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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Book Review: Uniqueness of Carvaka Philosophy in Traditional Indian Thought


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.”

The Yoga of Arjuna’s Despondency

Continuing in my trend of alternative takes on Hindu texts…
“Arjuna, having thus spoken on the battlefield, cast aside his bow and arrows and sat down on the chariot, his mind overwhelmed with grief.” -(Chap 1 Verse 46)

“Arjuna that chastiser of enemies said: I shall not fight O Krishna, and became silent.” (Chap 2 verse 9)

"Arjuna, having thus spoken on the battlefield, cast aside his bow and arrows and sat down on the chariot, his mind overwhelmed with grief."

“Arjuna, having thus spoken on the battlefield, cast aside his bow and arrows and sat down on the chariot, his mind overwhelmed with grief.”

But unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there.

At the start of the Bhagvad Gita Arjuna is faced with a dilemma. On the one hand he is reluctant to enter into a war which is likely to cost the lives of most of his family, friends, respected elders, along with at least 4 million of his own citizens. On the other hand he also has moral duties as a warrior, and as a righteous person. According to the traditional interpretation the dilemma is resolved when Arjunas objections are defeated by the Divine Krishna’s appeals to selfless dedication to duty, (and the revelation of his Universal Form and the mystic wisdom that comes with it).

Seen in another light, this is the story of a rational, nonviolent man who gets persuaded, and frightened into obeying the whims of a mystical and powerful supernatural entity— Krishna. As a result of listening to Krishna’s advice he goes to war resulting in millions of deaths including almost his entire family. Most tragically, Arjuna loses his beloved 15 year old son Abhimanyu, who he loved deeply. Arjuna’s eventual victory is pyrrhic. He gains a kingdom he didn’t want all that badly, and loses many human relationships which he valued highly. He gives up a higher value in favor of a lower value– a fruitless sacrifice. As such, in the later chapters of the Mahabharata there is very little celebration of the victory at Kurukshetra. Instead sorrow and despair dominate the psyches of Arjuna and all the Pandava brothers.

This interpretation makes chapter 1 of the Gita the most noteworthy (Chapters 2 and 3 also contain some gems, but Arjuna’s defiance tends to fizzle out as the text goes on). Most readers go into this chapter under the preconception that Arjuna is wrong. It is read mostly as a preface to Krishna’s later statements. I implore readers to take this chapter seriously, because in fact the objections which Arjuna raises here are never adequately addressed by Krishna.

Arjuna, while he still retains his nonviolent instincts presents his argument against going to war. Despite being overwhelmed by grief and distress he repeatedly states that the kingdom, divine reward, or happiness which would result from winning the battle are simply not worth the resulting deaths:

“O Krishna, of what value are kingdoms? What value is living for happiness if they for whom our kingdom, material pleasure, and happiness is desired: preceptors, fatherly elders, sons; and grandfatherly elders, maternal uncles, fathers in law, grandsons, brothers in law, and relatives are all present on this battle field ready to give up their kingdoms and very lives? O Krishna even if they want to take my life I do not wish to take their lives. O Krishna what to speak for the sake of the earth, even for the rulership of the three worlds; in exchange for slaying the sons of Dhrtarastra what happiness will be derived by us?” (Chap 1 verses 32-35)

“How by slaying our own kinsmen will we be happy?” (Chap 1 verse 36)

“Alas how strange it is that we have resolved to commit great sin. Just because of greed for royal luxuries we are prepared to slay our own kinsmen.” (Chap 1 verse 44)

“It is better to live in this world by begging, without slaying our great and elevated superiors; otherwise by slaying our superiors the wealth and pleasurable things we are bound to enjoy will be tainted by blood.” (Chap 2 verse 5)

“Even if the sons of Dhrtarastra armed with weapons in hand slay me unarmed and unresisting on the battlefield that would be considered better for me.” (Chap 1 verse 45)

Arjuna seems relatively rational here. He engages in cost benefit analysis. He shows his preference for nonviolence over power, and family over material greed.

Krishna counters this with a blind appeal to duty but why should Arjuna adhere to his martial duty if there will be no perceptible gains to any party? According to Krishna doing one’s duty is inherently moral irrespective of the consequences so long as it is done with dedication to God. The idea that detachment from consequences is ideal becomes a persistent theme in the Gita. To be sure, selfless or detached action is useful in many avenues of life. But should we really ignore consequences when millions of lives are at stake?

Eventually Krishna reveals his Universal Form to Arjuna. In Chapter 11 verse 23 Arjuna says “O mighty armed one, seeing Your magnificent form of manifold faces and eyes, manifold arms, legs and feet, manifold stomachs and manifold terrifying teeth; all the planets tremble in fear and so do I”. After this frightening episode, Krishna’s suggestions become more forceful and sometimes take on the form of commands.

“O mighty armed one, seeing Your magnificent form of manifold faces and eyes, manifold arms, legs and feet, manifold stomachs and manifold terrifying teeth; all the planets tremble in fear and so do I”

“O mighty armed one, seeing Your magnificent form of manifold faces and eyes, manifold arms, legs and feet, manifold stomachs and manifold terrifying teeth; all the planets tremble in fear and so do I”

In the end, Arjuna succumbs to Krishna’s advice and fights. His teacher Drona, his son Abhimanyu, his grandfather Bhishma, his brother Karna, and innumerable others all die. After the battle, Arjuna repeatedly expresses remorse about his actions, and why wouldn’t he? Prior to the battle he made his preference for familial bonds over winning a kingdom perfectly clear. Yet, he followed Krishna’s advice to the letter for which he paid a heavy price.

How have so many thousands of years passed with nobody noticing that in this instance, Krishna gave profoundly poor advice? From a rights theorist perspective, Arjuna made the wrong choice because although he killed plenty of guilty people, innocents (i.e. draftees) also died. From a utilitarian perspective he made the wrong choice because he caused an enormous amount of unnecessary suffering and pain. From a rational egoist perspective he made the wrong choice because the decision did not serve his interests or advance his goals. Indeed, the only perspective from which Arjuna made the right choice is that of Bhagavad Gita devotionalist-duty ethics, whereby doing one’s duty as a devotional practice without thought for one’s own desires or the consequences of one’s actions overrides all other concerns.

The Gita can be read as the story of a peaceful rational man, reluctant to send 4 million men many of whom he loved to their deaths. However, this man lets his mind slip and allows himself to be persuaded and intimidated by a powerful and non-rational superhuman being. We should follow the path of Arjuna’s despondency and reject those who try to persuade us into committing acts of violence with irrational appeals to “duty” or “God”. When faced with evil consequences, we should take our reluctance seriously lest we end up like Arjuna, largely alone due to our own foolishness and in possession of a kingdom we never truly desired.

Follow up for those who think I’ve “missed the point.”

For those of you who say “but wait! The war was necessary and justified because Duryodhana was evil!”, please read the following in which I defend Duryodhana.

Playing Duryodhana’s Advocate


“The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater.” (Bhagavad Gita 5.18)[1]

When I discuss the Mahabharata with my Hindu friends and relatives I am often struck by their insistence on Duryodhana’s unambiguous wickedness. This is a common sentiment online as well as in published commentaries, but I find it odd. It is uncontroversial to point out that the character depth of the entire cast of the Mahabharata comes largely from their moral ambiguity. Why is Duryodhana the lone exception to this?

Here I offer an alternative view of Duryodhana and his role, which I believe to be more properly supported by the Mahabharata’s text, and historical context.

I posit that Duryodhana while certainly the antagonist of the Mahabharata was written as a morally nuanced, or even sympathetic character. His role is to embody a philosophy of ritualism and Kshatriya Dharma (warrior morality), which inevitably and irreconcilably conflicts with the Bhakti (devotional) Dharma represented by Krishna. However, as I will show, Duryodhana conforms too well to the image of a “good Kshatriya”, and is treated far too well by divine figures to be a pure villain.

His admirable traits such as loyalty, efficient governance, honorable and skilled warfare, power, and boldness represent Kshatriya Dharma at its best, uncontextualized by devotional religion. His negative traits such as wrathfulness and treachery, as well as his defeat at the battle of Kurukshetra serve to illustrate the perils of pursuing one’s earthly duties without devotion to Krishna and the self-control, which it brings.

Duryodhana’s Crimes: Since are commonly repeated and well known, I will make this section short.

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