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Review: The Seduction of Shiva

The Seduction of Shiva: Tales of Life and Love

Translated from the Sanskrit by A.N.D. Haksar

Penguin India, 2014

Rs 399

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AND Haksar’s latest Sanskrit translation is, in his own words, an “eclectic assemblage” of stories taken from right across the spectrum of Sanskrit literature. What binds these diverse episodes together – in addition to their being ‘tales of life and love’ – is their tendency to reveal an unusual, or at least little known, aspect of sex or marriage in the India of yore.

Most of these stories involve love in its most elemental form. The bawdy pub-joke type of tale – like the one about a barber being cuckolded by the king, in which teeth around the king’s anus create the climax – is typical of the earthy kathā literature for which Sanskrit is not famous (although recent translations by Haksar, among others, have attempted to make this literature more widely known). The anthropologist though will probably find the carefully selected episodes from the Mahābhārata the richest. There is a famous illustration of the niyoga rite – in which a brother may be called upon to father children by his sister-in-law; the tale of a bark-clad sage’s wife demanding a honey-moon suite with all the trimmings before she acquiesces to be impregnated by her husband; and the story of how earth’s greatest warrior spurned the advances of heaven’s most desirable apsaras, and became a eunuch as a result. There is even a discussion on whether it is men or women who enjoy themselves most in bed, and, incidentally, whether mothers or fathers love their children more.

Haksar’s easy-flowing English prose – and his skilful verse, though there is sadly little verse in this particular collection – helps the reader sail through each episode; this is not a book that will take days to read. He has not though been well served by Penguin’s editing process. Diacritical marks are used in places, but not as per the recognised standard nor with consistency. Some Sanskrit words are italicised, some not; and at times the same word is italicised in one instance and not in another. In one case, the name of a prince is spelt differently in two consecutive paragraphs. The notes too seem not to have been fully thought through. It is always difficult to get the notes in such a book right: too much and you irritate the reader for whom this material is familiar, too little and you lose everyone else in a maze of names and foreign words. Even so, it is sometimes difficult to see the logic behind decisions such as, in the first story, explaining who Śiva is but not Kāma.

Haksar has always striven to reveal Sanskrit literature in all of its glorious technicolour, rescuing it from the whitewash some try to apply, and lifting off the veil of greyness through which the majority view it. And this kaleidoscopic collection, in over-representing the colourful and entertaining, will certainly help to further this aim. For Penguin to publish The Seduction of Shiva under the Penguin Classics imprint, though, is perhaps misleading. This is not so much a canonical work but a collection of fun, easy stories that will not only entertain the reader but give him a ready stock of interesting tidbits about the sex lives of ancient Indians.

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For more details and to buy this book, please see the Penguin India page

Siddhartha: From German to Sanskrit, via English

It seems only natural to be reading Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha in Sanskrit. The classic novel, written originally in the author’s native German, is set in India during the Buddha’s lifetime and follows a young Brahmin’s quest to discover his true nature. As he tries to find ātman, Siddhartha rejects the priesthood of his forefathers and joins a band of ascetics in the forest. After mastering asceticism and the supernatural powers associated with it, he renounces that too and – following a brief meeting with Gautama Buddha during which he realises he can never learn from another the truth he seeks – he next practises the arts of love and business as a wealthy town-dweller. Disgusted with that life, indeed with life itself, he finds peace finally as a boatman listening to and learning from the river across which he carries passengers.

Muni Kalyanakirtivijaya’s translation has as its base the original English translation by Hilda Rosner, which uses simple, unfussy language to allow the gentle beauty of the story to shine out. The translator’s Sanskrit version is written in a similarly simple style, with few of the long samāsas, rare verbal forms or complex syntax that can plague Sanskrit literature. So unassuming is the language that it allows the reader to focus instead on the meaning the words convey. The author’s decision to retain sandhi – in contrast to many writers of simple Sanskrit who prefer to omit it – makes for a sonorous read; and reminds us that sandhi need not impede the less practised reader, or indeed listener, of Sanskrit.

There are one or two things with which a reader might quibble. In particular, in the poem that Siddhartha composes for his mistress, Kamala, the richness of the Sanskrit kāvya tradition is conspicuous by its absence, despite Kamala’s delight upon hearing these verses.

Nevertheless, for those of us who naturally read Sanskrit more slowly than we read our mother tongue, this translation is the perfect way to really enjoy this beautiful novel. By slowing us down just enough to ensure we really drink in each word and each description, but at the same time ensuring we need not break the flow by having to puzzle out difficult sentences, this translation allows us to listen to Hesse’s story as Siddhartha learns to listen to the river. And perhaps, if we listen as he does, we too will finally hear the mystical syllable ‘Om’.

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For more details and to get a copy of the book, please write tosheelchandrasuriji@yahoo.com.

Muni Kalyanakirtivijaya’s Sanskrit translation is not the first – there is at least one other Sanskrit version of the novel, by Dr L Sulocana Devi.

 

Kshemendra: Three Satires from Ancient Kashmir

 

Translated by AND Haksar

The ancient Kashmir of the title is a strange land peopled by swindler goldsmiths descended from the rats whose destructive burrowing drove the golden Mount Meru to abandon the world of mortals and ascetics so intent upon gazing at the sky that they keep tripping over.  It is nevertheless not unfamiliar to those campaigning with Anna Hazare against a rotten bureaucracy nor to those who grumble about India’s increasing moral bankruptcy. 

These three satirical bhanas, or “causeries”, are the work of Kshemendra, a cosmopolitan scholar of the 11th century who studied under the famous Abhinavagupta.  Kshemendra’s contribution to Sanskrit literature has only recently been fully appreciated: the first of the 34 works attributed to him was discovered in 1871.  Eighteen have been found in total, of which several are technical and devotional works and four satirical.  AND Haksar, who translated these three satires, has already done much to establish the poet’s reputation beyond the academic community with his translation of the Samaya Matrika or The Courtesan’s Keeper, a sustained satirical narrative about a shape-shifting pimp.  These three satires, also set in Kshemendra’s native Kashmir, paint a similar picture of a society in hot pursuit of money and sex, preferably combined. 

Although the first work, Narma Mala or A Garland of Mirth, takes a narrative form, the other two, Kala Vilasa (A Dalliance with Deceptions) and Deshopadesha (Advice from the Countryside), are more a string of well executed vignettes.  The story, at any rate, is of secondary consideration.  It is in the details that Kshemendra’s pen cuts most deeply, particularly in his fresh and often shocking similes.  The guru whose mouth twitches “like the cunt of an old she-buffalo” is not quickly forgotten, and Mr Haksar does justice to the often filthy language of the original; you have to wonder how the Victorian translators would have handled this.  But the humour is not all bawdy.  The foreign student for whom “even a river is considered insufficient for his purificatory rites” but who happily tucks into the leftover dinner and drink of the harlot he has engaged for the evening, has a glow “like that of an unlit lamp”. 

No one, not even a Buddhist nun, not even poets themselves, is spared.  At times, Kshemendra can seem a little old-fashioned: working wives and women who enjoy a good party are among those he condemns as “demons of a thousand deceptions in the dark night of this degenerate age”.  But his castigation of cheating officials resonates loud and clear:

Plundered by the bureaucrat,

the state’s afflicted prosperity

weeps dark tears, which seem to be

ink drops dripping from his pen.

At times Kshemendra relents and gives us more standard poetic fare but his wit and cynicism are never far from the surface.  A beautiful description of Ujjain at dusk mixes the conventional with his own particular style; “the sun…disappeared slowly from the sky like a gambler stripped bare by cheats”.  For the most part we are invited to mock as well as condemn the doctor who must kill thousands of patients with experimental concoctions before establishing his reputation, the astrologer who consults “knowledgeable fisherman” about the likelihood of rain and the man about town who gives himself love bites and smears lipstick on his collar before going out.  Would that Kshemendra were alive and writing today.

This review first appeared in the New Indian Express here

To buy this book or for more details, click here

Citra Kavya: Review of Citram

Citra Bandha – Volume III of Citram

V Balasubrahmanyam

Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan

2010

 Dr Shankar Rajaraman

Authors on Sanskrit poetics have traditionally classified poetry into three types based on the predominance, subordination or relative absence of dhvani (suggestion) and specifically of its major subdivision called rasa-dhvani (suggestion through sentiment, in fact sentiment itself because it is held that sentiment can never be expressed through words but always suggested through them). Of these three types, the ‘superior’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘inferior’ – plus the ‘most inferior’ if we accept Jagannātha Paṇḍita’s four-fold classification – citrakāvya (literally ‘marvel poetry’ [1]) comes last. It is therefore held to be synonymous with the ’inferior’ or the ‘most inferior’ categories of poetry.

Citrakāvya’s aim, as its very name suggests, is to create wonder. Though held to be inferior by rhetoricians, it is by no means easy to compose. Neither has it been neglected due to its lower status. It is in fact intriguing to note that even purists who vouch for the superiority of poetry that is infused with dhvani have been unable to resist the pull of citrakāvya for the sheer intellectual challenge it offers. Ānandavardhana, the author of the Dhvanyāloka, a path-breaking work in Sanskrit poetics that successfully upholds the superiority of dhvani, is, surprisingly, also credited with the Devīśatakam, a hymn in praise of Devī, the Mother Goddess, that sets forth to illustrate, at every step, the numerous, complicated and difficult forms of citrakāvya.

Backed by a history of more than a thousand years, citrakāvya still continues to be composed by small pockets of scholars throughout India. The laity, though, is scarcely aware of the existence of such a form of poetry. A work of the nature of Citram is therefore the need of the hour. By introducing a lesser-known but interesting aspect of Sanskrit poetry to the general public, the work has, I should say, done yeoman service to the cause of popularising the language. Anything that is interesting is also likely to motivate some, at least, to explore further. 

This book, the third volume of Citram, deals with one of the subdivisions of citrakāvya called citrabandha (‘pictorial poetic composition’), also termed bandhacitra or simply bandha, in addition to gaticitra (‘citrakāvya based on movement’).

Gaticitra is poetry in which letters are so arranged that they repeat when one moves through the lines of a verse in a particular manner. The most famous example of a gaticitra (although in this book it hasn’t been classified as a gaticitra we may consider it so on the authority of Dr Venkatachala Shastry, author of Kannaḍa Citrakāvya) is the gomūtrikā bandha, a zig-zag composition.  In this composition, every alternate letter of the first and third lines of a verse is the same as every alternate letter of the second and fourth lines, thus creating a zig-zag pattern which mimics that left by an ambling cow – gomūtra is a cow’s urine.

[The image above is slightly different to the classical gomūtrikā; here the zig-zag pattern moves between the first and second lines and the third and fourth rather than between the first and third and second and fourth.]

The second category, bandhacitra, refers to composition of verses where the repetition of letters gives rise to a pattern that resembles recognisable objects in day to day life, for example a lotus or serpent.  [The illustration below shows a cobra citrabandha, both in composition and then below that in regular verse form.]

The author, under the heading ākṛticitram (citrakāvya based on the form or appearance of shapes) has classified the various types of pictorial poetry under eleven subheads.  Māṅgalikacitram refers to a pattern that resembles objects considered auspicious, eg the svastika sign. Twenty two such patterns have been described.  Next is the gomūtrikā, of which four types are described.  The muraja is a pattern resembling straps tied to a muraja, a type of musical drum. This is also often classified under gaticitra.  Cakra compositions are wheel patterns whose subtypes are based on the number of spokes the wheel contains. Ten types have been described here.  The padma (‘lotus’) category is subdivided based on the number of petals the lotus contains; the author describes eight types.  There are 12 types of nāga compositions, which consist of a single or multiple coiled or uncoiled serpent(s), and 19 types of āyudha ones, which resemble various weapons, like a sword, knife or mace.

In the section on gaticitram, the author gives six categories.  Of these the āvalī (a streak or uninterrupted series, an uninterrupted repetition of the same letters in a different sense as in ‘His Hispanic panicky wife’) and śṛṅkhalābandha (literally a chain-shaped composition, an extension of āvalī in which the entire verse is composed so that every succeeding word starts with the letters with which the preceding word ends) are in fact subtypes of yamaka, a figure of sound consisting of repetition of letters that give different meanings, but are similar in sound. Of the remaining four, rathapada, gajapada and turagapada are based on the chessboard moves of a camel, elephant and horse [2] while the last, namely kākapada (crow’s foot), has examples quoted from the Vidagdhamukhamaṇḍanam where the answers to three riddles posed in a verse when arranged in a particular manner resemble a crow’s foot.  There is then paśupādapacitram – patterns based on certain flora and fauna, for instance an elephant, horse or peacock, and also a man or woman. Sixteen types have been described.  Ābharaṇacitram consists of patterns resembling various ornaments, such as an armlet or girdle. Five types are described here.  Finally we have 38 types of anyākāracitram which are miscellaneous formations such as the moon, Mount Meru, a bed, swing, well, lamp, pestle, mirror, lute, bell and so on.  The book thus discusses a total of 141 patterns.

The author’s modus operandi in describing a pattern is to first quote its Sanskrit definition (lakṣaṇa) translate it to English and then give the examples (lakṣya) from various sources – both poetry and works on poetics followed by the Sanskrit commentary on these exemplary verses – the English meanings of individual words in the verses and the overall purport. Metrical details are occasionally added.

Though the author’s efforts in collating information on citrakāvya from every nook and corner of Sanskrit literature are laudable, more value could have been added to his work had he more closely analysed the intricacies involved in composing citrakāvya. To give an example, he cites a verse which illustrates the kuṇḍalitanāgabandha, or the coiled snake pattern, but forgets to mention the metre which in this case is the 21-syllable pañcakāvalī, also called sarasī or campakamālā. It is necessary to know the metre in this instance because it is usually the more famous sragdharā metre that is employed for composing verses of this kind. Further, a verse in the kuṇḍalitanāgabandha pattern invariably has to be composed in a metre that has 21 syllables in each line. That the metre itself, quite apart from the pattern selected, poses extra constraints on the poet, has also not been analysed adequately. In this example, the distribution of short and long syllables in each line is as follows (U represents a short syllable and _ represents a long one): UUUU_U_UUU_UU_UU_U_U_. The coiled serpent pattern requires, apart from similarity between other pairs of letters, that the 14th letter of the first line and the 20th letter of the second line be the same. However, from the distribution of short and long syllables in this metre, it can be seen that the 14th syllable is long while the 20th syllable is short. The poet is therefore forced to use a conjunct consonant as the 15th letter of the first line so that, in accordance with metrical rules, the preceding syllable – in spite of being short to match the 20th syllable of the second line – is counted as long, thus simultaneously satisfying constraints posed by the pattern as well as metre.

With respect to the Sanskrit portions of this book, several mistakes can be observed. For example, in the verse cited above, the 13th, 11th and 9th letters of the first, third and fourth lines have been printed as ṇā (which is a long syllable), ya (a short syllable) and kṣa (a conjoint consonant that renders the previous syllable long) respectively. The contingencies of the metre, however, mean that such a representation of short and long syllables is not possible. The absence of diacritical marks makes it difficult to read Sanskrit words transliterated into Roman script. For instance, ‘Anyakara Chitram’ could be read as either anyākaracitram or anyākāracitram, meaning either ‘pictorial poetry from other sources’ or ‘pictorial poetry delineating other patterns’.

Notwithstanding the above, this is a book that merits a place in the personal collection of any Sanskrit enthusiast. Its strength lies in the sheer amount of information that it provides on the topic of citrakāvya. Apart from well-known sources such as the Pādukāsahasram, Ṥiśupālavadham, Ṥarasvatīkaṇṭhābharaṇam or Citrakāvyakautukam, the author has also managed to draw examples from less-known and difficult-to-procure sources such as the Vidagdhamukhamaṇḍanam, Citraprapañca, Kapphiṇābhyudaya and Vīrajinastava. That the octogenarian author learnt Sanskrit in order to delve deep into one of the most difficult and least explored aspects of its literature is as much a proof of the greatness of this language that can provide such inspiration as of the author’s passion.

Dr Shankar Rajaraman is an accomplished Sanskrit poet and an aṣṭāvadhānī who can compose citrabandhas at the drop of a hat.  His latest book, Devīdānaviyam, a citrakāvya (from which the illustrations  above have been taken), was published in January by Samskrita Bharati.

 
[1] For a definition of citrakāvya, rf. Kāvyaprakāśa 1.4: ‘śabdacitraṃ vācyacitram avyaṅgyaṃ tvavaraṃ smṛtam’ – ‘sound-based citrakāvya and meaning-based citrakāvya are said to be an inferior sort of poetry without any implied meaning’.  See also the explanation that follows: ‘citramiti guṇālaṅkārayuktam. Avyaṅgyamiti sphuṭapratīyamānārtharahitam.’  – ‘citrakāvya is poetry endowed with attributes like mādhurya (sweetness) etc and figures of sound and sense such as alliteration and simile, but bereft of any conspicuous suggested meaning.’ 
[2] Venkatachala Shastry in his Kannaḍa Citrakāvya wonders if this refers to the moves of a camel (the camel is the Indian equivalent of the bishop) in chess.  According to the Kāvyālaṇkāra of Rudraṭa, in a rathapada verse the second and fourth lines are palindromes, ie, read the same forwards and backwards. In other words, it refers to the moves of a chess piece that can traverse both forwards and backwards horizontally, vertically or obliquely, but not all three. The minister (queen) may traverse both forwards and backwards and in all directions, so it cannot be the moves of a minister. The elephant (rook) may traverse both forwards and backwards horizontally and vertically (but not obliquely) – and in any case there is already a gajapada – so this does not refer to the moves of the elephant either. It is the camel alone that has the freedom to traverse forwards and backwards in only one direction, ie, obliquely. I therefore feel this comes closest to the moves made by the camel on the chess board. It may be that it is called ratha (chariot) rather than uṣṭra (camel) because traditionally the caturaṅgasainya (‘four-limbed army’; caturaṅga can also refer to chess) is composed of elephants, chariots, horses and foot soldiers – but no camels. Since elephants, horses (the horse is the knight) and foot soldiers (the pawns) are already represented on the chess board, the remaining piece – leaving aside the king and minister – which we now call the camel should logically be a chariot. 

World Sanskrit Book Fair

From 7th to 10th January, Bangalore will host the world’s first ever book fair dedicated solely to Samskrit.  With over 100 exhibitors from India and abroad and an  thousands of participants, the event is set to give both the language and its literature a huge boost.  The book fair’s objective is to create a market for Samskrit publications, both classic works and contemporary writing, and to help popularise the language.

Organised by several national bodies, including Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan, the National Manuscript Mission, the Karnataka state government and Samskrita Bharati, the book fair has been organised on a grand scale.  Delegates from universities and institutes around the world will convene in Bangalore for the fair and for a Sanskrit conference that is being held at the same time.

The fair will see the release of over 500 new publications in Sanskrit and visitors will also be able to browse and buy the books of the 80 odd publishers exhibiting at the fair, including a dedicated children’s section. Every visitor is entitled to a free second hand book.

Exhibits include an exposition of the śalāka-parīkṣa, the traditional method of examination using a needle, an introduction to India’s manuscript wealth and a Samskrit market.  The fair will also offer performances of Samskrit dramas, concerts and dance programmes.

For more details about the fair visit www.samskritbookfair.org.

 

Searching for Sita – An Excerpt

Samhita Arni was interviewed a couple of months ago here.  An excerpt from her novella, Searching for Sita, was published in Caravan in September.

To read it, click on the link: searching for sita excerpt

A Buddhist Sanskrit Play

Sanskrit plays tend to be largely happy affairs.  The darker strains of a story are bleached out and any incidental unhappiness that occurs in the course of the drama is always set right in the end.  Even by these sunny standards, though, the Lokānanda of Candragomin, a rare Buddhist drama, stands out for its bright optimism.

Almost without exception, everyone in this play is good.  The baddies – a rakṣasa who demands the flesh of the hero and a Brahman who takes the crest-jewel that forms a part of his head – turn out to be acting out of concern for others.  The story of Prince Maṇicuḍa, one of the Buddha’s incarnations, which the play tells doesn’t need much whitewashing but Candragomin nevertheless edits out the nastiness of King Duṣprasaha (literally ‘insufferable’) and gives Maricī, the sage who takes the hero’s wife and son away from him, a selfless reason for doing so.  Even the viduṣaka (jester) Gautama unusually thinks more about others than what’s for lunch, although he still plays the fool.

Standing on the peak of this high moral mountain is Prince Maṇicuḍa.  So named for the inbuilt crest (cuḍa) jewel (maṇi) he was born with which acts as a physical extension of his own benevolent self, dishing out healing rays as he dispenses compassion, the prince is at times hard to stomach.  At one point, he explains to his long-suffering wife – he has by this stage gladly given her to Maricī – whom he has just saved from the clutches of some would-be abductors that he must of course send her straight back to the sage: were he to reclaim something he had already given away it would be “like a dog that/ in full public view/ slurps up its own vomit”.  He turns down Indra’s offer of a place in svarga (heaven) upon hearing that there will be no supplicants there and only ever experiences real happiness when a huge demand is sought of him, a demand he can only fulfil by ultimate self-sacrifice.

This eagerness to sacrifice himself results in two gruesome acts of violence upon the king’s body, both of which seem to be enacted on stage making this one of the bloodier Sanskrit plays, rather ironically.  In the first, the king slices off his own flesh for the hungry rakṣasa and is then partially eaten alive.  In the second, he rips off the top half of his own head for the Brahman who has come in search of his crest-jewel, and in doing so dies.  In both instances, divine intervention very quickly restores him.

Upon closer inspection, though, things are not so clear cut. It is almost as if Candragomin is here preaching to two different audiences: to the first he presents the drama with its loudspeaker message; to the second he offers a more subtle exploration of the difficulties involved in the renunciation that Buddhism espouses.  We are told that Maṇicuḍa wants to become a Buddhist monk at the beginning of the play, while his parents are desperate that he marry, rule and produce an heir.  In the end he does marry, but only out of pity for his future wife’s torment – she is already in love with him – and at the behest of others who urge him to do his duty (to his family).  It is the forest, far beyond all defilement, and the life of an ascetic, free from all human attachment, and ultimately enlightenment, for which he aims.  Nevertheless, when he tries to revive the fainted Padmāvatī, he doesn’t know whether to feel joy or sorrow; he is not yet free from emotion and the beauty and purity of this woman can still stir him.  Once married, it only gets worse.  He continues to ensure all his acts are in keeping with righteousness and to remind himself that attachment is to be spurned, but he is torn when his son is leaving and by giving away his crest jewel he indirectly causes his son’s death. To help one person is to hurt another.   To do the right thing causes suffering.

Like many Buddhist texts, this play has been preserved only thanks to an Indian pundit and Buddhist monk who translated it into Tibetan in Kathmandu 650 years ago.  Only seven verses survive in the original Sanskrit; the rest must be pieced together from various Tibetan texts, not all of which agree.  As a result of the difficulties in establishing the original text, the translator, Michael Hahn, decided against including the Sanskrit so we just have the English.  Professor Hahn, who is Professor of Indology and Tibetology at the Philipps-University of Marburg, has elsewhere produced a critical version of the text for the specialist scholar.  In this book, though, which is aimed at the generalist, knotty textual issues are not raised, allowing the reader to immerse himself in the play.  English approximations replace Sanskrit terms – a vidyādhārī is a “heavenly fairy” – and explanatory details are added to poetic, but for the unitiated mysterious, names, thus: “the bearer of treasures, the earth”.  The book is as beautifully produced as it is easy to read, with colour details on several pages and a richly reproduced painting.

The playwright, a well-known 5th century AD Buddhist teacher and author of a grammar, may irritate some readers with his abundance of self-praise – especially the peculiar closing verse of each act, not found elsewhere in Sanskrit drama – but he has a good imagination and some striking pen-pictures which come out well despite the complex transmission.

Thus Maṇicuḍa describes their flight with the vidyādhārī up to heaven on their way to Padmāvatī’s ashram:

The disk of the sun appears to plunge from the sky

and hurls itself down upon our heads.

The earth with all its mountains sinks from view;

the dark blue tamāla forests are skirted

by rows of clouds scattered and dispersed.

Act 2, 29

In the introduction Professor Hahn notes just how much we owe to Buddhist Sanskrit literature.  Many texts exist either fragmentally or not at all in the original and must be reconstructed from Tibetan or Chinese translations.  This is the first time that the Lokānanda has been translated into English.  Hopefully more of this literature, which forms an important part of the Sanskrit corpus, can be reconstructed and published.

To see the full details of this book, click here.

Joy for the World is published by Dharma Publishing as part of their Tibetan Translation Series.  For more details or to order a copy, please click here.

 


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