Thursday, April 23, 2015

(Relatively) Recent History: E.B. Cowell's Preface to the Kusumāñjali

In preparing for the fall term, I have been looking through translations of Udāyanācarya's Kusumāñjali. The one excerpted in Radhakrishnan's Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy (mentioned in some earlier posts here as not a good starting point) is by E.B. Cowell, translated in 1864. I checked out the entire book today for a closer look, and, upon opening to the preface, scowled. While perhaps it is possible for a translator to do justice to a text with low esteem for the author, I think it is unlikely that approaching a philosophical text with prejudice will allow a translator to do her best work.
So, while I will choose the translation I use on its merits, knowing what Cowell has to say about Indian philosophy in general is a red flag. After talking about the "quaint Oriental disguise" in which familiar (Western) arguments for the existence of God are found, he says,
The Kusumāñjali is as much inferior to the tenth book of Plato's Laws or the twelfth of Aristotle's Metaphysics, as Hindu philosophy itself is to that of Greece...
(I've attached a scan of the opening paragraph of the preface for fuller context if you want to get more annoyed.)
Why post this, other than to share my ire? Well, I think it's an important reminder that not very long has passed--just over 150 years---since this kind of prejudice was accepted so openly that it could form the opening preface to a translation! We have developed new ways of talking about the quaintness and curiosity of Indian philosophy, but similar attitudes remain. One has only to take a look at the manner in which encyclopedias and survey articles treat Indian philosophy--as an aside to the Really Important Work done in Western philosophy.
Now, we owe a lot to scholars like E.B. Cowell, who was the first professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge, translated Persian as well as Sanskrit texts, and who is responsible for our having Fitzgerald's English translations of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. So this is not to say that one cannot do excellent and even groundbreaking work in spite of one's blind spots. However, as we have been recently discussing approaches to Indian philosophy as a whole, I thought this a relevant point of reflection.
A question for discussion, then--in giving texts to introductory students, would you include such prefatory material, and why/why not? I imagine the answer is, as in most things, that context is important. So perhaps explain when you might and when you might refrain?
(Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy blog.)