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Ian Myles Slater on A Notable Translation
Posted by Ian M. Slater on 9/21/2003
Amazon listing for this book has at times contained a possibly confusing abundance of Wendys. Keeping it simple; Wendy Doniger used Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty on her earlier books, and uses Wendy Doniger for books published after her divorce; a few older printings of some of them have "Wendy O'Flaherty" on them somewhere. Hence the variants, which can leave some works (like this one) in bibliographic purgatory. (To add to the possible confusion, she is now the "Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions" at the University of Chicago, and has reported receiving mail with interesting combinations of names.)
A re-issue by Penguin, listed by Amazon with the simpler title of "The Rig Veda," and a new cover design and art, but no other changes, has appeared (September 2005) as by Wendy Doniger; I have offered a new version of this review with it, with some different emphases, and have also reviewed a Kessinger e-book of the old R.T.H. Griffiths "complete" translation. (Well, really complete, IF you can read Latin, and if you find an unlisted appendix -- Griffiths took some care not to offend Victorian sensibilities, and Kessinger was a little careless.)
Secondly, under any form of the names, Wendy Doniger is a distinguished interpreter and translator of Vedic and classical Sanskrit texts, and of Indian religions in general. Her books are often witty, and at times quite dense with detail. She fully appreciates the playfulness of many versions of Hindu stories of the gods. ("Play" being in fact an explicit theme in some of them.)
In this volume she presents a selection of very ancient poems, in quite readable translations, and backs them up with detailed interpretive and bibliographic notes. It is a first-rate introduction to a very difficult body of literature, which, like the Bible and the Koran, is held sacred by a very large number of people.
Unfortunately, like the Koran, the Vedas are traditionally memorized, recited, cited, and sometimes explained, but not translated. Turning the mystical sounds of Sanskrit into readily intelligible words seems to strike some as sacrilege. At best, devotional readings are the only acceptable renderings. To the apparent distress of some true believers, Wendy Doniger tries to reconstruct what the poems meant when they were first recited (mainly, but not exclusively, to accompany rituals). This is not their meaning to present-day Hindus, over three thousand years later. (Which would be an interesting topic in itself.) This is exactly what critical scholarship is supposed to be about. Anyone who finds in it a specific bias against Hinduism might take a close look at an issue of, say, "The Journal of Biblical Literature" before complaining. This is what Christians and Jews having been doing with their own sacred texts for a couple of hundred years (actually, although sporadically, rather longer).
The main problem with the volume, as the translator would probably acknowledge, is that it will leave the reader hungry for more. There are only 108 (a sacred number) out of a canon of 1,028. She chose some of the most attractive poems, including most of the famous ones, presented them in language free of late-Victorian pseudo-Biblical idiom. Unfortunately, most of the other English versions, and all of the complete ones, belong to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and readers without Sanskrit, like me, can neither rely upon them nor easily find corrections for specific passages, so anything that isn't included is likely to be missed by someone.
I *have* compared her versions of a number of famous hymns to earlier English translations, to relatively recent treatments of passages in academic journals, and to transliterated Sanskrit texts (and also citations and variants outside the Rig Veda, traced in the digital version of Bloomfield's "Vedic Concordance"), and even to the highly regarded German translation by Geldner (not a lot of help for me there...). I found that her renderings tend to be a bit sparse, or at least concise, compared to most, but she uses headnotes and end notes to fill up gaps by explaining implications, instead of interpolating extra words or phrases to make clear her understandings of passages.
This is an intriguing and attractive look at the hymns and songs of ancient India, although this volume is at best an adjunct to an appreciation of the living religion.
The Vedas as a Revelation of Our Shared Humanity
Posted by tepi on 3/14/2001
This is quite a good book, as far as it goes. Readers who would like to find a far fuller selection taken from the entire corpus of the Vedas, one that carries us beyond the merely scholarly into an approach which sees the Vedas as a revelation of our shared humanity, as "a disclosure of something that enriches the human experience," might care to take a look at Raimundo Panikkar's magisterial 'THE VEDIC EXPERIENCE - MANTRAMANJARI - AN ANTHOLOGY OF THE VEDAS FOR MODERN MAN AND CONTEMPORARY CELEBRATION' (ISBN 8120812808).
Pannikar's edition, at almost 1000 pages, with full introductions to each beautifully translated text, and with detailed annotations for those who are interested in precise sources and in the original Sanskrit terminology, must be one of the best bargains going. Even the most hard-boiled could open his edition at any page and immediately become enthralled. There is a freshness and purity to these songs and chants that is irresistible. It's like coming across a blossom-filled meadow in spring.
These vigorous and life-affirmative songs give us what men and women once were, and what we may yet become once again, for it is what deep down we still are though we have forgotten. Life, despite its hardships, is supposed to be joyous, something to be celebrated. And one is intensely grateful to anyone who undertakes the hard labor of devoting a book, of no matter what size, to a literature which can enrich us all.
Readers may also be interested to note that an abridgement of Pannikar's THE VEDIC EXPERIENCE has recently appeared as:
INITIATION TO THE VEDAS : AN ABRIDGED EDITION OF THE VEDIC EXPERIENCE - MANTRAMANJARI by Raimon Pannikar. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2006. 102 pp. Color Plates. ISBN: 8120829549.