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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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.