Why a Classical Library of India?

Photograph of the first five volumes in the Murty Classical Library of India

The Murty Classical Library of India aims to make available the great literary works of India from the past two millennia. Many classic Indic texts have never reached a global audience, while others are becoming increasingly inaccessible even to Indian readers. The creation of a classical library of India is intended to reintroduce these works to a new generation of readers.

The series will provide modern English translations of classical works, many for the first time, across a vast array of Indian languages, including Bangla, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Pali, Panjabi, Persian, Sanskrit, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. The text in the appropriate regional script will appear alongside the translation. An introduction, explanatory commentary, and textual notes will accompany each work with the aim of making these volumes the most authoritative and accessible available.

What we know as “Indian literature” today is constituted by multiple languages, each of them drawing from a vast pool of literary practices. The great sources of this pool are the Sanskrit tradition, beginning in the last centuries of the first millennium BCE, and the Persian, from the early centuries of the second millennium; added to these is the Dravidian, from the mid-centuries of the first millennium. The languages that make up Indian literature are found in an area vaster than Europe, stretching from today’s Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east, and north to south from Nepal to Sri Lanka. Included in this space is a score of literary languages—from Assamese to Urdu, from Sanskrit to Persian, from Malayalam to Telugu. Taken all together, they give India the single most complex and continuous multilingual tradition of literature in the world. And this is what, in all its complexity and multiplicity, MCLI seeks to present to readers.

The astonishing continuity that Indian literature evinced for centuries experienced an important rupture with colonial modernity beginning in the first half of the nineteenth century, which has only widened with contemporary globalization. While oral traditions do remain vital in some areas, for many readers and increasingly so in the present generation, the literary past of India—not just the motifs and allusions but the words themselves and the very scripts—risks becoming a closed book. Each Indian literary tradition has its own story to tell about the precise causes and character of this closure. It is mainly thanks to conscious modernization that contemporary Hindi has moved so far from its classical forms, or contemporary Telugu from its. The fortunes of Persian began to wane with the end of the Mughal Empire in the nineteenth century. Panjabi saw its tradition slowly split through a division in scripts, which was politically formalized with Partition in 1947. To be sure, the history of Indian literature is more complicated than colonialism suffices to explain. Pali, for example, the language of southern Buddhism, disappeared from mainland India a millennium before colonialism and for reasons that remain unclear. But if the causes are diverse across traditions, the trend toward incomprehensibility is common to all.

Photograph of an open page spread from The Story of Manu

The threat posed to knowledge, as fewer and fewer people today can gain access to the great works of literature and thought of their classical past, is MCLI’s reason for being. The series provides original texts, often newly edited, that are as reliable as they can be. We also offer rich annotation to help readers wherever literary allusion or historical reference may be difficult to comprehend. The works are printed in the appropriate Indic script as well—with a large number of fonts designed specifically for the series.

The English translations aim to be as faithful to the original as possible in order to aid the student, while maintaining an idiom appropriate to contemporary English. MCLI books are intended to remain in circulation in perpetuity (in whatever medium future generations will favor), and such long life demands a translation style as resistant to decay as possible. That MCLI translators strive to bring their versions alive on the page is not only in the interests of the general reader, but in keeping with the astonishing vivacity of the originals themselves. It is also in keeping with the nature of the originals that MCLI observes no boundaries, whether those be drawn by language or religion or social order. Indian literature itself knew none.

The transformation of Indian languages in the modern period and the ever-increasing gap in knowledge of their premodern varieties explain MCLI’s cutoff point of 1800. But what makes this a library of “classical” literature? The word itself has its origins in a tradition very distant from India, namely Latin, and thinkers as diverse as C.-A. Sainte-Beuve, T. S. Eliot, and Frank Kermode who have tried to gauge the meaning of that term for our era have used the Western tradition as their touchstone. The key characteristics of their “classic,” namely “universality” and “perpetual contemporaneity,” turn out, unsurprisingly, to be Western, and hence not so universal or contemporary after all.

What do we think makes Indian works “classic”? It might in fact be their very resistance to contemporaneity and universality, that is, their capacity to communicate the vast variety of the human past. There will of course be many occasions for learning something about our shared humanity from these works, but they also provide access to radically different forms of human consciousness, and thereby expand the range of possibilities of what it has meant or could mean to be human: the possibilities of woman’s self-consciousness as offered in the ancient Buddhist past, the vision of political power in the Mughal period, the alternative anthropology of Telugu’s early modern era, the unfamiliar relationships between human and divine in the Hindi and Panjabi domains, to take only our first five books as examples. And expanding the range of such possibilities, we at MCLI believe, is precisely what the world needs today.

This series was made possible by a generous gift from Rohan Murty when he was a doctoral student of computer science at Harvard University. Keeping Rohan Murty’s vision in mind, Harvard University Press and I invite readers of all generations, nationalities, languages, and literary persuasions to enter the expansive, beautiful, and often startling world of the Indic classics.

—Sheldon Pollock, General Editor