Arts and Culture

MURTY LIBRARY | Computer scientist brings millennia-old Indian literature to new audience

A screenshot of the Murty Classical Library of India website.

A screenshot of the Murty Classical Library of India website.

Philippine bookstores are filled with foreign tomes, while Filipino students familiarize themselves with Shakespeare and Socrates. Some classes require them to pore through the likes of Noli Me Tangere and Ibong Adarna, but for a large part of their education, they study ideas written down by Westerners.

In India, a computer scientist is trying to reverse his generation’s similar experience.

Rohan Narayana Murty established the Murty Classical Library of India in 2010 to reintroduce classical Indian texts to local readers, and showcase them to the world. Through an endowment to the Harvard University Press, he is hoping to turn around what he believes is an impending “tsunami of loss.”

“We on the Indian subcontinent are on the verge of a tsunami of loss, of 4,000 to 5,000 years of history and culture. And I think that should be deeply, deeply troubling,” Murty said during a panel discussion on Wednesday, October 14, at the Forbes Global CEO Conference 2015 at the Solaire Grand Ballroom in Parañaque City.

When he was still a PhD student in Harvard, he stumbled upon the philosophy department and started studying it alongside computer science. It was here that he came to reflect on his childhood, reading the likes of James Joyce and Walt Whitman.

“O Captain! My Captain!” he quoted, noting that the poem inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s death was a reference to the American Civil War.

“Imagine little kids sitting in Bangalore, India. We don’t know who Abraham Lincoln is, much less what a civil war was, and yet, we were reading all these literature, we were reading all of this poetry, which is essentially becoming the foundation for our culture… and some sense, our education, and these contexts are entirely foreign,” Murty recalled.

“We didn’t understand any of it, and yet, we accepted it,” he added.

As he made European friends in graduate school, he noticed that they had a strong attachment to Greek and Latin, even though these languages and cultures were from the ancient times.

The reason why these two survived “in the popular imagination of western civilization” was because works published in these languages had been translated into English, Murty said.

From this perspective, he realized that he himself knew little or nothing of where he came from.

“I don’t know the intellectual history of that part of the world where I come from. Which is quite rich, it’s between 4,000 to 5,000 years old depending on who you ask,” Murty said. He knew nothing of the Indian poetry or the literature from these millennia.

This moved him to create the Murty Classical Library of India, whose mission is to translate ancient Indian literature in 14 languages to English.

According to its website,, many of the Bangla, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Pali, Panjabi, Persian, Sanskrit, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu texts are being translated into English for the first time.

The books appear in such a way that the “original Indic text, in the appropriate script” faces its “modern English translation on the opposite page.”

There is also an accompanying “introduction, explanatory commentary, and textual notes” so that they become “the most authoritative and accessible” volumes available.

Harvard University Press (HUP) is publishing these books.

According to Forbes, the first books were released in January this year.

These include “poems by Buddhist nuns and writings of the blind Hindi poet, Surdas, in addition to the first volume of the history of the Indian Mughal emperor Akbar,” Forbes says. “HUP will publish 500 books over the next 100 years.”

Forbes adds that the Indian languages these writings are in “span the entire region from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east, Nepal in the north and Sri Lanka in the south.”

“We hope (the library) survives as long as Harvard survives, which I hope is another 100 years,” Murty said.

A screenshot of the Murty Classical Library of India website.

A screenshot of the Murty Classical Library of India website.

Preserving heritage amid progress
As the Indian economy grows, he said, it was vital for the country to have a strong sense of rootedness, just like in the West. Unfortunately, it was precisely this that posed the biggest challenge when he first embarked on the project.

It took him about four years—while he was doing his PhD—to find scholars to translate the literature. He began his search in India, but like him, many people of his generation might know their mother tongue, but had no idea about its classical form.

“The threat posed to knowledge, as fewer and fewer people today can gain access to the great works of literature and thought of their classical past, is MCLI’s reason for being,” wrote Murty Classical Library of India general editor Professor Sheldon Pollock on its website. He holds a PhD in Sanskrit and Indian Studies.

Pollock concluded his essay by inviting “readers of all generations, nationalities, languages, and literary persuasions to enter the expansive, beautiful, and often startling world of the Indic classics.”

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