Columbia South Asia Scholar Oversees New Editions of Classical Indian Literature

May 13, 2015
Sheldon Pollock, the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies, Columbia University

Around the world scholars in modern and ancient languages seek to maintain the world’s diverse cultures. But the classical literature of India, stretching back some 2,000 years, presents a special challenge; it is written in scores of regional languages that are falling into disuse or have vanished entirely.

Under the supervision of Sheldon Pollock, Columbia’s Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies, the Murty Classical Library of India is tackling this problem head on. Published by Harvard University Press, the series will consist of English translations of hundreds of classical works of Indian literature over the next century. The first five volumes were released in November 2014.

As its general editor, Pollock, along with his editorial board, decides which works to include, no small task considering the literature spans an area vaster than Europe, stretching from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east, and from Nepal to Sri Lanka. “Some of these works have fallen off the map,” said Pollock. “Others never got on the map to begin with.”

The project is central to Columbia’s mission to internationalize its curriculum. “We can’t very well teach non-Western classical literature in the Columbia manner—using complete works that are the product of serious scholarship—if we don’t have such works available to us.” He expects many of the texts will wind up in a syllabus being developed for a new program in World Philology.

“Professor Pollock’s work exemplifies Columbia’s vision for the humanities as more global, more public and more digital,” said Humanities Dean Sharon Marcus. “The Murty Library will be a vital resource for securing the future of our cultural past.”

To get the best translations possible, Pollock has enlisted editors from around the world to help him, including some on the Morningside Heights campus, such as John Stratton Hawley, a Barnard religion professor, who translated Sur’s Ocean, an anthology of more than 400 poems attributed to the 16th century Hindi poet Surdas.

Among the first five books is Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women, an anthology of poems written more than 2,000 years ago. The women, called theris or the “senior ones” among ordained Buddhist women, left behind poems that are among the oldest known examples of women’s writing in the world.

The Murty Library has text in the original language on one page, with the English translation on the opposite page. In addition to reaching audiences in the West, it has published a paperback series in India with the same format. Pollock hopes that the newfound availability of these texts will inspire readers in South Asia to engage with their own great works and be inspired to learn the original languages.

Pollock received his undergraduate degree in classics at Harvard and earned his master’s and Ph.D. there in Sanskrit and Indian studies. He taught at the University of Chicago from 1989 until 2005, when he joined the Columbia faculty. His areas of specialization are Sanskrit philology, Indian intellectual and literary history, and comparative intellectual history.

Besides the Murty series, Pollock is editing Historical Sourcebooks in Classical Indian Thought, a decade-long project whose first volumes will be published in spring 2016 by Columbia University Press. He has also helped to create a series called South Asia Across the Disciplines, funded with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which publishes first books by scholars in the field. “For South Asian studies, especially premodern humanities, they are the vulnerable tenure books, the toughest books to get published,” he said.

The funding for the Murty Library comes from a computer scientist, Rohan Narayana Murty, whose family donated $5.2 million to launch the series. Murty’s father is Narayana Murthy, founder of the tech firm Infosys.

Pollock envisions a collection of volumes that can one day encompass works of philosophy and science and include digital features so readers can, in one click, see a text in any number of scripts. Harvard University Press has said it plans to publish the books in both print and digital formats to keep the Murty Library available in perpetuity.

Such a prospect is thrilling, Pollock said. “To see these books makes the heart leap.”

— By Gary Shapiro