Not the end of the book

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Rohan Murty, Junior Fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, and founder of the Murty Classical Library of India, in conversation with Rahul Jacob, Managing Editor, Business Standard.

Rahul Jacob: Rohan, let me start by asking you where your interest in classics began. I think it was at HarvardÖ

Rohan Murty: Itís not just my interest in classics, itís my interest in ancient India and it started when I was a PhD student at Harvard in Computer Science. A friend suggested I take a class in 6th century Indian epistemology. I ended up taking a graduate course on 6th to 8th century philosophical debates between Mimamsa philosophers and Buddhist philosophers. It was incredible, because we were reading about perception, knowledge, how one knows what one knows, and that, to my limited mind, was very exciting. The school I went to was quite an average one and we didnít hear this kind of stuff. Iím not referring to only epistemology or philosophy; I mean that there existed an India or Indian civilization where there was deep intellectual inquiry, and there were debates that rivalled, if not surpassed, the philosophical debates of the West.

So, I found this course very exciting and from then on every semester I ended up taking at least one graduate course on ancient India like philosophy, literature, and grammar from 2400 years ago. Each one of them was a revelation. Making a jump from there to the classics was quite easy.


You once mentioned this Hindu philosopher, if I remember correctly, who went like an under-cover agent to learn about Buddhism and then critiqued it. Can you talk about that?

The very first course that I took was on the epistemology of 6th-7th century India. Buddhist philosophers, with the rise in Buddhism, rejected the primary authority of the Hindu faith, namely the Vedas. So the best way to attack so many schools of Hindu thought that were premised on the Vedas was to say that the Vedas were not the ultimate source of knowledge. For several years there was no philosophical response from the Hindu or the non-Buddhist side. Mimamsa is a particular school of thought which owed allegiance to the Vedas. Now there was a Mimamsa philosopher named Kum‚rila Bhatta. (He may well have been called Bhatt but Iím from Karnataka and we add an Ďaí to everything at the end, so I say Kum‚rila Bhatta). Kum‚rila decided that he had to write the definitive argument against Buddhism and strike back like Star Wars Episode 5 and so he went and enrolled himself in a Buddhist monastery in todayís Madhya Pradesh or Bihar and studied there for a decade and understood the philosophical underpinnings of the Buddhist argument of the rejection of Vedas.

He wrote an extraordinary 11 or 13 volume treatise known as the Shlokavartika which trounced the Buddhists. He then went around the country arguing and winning debates. The later part of the story which, I donít know if it is apocryphal or not, suggests that he felt so guilty for having cheated his teachers Ė because he was really a double agent, because he wanted to defeat Buddhists at their own game Ė that he self-immolated, but we donít really know this for a fact.


Tell us about the David Pingree article that outlined connections between ancient Sanskrit poetry and mathematical concepts that were being discussed in India hundreds of years before they were studied in the West... As a Computer Science student, how did this article affect you?

I donít know if that made me a better computer scientist. I donít believe Iím unique in that, because there are many people in my own circle of friends who have grown up like me in India and had the same experience. Professor Chandrashekhar Khare, who is in the audience, is a very well-known mathematician at UCLA and TIFR and he would know this a lot better than I do. I started to learn about mathematics and ancient India and this is truly extraordinary, not just because itís India but because in the past, poetry and mathematics were both used to teach mathematical concepts.

To me that was such a startling idea because when we all learnt mathematics, at least I learnt it in a dry, dull and boring way, with theorems and formulae. No doubt they are also very important but in those Sanskrit courses at Harvard, weíd read about this well known historian of science named David Pingree, a mathematician turned into a historian of mathematics, an expert in ancient Greek math and ancient Indian math who has written many articles for lay people like myself.

Think of a poet who is writing a poem and he is trying to solve some problems in poetry related to the number of combinations of syllables which could be used to construct a stanza. This was in 1050 AD Ė a poet named Hema Chandra. Hema Chandra, in trying to solve this problem, was more like a philosopher and a mathematician. It turns out that he ended up with a very simple sequence and a formula, which by the way was also expressed through poems. And 800 years later it came to be known as the Fibonacci sequence.

I never thought that we could arrive at the Fibonacci sequence through poetry. The sequence we will find used repetitively in nature Ė like counting the petals and certain flowers and certain other things Ė but this was worked out by a poet who was trying to solve a problem in poetry and again this is the simplest example.

If you look through ancient Indian mathematics you will find repeated examples of people writing theorems and proofs in poetry. Their notions of theorems and proofs were different because they wrote it in verse which yet again was another revelation and this is something mankind cannot afford to lose. Because if we lose this, we would have lost an essence of human thought.

Somebody told me recently that the Aztecs did something like this but I donít know, [and] I donít think any other civilization has approached mathematics with poetry. Think about it like this: what if the next generation in India or anywhere in the world learnt math through poetry? I mean, that would be extraordinary; people would learn mathematics a lot better Ė the average person would be a slightly better mathematician maybe if he could go through another medium, but this was yet another revelation for me through these experiences.


How did you get the idea of funding this library? Was it because of meeting Sheldon Pollock or did you already have the idea earlier and sought him out?

Itís a combination of the two. In my quest to learn about ancient India, my obvious handicap was that although I read and write in English and my mother tongue is Kannada, I grew up in Bangalore and I donít know Sanskrit but I could read all these books because various excellent scholars around the globe had translated them. At some point, I began to think, ĎIs this not something that can be done more systematically so that we have translations of more of these books so that more people can experience what I experienced.í A professor at the Sanskrit and philosophy department at Harvard introduced me to what is called the Loeb Classical Library, which is a 103-year-old effort.

I think it would be very fair to say that it was single-handedly responsible for keeping Greek and Latin alive in the western civilizations, at least in universities. 103 years ago a man named John Loeb had this idea of asking, ĎWhy arenít people reading more Greek and Latin classics?í His definition of a gentleman was someone who read Greek and Latin classics. So he started this effort to translate Greek and Latin classics because he thought people werenít reading them as these werenít being translated. His effort has been really successful because 103 years and 500-odd volumes later, itís the golden standard of how translations should be. They are used by schools and colleges and 80 per cent of the sales are to lay people like you and me who are buying them just because we want to read. So it really kept Greek and Latin alive in the public imagination in the West.

Once I was introduced to the idea of the Loeb library, the obvious questions was: ĎWhy donít we do it for the Indian texts in Sanskrit?í Then through a series of fortuitous accidents, I was introduced to Sheldon Pollock who is a professor at Columbia and a highly respected scholar of Sanskrit. It turns out that he wanted to do the exact same thing. He had an even better idea. I met him for the first time and I told him in all my excitement whatever I am saying now. He asked, ĎWhy are you thinking only of Sanskrit, why not more languages?í I said, ĎWhat do you mean?í

He said, ĎLook, your mother tongue is Kannada so you know contemporary Kannada, but old Kannada is at least 1000-1500 years old. There is a lot produced in it. Similarly, if we take old Tamil, medieval Marathi, medieval Bengali, medieval Telugu, old Malayalam etc.í By official definition there are 14 languages in India that can be classified as the classics. So he said, ĎWhy not take each one of these languages that has extraordinary literature and why donít we translate the literature from these 14 languages into English so that you have a broader mission that not only shows depth and breadth, but also diversity?í And thatís really how the whole thing of doing multiple languages came together.


When you met Sheldon for the first time, he was actually looking for someone like you. He has said in interviews that he had approached business families in this country and had absolutely no luck. Tell us about the first meeting because he is also a very colourful character.

The meeting was just like stars lining up; in one sense he was the ideal leader of what he wanted to do and I was the ideal leader of what I wanted to do. I had sort of definite ideas that it should survive beyond our collective lifetime and he had this thing of 14 languages and I had this thing where I said it should be digital and then he said something and then I said something. We just met once for an hour and a half and I put all my ideas on the table and he put all his ideas on the table. I told him Iíll get back to him in 17 days. He asked, ĎWhy 17?í I said, ĎBecause itís a prime number,í and then on the 17th day I said, ĎLetís do it.í So there wasnít much to that but yeah, there was Shelly (Sheldon Pollock) reciting shloka after shloka after shloka in the middle of our discussion, some of which I understood, some I did notÖ but you should go see some of his interviews on YouTube. He is very colourful.


I second that. He is incredibly charismatic, but he also can be a stern taskmaster. In Jaipur he was speaking on stage about this Wall Street Journal reporter who said, quite rightly in my opinion, that trying to get into Abu Fazl can be pretty hard going. Whether Sheldon Pollock agrees or not Ė and he has a point that we also need to immerse ourselves in the more discursive writing styles of these times Ė I found it to be true to an extent. Abu Fazlís books were written as hagiography as the introduction points out.

This I definitely do not agree with and I also do not quite agree with your question and hereís why. You know there are a lot of my friends in this room who were with me in high school and when we were in high school, our English teacher forced us to read strange texts Ė I mean, you are growing up in Bangalore and studying ancient Greece. I mean who cares Ė but we had to read it because of the exams. We had no context and it was just a done deal when we read it. Sure, the lines were beautiful, particularly the last few lines of the Ulysses, you know, Ďto strive to seekí and all that.

All great, but we accepted the fact that though it is very foreign and we had no overlap it was still okay and we swallowed it. And the same thing with Shakespeare. If we didnít have the notes on the side, somebody reading it would say that it was silly because it was written at a different point in time, in a different context and with a different way of thinking. Like in Merchant of Venice, I remember there was a line that said that only prostitutes use make-up. I mean itís quite a shocking thing to read because when you go home and see your mother or sister use make-up, you donít know how to make sense of it. But we accepted it and we were taking the leap to understand it and make it a part of us so why is it so different when you read these things?

So what if Abu Fazl is being overly obsequious? We have accepted the different contexts in books that were part of our syllabus for a long period of time, so I would take a third stand saying, ĎYes this is how it is and this is how it should be for people.í These are classics that are not supposed to be dumbed down.


I want to ask how you decided to do these many volumes Ė doing five books progressively every year for 100 years?

Well, Rahul, itís Ďat leastí for a hundred years, I hope. Look, we arenít limited by money. We have plenty of money, but the main reason why we are [limited] to five a year is our access to very high quality scholarly talent, because these arenít translations done by people like me as a hobby on the side. These are first-rate translations done by leading scholars in the particular languages.

Letís say there are medieval Marathi books; I take that as an example because we are in Mumbai. The challenge for us is we are looking for someone who knows medieval Marathi extremely well and also knows English extremely well. We can find someone for either one, but for both itís very tough so this is why we are restricted to five a year or sometimes less because these are the pains taken: It takes a couple of years to do these translations, there is a lot of back and forth editing and the aspiration is that it survives. One hundred years from now, we donít want people to say that the translation of Therigatha was not good so we had to do a new translation, so it naturally comes to just five a year. We have a board of editors who are very well known scholars. Sheldon Pollock is the general editor of the series and along with three other faculty as well from across the globe, they collectively decide which books to translate.


The definition of a perfectionist is that in a hundred years, he doesnít want people to say that the translation of Therigatha was bad. We will all be dead by that time, but thatís the whole point of a classical library.

Actually, my mother has an older copy of the Akbarnama. I donít know when it was done, somewhere 80 to 120 years ago, letís say roughly in that range. She got very excited to see that one of the five books selected was the Akbarnama. She has been comparing them side by side, and I told her to give me an honest opinion and she said, ĎLook, this is definitely better.í I mean that [the earlier one] was maybe done under the British or someone who had a completely different context and point of view, perhaps not that sophisticated and so on. So we donít want people saying that about our books one hundred years from now.


These are indeed very, very fluent, rich translations. One of them, I think the Allasani Peddana book was done by David Shulman and Velcheru Narayana. But Shulman is working in Jerusalem, which kind of knocked me for a six when I saw this but there are others, Christopher Shackle and Charles Hallisey, working on these books in the West, but that strangely has become contentious. People have criticized you for using foreigners for these translations.

Let me tell you that in our [first] five volumes which have the name of the translators written, we have only one Indian and we have five non-Indians. Now, let me start from the meta point and then get down to the detail. I personally do not care, nor believe, that it has to be Indian versus a non-Indian. I mean, heck, we even have great Indian scholars of Shakespeare. If somebody were to say that only the English have the right to read Shakespeare, that would be kind of silly right? We donít accept that, so why should we accept it the other way around?

Well, in fact, it should be a matter of pride that our culture has produced such exquisite work that people in other parts of the world want to read it. I think thatís a matter of pride; I donít see it as a sign of weakness. So Iím quite unfazed when people say these things. I just say, ĎLook, thereís no deliberate effort to keep Indians out. Our logic is very simple: we want these to be the best books, and we will go to the best scholars alive no matter where they are.í

Now, having said that, the main detail is that as in the case of all these sorts of efforts, you initially go out and find your friends and say, ĎHey can you translate this? Can you do that?í and so on. Sheldon Pollock reached out to his friends who happen to be scholars who were either in Columbia or Chicago or in the U.S. at various schools or whatever.

So, really thatís how this thing started and one of them had already begun the translation earlier and thatís how the first five have many non-Indian names, but over a period of time you will find many Indian translators. Thereís a translator in Bengaluru working on an old Kannada text as we speak, so this is all in the pipeline. Over a period of time there will be new translators who approach us. Soon they will also come out.

But this, to a certain extent, also points to the reality, especially in my generation, and it will be true for the next generation as well. I mean how many of us can be scholars of these languages? The other issue is finding great scholars in India who can do both languages; we can find scholars for one, but expertise in both languages is rapidly diminishing so we are then forced to go wherever we find people.


Sheldon Pollock says that the house of humanities and classical studies in India is not just burning but itís in ashes. The story he tells is one of studying old Kannada for eight months in Mysore and being the only student this scholar had, which is rather tragic.

Absolutely. I mean there are still some good people left, there are some excellent people left here at IIT Bombay in the Humanities department and so on. The Bhandarkar Institute in Pune was once the intellectual powerhouse for Sanskrit, but gone are those golden days. I donít know a single person in my social circle or in my circle of friends from school who went on to study Sanskrit. Forget Sanskrit, even the humanities. Maybe they did that as their last resort, maybe even if they did, they did it because they couldnít get into medicine, engineering, law etc. or their rank was low enough so one ended up doing this or was forced to.

This is a very sad reality; we are on the verge of forever losing access to this, and they are not contemporary forms. These are classical forms and thatís the challenge because they are going to decline even more rapidly than contemporary forms.


I think at this point Iíll throw it open to questions.

In our generation we think science and computer science is the way to go in school and college and then we find what we are actually interested in, so do you think that if you had known in school or 12th grade you would have done this instead, i.e. you would not have studied computer science?

I must tell you that I have two students of my own, they are roughly your age and studying for their PhD. If the impression that I gave was that Iím prescribing [what people should study] thatís not what Iím doing at all. Who am I to say people should study humanities. Heck, I didnít study the humanities. I donít know if I would study the humanities all by itself. Rather, what Iím saying is that if you start from school there is no harm in being exposed to all these things. Maybe some people would choose to study [this] and some will not, which is okay.

When youíre in engineering college, itís not a bad idea to have a complete or rounded education by reading these books. I donít mean these specific books; I mean books with this kind of body of work as part of the syllabus. I think to increase awareness to begin with is not a bad idea. So, I think if the hordes of engineers we produce, or some of them, also knew something about 2000-year-old books and literature, 1500-year-old Indian poetry, one-hundred-year-old Indian plays and so on, that would not be detrimental to becoming an engineer or a computer scientist. That is really my message. So Iím not prescribing, ĎI studied computer science but you study Sanskrit and not get a job.í


Would the few poems of Buddhist nuns talking about lust get censored by political powers?

I get asked these questions a fair bit, and I steer clear of them. I mean, I answer them but I donít think I have anything insightful to say. Look if somebody censors or bans these books, theyíll do it. What can I do? We arenít creating any fiction here, these are translations, we have the original script and if you feel the translation is incorrect ignore the translation and read the original script. I mean thatís the benefit of having both next to each other, which will tell you what these books are saying are facts or exactly the same or consistent. But the larger question about whether this will be objectionable or people will get upset and ban it, well I hope that day does not come.

The last thing that we need in this series is for it to get politicized. The surprising thing for me has been that I get a lot of hate mail from the very right and the very left. The very left say that youíre a right wing agent, you want to brainwash. You know I say children should read these books, and they say you have a right wing agenda. The right wing says that youíre insulting Hinduism and India and blah blah blah, so I figured that as long as I am offending both sides itís okay. I do worry about the day that this would get politicized because then it will become less about the books and more about something else, and you know the books have done nothing to anybody. So, like when we discuss Shakespeare, Wordsworth or T.S. Elliot and so on, and thatís not political, why should these be political?

For me this is just an older manifestation of that kind of literature. To the extent possible, we donít make any kind of comment on politics. The New York Times had a very long article about this [series] but it was unfortunate how they wrote some parts of it. They said, ĎOh this is being done to teach so and so a lesson.í Thatís rubbish. This series had been conceived in 2009 when there was a different government and nobody wanted to stick it to anyone. This series originated in 2009, when it was a different time and it just so happens that the first books are coming out now. Therefore, I donít see this series as having any connection with who is in power or not.


If the texts are lost, some archaeologist would find them, so what is the problem? And the second question is, you are creating this reservoir for the next generation but how will you lead them to the water?

Look, the loss is going to happen and none of this will save it. We are going to experience incredible and monumental loss because we arenít equipped to deal with it. Fewer and fewer people will be able to read these texts. I might sound extremely pessimistic after this, but thatís the truth. But, having said that, it is still worthwhile to try and preserve some small part of it.

If you see western civilization in America, it is just 300-years-old, but they create such tenuous connections back to ancient Greece, like if you read their constitution. Or Harvardís motto Ė why should a 300-year-old university have a Latin motto? Because youíre trying to cultivate some connection with antiquity, and have some sort of justification and feel a connection.

Whereas we come from a civilization where we donít even have to try; we already have that antiquity, but yet we have no connection to it. I find it very depressing today that this loss will happen. We will lose the connection with literature, knowledge, math, science, but it still doesnít mean we should not try. We should try and save whatever little we can save. In a hundred years we do 500 books, but (perhaps) it makes no difference. Itís probably a bummer of a way to end this, but thatís actually the truth and Iím just putting it in context.

The reason I say this is because itís just not enough to have one such effort. We need one thousand efforts and we need this to become part of mainstream thought and only then maybe something survives. Itís something like what Carl Sagan wrote in Cosmos. He says somebody two thousand years ago figured out the diameter of the earth with a very simple experiment, but a lot of this knowledge was lost when the Alexandria library was burnt and it took mankind another 1500 years to rediscover all of this again.

So why go through that painful process again if you can still try and save some of this now. You can still try and save all of it given that the end is inevitable, but maybe there will be a miracle; good things will happen and there will be a thousand more efforts.

I think the magnitude of loss is so big that one or two examples are not going to save it. We need a systemic change. So, that is what I worry about on a grander scale. Sure, in every language you will have say five books each. Great, but thatís not what concerns me. Can we save 80 per cent of this literature, can we save 80 per cent of this math, science and so on, and in each one of these languages. We need more effort at something like this. Maybe we need a library of mathematics, or maybe something else.

Without that, I think we have a double whammy; we are also losing scholars like these at a very rapid pace so I donít know how we would overcome that problem. If we had a steady stream of scholars, you donít have to worry because eventually people will rediscover [these texts] but [what] if you canít even start reading these languages fifty years from nowÖ and, if people arenít even trained, then what will you do? Who is going to even look at these scripts? They would say that they are as foreign as if they came from Mars.


* Interview conducted at an Asia Society India Centre event in Mumbai on 27 March 2015.