Book Review (sort of): Poems from the Sanskrit


Cover art from the Ellora Caves Image source: Buddhism for Vampires

“If learned critics publicly deride

My verse, well, let them. Not for them I wrought.

One day a man shall live to share my thought:

For time is endless and the world is wide”

Bhavabhuti (p.53)

I try not to saturate this blog with book reviews, but I have a justification in this case. This review contains a slew of poems excerpted from the book, which are worth far more than my review, and my numerous tangents. Hit “Continue Reading” and scroll down if you just want to check those out.

John Brough’s Poems from the Sanskrit[1], despite its confusing title, (what is the Sanskrit?) is actually a very charming anthology of translated Sanskrit poems, ranging from roughly the 4th through 10th centuries.

The translator’s stated purpose for compiling this volume is as follows: Normally Sanskrit translators, focus on conveying meaning at the expense of poetic or prosaic style. But since Sanskrit and English grammars differ considerably, meaning focused translations often come across as stilted or sometimes even unreadable. Sanskrit Poetry compounds this problem, because so much literary value is vested in the poetic structure itself (for example: The number, repetition, and weight of syllables.) This is a translation, which attempts to give equal weight to content and form.

Translating a Sanskrit poem into rhyming verse while keeping the original meaning intact is an impossible task. Perhaps a more accurate description of the book is: an anthology of English poems by John Brough, based closely on Sanskrit classics. The purist in me recoils at this prospect, but if you read the poems without wringing your hands over the potential “butchery” of the originals which preceded them, they are actually quite lovely  on their own merits. And based on the samples and explanation of his technique as delineated in the introduction, I have faith that he has amply conveyed at least the basic sense of each work.

I’ll jump right into the verses and save my criticisms for the end:

I noticed some recurring patterns:

Anti-Clericalism: There are a surprising amount of poems in here, which are highly critical of priests, focusing on their hypocrisy foolishness, or exploitation. These are mostly secular poems, but it still surprises me. One has to wonder: Were they talking about priests generally or about “the bad ones” i.e. the heterodox ones?

“‘So, friar, I see you have a taste for meat.’

‘Not that it’s any good without some wine.’

‘You like wine too, then?’ ‘Better when I dine

With pretty harlots.’ ‘Surely such girls eat

No end of money?’ ‘Well, I steal, you see,

Or win at dice.’ ‘A thief and gambler too?’

‘Why, certainly. What else is there to do?

Aren’t you aware I’m vowed to poverty?'”

Sudraka (p.79)


According to Doniger’s theory (described later), this is a “friar” similar to the one who is under critique in the above poem. He is an Aghori, a sect which split off from the Kapalika. The Kapalika would have been contemporaneous to Sudraka. Image source: Flickr

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Freudian Psychoanalysis vs. Intellectual Rigor in Hinduism Studies.


Disagreement and debate have long been central to the Hindu tradition. Here is a mythological debate between Adi Shankara and Vyasa. Image source: Ramakrishna Mission

“The cure for pride is knowledge. Who can cure

A man who’s proud of knowledge?

If the patient should be allergic to amrita,

The prognosis

Is hopeless.”


Those who have read this website since its inception know that it forwards a heterodox perspective on Hinduism. I empathize with Duryodhana and Karna in the Mahabharata, and find Arjuna’s despondency to be justified. I’m deeply interested in naastik sects, and I’m critical of the conception of female morality, which has been derived from characters like Sita or Draupadi. This is the critique of a highly skeptical student of the Hindu philosophical tradition, not the kneejerk response of a blindly reverent follower.

Furthermore, I don’t wholly dismiss the work of the scholars I’m about to criticize. I’ve enjoyed her books immensely, and strongly respect the her work, including her work on eroticism, gender, and sexuality. I’ve cited some of their work in the past, and will continue to do so. Western scholars viewing Hinduism from the outside provide a useful perspective. To quote Wendy Doniger’s introduction to her and Brian Smith’s translation of The Laws of Manu:

“Of course, both native commentators and Orientalists have axes to grind, but they are different sorts of axes. The axe of the native commentator is honed on a more intense and immediate personal involvement in the text, which may give him good reasons to want to misread the text, to fudge or misinterpret the verse in order to make it mean what he thinks it ought to mean. The axe of the Orientalist, on the other hand is sharpened by cultural ignorance and lack of empathy, or a distancing from the culture, which may lead to misinterpretations of a very different sort.”[2]

Doniger isn’t a fool. She understands that she and her colleagues are coming from outside the tradition they study, and that this will necessarily introduce certain biases into their scholarship.

Knowing that she acknowledges her bias, at least in theory, lets proceed to the criticism:

The Short Version:

The main problem, which many Hindus have with her work, and the work of her students, lies in their Freudian approach. Critics from within and outside of Hinduism posit that this methodology is not intellectually rigorous, and often is used to formulate bizarre and (to a believer) denigrating portrayals of the religion based on untested psychological speculation. Defenders of the Freudian approach are quick to point out that though Freudian theories have gone out of style in clinical and research psychology, it is still very much in vogue in philosophy, literary criticism, and religious studies. This is a fair point, but simply being widespread doesn’t make the Freudian lens more tenable in this author’s opinion.

More damningly, the scholars under critique have committed a number of factual inaccuracies and translation errors throughout their work. Worst of all, since these scholars predominate in the field (critics sometimes use the word “cartel”) the peer review process is relatively ineffective in ensuring that their errors don’t make it into journals and published books. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the scholars in question, but is a natural product of in-group bias. As a result, such works are praised, awarded, and often become bestsellers. These portrayals, which are of a decidedly outsider’s perspective form the basis of Hinduism as portrayed in encyclopedias, textbooks, and museums.

However, the response of Doniger and her Freudian colleagues to their critics is what truly raises the moralistic ire of the diasporic Hindu community. When critics such as Rajiv Malhotra (who normally poses unnecessarily aggressive critiques, but in this particular instance his polemic pointed to specific arguments and facts), Swami Tyagananda, S.N. Balagangadhara, or those at the Hindu American Foundation or the number of other Hindu groups point out their denigrating portrayals and inaccuracies, these critics are not treated as “insiders” giving a critique which might be biased in the opposite direction, but which nevertheless deserves consideration and response. They are instead accused of religious radicalism, bigotry, and a proclivity towards violence. It is true that there are Hindu groups and individuals which are guilty of these things, and much of the loudest and most rhetorically effective criticism of Doniger and the Freudians have been from this camp (The funny thing is that while Doniger is normally the centerpiece of this controversy, her writing is mild compared to that of her colleagues.) It is a disaster for free speech that her recent book was pulled from the Indian market at their behest, and their participation in the 2009 California textbook case pushed moderate Hindu voices into the background. But this does not justify conflating criticisms of erroneous content, with criticisms of a more emotional character, nor does it justify tarring their opponents as quasi-terroristic or Hindutva radicals. By this conflation, substantive Hindu critiques aren’t even recognized as legitimate much less addressed.

Let me substantiate this narrative:

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Hariti: Saraswati’s Persian Cousin


Hariti Relief Panel at Candi Mendut, Java. What is an Iranian deity doing in Java?

Hariti’s history goes way back. I’m taking pre-Vedic. Something like 2500 BC or maybe even earlier. At that time the Iranians and Indo-Aryans were still one people– the Indo-Iranians. They worshipped two classes of deities: Devas and Asuras in Sanskrit, or Daevas and Ahuras in Avestan. After the Indo-Iranians split into two distinct civilizations, Vedic civilization (eventually) adopted the Devas as Gods. The Devas were engaged in a perpetual war with the Asuras, which evolved into evil-ish demigods. Ancient East Iranian civilization did the reverse, deifying the Ahuras and demonizing the Daevas (hence words like demon and devil.) The reasons for this reversal is not entirely clear. I’d like to imagine there was a fascinating, but long lost clerical-political drama involved, but who knows. The mystery of this era is half the appeal.

To reiterate and simplify:

Vedic civilization: Devas- Good guys, Asuras- Bad guys

East Iranian civilization: Ahuras- Good guys, Daevas- Bad guys

Vedic civilization had a Devi, a fertility/mother goddess by the name of Saraswati. She was the personification of a main river of Indo-Iranian culture. Therefore, her Iranian equivalent, Harauhuti, or Hariti was a Daevi, and a fertility/mother demon as odd as that sounds.* Hariti was believed to be a highly prolific mother with hundreds of children. The problem is that she would also steal other peoples children in order to cannibalize them and feed them to her young. In practical worship, she was treated as a demon of pestilence who needed to be appeased, probably because disease was a big killer of children.

That was the story, at least until Buddhists came out of the core Indian subcontinent and into modern Afghanistan. The Buddhists modified the original tale to fit better into the Indian cosmology. For instance, they transformed Hariti from a “Daeva” into a Yaksha (nature spirit), and gave her a backstory involving reincarnation. More importantly, they also extended the original tale to include a fateful interaction with the Buddha.**


Hariti with children.”House of Naradakha,” Found in Shaikhan Dheri, Charsada, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. This is a Gandharan piece.

According to the Buddhist legends, the childless victims of Hariti beg the Buddha to save them from her cruelty.*** To help, Buddha waits until Hariti leaves the house and traps her smallest child, Priyankara under his alms bowl. When she returns and cannot find her son she weeps and panics. She scours every city, village, mountain, lake, and forest on Earth. She franticly soars into the hells and into the divine realms in search of her son, even going so far as to demand entrance into the abode of Indra. After exhausting all other options, she too appeals to the Buddha for help. He points out that her suffering is minor compared to the combined suffering of all the mothers whose children she has killed. She agrees, and (although seemingly under duress) agrees to protect those who she formerly devoured if only Buddha renders his assistance. At that, Buddha lifts up his alms bowl and Priyankara hops out safe and sound. Thereafter Hariti converts to Buddhism, quits cannibalism, and becomes a spirit of fertility, childbirth, motherhood, and the protection of children (and also of healing in some areas, such as Southeast Asia where the top image is from.)

One might imagine that this was part of a marketing strategy by the Buddhists. Brand localization. Thats speculation. Anyway, from Afghanistan, Hariti was exported back to India, and the rest of the Buddhist world as a mother goddess and defender of children.

But isn’t this an odd progression? First there was an Indo-Iranian fertility deity which split into Saraswati and Harauhuti/Hariti. Two figures which are basically the same, only one is deified and the other is demonized. From the Indian point of view, Harauhuti is a reversal of Saraswati. Fast forward a few thousand years, the Indian Buddhists come back and adopt the reversed Saraswati, and reverse her once again into Hariti, a fertility spirit (Yaksha.) How many times can this character switch sides? Furthermore, now the Hindu and Buddhist pantheons have a duplication problem. They’ve got two deities with the same origin and function. Saraswati and Hariti both fertility deities based on the same river. I know I know, over time their backstories changed enough to be perceptibly different figures, but its still an interesting mythological duplication.


Saraswati with her veena. Over time she lost a lot of her more blatant “motherly” traits and became more associated with knowledge and the arts.


Hariti: Saraswati’s long lost cousin? You can see she’s crawling with children. Clearly the more blatant fertility/mother deity out of the two.


















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Bengali Feminist Sci-Fi: “Sultana’s Dream” by Roquia Hussain

Read the story here! If you find the writing style basic, keep in mind, English was her fifth language. Its an early work of both feminist literature, and science fiction. I think you’ll dig it.

sul·tan·a [suhl-tan-uh, –tah-nuh] (noun)

1: : a woman who is a member of a sultan’s family; especially: a sultan’s wife

2: a mistress or concubine of a sultan

3: A female sultan *


The Zenana Deodi in the middle of Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, Rajastan. This is from a royal palace, probably a tad fancier than the one Hussein grew up in.

A note on Purdah: This is a customary practice wherein the sexes are segregated, and the movement of females is restricted to the zenana (women’s quarters) with varying levels of severity. It also usually entails the requirement that females wear a veil, burka, or some sort of covering. This was much more common in the middle and upper class than amongst the poor populations. While it exists in both Hindu and Muslim communities, Muslim implementations are generally more severe, hence Roquia Hussain’s consciousness raising efforts.

Some Context: Muslim Reformers in the Bengal Renaissance: Calcutta 1900! A bustling early-capitalist metropolis with a sizable bourgeois and upper class– A set of intellectuals economically capable and philosophically inspired to paint, write, make scientific discoveries, and root out social evils. What a time it must have been to be alive!

Like many intellectual renaissances, the Bengal Renaissance (broadly defined: 1775-1941) entailed a simultaneous harkening back to ancient traditions for inspiration, and a striving for modernity and progress.** Hindu writers and thinkers revived and reinterpreted Vedic/Upanishadic philosophy to combat social ills like sati and the caste system. Likewise, The Muslim intelligentsia entered a period of self-criticism wherein writers looked back to their Islamic traditions for sources of inspiration, and reinterpreted their texts to liberalize Islam from the inside.

Muslim scholars like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, advocated a “continuous, unending process of ijtihad, interpretation according to the needs of the time” and wanted to overhaul the Madrassa system of education much like Hussain. The author Kazi Abdul Wadud honored the prophet Muhammed as “a great man,” and referred to him as “just like a light-house to the sea-voyagers” but denied that he was “omniscient” or an “all-pervading master.” Wazed Ali, another writer, observed “the arrival of a religious reformer is essential for the removal of filth from life. In Muslim society too, high-souled men appeared from time to time to remove filth and to make religion time-befitting.”[1] Do you see a pattern emerging?

Now examine some quotations from our author, Roquia Hussain:

“where there is much rigidity in religion, there is greater oppression of women”[2]

“[religious books are] nothing but man made code.” [3]

“Allah has made no distinction in the general life of male and female — both are equally bound to seek food, drink, sleep and pray five times a day.” [4]

“The opponents of female education say that women will become wanton and unruly. Fie! They call themselves Muslims and yet go against the basic tenet of Islam, which gives women an equal right to education. If men are not led astray once educated, why should women?”[5]   ***

A similar pattern emerges, no?


Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein

Well-intentioned scholars sometimes try to contextualize Roquia Hussain within the global or even western feminist movement.[6] I’ve seen her described as a “contemporary” of Mary Shelley, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Virginia Woolf. But in what sense are they really contemporaries? Hussain’s consciousness raising mission was extremely focused on her own social group. She wrote almost entirely in Bengali, and about issues, like purdah and zenana, which impacted the Bengali Muslim upper and middle classes. [7]  Her writing was not intended for, nor read by western audiences.

Hussain may have been more radical than most of her Bengali cohorts, but she was still firmly within their social and literary milieu. The pattern evident in her nonfiction writing is the same pattern we see in other Bengal Renaissance socio-religious reformers: Liberal reforms are advocated through appeals to religious tradition, while simultaneously jettisoning negative or outdated aspects of that same tradition. Hussein’s religion played a major role in her approach to feminism. Her opposition to purdah coexisted with her encouragement of wearing the veil.[8] She believed in universal education– so long as it was segregated by sex and included Arabic in the curriculum.[9] She believed in the earthly origins of scripture, and also in the God of the Qur’an. This is the tension, or confluence (depending on your perspective) at the heart the Bengal Renaissance.


Other cool Bengal Renaissance stuff:

Complete works of Rabindranath Tagore (Bengali) (English)

Paintings by Abanindranath Tagore 

“The Renaissance in India” a collection of essays by Sri Aurobindo (PDF direct download link)

The Torch Bearers of Indian Renissance,” a PDF detailing the scientific and mathematical minds of the Bengal Renissance


* This is an amalgam definition from,, and wiktionary. I include it because I think the name “Sultana” was intentionally chosen for it’s mixed connotations in regards to female power.

** Call me a colonial apologist but… I think its obvious that the British colonial presence in Calcutta (the capital of British India until 1911) had something to do with the Bengal renaissance, particularly in the contribution of what we conceive of as “modern” ideas. Calcutta received contact with the west earlier, and more strongly than the rest of India. British critiques of Indian culture, classical liberalism, the English language, British artistic and literary techniques, the presence of a colonial hegemon to inspire nationalist reactions– These are all indispensable parts of the Bengal Renaissance. This is not to credit the Bengal Renaissance to the British, but merely to observe that cultural diffusion and the importation of new ideas from abroad has a destabilizing, influence on existing cultural patterns.

*** In Sultana’s Dream when Sultana asks Sister Sara about religion, this is what occurs “What is your religion, may I ask?’

‘Our religion is based on Love and Truth. It is our religious duty to love one another and to be absolutely truthful.”

Hit “Continue Reading” for citations.

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Book Review: Yajnaseni- The Story of Draupadi


Yajnaseni by Pratibha Ray and translated by Pradip Bhattacharya is a retelling of the Mahabharata from the viewpoint of Draupadi. In the original epic she is the wife of the five Pandava brothers, the protagonists. This book makes Draupadi into the protagonist, similar to “The Palace of Illusions”. Readers who are unfamiliar with the original tale will probably find this book confusing. The Mahabharata has a huge cast of characters and this book doesn’t thoroughly them all. It was written by an Indian for Indians, so it presupposes a base level of knowledge about the original story (remember, this was originally written in Oriya). The sentence construction is also obviously Indian, seeming imitative of the protracted, overly dramatic dialogue style of ancient texts. Before I rant against the core message of the book, I should note that I enjoyed reading it for its unique perspective on gender issues, which is rarely heard in the West. Also, while the dialogue may have been a bit stilted or odd at times, the descriptions of war, death, sorrow as well as of natural beauty, urban beauty, courage, and strength were quite lovely. I’m a sucker for descriptive prose.

Despite being a tale told from a female perspective, this is basically an anti-feminist work in my evaluation. Draupadi constantly endures hardship because of her gender, and the frankly unreasonable expectations, which the Pandava brothers have of her. Even accepting arranged marriages as a given social norm, she is forced into a polygamous marriage, which she is initially quite hostile to. Throughout the story she is forced to live in the forest, forced into a scheduled mating pattern with her five husbands, has her children killed in a war due to the actions of her husbands, is humiliated in court due to her oldest husband gambling her away as an article of property, etc. etc. etc. She bears all of this willingly, and even lovingly. She is the epitome of the “good Hindu wife”. She worships her husbands (particularly Arjuna) literally as Gods. Jai Patidev.

Now, it would be one thing if the story were written for us to read this and say “What a tragic character! She had to endure all of this abuse because of the faulty moral beliefs of her day. If only she could have broken out of that paradigm and seen her own enslavement.” But it isn’t written that way at all. It is written for us to admire her for her submission, and willingness to live entirely for her husbands’ sake and for Krishna. Her obedience and submission, i.e. her adherence to her wifely Dharma regardless of any consequences is supposed to be admired. This is precisely why the morality of the Bhagavad Gita if followed diligently (and God forbid, in conjunction with the moral goals of Manu Smriti) is pathologically self abusive. Thankfully, there is a much better moral model in the story: Karna. But before I get to that, here are some quotes relating to Draupadi to illustrate what I’m talking about:

Draupadi: “I have made an offering of my life to keep the five Pandavas bound together”

“Removing pride from within me, I pour out my femininity like an offering of flowers before my husbands, made fragrant by the water of desireless action. I try not to be envious under any circumstances…. I never eat or lie down before my husbands eat or lie down. I am up before they get up. I am never lazy in their work. If they return from a long journey, I keep seat, water, food, resting place ready for them. Despite servants being available, I keep watch on household chores. I cook their favorite food myself and serve it with my own hands. I do not burden them with my own worried and anxieties. Rather, participating in their concerns, I offer my views. I do not spend too much time on toilet, bath and dressing. If my husbands are far away, I refrain from decorating myself. I do not make interest in matters which they dislike. Without their having to tell me I am able to sense their likes and dislikes. I am never interested in arguing fruitlessly or in rolling about in meaningless mirth. The most important thing is that I never doubt them, nor do I ever shower them with unnecessary compliments. Similarly I never keep anything secret from them… I anticipate their wishes, even their commands to servants. I never describe the wealth, prosperity, luxury of my father’s house before my husbands… I do not mention any woman as more fortunate than myself. I do not feel it necessary to display my innumerable desires before my husbands. I do not spend time in private with another man. I avoid women who are of a cunning nature. In front of my husbands I try to appear fresh, beautiful, ever youthful.”

Raja Ravi Varma

The next quote requires some context. All of the Pandavas have barely escaped death, and Draupadi is clasping Arjuna’s feet in joyful relief that he has survived. Arjuna is the husband who she is most truly in love with, and she has just poured her heart out onto him:

“Arjun quickly removed his feet, ‘As a wife, all [the Pandava brothers] are your husbands. You ought to behave in the same manner with all… If we countenance injustice then the defeat of the Pandavas is inevitable. Draupadi, remove this mountainous burden of unjust love from me. That is all’ I thought my grief would provide Arjun with some encouragement. But lecturing me regarding justice, law, rules, he again turned me into an untouchable. My tears keep flowing, washing away the guilt and sin of loving my husband.”

Ok. After I read this book I checked to see what people on Goodreads were saying. Some were critical of Draupadi’s depiction, but some were not. Examine this user’s review of the book:

“I must admit that I have always had a sneaking fondness for the proud princess of Panchal. I have found in her a strength that is lacking in most other mythological heroines. Sita, I have always visualised as a doormat, but masculine culture will portray her as the womans softer side, while Draupadi is unabashedly and prominently a queen, with a womans pride, a sharp intellect and a strong will. Very few women in Indian mythology were strong enough to speak their own minds. Imagine then, my delight in coming across a novel in which Draupadi finally comes into her own.”

Even considering all of the above passages, this (presumably female and presumably Hindu) reviewer still considers Draupadi a strong and proud character. Clearly, the system of morality represented by Draupadi is alive and well.

Thank God Karna is in the tale.


In my eyes, this retelling makes Karna into the greatest hero of the story. He is kind to those who treat him well, and spiteful to those who denigrate or abuse him for no reason. He is also supremely generous, courageous, and honest. The reader is supposed to think that he is deeply flawed because of his pride, egoism, and “arrogance”. However I see these as virtues, especially when compared to the slavish nature of Draupadi and the servile obedience exhibited by the Pandavas towards Krishna. Karna’s boldness in combination with his more traditionally “moral” traits (honesty, generosity, loyalty etc.) makes him a well-rounded character, and (almost) an ideal Man. He is the greatest warrior who has ever lived. He has reason to be proud. His greatest flaw is supposed to be that he relies on himself to achieve greatness rather than relying on Krishna. This is to me, his greatest virtue.

Perhaps Draupadi should take some lessons from Karna.

“Mocking, Karna said, ‘Lady! I acknowledge that your husband [Arjuna] is brave. But I fail to understand what sort of man he is. If I were in Arjun’s place and Ma [Queen Kunti] had ordered that the woman I had won in the svayamvar [contest to win a bride] was to be shared by other brothers, I would have left that kingdom…I do not consider blindly obeying improper directives as the sign of manhood. This is the only difference between Arjun and myself.

Karna is the best.

Again, while it might look like I’m highly critical of this book I actually really enjoyed it. Characters like Draupadi almost never exist in American books (outside of 50 Shades of Grey). Besides, if you have a more dignified, achievement oriented moral outlook there is always Karna to root for.