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First translation of the Gita

On wages of a rupee a day, the pundits’ job was to check Wilkins’ translation

For a very long time, Sanskrit was a fiercely guarded turf. Even the recital (let alone study) of sacred Sanskrit compositions was considered a privilege so mighty that ‘unfit’ persons — such as women and those belonging to low castes — who even accidentally overheard any of it would be in danger of painful punishment. All in god’s name.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Mughals who patronised Sanskrit scholars were met more than halfway by Hindus who not only learnt Persian but composed poetry in it. Two generations later, even after Aurangzeb had stopped funding Sanskrit scholars, the multilinguality of the court continued. But without patronage, Sanskrit suffered long years of decline. It made a brilliant comeback when the British ‘discovered’ the language in which the antiquities of their newly acquired lands lay locked.

Imperial entry

With the English came their language, trailing bits of Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian, Arabic and Anglo Saxon, besides echoes from all those smaller countries the British had visited to plunder (Latin) and conquerre (Old French). They were just beginning to extend their loot (Hindi).

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, English became the donor language for translations into Indian languages in Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Meanwhile, Philosophy, Religion and Literature moved in the opposite direction, with Sanskrit playing the donor-language role for translations into European languages. A detail which is usually forgotten is that before the English learnt Sanskrit, it was scholars of Arabic and Persian who mediated between Europe and India. In such a context, can any language in our midst be labelled alien or seen as a threat to another language community? We should hope not.

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The rise and fall of the Bayt-al-Hikmah

By Mini Krishnan

Baghdad was once home to the world’s largest translation centre.

Within 25 years of the death of their Prophet, the Arabs conquered the whole of Persia, Syria, Armenia, and a bit of Central Asia. In the east, they reached the Indus river and Sindh. In the west, they swept across Egypt and northern Africa, crossed the seas and landed at Gibraltar. In time, Spain too fell.

They were soon in possession of a different kind of power. In 751 AD, they captured Chinese paper-makers. This knowledge changed the nature of how writing was shared and stored. When the strongest people in the world saw the importance of establishing libraries, learning sprang up everywhere in their footsteps. Muslims were the first people to show an interest in translating manuscripts and scrolls from cultures other than theirs. Popularly known as the knowledge empire of the caliphs, there followed a history of 500 years of Islamic library building. By the ninth century, scholars in Cordoba and Spain were corresponding with their counterparts in Cairo, Bokhara, Samarkand and Baghdad. Baghdad! Persian for “gift from God”! Read more

Source: The Hindu


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Kashmiri literature and some of its great moments

Kashmir is a land blessed with incomparable beauty and cursed with seemingly interminable turmoil. Both these things usually create a very fertile ground for powerful literature. Furthermore, Kashmir possesses a rich literary heritage that goes back many centuries. There is a vast literature in Sanskrit that was produced in Kashmir, including possibly the best and most scientific work of history that ancient India saw, Kalahana’s Rajatarangini. But great literature in the valley wasn’t limited to ancient period or even Sanskrit. As the Kashmiri language grew and evolved, a new and beautiful literature flowered. This literature was initially nourished by the two great streams of spirituality that flowed in Kashmir, Shaivism and Sufism.

In the 14th century, a great Shaivite mystic poetess, Lalleshwari, rose to prominence by writing verse in Kashmiri language known as Vakhs, devoted to Lord Shiva but also questioning certain dogmas related to religion. Read more


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India: To unravel scientific knowledge hidden in Sanskrit literature

…Human resource development min wants IITs, IISc to teach students in ancient language

In a move that questions its own feasibility and success, the Union ministry of human resource development (MHRD) plans to establish Sanskrit cells in the prestigious institutions of science and technology across the country. The aim is to facilitate studying science and technology in the Sanskrit medium, besides inter-disciplinary study of various modern subjects and their corresponding subjects in Sanskrit literature; and is a part of the Centre’s 10-year road map to promote Sanskrit.

The institutions targeted by the MHRD for this ambitious programme are the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), National Institutes of Technology (NITs), Indian Institutes of Science Education & Research (IISERs), Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIITs), the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Central universities and 16 All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE)-approved technical colleges.

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Is Bengali really derived from Sanskrit?

There aren’t many better examples of India’s diverse culture than its linguistic diversity. The country is home to 780 languages with over 120 of them holding the ‘official’ status. But the other side of the story is that India currently heads the list of UNESCO’s world’s languages in danger. The constitution, in its eighth schedule, lists 22 languages as the official regional languages in the country. This series of articles is an attempt to focus on these 22 languages, their pasts and present, and cherish our linguistic diversity. After discussing AssameseBodoKashmiri and Konkani in the previous write-up, today, we shift our focus towards Bengali. Continue reading


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What India Taught Max Muller

Although some of his works might lead us to conclude that Max Müller thought little of India in general and Vedic literature, in particular, his anthology India: What Can it Teach Us? conveys his genuine love for India in the twilight of his life and career: Swarajya

F. Max Mueller / Foto um 1895  Mueller, Friedrich Max Indologe u. Historiker, Dessau 6.12.1823 - Oxford 28.10.1900. Portraetaufnahme, um 1895.

F. Max Mueller / Foto um 1895 Mueller, Friedrich Max Indologe u. Historiker, Dessau 6.12.1823 – Oxford 28.10.1900. Portraetaufnahme, um 1895.

In my two earlier pieces, I had promised to review Friedrich Max Müller’s anthology of lectures titled India: What Can it Teach Us? which may be accessed for free on Project Gutenberg’s portal. Before I review the anthology, I wish to set out a few preliminary thoughts. Those interested in decolonising the Indian mind and purging Indian history textbooks of colonial and Marxist biases must appreciate that views held by scholars and historians are not immutable. They are susceptible to change over time, and this can be attributed to several reasons, Max Müller’s views on India, Hinduism and the Vedas being a classic case in point. Continue reading


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New literature on Indian cities

Nakul Krishna in The Caravan

I bankrupted myself while writing Maximum City: Suketu Mehta Count on Urdu to have a word for it: shahr-i-ashob, lament for a city. Here is Mirza Muhammad Rafi Sauda, a poet from the eighteenth century:

How can I describe the desolation of Delhi? There is no house from which the jackal’s cry cannot be heard. … In the once-beautiful gardens where the nightingale sang his love songs to the rose, the grass grows waist-high around the fallen pillars and ruined arches. … Jahanabad, you never deserved this terrible fate, you who were once vibrant with life and hope, like the heart of a young lover. Continue reading


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Two books on erotic Sanskrit literature now in English

Stories of love and longing from ancient Sanskrit literature, lesser known among modern readers have been rendered into English by retired diplomat and Haksar, acclaimed for his translation of the Kama Sutra.

In “The Seduction of Shiva: Tales of Life And Love” Haksar has compiled an eclectic stories of erotic love from ancient Sanskrit texts which academics have estimated to have been spread over a period of 1500 years, nearly a millennium from the present times.

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The Code of Writing

Vikram Chandra’s quest to recover his Indian self: Anjum Hasan in The Caravan

vikram-chandraThe interest in language takes Chandra to that arch grammarian of Sanskrit, Panini, whose work had considerable impact on modern Western linguistics and thence on programming languages such as FORTRAN. Following Panini, Sanskrit became highly codified, which meant that it remained static over millennia as a formal language even as it quickly atrophied as a language for literary expression. Unlike the organic and messy way in which languages develop over time, in the case of Sanskrit, the emphasis on rules meant that even the poets were concerned less with innovation and more with precision. Loss of linguistic flexibility could mean loss of imagination. The poet and critic Vijay Nambisan has described the degeneration of Sanskrit with characteristic asperity. “After Natya-Sastra, no shades of grey were possible in Sanskrit literary composition … Heroes were all good, villains all bad, heroines always pure and hard done by. If the hero did something wrong it was because of a divine curse or loss of memory. Good always won in the end, evil always came away with hanging head or worse. That dramatists of the calibre of Kalidasa took this seriously shows perhaps the power of the formula that Sanskrit had become.”

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