The Lumber Room

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Posts Tagged ‘sanskrit

Bhavabhuti on finding a reader

with 8 comments

Bhavabhūti, the 8th-century author of the very moving play Uttara-rāma-carita, has in one of his other works these lines, any author’s consolation that even if your work receives not enough praise today, someday the right sort of reader will come along, who will derive great joy or meaning from it.

ये नाम केचिदिह नः प्रथयन्त्यवज्ञां 
जानन्ति ते किमपि तान्प्रति नैष यत्नः ।
उत्पत्स्यते तु मम कोऽपि समानधर्मा 
कालो ह्ययं निरवधिर्विपुला च पृथ्वी ॥

ye nāma kecit iha naḥ prathayanti avajñām
jānanti te kim api tān prati na eṣa yatnaḥ |
utpatsyate tu mama ko api samāna-dharmā
kālo hi ayaṃ niravadhiḥ vipulā ca pṛthvī ||

Those who deride or ignore my work —
let them know: my efforts are not for them.
There will come along someone who shares my spirit:
the world is vast, and time endless.

This verse has become a favourite of many. It appears already in the first known anthology of Sanskrit verses (subhāṣita-collection), Vidyākara’s Subhāṣita-ratna-koṣa. (It’s numbered 1731 (= 50.34) in the edition by Kosambi and Gokhale, and translated by Ingalls.) Ingalls writes and translates (1965):

Of special interest are the verses of Dharmakīrti and Bhavabhūti, two of India’s most original writers, which speak of the scorn and lack of understanding which the writings of those authors found among contemporaries. To such disappointment Dharmakīrti replies with bitterness (1726, 1729), Bhavabhūti with the unreasoning hope of a romantic (1731). If the souls of men could enjoy their posthumous fame the one would now see his works admired even far beyond India, the other would see his romantic hope fulfilled.

Those who scorn me in this world
have doubtless special wisdom,
so my writings are not made for them;
but are rather with the thought that some day will be born,
since time is endless and the world is wide,
one whose nature is the same as mine.

A translation of this verse is also included in A. N. D. Haksar’s A Treasury of Sanskrit Poetry in English Translation (2002):

The Proud Poet

Are there any around who mock my verses?
They ought to know I don’t write for them.
Someone somewhere sometime will understand.
Time has no end. The world is big.
— translated by V. N. Misra, L. Nathan and S. Vatsyayan [The Indian Poetic Tradition, 1993]

Andrew Schelling has written of it in Manoa, Volume 25, Issue 2, 2013:

Critics scoff
at my work
and declare their contempt—
no doubt they’ve got
their own little wisdom.
I write nothing for them.
But because time is
endless and our planet
vast, I write these
poems for a person
who will one day be born
with my sort of heart.

“Criticism is for poets as ornithology is for the birds,” wrote John Cage. Bhavabhūti has scant doubt that future generations will honor his work. The reader who will arise, utpalsyate [sic], is somebody of the same faith, heart, or discipline, samānadharmā.

Just now also found it on the internet, here (2014) (misattributed to Bhartṛhari):

There are those who
treat my work with
studied indifference.
Maybe they know something,
but I’m not writing for them.
Someone will come around
who feels the way I do.
Time, after all, is limitless,
and fortune spreads far.

Finally, in Sadāsvada, written by my friend Mohan with some comments from me, this was included in one of our our very first posts (2012):

In his play Mālatīmādhava, he makes a point that deserves to be the leading light of anyone wishing to do something of value and is put off by discouragement. Standing beside the words attributed to Gandhi (“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”) and Teddy Roosevelt (“It is not the critic who counts…”), Bhavabhūti’s confidence in the future stands resplendent:

“They who disparage my work should know that it’s not for them that I did it. One day, there will arise someone who will truly know me: this world is vast, and time infinite.”

The quote by Roosevelt is:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

[Note on the text: in Vidyākara’s compilation the verse ends with “विपुला च लक्ष्मीः” (vipulā ca lakṣmīḥ) instead of “विपुला च पृथ्वी” (vipulā ca pṛthvī), but the actual source work Mālatī-mādhava has the latter, as do all quotations of this verse elsewhere (e.g. the काव्यप्रकाशः of Mammaṭa, the Sahityadarpana of Viśvanātha Kavirāja, the रसार्णवसुधाकरः of श्रीसिंहभूपाल), and that is what Ingalls uses: “For lakṣmīḥ, which utterly destroys the line, read pṛthvi with the printed texts of Māl.” Actually, most quotations have “utpatsyate ‘sti” in place of “utpatsyate tu”: “either will be born, or already exists…”.]

Written by S

Tue, 2015-06-16 at 11:16:58


with 2 comments

Viṣṇu, appearing before Bali as Vāmana, transformed into Trivikrama, filling the universe, covering all the earth and the heavens in two steps.

The verse that opens the Pūrva-pīṭhikā of Daṇḍin’s Daśakumāracarita plays on this imagination, and on the word daṇda / daṇḍin. Here’s the verse (in Sragdharā metre of pattern GGGGLGG—LLLLLLG—GLGGLGG):

May the leg of Trivikrama,
   pole for the parasol that is the universe,
   stem of the lotus that is Brahma’s seat,
   mast of the ship that is the earth,
   rod of the streaming banner that is the river of the Gods,
   axle-rod around which the zodiac turns,
   pillar of victory over the three worlds,
   rod of death for the enemies of the Gods,
favour you with blessings.

brahmāṇḍa-cchatradaṇḍaḥ śata-dhṛti-bhavan’-âmbhoruho nāla-daṇḍaḥ
kṣoṇī-nau-kūpa-daṇḍaḥ kṣarad-amara-sarit-paṭṭikā-ketu-daṇḍaḥ /
jyotiścakr’-âkṣa-daṇḍas tribhuvana-vijaya-stambha-daṇḍo ‘ṅghri-daṇḍaḥ
śreyas traivikramas te vitaratu vibudha-dveṣiṇāṃ kāla-daṇḍaḥ //

ब्रह्माण्डच्छत्रदण्डः शतधृतिभवनाम्भोरुहो नालदण्डः 
क्षोणीनौकूपदण्डः क्षरदमरसरित्पट्टिकाकेतुदण्डः ।
श्रेयस्त्रैविक्रमस्ते वितरतु विबुधद्वेषिणां कालदण्डः ॥

[The Mānasataraṃgiṇī-kāra, agreeing with Santillana and von Dechend the authors of Hamlet’s Mill, considers the “pole” or “axis” motif central to the conception of Vishnu (e.g. matsya‘s horn, Mount Meru as the rod on kūrma, nṛsiṃha from the pillar, etc.: see here), sees much more depth in this poem, and that Daṇḍin was remembering this old motif.]

The translation above is mildly modified from that of Isabelle Onians in her translation (“What Ten Young Men Did”) of the Daśa-kumāra-carita, published by the Clay Sanskrit Library:

Pole for the parasol-shell that is Brahma’s cosmic egg,
Stem for Brahma’s lotus seat,
Mast for the ship that is the earth,
Rod for the banner that is the rushing immortal river Ganges,
Axle rod for the rotating zodiac,
Pillar of victory over the three worlds—
May Vishnu’s leg favor you with blessings—
Staff that is the leg of him who as Trivikrama reclaimed those three worlds in three steps,
Rod of time, death itself, for the demon enemies of the gods.

Ryder, in his translation (“The Ten Princes”), takes some liberties and manages verse in couplets:

May everlasting joy be thine,
Conferred by Vishnu’s foot divine,

Which, when it trod the devils flat,
Became the staff of this and that:

The staff around which is unfurled,
The sunshade of the living world;

The flagstaff for the silken gleam
Of sacred Ganges’ deathless stream;

The mast of earth’s far-driven ship,
Round which the stars (as axis) dip;

The lotus stalk of Brahma’s shrine;
The fulcrumed staff of life divine.

For another verse that fully gets into this “filling the universe” spirit, see The dance of the bhairava on manasa-taramgini.

Written by S

Sun, 2014-08-17 at 23:36:42

Sanskrit and German

with 3 comments

[Originally posted to as an answer to a question by user Manishearth, who asked: “I’ve heard many times that learning German is easier for those who speak Sanskrit, and vice versa. Is there any linguistic basis for this? What similarities exist between the two languages that may be able to explain this?”]

This is an answer not to the part about whether it is easier to learn German after Sanskrit (I don’t know), but rather, a few more assorted points re. “What similarities exist between the two languages”, or even more generally, “Why would people make such a claim?”

As Cerberus [another user] noted, most of these claims come from people whose familiarity, outside of Indian languages, is with mainly English, and perhaps a bit of French (or rarely, Spanish or Italian). So even though many similarities noted between Sanskrit and German are in fact those shared by many members of the Indo-European family, the claim just means that among the few languages considered, German’s similarities are remarkable.

[My background: I have a reasonable familiarity with Sanskrit; not so much with German. For impressions about German I’ll rely on the Wikipedia articles, and, (don’t lynch me) Mark Twain’s humorous essay The Awful German Language — of course I know it’s unfair and not a work of linguistics, but as examples of what the average English speaker might find unusual in German, it is a useful document.]

With that said, some similarities:


German apparently has four cases; Sanskrit has eight cases (traditional Sanskrit grammar counts seven, not counting the vocative as distinct). As Cerberus [another user] notes, “Sanskrit and German have several functional cases, whereas French/Spanish/Italian/Portuguese/Dutch/English/etc. do not. Those are the languages one might be inclined to compare Sanskrit with”.

Compound words

Although English does have short compound words (like bluebirdhorseshoepaperback or pickpocket), German has a reputation for long compound words. (Twain complains that the average German sentence “is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens”) He mentions Stadtverordnetenversammlungen and Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen; Wikipedia mentions Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz and Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft. But these are nothing compared to the words one routinely finds in ornate Sanskrit prose. See for example this post. Sanskrit like German allows compounds of arbitrary length, and compounds made of four or five words are routinely found in even the most common Sanskrit texts.

Verb appearing late

It appears that German words tend to come later in the sentence than English speakers are comfortable with. I notice questions on this SE showing that German has V2 word order, not SOV. However, many English speakers seem to find late verbs in German worth remarking on. One of my favourite sentences from Hofstadter goes

“The proverbial German phenomenon of the “verb-at-the-end”, about which droll tales of absentminded professors who would begin a sentence, ramble on for an entire lecture, and then finish up by rattling off a string of verbs by which their audience, for whom the stack had long since lost its coherence, would be totally nonplussed, are told, is an excellent example of linguistic pushing and popping.”

Twain too, says “the reader is left to flounder through to the remote verb” and gives the analogy of

“But when he, upon the street, the (in-satin-and-silk-covered-now-very-unconstrained-after-the-newest-fashioned-dressed) government counselor’s wife met,”

and also

“In the daybeforeyesterdayshortlyaftereleveno’clock Night, the inthistownstandingtavern called `The Wagoner’ was downburnt. When the fire to the onthedownburninghouseresting Stork’s Nest reached, flew the parent Storks away. But when the bytheraging, firesurrounded Nest itself caught Fire, straightway plunged the quickreturning Mother-stork into the Flames and died, her Wings over her young ones outspread.”

Well, this is exactly typical Sanskrit writing. Those sentences might have been translated verbatim from a Sanskrit text. Sanskrit technically has free word order (i.e., words can be put in any order), and this is made much use of in verse, but in prose, usage tends to be SOV.

Of Sanskrit’s greatest prose work, Kādambarī, someone named Albrecht Weber wrote in 1853 that in it,

“the verb is kept back to the second, third, fourth, nay, once to the sixth page, and all the interval is filled with epithets and epithets to these epithets: moreover these epithets frequently consist of compounds extending over more than one line; in short, Bāṇa’s prose is an Indian wood, where all progress is rendered impossible by the undergrowth until the traveller cuts out a path for himself, and where, even then, he has to reckon with malicious wild beasts in the shape of unknown words that affright him.” (“…ein wahrer indischer Wald…”)

(This is unfair criticism: personally, I have been lately reading the Kādambarī with the help of friends more experienced in Sanskrit, and I must say the style is truly enjoyable.) Now, the fact that this was a German Indologist writing for the Journal of the German Oriental Society somewhat goes against the claim of Sanskrit and German being similar. But one could say: for someone familiar with Sanskrit’s long compounds and late verbs that even Germans find difficult, the same features in German will pose little difficulty.

Adjectives decline like nouns

In Sanskrit, as it appears to be in German, an adjective takes the gender, case, and number of whatever it is describing. (Twain: “would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective”)

Gender of nouns has to be learned

By and large, it is so in Sanskrit as well. Twain notes that in German “a tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female — tomcats included, of course; a person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it — for in Germany all the women either male heads or sexless ones; a person’s nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all”. (He goes on to write a “Tale of the Fishwife and its Sad Fate.”) It does not seem quite so bad in Sanskrit, but yes, gender of words needs to be learned. (In Sanskrit there exists a word for “wife” in each of the three genders.) However this is a feature common to many languages (including, say, languages like Hindi or French that have only two genders) so I shouldn’t list it among similarities.


This is something quite trivial, and linguists often don’t even consider orthography a part of the language proper, but spelling seems to be a pretty big deal to Indians learning other languages. The writing systems of most Indian languages are phonetic, in the sense that the spelling deterministically reflects the pronunciation and vice-versa. There are no silent letters, no wondering about a word spelled in a particular way is pronounced. Indian learners of English often complain about the ad-hoc inconsistent spelling of English; it seems a bigger deal than it should be. From this point of view, the fact that it is claimed that for German, “After one short lesson in the alphabet, the student can tell how any German word is pronounced without having to ask” means that that aspect of German is easier to learn.

The harmony of sound and sense

This is extremely subjective and will be controversial, and perhaps I will seem biased, but to me, in Sanskrit, it seems possible to pick words whose sounds match the desired feeling, better than in other languages. I have seen people who knew many languages say the same thing, and also Western translators from Sanskrit etc., so it is interesting for me to see Twain make a similar remark about German. Anyway, this is subjective, so I’ll not dwell on this much.


There are of course many; e.g. Sanskrit does not have articles (the, etc.) unlike German. It also has very few prepositions (has only a few ones like “without”, “with”, “before”), as the work of prepositions like “to”, “from”, or “by” is handled by case. The difficulty of German prepositions does not seem to be present in Sanskrit.

TL;DR version

Some alleged difficulties of learning German, such as cases, long compounds, and word order, are present to a far greater extent in Sanskrit, so in principle someone who knows Sanskrit may be able to pick them up more easily than someone trying to learn German without this knowledge. However, this may not be saying anything more than that knowing one language helps you learn others.

Written by S

Tue, 2014-07-01 at 20:25:02

Posted in language, sanskrit

Tagged with , ,

Translating metaphor into English: Time and Motion?

with 5 comments

In a book called A History of Kanarese Literature, by Edward Rice (1921), he makes the following comment (p. 106):

The other is that a Kanarese poem defies anything like literal translation into another language. To give any idea of the spirit of the original it would be necessary to paraphrase freely, to expand the terse and frequent metaphors into similes, and to give a double rendering of many stanzas. An example will make this clear. The opening stanza of the Jaimini Bharata is given in Sanderson’s translation as follows:

May the moon-face of Vishnu, of Devapura, always suffused with moonlight smile, full of delightful favour-ambrosial rays—at which the chakora-eye of Lakshmi is enraptured, the lotus-bud heart of the devout expands, and the sea of the world’s pure happiness rises and overflows its bounds—give us joy.

The following is an attempt, by means of a freer rendering, to retain something of the spirit of the original:

When the full moon through heaven rides,
Broad Ocean swells with all its tides ;
The lotus blossom on the stream
Opens to drink the silv’ry beam ;
And far aloft with tranced gaze
The chakor bird feeds on the rays.

So, when great Vishnu’s face is seen,—
Whom men adore at Devapore—
Like to the sea, the devotee
Thrills with a tide of joy ;
Like to the flower, that blissful hour
The heart of the devout expands ;
And Lakshmi Queen, with rapture keen,
Watches with ever-radiant face
For her great Consort’s heavenly grace.
O may that grace be ours !

I’m wondering about this change. Apart from the versification—you know, being an actual poem instead of stilted prose—when it comes to just the idea, is it better? Why? How? Is it more readable? More understandable? Most importantly, does this change better “retain the spirit of the original”?

[Aside: just to be mischievous, we can with the wonders of technology do the following:

moon moonlight rays chakora bird lotus sea
Vishnu’s face smile his grace Lakshmi’s eye heart of the devout world’s happiness

to ruin the poem.]

For one thing, he has changed the metaphor (rūpaka) of the original into simile (upamā).
Probably the reason is that the compressed quality of the original, a prominent characteristic of Sanskrit and other classical Indian literature, is unsuitable for English, whose readers are typically unprepared for it. Is there more to it? Is this a general difference between the two literary cultures?

I’m wondering all this because Daniel Ingalls says something along similar lines in his honestly-written general introduction “Sanskrit poetry and Sanskrit Poetics” (from his translation of the Subhāṣita-ratna-kośa anthology):

As a result, Sanskrit is lacking in what is perhaps the chief force of English poetry: its kinesthetic effect. What I mean can be shown by an old ballad:

Martinmas wind, when wilt thou blow
and shake the green leaves off the tree…

One can feel the leaves shaking, and one shivers in the next line to the “Frost that freezes fell / and blowing snow’s inclemency.” One can find verses that produce this muscular effect in Bengali, and although I cannot speak at first hand of other modern Indian literatures, I imagine that one can find the effect in them as well. But it is only rarely that one finds it in Sanskrit. The powers of Sanskrit are of a different order.
[The following verse] is by Yogeśvara, an excellent poet who is capable of better things. In it he uses a strikingly elaborate metaphor:

Now the great cloud-cat,
darting out his lightning tongue,
licks the creamy moon
from the saucepan of the sky.

The effect here is gained by intellectual, entirely rational means. The metaphor is complete in every detail: cat, tongue, cream, and saucepan—cloud, moon, lightning, and sky. It is almost like an exercise from a manual of logic under the chapter “Analogy.” Compare the verse with a well-known passage of T. S. Eliot which uses several similar ideas, but uses them very differently:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains, …

This from one who is often called an intellectual poet. And yet Eliot gets his effect in every line from the irrational, the strong but imprecise memory we have of fog and cats, the childhood associations of certain words and idioms. Consider the line: “Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening.” It brings to sudden flower certain homely and completely natural phrases: “licks his tongue around the bowl,” or “licks his tongue into the corner of the dish.” The idiom is suddenly transfigured by bringing it into juxtaposition with the last three words, “of the evening.” This transfiguration of language becomes impossible without a natural-language basis.

Is there a general point here that English poetry uses vague, fuzzy, but “kinesthetic” effects where Sanskrit (or classical Indian) poetry uses compressed metaphors that paint a precise and detailed picture? I think there is some merit to the idea that, by and large, Sanskrit poetry is “static”, not “dynamic”. It is not a stream in motion; it hasn’t any “flow”. It is more a pearl in itself, that dazzles as you read. If poetry is imagination and the evocation of something other-worldly, it seems to me that Sanskrit poetry in general / at its best, conjures a world that one can calmly dwell in for a while, not an evocative fleeting idea that escapes as you try to grasp it, one which has appeal more in the chasing. Consider the importance accorded ultimately to stability / sthāyī-bhāva in all Indian arts, from poetry to theatre to dance.

This requires more thought and elaboration, but one may as well quote the final lines of Ingalls’s introduction (emphasis mine):

One may argue today, as the Sanskrit critics argued in the past, the relative importance of the various factors of Sanskrit verse which I have discussed. Vocabulary, grammar, meter: these are all necessary. Figures of speech, both verbal and intellectual, furnish delight. Mood is what is sought, though the grand successes of Sanskrit I would say go beyond mood to a sort of universal revelation, to what James Joyce, drawing on the vocabulary of religion, called an epiphany. To achieve this success impersonality is a prerequisite and suggestion is the chief instrument. If I were to single out for admiration one factor above the others in this complex it would be suggestion, not because it is unknown in other languages but because the Sanskrit poets use it with such brilliance and because it seems to me the most intimately connected of all the factors with the excitement, the sudden rushing of the mind into a delightful, calm expansion, that one occasionally derives from Sanskrit poetry and that brings one who has once known it constantly back for further draughts.

Written by S

Sat, 2012-09-29 at 13:09:01


with 6 comments

How many things can you do simultaneously in your head?

Yesterday A couple of weeks ago Nearly three months ago, I attended an avadhana, by Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh. Already (the very next day) my friend Mohan has written about it in great detail, but since I had started scribbling something down then, I thought I should write a post anyway: it is easily the most incredible feat of the human mind I have ever witnessed. (Unfortunately this may not be saying much, for I have not seen, say, George Koltanowski play 34 games of blindfold chess simultaneously. So suffice it to say that repeatedly we in the audience had trouble believing that what we were seeing was really happening!)

The word avadhāna, in common usage, means “concentration” or “attention”. In the specialised sense here, an “avadhana” is a performance of sorts, an exhibition of mental concentration, multi-tasking, literary skill, erudition and wit.

The basic format is this: there is a performer (avadhani) seated on stage, and also with him are several “questioners” (pṛcchakas). The performer has no access to pen or paper or any resources other than his head. The questioners give him various tasks in parallel, and he must answer them all, dividing his attention between them.

And these are no simple tasks! Some are harder than others, but all require great skill and concentration, especially to do them without any secondary memory (like, say, a piece of paper). Some are scheduled to happen in order, some are interrupt-driven, and all require concentration. This was an “Ashtavadhana”, so there were eight questioners/tasks (five of them had to do with composing poetry, and the rest were of a different nature):

1. Nishedhakshara (“letters forbidden”): the questioner gives him a topic on which to compose a verse in Sanskrit, and a metre to compose it in. Already a difficult task for mortals — metres in Sanskrit are to be strictly adhered to in every syllable; there is no amount of permitted variation as in English — but it’s nothing compared to the devilish twist here: the performer must compose the verse interactively, one letter at a time, and after each letter that he announces, the questioner imposes a constraint on what the next letter must not be. Thus for instance, each time the performer appears to be using a word, the questioner can prevent him from completing that word. He must find a way around this constraint, and so on till the entire line is completed.
This is done in four rounds: he composes one line at a stretch (along with the back-and-forth with the Nishedhakshari) in one round, and when the next round arrives, after some 40–50 minutes during which he has been facing other questions, he must pick up where he left off, relying on his memory with no external assistance. (E.g. he isn’t read back what he had composed as the first line.)

2. Samasya-purti: A traditional challenge, in which a line is given, and the performer has to compose a verse with it as its last line. Often the “problem” line will be nonsensical, or wholly inappropriate or even obscene, and the poet has to compose his “solution” poem such that the line makes sense in context. Usually, this involves clever tricks to engineer a radical reinterpratation of the line. Ganesh gave an example from one of his earlier programmes: a line like “Hari-worshipping atheists are numerous” was worked into a poem about music, describing a raga and ending with “Bila/hari-worshipping atheists are numerous”. (Bilahari is a popular raga in Carnatic music.)
In this instance, this round was in Kannada. Also done in four rounds, one line at a time.

3. Datta-pada (“given words”): Poem. Given topic, given metre. The catch: he is given four words that must occur in the poem, but the words are from another language. For instance, here the questioner wanted words like “ape” and “monkey” to appear in each line, and the performer’s task is to compose a poem in Kannada, with the English words occurring as segments of Kannada words. One line per round.

4. Chitrakavya (constrained writing): At the fringe of Sanskrit literature is an incredible body of constrained writing, of everything from palindromes to verses which satisfy difficult constraints on their letters, or which can be re-arranged into certain “shapes”, and so on. Here the performer is asked to compose a poem on a given topic, satisfying the constraint. One line per round.

5. Magic square: At the start of the performance someone from the audience (or the questioner) calls out a number, and the task is to construct a 5×5 magic square — a square of distinct numbers, such that every row, every column, and both diagonals sum to that number. This task is interrupt-driven: at any time during the performance — such as when he is composing a line of some poem — the performer is interrupted by the questioner who asks him for the entry in a particular row and column; the performer must give him a number and return to this task. (So 25 interruptions in all, throughout the performance.) Of all the tasks, this is the only one I feel even remotely confident of doing with a little practice, but it seemed to be the one that impressed the audience the most! Nevertheless, it is not trivial, and is definitely a distraction that can draw one’s full attention for at least a few moments. (Other avadhanas sometimes involve someone who, say, rings a bell at random moments, and the avadhani has to maintain a count of how many times the bell has rung, even as he concentrates on other tasks. A magic square is probably more impressive.)

6. Aprastuta-prasanga: Various meddling distractions and banter. This is interrupt-driven too. This questioner interrupts frequently, asking questions and making comments, and in general needling the performer and pulling his leg. This may include random humorous remarks, or the latest news, politics, celebrity gossip, whatever. The performer comes up with witty replies (well, Dr. Ganesh does, at any rate), deflects the question (or answers it if it’s a serious one), and moves on. I’ve heard it said that while most avadhanis treat this part as something to be endured, Ganesh actually grants this role a big part in the proceedings and even delights in it. This may be a sign of his wit and confidence, or (considering that there will be people in the audience who are impaired in their ability to follow the poetry, and who enjoy this part the most) a generous concession towards the modern-day audience. Either way, this role is a hard task for the questioner as well, and one fraught with danger: apparently, during a previous avadhana of Ganesh that was being conducted at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan with (I think) Dr. S R Leela in this role, at one point during the event Mattur Krishnamurthy who was in the audience stood up and yelled at her: “he’s trying to compose a serious poem; why do you distract with such trifles?” — but of course, that is precisely the job. And it appears Ganesh can handle any distraction. :-)
If one imagines the setting of erudite scholarship in an ancient language as a stuffy one, then this sits rather incongruously in that context. So this may serve as “comic relief” from the serious stuff. But actually, I think what this round suggests is that for the avadhani, unlike for us, even arcane metrical composition is at the same level of difficulty as small talk!

7. Ashu-kavitva: Compose a poem quickly. While the other four poem-composing tasks involved composing a single poem, one line in each round, here he is given a topic and must compose a complete poem on it immediately. Ganesh even offered to do it in any metre specified, but as the questioner in this case didn’t specify metres, he picked different metres appropriate to the topic himself. This is one poem per round.

8. Kavya-vachana: Identifying poems. The questioner reads out a poem, which could be from a rather obscure work in the literature, and the performer must identify where it is from. That already requires a deep knowledge of all the literature and a great memory besides, but apparently Ganesh finds that too easy. So what happened here was that the questioner would sing the poem, and instantly, as soon as the singing ended, Ganesh would reply, identifying both the poem and the raga in which it was sung, in verse and in the same metre as the original poem, and singing it in the same raga that was used!

Those are the tasks. So at any given point of time, the perfomer must remember and keep in his head, at minimum, the current state of composition of four poems-in-progress, and the constraints that were imposed on them in the first place, and also the state of the magic square, all the while responding to distractions, and this over a period of several hours — nearly an hour elapsing between working on one line of the poem, and returning to it again.

It is hard to describe how incredible this was to witness in person. For one thing, all the questioners are demanding and trying to trip up the performer, so there’s an elaborate cat-and-mouse game going on. On top of that, when even the audience, who don’t have to do anything but watch, have trouble remembering what has happened in the previous round — even those who have been taking notes — for the performer to resume everything from memory does make one’s jaw drop.

At the end of the performance, the questioners (2), (3), (4) and (7), who had asked for certain poems composed, read out their own creations, that they had composed before the performance at their own leisure. More than once, Ganesh’s compositions created in such a harsh setting were still more beautiful than the ones that had been composed with as much time as desired!

In an age where we’re beginning to feel in the face of technology that perhaps that we’re not so good at multitasking after all, a traditional performance like this feels a bit like the old world turning up in style and showing us how it’s done. Whatever happened to The Magical Number 7±2?

Other notes

* This was in a mixture of Sanskrit and Kannada, but he has given performances that have been entirely in Sanskrit (even the banter), those in which there are eight questioners in Kannada and eight in Sanskrit, etc.

* OK, all this is great, but this must be a once-in-a-lifetime performance, right? The culmination of a life of practice, that happens but once?
Nope. This was Ganesh’s 917th—NINE HUNDRED AND SEVENTEENTH—avadhana. He did another one two weeks later.

* EIGHT people! Four hours! Must be exhausting, and about the limits of what the human mind can do? Nope. He is called “Shatavadhani” because he has at least once performed a Shatavadhana, involving a hundred questioners in parallel rather than eight. Not only that, but he has said he is prepared to do a Sahasravadhana, with a thousand questioners, but it would take over a month to perform, and it is hard to find the people to ask the questions! (And an audience, I imagine.)

* How did he think of doing an avadhana in the first place? What I’ve heard is that he attended one, and felt “I can do this too”. Just like that.

* Of the eight “questioners” (pṛcchakas), only two were professionally related to Sanskrit (they were teachers/professors). The rest were from various fields — software engineers, hardware engineers, teachers of other subjects, and so on — who only pursue their love of Sanskrit in their spare time. (One of them has apparently read through the entire Apte’s dictionary several times, which is an activity I find hard to even imagine.) The audience, too, had a fair number of young people, which Ganesh commented positively upon. (“Gratifying to see a lot of black-haired heads, not just bald or grey-haired ones.”)

* [Other stuff which I had thought of then, but forgot to note down. Will expand if I remember.]

Further reading

* A detailed account of the entire proceedings is in Mohan’s post, as mentioned above. Besides the parallelism and concentration that I have described above, which is the immediately stunning fact to a newcomer, there was a striking beauty in the way he actually handled each of the problems. This is more apparent from Mohan’s post; I have intentionally emphasized the former to (sort of) complement that one. Do go and read it!

* Edit: See this post (“A Modern Day Ashtavadhanam”) by Venetia Ansell. As she notes, “Highbrow Sanskrit arts are far from dead.”
* Another post

* Dr. Ganesh has written a large monograph on avadhana in Kannada, for which he was awarded the first D. Litt. by Kannada University (Hampi).

* If you have trouble believing any of this, there are a few recordings of earlier avadhanas available, and you can try attending the next one.

* Update: The video of this avadhana is now online. The video cannot reproduce the atmosphere, but it’s something:

A few more Avadhanas have been uploaded online, on the Padyapaana YouTube channel.

Written by S

Mon, 2011-12-19 at 01:44:48

Posted in sanskrit

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The invitation

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Translated from the शार्ङ्गधर-पद्धति by Octavio Paz:

The invitation

Traveler, hurry your steps, be on your way:
the woods are full of wild animals,
snakes, elephants, tigers, and boars,
the sun’s going down and you’re so young to be going alone.
I can’t let you stay,
for I’m a young girl and no one’s home.

Translated from the गाहा-सत्तसई (= गाथा-सप्तशती) by Andrew Schelling:

sleeps over there
so does the
rest of the household but
    this is my bed
    don’t trip over
    it in the dark

Written by S

Tue, 2011-06-21 at 18:51:21

How not to translate: an example

with 5 comments

In David Shulman’s beautiful article The Arrow and the Poem (reminded via), he gives an example of the “sheer awfulness” of most Sanskrit translation into English:

Sanskrit may always have attracted just the kind of fussy, pedantic minds that make for the worst possible translators. They produced versions of Sanskrit poetry that were hardly likely to entice: “Shall I set in motion moist breezes by (means of) cool lotus-leaf-fans which-removed languor? Or placing thy feet, brown as the lotus, O round-thighed (maiden), in (my) lap shall I rub them soothingly?” That, believe it or not, is another verse from the play by Kalidasa that I mentioned at the start. The translator, Sir Monier Monier- Williams, held the Boden Chair in Sanskrit at Oxford during the second half of the nineteenth century, and he famously produced one of the major dictionaries for the language, still very much in use. But clearly, like most people, he had no idea how to translate.

(The rest of the article is great too.)
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Written by S

Sat, 2010-05-15 at 16:22:00

Posted in sanskrit

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What’s this?


Seeing more should help:

If that’s too easy, how about this?

Statement and proof

Both are from Rekhāgaṇita, which is a c. 1720s translation by Jagannatha of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s 13th-century Arabic translation of Euclid’s Elements. It seems to be a straightforward translation of the Arabic — it even uses, to label vertices etc., letters in the Arabic order अ ब ज द ह व झ…. The text retains most of the structure and proposition numbers of Euclid, but in fact the Arabic world has considerably elaborated on Euclid. For instance, for the famous first example above, it gives sixteen additional proofs/demonstrations, which are not in the Greek texts.

The first volume (Books I to VI) is available on Google Books and the second volume (Books VII to XV) through (25 MB PDF).

Notes on the second: some technical vocabulary — a प्रथमाङ्कः is a prime number, and a रूप is a unit (one). The rest of the vocabulary, like “निःशेषं करोति” meaning “divides (without remainder)”, is more or less clear, and also the fact that as in Euclid, numbers are being conceived of as lengths (so दझ and झद mean the same).

It does sound cooler to say “इदमशुद्धम्” than “But this is a contradiction”. :-)

Written by S

Wed, 2010-05-12 at 21:20:19

Posted in mathematics, sanskrit

Tagged with ,


with 13 comments

Some random cute or frivolous verses, dumped here so I can close those tabs. (Though inevitably I ended up opening more tabs…)

एकवस्तु द्विधा कर्तुम् 
          बहवः सन्ति धन्विनः ।
धन्वी स मार एवैको 
          द्वयोः ऐक्यः करोति यः ॥

eka-vastu dvidhā kartum
     bahavaḥ santi dhanvinaḥ —
dhanvī sa māra evaiko
     dvayoḥ aikyaḥ karoti yaḥ

Cute and clever! Here, māra is kāma, often depicted with an arrow (as Cupid is). Saw here, see here.
[Edit: Fixed एकवस्तुम् (eka-vastum) → एकवस्तु. ]

If you’re too lazy to click, here’s a rough translation that loses the one-two-many-one-two-one play on words:

To split a single thing in two
     There’s many an archer under the sun—
But Love’s the only bowman who
     Can start with two and make them one.

There’s no “under the sun” in the original; I just couldn’t think of a better rhyme. :P

कमले कमला शेते      हरः शेते हिमालये ।
क्षीराब्धौ च हरिः शेते   मन्ये मत्कुणशङ्कया ॥

kamale kamalā śete, haraḥ śete himālaye,
kṣīrābdhau ca hariḥ śete — manye matkuṇa-śaṅkayā !

kamalā = Lakṣmī (I think, though one source gave it as Brahmā), śete = sleeps, manye = I guess, śaṅkayā = out of suspicion/fear, of matkuṇa = bedbugs :D
Originally saw here,[dead link] so see here or here.
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Written by S

Fri, 2010-04-16 at 21:15:10


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       But to remember her my heart is sad,
       To see her is to know
       Bewildered thoughts, and touching driveth mad —
       How is she dear that worketh only woe?
       (P.E. More, 1899)

       The thought of her is saddening,
         The sight of her is fear,
       The touch of her is maddening—
         Can she be really dear?
       (Ryder, 1910)

These are both translations of Sanskrit poems, and quite obviously of the same one.1 The difference in style is not entirely due to the 10 years between them. :-)

Following the previous post, which egregiously violated “Show, don’t tell” — with a whole lot of telling and nothing to show for it — here are a couple more random examples of short verses that I feel are successful in translation. [As I started gathering examples, this post started turning into a tribute to Ryder, so I’ve cut that off for another time. What I like is obviously subjective, and I’m easily delighted by a simple rhyme. :-) Of course, most good poems can be translated into prose or free verse and still remain beautiful; the below are merely examples of translations being cleverly coerced into the verse forms of English.] I avoided commentary on the poems — for attempting it would be futile — and only touch on the translation.

This is from Amaru:


     She did not redden nor deny
       My entrance to her room;
     She did not speak an angry word;
       She did not fret and fume;
     She did not frown upon poor me,
       Her lover now as then;
     She only looked at me the way
       She looks at other men.

The core of the poem, its sting, is in the last two lines, and it may owe more to the inherent rhythms of the English language than to the skill of the translator that the natural way of expression fits so neatly into metre, but few other translators would have exploited it so well.

Also from Amaru:


     When my love draws nigh,
       When his voice I hear,
     Why am I all eye?
       Why am I all ear?

How simple! As is the next one:


   If, maiden of the lotus eye,
     Your anger hurts you so,
   'Tis right you should not let it die,
     You hardly could, you know.

   But once I gave you an embrace,
     To keep it would be pain;
   And once I kissed your willing face,
     Give me that kiss again.

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Written by S

Thu, 2010-03-18 at 21:48:37

On Translation: Exhibit 1

with 22 comments

Translating Sanskrit poetry into English presents unique difficulties. To be sure, translation is always tricky. Passing to a different language invariably loses some nuances and overtones. What can be naturally expressed in one language may require more effort in another.

With Sanskrit, though, even essential features are often untranslatable to a native English audience.

[Disclaimer: Before going further, I must point out that I am an amateur. Everything below is probably wrong, they are banal and pointless observations, anyway, and I amaze myself by my ability to take something interesting and make it boring. I thought I had something to say, but it took writing it out to realise I didn’t.]

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Written by S

Fri, 2010-03-12 at 21:42:30