April 23, 2010
Ralph Thomas Hotchkin Griffith was born on May 25, 1826, in Corsley, Wiltshire, to Reverend Robert C. Griffith and Mary E. Adderley. It was a remarkable age. Only three days earlier, the HMS Beagle had set sail from Plymouth on its first voyage. Waterloo was already a decade old memory. Queen Victoria was 7 years old. Charles Dickens was 14. Lord Byron was dead, Charles Babbage was designing the Difference Engine, and speculative fiction had drawn its first gasping breath in the Gothic womb of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In distant India, a word that still denoted an area and not a place, one principality after another was falling to British might and British genius. It was the best of times to be an Englishman. As John Aylmer, Bishop of London, had presciently anticipated in An Harborowe, a year after the English navy crushed the Spanish Armada in 1588: “God is English.”
But conquest had brought with it the conqueror’s burden: administration. No empire has ever had enough qualified citizens to run two countries at the same time. Sooner or later, an empire has to start finding, training and hiring natives. Lord Macaulay’s Minute of 1834 spelled out what the goal should be:
“…a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”
Or less politely, wogs. Coconuts. Salman Rushdie, in his The Moor’s Last Sigh, acknowledges this bitter fruit:
“Bleddy Macaulay’s minutemen!… English-medium misfits… square-peg freaks.”
Macaulay is reviled these days for his racism, but as I see it, he was only being consistent. Hadn’t the Roman empire been a good thing for Britain? Wasn’t Macaulay its living proof? Didn’t he belong to the class of persons, English in blood and color, but Roman in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect? Besides, Macaulay and his carminative Minute were less influential than people suppose. What really got British education started in India was Sir Charles Wood’s Education Dispatch of 1854. It was well reasoned, pragmatic, free of hand-wringing, and based on an idea that would probably still work in places like Afghanistan. The idea was to leave Indian education mostly to the Indians, provide partial government funding, and set up some model educational institutions. In short: self-reliance, support and standards.
However, there was a severe shortage of British instructors. So that might explain why when Ralph T. H. Griffith joined the Indian Education Service in 1853, the twenty-seven year old Sanskrit scholar was almost immediately sentenced to be Professor of English Literature at the venerable Government Sanskrit College in Benares, India. Indeed, six months into the job, they made him headmaster of the associated school, and in 1861, the principal of the college itself. It was a position he was to hold for the next twenty-three years.
It was during this tenure that Griffith finished translating the first six books of Valmiki’s Ramayana from Sanskrit into English. The seventh and final book is a later addition to the canon (so is the first) and this he only abridged. The complete work appeared in 1870, published by E. J. Lazarus & Co. in Benares, and Trubner & Co in London. There had been an earlier effort in 1806 by the missionaries William Carey and Joshua Marshman, but they had only managed to translate the first two volumes. Thus, Griffith had produced the first complete English translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana. Translations are acts of courage. As Victor Hugo noted:
“When you offer a translation to a nation, that nation will almost always look on the translation as an act of violence against itself.”
Hugo was talking about native receptions to translated foreign works, but it applies equally well to native receptions to foreigners translating native works. In the literary magazines of the period, the Griffith Ramayana is often referred to as “a spirited translation,” a compliment to be sure, but for a horse, not a translation. It’s not insignificant that Voltaire mocked “spirited translators”:
“…[their] spirit and ability consist in substituting a modern variety or peculiarity for an ancient one, to the utter confusion of all unity of time, place, and character; leaving the mind of the reader bewildered as in a masquerade, crowded and confused with ancient and modern costumes.”
But Griffith’s achievement should not be underestimated. He’d had to translate some 24,000 slokas. A sloka is a Sanskrit verse and consists of thirty-two syllables, arranged either as a sixteen-syllable couplet or four eight-syllable hemistiches. The Iliad and Odyssey combined have some 27,000 lines, thus making the Ramayana roughly twice as long. Furthermore, a Sanskrit verse can be as gnarly as a one-liner Perl hack. It’s a language that takes a coder’s pride in Oulipo-type exercises. Gorresio‘s Italian translation (1850) and August von Schlegel‘s German translation (1829) could and did act as guides, but when it came to translating the slokas to English, Griffith was on his own.
So how does his work fare? if we think of it as Griffith’s Ramayana, then the work is not much of a success. It is merely an adequate translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana and a fine example of that curious Victorian animal: the past’s head joined to future’s butt. This is the animal that Voltaire mocked. But if we think of the text as the Griffith Ramayana, a member of the class of inspired Ramayanas, then it’s a marvelous thing indeed. Technically, the two texts are one and the same, but the difference in perceptions does makes a difference in our appreciation.
The Griffith Ramayana is a literary work, not a scholarly one. The wonderful Princeton translation (by Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, Sheldon Pollack and Barend van Nooten) is what a scholarly translation looks like. Scholarly works can get dated, literary works only go out of style. Scholars translate so as to ease their epistemological discomfort. Griffith translated so as to ease his aesthetic discomfort. Occasionally, Valmiki’s verses shows a bit too much leg for Griffith, and the translated verses therefore show too little. He also gets some things seriously wrong. For example, he has a section entitled “The Rape of Sita” when it should be “The Abduction of Sita.” What does Griffith say in anticipation of such bloopers? In the preface, he wrote:
“My first object has been to reproduce the original poem as faithfully as circumstances permit me to do. For this purpose I have preferred verse to prose. The translations of the Iliad by Chapman and Worsley– nay, even by translators of far inferior poetical powers– are, I think, much more Homeric than any literal prose rendering can possibly be. In the latter we may find the ‘disjecti membra poetae,’ but all the form and the life are gone, for ‘the interpenetration of matter and manner constitute the very soul of poetry.’ I have but seldom allowed myself to amplify or to condense, or omit apparently needless repetitions, but have attempted rather to give the poet as he is than to represent him as European taste might prefer him to be. Comparisons, therefore, which to English readers will appear vulgar or rediculous [sic] have been left unaltered, and long passages of unutterable tediousness re-appear in my version with, probably, their tediousness enhanced.”
Ignoring Griffith’s low opinion of his own work (not to mention the misreading of its essential nature), I completely agree with his decision to stick with verse. The few prose translations I’ve read lack the emotional savors of the original text. Unfortunately, Griffith decided to use iambic tetrameter, a distressing decision for those scarred by the memory of Gladys Hotchkiss belting out “Hernando’s Hideway.” I kept hearing an “Ole!” after every four lines. The manic insistence on rhyming also leads Griffith to make bad choices. For example:
On the bare earth the lady sank,
And trembling from their presence shrank
Like a strayed fawn, when night is dark,
And hungry wolves around her bark.
Barking wolves? Surely, it should be “howl”? But no, if rhyme needs wolves to bark, so they shall. Incidentally, in the original verse (at least in the Baroda Critical Edition of Valmiki’s Ramayana), a trembling Sita shrinks into herself (5.25.5: “sītā viśantīvā ṅgamā tmanaḥ”), and not onto the bare earth. This would seem to be an error, but Sita is born of the Earth, so Griffith’s translation is correct with respect to myth and metaphor. A poet’s choice, of course, not a scholar’s.
Another problem with iambic tetrameter is pacing. Everything has to fit within the “da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM” scheme, and there’s often a sense that a line could use an extra “da DUM.” Griffith remarks how he has no intention of chopping off a finger to improve the hand, but I wish he’d added a finger every so often. He also reveals a near-compulsive fondness for inversions and possessive nouns (“virtue’s brow,” “kingdom’s bound,” “ascetic’s weed’). After a while it can get on one’s nerves.
But there’s magnificence too. Consider this stanza which describes the death of Ravana at the hands of Lord Rama:
“Upon his string the hero laid
An arrow, like a snake that hissed.
‘Twas feathered with the rushing wind;
The glowing sun and fire combined
To the keen point their splendour lent;
The shaft, ethereal element,
By Meru’s hill and Mandar, pride
of mountains, had its weight supplied.
He laid it on the twisted cord,
He turned the point at Lanka’s lord,
And swift the limb-dividing dart
Pierced the huge chest and cleft the heart,
And dead he fell upon the plain
Like Vritra by the Thunderer slain.”
Compare the above with the following one, a description by Tennyson, also a rector’s son, of Mordred’s death at the hand of King Arthur:
…then Modred smote his liege
Hard on that helm which many a heathen sword
Had beaten thin; while Arthur at one blow
Striking the last stroke with Excalibur
Slew him, and all but slain himself, he fell.”
I believe the comparison tilts in Griffith’s favor. Nor is this passage a unique instance. Read with an appreciative frame of mind, the work confirms what Anne Dacier (1647-1720) claimed in her preface to the Illiad: “a translation that tries above all to save the spirit, does not fail to keep the letter, even where it takes the greatest liberties.” Literary critics should take the Griffith Ramayana more seriously.
An Englishman went up a subcontinent and came down an Indian. Ralph Griffith, a lifelong bachelor, a rector’s son from Wiltshire, a harmless aglet on colonialism’s boot, managed to take an ancient Sanskrit love poem and make it his own. Unlike von Schlegel, he was able to avoid the contempt for the Other that so often accompanies familiarity. This is all the more remarkable considering that the Sepoy “Mutiny” of 1857 had drawn a permanent, and perhaps inevitable, line between conqueror and conquered. By the time Griffith was appointed director of public instruction of the North-west provinces in 1878, Charles Wood’s educational guidelines had become policy. But though policy was strong, the flesh was weak. Weather, loneliness, alcoholism, isolation, homesickness, low salaries, language problems, tropical diseases and, if I’ve judged the expressions of just-landed tourists correctly, sheer terror, all wrecked havoc on the men and women who were to implement the policy. However, Griffith seems to have thrived.
Upon retirement in 1885, Griffith moved in with his brother Frank’s family, and spent the next twenty-one years in the cool hills of Niligiri, translating the Vedas. Personally, I consider it a pity he didn’t spend the time on more literary texts. There were a great many other Sanskrit works left to translate– some three thousand years worth– but then again, there comes a time when every pen must be set down. At the age of eighty, some fifty years after he’d first arrived in India, never to return to England, Ralph T. H. Griffith died on November 7, 1906. Only a few weeks earlier, Mahatma Gandhi– then just Mohandas– had launched a non-violence movement in South Africa. In June, the Lusitania had set sail on its maiden voyage. Albert Einstein had published the theory of special relativity, solved the mystery of the photoelectric effect, provided a theoretical explanation for Brownian motion and demonstrated the equivalence of matter and energy. Hitler was 17 years old. In seven years time, Rabindranath Tagore would become the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for literature. There were movies, heavier-than-air flight, phonographs and submarines. It would be a remarkable century. And Ralph T. H. Griffith, one of those suspended human bridges between Us and Them, between Now and Then, between Give and Take, had helped make it happen.
March 26, 2010
ABC News’ Nightline recently sponsored a Faceoff debate with Deepak Chopra & Jean Houston on one side and Sam Harris & Michael Shermer on the other. The topic: Does God have a future? This is a bit like debating whether Bugs Bunny will continue to be fond of carrots. It’s not a meaningless question, but perhaps it’s one best left to future rabbit scholars who’ll be around to observe the matter first hand. Still, if God’s advocates these days are the likes of Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston, then I have to feel a little sorry for the Perfect One.
Deepak Chopra is a brother, so it was somewhat painful to watch the man’s passionate incoherence. He spoke in aggrieved fragments, choppy phrases circling the wagons of his non-argument. Chopra-bhai had it in for Shermer, which is understandable, since Shermer has made it a point to ridicule him as Dr. Woo-Woo. Sample exchange:
Chopra: For people like Michael– not you so much [Sam Harris]– for people like Michael, to take all of the inner experience, all of the rich inner experience and try to codify it in a graph with data is absurd.
Shermer: As opposed to what? Just calling it fuzzy words? How does that help us understand it?
Chopra: That’s such an OUT, Michael. That’s such an out.
Chopra: You use the word ‘fuzzy’. Use the word ‘woo-woo’ and you’re out of the argument.
Indeed. What was the argument again?
But it doesn’t really matter. The debate wasn’t a debate because the two sides were using words very differently. Harris & Shermer were using reason, that is, using language with its usual adult conventions of having to make sense. The other side seem to use words to evoke cosmic feeling. Dr. Houston writes things like: “That is you — the human being that is the microcosm or, if you will, the fractal of the Infinite self. The human Selfing game may be what Infinity does for fun.” It seems to me that such speech-acts have a certain ritualistic role. It’s not too far removed– in emotional affect anyway– from shamanic chants, motherese, and the nonsense rhymes of children.
Jean Houston seemed more aware than Chopra-bhai that the place and time weren’t suited for chanting. Or perhaps it was simply that she wasn’t allowed to speak. Every now and then she’d raise her hand to indicate she wanted to speak, but her attempts were ignored by the three men. Pretty brutal.
It’s easy to make fun of Chopra-bhai and Dr. Houston. But they make life more interesting, not less. So a little sympathy may not be out of order. We need them around, if only to remind us there’s no curing the imagination. Perhaps they truly believe the woo-woo they claim to believe. And what’s the harm? At best, it’s only the stuff of foma, wampeters and granfalloons. At worst, it only further delays a serious study of Bugs Bunny and his inexplicable passion for carrots.
February 4, 2007
Just finished watching the debate between Sam Harris (The End of Faith) and Reza Aslan (No God But God) on C-SPAN. The topic:
"Does the Bible provide timeless prescriptions for our daily lives? Or does its inclusion of practices such as slavery preclude its ability to act as such a guide? Are Osama bin Laden’s grievances with the United States purely theological, or also social and political? Reza Aslan, author of "No god but God," and Sam Harris, author of "Letter to a Christian Nation," take up these questions in this debate at the Los Angeles Public Library. The event also includes discussion on contemporary trends in Islam– including whether or not Muslims are unique in their religious fervor– and debate over the concept of the Koran as a perfect and immutable document."
Does that sound like a perfect evening or what! Jonathan Kirsch, a bearded, soft-spoken, bear-like dude with a no-nonsense legal letter-pad, kept the men from making any sudden Tysonesque moves. Kirsch’s the author of A History Of The End Of The World. After a book like that, I guess he can handle anything.
The score? Well, Harris won. Reza circled round and round a profoundly oft-misunderstood point about profound transcendent experiences that had profoundly to do with context and interpretation sensitive to people’s transcendent experiences that profoundly need no validation external to the fact of it being a profound transcendent experience.
Okay. That’s unfair. Reza’s a smart guy. He’s articulate to a fault. He was at his best when he dealt in facts. When Harris claimed that the Israel-Palestine conflict was a religious one, it didn’t take Reza long to demonstrate Harris didn’t know what he was talking about. But for the most part, Reza tried to explain away the irrationality of religion via rational arguments. It’s the kind of contortion that’d get even B. K. S. Iyengar’s knickers in a twist.
As I see it, Reza’s main argument was that most rational questions about religion were misconstrued. He claimed that Religion wasn’t about facts, the domain of science, but about "a sacred history." "Sacred history" is a lot like ordinary history except that true/false is replaced with significance/non-significance. For example, to ask whether Moses really parted the Red Sea or whether the god Ganpati really has an elephant’s head is to miss the point. The correct question was to ask what these stories mean for their believers, why they matter. To keep harping on truth, evidence and logic was to be unsophisticated. Profoundly unsophisticated.
I was reminded of a joke in The Recruit. Al Pacino’s explaining– hoarse voice, bloodhound visage and all– to his C.I.A. protege why he decided to betray another three letter agency, namely, the U.S.A:
"There’s this parish priest, goes up to the pope, drops down on his knees, starts weeping, asking forgiveness. ‘Holy Father, Holy Father, what am I to do? What am I to do? I do not believe in God anymore. What am I to do?’ You know what the pope said? ‘Fake it.’ "
Perhaps Reza is in the position of that pope, asking the padre to defend something not because it was true but because it was important.
May 14, 2006
The homepage of the Univ. of Virginia’s Division Of Perceptual Studies quotes Thomas Jefferson:
"I was bold in the pursuit of knowledge, never fearing to follow truth and reason to whatever results they led."
It is a fine quote, exactly the sort of postprandial statement one can imagine Jefferson making at Monticello, with a glass of Chateau d’Yquem in one hand and Sally in the other. They don’t make presidents like him anymore.
But perhaps they do. That is, if Dr. Ian Stevenson is right.
Ian Stevenson‘s a medical doctor (internal medicine) trained at McGill University, the author of many peer-reviewed articles, and a former chaired professor at UVa. Dr. Stevenson’s pursuit of the truth has led him into very odd territory. In the 60s through the 80s, he investigated cases in India, Ceylon, Brazil, Alaska, and Lebanon that were "suggestive of reincarnation."
There’s a rough pattern to these reincarnation stories. A child– usually between two and four years of age — begins to claim that he/she is actually so-and-so, now deceased. Parents resist said claims. Eventually, contact with so-and-so’s family is made. Dénouement follows. At some point, ranging from 3 weeks to twenty years, Stevenson shows up with his tape recorder and interpreter. He interviews the families, cross-checks claims, classifies events into a typology, and then re-conducts the interviews with a second translator. The book describes twenty representative cases. His conclusion:
"In the cases of the present collection we have evidence of the occurrence of patterns which the present personality is not known to have inherited or acquired after birth in the present life. And in some instances these patterns match corresponding and specific features of an identified deceased personality. In such cases we have then in principle, I believe, some evidence for human survival of physical death. I say in principle, because I continue aware [sic] of particular weaknesses in the present cases."
In short, there are events suggestive of reincarnation. I think he’s mistaken. But whatever one may think of his extraordinary conclusion, the book will induce respect. His case reports are painfully detailed, monumentally tedious and reassuringly detached. It’s shoe-leather research rather than arm-chair research. It’s Masters and Johnson sans lubrication. The book is a lovely testament to what empiricism is all about.
Assuming the evidence is not manufactured out of whole cloth (in which case the book ranks with great literature), there’s a neat little puzzle to be explained. Some of the cases are rather disquieting, especially the cases of Pramod and Swarnalata. Stevenson’s methodology is not that of the doctor or the physicist but that of the detective.
March 31, 2006
Well, it’s official. If you’re scheduled for a coronary bypass, and the local Ned Flanders is busy organizing the congregation to pray for you, order the bastard to cease and desist immediately. Science has determined that intercessory prayer may significantly increase the risk of post-surgery complications for you.
This month’s issue of the American Heart Journal has a paper by Benson et. al. on the effectiveness of intercessory prayer. They begin the paper by saying:
"Intercessory prayer is widely believed to influence recovery from illness, but claims of benefits are not supported by well-controlled clinical trials. Prior studies have not addressed whether prayer itself or knowledge/certainty that prayer is being provided may influence outcome. We evaluated whether (1) receiving intercessory prayer or (2) being certain of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with uncomplicated recovery after coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery."
And their conclusion?
"Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications."
In English: Prayer is ineffective at best, and knowing that you’re being prayed for can be a risk factor as well.
The doctors are to be commended for three things: (1) for having the cojones to study the supernatural; (2) for giving "intercessory" a slightly sinister connotation; and (3) for making the Universe a slightly funnier place.
March 24, 2006
In 1995, Hussain Ali Quambar, a forty-five year old Kuwaiti businessman and father of two — Najiba, 6 and Taha, 3 — converted to Christianity. He would probably have escaped public notice had he not got into a messy custody battle with his wife. Hussain Ali Quambar, now exposed for what he was — Robert Hussain Ali — found himself in deep ontological shit. At first, he was approached by reasonable men with a reasonable offer — recant and reconvert — but like all new converts, Robert Ali was quite inflexible. Besides, Kuwait is practically the Netherlands of the Middle East; what could possibly go wrong?
January 20, 2006
Well, we have the panda.
It’s either the best proof ever of unintelligent design or God was cracking the genetic equivalent of "A monkey, a drunk and a priest walk into a bar…"
The Old Testament God is not known for His sense of humor. Oddly enough, when something is funny in the Bible, it usually has something to do with bellies (Abraham laughs when he hears God intends to fiddle with 90 year old Sarah’s belly, Jonah in the whale’s belly, the self-pitying belly-aching of the prophets, the damn fruit that began the whole mess, Mary’s joke about, um, virginity…).
What about the other religions?
August 28, 2005
"Stuti", pronounced "Sthuthi", means "prayer/song". "Ninda" means "blame/complaint." A "ninda stuti" is essentially a prayer that is also a complaint.
Prayers are supposed to be polite. If one is praying to an omnipotent entity, it is advisable to be as inoffensive as possible. God loves you, but you’re His bitch, pal.
The Hindus do things differently. They decided to break up the monopoly. Why not have a bunch of gods? Why not make them compete, like ravenous insurance agents, for your prayers? So the Hindus dreamt up 330 million gods. Impossible?
Absolutely. It’s way too small a number. Judging from CIA fact index, the number of gods is currently estimated to be about 6,446,131,400. It’s still an underestimate.
The logic is quite straightforward. "Aham Brahmasmi." I am the Brahman. Not just me. Every living thing is a piece of the Brahman. Since we’ve not included aliens, bacter, Delhi’s crows and opposums, the exact number of Gods is, like Rumsfeld said, an "unknown unknowable."
But this is not about a holy census or an unholy consensus. It’s about the consequences of having a market in Gods. One begins to take certain liberties. Such as getting a tad familiar with the Supernatural.