I was in Oxford for a conference last weekend, and that offered me an opportunity to go visit for the very first time, the infamous Blackwell Bookshop on Broad Street—a great treat for me, as those who know how obsessive-compulsive I can get over book collecting would understand. One of the things I immediately noticed, besides the enormous gratuitously over-stocked Classics section in which I found many wonderful (if oft overpriced) academic books and textual editions, was a small section encompassing a shelf or two dedicated to Sanskrit and Indological studies, with a small but choice row of bright blue volumes from the Clay Sanskrit Library.
In Classics, since 1911 we’ve been long been treated to—perhaps necessarily spoiled by—the James Loeb founded and Harvard University Press published Loeb Classical Library, whose mission is to present translations along with facing Greek or Latin texts of the bulk of Classical Literature, usable by the layman, but also accountable to the highest standards of contemporary scholarship. The Clay Sanskrit Library is a relatively new project of a similar nature.
The corpus of literature in Classical Sanskrit is massive. The Mahābhārata (महाभारत) epic alone at around 1.8 million words in total is often cited as being roughly ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, and that doesn’t even include (comparatively!) shorter Rāmāyaṇa (रामायण) epic, which is about a fourth of the size of the former. This doesn’t count the bulk of drama, lyric poetry, philosophical and didactic literature, the Buddhist canon, historical and political literature, and so forth. Although some Sanskrit literature has made its way west and made a profound mark on European literature—Sir William Jones’ 1789 translation of The Recognition of Śakuntalā (Sanskrit Abhijñānaśākuntalam/अभिज्ञानशाकुन्तलम्) was immensely influential on Goethe, for instance—the fraction of Sanskrit literature that has been made available in some easily accessible form to an English speaking is comparatively quite small, none of it in a broadly systematic programme of publication, and that what does exist are mostly translations that were made in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
To fill in that gap, in the 1990s John Clay began work to found the Clay Sanskrit Library, and in 2005 the first volumes began appearing. In many ways, the Loeb series appears a source of inspiration for it; each volume is roughly the same shape and size (like James Loeb’s “handy books of a size that would fit in a gentleman’s pocket.”) and bear a handsomely golden embossed क्ले /klē/ in the Devanāgarī script which is used to write the language, that is reminiscent of the LCL monogram on the covers of the Loeb series. And like the Loeb the series is designed with the needs of the amateur in mind; the Sanskrit text is presented in transliteration, and presented with analyses of word boundaries from euphonic combination (also known assandhi/संधि, much like crasis in Greek e.g. ὁ ἀνήρ occasionally contracting with its article to ὠνήρ, but much more regularly and consistently applied) and full grammatical analyses of one of the most ubiquitous features of Classical Sanskrit, namely its very productive system of nominal compounding. Purists can say what they will about the volumes not printing the text in the original script as one might find it printed in a diplomatic textual edition, but the key point here is accessibility: the point of literature is to be read and shared, and not to be locked up and hoarded.
Up until last weekend, although I have occasionally come across a Clay volume in a used bookshop, I have not before found a retail bookshop that regularly kept books from the series in stock, and I had to purchase the ones in my collection from sources like Amazon or the publisher, New York University Press. Kudos to Blackwell for first off maintaining a Sanskrit section in general, even if ever so small, and second for stocking these lovely volumes, even if only a handful. Though the series is new, it is my hope that it will soon become more widely known and more widely read. Of course one can’t expect it to revolutionize the study of Sanskrit literature in itself, it fills that gap which makes the texts more easily accessible to lay readership and academics outside of Indology alike, and that in itself is a very positive thing. All that said now, I think I may try to persuade Heffers to stock some Clay volumes. We can’t have Oxford having all the fun…