“Blink, and there he was…”

This school year, I’ve been taking Persian to fulfill my college’s language requirement, and (unsurprisingly) it’s been my favorite class all year! I’m working on a longer post on the connections I’ve made and some of the mini-revelations I’ve had while learning Persian, but for now I just want to share some verses of Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) rendered as a qawwali by the legendary brothers, Fareed Ayaz & Abu Muhammad (who have been featured on this blog before). To my surprise, with just a few months of learning Persian I can recognize quite a few words and make sense of some of the sentences, even though they were composed around eight centuries ago! The video description informed me that “Ayyaar” means “vagabond” in Persian, and love is often described in this idiom in Persian Sufi poetry.

Here are a few verses with translation (please correct me if I made any mistakes). Enjoy!

هر لحظه به شكلي بت عيار بر آمد, دل برد و نهان شد
هر دم به لباس دگر آن يار بر آمد , گه پير و جوان شد

Har lehza ba shakal-aan but-e-ayyaar bar-aamad, dil burd-o-nihaan shud
Har dam ba libaas-e digar-aan yaar bar-aamad, geh peer-o-javaan shud

Blink, and there he was in a different form – that sly Beloved! He stole the hearts of the people, and hid from view.
Every time he came out in a different garb. Sometimes he was young, and sometimes he was old.

خود کوزہ و خود کوزہ گر و خود گلِ کوزہ, خود رندِ سبو کش
خود بر سرِ آں کوزہ خریدار برآمد, بشکست رواں شد

Khud kuza-o, khud kuzagar-o khud gil-e-kuza, khud rind-e-subu kash
Khud bar sar-e-aan kuza kharidaar bar-aamad, ba shikast o ravaan shud

He is the wine flask, he is its maker, and he is the clay used to make it.
He was the drunk who bought that flask. He himself drained it, broke it, and moved on.


“The Grammar of God”, or why translation is so complex.

Imagine growing up with a book that was written in a certain language; hearing it recited and sung at special events, constantly discussing it in school and at dinner with your family, going over every minute grammatical detail, being exposed to commentaries from throughout history, and learning to become accustomed to its contradictions and ambiguities. Imagine that, one day, you come across that text’s English translation one day. You know that this book is popular throughout the world, and its translations are much more widely circulated than the original. You open up the English translation, and to your shock, from the very first verse it is almost unrecognizable.

Now, imagine if this book was the Bible.

Aviya Kushner, a writer from a small Jewish town near New York City, grew up reading the Bible in its original Hebrew. It wasn’t until graduate school that she came face-to-face with the Bible’s English translations, and to her surprise, some parts seemed like completely different texts when compared to the Hebrew. Her book The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible is more than just an engaging look into the way Jews have understood the Old Testament throughout history; it provides some incredible insights into the complex phenomenon that is translation.

Kushner’s book is part memoir, part scholarly analysis. I really appreciated her informal tone, which kept me interested even during long-winded descriptions of Hebrew grammar or the biography of a certain Jewish translator of the Bible. She describes her childhood and the way she grew up with the Bible in humorous, touching recollections, and then transitions effortlessly into a discussion of how the lack of punctuation in Hebrew compared to the explicit and varied punctuation of English dramatically affects one’s understanding of the first few verses of Genesis.

Without giving too much away, I want to highlight a couple of my favorite parts of this book. Firstly, Kushner’s recollection of the way in which she grew up reading the Bible:

“While it is possible to read the Hebrew Bible with just the text–what is called the pshat, literally “the simple or the plain”–that is not how I usually read it, and that is not how it is generally taught in yeshiva classrooms. In school, as a child, I read the Torah from books called mikraot gedolot–“great scriptures,” also called the Rabbinic Bible in English–volumes in which each page is crammed with commentary surrounding the text of the Bible in different languages, scripts, and fonts. To the side sat the words of Onkelos, a Roman convert to Judaism, whose great first-century translation into Aramaic can be read as a commentary. Beneath the text of the Bible lay Rashi’s commentary, expressing his thoughts in his special medieval script…

Around Rashi lay other commentators, rabbis chiming in from their perches in Spain, France, Germany, the Arab world, and Israel, spanning at least twelve centuries. Everything was up for discussion, and from my earliest memory I was taught to demand a second opinion, and a third, and a fourth, to cross borders of time and language in order to hear those multiple voices. The Hebrew text I grew up with is beautifully unruly, often ambiguous, multiple in meaning, and hard to pin down; many of the English translations are, above all, certain.”

Growing up encountering a sacred text surrounded by differing commentaries is really appealing to me–I’m kind of jealous of Kushner! In my personal view, when it comes to religion and religious scriptures in particular, everything really should be “up for discussion”, and the whole structure of mikraot gedolot is a concrete realization of this idea. I’ve come across a couple websites and books that displayed the verses of the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras in a similar fashion, but I wish this convention could become more popular for all religious texts.

Kushner devotes plenty of pages to talking about the concrete implications that translation has for the meaning of the Bible, and the ways in which translation can be used to aid larger causes. One of the most chilling examples is that of slavery. During the period of slavery in America, Biblical passages were often cited in defense of slavery, presenting it as a fulfillment of God’s curse towards the descendants of Cain or, at the very least, as tolerated by God. However, the verses in the Bible that describe the slavery endured by the Jews in Egypt present a very different view of slavery, one that is not necessarily present in some English translations:

“In Hebrew, the beginning of slavery involves animalistic imagery that sears the soul; in English, this is toned way down, made much less disturbing, less cruel and visceral. Slavery in Egypt starts nice and easy in the King James translation, with a pleasant-sounding baby boom: “and the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them,” Exodus 1:7 reads. But in Hebrew, the passage is more ominous. The verb vayishretzu, which the King James Bible translates as “multiplied,” is actually the far more unsettling “they multiplied like little animals.” Even-Shoshan explains that the word sheretz refers to all small creatures who reproduce quickly and have numerous descendants, such as scorpions, frogs, and mice.”

For someone who has never read the Bible and knows even less about Judaism, I felt like The Grammar of God got me a little more up to speed–as much as any single book could. It really was a fascinating look at a text that is constantly relevant in today’s society, and I have gained a new appreciation towards the act of translation. Of course, we can’t read every work of world literature in its original language, and translation serves a valuable purpose in exposing us to perspectives we may never encounter otherwise. However, there is always another side to translation; one that makes me a little apprehensive. I think Kushner says it best:

“There is no perfect translation, because there is no way to bring a text fully from one culture to another, one language to another, one person to another–but every translation attempts to keep a book alive… We should read translations to know how those living next door understand the books we read in the privacy of our own home. And we should also always acknowledge that we are reading a translation–not the original text–and that there is another voice in the room, another mind at work, as we read.”

(image source 1, 2)

Mapping connections in the Indo-European language family

My mother tongue, Telugu, is a Dravidian language, related to just a few other South Indian languages like Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, and Tulu, but I think the linguistic connections in the Indo-European language family are incredible–especially since they span such a wide geographical area, from Bangladesh to Russia to Spain. I’ve always wanted to learn more about the Proto-Indo-European people; Karen Armstrong’s books Fields of Blood and The Great Transformation give brief overviews of Proto-Indo-European religion and the shared origins of the Vedic religion and Zoroastrianism, but I haven’t read much about the evolution of the Indo-European languages.

I’m all about neat little linguistic diagrams, so here are a few.

“The Indo-European language family includes most of the languages of Europe as well as many languages in Asia. There is a long research tradition that has shown, though careful historical comparison, that languages spanning a huge linguistic and geographical range, from French to Greek to Russian to Hindi to Persian, are all related to each other and sprung from a common source, Proto-Indo-European. One of the techniques for studying the relationship of the different languages to each other is to look at the similarities between individual words and work out the sound changes that led from one language to the next.


This diagram, submitted to Reddit by user IronChestplate1, shows the word for two in various Indo-European languages. (The “proto” versions, marked with an asterisk, are hypothesized forms, built by working backward from historical evidence.) The languages cluster around certain common features, but the words are all strikingly similar, especially when you consider the words for two in languages outside the Indo-European family: iki (Turkish), èjì (Yoruba), ni (Japanese), kaksi (Finnish) edit: rendu (Telugu), etc. There are many possible forms two could take, but in this particular group of languages it is extremely limited. What are the chances of that happening by accident? Once you see it laid out like this, it doesn’t take much to put *dwóh and *dwóh together.” (source)

Here’s another diagram showing the word for mother:



The poetry of the Shiva Tandava Stotram

How many various dances of Shiva are known to His worshipers I cannot say. No doubt the root idea behind all of these dances is more or less one and the same, the manifestation of primal rhythmic energy. Whatever the origins of Shiva’s dance, it became in time the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of.

— Ananda Coomaraswamy, The Dance of Shiva

One of the most famous Hindu images is that of Nataraja — the god Shiva as Lord of Dance. Shiva’s cosmic dance is said to create the universe, preserve it, and finally destroy it so it can be created once again. The iconography of Nataraja is deeply symbolic, representing the panchakritya (five actions) performed by Shiva: creation, preservation, destruction, illusion, and release.

Personally, I find the image of Nataraja really powerful, and I love that Hinduism expresses God’s powers of creation. preservation, and destruction through dance. Shiva’s dance has inspired Hindu art and literature throughout history, and one of the most beautiful examples is the Shiva Tandava Stotram, a devotional poem about Shiva’s tandava, the dance which brings about the destruction of the universe.

This poem is said to have been recited by Ravana, who, in the Indian epic the Ramayana, was the demon king of Lanka and (despite being a demon) a great devotee of Shiva. Ravana was rather arrogant, and to show off his strength to Shiva, Ravana managed to lift Mount Kailash, the mountain on which Shiva is believed to reside. However, by just pressing his big toe down, Shiva brought Mount Kailash back to the ground, crushing Ravana’s fingers in the process and showing him the futility of his arrogance. To appease Shiva, Ravana sang the following poem, describing Shiva’s awe-inspiring tandava.

I don’t know its actual origins, but nevertheless this is a great example of Hindu devotional poetry, and it’s full of techniques like alliteration and onomatopoeia. It really has to be heard in order to be fully appreciated:

Continue reading “The poetry of the Shiva Tandava Stotram”

Telisi Rama: goats and milkweed and God

In the cheerful, bright song Telisi Rama (in the raga Purnachandrika), Tyagaraja (1767 – 1847) showcases his skill as a vaggeyakara (poet-composer). He quotes various Telugu homonyms to make a point about language and devotion to God. The video above is a rendition of this song by the Malladi brothers.

telisi rAma cintanatO nAmamu sEyavE O manasA

talapu lanni nilipi nimiSamaina tAraka rUpuni nija tatvamulanu

Tyagaraja begins by appealing to one’s mind (O manasa) to “keep thoughts of Rama,” and to “recite his name steadily, even for one minute”. He continues by saying that, having stopped all unnecessary thoughts (talupulanni nilipi) even just for a minute (nimisha maina), one should concentrate on Rama’s attributes and sayings (tattvamulanu).

rAmAyaNa capalakSula pEru kAmAdula pOru vAru vIru
rAmAyaNa brahmamunaku pEru AmAnava jananArtulu dIru

The Telugu word rama can have two meanings: either “woman” or the god Rama. In this (sexist) couplet, Tyagaraja disapproves of those who say rama thinking of women. He says that saying rama while thinking of God will remove the hardships and troubles from one’s life.

arkamanucu jilleDu taru pEru markaTa buddhu leTla dIru
arkuDanucu bhAskaruniki pEru kutarkamanu andhakAramu dIru

Similarly, arka can mean either a poisonous milkweed tree, or another name for Surya, the sun god (technically one would say arkudu if referring to the god). Here, Tyagaraja asks, “When saying arka, if the mind thinks of milkweed, how will one’s monkey-like thoughts go away? / When saying arka, if the mind thinks of the Sun, the darkness of unnecessary thoughts will disappear.”

ajamanucu mESamunaku pEru nija kOrika lElA gIDEru
ajuDani vAgIshavaruniki pEru vijayamu galgunu tyAgarAja nutuni

Finally, the word aja can refer to a male goat, or to the creator god, Brahma (like above, technically one would say ajudu if referring to Brahma). Tyagaraja asks, “If the mind thinks of a goat while saying aja, how will one’s real desires be achieved [meaning moksha/liberation]? / When saying aja, if one thinks of Lord Brahma, they will attain success.”