Help Find Puranas in Translation

P.Magnone at P.Magnone at
Thu May 11 10:16:50 UTC 1995

Dear Prof. Beach,

I must say I am rather perplexed about the general attitude which is
reflected in your post. Your students seem to find fault with 1) the
idea of the svadharma of the warrior and with 2) the caste system, on
the basis, however, of some sort of uncritical feeling of cultural
self-righteousness, as they are unwilling to cope with 3) the
metaphysics of the guNas etc. and 4) the ethics of renouncement in
which lies the foundation thereof. If metaphysics are "dry" and ethics
are "unappealing", with what else are we left to judge whether the
advocacy of war is misconceived or the endorsement of the caste system
is "stolid"? If pacifism and egalitarism are to be affirmed with more
cogency than supine acquiescence in the received values, we must indeed
be able to critically come to grip with other cultural models supporting
different views.

I wouldn't make any efforts to make the classical hindu Weltanschauung
more palatable by any helplessly awkward attempts at showing that it is
not so extravagant after all. For the advocacy of war is there, and has
to be understood in its own right, although we may well read allegory
into it for our own edification. One should carefully discriminate about
the original purport of any cultural construct and its so called
"modernity" or "fortune", which usually means putting it to some other
use which wasn't originally intended. The construct may be well capable
of it, and we are certainly justified in making the most of it for the
sake of our development, but should contextually be aware that this
actually means "exploiting", as distinct from understanding, the
construct. Of course, this "exploitation" is the very essence of Bildung
-- but we cannot build on what we do not understand. So in any case a
correct appraisal of the original purport, insofar as we can ascertain
it, must come first.

Even for the doctrine of the castes, paralleling the degenerate jaati
system, which is nowhere acknowledged in the Giitaa, with racism in the
States will not shed any light on the original doctrine of the four (not
thousands) varNas issuing from the body of the primordial Male, which is
indeed endorsed in the Giitaa.

In any case, for myself I can hardly think of any classical text that
would be more appealing to an open-minded Westerner than the Bhagavad
Giitaa. In my opinion, what needs to be changed is your students'
apparently shallow, prejudiced and unsympathizing approach to an alien
culture, failing which they will not fare any better with the epics or
the PuraaNas, except that they content themselves with the simple
pleasure of the colourful narratives. Or the narratives may be
interpreted; but again, although Zimmer is certainly very inspiring, I
would beware of relying solely on his presentations, as he is explicitly
bent on squeezing out of the myths themselves whatever sense can be
contrived by the wonder-stricken "dilettante". For, in his own words, "our
primary task is to learn, not so much what they are said to have said,
as how to approach them, evoke fresh speech from them, and understand
that speech". A certainly exalting, but dangerous enterprise, if not
guided by constant critical historical and philological alertness.

This said, if you nevertheless want to tackle the PuraaNas, I would
recommend the ViSNu rather than the Matsya, as being probably the least
disappointing to the western layman in terms both of structure and of
contents in the whole range of PuraaNas. A very enjoyable translation by
H. H. Wilson is available in beautiful old-fashioned English, with
copious notes.

       Paolo Magnone
       Catholic University of Milan
       p.magnone at

On 8-May-95 Edward Beach wrote:

 > Currently we are using the _Bhagavad Gita_, but although this is a
 > wonderful text of central importance for understanding Hinduism, some
 > of us find it rough going to get our rather provincial students to
 > take the Gita seriously.  In particular, we find that they are put
 > off by (1) the apparent advocacy of war in the name of duty against
 > one's own kin; (2) the stolid endorsement of the caste system; (3)
 > dry metaphysical passages dealing with the gunas and so on; and (4)
 > an unappealing (to them) insistance on the importance of transcending
 > pleasures and desires.  Of course we do our best to combat these
 > objections, by pointing out (1) that the advocacy of "war" is best
 > understood on an allegorical level;  (2) that the now illegal caste
 > system parallels continuing racism in the United States; (3) that the
 > doctrine of the gunas has indeed a certain aptness; and (4) that even
 > Western thinkers, such as Luther and Kant, worried about the validity
 > of pursuing virtue for the sake of personal benefit.  Nevertheless,
 > although we do point all these things out to our students, we often
 > find that we are knocking our heads against the wall with a very
 > unreceptive audience.  In light of these difficulties, I have
 > suggested to my colleagues that perhaps it would be feasible to use a
 > different text as a optional supplement or alternate.  Classical
 > Hinduism, after all, has such a rich literature, with many important
 > and popular myths and legends, that one should in principle be able
 > to find other appropriate readings for the World Cultures class.  The
 > stories of the Mahabharata and Ramayana spring immediately to mind,
 > but the trouble there is that the original texts are so very long,
 > while our mandate is to use original text rather than "retellings" at
 > second or third hand.  The Upanishads, on the other hand, are
 > generally too esoteric and philosophical.  A third alternative might
 > be to use a collection of excerpts from religious myths in the
 > puranas, especially those illustrating such important motifs as the
 > meaning of maya, karma and rebirth, the transpersonal identity of
 > the Brahman-Atman, the transcendence of desires, the meaning of
 > moksha, etc., etc.  One set of myths that I personally love are those
 > recounted in the first fifty-odd pages of Heinrich Zimmer's _Myths
 > and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization_, especially those
 > involving the rishi Narada when, at the behest of Vishnu, he assumed
 > the form of Princess Sushila in order to learn the secret of maya; or
 > concerning Markandeya, wandering through the cosmic body of the
 > sleeping Vishnu.  Zimmer's notes cite the Matsya Purana as his source
 > for both these myths, but I haven't been able to locate a manageably
 > brief translation of excerpts from this work.  Could it be that these
 > marvellous stories have been collected somewhere under a different
 > title?  Is it even possible (hoping beyond hope) that such an edition
 > would still be in print?  Any suggestions or advice about locating an
 > appropriate text would be much appreciated.  Thanks in advance for
 > your kind assistance.



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