book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasting trees

Poems from the Sanskrit

John Brough (trans.)

Brough, John (trans.);

Poems from the Sanskrit

Penguin, 1977, 151 pages

ISBN 0140441980, 9780140441987

topics: |  poetry | india | ancient | sanskrit | anthology

Well-crafted translations

John Brough (1917-84) was a noted Sanskrit scholar; he has also written on the Sanskrit theories of language and semantics. These translations, taken from there classical anthologies, are mostly rendered in verse, because Brough doesn't trust the English reader of poetry:

I ... have risked using English verse-forms, being persuaded that the English reader might otherwise remain unconvinced that this was anything even faintly related to poetry.

But I suspect the real reason may be less logical - this sentence is a cover for an intuitive liking for, and a desire to demonstrate one's prowess in versification.

Brough is clearly a thorough scholar of Sanskrit, and though he does not seem to have published other poetry, this is a bravura performance.

Many of the selections from subhAShitAvali also appear in A.N.D. Haksar's subhAShitAvali Also the poems from amaru (143, 161, 172) can also be found in Andrew Schelling's Erotic Love Poems from India: Selections from the Amarushataka which in my view fail to hold interest, compared to Brough.

Introduction / Background

Poems were selected from several anthologies from late medieval
period (11th c. on):
  * subhAShita-ratna-koSha (fine-verse-treasury)  - compiled vidyAkara end
	11th c. 1738 verses
  * subhAShitAvali (necklace of fine verse) - ascribed to vallabhadeva prob,
	12th c., though with later additions upto the 15th c. 3527 verses
  * paddhati (manual, or anthology) of shArngadhara, of 14th c. 4620 verses

the latter includes pieces selected not for their poetic merit but for their
informativeness, e.g. potion for dying grey hair:

	6 parts myrobalans, 2 parts fibrous pomegranates, 3 parts turmeric,
	pound them, mix 6 parts egg, add hair-oil 20 parts.  
	bury in iron vessel packed with horsedung - leave for 1 month. 
	mix with milk until ointment consistency.  
	Massage well into scalp and beard.  
	Wrap with leaves of castor-oil plant, so it is held firm while you
	sleep.  Next morning, rinse off. Repeat 3x at 7-day intervals.  
	With this treatment, hair will stay black and glossy like the bumble
	bee, until you die.

Loss: Metre, Rhythm and Alliteration

Sanskrit verses are shapely.  They have a very definite and strict metrical
form, and often have extremely complex and subtle sound patterns of assonance
and alliteration.  The qualities of rhythm, of shapeliness, of the music of
the words, cannot be directly transferred to another language, and there is
no perforect solution.  We seek, in fact, the best approximate solution under
the limitations... of the receiving language.  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 ... into a new pattern of words. 23


Translating verse as verse works well - may be a need - for humourous verse
German poem - ants travelling to australia... 25

In Hamburg lebten zwei Ameisen,		lived two ants
Die wollten nach Australien reisen.	wanted to travel to Australia
Bei Altona auf der Chausee		in Altona, on the street
Da taten ihnen die Beine weh,		then their feet began to hurt
     wehtun=to hurt --> weh taten ; Beine=legs verzichteten=renounce
Und da verzichteten sie weise		renounced wisely
Dann auf den letzten Teil der Reise	last part of the journey

	Two ants who lived in London planned
	To walk to Melbourne overland
	But, footsore in Southampton Row,
	When there were still some miles to go,
	They thought it wise not to extend
	The journey to the bitter end.


In verse 222 the cat is described by the adjectives
     A-kubjI-kr.ta-pr.ShTham, 'having-a-somewhat-made-into-a-hump-back',
while the dog rejoices in the epithet
This gives to the verbal expression of the original a sense of energy and
urgency which obviously cannot be imitated by any comparable formal means in
a language like English. ... tightly-knit, concise, inflexional structure of
Sanskrit - can only be approximated, by diff means, the emotional impact of
the original...

Another feature of Skt poetry is the great wealth of synonyms or
near-synonyms which the poet has at his disposal... It has often been said -
or so I am told - that English has an exceptionally rich vocabulary.  Indeed,
I am in no position to assess the justice of this claim in any general terms,
though I have no doubt that most of us who use English find its vocabulary
more or less adequate of most prosaic purposes.  But, for the purposes of
poetry, English, in comparison with Skt, is poor in the extreme.  Where, for
example, Sanskrit may have some fifty expressions for 'lotus', the English
translator has only 'lotus', and he must make the best of it.  31

Difficulty of translating verbal play

A frequent feature of Skt literary works is the employment of words and
phrases with double meanings:

	mukhena candrakAntena mahAnIlaiH shiroruhaiH
	pANibhyAM padmarAgAbhyAm reje ratnamayIva sA
		- Bhartrihari #131 (shringara-shataka 16 in chowkhamba)

	Since her face had the beauty of the moon, and her hair was jet
	black, and her hands were the colour of lotuses, she seemed to be
	made of all jewels.

Nothing can be done to make this into an acceptable verse in another
language, since it does not even make sense until we know that candrakAnta,
in addition to meaning 'having the beauty of the moon', is also the name of a
precious stone; that mahAnIla means 'very black' and also 'sapphire'; and
that padmarAga means 'lotus coloured' and also 'ruby'. 34-5

9th century Theory of Poetry

Anandavardhana, writing on the theory of poetry in the ninth century AD,
called 'that strange vision of poets which is always new'.  As has been said:

	A poet's purpose is not just to say
	   The moon is like the lady's face
	But to express it in a different way
	    And with a certain grace.  38

Poems: Excerpts

Is poetry always worthy when it's old?
And is it worthless, then, because it's new?
Reader, decide yourself if this be true:
Fools suspend judgement, waiting to be told.
       [Kalidasa, mAlavikAgnimitra, prologue, #2]

Of what use is the poet's poem,
  Of what use is the bowman's dart
Unless another's senses reel
  When it sticks quivering to the heart?
		[subhAShitAvali 134]

	  Scoundrels without the wit to fit
	  A word or two of verse together
	  Are daunted not a whit to sit
	In judgment on the abstruse poetry of another.
	  such men will listen with attentive mind,
	  Alert to see how many faults they find.
	And if they're vexed because they fail to grasp the sense
	Of works conceived for readers of intelligence,
	They naturally do not blame their foolishness:
	A girl who's less than perfect always blames the dress.
		[subhAShitAvali 140,141,153]

	A man lives long who lives a hundred years:
	Yet half is sleep, and half the rest again
	Old age and childhood.  For the rest, a man
	Lives close companion to disease and tears,
	Losing his love, working for other men
	Where can joy find a space in this short span?
	      [Bhartrihari 200]

this verse appears as number 200 in kosambi's critical edition, and in
Barbara Stoler Miller's Bhartrihari: poems:

    The span of a man's life is a measured hundred years;
    Yet half is lost to night
    And of his waking time,
    A portion each claim callow youth and hoary age;
    His prime is spent in servitude, suffering
    The anguish of estrangement and disease.
    Where do men find happiness
    In life less certain and more transient than the waves?
				- verse 200, p. 147


"Do not go," I could say; but this is inauspicious.
"All right, go" is a loveless thing to say.
"Stay with me" is imperious. "Do as you wish" suggests
Cold indifference.  And if I say "I'll die
when you are gone", you might or might not believe me.
Teach me, my husband, what I ought to say
When you go away.
		[subhAShitAvali 1049]

Today adds yet another day
And still your father is unkind.
The darkness closes up the path.
Come, little son, let us go to bed.
		[subhAShitAvali 1106]

Although my mind
Is sick with love, I find
I have acquired the gift of magic sight.
Though she is far away, and it is night,
I see her in a foreign land
From where I stand.
		[subhAShitAvali 1208]


The clear bright flame of a man's discernment dies
When a girl clouds it with her lamp-black eyes.
		[Bhartrihari 77]

Her face is not the moon, nor are her eyes
Twin lotuses, nor are her arms pure gold
She's flesh and bone. What lies the poets told!
Ah, but we love her, we believe the lies.  [Bhartrihari Kosambi ed. #108]

If the forest of her hair
Calls you to explore the land,
And her breasts, those mountains fair,
Tempt that mountaineer, your hand -
Stop! Before it is too late:
Love, the brigand, lies in wait.
		[Bhartrihari 104]

  You are pale, friend moon, and do not sleep at night,
  And day by day you waste away.
  Can it be that you also
  Think only of her, as I do?
		[subhAShitAvali 1260]

The grammar books all say that "mind" is neuter,
And so I thought it safe to let my mind
   Salute her.
But now it lingers in embraces tender:
For Panini made a mistake, I find,
   In gender.

     [dharmakIrti - subhAshitaratnakoSha, compiled vidyAkara #478,
     Kosambi/Gokhale Harvard Oriental Series 1957 ]
		[subhAShitAvali 1232; Paddhati 3451]

Ingall's translation:
	478. Knowing that 'heart' is neuter,
	     I sent her mine;
	     but there it fell in love;
	     so pANini undid me.

	A hundred times I learnt from my philosophy
	To think no more of love, this vanity,
	This dream, this source of all regret,
	This emptiness.
	But no philosopy can make my heart forget
	Her loveliness.   [dharmakIrti, ratnakosha 477; paddhati 566]

It may be hard enough to do,
But if you try, you'll find
A way to pin down quicksilver
But not a woman's mind.

Strong drink may make a man forget
His mother or his wife,
Mistake a palace for the shack
He's lived in all his life.
One day a puddle is the sea;
The next, he'll try to stand
Upon the ocean's surface, which
To him appears dry land,
To such a drunkard's foolishness
There's hardly any end:
He'll even think, when he's in drink,
A king might be a friend.

'Leave me alone', I said,
 - Only in fun, you understand - and then
He simply rose at once, and left my bed.
  What can one do with men?
Oh! he is heartless, pitiless, although
  I shamelessly desire
  His love's false-promised fire.
Dear sister! What, o what am I to do?  [Amaru]

When in love's fight they came to grips,
'Neath wounds of teeth and nails she sank;
And might have died - save that she drank
Ambrosia from her lover's lips.


Flaunt your proud head, moon.  Nightingale, arise
And sing.  Wake, lotus, spread your petals wide.
My lady who has vanquished all your pride
Is gently sleeping, silent, with closed eyes.

Dearest, if you will love me true,
What use are joys of heaven to me?
But if you will not love me true,
What use are joys of heaven to me?
     [IS 2664]

A book, a woman, and a money-loan
   Once they are gone, are gone.
And better so.  - Sometimes they do return:
   Piecemeal; or soiled; or torn.
     [IS 7590]

While describing to her friend
her adventures with her lover,
She realized she was talking to her husband,
And added, "And then I woke up."
		[IS 5920]

Moonlight face,
Flower-bud hand,
Nectar voice,
Rose-red lip:
   Stone-hard heart. [IS #4881]

Philosophers are surely wrong to say
That attributes in substance must inhere.
Her beauty burns my heart; yet I am here,
   And she is far away. [IS #5076]

The impercipient may compare
  A lady to a leech;
But this is wrong: a lady fair
  - As little thought will teach -
Is not the same.  A leech takes blood
  And nothing else at all
From wretched men: but she takes food,
  And mind, and strength, and soul.


She neither turned away, nor yet began
To speak harsh words, nor did she bar the door;
But looked at him who was her love before
As if he were an ordinary man.  [Amaru-shataka #69]


samasya-puraNA: a class of poetry where the objective is to construct a
	stanza to contain a given line or phrase.  There was of course a
      temptation to choose for the challenge-phrase rather improbable
      material, and occasionally even nonsense syllables, success being
      judged by the extent to which the poet was able to achieve an effect
      of ease and spontaneity.

A certain maid at Rama's coronation
Befuddled by the wine of celebration,
Dropped a gold jug, which down the staircase rang:
Tum-tumty-tum-tum-ta-ta-tumty-tang. [=SP]

When Krishna with Chanura fought,
Before the latter came to die
His head was spinning, and he thought
A hundred moons were in the sky. [=SP]

Ah, if the moon would cease to shine so fair
When we are far apart, my love and I!
If he would only come, I should not care
Although a hundred moons were in the sky  [=SP (last 7 words)]

"Well, really, there is nothing I can tell
Of what men do in love, no, not a word:
He started to undo my dress, and - Well,
I swear I can't remember what occurred.  [=SP]

IS = Indische Sprache, Sanskrit und Deutsch, Otto Boehtlingk, 3 vols St
Petersburg 1870-73; (renumbered in) Sanskrit Chrestomathie, 3d ed, Leizig 1909

Here John Brough manages to preserve the line while translating the
nonsense challenge phrase.  The samasya-purANa lines here are marked [=SP]

He held her face, and would not let her go;
She tried to say, "Oh, no! No, no! Oh, no,
No, no! But through the kiss no sound would come
Except 'Hmmm-hmm-hmm hm hm hmm hm hmmmm!'

Woman's Beauty

In this vain fleeting universe, a man
Of wisdom has two courses: first, he can
Direct his time to pray, to save his soul,
And wallow in religion's nectar-bowl;
But if he cannot, it is surely best
To touch and hold a lovely woman's breast,
And to caress her warm round hips, and thighs
And to possess the treasure that between them lies.  [Bhartrihari]

It is small wonder that my lady's breasts
Rise firm and proud -
For who would not be proud to be
Close to her heart?

Close in tight embrace her breasts were pressed,
Her skin thrilled; and between her pretty thighs
The oil-smooth sap of love has overflowed.
'No, not again, my darling. Let me rest:
Don't make me ... ', whispering, pleading soft, she sighs.
Is she asleep? or dying? or else melted
Into my heart? Or is she but a dream?   [Amaru]

To her waist

This is sheer recklessness! How can she make you
     Go for a walk?
Can she not see that the weight of her breasts
     Is enough to break you?

They are firm, and you are tender,
Full and round, though you are slender:
Bold your breasts, while you are shy
- Since so near your heart they lie.

Your breasts are like two kings at war, dear
Each striving to invade the other's sphere.

Her hand upon her hip she placed,
And swayed seductively her waist
With chin upon her shoulder pressed,
She stretched herself to show her breast:
With sapphire pupils burning bright
Within the pearly orbs of white,
Her eyes with eagerness did dance,
And threw me a come-hither glance.

  Her breasts are high,
  Her waist lies low;
And next, an upthrust hip:
If on uneven ground you go -
Why, any man might trip.

Academics 165

	If a professor thinks what matters most
	Is to have gained an academic post
	Where he can earn a livelihood, and then
	Neglect research, let controversy rest,
	He's but a pretty tradesman at best,
	Selling retail the work of other men.  [Kalidasa mAlavikAgnimitra, i.#17]


I rolled them in turmeric, cummin and spice,
With masses of pepper to make them taste nice:
In lashings of sesamum oil I then fried 'em -
The pungency curled up my tongue when I tried 'em:
I neglected to wash, and got down to the dish,
And I swallowed that curry of nice little fish.


Strong drink may make a man forget
His mother or his wife,
Mistake a palace for the shack
He's lived in all his life.
One day a puddle is the sea;
The next, he'll try to stand
Upon the ocean's surface, which
To him appears dry land,
To such a drunkard's foolishness
There's hardly any end:
He'll even think, when he's in drink,
A king might be a friend.

A use can be found
For rotten wood
And infertile ground
May produce some good
  Kings when they fall
  Have no uses at all. [IS #6497]
Except 'Hmmm-hmm-hmm hm hm hmm hm hmmmm!' [=SP?]


My lord, since you have banished Poverty
From this fair land, I feel it is my duty
To lay an information that the outlaw
Has taken refuge in my humble home.

My best respects to Poverty,
The master who has set me free;
For I can look at all the world,
And no-one looks at me.
		[Bhartrihari 104; S 754]

Peaceful, the gentle deer untroubled graze:
All that they need, their forest home supplies.
No greed for wealth nor envy cloud their days,
But they are only beasts, and we are wise.

The summer sun, who robbed the pleasant nights,
And plundered all the water of the rivers,
And burned the earth, and scorched the forest-trees,
Is now in hiding; and the autumn clouds,
Spread thick across the sky to track him down,
Hunt for the criminal with lightning flashes.

I know, sweet honey-throat, cuckoo,
Your voice is mere hypocrisy:
As soon as you have wings to fly
You leave the birds that fostered you.
    [Boehtling, Skt Chrestomathie, 187]

Hand in clasped hand and side pressed close to side,
Silently stand some children of the poor,
And shyly, hungry eyes half-turned aside,
Observe the eater through the open door

Memories 253

	Untimely, cut by Fate:
	But in the hearts of friends
	Like a great bell, reverberate.

Cats and Dogs 222

See, the arched back, the tail erected, stiff,
Bent at the tip and twisting, and the ear
Flat to the head, and the eye quick with fear
Darting a single glance, debating if
The way to get inside the house is clear:
And on the other side, its gullet fat
With panting, growling, hoarse with its own breath,
With sneering lips that lift to show his teeth,
And slavering jaws, the dog attacks the cat.   [Yogeshvara]

    [the cat is described by the adjectives
     while the dog rejoices in the epithet
     This gives to the verbal expression of the original a sense of energy
     and urgency which obviously cannot be imitated by any comparable formal
     means in a language like English. ... tightly-knit, concise, inflexional
     structure of [Skt] - can only be approximated by diff means, the
     emotional impact of the original...]

When his mouth faced my mouth, I turned aside
And steadfastly gazed only at the ground;
I stopped my ears, when at each coaxing word
They tingled more; I used both hands to hide
My blushing, sweating cheeks. Indeed I tried.
But oh, what could I do, then, when I found
My bodice splitting of its own accord?  - Amaru

On sunny days there in the shade
Beneath the trees reclined a maid
Who lifted up her dress (she said)
To keep the moonbeams off her head. - Bhartrihari

No! don't! she says at first, while she despises
The very thought of love; then she revals
A small desire; and passion soon arises,

amitabha mukerjee (mukerjee [at-symbol] gmail) 2013 Aug 13