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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

The Lineage of the Raghus


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To purchase The Lineage of the Raghus

Title: The Lineage of the Raghus
Author: Kalidasa
Genre: Poem
Written: ca. 4th/5th century (Eng. 2023)
Length: 492 pages
Original in: Sanskrit
Availability: The Lineage of the Raghus - US
The Lineage of the Raghus - UK
The Lineage of the Raghus - Canada
The Lineage Of The Raghus - India
La lignée des fils du soleil - France
La stirpe di Raghu - Italia
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Harvard University Press
  • Sanskrit title: रघुवंशम्
  • Translated and edited by Csaba Dezső, Dominic Goodall, and Harunaga Isaacson
  • Previously translated by Gopal Raghynath Nandargikar (The Raghuvamśa of Kālidāsa, 1897); unattributed (Raghu Vamsha, in Works of Kalidasa 1901); P. de Lacy Johnson (The Raghuvança, 1902); M.R.Kale (The Raghuvaṃśa of Kālidāsa, 1922); Kavasseri Narayana Anantapadmanabhan (Raghuvamsam of Kalidasa, 1973); Chintaman Ramchandra Devadhar (Raghuvamśa of Kālidāsa, 1985); and A.N.D.Haksar (Raghuvamsam, 2016)
  • This is a bilingual edition which includes the original Sanskrit text

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine edition with a solid if prosaic translation of a somewhat oddly shaped but lively work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Indian Literature* . (26:5) 9-10/1983 M.K.
J. Royal Asiatic Society** . 7/1929 H.N.Randle

(* review of Gopal Raghynath Nandargikar's translation)
(** review of Louis Renou's French translation, La lignée des fils du soleil)

  From the Reviews:
  • "Of the three Kavyas of Kalidasa -- Meghaduta, Kumarasambhava and Raghuvamsa none has better displayed the peculiar charm of Kalidasa's poetry than the present one. (...) The English translation, though literal, imbibes the spirit of the original." - M.K, Indian Literature

  • "Translations of a mahākāvya naturally provoke the reader to ask what the translator's aim can have been. In the case of a translation like that of Nandargikar the question is easy to answer; he meant to supply a key to every word in the text; a useful object, which he achieved with sufficient success to have earned the gratitude of many of us. (...) But when we read a version which preserves in carefully balanced clauses the antithetic style of the original, and which plainly has in view the aim of conveying in a modern language something of Kālidāsa's mastery of form, we are tempted to ask whether it is possible to convey enough of the spirit of the original to make translation of this character worth while. (...) The reader therefore who looks for epic breadth in the poem will be disappointed. (...) This is what provokes the question what the translator's aim can have been. He has to ignore effects duo to alliteration, assonance and play on words; and, when these are left out, nothing is left, in numerous stanzas, except perhaps an unreal antithesis." - H.N.Randle, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As the translators note in their Introduction, The Lineage of the Raghus is a celebrated example of a particular literary genre, "also referred to in translation as 'epic' but known in Sanskrit as the mahākāvya, 'court poem'" -- though it stands out among other famous examples of the genre because, unlike them, it has: "no single set of protagonists and, hence, no unity of plot".
       The nineteen cantos (chapters) do follow and present 'the lineage of the Raghus', focusing in turn on various kings from that line, beginning with Dilipa. Several kings -- notably Raghu and Rama -- are covered across several chapters, but others are more quickly introduced and dealt with; much of the penultimate chapter is basically just as its title has it, 'A Catalogue of Kings'. (The chapter-titles are those given them by the translators and are not found in the original.)
       The royalty presented here isn't that of known human history, but rather of a mythical time before -- where we find, for example: "Nearly ten thousand years passed with Dasharatha ruling the earth". Nevertheless, chapters tend to focus on specific episodes or events from these great swathes of time of these kings' rule.
       From the forefather of the line, Dilipa, the bearing of a son -- an heir, allowing for the continuation of the Raghu-line -- is repeatedly a difficulty and an issue. So we find Dilipa putting aside even his royal duties in his quest to bear a son, looking for help and advice from a sage to whom he laments:

सो ऽहमिज्याविशुद्धात्मा प्रजालोपनिमीलितः।
प्रकाशश्चान्धकारश्चा लोकालोक इवाचलः॥

Here I am, my soul resplendent with sacrifices, but shadowed by the absence of offspring: I am light and I am dark, like the mountain that separates world from nonworld.
       [As the translators note, there are many manuscripts of the Raghuvaṃśa, and hence also many textual variants; they record only the Vallabhadeva and Mallinatha variant readings (in an appendix) -- with this being an interesting case of their choosing the Vallabhadeva version for: प्रकाशश्चान्धकारश्चा. The more commonly reprinted Mallinatha version has it as the doubled प्रकाशश्चाप्रकाशश्च -- leading also into the doubling that follows, लोकालोक (effects that are, either way, in any case missing in the English translation).]
       Dilipa is put to a test, charged with tending to and winning the favor of a cow:
प्रस्थितायां प्रतिष्ठेथाः स्थितायां स्थानमाचरेः।
निषिण्णायां निषीदास्यां पीताम्भसि पिबेरपः॥

When she sets off, you set off. When she stands still, you stand still. When she sits, you sit. When she drinks water, you drink water.
       Proving himself when the cow is attacked by a lion -- willing to offer himself in the place of the animal ("He laid down his weapon and offered him his body, like a lump of meat") -- he is granted a boon, and of course requests a son, one: वंशस्य कर्तारमनन्तकीर्तिं ('who would establish a dynasty and enjoy glory without end'). This, then, is Raghu -- seen by Dilipa as: "a form of himself composed of his best qualities". Proving himself in a contest with Indra, the transition of power from father to son is completed with the handing over of "the white parasol, emblem of kingship", as Dilipa retreats from all things worldly.
       Raghu quickly makes his mark, conquering far and wide:
त्याजितैः फलमुत्खातैर्भग्नैश्च बहुधा नृपैः|
तस्यासीदुल्बणो मार्गः पादपैरिव दन्तिनः॥

As the path of an elephant is clearly visible from the trees stripped of their fruits, or uprooted or broken in various ways, his path was clearly visible because of the kings forced to hand over their wealth, dethroned, or vanquished in various ways.
       There are vivid descriptions of some of the battles:
सङ्गामस्तुमुलस्तस्य पारसीकश्वसाधनैः|
शार्ङ्गकूजितविज्ञेयप्रतियोधे रजस्यभूत्॥

भल्लापवर्जितैस्तेषां शिरोभिः श्मश्रुलैर्महीम्|
तस्तार सरघाव्याप्तैः स क्षौद्रपटलैरिव॥

He fought a tumultuous battle with the Persian cavalry, the enemy soldiers recognizable through the dust only by the twanging of their bows.

He strewed the ground with their bearded heads, severed by sword-blade arrows, as if with honeycombs full of bees.
       Raghu does not cling to power and wealth, however, giving away his worldly riches -- and is blessed then with a son of his own, to carry on the family line, Aja -- who shows:
रूपं तदोजस्वि तदेव वीर्यं तदेव नैसर्गिकमुन्नतत्वम्|
न कारणात्स्वाद्बिभिदे कुमारः प्रवर्तितो दीप इव प्रदीपात्॥

The same strong build, the same heroic spirit, the same inborn loftiness -- the boy did not differ from the cause that made him, any more than one lamp lit from another.
       Among Aja's adventures then is the choosing of his bride -- or rather, her choosing him, as the beautiful Indumati, "the cynosure of a thousand eyes, the creator's supreme creation" selects the only worthy from the many suitors bidding for her hand. Raghu continues to help guide his son as Aja takes over the duties of leading the nation, as side by side: "they both attained success in their domains: dominion and liberation" -- until Raghu finally moves on: "by means of yogic meditation, he joined the eternal soul beyond darkness". Then Aja too becomes a father, Indumati giving birth to Dasharatha -- but tragedy soon follows, with Indumati's death, which Aja struggles to get over, just holding on until his son is old enough to take over -- and then: "longing to quit the wretched abode of his disease-ridden body, resolved to fast unto death".
       Dasharatha is obsessed with hunting -- leading also to a tragedy -- and, like many in his line, long fails to conceive a son, "the light that frees one from the debt of the ancestors and instantly dispels the darkness of grief". (In his case, it's a really long time: nearly ten thousand years.) Godly intervention comes to his help here, too -- when he has proven himself worthy of it -- and that in no less form than Vishnu, who decides: "I myself will become the son of Dasharatha". But Dasharatha's bounty isn't singular, but rather even more fruitful, as, in the form of: "Vishnu's virile power -- the so called gruel" is divided between two of his wives, Kausalya and Kaikeyi, who then each also give half their portion to a third, Sumitra, leading to four births: Kausalya gives birth to Rama, Kaiyeki to Bharata, and Sumitra to twin boys, Lakshmana and Shatrughna.
       With Vishnu born in these four forms:
निर्दोषमभवत्सर्वमाविष्कृतगुणं जगत्।
अन्वगादिव हि स्वर्गो गां गतं पुरुषोत्तमम्॥

The whole world became free of faults, with every virtue on display, for heaven seemed to follow the Supreme Being when he descended to earth.
       Several chapters are devoted to Rama (and his wife Sita) -- and much of this is familiar from the Rāmāyaṇa (with its most famous author, Valmiki, making a cameo here as the मन्त्रकृत् ('wielder of mantras') that he was). So also then there is Kaikeyi's demand of dying Dasharatha when he is ready to anoint Rama as his successor -- that Rama be sent into exile for fourteen years and her own son, Bharata, to rule in his absence.
       Rama spends the fourteen years in exile -- with Sita kidnapped and then rescued along the way, events that have repercussions, as his subjects then: "praise all your deeds, lord of men -- except for your taking back the queen after she had lived in the rākṣasa's palace". This troubles Rama more than it should, as he vacillates:
किमात्मनिर्वादकथामुपेक्षे जायामदोषामुत सन्त्यजानि।
इत्येकपक्षाश्रयविक्लवत्वादासीत्स दोलाचलचित्तवृत्तिः ॥

Should I disregard this slander about me ? Or should I abandon my wife, innocent though she is ? His mind swung back and forth, incapable of deciding on either course of action.
       Of course, his decision is the tragic one .....
       Their son Kusha is eventually made king, and he goes on to have a son with Kumudvati -- 'Aithi, the Perfect King', as the title of the seventeenth chapter has it. The litany of excellence found here is a bit more humdrum than most of what came before, admirable and all but little more.
       The penultimate chapter, 'A Catalogue of Kings', is mostly little more than a roll-call, leading to Sudarshana, "now the single remaining strand of his lineage". The translators do note, in their endnotes, that: "names throughout this chapter are playfully echoed in varying ways (alliteration, etymologization, polyptoton, antanaclasis) by the surrounding words, often to underline their suitability", and give some examples in the endnotes, but this is mostly lost in translation.
       The final chapter is also an odd add-on -- focused on yet another descendent of Raghu, but one who is no paragon, with the chapter focusing almost entirely on: 'Agnivarna's Revels'. After a dutiful beginning, he devotes himself almost exclusively and exhaustingly to sexual indulgence; eventually wasting away and dying -- but at least leaving a pregnant chief wife who then took over the running of the kingdom, in a somewhat anticlimactic conclusion -- though at least one where everything seems to be settled and orderly again.
       Especially in its last chapters, it makes for a curiously shaped collection, Kalidasa not so much getting off the lineage track as seeming unsure where to take it. If uneven -- the first half is consistently stronger than most of the second --, for much of the way the story-telling is, however, quite solid, and while many of these myths are familiar -- especially those involving Rama -- Kalidasa presents some of the episodes and descriptions very well.
       In their Introduction the translators find that: "It is striking, then, that the European reception of The Lineage of the Raghus seems not to have been enthusiastic", especially in comparison to its "extraordinary popularity" among, especially, Sanskrit readers, but it is perhaps not that surprising. It is an unwieldy work, for one -- not a neat, simple story, or series of stories, but rather a kind of mixed bag. More significantly, it is a poem and much of its appeal lies in Kalidasa's command and use of language -- which seems to have proven almost impossible to adequately convey in translation.
       As the above examples show, the translators here rendered Kalidasa's verse in straightforward prose -- noting that they: "have attempted, while striving for readability, to be as literal as Kale and Nandargikar, but without adding suppletions in brackets". This gets a fair amount across, but also misses a great deal -- obvious from the facing Sanskrit original, or endnote-explanations such as:
In 9.1-60, devoted to a description of spring, there is a fixed alliterative pattern: the second, third, and fourth syllables of each fourth verse quarter (for this first verse: ma va tā) are identical to the fifth, sixth, and seventh syllables respectively (also ma va tā). Our translation cannot replicate this "sound effect," but it carries no narrative significance.
       'No narrative significance', perhaps, but this and a great deal more is thus lost. The endnotes do address some of this, giving readers some better sense of the original, but the non- (or poor) Sanskrit reader likely still comes away (accurately) feeling that they are missing a good deal of Kalidasa's art. Nevertheless, much of the expression, and many of the episodes, are strong enough that The Lineage of the Raghus is still an engaging and at times impressive read simply as plain English text.
       The difficulties of presenting the text in translation -- and the fact that it lacks the neater unity of Kalidasa's other works -- make The Lineage of the Raghus somewhat less satisfying in translation than Kalidasa's other works; possibly a verse translation may hit a bit closer to the mark. (I have not seen A.N.D.Haksar's recent free-verse translation, Raghuvamsam (2016), and am curious as to how that compares.) This Murty Classical Library of India edition does have the great advantage of including the Sanskrit text facing the English translation -- which is of course the way to read it -- and the package as a whole, as it were, with Introduction, texts, and notes to both text and translation, make for a fine edition that should appeal both to the serious Sanskrit reader and the more casually interested English-speaking one.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 December 2023

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The Lineage of the Raghus: Reviews (* review of a different translation): Other works by Kālidāsa under review: Kālidāsa: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indian author Kālidāsa probably lived during the reign of Candragupta II (ca. 380-413). Only three dramas and a few poems of his survive, but he continues to be revered as one of the greatest Sanskrit playwrights and poets.

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© 2023 the complete review

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