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A Monumental Effort

Kumkum Roy

By Patrick Olivelle with the ditorial assistance of Suman Olivelle
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005, pp. x 1131, Rs. 1100.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 10 October 2006

The history of the preparation of critical editions of Sanskrit texts has been long and somewhat complicated. Both the potential and the pitfalls of this endeavour have been best exemplified in the attempts to produce critical editions of the Mahâbhârata and the Râmâyana. Olivelle tackles a text that is apparently simpler: it is obviously far shorter than either of the epics. Nonetheless, the task is a heroic one. What we have at hand is a Sanskrit text prepared through the painstaking and meticulous collation of the text from over fifty manuscripts, with variants carefully documented in endnotes, a new annotated translation in English, as well as introductions to both text and translation that will enrich our understanding of what Olivelle aptly characterizes as a controversial but important document (p. 4).   The critical edition is the product of a scrupulous adherence to an apparently simple set of principles—adopting readings that are common to most of the manuscripts while indicating variations, including additional/alternative verses in the translation and the text, preferring difficult readings over simpler variants, and engaging constantly in a dialogue with the multiple strands of the commentarial tradition. In presenting the text, Olivelle also draws attention to its distinctive style—to the dialogic mode that distinguishes it from the earlier Dharmasastras, and the versification that replaces the cryptic sastras of the earlier Sanskritic tradition. What is also interesting is the latent Prakritisms that Olivelle delicately excavates; evident, for instance, in verses where the Prakrit bhoti meaning ‘becomes’, fits the metre better than the Sanskrit bhavati (e.g. p.921). These suggest, as indeed is evident elsewhere, that many of the verses of the text, especially those that have a proverbial tone, were adapted from floating traditions in a variety of languages.   At another level, Olivelle addresses issues that have been debated for several decades. Pioneering scholars such as Buhler and Kane had argued for a composite text, which took shape over centuries. This understanding rested, amongst other things, on the fact that the text proclaimed contradictory positions on a range of issues. Olivelle offers a plausible explanation for these contradictions—suggesting, on the one hand, that they represent the inevitable variations between precept and practice, and that, on the other hand, they are the fruit of a process of anthologizing, whereby traditions, even if divergent, had to be accommodated within the text. This in turn leads ...

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