Cultural Politics

'Authentic' Vande Mataram Library aims to challenge Sheldon Pollock's 'foreign' one

A sensitive Indian would be in pain reading translations of Sanskrit by non-Indians, says head of a project that hopes to compete with the Murty Classical Library.

A signatory of a petition last week that called for Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock to be removed from his post as general editor of the Murty Classical Library of India is now preparing to set up a library to rival that publishing endeavour.

Dr Sampadananda Mishra, director of the Sri Aurobindo Foundation for Indian Culture at the Sri Aurobindo Society in Puducherry, has announced that he will start the Vande Mataram Library as an open source, volunteer-driven project to translate what the editorial board deems to be important Sanskrit scriptures in India.

Little has been decided about this library yet. There are three trustees, one of whom is Mishra. The names of the other two are yet to be revealed. The group has not yet settled on a concept note or issued a call for sponsors, but they want to produce 500 volumes of religious and non-religious Sanskrit work.

Mishra, who is the grandson of a pandit, works on Sanskrit projects at the Sri Aurobindo Society. These include several multimedia presentations on Sanskrit literature and grammar and running a 24-hour Sanskrit-language radio station online. At present, he is also working on a project on the potential healing power of certain Sanskrit chhandas (metres of verse).

Much of the campaign against Pollock is being driven by businessman and amateur historian Rajiv Malhotra, whose latest book The Battle for Sanskrit even has a long section criticising Pollock’s conclusions on Sanskrit writing. Nor is this is the first time that Malhotra has written about Sanskrit. Mishra, who had met Malhotra in 2008-'09, worked closely with him for a chapter on Sanskrit for his 2011 book Being Different.

On his blog, Malhotra wrote about the advice he gave Mishra about the library, including steering away from politics by not including “underlying divisive political agendas such as creating caste bheda or empowering dalits, women, etc.”

In an interview with, Mishra said that the board had not yet reached a consensus on these suggestions, but spoke about the Murty Classical Library of India and the challenges of translating and teaching Sanskrit in the present.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Could you tell me a little about the Vande Mataram Library project?
The whole vision is to create – you know with this [technology entrepreneur] Narayana Murthy’s contribution to Columbia University and all – the whole idea is to create a virtual library with authentic people and authentic translators, which will be a technologically empowered project. Everything will be transparent and authentic. Unquestionable.

The idea was floated only two or three days ago. With what is going on – the petition and all these things – I floated this idea. Let that battle go on on one side, but at the same time we should create a virtual library and prove our competence. If people are saying Indians are not competent enough to do that [translate Sanskrit], let’s prove it by creating good works, not fighting just like this.

We have to do something proactively. It’s not just that we have written something or signed a petition and done nothing. What have we done for our own country?

Have you read the Murty Classical Library of India publications?
I have. Recently when I was coming from Delhi airport, I had some time, so I went through the nine that have come. The thing is that the work is very qualitative, if you look at the printing quality, the presentation and everything. Some of the things which I read are not that bad. It’s good, it gives a good read. But at the same time there are portions where the cultural element helps greatly in translating the spirit of the poem. This is what is missing. That is the most important thing. And a person who hasn’t lived the cultural values, he cannot, however he tries, get into the spirit of the poem.

There are certain things [in a poem] which can be called non-translatable elements. They cannot be translated. They can be interpreted. How does one bring into the translation those elements? This is where the challenge lies.

Otherwise you read [the Murty Classical Library] version and you like it, say, “Oh, it’s so beautifully translated.” But at those portions, a sensitive Indian or a sensitive person who is sensitive about the language and the culture and the whole spirit of the poetry is in pain. This can never be taken care of by those people – it’s not just bilingual proficiency that matters, but how much cultural values have gone into the person, how much he has lived that truth.

That is what is missing, whether they have done Ramcharitmanas or Surdas. No doubt the person who has done Surdas has dedicated his entire life to Surdas but where is that spirit? It is missing to me. Even a common Indian person will sense something behind the poetry, which is not brought out in the translation.

[The Murty Classical Library of India translations] are not malicious, then?
We don’t know. I have only glanced through it. Someone will have to go through it word by word. Because most of the time, what these Western and European scholars do is that they twist [words] at a very crucial place. So one has to read carefully and bring [the meaning] out. That is again one enormous task and one has to read it carefully, go word by word, compare it and see where the twist has taken place.

For them, it will be like Chhatrapati is “Lord of Umbrella”. Or Ramakrishna Paramhansa will be the “Great Swan”. A common reader will be convinced that he is great, but the word “supreme” will not seed. “Great Swan” is fine. But where is the whole spirit behind the word Paramhansa? It is not the word but the spirit that has to be translated.

But translations are by nature like this
Yes, but where are the authentic translations of the Ramayana, of the Mahabharata, of the Vedas and Upanishads? We’re talking about it, but where is the translation? This is where the Vande Mataram Trust will take the challenge to bring out authentic translations of all these books, bringing in all those who have depth. What we are demanding is not just a scholar, but a scholar-cum-yogi. Let it become an intellectual sadhana for everyone to participate in this project and growing through this project.

What about the secular texts of Sanskrit?
We will be focussing only on Sanskrit texts, even scientific texts and unpublished manuscripts. We will be accepting proposals from others and if we find that these scholars are really competent or if they lack something, we will give them training in translation, in the language. From all sides we are looking at it so that it becomes a comprehensive project. Let everyone grow through it. And we’ll take the secular texts, scientific texts, Natyashastra, no problem.

So for those texts will you look for practitioners there too or will it be yogis again?
Yes, those who have lived the truth spoken in those texts, those who are practicing it and have given their entire lives living that truth, we will be happy to have them. It is not at all limited to yogis. When I say yogis, I mean a yogic approach. If a scientist, it is scientific temperament [we want]. One need not be a scientist, but have that temperament. So we look at the temperament, the emotion behind it, the cultural values, the spirit behind it. Whether the man is scientist or yogi or not is less important. But he carries that spirit or temperament with him.

If you look at Tagore’s translation of his own work – as an author you can argue that he is the most authentic translator of his own work – the English versions do not come close to the Bengali, so authenticity is not as simple as that…
I am a devotee and follower of Sri Aurobindo and the best translations of the Vedas or Upanishads or Kalidas, I have enjoyed those by him. And if one reads his translations, one sees how it looks to be translated beautifully. He brings out the spirit of Kalidas, of the Vedic seers. It’s not just the words. He makes it more beautiful. At the same time he feels that translating Sanskrit into English or any European language is an impossibility. But if the translator goes deep and identifies himself with the spirit of the text and tries to bring out something of that spirit, that is a fairly good translation.

One who understands the spirit [of the work] can do a fairly good translation. You cannot have a truly authentic or perfect translation, but something close to the spirit of the poet. That much can be managed. One cannot ever experience the beauty of the text when it is read in its original. Sanskrit is something beyond that.

Our project is not just to offer translation but through that to make them aware of the spirit of the Sanskrit and the readers should come back to the language.

Will you translate into Indian languages then? And why is English the language you chose to translate into?
This is where the whole challenge lies. Translating into Hindi is far easier and less challenging and can be done with less time and energy. But we will definitely be doing that because there is a need to educate.

The situation in India is such that even the educated Indians, the maximum ones who have a say about things, don’t know their own languages. And the next generation is growing up ignorant of their own languages. And it is a fact that through English a lot of things can be communicated.

In Tamil Nadu, here people don’t know Hindi so English is the common language. So I would do a better job communicating with a Tamil person if he knew my language or if I knew his. Or if there was a common source, say Sanskrit, we would have communicated in a better way.

What about texts that came later, that were written during the Mughal period for instance? Shouldn’t those also be made accessible to the general public?
What we are making it clear through this project is that every shastra – whether you call it secular or non-secular, and especially when you come to the spiritual and religious texts – every shastra contains two elements. One element is that there is a universal truth which the shastra has to express and there is a temporal truth. The temporal truth is what is true to a particular community, age or place – sthana, kala and patra. Every shastra has to reflect that.

So we are making it clear when we offer this shastra, every shastra has to offer universal and temporal elements. The temporal element has to be ignored. The universal has to be adopted.

Most of the time what happens – now Manu has written something – they will say Manu has written it and nobody is following it. But Manu has written it for a particular age, at a particular time, which might not be suitable. Because dharma is of a changing nature. So what was dharma 20 years before today is adharma. Or what is dharma today is adharma then. What is dharma to you is adharma to me. Should we concentrate on the changed elements or the changeless?

So in the shastras we must look for what is changeless among all the changes. That which does not change is the spirit of it. Those are the universal values, which are so pregnant in our shastras. All the controversies are concentrated on the temporal not universal versions of the shastras.

Whether presenting Gitas or Vedas or Upanishads, there are certain temporal elements which we need not highlight so much. Highlight what is universal and the ultimate truth.

And understand the technique of presentation also. Sometimes the repetition is a technique, because it has to be engrained, but that is ridiculed by others – why does it have to be repeated again and again and again? But we can avoid that. Forget that the 20 verses were repeated, but the truth revealed in those 20 verses, concentrate on that.

If you omit the temporal elements, won’t that take away from understanding the text as a whole? A reader who is not familiar with the original will not know what has been omitted…
The temporal which is there must be made contextual. So I don’t say remove it, but don’t give so much importance to it. If you take it out, the shastra will not stand anywhere.

And is this where your project will differ from the Murty Classical Library? They are doing literal translations and you
I am not saying we are creating a challenge, but more like understanding our own scriptures at its depth and then percolating it and circulating the message of the shastras to everyone. The project will be open ended and technologically empowered so anyone can review or comment on it.

Do you agree with the idea that there are not enough young people interested in translation which is why it is difficult to find Indian translators?
It is not the problem of young people. They are not guided or educated or trained properly. How can we just expect something from them without giving them the proper guidance? Another target of the Vande Mataram Project is that how will we educate universities with potential students to raise the quality of education? I have seen people come with MPhil and PhDs in Sanskrit but basic things were not imparted to them.

If you ask a simple question – many people come to me for interviews for jobs – and I ask them simple questions, not scholarly or anything, I just ask can you tell me the number of letters in Sanskrit, what is the difference between vowels and consonants. Can you believe PhD students don't know this?

They can produce entire texts from memory, recite this sutra or that sutra, but the basic thing, the fundamentals are not there.

And how the text is given to them! I was conducting a workshop on yoga and dharma and all this where I said a basic thing that when the soul descends, the spirit descends into the matter, it has a purpose in it. And that very purpose is the dharma of the being. To discover what that purpose is and to live according to it is the aim of our life.

When I said this, it was the Sanskrit pandits present there – all PhD holders or research holders – they asked how can you give a different definition of dharma when it is already defined by Manu and he says if you have these ten things then you have the dharma, so how can you? See how ill-educated and ill trained they are, with no clarity, no vision.

The vision behind the statements made in our shastras has never been made clear to Indian students. I would be happy if at least you could bring out some point. Then I asked them what is the vision behind the verse you are saying and how does it align with what you say? They said that this no one has told them.

The quality of education has to improve and we need to help these young students who are spending so much of their time and money in trying to educate themselves and get some kind of degree. But university staff are very poor in helping them.

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