This Word for That Literary Review

‘There was once a mighty lord of Ayodhya’

Suleiman Charitra  

To hear a recital from the Rig Veda is like listening to a recording from the late Bronze Age. The language in which it was composed is unequalled in prestige and remarkable in both antiquity and continuity, but it is no one’s mother tongue. No baby grows up speaking Sanskrit.

Following the recent sharp exchanges about the teaching of Sanskrit, I would like to do my bit to disturb the persistent and completely erroneous belief that Sanskritists lived in a religious bubble. Let its detractors not forget that Sanskrit was the reason ancient India had links with Athens, Alexandria, Rome, Baghdad, and later, Toledo.

In Mughal times, Sanskrit writers learnt Persian, translated Persian and Arabic, and compiled Perso-Sanskrit lexicons. It was these pundits who collaborated with each other during Dara Shikoh’s venture to translate the Upanishads into Persian, which led to European recognition of how advanced and intellectual Hindu philosophy was. A good deal of the early cottage industry of Indology rested on the work of unknown Sanskrit scholars.

When Hinduism had to be defended against Buddhism and Jainism, Sanskritists studied the metaphysics of rival schools and kept up a continuous intellectual debate in the works they produced. But when faced with Islam and Christianity, the pundits, who had fallen to fighting amongst themselves, failed to rise to the challenge and at least one scholar, Neelakantha Sastri Gore (after studying enough to critique the mlechha faiths), even converted to one of them.

Gradually, as India retreated before the confident advance of post-industrial, post-enlightenment Europe, the study of Sanskrit became archaeologised and there came a time when it was even taught via English.

Since the focus of this column is how translation aids the ocean of creativity churned by civilisational encounters, I would like to describe a work — not so much for its literary quality, though experts and scholars would know its true worth and standing — which demonstrates the muscularity of a language that encircles and absorbs non-native narratives and even plays with them.

Suleiman Charitra by Kalyana Malla was composed in classical Sanskrit 500 years ago. There is no mention of it in the standard histories of Sanskrit literature, and the original text, first published in 1973, lay untranslated (into any language, leave alone English) till 2015.

The outstanding feature of this work is that it is a true plaiting of civilisations: Judaic, Islamic and Perso-Sanskrit.Malla marries the Biblical story of David and Bathsheba with Arabian Nights and gives us a splendid example of how Sanskrit writing rode the wave of the medieval Muslim period of Indian history.

The work was commissioned by Lad Khan, a Lodhi prince who was generous, disinterested in matters of the world, described as surpassing Karna in magnanimity, committed to daylong sessions of poetry and unable to count beyond 10.

The prologue blandly administers a small electric shock. “There was once a mighty lord of Ayodhya. No other ruler could compare with him. He was the famous King Ahmed.” This was Lad Khan’s father.

Anyway, Lad Khan’s instruction to Malla was simple. “Write about the wise and learned Suleiman, a great sage ofthe barbarian race at the end of the Dvapara and the beginning of the Kali era.” (Suleiman = Solomon)

Naturally, the poem starts with Suleiman’s origin: the story of David and Bathsheba with Islamic echoes drawn from Arabian Nights and expressed in exquisite classical Sanskrit soaked in shringara rasa.

This jewel of a translation by A.N.D. Haksar, edited by R. Sivapriya and Tarini Uppal, that runs to just a 100 pages, opens by saying, “In ancient times, Dawood alone guarded this Earth in itsentirety.” (Dawood = David)

Having watched Bathsheba bathing, Dawood’s heart is “caught between her shapelybreasts” after which there is no way out for him because, “Kamahas taken my breath away.”Verses 62 to 65 make excuses for Dawood’s infatuation. “Even Brahma, Siva and the other gods have been entranced by women… as have ancient sages.”

“When will this great sun set? When will night come and be my chaperone?” After expert and passionate preliminaries, Dawood “commenced with full respect, the act of sex itself.”

The use of Sanskrit love-making terminology makes the erotic dimension of the story especially compelling, thereby heightening the moral tensions at the heart of the work. “There followed the rotation, the wheel, and the tying together; the peacock, the eagle and the erotic descent; the conch shell and the flower bud; the grass blade and the serpent coil; the one foot and the hanging down; the bovine and the hunter.”

Malla’s last lines are about himself: that he is a prince among poets“and a barb in the hearts of inferior versifiers”.

Take that! And that!

Mini Krishnan is Consultant, Publishing, Oxford University Press, India.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2022 11:55:35 PM |

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