The Murty Classical Library will translate and publish forgotten texts of India
Rohan Murty is the son of one of India’s most respected entrepreneurs, N R Narayana Murthy (father and son spell it differently), the founder of software giant Infosys.
Despite coming from a cultured family with many writers and educationists, the 32-year-old only realised that he knew little about India’s classical literature many years later when he was studying for his doctorate in computer science at Harvard.
Murty, who grew up in Bangalore, was curious about how Indians lived and died 2,000 or more years ago. It was then he decided to take a course in epistemology, the theory of knowledge, in ancient India.
“As I began reading fifth-century texts, I was stunned at India’s rich intellectual traditions, ones that matched and sometimes surpassed those of western philosophy,” he says.
Murty’s unfamiliarity with his country’s intellectual and literary heritage stemmed from the fact that, like millions of other Indian students, he read Robert Frost, T S Eliot, Dickens and Shakespeare at school but no Indian classics.
As he continued with his doctorate, Murty began wondering how he could make these classics available to others. A few months later, he met Sheldon Pollock, a professor of South Asian studies at Columbia University, and the idea was born: why not create a library of the ancient Indian classics?
Thanks to a US$5.2 million (Dh19.1m) endowment from Murty, the venture took off. In fact, the endowment will enable the library to keep publishing over the course of this century. The plan is to publish five new volumes of translations every year until … whenever.
“Many classic Indic texts have never reached a global audience, while others are becoming increasingly inaccessible even to Indian readers. The creation of a classical library of India is intended to reintroduce these works to a new generation of readers,” writes Pollock, the editor, on the library website.
The first five volumes of the Murty Classical Library of India were celebrated at the Jaipur Literary Festival, which was held between January 21 and 25 this year. Published by Harvard University Press, the project is unprecedented in its scale.
The series will provide modern English and Hindi translations of classical works, not just from Sanskrit but from many other Indian languages. “Taken all together, they give India the single most complex and continuous multilingual tradition of literature in the world,” Pollock says.
The books are handsome, rose-coloured editions, with the original script on the left and the translation on the right. The inaugural five books are Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women; Bulleh Shah’s Sufi Lyrics; Abu’l-Fazl’s The History of Akbar: Volume 1; Allasani Peddana’s epic poem about the first human being, The Story of Manu; and Sur’s Ocean, an anthology of more than 400 poems attributed to the 16th-century Hindi poet Surdas.
The lack of interest in India in its classics, even among scholars, is evident when you consider that, for example, The Story of Manu has never been translated from the original Telugu into any other Indian language. You wonder why when you read the translation, which reveals an easy, charming tone that surely deserved a wider audience:
If a woman doesn’t have the good luck
of having a lover who is young and handsome
and who makes love to her whenever she wants,
who really loves her, what good is her beauty
and her youth? Why be alive?
Murty’s favourite is the collection of poems by the first Buddhist nuns, composed in Pali, a dead language. A hidden gem, these poems could arguably be the first piece of surviving feminist literature with the nuns talking poignantly about love, loss and ageing:
The hairs on my head were once curly,
black, like the colour of bees,
now because of old age
they are like jute.
“To read these poems from 2,200 years ago, to see why they became nuns – one said she became a nun after the death of her child, another said it was the failure of her marriage – is to have a fascinating glimpse into emotions from far away yet still recognisable to us now,” says Murty.
The Murty Classical Library will encompass both unfamiliar texts such as the Buddhist nuns’ poetry and familiar works. It will include poetry and prose, Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic texts, and history and philosophy.
Given the parlous state of the study of the classics in Indian universities, the library has had to rely on translators and scholars from western universities. Experts agree that Indians have done little to preserve or translate their own texts.
“Familiarity with India’s ancient past is missing. The upper middle class tends to receive a westernised education, leaving it without any knowledge of even famous texts that have passed into the oral traditions of ordinary Indians. And the middle class is fixated on Bollywood and shopping malls and tends by and large to be uninterested in the world of letters,” says the literary critic Parsa Venkateshwar Rao.
Nor is this neglect confined to literature.
“The lack of interest in the past is striking. You can ask people who live right next to a 15th-century ruin what it is and they won’t know who built it and when,” says the author Binoo John. Having travelled extensively in India over the past four years, Pollock has noticed the lack of knowledge of India’s heritage. “I was in Udaipur with 900 of the best literary critics in India. I asked them how many had ever taught an Indian language text in the language. Not one person raised their hand.”
Murty believes it is overstating the case to say that large sections of the Indian middle class do not care for their classical literature. “I think they are like me. If you give people access to these works, I think they will be interested and that’s precisely what our purpose is,” he says.
For Pollock, there is a sense of urgency about the gap the library needs to fill. “We are talking about more than 2,000 years of extraordinary storytelling. To lose that treasury would be of tremendous sadness to the people of India and the world,” he says.
What strikes him is the contrast between the rich traditions of the past and the present.
“There seems to be a dramatic discontinuity between centuries of deeply sympathetic and loving cultivation of all forms of knowledge and literature and the present, when this seems to be on the point of disappearing,” he says.
Of late, the achievements of ancient India that Pollock so loves have become a source of political controversy, with the Hindu right trying to appropriate them as political trophies, to be exploited either to win Hindu votes or to bait Muslims.
The foreign minister Sushma Swaraj said last month that the ancient Hindu religious text, the Bhagavad Gita, should be the “national book”.
Some of her colleagues claim that Indian mathematicians discovered Pythagoras’s theorem long before he did and that cosmetic surgery and airplanes were known to ancient Indians.
In November, an abortive effort was made to make Sanskrit compulsory in schools. However, scholars have pointed out that ancient India was open to a diversity of thought and abhorred dogma.
That is one reason, perhaps, why these ancient texts still resonate – they are not insular, but universal. “These books contain both recognisable ways of being but also radically different forms of consciousness and expand the range of possibilities of what it means to be human,” says Pollock.
Murty would like Indian schoolchildren to have the option of studying these Indian classics alongside the western literary pantheon. He has taken the first step towards such a possibility by making them available.
“I want the library to survive. It should outlive my lifetime, and everyone else’s lifetime,” he says.
Amrit Dhillon is a regular contributor to The National.