A look at Sanskrit literature
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On 14th April, 2021, Vivekananda International Foundation organized a webinar titled ‘A Look at Sanskrit Literature’.

Welcome and opening remarks were given by Dr Arvind Gupta, Director VIF, in which he welcomed the participants and introduced the speaker, Ambassador Aditya Narayan Dhairyasheel Haksar (A.N.D. Haksar), a veteran diplomat belonging to the Indian Foreign Service. Adding to his introduction further, Dr Gupta mentioned that after a distinguished diplomatic career, Ambassador Haksar devoted his time to the translation of Sanskrit texts from Sanskrit into English and his contributions included 22 translated works from Sanskrit to English in the last two decades. Focusing on the talk, Dr Gupta regarded it as a very special address or discussion and described Ambassador Haksar as a very special and eminently qualified personality to deliver the concerned talk. Dr Gupta also highlighted the significance of Ambassador Haksar’s work by mentioning that his work not only has greater accessibility and a wider reach among the current generation but it also fills several gaps that does exist in both Sanskrit language and literature. He also added that discussion like this and Ambassador Haksar’s work which not only introduces Sanskrit and its richness but also our heritage and past achievements will inspire others to work in the same direction in the future. The objective behind drawing attention towards the importance of these works was that although Sanskrit is a rich ancient language and has contributed to our enormously rich heritage, it is not widely spoken and has been given a status of a ‘classical language’. He also added that India was witnessing a renaissance and we should all work towards it.

In the course of an hour and half lecture, many important aspects were discussed by the speaker. His initial remarks included about his discovery of new works during the span of two decades of his work of reading and translating of Sanskrit texts from Sanskrit into English. Sanskrit, in his words, is an ancient language and not only an ancient language but a continuing history right up to present times. To elaborate it further, Sanskrit literature and the Sanskrit literary conventions have continued over all these millennia right up to the present day. In the vast field of Sanskrit literature, religious and philosophical dimensions have always been well-known or well-studied. For instance, names such as the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Quran and philosophers such as Shankaracharya are quite well noted. Moreover, the tradition of translating these well-known Sanskrit texts has been going on for a long time. It was highlighted by the speaker that when modern studies of Sanskrit began around 200 years ago, the first Sanskrit works which was translated by them to English was from the religious and philosophical areas. The very first Sanskrit text translated into English was that of the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ just before the French Revolution in 1784. The first Indian to translate from Sanskrit into English was Raja Ram Mohan Roy and the first work that he translated was the Isha Upanishad. During the British rule, an East India Company Official Charles Wilkins was sent by the East India Company to learn Sanskrit. A breakthrough came with the translation of Shakuntala of Kalidasa by another East India Company Official as it made a huge impact on the European literary figures and in the words of the speaker opened the windows in Europe for a look at Sanskrit literature. Talking about his own involvement in the areas of philosophy and religion, around 20 years ago, the Speaker had prepared a text of the then best-known English translations from Sanskrit literature which was published by the Indian Council of Cultural Relations titled ‘A Treasury of Sanskrit Poetry’. This collection of poetry consisted of the very best of the numerous English translations of all kinds of Sanskrit poetry. Another important point that was highlighted by the Speaker is that the translation process of Sanskrit texts into English was supported by some well-known Indian sages of the time including Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo. Swami Vivekananda’s work included a beautiful translation of a poem of natural beauty from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad whose English translation was titled ‘A Hymn of Sweetness’. This translated work of Swami Vivekananda has also been included in A Treasury of Sanskrit Poetry. The religious and philosophical areas of the Sanskrit literature have been explored to a large extent as compared to other areas. There are many other areas and dimensions in the field of Sanskrit literature which deserve more attention during the present times. Making this the central point of the talk, the speaker focussed on three dimensions of the literature which are comparatively less known today. Those are:

  • Literary form of Epigrammatic Verse- it is a single stanza with two lines in which an entire thought or emotion has been packed up beautifully. The Sanskrit term for this verse is Subhashita or Sukti both of which means ‘well-said’. One of the examples of such works are Amaru Shataka, a thousand-year-old text which was also translated by the Speaker, which are single verse stanzas on love. Other example of this type of work includes Chanakya Neeti, which also includes single verse stanzas on politics and policy. The third example provided by the Speaker under this category is the Bhatrhari, 300 verses work, in which 100 verses are dedicated to pleasure (Shringara), the next 100 to policy (Niti), and then next 100 to peace (Vairagya). This kind of single verse writing developed and became an important part of the Sanskrit literature which is continuing to this day. India has also had centuries old tradition of scholars creating verse anthologies, many of which covering a period of thousand years are still in existence. This aspect of the Sanskrit literature also deserves greater attention in today’s time.

  • Satire- the next and a lesser-known dimension in the field of Sanskrit literature is satire. The speaker explains that people have always associated Sanskrit with serious things but there is another aspect to it which needs attention. He noticed this another aspect from some of the writings found in Kashmir. In the course of his work, the two satirical works that he came across were from Kashmir. One of the works was called ‘Samay Matrika’ which is translated in English as ‘The Courtesan’s Keeper’ whose author is a well-known name in Sanskrit literature called Kshemendra. This satire describes the red-light district of the then capital of Kashmir which was more or less the present-day Srinagar. He describes the work with a great humor, sarcasm, and wit. The second work that the speaker mentions about is a collection of three satires by the same writer Kshemendra which deals with subjects like corruption and government, hypocrisy and religion, and greed in business and trade. These satires describe thoughts and actions of thousands ofyears ago.

  • Cultural Confluence or intermingling- this is a practically unknown dimension in the field of Sanskrit literature. As the name suggests, this aspect reflects a cultural confluence, a cultural intermingling including of religions. In this area, there two works that have been translated by the Speaker, one of which is the Suleiman Charitra. This work describes in Sanskrit, stories that derive from Arabic sources, the love life of David and Bathsheba and the stories of Arabian Nights. This text was published by the Penguin Classics a few years ago and had never been translated before. The writer of this text, Kalyana Malla, wrote this text on the basis of his Arabic Middle Eastern Sources. This text also includes stories of Arabian nights like ‘Alif Laila’ in the form of Sanskrit language. The other text that the speaker has translated under this dimension is a text from Kashmir whose original title is ‘Kathakautukam’ which was translated in English as ‘A Tale of Wonder’. This work is based on a poem titled ‘Yusuf and Zuleikha’ which deals with the love story of Yusuf and Zuleikha at two levels, one is the level of a human love story and the second is the love story as the parable of the soul in search of God. Along with these, there are a lot of works in Sanskrit reflecting cultural confluence and deserve the attention which is needed and required.

    This is A look at Sanskrit literature from the speaker’s perspective.

    The Webinar then proceeded with a long Question and Answer session.

    Important points and Closing Remarks

    There are some important points which were raised through the talk by the Speaker which was also highlighted by Dr Gupta. Dr Gupta spoke of two important points which included:

    1. The field of Sanskrit literature is much wider than just the philosophical or the religious texts and
    2. there is a lot which needs to be discovered

    The closing remarks were made by Dr Sreeradha Datta, Centre Head and Senior Fellow at VIF, who on the behalf of VIF thanked the speaker Ambassador Haksar for an inspiring talk and for his contributing work towards Sanskrit language and literature.

    Event Date 
    April 14, 2021

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