Book Review (sort of): Poems from the Sanskrit

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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)

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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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Book Review: Uniqueness of Carvaka Philosophy in Traditional Indian Thought

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I’m working on a much longer article (or series of articles?) on the Charvaka/Lokayata school of philosophy, so I’m going through a whole bunch of texts on the school of thought. As this one was the shortest, I finished it first. And as I’ve got a lazy saturday afternoon on my hands, I’ll supply a short review:

Uniqueness of Carvaka Philosophy in Traditional Indian Thought (or a version thereof) served as Dr. Bupender Heera’s doctoral thesis, so my expectations were high in terms of the scholarly quality of this text. However, in total I was disappointed. Heera doesn’t offer a new perspective on Charvaka, nor does he synthesize some of the existing viewpoints on Charvaka into one coherent conception, nor does he give a clearly worded survey of the range of theories about Charvaka. I also found that many of the book’s claims were either sourced in a frustratingly obscure way (i.e. a claim would appear [for example] five times throughout the book, but would cited only the third time.) To a degree this is unavoidable, but it made the text problematic as a research material.

Heera has clearly read the work of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, but he neither utilizes his theories on Charvaka effectively, nor addresses/refutes them. Chattopadhyaya for example, points out that most of the academic viewpoints on Charvaka rely on the description of the philosophy which is contained in Madhvacharya’s  Sarva-shastrartha-sangraha as a basis point, without properly accounting for Madhvacharya’s Vedantic bias, and his argumentative style. Madhvacharya tried to “put himself in the shoes” of his opponent, which often led to him presenting a position derived from a blending of his own Vedantic beliefs, and the beliefs of the opposing system, as purely the beliefs of the opposing system. Thus, the uncritical reliance on Madhvacharya’s account renders most accounts of Charvaka distorted. Heera’s work largely falls prey to Chattopadhyaya’s criticism, without attempting to justify why Madhvacharya’s account should be accepted as basically consistent with actual Charvaka practice. For instance, on page 42, where Heera claims that Charvakas quote scripture in defense of their position, a claim which derives completely from Madhvacharya’s account, and without which would seem bizarre.

The book also contains numerous internal contradictions. Heera cannot seem to decide whether or not the Charvakas had any actual texts, or not. On page 17 he says:

“Many of the above mentioned works, by way of quoting with acknowledgements the sutras, karikas and slokas pertaining to materialistic school of thought, hold out a clear and unmistakable evidence to the effect that there once existed, at least, two works of the Indian materialists, namely the Barhaspatya-Sutra and the Lokayata Sastra. Patanjali’s Mahabhasya on Panini’s Vyakarana refers to another work of the Lokayata School — One by Bhaguri, a commentary on Lokayata Sastra.” (Emphasis added, and my apologies for omitting diacritical marks)

Then on page 87 he says:

They did not have any literature of their own like other philosophical systems of traditional Indian thought. The Carvakas did not have any sutra… In the case of Carvaka we hear only Barhaspatya Sutra which is very small in size besides being a sutra of questionable authenticity.” (Emphasis added, and my apologies for omitting diacritical marks)

Another notable inconsistency is the notion that Charvaka was simultaneously the first Indian philosophical system, and a reactionary movement against asceticism and brahmanism. In an attempt to simply describe Charvaka without getting entangled in any of the historical controversies, he presents a wide range of mutually exclusive scholarly opinions (without prefacing them as such) and thus creates an incoherent view of the Charvaka philosophy.

There are also certain confusions which occur towards the end of the book, such as the idea that the Charvakas were not condemning the Vedas, but were rather condemning their distortion and misinterpretation by brahmanas. This claim is not sourced*, leading me to believe that this is Heera’s opinion or personal interpretation. Thus, I theorize that Heera in an attempt to be charitable, has formed a conception of Charvaka which is strongly influenced by his own spiritual outlook. In this sense, he is himself a modern Madhvacharya.

Nevertheless, the book was useful to me. It has pointed out many source texts to explore further, and summarized some of the beliefs of prior scholars. There are also useful analogies made to Western philosophers like Hume, Locke, Lucretius, and Strato of Lampsacus. For this, I humbly thank Dr. Heera, though I have trouble recommending his volume. Nevertheless, it is the briefest (and cheapest) exposition of Charvaka philosophy on the market, so if you can tolerate some inconsistencies and are aware that this perspective may be distorted, why not check it out? Even with all the problems, it still provides a more nuanced and complete perspective on Charvaka than any online resource I’ve discovered so far.

*Interestingly, this claim is only remotely plausible if Madhvacharya’s account is discarded. The Sarva-shastrartha-sangraha (page 10) contains an alleged quotation from Brihaspati in which the authors of the Vedas are explicitly condemned as “fools, knaves, and demons.”

Book Review: Chalo Delhi: Writings and Speeches 1943-1945 By Subhash Chandra Bose

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You have to be a huge Indian history nerd to enjoy this book. It is a waterfall of primary documents, mainly speeches by or about Subhash Chandra Bose. Its not light reading, and its probably not interesting to you if you aren’t fascinated by it’s highly focused subject matter. Even I had to remember that it is a collection of primary sources so it will get repetitive and boring at times. The pacing goes at life speed, not at the speed of a well-written novel.

Now for some interesting themes I picked up: Bose’s mission required the mobilization of Indians who lived outside of India, namely those living in East Asia. Those living abroad seemed more amenable to Bose’s brand of militant nationalism than those at home. His mission reminded me strongly of the Ghadar movement, and various modern Hindu, Sikh, and Tamil Nationalist organizations which had/have their bases of support located outside of India. Why is it that non-resident South Asians seem consistently more nationalist and militant than those living in India? (Note: I think that Bose and the Ghadars show that the linked article provides an unsatisfactory answer to this question  since this is evidently a very old phenomenon, and therefore is not attributable to the post 1960s growing NRI middle class)

However, unlike the aforementioned communalist or regionalist movements, the Azad Hind government was strongly Pan-South-Asian (Pan-Bharatvarashi? Pan-Gurkani?) and emphatically inclusory. Bose was firmly in favor of a united India (including Lanka) and opposed to regionalism, classism, and caste. I seriously doubt he would have appreciated modern India’s federal structure which leaves states a degree of autonomy.

This inclusory spirit is evident in the composition of his organization. The majority of the soldiers in his army were Muslims, and the variant of Hindustani used by the organization was heavily slanted towards Urdu for their benefit  Tamils played a huge role in his organization as well due to their large numbers in Southeast Asia. Females were also included in combat roles (As a side note, the U.S. just got on board with this 4 days ago.) Sometimes Bose goes a bit overboard in the pursuit of unity. For example: at the time there was a conflict over the Hindustani language. Should the new government use Devanagari script, or Persian script? Or retain both and have the resultant communication problems and social fragmentation? Bose proposed solving this by ditching both Devanagari and Persian script in favor of Latin script, in a conscious imitation of Ataturk. This is why all Indian National Army documents were written using Latin characters.

His passion for a united India informed his stance on Jinnah and the Muslim League. Needless to say, he was virulently and morally opposed to the notion of Pakistan and seems to have disliked Jinnah as a person. This is exacerbated by what Bose identifies as Jinnah’s traitorous behavior at the Simla conference, wherein the Muslim League allegedly promised to support the British war effort in exchange for Pakistan.

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There were a few select essays, such as “Gandhiji’s Part in India’s Fight” which are great examples of Bose’s rhetorical abilities and skill in propagandizing. In that essay he repeatedly praises Gandhi’s character and dedication, referring to his many prior interactions with the man while never commenting on his diametrically opposed tactics. He thus associates himself with Gandhi’s personality cult while obfuscating Gandhi’s opposition to the Indian National Army’s violent strategy. Then in the last paragraph he throws in a direct Gandhi quote “If India has the sword today, she will draw the sword”, and asserts that Gandhi was only opposed to revolution in the past because the time wasn’t right. Now the time is right, so Gandhi supporters should listen to their hero and join the Indian National Army. Clever, no?

Another clever rhetorical tool, which I noticed, was his persistent use of vague religious language. He often refers to his revolution as a “holy war”, a vague enough term to fit into the paradigm of Islamic Jihad, Hindu Dharmayudha, or Sikh divine command to defend the innocent.

It is difficult to say how accurate his impressions of World War 2 were, given that these speeches were intended for a general audience and are thus necessarily propagandistic. Morale, to Bose was a more important military factor than technology or supplies. This is probably his most important misapprehension since it governed his military strategy. He continued to claim that Germany’s victory was obvious until the Red Army was almost in Berlin. The same claim was bade about the Japanese until late in the British-American re-conquest of Burma. However, his predictions about the post-war situation were pretty good. Bose understood that it would be an “American Century” and that the Soviets and the west would not remain allies for long. A notable error was his mistaken assumption that Britain would never “voluntarily” India after the war. Perhaps it is unfair to call that a “mistake” though, because Bose’s own actions led to the British losing faith in their Indian troops, a contributing factor to their peaceful withdrawl from the subcontinent.

One can imagine that if Hitler died prior to World War 2, or if Stalin had died while fighting the Nazis their modern reputations would have been greatly improved. In that sense, it is wonderful for Bose that he died before ever achieving a position of power. Those who admire Bose (and I am one of them) might want to acknowledge is that he was basically a Fascist. He repeatedly speaks glowingly National Socialism, Italian Fascism, Communism and the Japanese imperial state. He clearly indicates that he has no problem with dictatorship, and that India’s government should not be a democracy, but would rather be a state blending the positives of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. If Japan had won the war and Bose’s army had actually made it to Delhi, India would probably have been a Fascist dictatorship with Neetaji as the head autocrat. Judging by his harsh actions when his army faced the stressors of defeat and retreat, political freedom would not exist and political purges would have been the norm. Based on his economic theories, starvation would have been widespread as the result of central agricultural planning. For the sake of his legacy, Bose is lucky he died early.

I picked this up in Calcutta for 500 rupees  but its a lot more expensive to buy in the west. Anyway, if this review interested you then you are probably this book’s target audience.

Book Review: Yajnaseni- The Story of Draupadi

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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.

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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.