Remembrance of Songs Past: Sanskrit Poetry in Translation

By Anand Venkatkrishnan

The following is a series of my translations of verses of Sanskrit poetry culled from medieval anthologies. The authors of these poems lived between the sixth and sixteenth centuries CE. Sometimes anthologists provided their names, sometimes they were lost to the vagaries of time and manuscript transmission. For some two years, I have taken my hand at both translating these poems and juxtaposing them with images, songs, and/or news stories from the present day. In addition, some poems are of my own composition. They are labeled “Abhinavasubhāṣita,” or “All New Verse.” For the purposes of inclusion in The Revealer, most of the poems I have chosen are religiously inflected. In good Hindu form, they oscillate between the pietistic and playful. At the same time, it is difficult to maintain a hard and fast distinction between secular and religious in this literary world. The poems that we would read as secular were constitutive elements of South Asian religious cultures, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain alike. The ability to read and relish poetry that was not explicitly devotional was as culturally significant as any other identity within the Sanskrit cosmopolis.

On the context of translation: One of the anthologies from which I have drawn, the Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa (SRK), or “Treasury of Well-Turned Verse,” was translated in full by the eminent Sanskrit scholar Daniel H.H. Ingalls, in An Anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965). However, Ingalls possessed an aesthetic and political sensibility very different from the ones offered here—and, indeed, from the Indian editor of the SRK, the Marxist historian D.D. Kosambi. My translations, for their part, are mostly in American free verse, and my juxtapositions often place the poems in a different context from their composition. In doing so, I don’t mean either to strip them of temporal specificity or try to make them relevant to a modern audience. More often than not it works the other way around: I see an image, or hear a song, and am reminded of a medieval poem. Indeed, my own compositions are more often than not ways to articulate new sensibilities in an old language. Why not think of the juxtaposed theme, and the translational idiom, as a potentiality in the poem itself? Why not consider the “high” cosmopolitan registers of the classical as attentive and responsive to the local, the everyday? Why does time have to be linear when it comes to art?


Sūktimuktāvalī of Jalhaṇa 131.59

svārthārambhapraṇataśirasāṃ pakṣapātāt surāṇāṃ
dṛptātmānaṃ karajakuliśair dānavendraṃ nihantum |
siṃhībhūtas tribhuvanaguruḥ so ‘pi nārāyaṇo ‘smin
rāgadveṣapratihatamateḥ kasya na syāt paśutvam ||

When the gods (to whom he was partial)
started bowing to him
to save their own heads,
even Nārāyaṇa, the guru of all,
turned into a lion
to slay the proud demon-king
with his pointy fingernails.

I mean, if you were so
swayed by love and hate,
you’d become an animal too.


Sūktimuktāvalī of Jalhaṇa 131.59 copy

Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa of Vidyākara 1729 (50.32)

vahati na puraḥ kaścit paścān na ko ‘py anuyāti māṃ
na ca navapadakṣuṇṇo mārgaḥ kathaṃ nv aham ekakaḥ |
bhavatu viditaṃ pūrvavyūḍho ‘dhunā khilatāṃ gataḥ
sa khalu bahalo vāmaḥ panthā mayā sphuṭam ūrjitaḥ || (dharmakīrteḥ)

No one walks before me,
no one follows behind,
no fresh footprints on the way.
Could it be that I’m alone?

So be it, I understand.
The road that was wide
has now narrowed.
It’s that crooked,
crowded path,
that I’ve left for good.

–by Dharmakīrti

Saduktikarṇāmṛta of Śrīdharadāsa 2347 (70.2)

adhvaśramāya caraṇau virahāya dārā
abhyarthanāya vacanaṃ ca vapur jarāyai |
etāni me vidadhatas tava sarvadaiva
dhātas trapā na yadi kiṃ na pariśramo ‘pi || (rājaśekharasya)

Feet to trudge along the road,
wife who’ll one day leave me,
words that only know to beg,
aging, aching body.

Creator, if you have no shame
for blessing me with these,
then can’t you at least deign to put
some goddam effort into it?

–by Rājaśekhara

Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa of Vidyākara 1614 (48.21)

taḍinmālālolaṃ prativiratidattāndhatamasaṃ
bhavatsaukhyaṃ hitvā śamasukham upādeyam anagham |
iti vyaktodgāraṃ caṭulavacasaḥ śūnyamanaso
vayaṃ vītavrīḍāḥ śuka iva paṭhāmaḥ param amī || (śilhaṇasya)


“Fickle and furtive as flashes of lightning,
they blind you with darkness each time they depart.
So we should give up the joys of the world
and hold on instead to a perfect quiescence.”

Clearly and coolly we belch out these words,
a shameless contingent of vacuous parrots,
reciting, reciting, reciting, reciting…

–by Śilhaṇa


Abhinavasubhāṣita of Ānanda 1.21

ekākī yatacittātmā nirāśīr aparigrahaḥ |
sukhīti gītayā proktaṃ tatkathaṃ hṛdi vedanā ||

no yearnings,
no trinkets.
The Gītā* said
now I’d be happy.
So why’s the ache still there?

* Cf. Bhagavad Gītā 6.10.


Abhinavasubhāṣita of Ānanda 1.22

kvāhaṃ jaḍīkṛtamatiḥ stutikīrtanāya
dambhāndhalocanagatā kva ca me didṛkṣā |
yadbhāti sarvam idam apy anubhāti tasmin*
tvayy eva magna iti kasya vidūṣaṇaṃ syāt ||

Who am I, of muddled mind,
to sing your holy praise?
Why do these insolent eyes
yearn for a single glimpse?
It’s your bright glow that makes it seem
like everything here shines.
Would anyone think it abuse
to be called lost in you?

* Cf. Kaṭha Upaniṣad 2.2.15



Uttararāmacarita of Bhavabhūti 3.28*

ayi kaṭhora yaśaḥ kila te priyaṃ
kim ayaśo nanu ghoram ataḥ param |
kim abhavad vipine hariṇīdṛśaḥ
kathaya nātha kathaṃ bata manyase ||

You merciless man,
you only love your reputation.
But is there any infamy
more terrible than this?
What happened in the forest
to that doe-eyed woman?
Tell me, tyrant:
What exactly do you think?

* In the final book of the Rāmāyaṇa, Rāma abandons his wife Sītā in the forest, after rumors surrounding her possible infidelity in captivity spread through the kingdom. Bhavabhūti’s play, the Uttararāmacarita, deals with, among other things, the tensions of love and justice.

It Is Sita’s Story, Not Rama’s, Told By Women in Karnataka’s Villages


Sanntimmi Ramayana 2

Bodhicaryāvatāra of Śāntideva 6.123

ādīptakāyasya yathā samantāt
na sarvakāmair api saumanasyam |
sattvavyathāyām api tadvad eva
na prītyupāyo ‘sti dayāmayānām ||

Just like when a body’s engulfed in flames,
all the world’s pleasures can provide no relief,
so too does it happen that when people are in pain,
there’s no way to placate one with
compassion in her bones.

bell hooks: Buddhism, the Beats, and Loving Blackness



Godāstuti of Vedānta Deśika 25*

gode guṇair apanayan praṇatāparādhān
bhrūkṣepa eva tava bhogarasānukūlaḥ |
karmānubandhiphaladānaratasya bhartuḥ
svātantryadurvyasanamarmabhidānidānam ||

The threads of grace your eyebrows cast,
tying up into a perfect posy of love,
toss away your supplicants’ sins.
Your partner might like dispensing
sentences that fit the crime,
but a glance from you busts up
that bad habit he has:
free will.

* This poem encodes a theological problem: that of God’s essential independence, impartiality, and dispassion with respect to the workings of karma, versus the whims of grace that break down that mechanistic system. Here the Goddess’ eyebrow twitch is simultaneously compassionate and flirtatious: the former for her devotees, the latter toward her consort. This nexus of the erotic and devotional is expressed in the compound bhogarasa, found almost precisely in the middle of the poem, on which it turns; on the one hand, her loving look is conducive to her bhaktas’ welfare (bhoga), and on the other, to her divine lover’s sexual excitement (bhoga). The latter causes him to drop the pretense of free will (svātantrya), for he becomes totally dependent on her caprice.

Abhinavasubhāṣita of Ānanda 1.29


ādau tv ananyabhaktā sā vibhaktā ca tataḥ param |
śanaiḥ śanaiḥ samāyātā matsvabhāvāvibhaktatām ||

(The Androgynous God, In Love):

At first she just loved me alone,
Then prayed in isolation,
And slowly, slowly, found herself
My literal better half.

* Sanskrit anthologies organize poems under sub-headings. Gods and heroes have multiple moods. This is a specific form of the god Śiva: half-man, half-woman. This alliterative poem refers to the story of Śiva and his wife Pārvatī as depicted in Kālidāsa’s Kumārasambhava.


Anand Venkatkrishnan was raised on the West Coast and spent the last few years completing his PhD in South Asian Religion at Columbia University. As an undergraduate he received a degree in Classics from Stanford University, studying Greek and Latin and Sanskrit literature. His research interests include the intersection between religious movements and scholarly pedagogy, Indian intellectual history, and the early modern world. His personal interests are in the literature and poetry of the non-Western world, which he is grateful not to be condemned to study professionally. More translations can be found on the blog he curates at:

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