Secular Sanskrit Poetry


Read this old book Poems from the Sanskrit. With its musty smell and brittle pages, it was a pleasant experience reading it: a book bought in a second hand bookstall, with the firm knowledge it wouldn’t be available in fresh stocks, marks of age all over it, signs of previous use too making you share with all those earlier readers the thrill of reading anachronistically together.

This book of translated Sanskrit poems caught my attention when I picked it up ‘coz it was a collection of secular Sanskrit verse. Published by Penguin in 1968, it has translations and an intro by John Brough. As Brough points out secular verse in Sanskrit is not exactly well known. Most today would think Sanskrit has only sacred hymns, chants, Upanishads, Bhagavad-Gita and so on (some would want it to have only those). It will surprise at least some to come across a verse such as this:

            Your breasts are like two kings at war, my dear;

            Each striving to invade the other’s sphere.


Sweet girl, your dress has come apart

While you lie in the heather;

And here am I, with lonely heart:

Why don’t we sleep together?

Or this one:

            They are firm, and you are tender,

            Full and round, while you are slender;

            Bold your breasts, while you are shy

            – Since so near your heart they lie.

There are many types of poems in this. There are love poems, erotic poetry, descriptive poems, wisecracks, and what I usually like best – the clever word plays:

            When we have loved, my love,

            Panting and pale from love,

            Then from your cheeks, my love,

            Scent of the sweat I love;

            And when our bodies love

            Now to relax in love,

            After the stress of love,

            Ever still more I love

            Our mingled breath of love.

This is hardly a love poem. This is nothing but an exercise in language; some of the best poems are actually about such linguistic acrobatics. As far as I know Sanskrit poetry had a lot of such stuff where a variety of refinements are aimed at. Complex rhythms, strict metrical lines, complex alliteration and repetitions etc.

But how about the original of the above? Has the translator done such a good job that we can see the clever play on the words? Surely it must have had a meter that is untranslatable, compound words that cannot be translated etc. Now, translation is always a hard job. Brough says about his enterprise: “The attempt often involves what seems to the translator to be a complete dismemberment of the original verse into constituents of sense, and the subsequent creation of a new poem, where these constituents are rebuilt and constrained, with much labor, into a new formal pattern of words.” More or less what most translators say, especially of poetry.

More bits from this eminently readable book:

A hundred times they kiss, and then

A thousand times embrace,

And stop only to start again:

There is no tautology in such a case.

On sacred cow:

            Unfit to bear a burden

            Unskilled to pull a plough

            These temple oxen

            But one thing, you will allow –

They are pretty good at eating.

There are more. Some originals are in English transliteration. Let me offer one verse in English transliteration and its English translation. This would give us an idea of the distance that lies between the original and the English in some cases (it is possible in some cases that translation has become more effective than the original):



In English:

            When you’re away,

            A day’s a year;

            But when you are here,

            A year’s a day.

Good try, but the clever arrangement of words and the bending and the twisting of sounds that we can make out is present in the Sanskrit version is lost in the translation. Mind you it is against such challenges that one translates from Sanskrit and I do think Brough has done a fairly good job.

Good read.

2 responses »

  1. The poems are from Sanskrit. Translated by John Brough, published by Penguin in 1968. They are by different poets including Yogesvara, Bhartrhari, Amaru.

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