More than 2,000 years of India’s lost literature is coming back into print

For more than 2,000 years, several volumes of classical South Asian texts remained locked away in languages that have either died, have a dwindling number of speakers or no one bothered to translate these stories for a global audience.

Now, Harvard University Press has published the Murty Classical Library of India to launch a series of Indic literature that its editors believe will grow to rival the Loeb Classical Library of ancient Greek and Latin texts.

The Murty Library contains stories and poems in 14 languages, including Sanskrit, Pali, Tamil and more, and nine different scripts written as early as the third century B.C. and through to the 18th century. Each tale is presented with the original language printed alongside the English translation.

This rich mix of literature first told in languages scattered across millennia created a complex publishing project, said Sheldon Pollock, the library’s general editor and professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University. The need for such a series was starkly apparent to Pollock when he visited college students in Delhi, India, and he asked them to raise their hand if any of them had taken a course in Indian literature.

No one raised their hand, he said.

“None of them had read an Indian classical text during the course of their education,” he said, crediting the India’s emphasis on math and technology in education rather than the humanities.

Combined with British colonial efforts to ignore South Asian history and culture, this educational shift contributed to a crisis where these classic texts grew increasingly out of reach for both Indian and global audiences. It also led to a “growing sense that people in South Asia itself are losing the capacity to access their past,” Pollock said.

That sense fed a thirst for classic Indic literature, especially among members of India’s diaspora community. In fact, it was Rohan Narayana Murty, a Harvard-educated computer scientist whose family is from Bangalore, India, who founded the library.

Some texts in the Murty Library had never been translated out of their original languages, such as “The Story of Manu”, or “Manucaritramu,” a classic poem that was written during the golden age of Telugu literature and describes the human condition and the origins of political power.

When Velcheru Narayana Rao, a visiting distinguished professor of South Asian Studies at Emory University, prepared to translate the 16th century poem from its original Telugu language and into English, he had to overcome a few hurdles.

One, he explained, is that English is “sometimes a highly impoverished language” and “wooden.”

The subtleties and lyricism of the original Telugu texts were sometimes difficult to convey in English, he said.

“In English, you can’t sing it. In Telugu, you can,” Rao said.

So far, five books were published in the series in January, including “The Story of Manu.” The plan is to continue to release three to five books per year for 100 years, Pollock said. A Tamil-to-English translation of the epic Ramayana and the classic Urdu Ghalib Poetry and Prose are among the forthcoming works scheduled for release. Ultimately, a virtually unlimited endowment will allow as many as 500 books to be published, he said.

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