Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Serendipitous Sanskrit Discovery

It so happened that earlier this week I was going through several boxes of books that had been put in storage. My library, in toto, scattered across three states, consists of at least 1500 volumes, in perhaps half a dozen languages: I put it together over several years, chiefly in college and in the early months of my marriage (prior to the arrival of my first child). Among the many books I found was a collection of Sanskrit primers, grammars, and texts I acquired in college. My skill in the language is very primitive at best, but after quickly paging through the books, I was sufficiently inspired to set them aside, as books deserving further study.

After sitting on them for a few days, I happened to notice a link to a collection of Sanskrit titles, the Clay Sanskrit Library (or CSL). Lo and behold, the CSL, patterned after the marvelous Loeb Classical Library, is an ambitious, though seemingly stalled, project to produce a 100-volume collection of Sanskrit text, with facing Sanskrit and English translation. Despite the halt, the CSL, with the help of its endower and a compliant NYU Press, managed to produce over 50 volumes in the series. After searching through the inventory, I ordered a copy of the first volume of the Ramayana, one of the two chief epics of ancient India (the other being the Mahabharata). The inventory is chronologically comprehensive, though not quite complete. John Clay, the magnanimous donor behind the project, hoped to bring out a complete set of the Ramayana and Mahabharata; but for reasons unspecified, that hasn't happened yet. I only hope the delay is temporary and that the project has not come to a complete stop; but whatever the eventual outcome, the current inventory is impressive. The books are truly works of art; Clay wanted to imitate as closely as possible the fine printing and binding of the old-time Loebs, printed in the past, but not at present, by an English firm, Heinemann. To that end, Clay went to England for the printing, and the result is surely all he could have hoped for. The covers are a magnificent turquoise, a fine counterpoint to the infamous reds and greens of the Loeb.

With 50+ volumes at hand, the Clay Sanskrit Library, even incomplete, is a far-sighted work of genius and love. In the past, most Sanskritists were hatched in Classics departments (the pedagogical domiciles of your humble bloggers). My own introduction to the language came by way of my Greek and Latin studies, and it has always been a hope of mine to return to Sanskrit as an intensive leisure pursuit; whether I succeed or no, it is comforting to know that there is a shelf of Sanskrit books waiting to be read and worked through.

Eric Ormsby, at the New Criterion, has written a glowing review of the series.


  1. Alas, the series does appear to have come to a complete halt, having gone bankrupt (or so I heard). It seems that the 56 books that were published will be the only ones, to be treasured as they are.

    Thanks for the link to the review at The New Criterion. There is another beautiful review worth reading, by David Shulman, called "The Arrow and the Poem".

    Hope you enjoy the books you read. If I may be so forward as to make recommendations:

    * "The Recognition of Shakúntala" (tr. Somadeva Vasudeva) by Kalidasa is the most famous play (and possibly most famous work) in Sanskrit literature

    * "Rama's Last Act" (Uttara-rama-charita, beautifully translated by Sheldon Pollock) is a very moving play

    * "What Ten Young Men Did" (Dasha-kumara-charita, tr. Isabelle Onians) is a fine adventure novel (or loosely connected collection of adventure stories)

    * "Five Discourses on Worldly Wisdom" (Panchatantra, tr. Patrick Olivelle) and "Friendly Advice" (Hitopadesha, tr. Judit Törzsök) are collections of some of the most widely transmitted animal fables in the world — you may be familiar with many of these stories and not even know it!

    * Rákshasa’s Ring (Mudra-rakshasa, tr. Michael Coulson) is a celebrated (and unconventional) Sanskrit play, with much political intrigue

    These are my favourites. There's also the poetry of Bhartrihari... and the love poetry of Amaru is incredible, but I think it's better to read that in Andrew Schelling's translation.

    I hope you get time to read at least a few of them; it's a tragedy such fine literature goes unread.

  2. When I read that the series was halted, I didn't have much hope for a continuation. And I suspected bankruptcy; unfortunately, the series wasn't started in a particularly propitious decade. Still, it is a magnificent achievement.

    Thank you for the recommendations. I'm going to try to assemble as many of the volumes as I can afford. It doesn't seem unlikely that the publisher will discontinue printing, and if that happens, I'd like to own as many as possible.

    I also intended to highlight, though it wasn't exactly apposite to the CSL, the I Tatti Renaissance Latin library, which is also an impressive achievement. Ormsby mentions it in his review: it's an almost equally far-sighted endeavor, and the volumes so far are impressive, particularly the translations.