Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Confluence Homework--Suggested Readings

You might notice, looking at the schedule (or, for that matter, the Confluence website), that there’s a good deal of philosophy woven into the subject matter. The last day of the Confluence, Eddie and Tim will be discussing Patanjali’s Sutra II.44: “'Swadyaya Ishta Devata Samprayogaha' – Union with the chosen deity comes from the study of self through the sacred texts.”

Although I’ve been pouring over the Yoga Sutras for years now, it wasn’t until Tim’s Mt. Shasta retreat last year that I found a real fire for the classics of Indian literature.

Tim closes every evening session with a story, and last year he read the first few chapters of The Mahabharata, translated by Ramesh Menon. I ordered it as soon as I got home, and could not put the it down. It was better than the best epic fiction I’d ever read, beautifully paced, with glamour, love, death, and redemption. I was hooked. That led me to Menon’s sensitive and elegant translation of The Ramayana. And of The Siva Purana. Then The Bhagavata Purana. I can’t stop reading the guy.

Let me give you an example of his style:

The Demon rode in Brahma’s flashing chariot, yoked to unearthly steeds; though Rama’s bow steamed fire, Ravana was never in one place so they could find their mark. Quick as wishes, his chariot bore the Lord of evil over land and though the air.

That’s some breathless prose! Steaming fire: a fantastic and impossible image, perfect for Rama's bow!

There are many virtues to Menon’s method of translating, but the best part is its ease of reading. Menon subtitled The Mahabharata, “a modern rendering.” “Rendering” a great word for it—boiling it down to its essential elements. The Ramayana he subtitles, “a modern retelling.” Menon knows how to bring the action alive, as in this excerpt, while still keeping its symbolic meaning (which he leaves to the reader to discover). He keeps the ancient and epic flavor without alienating a contemporary reader.

His renditions of the important figures of each epic are sympathetic and also awesome. Rama is brave, but sorrow-struck. Hanuman’s devotion develops over time, and his humility is touching, a model for us all: “Forgive me,” he says to Rama, “I am a monkey and my curiosity gets the better of me.” In The Mahabharata, Menon fleshes out Krishna so well, The Bhagavad Gita will come alive for you, a moving conversation between God and his disciple (it’s at the start of volume two).

The act of a translator is never easy, and Menon knows when to translate, when to leave the original alone—his meaning is clear in context (sometimes it’s a “chariot,” sometimes a “ratha,” depending on his purpose). But both the Mahabharata and Ramayana come with glossaries in the back to help the reader with the Sanskrit, as well as the huge cast of characters and deities.

Like me, you may not be able to stop with these two epics. The Confluence will begin with a puja to Ganesh. Menon has a starkly beautiful account of Ganesh’s origins in his translation of The Siva Purana that explains Ganesh’s role as the Lord of Obstacles. There’s also the two-volume Bhagavata Purana, the complete story of Vishnu (which I’m reading now). And a translation of The Devi Bhagavatam waits for me on the shelf.

If you get started now, you may be done by the time Eddie and Tim discuss "Swadyaya Ishta Devata Samprayogaha." And, boy, will you have studied the ancient texts!

Note: We've moved to http://theconfluencecountdown.com/.

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