Saturday, December 19, 2015

"Last-minute" gift ideas?

With the December solstice only a few days away, all readers have undoubtedly finished all their Christmas (or other appropriate holiday) shopping, but for those who may still be trying to come up with that last gift idea, I would suggest that anyone could hardly ask for more this holiday season than to receive his or her own copy of one of the ancient sacred texts of humanity.

You may agree with me that a copy of the Mahabharata belongs on every bookshelf -- perhaps several copies of the Mahabharata, since there are many different translations, and there is also the original Sanskrit for those who enjoy learning new writing systems and languages and reading texts in their original format.

Above is a link to an abridged retelling of the Mahabharata by Krishna Dharma, which I believe has much to recommend it.

A complete English translation of the massive original epic (which is over seven times longer than the Iliad and Odyssey, combined) is also available online, by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, published towards the end of the nineteenth century. While it does contain some anachronistic language (most notably the use of the older forms of the second-person personal pronoun, such as thou, thee, and thine, and of the verb forms which go along with them, such as wilt and hast and so on), it also has a great many virtues, including a lively style and a true appreciation for the spirit of the text, and most importantly its completeness.

However, if you want to actually put the entire Ganguli translation on your bookshelf (twelve volumes), it is fairly expensive to do so. It is also probably a rather daunting read for those who are not already dedicated Mahabharata fans. Therefore, one of the abridged retellings is probably a better place to start, and I believe that the Krisha Dharma version linked above is a good start (there are several others as well, each with its own strengths and weaknesses). Those who fall in love with this epic can then explore other retellings and translations, perhaps acquiring the entire Ganguli translation, and perhaps even venturing into the Sanskrit as well.

The other great Sanskrit epic is the Ramayana, and here again Krishna Dharma has an outstanding retelling, which moves along briskly, conveys the majesty of the legendary setting and ancient culture, brings out the depth of the characters, confronts the deep questions of duty and consciousness present in the text, and provides much to meditate upon and consider for what it has to tell us about our own journey through this incarnate life.

If anyone you know does not have a physical copy of the Ramayana in his or her home library, this retelling would certainly be a welcome addition, in my personal opinion.

Continuing with the theme of ancient epics that belong on every bookshelf (if practicable), and can by themselves provide years and years worth of profitable reading and re-reading, contemplation and meditation, the great Homeric epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey have never been translated into the English language so magnificently, perhaps, as they have been by the late scholar of ancient Greece, Professor Robert Fagles.

I personally had the opportunity to meet Professor Fagles and hear his thoughts on the power and personal relevance for each and every one of our lives of these great epics attributed to Homer, as well as to teach his translation of the Odyssey at the college level to young cadets at the US Military Academy back in the early part of the last decade.

Some of my colleagues who had been there in the English Department at West Point before I arrived also had the opportunity to teach the Iliad, and although I did not actually teach the Iliad to students, I can attest that the translation of the Iliad by Robert Fagles is moving, powerful, and worthy of reading in front of the fireplace late into the night, with frequent pauses to ponder the impact of the ancient wisdom which can be found on every single page.

Reading the Iliad, one is presented with the undeniable evidence of Peter Kingsley's assertion that the "original instructions" have been tragically lost somewhere in the ancient history of "western civilization." Here, you will find a worldview in which the realm of the gods is understood to be both an extension of and intimately intertwined with the ordinary reality upon which our consciousness is usually focused. 

And you will have occasion to wonder at those Seers described as skilled in interpreting the flight of birds, and where along the timeline of human history that knowledge may have been lost (and if it somehow survived). Perhaps you (or the one to whom you give this ancient text as a gift) will never look at a passing dove or hawk or sparrow or vulture quite the same way again!

But as much as I do love the Iliad, and as much as I believe it has to teach us right now even in this most modern moment of the present day, I have always loved the Odyssey even more, even from my pre-teen days.

I have had several "favorite versions" of the Odyssey through the years. Before Professor Fagles published his translation, I think the W. H. D. Rouse translation was the first one that I read, followed by the Robert Fitzgerald translation, but the Fagles translation of the Odyssey has to be the superlative English translation (in my opinion), and it also has the great advantage of being a verse translation of what is, after all, epic poetry.

Having access to multiple translations can never be a bad thing, of course, and this recommendation should not be interpreted as a criticism of other translations: but if it is at all possible, I personally believe that every home should have a copy of the Fagles translation of the Odyssey (unless that home's occupants are fluent in another language, of course, in which case there may be better translations in other languages upon which I am not qualified to comment). It has to be the next best thing to being able to read the original ancient Greek (which of course would be the best option, but certainly not a trivial undertaking).

So, those are a few "ancient wisdom" ideas for last-minute gift-giving assistance, if anyone is still wondering. You should be able to obtain any of those from a variety of different bookseller options, including your local neighborhood bookstore.

Another option, not exactly an ancient text although it does offer some commentary upon the ancient Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as well as offering examples and instructions from the Vedas and especially the Upanishads, is the classic Light on Yoga (Yoga Dipika), by B. K. S. Iyengar.

This text is probably very familiar to anyone who is already a practitioner of Yoga, but even those who are not (or who are "not yet") may be very grateful to have access to its clear and compelling explanation of the practice and purpose of Yoga, which goes far beyond the practice of the asanas (as important and as beneficial as those can be). 

From its outset, the book explains that Yoga is a system given to humanity which teaches "the means by which the jivatma can be united to, or be in communion with the Paramatma, and so secure liberation (moksa)" (19). In other words, its aim is to facilitate the connection between the "individual human spirit (jivatma)" and the "Supreme Universal Spirit (Paramatma or God)" (19).

Reading the lucid explanations of Yoga's role in this pursuit, one who does not already follow the path of Yoga may experience a strong inclination to start!

In one passage in Light on Yoga, while discussing the concept of Aparigraha ("not hoarding or collecting" -- one of the five principles of Yama), we read:
Just as one should not take things one does not really need, so one should not hoard or collect things one does not require immediately. 35.
This passage, perhaps, suggests another "last-minute gift idea" we might consider at this winter-time of giving and receiving gifts: the idea of giving away things we no longer need, or do not require immediately, or generally helping those in need even if we do not know them personally.  

This particular virtue (of "not collecting") is not one that I myself am especially good at, but the spirit and teaching of Light on Yoga has certainly spoken to me on this subject, and caused me to think about doing more to give away those things that I "do not require immediately." 

In any case, the above "gift-giving" ideas are offered as possibilities in the category of gifts that contain a breath of that ancient wisdom given to humanity in the distant past -- which remains as relevant today as ever (perhaps even more so).