Saturday, April 27, 2013

Sanskrit literature

We had a little discussion on Sanskrit the other day, and I was asked to send in my notes to the group. Since I want to increase my blog readership, I decided to post my stuff! I will try my best not to say things most people already know.

The word Sanskrit refers to that, which has been ‘put together’.  (It happens to have the same meaning as the Greek syncretismos although the origin for the Greek word is attributed to the term for the Cretan Federation. Someone better challenge that etymology quick! To my laywoman’s way of thinking, the root word obviously comes from a proto Indo-European language.) We infer that Sanskrit is a language that has been crafted according to scientific principles, synthesized if you please, as opposed to Prakrit, which refers to language that evolves naturally (from Prakriti or nature). Sanskrit has always been a language of learning and refinement in India. The Prakrits were therefore not derivatives of Sanskrit (most probably the other way round), but simply the less hidebound easy-speak version of the same language. Prakrit and Sanskrit were mutually intelligible when our Indo-European ancestors first came to the sub-continent, but Prakrit being natural and not controlled by convention, evolved (but naturally!) giving rise to various dialects which ultimately transmogrified (Calvin, right?) into the various North Indian regional languages. The evolution was apparently slowest in the Gandharan region and fastest in Magadha. I suppose that means Kashmiri is closest to the old Prakrit, and therefore Sanskrit, while maybe Bhojpuri is the farthest. (Just hazarding baba. I know no Kashmiri or Bhojpuri). Sanskrit is regarded as the mother language of the North Indian languages, from Kashmiri to Bengali, much like Latin and the Romance languages – French, Italian, and Spanish.

Geographical spread of Indo European languages in the Old World. Indo-European is spoken by 3 billion native speakers. Grey is the non Indo-European world. Brown shows the Indo-Iranian branch of the family  that contains Sanskrit, Persian. Blue is the Italic (Romance) Family, Red is Germanic, Green is Balto-Slavic, Yellow is Greek.

Sanskrit is an Indo-European language. This means that it shares a common parent language with other languages of the Indo-European/Indo-Germanic family. Of course all of us have always been struck by the incredible similarities between the different languages of the family. Pater in Latin is Father in English is Pitareh in Sanskrit. Mater, Mother, Maatereh. Brother, Braathereh. Path-पथ, Go-गो, este- अस्‌ित, we found this game very exciting as children, until my dad pointed out that Fart and पाद probably have the same roots too. He felt we were getting carried away. Point noted but not taken. Excuse our Hindi. And English.

Sanskrit writing system–Originally, Sanskrit was intended to be transmitted orally. Megasthenes the Greek ambassador to Pataliputra mentions that the Indians have no writing system! So Chanakya literally composed the Arthashastra off the top of his head, and kept it inside his disciples' heads? Incredible. And we think the Chinese strange, sticking to their pictorial script for communication! In the peripatetic pre-paper and pre-printing era, it was easier to remember stuff than carry notes around I guess. I must say it is taking me much longer to write all this down. Definitely more than the 15 minutes I took to say it.

One uncharitable motivation for this oral tradition could have been that it ensured knowledge remained the preserve of a select few. There was no danger of it reaching the ‘masses’. (The horror of the masses remains the Indian intellectual’s greatest drawback. Just saying.) So, to decipher the language was not enough in those times, unless you got a teacher who imparted the know-how, orally. Apropos the Guru-Sishya Parampara. Remember how Karna and Ekalavya struggled without a teacher? Not like today, when mere paas Wikipedia hai!

Asokan edict in Brahmi

In fact scripts were first used for the Prakrits, by royal dynasties that obviously had to connect to their subjects. It was only later, that the body of Sanskrit literature, starting with the Vedas were redacted (meaning compiled, or reduced to writing), possibly in competitive response to a resurgent Prakrit writing tradition taking off, especially with the advent of Buddhism and Jainism that were not so bought into the casteist traditions of ancient India. The script adopted was usually the local Prakrit script of the scribe, from Kharoshti in the North West to Brahmi in the main subcontinent. (The point is not that no script existed, but that our intellectual forefathers sneered at the technology, preferring to rely on their memory. Statement thing, like not being on Facebook.) The Brahmi script had descendants – in the north, the Gupta, Sharada and Devnagari scripts came about in the 5th, 7th and 11th centuries of the Common Era; Grantham and Vattezhuththu came up between the 6th and 8th centuries in the South and spread to South East Asia through trade contacts, giving rise to the Burmese Mon script as well as the Khmer and Javanese scripts. Modern Thai comes from Khmer that comes from Vattezhuththu. Brahmi was the man. Or woman, likelier. (The Hiragana, phonetic system of Japanese writing is attributed to women; their men thought it was cooler to struggle with Kanji, which is the same as the Chinese logographic script.)

The Indus Valley script has not been deciphered yet. It could have been a precursor to Brahmi

I digress. Point is that Sanskrit did not pay much heed to the script used, although correct pronunciation was of paramount importance. In the nineteenth century Occidental Indologists found this lack of a uniform writing system an impediment to their research and promoted the use of the Nagari system. Hamare paas guru nahin par empire hai, they said.

Body of Sanskrit literature:

The non-reliance on a script has infused some unique features into Sanskrit literature. The earlier works are mostly metrical compositions with mnemonics interwoven to facilitate memorization. Sanskrit does not depend on syntax to convey meaning, and every word has a vast number of synonyms to facilitate composition into a metrical scheme (the number of synonyms frustrated foreign students like the 11th century scholar Al Beruni who wrote his ‘India’ for the Islamic world.)

Sanskrit literature may be seen as belonging to different eras starting with the Pre-Classical era or Vedic era. Reliance was solely on oral transmission and the writing was essentially religious, philosophic or scientific. Around the 5th or 6th century BCE, Panini standardized the grammar for Sanskrit. With the Gupta Empire ensuring peace and stability and prosperity, many works were written. The period between 300 BCE and 800 CE is called the Classical Sanskrit era. Then there is the Later period. Important works in more or less chronological order are as follows-

Rig Veda in Nagari - ca 19th cent. CE

Rig Veda – “Praise” - A collection of hymns in praise of the gods, mythological accounts for the origin of the world, prayers for prosperity etc., composed between 1700 BC and 1100 BC, redacted in 1000 BC and written down ca 400 CE.

Yajurveda: Composed between 1000BC and 600 BC it is the liturgical knowledge for conducting sacrifices, the mantras etc. Will have a lot of mathematics, like the formulae for constructing an altar etc.

Samveda- Melody is emphasized; these are hymns.

Atharva Veda- Dealt among other things, in magic, healing, warfare, philosophy etc. Seems secular to me.

The Vedas usually come in a set – the Samhita, that is the main collection of the metrical material itself, and the Brahmana, which is the commentary on the material, often in prose. Aranyakas and the early Upanishads are also seen as part of the Brahmanas, although of course, there are always works that straddle periods and classifications. The Upanishads or Vedanta are a set of philosophical treatises, which form the theoretical basis for Hinduism. They were composed over a wide swathe of time, from the Pre-Buddhist Period.

Sutra literature: Knowledge codified in metrical material, composed between 500 and100 BCE, concision being of importance. Includes the Vedangas consisting of manuals on astrology, metrics, domestic life etc. etc. Panini’s Ashtadhyayi is an example of the Vyakarana Sutra. Panini standardized Sanskrit grammar through his brilliant Ashtadhyayi that works through examples.

The Epics: – The Ramayana and the Mahabharata were composed and redacted between 600 BCE and 100 BCE. These are described as Itihasa, “It happened thus”, i.e. history.

Classical Sanskrit Literature: 300 BCE to 800 CE.

The main works of this era are –

Epic Poetry (Mahakavya): Western scholars refer to this as Court Poetry, since the hero is usually either godly or Kshatriya. Since everything was composed metrically, poetry, especially epic poetry was distinguished by certain identifying features, that I will not go into, as Ranjani has already done this. One important aspect was the technical virtuosity of the Mahakavis. They were not shy of showing off either. The great epic poems of this time are – Kalidasa’s ‘Kumarasambhava’ and ‘Raghuvamsa’, Bharavi’s ‘Kiratarjunaya’, Maagha’s ‘Shishupaala Vadha’, ‘Naishada-charita’, and ‘Bhattikavya’.

Lyric poetry (Khandakavya): ‘Meghadootam’ and ‘Ritusamharam’ by Kalidasa are superb examples. Bhartrihari’s ‘Shringarashataka’ is a contemplation on erotic sentiment.

Ethical poetry, as the name suggests, is  exclusively devoted to poetic aphorisms, (anyway found abundantly in Sanskrit literature) e.g. Bhartrihari’s ‘Nitishataka’ and ‘Vairagyashataka’. Yes it’s the same poet. He turned monk and then layman and back and fluctuated thus seven times between his house and the monastery. The substance of his work would have also been inconstant.


Raja Ravi Varma's Shakuntala

Drama: Kalidasa, Bana, Ashvaghosha, Shudraka were the big playwrights.  The most lauded are Kalidasa’s plays from ‘Malavikagnimitram’ to ‘Abhigyan Shakuntalam’. ‘Mrichchakatikam’ is one of the oldest plays and was made into the Hindi movie – Utsav. The Amar Chitra Katha Vasantasena, will give you the plot. I can't help giving a nod to Uncle Pai of Amar Chitra Katha ( who familiarised half a generation of Indian kids with their heritage and their culture.

 My personal favourite is Bana’s Swapnavasavadatta–the story of Vasavadatta and Udayana, which reads like an ancient times Bold and the Beautiful. Harsha’s Ratnavali, however, was like a sequel with different actors and poor continuity. Apparently Harsha’s works were lauded not as much for his hackneyed plots as for his brisk dialogue and knowledge of stagecraft. His Nagananda is seen as a brilliant play, however, departing from the stereotypical, and combining Buddhist philosophy with a Hindu Devi ex machina! 

Story Collections: Panchatantra (in prose with an admixture of verse), Hitopedesha (in prose with even more sententious verse), are the primary examples– These are stories with a lesson. These are actually seen as part of Niti-Shastra, (see down, under Shastra in Non Fiction).  The Vikram Vetal stories (Chandamama anyone?), The stories of Vikramaditya’s throne, and The Stories of the Parrot are other short prose collections.

Novel: The first Sanskrit novelist would be Bana Bhatta who wrote Kadambari in 6th-7th centuries CE. He was in Harsha's court and author of Swapnavasavadatta.


Scholarly treatises – Shastras, Tantras, Siddhanta and Jataka, on topics ranging from astronomy to mathematics to sexual congress. The Aryabhatiyam for example contains mathematical formulae in 33 verses! By the way Aryabhata left out the proofs in his Ganitapada, and it is thought that the teacher would have supplied those – see the unwillingness to let go? However from Bhaskara’s time in 600 CE, derivations were given in prose form! Tantras were mystical/scientific/ magical works and composed within the Hindu and Buddhist canon through the classical period.

Aryabhatta's sloka approximating π 
It transalates as follows and indicates the use of π : Add 4 to 100, multiply by 8, then add 62000, then divide by 20000. The result is "approximately" circumference of a circle of diameter 20000. 

The ‘Kamasutra’ by Vatsyayana would fall under the category of Kama-shastra. It is written in prose with poetic interpolations, and may have been composed between 400-200 BCE. It might have been collected into a compendium in 200 BCE. There are other works that fall under Kama-shastra.

Puranas: Our corpus of mythological and historical literature, written in verse form, dates between the 3rd and 10th century CE when the divergence of Shaivism and Vaishnavism emerged. Deals with creation of life, the various eras and genealogies.

Later Sanskrit literature – 800 CE to 1100 CE

A later, but important story collection is the Kathasaritasagara, written in verse, and adapted from the legendary Brihatkatha (lost work in Paisachi, a Prakrit dialect). Vikram Seth was only following in the footsteps of his ancestors.

Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda, describes the love story of Radha and Krishna in melodic and beautiful Sanskrit. Avadhuta Gita attributed to Dattatreya is a work of philosophy from this period that had a huge impact on the development of the Advaita philosophy.

There was a decline after the eleventh century coinciding with the rise of local dialects (the local Prakrits) that had so veered away from their original form that they were mutually unintelligible with Sanskrit and had a separate tradition of literature. But Sanskrit continued to be used for religious and philosophical literature and remained an inspiration for the vernacular literature of India.

Reference: Wikipedia zindabad. 

I also liked History of Sanskrit literature by Arthur Macdonnell

Thursday, April 11, 2013

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

When I read a book, my head swims with ideas and questions and a multiple other troubling matters. The more a book worries me, the less am I willing to ‘like’ it. (Like how I am uable to let go after my reread of Disgrace. I will have to either read ‘Scenes from Provincial Life’ or ‘Gone Girl’ before I am fit for society.) And that is exactly what has happened with American Pastoral, Philip Roth’s 1997 offering and part of his great American trilogy (with The Human Stain, and ‘I married a Communist’). I was hooked from Chapter 1, then set adrift, leaving me flailing for concrete ground. Hmmm, let me quit the high-flown semantics, quickly get to the meat of the story. We can analyze and argue later.

American Pastoral is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, fictional writer, and Roth’s alter ego. Zuckerman is in his seventies here, a survivor of prostate surgery that has left him impotent and weak of bladder, a solitary pathetic figure nourished we presume, only by his writer’s curiosity and the satisfaction of regularly realizing his creative potential. Nathan runs into a man from his past, Seymour ‘The Swede’ Levov, who their entire Newark neighborhood once idolized, apparently because he was blonde, blue eyed, steep jawed and fantastic in sports. Believable enough; it is pointed out anyway that in those high school days of the forties, when Zuckerman’s ilk of second generation Jewish immigrants had just stepped onto the first rung in the ladder to assimilation, Swede Levov appeared to have arrived there already, showing them that it could be done. (One also infers that Levov’s lack of swagger imbued him with an aura: of the established one, of, should I say it, the well meaning, reticent Anglo Saxon at the top of the food chain!)

But on meeting him after all these years the star-struck Nathan is disappointed to find a bland, self-satisfied man, insisting on rubbing the lonely Zuckerman nose in cozy photographs and triumphant tales of family achievement. Zuckerman responds by consigning Levov to the boring platitude spouting multitude, one beneath the eagle eye of the author-narrator. However, a co-incidental meeting a few years later, makes Zuckerman realize how utterly wrong he has been in his reading, for the Swede, despite his obvious success in the diverse fields of sport and business and love, had been laid low by his beloved daughter’s destiny. Perhaps she had brought her fate upon herself, but it is no less horrifying to a parent for all that. That piques Zuckerman’s interest and he sets about dreaming up a ‘plausible’ version of what could have happened, a version that forms the substance of the book.

Philip Roth
How plausible Roth is, is borne out by the reception his book has received, for it cannot all be attributed to virtuosity, however much one likes the author’s gorgeous rants, or finds evocative the human interaction portrayed, or thinks interesting the descriptions of human endeavor – cattle farming, plastic surgery, glove making, feeding cake, take your pick. The American Pastoral has remained one of the most widely read and critically acclaimed American novels to date, and this will have to be because Roth writes the truth. But why am I not satisfied? Is it because in the best traditions of contemporary novelists he refuses to make one point (you already know I am thinking Disgrace here), but starts up a story abounding in any number of points, if only you picked them up? Is this the fate of the novel in the post analytic world where even evil has been teased into nothingness, where the author inevitably loses his direction? Yes, I have digressed here.

Back to the book. Just like the framing device of the novel is handled by Nathan Zuckerman, the body proper of American Pastoral is told from the bewildered perspective of Swede Levov, who while dealing with the aftermath of his daughter Meredith-Merry’s violent revolt, tries to understand what went wrong. In doing so he gives us nuggets to sift through the filter of our own experience, knowing as we do, the ultimate dénouement, (a brief history of Swede Levov’s life is contained in the “prologue”). Swede Levov goes back and forth in time, reveling in fond memories of an uncomplicated past, speculating on the reasons for his daughter’s breakdown - whether it was the lack of a religious foundation, or her being an only child, or her stuttering disability and perhaps their less than perfect parenting response to it, (but then again, who could claim perfect parenting strategies), or a very inappropriate kiss between Swede and a growing Merry (now this one is more worrisome). We get sucked into the game, as he anguishes. Is the Swede too smug, too unwilling to see a problem until it hits him on the head? Does he mirror the American experience? The Swede is constantly surprised by people around him – he does not worry that an intelligent, stuttering child of clearly glamorous parents could be miserable, thinking it enough that he finds her wonderful, he has no idea how important lack of appearance (of looks, class, and intellectual achievement) is to him and to his wife, he is not riled by the nasty remarks of the incorrigible Marcia Umanoff, most importantly he is not goaded by the violence coursing around him, so apparent in the bizarre events of the dinner he hosts towards the end of the book. 

We also wonder if the Swede’s moving away from his tribe (a Jewish identity), in the name of an assimilation that has not really happened, creates a vacuum in his child’s life that she tries to fill with her own individually created belief systems? Or is it only a case of crisis paralysis, for as the book progresses, Swede Levov seems unable to take any coherent action vis-à-vis his daughter. I could not help taking my musings further- so much land and so few people - you either farm the land or you squire it, or you move beyond the suburban. Is America creating little family islands brooding in provincial isolation, tinderboxes ready to explode anyway? It is amazing that one can get so carried away about the imaginary doings of imaginary characters. 

But still. Kuch khatakta hai. Ennomo neruderethey! And the more I think, the more I feel that it is the character of the Swede that does not sit right for me. He sounds wonderfully good childy in his John Appleseed fantasy, right up to when his daughter reaches adolescence. But is it possible that such a man would achieve all his dreams? In my limited experience, our gifts and talents give us a start in life, but what one makes of a business or a marriage requires character, and while self-delusion helps, it is never enough. The Swede could not have been such a babe in the woods, such an innocent if he came this far. And I do get it; there is an underside to him, steely or weak you decide, the side that does not see alternative scenarios, that walks away from a broken engagement, a broken marriage, the faith. I suppose he finds it more difficult to walk away from a broken child, but would such a character anguish like that? Who knows? I had to ask others. 

Tarun was like – Swede Levov realizes that he cannot accommodate his daughter in the life he has made for himself, and that is his tragedy. Alright. I went to the book discussion. 

Madelyn felt the book was pitch perfect in its portrayal of America. Having grown up in a New York neighborhood next door to many Jewish families, she could identify with the setting and that in itself, was exhilarating. Madelyn also found the development of the novel symptomatic of what she felt was happening in America, ‘the descent of the collective dream of the American Pastoral into the individual American berserk’. She appreciated also, how American history had been swept into the scope of this novel –World War II, the race riots, the Vietnam war, the weathermen, Angela Davis, the sexual revolution, the Watergate scandal. If Madelyn had to pick one inexplicable wrong move – by Levov/ Zuckerman/ Roth, it would be the kiss. She could not see how such deviance could so normally be woven into the story. My take is that the Swede gives himself away in more ways than one, through that incestuous kiss – in effect it is an admission that Merry’s stuttering is a terrible affliction that needs drastic recompense. I have to admit however, that the episode came across rather self consciously clever in a post Freudian way.  In the tradition of Woody Allen and Portnoy… 

I saw also in Roth’s writing, a delineation of the Jewish identity, how it explained many things to me, and how uncomfortable that made me. I did not need these sociological inputs about a people after the history lesson of Master and Margarita. Does reading great fiction make one an armchair ethnologist? Mamta asked how this story would have panned out in an Indian context- she felt an Indian middle class household would have never moved beyond Meredith, her story would have become theirs. Shivalik felt that the novel was really about America, the story of a nation that discovers itself veering off a blameless course to a happy ideal, as it gets blindsided by events. Possible. The sweep of the novel is American; why should there not be an allegorical significance?
Of course everyone wondered about Merry’s breakdown and the causes for that- the mother, the lax upbringing, an isolated life. It was interesting that I had read ‘Some Girls’ by Jillian Lauren just a week before starting American Pastoral.

'Some girls' is the memoir of a suburban New Jersey girl who rebelled against her Jewish middle class parents and ended up in the sex trade, ultimately landing in the harem of a Brunei prince. 
As airport reads go, it is superbly written, but what I took away, was that a kid from a perfectly boring-normal western background, brought up by well meaning reasonable parents could end up as the pet of a bored sultan. There are similarities between Merry and Jillian. Both of them felt disconnected at home perhaps, (Merry because of her insecurities, Jillian because she was adopted), both grew up in very well off Jewish households but in cosmopolitan neighborhoods; they probably felt alienated from their suburban peers. But more interesting was the difference between the real and fictional stories of a girl gone wrong. There was real violence in Jillian’s home. That key ingredient for someone to become unhinged - Roth hints at sexual abuse, but he is half hearted about it, would it have made sense instead, to have hinted at violence in the home?

I cannot end the review without registering a protest against the portrayal of a religion so moderate in its outlook as a kooky violent group, even from the warped perspective of a demented Meredith. Jains are vegetarians but scrupulously clean, but more importantly a basic tenet of their faith is ‘anekantavada’. Anekāntavāda encourages its adherents to consider the views and beliefs of their rivals and opposing parties. Proponents of anekāntavāda apply this principle to religion and philosophy, reminding themselves that any religion or philosophy—even Jainism—that clings too dogmatically to its own tenets, is committing an error based on its limited point of view. Roth could have surely picked another religion to project as fanatic. Maybe he was being ironical.

But the book makes you think. It is important and readable. Pick it up.