Sri Aurobindo & Sanskrit


An introduction to Sri Aurobindo’s contribution to the study of Sanskrit language and literature

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by Sampadananda Mishra

This book is an introduction to Sri Aurobindo’s contribution to the study of Sanskrit language and literature. It provides an overview of his insights into the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the epics of classical Sanskrit literature and also includes his own original writings in Sanskrit and selections from his translations of Sanskrit texts into English.

There is no doubt that the Sanskrit language made a very deep impression on Sri Aurobindo. It might even be said that he approached the ancient language as though reacquainting himself with an old friend. He was already familiar with the European classical languages, in addition to the major modern languages, yet he placed “the ancient and classical creations of the Sanskrit tongue…in the front rank among the world’s great literatures”. Even personally, Sri Aurobindo has given in his writings some glimpses of the effect which Sanskrit had upon him. In On Himself (SABCL 26:367) he has said “…when I first read the Om Shanti Shanti Shanti of the Upanishads it had a powerful effect on me.” And in the Record of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo has made extensive use of Sanskrit words for expressing the subtleties of his inner experiences, quite apart from formulating the `map’ of his own path of yoga, the `Sapta Chatushtaya’ in Sanskrit. The influence of Sanskrit can be seen in his magnum opus Savitri; its theme is taken from a story in the Mahabharata, its arrangement of lines attempts “to catch something of the Upanishadic and Kalidasian movement”, and its content is replete with the substance of Veda, the eternal knowledge.In trying to estimate Sri Aurobindo’s contribution to Sanskritic literature, we find a vast labour and endeavour in numerous fields. His work on the Veda might be called a pioneering work, as his translations and commentaries give a coherent sense to the Veda, whereas the earlier work of the major commentators and translators had left our thirst for the spirit unsatisfied. Sri Aurobindo spent a considerable amount of time working on the Upanishads while in Baroda and afterwards. His translations and commentaries on the Upanishads, especially the Isha deserve special mention. The Essays on the Gita were first published serially in the Arya from August 1916 to July 1920. The translations and commentaries on Kalidasa, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, in addition to his original compositions…all these constitute a wealth of material for anyone interested in Sanskrit.

The book under review, Sri Aurobindo and Sanskrit gives a general outline of Sri Aurobindo’s translations and writings on Sanskrit, and his original writings in Sanskrit. It is divided into six main sections, followed by five appendixes. After a brief introduction, there is a section on the Sanskrit language itself, in which we find a neat summary of Sri Aurobindo’s ground-breaking essay `The Origins of Aryan Speech’. Section three on `Sanskrit Literature…’ deals with Sri Aurobindo’s main work under the following headings: `Vedic Literature’ including the Vedas and the Upanishads, `The Epic Literature’ including the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas and `Classical Literature’ including Kalidasa, Bhartrihari and other poets. Section four deals with the translation of Sanskrit texts, a difficult problem which Sri Aurobindo certainly spent a great deal of time grappling with. We find here some quotations from the master himself on the various principles he has used in solving problems of translation. Section five covers Sri Aurobindo’s original writings in Sanskrit, including Bhavani Bharati, Sri Aravindopanishad, Saptachatushtaya and Tantrikasiddhiprakaranam. A general summary is given for each, together with some other details concerning dates of composition, etc. The final section is a list of references to the many quotations from Sri Aurobindo’s works.

The book closes with five appendixes. The largest of these is a selection of Sri Aurobindo’s translations of Sanskrit texts, including the Veda, Upanishads, some longer passages from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and selections from Kalidasa, Bhartrihari, Bharavi and Shankaracharya. The original Sanskrit text is given with each of these selections. The other appendixes are `The Mother on Sanskrit’, `Root meanings of Vowel and Consonant sounds’, `Outline of a proposed work on Kalidasa’, and `Selections from Sri Aurobindo’s original Sanskrit writings’.

As we read through the pages of this book we can feel something of the `poetic warmth and colour’ of the Ramayana, or enter into the meaning of the `ninya vacansi’, the secret words of the Veda, as revealed by Sri Aurobindo. I trust that Sampadananda Mishra’s researches will bear the fruit of encouraging readers to delve deeper into Sri Aurobindo’s works and into the ancient texts of India.

– Bryce Grinlington

December 2001

SABDA catalog listing for Sri Aurobindo and Sanskrit

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