If you attend carefully, there are no unbelievers, whether they are called Hindu or Turk. / Whenever I look, only he, only he exists. Bullha, the lord is contained in every color.”

    In coming years, the Murty Classical Library will continue to broaden this array of voices from India’s past. Many reviewers have welcomed the publication of these books at a time when the Hindu nationalist government is waging culture wars and manipulating history for the sake of its civilizational agenda. The implication is that Indian secularists should celebrate the diversity on show in these texts, laud them as further proof of the inescapable pluralism of the country. That emphasis risks reducing these full, sometimes contradictory documents to blunt tools. They remain carefully constructed artifacts, open equally to wonder and critical study. A castle built from their fine grain will always be in danger of collapse.


    Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories, a forthcoming collection of short fiction.

    LARB Contributor

    Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories, a forthcoming collection of short fiction. His stories and essays have appeared in publications in India, the US, the UK, and the Middle East. He has been nominated for the National Magazine Award.


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