How To Love In Sanskrit—Eternal Expressions In Modern Lingo

Venkatesh Prasanna

Feb 27, 2024, 06:54 PM | Updated Mar 03, 2024, 11:22 AM IST

Book cover: How To Love In Sanskrit
Book cover: How To Love In Sanskrit
  • This book offers a modernised and accessible approach to romantic Sanskrit poetry while maintaining the essence of the original works.
  • How To Love In Sanskrit: Poems. Anusha Rao and Suhas Mahesh (translators). Harper Perennial India. Pages 250. Rs 490.

    Sanskrit is known as the language of the Gods. A language with which ancient India exchanged knowledge across her lengths and breadths. A language where hymns, scriptures and treateases were written and passed along across generations for millenia.

    Having said that, Sanskrit is also a language of expression. Expression of various rasas or aesthetics. Sanskrit has also been the language of some of the most remarkable works of literature ever written - including the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

    Harper Collins India, as a new publication offering on the Valentines Day of 2024, came out with a scholarly curation and translation work called “How to Love in Sanskrit”.

    It is a collection of poems that act as an invitation to Sanskrit poetry focusing on Sringara Rasa - love, spousal affection, as well as the pains of separation - bringing together verses and short prose pieces by celebrated poets like Kalidasa and Banabhatta, Buddhist and Jain monks, scholars, emperors, and even modern-day poets. This work is curated and translated by the erudite couple Anusha Rao and Suhas Mahesh. 

    Anusha Rao is a scholar of Sanskrit and Indian religion pursuing a PhD at the University of Toronto and a regular columnist on Sanskrit-flavored takes on contemporary issues.

    Suhas Mahesh is a materials physicist with PhD from the University of Oxford, and equally, a scholar of Sanskrit and Prakrit. The authors bring with them deep expertise and knowledge in Sanskrit and poetry in general, and have put it to great use in this work. 

    Any work of translation, as the authors themselves put it in their “Tour of the Translators’ Workshop” section, is largely a game of compromise. It is even more challenging when the source and target languages are set in completely different cultural and civilizational backgrounds.

    Given that, as the authors say, metaphors are not plug-and-play across languages. What comes across as beautiful and aesthetically pleasing expressions in one language might sound odd and absurd in another. Therein lies the prudence of the translator to identify such aspects and transform them to expressions that seem native to the target language and culture.

    The authors of “How to Love in Sanskrit” have woven this transformation into their work so well as and when necessary, that they seem as natural as the original expressions. Even verses from the most challenging of the creations in Sanskrit, Naishadhiyacharita, gets translated beautifully at the hands of Anusha and Suhas:

    5. Dimples

    After creating her

    God must have

    gazed at his work admiringly

    holding her face in his hands

    thumb on each cheek.

    That’s how she got

    her two perfect dimples.

    The original goes like this:

    विलोकितास्या मुखमुन्नमय्य

    किं वेधसेयं सुषमासमाप्तौ ।

    धृत्युद्भवा यच्चिबुके चकास्ति

    निम्ने मनागङ्गुलियन्त्रणेव ॥

    Transformations were not just needed in the spatial context, but temporal too. With many of the original works chosen for translation being multiple centuries old, current audiences might catch the idea behind these verses better if they are modernized a bit. This is precisely what the authors have done in this work, and they have done so exceptionally well. Here’s an example of how they modernized a verse from Aryasaptashati:

    137. Next Morning

    She was so embarrassed

    they had to coax her into

    the honeymoon suite

    And in the morning

    when they called her

    she put her phone on silent.

    The original:

    प्रथमं प्रवेशिता या वासागारं कथञ्चन सखीभिः ।
    न शृणोतीव प्रातः सा निर्गमनस्य सङ्केतम् ॥

    Flowery descriptions of scenes is a common phenomenon in Sanskrit poetry, especially when the verses are also conforming to longer meters like Shardulavikridita.

    In such works, significant metric space is available to fill in a lot of details, combined with the attempts made by the poets to make verses sound lyrical and flow graciously with alliterations. But not everything expressed in such verses contribute directly to the dhvani of the verse or the point it is trying to drive home.

    A translation, thus, must ensure that the primary thought of the verse is delivered as effectively as the original, even at the cost of dropping some flowery details. As the authors of this work put it, 'excessive attention to irrelevant detail' is what one needs to avoid and they have excelled in achieving it almost to perfection. Here’s an example:

    8. When looks kill

    The doctors say that only poison

    can counteract poison.

    Save my life -

    look into my eyes again.

    The original from Shringaratilaka:

    दृष्टिं देहि पुनर्बाले कमलायतलोचने । 

    श्रूयते हि पुरा लोके विषस्य विषमौषधं ॥

    The most important contribution of this work, for me, is the editing done by the authors. That is, the effort they have put in in order to cherry-pick and present some of the iconic verses of Sringara Rasa from Sanskrit literature. They are not the same cherries that hang themselves in despair seeing the red lips of the damsel in the very first verse they have translated though.

    These are fresh, timeless, juicy and inviting the readers to bite in and not stop until they finish all 215 of the literary gems of translation. To arrive at these, the authors have examined over 10,000 verses in Sanskrit, Prakrit, Apabhramsha and Pali across 150 works - some well known and many nearly forgotten ones.

    The sources of the original verses chosen for translation range from verses of Rigveda to contemporary poetry. They range from Valmiki Ramayana to Vyasa Mahabharata. From Gahasattasai in Prakrit to collections of Apabhramsha verses. From Suktimuktavali to Rasakalpadruma. They range from Kalidasa to Shatavadhani Ganesh. From Ashvaghosha to Balaram Shukla.

    This vastness and diversity gives the reader an insight into what might await them if they intend to delve into the originals and explore Sanskrit poetry further.

    Authors Anusha and Suhas have grouped their work into nine chapters that correspond to various phases of love. The chapters are titled “How to Flirt”, “How to Keep It a Secret”, “How to Daydream”, and so on, ending with “How to Break Up” and “How to Let Go”.

    These titles might sound like some self-help advice in each of these situations, but they are anything but that. A reader can enjoy the translations in this curated order, or can just go to a random page and enjoy the beauty of the specific poem in isolation too.

    A highlight of this work is the ability of the translators to attach a catchy title to every translated verse - something the original verses did not need as they were part of a larger work or collection. They work as perfect appetizers for the reader to go ahead savor the sweetness of the translated poem with the air of expectation set by the title.

    Every translation is structured thus: a titled translated verse, followed by the identification of the original source with the details of its author, region and time, followed by an interesting trivia in some cases about the original work, or the particular verse, or the author in general.

    As for the translations themselves, the near perfect brevity and minimalism alluded to earlier, and the way the verses are rendered, go a long way in making up for the lack of meter and sound - something fundamental to the original verses in Sanskrit. Yes, a typical Indian reader well versed with meters in Indian language poetry might yearn for them even in the translations, but a reader looking forward to some good English poetry can enjoy these poems all the same.

    Is this the only way to translate from Sanskrit in order to capture the imagination of non-native and contemporary audiences well? Maybe; maybe not. But is this an effective way? Absolutely. And I feel this is where the book has done a great deal of justice to the collection of verses chosen for translation.

    With this structuring of the book, readability is a lot smoother too, when compared to interleaving the originals with the translation. If the reader is interested in the original verses, they can go to the end of the book and refer to them in a transliterated listing. Having said that, the appendix could have contained the original verses in devanagari script in addition to their transliterated versions, just to aid the Indian reader better.

    An aspect of frustration for an Indian reader, though, would probably be the names of the original works highlighted in the footnotes with each translation. While highlighting the source, the name of the work in its English translation is given instead of the original - thus leading the reader to pretty much guess what the name of the original work is.

    For example, using "Heart's Delight" for Someshwara's Manasollasa or "Joy of the Serpents" for Nagananda makes it difficult for the reader who is looking for a quick reference to mark the original for a later read. This aside, the overall work is one of the most enjoyable translations from Sanskrit available to the readers today, and the authors have done a stellar job with the treatment of the topic, curation and translation.

    Here’s closing this review of the wonderful work “How to Love in Sanskrit” with another example - something the authors even recreated across the Atlantic as their own real life experience!

    104. Lies, damned lies and poetry

    This time, I’m not

    sending him a poem

    that says I miss him.

    He might brush it off

    as a poet’s hyperbole.

    Instead, take to him

    these earrings of mine

    where the kohl from my eyes

    flowing freely from my tears

    has already 

    inked for him

    a message.

    The original from Saduktikarnamrita:

    वृथा गाथाश्लोकैरलमलमलीकां मम रुजं
    कदाचिद्धूर्तोऽसौ कविवचनमित्याकलयति ।
    इदं पार्श्वे तस्य प्रहिणु सखि लग्नाञ्जनलव
    स्रवद्बाष्पोत्पीडग्रथितलिपि ताडङ्कयुगलम् ॥

    Computer Science Graduate, Knowledge Management Technology Professional, Open Source Enthusiast, Occasional writer in English, Kannada and Sanskrit

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