Classical Sanskrit literature boasts an exquisite canon of poetry devoted to erotic love. In Erotic Poems from the Sanskrit, noted translator and scholar R. Parthasarathy curates a selection in a new verse translation that introduces readers to Sanskrit poetry in a modern English vernacular. The volume features works by seventy-two poets, including seven women poets and thirty-five anonymous poets, primarily composed between the fourth and seventeenth centuries, as well as a detailed introduction that explains how to read and appreciate the poems in English.
"Poet R. Parthasarathy's Erotic Poems from the Sanskrit is a masterful work of literary art, illuminating for modern readers the spirit of eros across more than eleven centuries. Parthasarathy deftly preserves the polysemic richness of Sanskrit, and in his English versions we glimpse what is half-clothed, half-unseen, neither concealed nor exposed: the body's scent, secret places, desire and the vicissitudes of stolen, illicit, and furtive love, inscribed in marks of teeth and nails on skin, gestures of surrender, a broken string of pearls scattered across a bed, water drops shaken from unkempt hair, the moment when the silk wrap comes loose. These are beautiful transcriptions of human love, at once ancient, mysterious, and contemporary, a magnificent achievement."
This selection of poems is personal; it does not attempt to be representative of Sanskrit poetry in general. It comprises poems that I have enjoyed reading and that have excited me. I have also selected them because I found these poems manageable within the resources of modern English verse. The selection is intended for the general reader and lovers of poetry who might want to know what Sanskrit poetry is like. It offers a salutary corrective to the notion, still prevalent in the West, that Indians in the past were predominantly otherworldly and spiritually minded. Nothing could be further from the truth. These poems reflect a culture that celebrates the pleasures of the flesh without any inhibition in a language that never gives offense, that never crosses the line but always observes the canons of good taste. In this the Sanskrit poets are our contemporaries despite the centuries that separate us. The poems speak simply and passionately to a wide range of human experience—love fulfilled and love unfulfilled, old age, poverty, asceticism, and nature—in a voice that moves us even today.
The introduction makes no pretense to scholarship; it attempts to pro-vide some basic information to the reader who comes to Sanskrit poetry for the first time and who needs guidance on how to read a Sanskrit poem in translation. The notes at the back of the book throw light on specific elements of the poems such as language, imagery, and tone as well as on culture-specific references. My goal is a modest one: to awaken the interest of the reader in the poem by providing him or her with such tools as are necessary for the enterprise. Wherever possible, the poems are read in a comparative context, with examples from Greek, Latin, English, Chinese, Tamil, and Prakrit poetry.
Erotic Poems from the Sanskrit comprises poems by seventy-two poets, including seven women poets and thirty-five anonymous poets, from sixteen works composed, with two exceptions, between the fourth and seventeenth centuries. The poets are presented alphabetically for the convenience of the reader.
For a long time, three anthologies of Sanskrit poetry in English translation have held the field: Ingalls (1965),' Brough (1968), and Merwin and Masson (1977). These anthologies have contributed significantly to our understanding and enjoyment of Sanskrit poetry. Since then, other translations of Sanskrit poetry have appeared and enriched the field: Miller (1978), Selby (2000),and Bailey and Gombrich (2005) Erotic Poems from the Sanskrit builds upon the work of these distinguished translators. It offers a new verse translation that introduces the richness and variety of Sanskrit poetry to a new generation of readers in a robust, contemporary English idiom that captures, insofar as possible, the tone and register of the Sanskrit originals. The translations are, above all, English poems that can be read with pleasure by readers of poetry.
Love in all its aspects is a favorite theme of the Sanskrit poets. Poems on the topic of erotic love (keima) form the centerpiece of the anthologies, and the translations reflect this preference. The poems are often sexually explicit but they never offend our taste. In their openness to the sexual experience, they have a contemporary flavor to them. Readers who wish to have a greater understanding of Sanskrit erotic poetry might want to familiarize themselves with the conventions of the erotic mood spelled out in such texts as Vatsyayana's Kamasutra (The book of love, 4th cent.) or Kaalyanamalla's Anagaranga(The stage of the Bodiless One, 16th cent.). Sanskrit erotic poetry has few equals, with the possible exception of the erotic poems in the so-called Greek Anthology, compiled by the Byzantine scholar Constantinus Cephalas in the tenth century in Constantinople.
Translation from one language into another involves some loss, as the Buddhist monk and prolific translator Kumarajiva (344-413) famously reminded us: "In the process of translating a Sanskrit text into Chinese it loses all its nuances. . . . it's something like chewing cooked rice and then feeding it to another person. Not only has it lost its flavor; it will also make him want to throw up." Despite the eminent monk's opinion, it is possible to carry across the flavor of a poem from one language to another. And that is precisely what this selection has attempted to do.
Among the problems I wrestled with in making these translations, the hardest one perhaps was how to make the Sanskrit poems heard in English. Here tone and register are crucial factors. English does not have a tradition of erotic poetry comparable to that of Sanskrit. The sexual explicitness of some of the poems may not be to the taste of some readers. As a result, I had to modify the tone and register without compromising the integrity of the poems. In translating from Sanskrit into English, one translates not just the text but also an entire culture and worldview that remain hidden like so many roots beneath the text.
THE ROLE OF THE POET
What precisely was the role of the poet in the Indian tradition? In the Rig Veda (ca. 1200-900 B.c.E.) we are told,
Varuna confided in me, the wise one
Thrice seven names has the cow. Who knows the trail
should whisper them like secrets, if he is to speak
to future generations as an inspired poet.
According to the commentator Sayana (14th cent.), speech (vac) in the form of a cow (aghnya) has twenty-one meters corresponding to her breast, throat, and head. Only after the intervention of Varuna (Vedic god of natural and moral law) does the poet who is the wise one (medhira) become the inspired one (vipra). His exceptional knowledge imposes a responsibility on him. He is both the keeper and the transmitter of the tradition that regarded poetry as a way of knowledge. It was believed that the spo-ken word, properly formulated, could produce a physical effect on the
world. The word was invested with sacred power. This image of the poet as a seer (rsi) in the Vedic period gives way in later times to that of the poet as a learned man of refined sensibility and taste (kavi) who made his living as a court poet. Not all poets were, however, fortunate enough to make their living as court poets. The case of the Kashmiri poet Bilhana (11th cent.) comes to mind. After many unsuccessful attempts to find a patron, he eventually found one in the Calukya king Vikramaditya VI Tribhuvanamalla (r. 1076-1126) of Kalyana (present-day Basavakalyan in Bidar District, Karnataka). He repaid his patron a hundredfold by composing a fulsome panegyric in his honor, The Deeds of His Majesty Vikramanka (Vikramankadevacarita).
The twelfth-century poet and critic Ksemendra, also from Kashmir, takes an exalted view of the poet's vocation.
A poet should learn with his eyes
the forms of leaves
he should know how to make
people laugh when they are together
he should get to see
what they are really like
he should know about oceans and mountains
s and the sun and the moon and the stars
his mind should enter into the seasons
he should go among many people
in many places and learn their languages.
Works on poetics, such as Rajasekhara's (10th cent.) An Inquiry into Poetry (Kavyamimamsa), offer elaborate accounts of a poet's education and of the faculties he must possess in order to be a poet."' His readers and listeners would, like him, be connoisseurs (sahrdayas) and would be educated and endowed with similar faculties. Poetry was a highly cultivated art. It was patronized by kings and flourished in their courts. A. Berriedale Keith has described the situation well: "The great poets of India wrote for audiences of experts; they were masters of the learning of their day, long trained in the use of language, and they aimed to please by subtlety, not simplicity of effect. They had at their disposal a singularly beautiful speech, and they commanded elaborate and most effective metres."
Sanskrit literary culture has been the subject of research and study in recent years. I have provided, wherever necessary, historical contexts for the poets: the circumstances and constraints under which they wrote, the sort of reception their work received, and the frustrations they experienced in their search for a patron. Sanskrit was an "artificial" language learned after a "natural" language (Prakrit) had been learned. It was restricted to the educated classes and was used in the courts and in religious institutions. As a pan-Indian language, it was not tied to any specific region. As a result, Sanskrit poetry came to have a pan-Indian audience. The court was the epicenter of Sanskrit literary culture. it included poets, scholars, professional reciters of poetry, and storytellers. At poets' gatherings organized by the court, poems were recited or sung; poetry was not meant to be read. Poets flocked to the court in search of patronage; in return, they sang the praises of the king.
The Sanskrit poet rarely expresses his own thoughts and feelings. The notion of individual self-expression was foreign to the culture at that time. What the poet expresses are the thoughts and feelings of the personae in a given situation: the unfaithful husband returning home at dawn after a night with a courtesan, the wife overjoyed on seeing her husband return from his travels abroad, the hermit expressing his disaffection with the world, and so on. The poet's originality lies in the way he exploits words, images, and meter, in fact all the resources of the language, to make an expertly crafted poem that would redound to his glory.
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