Book: Beyond East and West: A story of civilization through the great epics
Author: Suchethana Swaroop
Translated from Kannada by: NS Raghavan
Publisher: London: Routledge, 2019, South Asia Edition, 2020
This is a book of far-reaching significance as the English translation of a non-fictional work in an Indian language.
If we look at the history of translation in India, besides the innumerable translations/retellings within the Indian languages especially of kavyas, as well as those into English by colonial Indologists, the earliest were those of European literary classics into the various vernaculars. Translations in the opposite direction, i.e. from Indian languages into English, followed but they had to be “sponsored” by the European literary masters; witness the case of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali, “introduced” by WB Yeats. Such support was needed for the pioneers of Indian English fiction too, for instance, RK Narayan and Graham Greene. In the last few decades, there has been a profusion of translations of creative works from the bhashas into English, received for their “ethnic” interest or for their socio-cultural significance as products of “emerging” societies and modernities.
It is rare for the English translation of a non-fictional work from an Indian language, that too a politically less-dominant south Indian language, to be accorded the honour of an international publication by a reputable publisher. This is a mammoth work of comparative literature, mammoth in scope, design and execution. It offers a panoptic view of two civilisations — European and Indian — as both creating and created by their epic literature. The assimilated scholarship that animates the text is matched by an inclusive, often interdisciplinary, sensibility. Epic works are known to be characterized by encyclopaedic features and the learning that informs Swaroop’s comparative study of epics is also truly vast and deep.
The translation is masterly and lucid, quite equal to the challenge of capturing the dense and complex discourse of the original.
It is a truism to say that epics (Homer’s Iliad in Greek, Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin, Valmiki’s Ramayana and Vyasa’s Mahabharata in Sanskrit) have played a major role in the making of civilisation and culture in their respective societies and in others too with whom they have interacted. Swaroop goes a step further and maintains, especially in the case of the European epics, that the great minds that have contributed to the growth of Western civilisation — whether they be conquerors, poets, artists, natural philosophers or modern scientists — all constitute a continuum, are all stages in evolution: “the same people who produced Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Dante and others also gave to the world Pythagoras, Archimedes, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Pericles, Alexander, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and many more.” (p. 11)
While Swaroop cannot be charged with a Euro-centric or Anglophile attitude, he spares no punches when it comes to the mutuality of interaction and influence between East and West. A judicious proportion of give and take, some kind of parity, between cultures is crucial for the health of either; in this respect Swaroop notices rather an unequal kind of relationship. But he also raises the question: how do standards established in one society come to be imposed on others? This also leads to the further query: how far, within a culture or literary community, creative minds in a particular historical phase build on, or fail to build on, the achievements of the past. Swaroop avers that — and this is the bold crux of his argument — whereas European civilisation has evolved adapting the heritage and values of the pagan epics (Homer and Virgil) as well as the Christian works (Dante and Milton), Indian civilisation has not built creatively on its epics (Vyasa, Valmiki) or the kavyas, chiefly on Kalidasa, whose work responded to the times and also transcended time. It is a pity, says the author, that succeeding poets abandoned Kalidasa and, having abandoned him, were humbled to accept European models wholesale.
Talking of opportunities missed, Swaroop cites the example of Kannada literature which failed to accept the creative challenge posed by Basavanna, the revolutionary egalitarian poet-mystic-reformer of the 12th century “who very early realised the universal law that there was no alternative to accepting, at least in theory, equality as a principle and a way of life… and how a fragmented Indian society, cast into its deeply divided caste hierarchies, would not be in a position to take on forces which admit the principle of equality at least in theory.” (p. 259)
When Basavanna says, “I was born of the union of those who went to the field to fetch dung,” “by respecting a union transcending caste, class, and other kinds of vanity, he recognises the dynamism, mostly natural to common people, which the upper classes normally frown upon or denigrate.” He rejected the practice of his contemporaries who “treated the re-writing of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana as the height of creativity”. And he chose, as the medium for his Vachanas (“Sayings”) of profound import, the spoken rhythms of the common people. (p. 256). It is Swaroop’s contention, and complaint, that successive generations of Kannada — or other Indian — writers, for all their professed modernity and progressivism, have not matched Basavanna’s dynamic creativity and egalitarian outlook.
Another issue that Swaroop debates is the question of leadership: what constitutes an ideal character, what role individuals play in shaping tradition and vice versa. The protagonists of epics attain the stature of heroes and enter the consciousness of nations and societies. The qualities that are attributed to Rama at the very beginning of Ramayana, similar to those that Virgil invests Aeneas with, are spiritual and interpersonal as well as political-martial virtues. It may, however, be debatable, despite Swaroop’s claim, whether Aeneas, the Trojan hero who travelled to Italy and whose descendants founded Rome, figures as widely or as deeply in the European consciousness as do Rama and Krishna in the Indian.
Similarly, while the traits that Aeneas is endowed with — “he is neither a populist nor an elitist nor a fascist nor an escapist. As a man who upholds traditional values like belief in god, religion, fate, custom, devotion to his father and such, Aeneas is no revolutionary either” (p. 52) — are those of the Indian epic heroes as well, it is doubtful whether contemporary Western societies look upon all these qualities as essential to leadership!
Moreover, in the context of multi-religious and multi-cultural societies (like India or America), or even that of societies which have moved from one faith to another (like Europe which moved from pagan to Judaic-Christian), is only a secular individual fit to be a leader? That of course sets off furious arguments on the meaning and import of “secular” and “secularism”.
Beyond East and West is above all a work of erudition, the outcome of comprehensive, rigorous and objective research which attempts to establish the following as facts of literary and cultural history:
(1) The earliest epic is a work called Gilgamesh, written more than 3,000 years ago in the old Babylonian or Acadian language and set in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley of Mesopotamia.
(2) The Mahabharata precedes the works of Homer, Iliad and Odyssey.
(3) Between the Indian epics, the Mahabharata precedes the Ramayana.
The third statement is particularly important because it contradicts the popular view as well as the views of most scholars for whom Valmiki is the Adi Kavi and the Ramayana the primal epic. Swaroop documents his claim carefully but his central argument is that the Ramayana represents a more cultivated, more refined civilisation — “the ideal king, ideal son, ideal wife, ideal brothers and ideal friends” (p. 123), besides the ideal of monogamy — as contrasted with the divisive (permissive?) attitudes and ambivalences that constitute the Mahabhrata. But it is the very relativism of the latter that many would regard as characteristic of a later age, as an inevitable outcome of modernist and postmodernist developments, as they tend to question all certitudes. But Swaroop’s position on this as well as on other matters of civilisational evolution certainly deserves scrutiny.
Returning to the translation part, it is clearly an understatement to say that Suchethana Swaroop is well-served by his translator. NS Raghavan has accomplished a truly herculean task, finding an “answerable style” (to use Milton’s words) to the inwardness and scholarly depth of the Kannada original. All credit to him for ensuring that this work reaches out to a far, far wider audience and also impels many more such forays into cultural history.
(T Sriraman is a former professor at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad)