Present Perceptions of Ancient Sanskrit: An online talk by A.N.D. Haksar
DATE & TIME - 5th November 2020, 7 pm

Meeting ID: 815 163 3498
Passcode: 1234


Aditya Narayan Dhairyasheel Haksar is a noted English-language translator of Sanskrit poetry, plays, and fiction. His work focuses on satiric, secular, and erotic literature, often overlooked by Orientalist scholars in favour of religious and administrative texts.

Speaking to the press in 2012, Sh. A.N.D. Haksar noted that colonialists had formed the impression that Sanskrit literature was “very ancient, very important, very good quality, and its main focus is religion and philosophy.” Less attention was paid to Katha literature, written in simpler language than the refined Sanskrit used at court. Katha tales often featured parables, or romantic and sexual themes, and included comic and colloquial works.

In 20 volumes of translation published over 18 years, Sh. Haksar has focused on these secular and, often, previously untranslated works of Sanskrit literature. These include the Madhavanala Katha, published as Madhava and Kama, and the SamayaMatrika, “The Courtesan’s Keeper”. His translations also highlight the confluence between Sanskrit and Persian poetry: take for instance A Tale of Wonder – Kathakautukam, a 15th-century poem by the Kashmiri poet-scholar Srivara that is a Sanskrit version of a Persian poem.

Sh. Haksar will address Studio Abhyas on 5th November 2020 (Thursday) at 7 pm IST, on the popular perception of Sanskrit as a language of theology, doctrine, and scripture, and on the factors that led him to his own choice of secular, comic, satiric and erotic texts

Some excerpts of his writing are reproduced below –

Three Hundred Verses: Bhartrihari:  Musings on Life, Love, and Renunciation (Penguin, 2017)


I bow to that radiance,

peaceful and still,

endless, unbounded

by space and time,

which is the spirit

and only known

through self-awareness.


Love in Spring and Summer


At this time does a koel look

longingly at mango trees

with budding blooms that store the fire

of loneliness in a traveller’s wife

its agony further enflamed

by breezes from the southern hills

scented with new trumpet flowers



I have always longed for her,

but she does reject me,

indeed she wants another man

who chases someone else

a maid who is to me attracted:

a curse on her and on that man,

on the other girl, on Love, on me.



There can be, the poet says,

one god: Keshava or Shiva;

one friend: a king or an ascetic;

one abode: a town or a forest;

and one bride: a beauty or a cave.

On Wealth


            One who has money

            is considered well born,

            learned, discerning,

            well versed in scriptures,

            an eloquent speaker,

            and good-looking too:

            all merits depend on gold.


“Life and Love: An Allegory”, excerpted from The Seduction of Shiva: Tales of Life and Love(Penguin, 2014)

There lived in times of yore a famous prince by the name of Puranjan. He had searched the whole earth for a worthy habitation but had found none. This had saddened him, for he longed for all kinds of enjoyment, but of all the cities he had seen, not one had been found adequate for his pleasures.

One day, in the land south of the Himalayas, he saw a city with nine gates. It possessed all the good attributes—battlements and moats, gardens and terraces, latticed windows, and royal gates. It was full of great mansions crowned with domes of gold, silver, and steel. The palaces in that city were adorned with emeralds and rubies, crystals and pearls, opals and sapphires, and shone like the citadels of the serpent kings. They were surrounded by avenues and squares, markets and halls of assembly, places for sport, and for relaxation, with benches of coral and many flags and banners.

Outside that city was a beautiful park full of wonderful trees and creepers, with birds singing and bees humming over the flowers. There was a lake within the park, and the verdure around it rustled in the mild spring breezes and the cool spray of waterfalls. The animals in that park were peaceful and harmless; and the nightingale’s call beckoned the traveller to rest in it.

Wandering in that marvelous woodland, Prince Puranjan beheld a damsel coming his way. With her was a retinue of ten attendants, each the leader of a hundred maidens, and a five-headed serpent guarded her. She was in the first bloom of youth. Her complexion was dusky, her nose and temples, teeth and mouth, and the curve of her waist were of exceeding beauty. She wore a yellow garment and a girdle of gold. Rings sparkled in her ears and the anklets on her feet tinkled as she walked, modestly covering a rounded bosom which testified to her flowering charms. In truth, she looked like a goddess. And she was in search of a worthy husband.

The arrows of that beauty’s glances struck the brave Puranjan in his heart, and he addressed her in a sweet and gentle tone: ‘Lotus-eyed one, who are you? Who is your father and from where do you come? For what purpose have you come near this city? Tell me, tender one, who are these ten attendants commanded by an eleventh warrior, and who are these women and the serpent that goes ahead of you? Are you a goddess, or do you wander here like an acolyte searching for your lord? All the desires of your husband would be satisfied merely in knowing that you look for him.

‘But, lovely one,’ he continued, ‘I see that your feet touch the earth. This would not happen if you were celestial. So, if you are indeed of the human race, will you not adorn this best of cities with me, as the goddess Lakshmi graces paradise with the god Vishnu? Behold, I am brave and powerful. But your eyes have smitten my heart today. Your smiles and glances, modest but full of passion, have made me suffer with desire. Give me your favour, beautiful one. Your face is like a lotus blossom, surrounded by the dark wreath of your hair. Your voice is sweet. But your modesty makes you avert your face from me. Give me at least a glimpse of your beauty.’

The damsel smiled to indicate her acceptance of Puranjan’s plea. She too had become enamoured of the prince. ‘O best of men,’ she said to him, ‘my companions and I do not know our names or clans, nor who gave us birth. We live in this city at present, and this is all that I know. Who built it for us to stay in, even of that I am ignorant. These men and women are my companions. When I sleep, this serpent remains awake, guarding the city. Well have you come, my dear, and well may it be with you. My companions and I will offer you every pleasure to fulfill all your desires. May you stay for a hundred years in this nine-gated city, enjoying all the delights you seek and which I will offer you. How could I ever consort with any man other than you?

‘Others,’ the damsel added, ‘the celibates and the renunciants, know neither the delights of love nor enjoy other pleasures; they only think of tomorrow and the hereafter. It is only the householder who can attain in this world both the sacred and the secular ends of life, fame, and paradise. Hermits and renunciants cannot even imagine all this. It has been said that the householder’s status is the one foundation in this world for the happiness of all beings—human and celestial. Which woman would not choose a husband as famous, generous, and handsome as you? Which woman’s heart would not long to find a place in your arms, smooth and strong as a serpent? You walk the earth, as it were, only to solace women like us with your sweetness and compassion.’

Their views in concord, those men and women then stayed in that city for a hundred years, enjoying every felicity. The bards and the balladeers would sweetly sing of Puranjan’s fame.

Of the nine gates of that city, seven were above it and two below.1 They had been built to enable the city’s ruler to go in different directions. Five gates faced eastwards and two to the west. One opened to the north and another to the south. Of the eastern gates, four were paired and one stood separate. Each gate had a name, and through each Puranjan would visit different places, accompanied by different friends. But above all, he took help and counsel from two blind citizens of his capital city.

There was a king of the demons called Chanda Vega. He had a retinue of three hundred and sixty demons and a like number of demonesses, both dark and fair. They would by turns plunder Puranjan’s city of many delights. The five-headed serpent, who guarded the city, long resisted these marauders. For one hundred years he fought alone against the demonic seven hundred and twenty till he was weary. Then Puranjan was stricken with worry, for all this time he had been immersed in pleasures brought to the city by his attendants and had remained unaware of this peril.

Another danger also appeared at this time. The Kalkanya, that is the daughter of Kaal, the lord of time, had been wandering over the world in search of a husband but none would accept her. This maiden of ill aspect, whose name was Jara, finally went to the king of the barbarians and requested him to take her hand. ‘O great one,’ she said, ‘I have come to you as I wish to make you my husband. Gratify me with your acceptance of my wish.’

‘I have already found someone for you,’ the barbarian king told Kalkanya. ‘Inauspicious and unpleasing as you are for all people, none will accept you of their own will. But you can take the people of this world and enjoy them by force, even though you are unwanted by them. I will give you my army, and with its help, none will be able to withstand you. Here is my brother Prajvar and you are now my sister. With both of you and my army of terror, I will wander in a subtle form through the world.’

Then the barbarian king’s hordes, together with Jara, the Kalkanya, began to traverse the earth at will. With great force they besieged the city of Puranjan, which was guarded by that ancient serpent and endowed with all earthly pleasures. Kaal’s daughter Jara started to enjoy the denizens of that city forcibly. While the city was being thus ravished, the barbarian hordes also penetrated it through different gates and commenced its destruction.

Puranjan, who was deeply attached to his family, had exulted in his lordship of the city. He now began to suffer untold agonies. His sense of discrimination was lost and his lustre tarnished by the Kalkanya’s embrace. His continued attachment to pleasures made his condition pitiable. The barbarian soldiers plundered him of his glory. He saw his city ravaged and the Panchal country disintegrating under the occupation of enemies. His sons and grandsons, ministers, and servants lost their respect for him; his wife ceased to be affectionate, and his body was possessed by Jara. Finding no means of escape, he was seized by anguish. Debased by craving for pleasures—pleasures which the Kalkanya had made worthless—deprived of his kinsmen’s esteem and the fruit of afterlife, his mind dwelt only on looking after his wife and children. Even though he did not want to leave them, he was forced to do so, for he was surrounded by demons and barbarians and made useless by Jara. At this moment Prajvar, the brother of the barbarian king, set fire to Puranjan’s city.

With the whole city aflame, the condition of Puranjan, his wife and family, his servants and subjects became even more desperate. The serpent that protected the city was in dire straits. His dwelling was attacked by Prajvar and captured by the barbarians. Exhausted, in pain and unable to protect his charge, he wished to leave the city, just like a snake tries to escape from the hollow of a burning tree. Prevented by the barbarians, he wept in misery.

In this allegorical portrait of love, life and death, Puranjan is the individual soul. The nine-gated city is the human body with its nine openings, through which the material world is experienced. The woman, Puranjani, is awareness or ego which gives the sense of me and mine for material experience. The ten attendants are the sensory and motor organs, and their retinue the sense objects. The eleventh, chief, attendant is the mind. The five-headed serpent is the life force comprising the five breaths. The blind citizens are the hands and the feet. The chariot is again the body and the hunt is the possession of things through the sense organs. The king of the demons is the Year and his retinue are the days and the nights. Jara is age, the daughter of Kaal or Time. The barbarian king is Death and his brother Prajvar is Pestilence.

From BhāgavataPurāṇa, 4.25, 4.29

This article is compiled by Arundhati Katju

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