Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Art Resource

‘Akbar Inspects the Capture of a Wild Elephant’; illustration from Abu’l-Fazl’s History of Akbar, circa 1590

Like some procession of tireless penitents, much of the academic community continues to beat its collective breast and bewail its sins when it comes to Eastern studies. This attitude has persisted at least since 1978, when Edward W. Said published Orientalism, a book of which it can (or should) be meekly stated that it has been both influential and deleterious, especially in the credo it spawned—a credo that continues to infuse the field of postcolonial studies with inexhaustible self-righteousness.

Said’s book focused on Islam but a substantial chunk was devoted to India as well. And it almost exclusively called to account British Indologists, beginning with William Jones, as first and foremost useful agents of colonial imperialism, albeit with a noble philological aura. That certainly could be applied to India.

As it happens, though, in the golden age of Indology the greatest practitioners were German, or else French (from Abel Bergaigne and Sylvain Lévi to Marcel Mauss and Louis Renou), or Dutch, such as Willem Caland, rather than British. And as Said himself acknowledged, nineteenth-century Germany had no special national interests in India. Then why such a plethora of research and publications, if there was no power base eager to exploit them? To attribute motives of collusion with colonial interests to such scholars as Hermann Oldenberg, Albrecht Weber, Paul Deussen, Heinrich Zimmer Sr., Theodor Aufrecht, or Heinrich Lüders is simply laughable, as well as implausible. In its disregard of those names, Said’s book can be considered a generalized defamation. Those scholars had only one driving impulse: to understand. Nothing more, but also nothing less.

I am aware that these days a motive of this kind rings as suspect. Someone is bound to spring up, asking “At whose behest?” with a dreary fixed grin à la Bourdieu. But the answer is simple—and it applies to all fundamental books: “At no one’s behest.” Those Indologists were the authors of studies, translations, and commentaries that remain indispensable, though in some cases they date back more than a century. Their names barely make it into Wikipedia, but we are indebted to them for a fair share of the most accurate and solid information we now possess about India’s past. This leads me to think that, even outside of India, what we need now is a history of Orientalism that focuses on a number of scholars who were clearly possessed of genius and without whose aid it would have been just that much harder to access entire civilizations. One example among many: Marcel Granet for China.

Alongside this history of philologists who spent their lives deciphering, interpreting, and emending Eastern texts, we should also have, accompanying and supporting it, a publishing history, from a certain point onward. Its symbolic starting point would be the plan, developed by the German scholar Max Müller (1823–1900), for the Sacred Books of the East. Müller was not a rigorous philologist and, even as a religious historian, his writings today look both naive and outmoded. But there can be no question that Müller was a formidable impresario, of the kind and quality that we sorely lack these days. Working alone, he was capable of managing every detail of a project that was brought to completion over the course of thirty years, and that radically altered our point of view concerning a vast part of the East, from Iran to China, and its immense past. The Sacred Books of the East were published by Oxford University Press from 1879 to 1910: fifty volumes of fundamental texts, in many cases translated for the first time. And perhaps never again translated till now.

It was a patently Indocentric project, if we note that out of the fifty volumes thirty-three presented Indian texts. That alone would be sufficient to cause those now concerned with multicultural equity to boil over with indignation. But it was a felix culpa: all of the Indian texts translated were essential ones and, while they may have taken up a lot of room, that was due also to the stunning concentration of great Vedists and Buddhologists in the last few decades of the nineteenth century.

The quickest way to get a sense of the intellectual climate in which the Sacred Books of the East first came into existence is to tell the story of the last volume, which is an index of the preceding forty-nine volumes. Max Müller asked Moriz Winternitz to put it together and at first he met with rejection. Hard to imagine as it is today, the great scholars of the time didn’t think an index was a truly serious feature of a book. As A.A. Macdonell, who was in fact one of those scholars, wrote in 1910, in his preface to the last volume of the Sacred Books of the East:


About thirty years ago an eminent Sanskrit scholar began the publication of the editio princeps [i.e., the first printed edition] of an important and intricate work, which when completed appeared without an index. The editor declined to yield to the suggestion that he should supply one, declaring that those who wished to consult the book on any point ought to be compelled to read it through.

Times change, one might well observe.

Winternitz, the author in his own right of studies that remain invaluable today, clearly shared that editor’s point of view. But by dint of persistence, Müller managed to bring him around and the result was a 683-page volume that is still a very useful tool for any student or scholar of the East. At first Winternitz thought he could finish the book in two years. He soon saw how badly he’d underestimated, after writing 70,000 entries and realizing that those were merely “the raw material from which the building had to be constructed.” In the end, the job took sixteen years. And his criteria remain impeccable. It is with a true sense of relief that one reads these introductory words:

The student of religion will look in vain in this Index for terms such as Animism, Fetishism, Tabu, Totemism, and the like. May not this be a useful warning that these terms refer only to the theories and not to the facts of religion?

An admonishment that would be equally useful to anthropologists working today.

Müller’s undertaking of the Sacred Books of the East reached its conclusion 105 years ago. What happened after that? In immense quantities, studies and texts, many of them revelatory, were published. And to a much lesser extent these texts entered into the sphere of awareness of an ideal intelligent reader. Only in rare cases, such as when in the 1920s in Germany the publisher Diederichs printed a number of great Chinese classics in the translations of Richard Wilhelm (among them the I Ching and the Zhuangzi), can we say that certain Eastern texts won a place in the canon of books that an educated reader must know. Something similar happened in France, in the same years, with the Classiques de l’Orient from Bossard, where Jacques Bacot’s translation of Le Poète Tibétain Milarépa: ses crimes, ses épreuves, son nirvana first appeared.

Now let us leap forward in time by a century. One day in 2002, Oliver Sacks suggested that I meet an old friend from his Oxford days: John Clay. They’d lost touch for many years, then one day Clay reappeared, a tycoon who had amassed a fortune in the Far East and now wished to achieve an old dream of his: a collection of Indian classics, conceived as an Eastern equivalent to the Loeb Classical Library. It was to be called the Clay Sanskrit Library. And so I met with Clay in New York and Monte Carlo, where he lived in one of those apartment buildings teetering on the water’s edge because of the dizzying value of every square foot of buildable terrain in that part of the world.

At first glance, the project seemed to be an ambitious one. And its rigor was guaranteed by the series editor, Richard Gombrich, as well as by the outstanding quality of the contributors. According to Clay, the individual volumes should appear in the same format as the Loeb series, always in the same color and binding. In order to meet partway readers who had no Sanskrit, the original texts were to be transliterated. That approach had previously been adopted for the memorable translations of the two longest Upanishads published by Émile Senart with Belles Lettres in the 1930s.

The problem was finding a publisher. That process was time- consuming, fraught, and painful, though it finally landed at the door of New York University Press, where fifty-six volumes of the series were published between 2005 and 2009. All of them were of particular interest, for a variety of reasons. But after Clay’s death the series was suspended—and it remains, to the present day, an admirable beginning.

It is impossible not to link it to an initiative that was launched this year by Harvard University Press thanks to the “generous gift” of another benefactor, this time an Indian: the young computer scientist Rohan Narayana Murty. Hence the name of the Murty Classical Library of India. The general editor of the series, which cites a quite generic quote from Amartya Sen, is Sheldon Pollock, a highly respected Indologist, who has been a professor at the University of Chicago and is now at Columbia. The “general editor” chose to explain in a short essay—entitled “Why a Classical Library of India?”—the reasons (or, as people seem to like to say, the “mission”) that led to this undertaking.


The ideological underpinnings of the project emerge here immediately. The concept seems to be first and foremost to escape the cage of Sanskrit (quite a spacious cage though it actually is) in order to explore other languages and cultures of the subcontinent, which are, along with Sanskrit, duly listed: Bangla, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Pali, Panjabi, Persian, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. The project is without doubt praiseworthy and enlightened, especially considering that—as Pollock himself has said—a number of these languages might well vanish in a matter of two generations. Since these are languages that in certain cases have completely different scripts, the solution found was to offer an English translation, with the original text on the facing page. Even so, one is rather stumped to read that the texts will appear “in the appropriate regional script.” Why “appropriate”? And why “regional”? One is immediately tempted to imagine a parallel undertaking, say a translation of the complete Shakespeare into Hindi, with the text on facing pages “in the appropriate regional script.” That is to say, in English with Roman letters.

The formulation reminds me of an experience I had in Oxford a few years back. I was curious to see which Sanskrit texts were in circulation. I went into Blackwell’s, which is after all one of the largest and most celebrated bookstores on earth, and asked where I could find Indian classics. The bookseller furrowed his brow and asked: “What do you mean by Indian classics?” I replied: “The same thing I mean by non-Indian classics.” I imagine he thought he was dealing with a nutcase and he sent me on to another bookseller. This one, at his wits’ end, directed me in turn to a third bookseller who ushered me on to a fourth, until at last I ended up with someone, perhaps a section manager, who was gazing placidly at a computer screen. I saw him lower his glasses to take a better look at me, and then he gave me the crucial advice: “Try taking a look on that shelf, under Regional Studies.” He was right, and there I found, parked next to weighty tomes of sociology, two or three editions of the Bhagavad-gita and several Upanishads. Nothing more.


Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Max Müller, editor of Oxford University Press’s Sacred Books of the East series; caricature by Carlo Pellegrini from Vanity Fair, February 1875

That does not mean, however, that there are not a number of important Indian texts in print even as I write, many of them edited by first-class Indologists. Just in the past few months the first complete and reliable English translation of the ancient Indian sacred texts called the Rigveda has appeared, by Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton—an undertaking whose criteria could be discussed fruitfully and at length, but which certainly constitutes a radical shift if you consider that, among the previous English translations of the Rigveda, as Wendy Doniger once wrote, “some are complete and unsound (Max Müller, P. Lal), some incomplete but sound (Macdonell, Panikkar).” The translation by Jamison and Brereton is the only one to date that can be compared to the glorious edition by K.F. Geldner (in German, but published by Harvard University Press), as well as the illuminating but incomplete French translations by Louis Renou, and the German one, still underway, being done by Michael Witzel for Suhrkamp. I should add, however, that these editions are frequently not carried in bookstores, even the best ones, and are instead confined to institutes of higher learning and academic libraries.

So we can only welcome an undertaking like the Murty Classical Library of India, which intends to inject fresh blood directly into the circulatory system of the English language. Any intelligent reader cannot fail to be favorably impressed in the presence of the variegated offerings of the series’ first titles, corresponding to the irrepressible poikilia—as the ancient Greeks would have called it—of India in general. These offerings include, for example, the Therigatha, a collection of poetry by the first Buddhist women to be ordained, proudly presented by the translator and editor Charles Hallisey as the “first anthology of women’s literature in the world”—a persuasive point, but less powerful than the pleasure of discovery caused by certain words in the collection: “Use what is unpleasant to cultivate the mind,/make it focused and attentive.” These two lines are worth more than an entire handbook of mindfulness. Pollock has every right to feel pride at including this text in a series of classics (he says the Therigatha is “of an explosive power”) after it survived for so long at the margins of the margins, ignored and overlooked. And it is certainly true, as Hallisey writes, that the Therigatha has been given minimal attention in India.

Here, too, though, we ought to remember that an illustrious German scholar, Karl Eugen Neumann, had previously translated it in 1899. And it is instructive to compare the two different translations of the first poem, where it is the Buddha who speaks. According to Neumann:

And now, nun, sleep well,
wrapped in simple veils:
dried up for you is the impulse of desire
like dried herb in an earthen vase.


So sleep well, covered with cloth you have made,
your passion for sex shriveled away
like a herb dried up in a pot.

At the opposite extreme, in literary genres, the same reader will find the imposing History of Akbar, whose reign (1556–1605) marked the highest point of convergence among the different creeds and cultures of Mogul India. Or The Story of Manu by Allasani Peddana, who described himself as the “creator of Telugu poetry,” where the reader will be grateful, after so many examples of human beings eager to become gods, to read about a stunning reversal on the theme: the beautiful celestial nymph Varuthini, who fell in love with a mortal and now desperately wishes to free herself of immortality:

Fluttering glances healed
her inability to blink, and for the first time
she was sweating. Even her surpassing
understanding was healed by the new
confusion of desire. Like the beetle that,
from concentrating on the bee,
a bee, by taking in that human being
she achieved humanity
with her own body.

It’s a spectacular case of a reverse metamorphosis where, from heaven’s point of view, human shortcomings become qualities to attain—even the mere act of sweating. Few Western poets have been so audacious and unconventional. We should add that the translation was the work of not only Velcheru Narayana Rao but also David Shulman, the scholar who has most fruitfully ventured in recent decades into the dense and boundless forests of Tamil literature.

The Murty Classical Library thus offers a surprising array of texts that are in any case capable of broadening the all-too-restricted horizons of the average Western reader. That said, we feel obliged to make a point: the Murty Classical Library lies at an opposite extreme from the Sacred Books of the East, as if the pendulum had made a full swing—and one type of unilateral direction were now replaced, 140 years later, by another unilaterality, in an entirely different direction. In Max Müller’s time it seemed that India was simply Vedic India and everything else was shrouded in a tropical haze. Even the Mahabharata might seem too modern, because it could not be dated back any earlier than two or three centuries before Christ.

This point of view found ample encouragement in India, where today it is common to meet people who will hasten to explain to the unsuspecting Westerner that the Vedas date back at the very latest to 10,000 BC and that, in comparison, Plato’s dialogues were on the level of kindergarten. An awkward situation, in part because historical dates seem to be less rigorous in India than elsewhere. Nonetheless, after two centuries of research on the part of major Western scholars, it is now accepted that the Rigveda can be dated to between 1500 and 1200 BC, though it is also the product of an unquantifiable prior evolution. That is the conclusion that Frits Staal reached, for example, in the most recent and substantive study of the matter, his Discovering the Vedas (2008).

Now let us see the way things stand in the Murty Classical Library: it may be an accident, but neither word, vedic nor Veda, occurs even once in the general introduction to the series. At first I imagined this was a chance omission, but then I realized that the same thing was true of Pollock’s long, detailed presentation of the series at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January of this year. If this silence matches the intentions of the entire Murty Classical Library it would be a great pity, because in the Vedic corpus a great deal still remains to be translated and suitably commented upon.

This is especially true of the Brahmanas, texts commenting on the Vedas, that constitute the most dense and specific manifestation of ancient Indian thought. To ignore them, as is too often the case with readers—even learned readers—these days, is a little bit like studying the history of Greek philosophy but overlooking the Pre-Socratics and Plato. According to Schopenhauer, nineteenth-century Europe could boast an incomparable advantage over all previous eras because it had access to the Vedic world. Apparently, however, this is no longer true for a certain variety of secular mind in the twenty-first century, complacent in being tone-deaf to all that is religious. And in Vedic India, everything was religious. As Sayana, the great commentator on the Vedas who lived in the fourteenth century, wrote: “The Yajurveda [hence the Brahmana] represents the wall, the two other Vedas represent the painting.” If you do not see that wall, then much remains incomprehensible about India, even today.

—Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar