#33: A CORNER OF INDIA. Krishna, the Hindu deity Vishnu in one of his many incarnations, is known to most Westerners, if at all, as the divine counselor to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, the philosophical poem embedded in the sixth book of the Indian epic Mahabharata. But in the medieval period, in the Vaishnavic cult, Krishna took on a whole other guise, as the lover of the Gopi maiden Radha, in a body of erotic, ecstatic poems and songs quite unlike anything in Western literature. This is a tradition steeped in religious feeling that has never heard the word Puritanism: the result is a kind of stereoscopic literary vision, in which both the erotic and the devotional intent are fully realised.
The early masterpiece of this style is the Gitagovinda, by the poet Jayadeva, composed probably around the twelfth century. It’s a dramatic cycle of twenty-four songs about the passion, separation, reconciliation and uniting of Krishna and Radha. The variation of voice and meter, the formal invention, the mounting intensity of feeling are such that even in translation the reader submits to a kind of joyous hypnotism and comes away transformed. Incomparably the best version in English is Love Song of the Dark Lord: Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda, edited and translated by Barbara Stoler Miller (Columbia, 1975; hardcover edition includes Sanskrit text); Miller has found a flexible and convincing idiom for the translation, and her introduction tells you all you need to know about the poem’s setting and composition.
Tradition connects Jayadeva with the eastern district of Birbhum; later, in the fourteenth century, it was birthplace to another great poet of the Vaishnavic cult, Chandidas. The unresolved legends of Chandidas’s life cluster around his passion for Rami, a woman not of his caste. Perhaps it was this passion that gave his songs of Krishna and Radha their terrific anguish—perhaps not—but Chandidas’s little ballads have a rarely matched intensity—love as a kind of emotional scorched-earth policy. In Love Songs of Chandidas: The Rebel Poet-Priest of Bengal (Grove, 1967), the modern Bengali poet Deben Bhattacharya has found, as Miller did for Jayadeva, an idiom for carrying Chandidas convincingly into English, and given us in his introduction what we need to understand him.
One of the main sources for the legends of Krishna is the Bhagavata Purana, the Puranas being those vast digests/encyclopedias/hodge-podges of cosmolology, divine genealogy, legend, temple lore, medicine, love stories, you name it. The Bhagavata Purana (one of the eighteen “great” Puranas) is available now in a readable English-language selection from its tenth book as Krishna: The Beautiful Legend of God, translated with an excellent introduction by Edwin F. Bryant (Penguin, 2003), and in full translation from the indefatigable Bibek Debroy (Bhagavata Purana, Penguin, 2019). Read consecutively, the tales of the life of Krishna can have a certain monotony: when your protagonist is an invincible god, the sustainer of the universe, it’s not hard to guess who’s going to come out on top in any conflict. But they also have a fine supply of the wondrous: when the child Krishna approaches doors, they fly open; when he goes to pay for fruit, jewels pour from his hands; and he dispatches various monsters and demons with violence of an almost cartoon aplomb, all of it perfumed with the marveling and reverent tone of Indian legend.
Mirabai, in turn, was a woman poet, born a princess in sixteenth century Rajasthan (alright, fifteenth century: 1498, to be precise). A woman poet in those days was a contradiction in terms; Mira’s poetic vocation was considered so severe an affront to her family that they tried to have her killed, after which she abandoned her position and took to the streets. As with Chandidas, Mira’s songs have the snarling tenacity of passion of the opposed; but there is no doubt that in her devotion to Krishna she found her true task and voice, and that she was as fulfilled by it as thoroughly as George Herbert was by his Christianity. The versions by Louise Landis Levi, in Sweet on My Lips: The Love Poems of Mirabai (Cool Grove Press, 1997) and by Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfield, in Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems (Beacon Press, 2004) are good, but my favorites are Andrew Schelling’s, in For Love of the Dark One: Songs of Mirabai (Shambhala, 1983) which has a useful discography as well.
As with Mirabai, the birth and death dates of the poet Surdas straddle the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He is considered by many as the greatest of the poets who sang in praise of Krishna; his poems stay pretty strictly within the range of those myths—the infant and child Krishna, the gopi maidens, the departure for Mathura—but do so with endless poetic energy and invention. There’s always some ingenuity, some spin that livens the familiar tales; and he has been singularly fortunate in his translator, John Stratton Hawley, who allows Surdas to speak in English with beguiling grace. There’s a selection of some 150 poems of Surdas’ poems in The Memory of Love: Surdas Sings to Krishna (Oxford, 2009) and a chapter on him in Hawley and Mark Jurgenmeyer’s classic study Songs of the Saints of India (Oxford, 1988), both excellent starting points; and now, marvelously, there is Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition (2015), with 400 poems in Hawley’s superb renderings, a Hindi text and annotation, in the new Murty Classical Library of India, published by Harvard, and which is a big fat feast of a book.
If these get you hooked, there’s more. The Loves of Krishna in Indian Painting and Poetry, by W.G. Archer (Grove Press) is a lucid and intelligent study of the topic. Barbara Stoler Miller did one of the very best English versions of the Bhagavad Gita (Bantam, 1986), as well as the poems of Bhartrihari and Bilhana and the plays of Kalidasa. An accessible wee gem of a book is In Praise of Krishna: Songs from the Bengali, translated by Edward C. Dimock Jr. and Denise Levertov—more of the Vaishnavic poems (Anchor Books, 1967). At Play With Krishna: Pilgrimage Dramas from Brindavan, by John Stratton Hawley (Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 1981) is a delightful and scholarly book about a cycle of pilgrimage plays performed annually; it captures the particular charm of the Vaishnavic literature.
From further south, we have the songs of Annamayya, addressed to Venkatesvara, an avatar of Vishnu in his residence at the temple of Tirupati, in Andhra Pradesh, still one of the most active pilgrimage sites in India. The Telugu-language songs of Annamayya follow the Vaishnavic double vision of the sacred mixed with the erotic, but there is a remarkable variety of tone in them—from the rapt to the subtly analytic to a cheerful kind of cheek—that marks them as something individual and charming. In God on the Hill: Temple Poems from Tirupati (Oxford, 2005), translators Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman have given the fifteenth century Annamayya an energetic and convincing voice in modern English. There is more of Annamayya in Songs of Three Great South Indian Saints, by William J. Jackson (Oxford, 1998), which also offers versions of Purandaradasa and Kanakadasa—sort of a down-south companion to Stratton and Hawley’s Songs of the Saints of India. Also from the south, there’s For the Love of the Animals (California, 1987), a translation by Hank Heifetz and Velcheru Narayana Rao of the Telugu-language poems of Dhurjati. Here too an unexpected candor mixes in with the rapt tone of devotion; there is nothing of dry convention in them, in the poems or the fluid English versions.
Deben Bhattacharya has also translated the poems of Vidyapati (Grove Press, 1963) and the more modern Songs of the Bards of Bengal, from the working-class Bengali Baul troubadours. The poems of Shaivism, the cult devoted to Shiva, are gathered by A. K. Ramanujan in Speaking of Siva, an appealing and well-translated anthology (Penguin, 1973). For more of the southern poems, Ramanujan’s collection The Interior Landscape: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology, is another small gem. One of the very best of all these collections is David Ray’s marvelous Not Far from the River (Copper Canyon Press), his translation of a two thousand year old work in Prakrit (a peasant dialect of Sanskrit): these little quatrains are as mischievous and knowing as village gossip, and as sharp as any epigram. The preoccupations are enticingly, yearningly erotic, but can veer off into the most touching moments of sympathy: “The buffalos are led away / by the butchers with their swords held high / and they look back with big black eyes / saying farewell to the village.” Hauling north, and for those who might have feared that from Sanskrit we had only the more forbidding peaks of religious literature, we have The Peacock’s Egg: Love Poems from Ancient India (North Point Press, 1981), translated by W.S. Merwin and J. Moussaief Masson, a collection of terse, passionate and elegant verses. And finally, for a taste of this aesthetic in its sculptural and architectural form, read Erotic Spirituality: The Vision of Konarak, by Alan Watts with photographs by Eliot Elisofon (Collier, 1971).
If you want to approach the originating texts of Hinduism, both the Rig Veda and the Upanishads are easily available in English. With the verses of the Rig Veda, you are touching the oldest, deepest roots of religious expression, as well as one of the most ancient strata of Indian literature. One can hear in them echoes and portents of vast ranges of literature, from the Psalms and Aeschylus all the way forward to the Carmina Burana, Whitman, and twentieth-century Indian verse. And even across the distances of time and translation, you can hear them setting the primitive intoxicant rhythms of religious speech: language ascending. The Rig Veda (Book of the Month Club, 1992, in the Sacred Writings series edited by Jaroslav Pelikan) reprints Ralph T.H. Griffin’s complete 1896 translation. One might expect the thithers and thous of Victorian idiom to make a mire of the thing, but I find this idiom still works as well as any more modern style, and the notes are thorough and useful. The Rig Veda: One Hundred and Eight Hymns, selected, translated and annotated by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty (Penguin, 1981) is also good—a perhaps less overwhelming introduction than Griffin’s complete edition. For the Upanishads: I cut my Indic studies teeth on R.L. Hume’s 1931 edition, The Thirteen Principal Upanishads (Oxford), but there is a readable new version, Upanisads, in the Oxford World Classics, done by Patrick R. Olievelle. The Upanishads are a collection of various visionary texts, all pre-Christian by some centuries; the word means “connection” or “equivalence”. “Parts of the body were homologized with cosmic phenomena,” as the translator phrases it, and the cosmos was seen as expressed in names and appearances. Olievelle selects a dozen of these texts, from the oldest, the Brihadaranyaka, with its imagery drawn from the sacrificial horse, to the late verse Mandukya, with its famous explication of the mystic syllable AUM. It is not a sorted-out, systematic philosophy so much as a Gangetic tide of mythic and poetic images. Thoreau spoke of “bathing” in these texts—an apt image still.
The best one-volume history of India that I know of is certainly John Keay’s India: A History from the Earliest Civilisations to the Boom of the Twenty-First Century (Harper Press, updated edition 2010). It’s neither a quick nor an easy read—it couldn’t be, given the subcontinent’s fractured history—but it’s superbly well written, and Keay has mastered a really astonishing amount of material.
A vivid, encyclopedic and readable book on the Mughal empire—the Mongol-descended leaders who pretty much ran the Indian show from the sixteenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries—is The Last Spring: The Lives and Times of the Great Mughals, by Abraham Eraly (New Delhi, Viking, 1997). Eraly’s style has the charming rhythms of Indian-inflected English, and he’s a good storyteller: he keeps the huge cast in focus and keeps the empire moving along. The first half of the book goes through the bios of the first six Mughal leaders; the second half treats of the psyche and accomplishments of the culture they created. Eraly deals with things very non-sensationally, but be prepared: great architecture and poetry and all, it’s a time and culture of almost constant warfare, internecine betrayal on a Byzantine scale and mind-boggling, more-than-Oriental hypocrisy.
We return to Birbhum, which in the nineteenth century saw the birth of the protean figure of modern Indian literature, Rabindranath Tagore: poet, playwright, songwriter, folklorist, educational reformer, Nobel laureate. In 1912, in his fifties and with a large body of Bengali-language poetry behind him, Tagore translated a book of his “austere devotional songs” into English: Gitanjali. It was a wild success and is still many readers’ introduction to Tagore; but to some its Anglo-Indian English may resemble the bad, solemn early twentieth-century slush that made “mystical verse” something people would leave the state to avoid. In 2011, with a spate of Tagore anniversaries looming (the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of his birth in 1861; the hundredth of the publication of Gitanjali in 1912; and the hundredth of the Nobel in 1913) the British poet and translator William Radice produced a new edition of Gitanjali that would tackle some of the questions that had long attended the work. He has made a fresh translation directly from the Bengali, as Tagore’s prose translations had radically altered the originals and disguised the formal variety of the collection; he has reprinted the only existing manuscript of Tagore’s that Tagore had given to his friend, the artist William Rothenstein, which restores not only the original order of the poems but allows us to read them without the revisions of the printed edition, attributed largely to William Butler Yeats; and includes the version as originally published—the Gitanjali we know. It is a remarkable and fascinating reinvention of a classic, which has convinced me once again not only of the work’s place in Tagore’s career but of the unique quality of its vision and music. This edition is a wonderful compliment to Radice’s other selection of Tagore’s verse (Selected Poems, Penguin, 1987), a Tagore you can recommend without apology or embarrassment, and which gives us a poet who alters your notion of twentieth-century poetry. Tagore: An Anthology, edited by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson (St. Martin’s, 1997) gives a good selection of Tagore’s prose, verse and non-fiction.
For an intelligent and readable report on contemporary India get hold of In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India, by Edward Luce (Anchor Books, 2007). Luce’s chapters hit off vividly the situations of India now: the leap from an agrarian to an information economy without the intervening industrialization (rather like Ireland but on a vaster scale), the religious conservatives (who are rewriting the textbooks as eagerly and falsely as our own Christian Right), the wealthy technocrats and impoverished mass of peasantry, women’s rights (still lagging), the tragic and disputatious legacy of partition, the lowering threat of ecological disaster (as desperate even as China’s). It conveys the teem and welter of India while giving you a way to get your bearings—no small feat.
One of the most moving documents out of contemporary India—and one of the most vivid and chill reminders of the dangers of nuclear proliferation—is from novelist and social critic Arundhati Roy. Her essay “The End of Imagination” is a keen for the innocence of India as it entered the list of countries who have nuclear weaponry. It is a warning, a lament, and an act of secession: “My world has died. And I mourn its passing.” “India’s nuclear bomb is the final act of betrayal by a ruling class that has failed its people.” This moving and frightening essay is in The Cost of Living (Modern Library, 1999) and in the later compendium of her non-fiction, My Seditious Heart (Haymarket, 2019).
And last, we have Hanklyn-Janklyn, by Nigel Hankin (New Dehi, India Research Press, 2003), a hugely amusing and informative reference work, terrific for browsing, showing what happens when the English language and the varied Indian languages meet, carom, meld and fuse. It is the successor to Hobson-Jobson (no, I’m not making these titles up), the venerable 1886 book by Henry Yule and Arthur Coke Burnell—one of the happiest results of that Anglo-Indian collision called the Raj.