The Viṣṇu Purāṇa translated: a tryst with pure Sanskrit musicality

30th June 2021

It’s the first complete English translation since 1840. It’s uncharacteristically unique in blank verse. It was composed originally about 1,500 years ago. And it’s perhaps the most comprehensive dive into the most important themes and narratives that constitute the Hindu imagination. Presenting The Viṣṇu Purāṇa, now available in English for the first time in almost 200 years.

And the man behind this landmark achievement is CHL’s very own Associate Professor McComas Taylor. He spoke with us recently on his journey of working this significant text…

First of all, congratulations on this achievement! Can you tell us a bit about your journey with the translation of The Viṣṇu Purāṇa? What was the genesis of this effort?

A colleague at a research institute in Baroda, India contacted me to ask if I was interested in translating a new edition of The Vayu Purāṇa—a wonderful text, but very long. In discussions, it then emerged that they were also incidentally looking at translating The Viṣṇu Purāṇa, which is 5,600 verses long. It might sound like it, but in the world of Sanskrit, that’s a very short text. People who tackle longer texts in Sanskrit usually don’t survive long enough to complete the task at hand.

So, I agreed to this relatively short assignment, and on one full moon night, I started work on the book—I thought it would be good to start on a night that was auspicious for Lord Vishnu. And it took me all of six years, which in the Sanskrit realm, is short and sweet.

This is the first complete English translation since HH Wilson's volumes of 1840. Why hasn’t there been an English translation for such a long time?

This text has been completely overshadowed by The Bhagavata Purāṇa, which is like the Bible for devotees of Lord Krishna the world over. In many ways, The Viṣṇu Purāṇa is a more satisfying experience, as it tells a lot of the myths and legends of the Hindu tradition simply. It’s easy to understand, while The Bhagavata Purāṇa is courtlier in its tone and more difficult to understand. So, I’m hoping this will give The Viṣṇu Purāṇa more of the attention it deserves. The last translation was done from a Victorian mindset, very chaste and pious, whereas it needs to be more contemporary and boldly told.

You mentioned that most of the translation is blank verse. What does this mean?

Blank verse is verse that is sonically pleasant and rhythmic but doesn’t necessarily rhyme; nearly all of Sanskrit literature is written in verse, but ironically this is almost the first translation of a Sanskrit literary verse into verse; Sanskrit texts usually get translated into prose, which loses the musicality and sonic properties of the original. Honestly, 80 per cent of The Viṣṇu Purāṇa should be sung. So I did this translation in blank verse to honour its musicality and stay true to its original essence. It’s my attempt to honour the sonic nature of the śloka (chief verse form of Sanskrit epics) metre, in which most of the original verses were composed.

What did you enjoy most about this translation effort?

I think it was the discovery of the unity of this text—it functions as a history of everything and a guide to life at the same time. Stepping back, I realised how neatly everything ties together. It starts with the creation of the universe, talks about lineages, the advent of Lord Krishna, and in all of that, it shapes up as a guide to a virtuous life, enlisting the dos and don’ts of a Brahminical orthodox life, and then ultimately ends with the destruction of the world. So from creation to destruction, it’s very holistic and puts everything into perspective. There are also beautiful descriptions of autumn in the forest, lovely descriptions of Lord Krishna dancing with the cow-herding women in the moonlight, in the forest in autumn.

What did you find most challenging about this project?

The most challenging bits were the genealogical sections, which is not necessarily edifying for the reader and very tedious to remember and make sense of. But at the end of it all, when you’ve cracked it, you feel like you’re cleansed of your sins.

What are the plans with regards to this translated publication?

I would like to make a bilingual edition with Sanskrit and English on facing pages. I’d love to make an audio book too, given that it’s in blank verse and should be experienced in the true sense with all its musicality and rhythm. I would select the most interesting chapters and give people access to listen to them as they are meant to be heard. I’m hoping lay readers will enjoy this book, as will people teaching courses in Hindu or religious studies, because it’s a complete treasure trove of Hindu myths and legends.

What are your future plans beyond The Viṣṇu Purāṇa?

I’ve recently collaborated with a group of scholars interested in Sanskrit narrative, or how Sanskrit texts work. I’ve worked with Dr Raj Balkaran on a book focused on Sanskrit epics and texts, titled Visions and Revisions in Sanskrit Narrative. The book has 18 chapters and will hopefully be published in 2022. It brings together chapters by leading and emerging scholars in Sanskrit narrative studies. Raj is at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies in Toronto, Canada, and is also the Founder of the online School of Indian Wisdom.

And then of course, there’s the World Sanskrit Conference, which brings together 1,000 Sanskrit scholars globally. The event was supposed to be held in January 2021 and then January 2022 instead of January 2020, thanks to COVID-19. But now it has been pushed out further to 2023. When it happens, it will be a big celebration of Sanskrit and a fabulous congregation of Sanskrit scholars and enthusiasts from across the globe.

Is there anything you’d like to add about your work with The Viṣṇu Purāṇa?

The great news is that it is open access and can be downloaded free from the publisher's website. As a readily accessible source for many important and memorable narratives of the Hindu tradition, I'm sure you will enjoy it. Thanks to all those kind folk, too numerous to name, who have offered support and encouragement over the past six years.

Thank you, Associate Professor McComas Taylor, for sharing this unique text with the world.

Download The Viṣṇu Purāṇa here and tell us what you think—we would love to hear your reviews and thoughts.

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