The Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI), a not-for-profit set up by Rohan Murty, son of former Infosys chairman NR Narayana Murthy, recently published its first five volumes of ancient ‘Indic’ language classics translated into English. Describing himself as the stereotypical Indian engineer, Murty, in an interview with PP Thimmaya, says the aim of the institution is to enable easier access to the deep literary heritage of India, with future plans to provide free digital versions of these books. Excerpts
What motivated you to start this institution?
When I was doing my PhD in the US, apart from computer science research, I was reading Western Philosophy very seriously. It was through some common friends that we started taking graduate courses in ancient Indian philosophy. We studied Nyaya, Panini grammar, Dharmakirti and Buddhist philosophy. I was absolutely riveted.
Growing up in Bangalore, these were things we knew very little of. I didn’t know anything about ancient India. We did not learn what life was like in ancient India 2,000 years ago. I was hooked and ended up taking a lot of courses seriously. Doing this gave me tremendous joy and pride. I thought, maybe, I could share this joy with others. With this broad perspective in mind, we set up MCLI four years ago. I was introduced to Sheldon Pollock, who is our editor. We discussed how we can create more text in English that people can read.
Is there an emotional connect in translating the works of ancient India?
There is an incredible sense of pride. This sort of scholarship, intellectual thought and content was produced here 2,000-3000 years ago, which is very sophisticated, subtle and moving. When I went to school, we read Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens, Robert Frost — not for a minute am I saying we should not read them. I enjoyed them and would read them again. What’s sad is that we did not have any context or any emotional connect. If we had access to texts from different parts of the country’s rich heritage, like Kalidasa, Bulleh Shah or Surdas, that would have been nice.
I believe one should have a sense of where they come from if they want to know where they want to go. In my own philosophy, knowing that we produce such things and having people to read them may help us feel a lot more confident of where we come from.
Who is your target reader?
Everyone. This is for all Indians — and all people outside India. I feel when more and more of these books are published, people from other parts of the world also think of classics in Kannada, Tamil or Sanskrit. We need to showcase to the world that we come from an incredibly rich, diverse and intellectually deep civilisation. This is not done for just academics. If that was the case, I do not think we would have been very successful in our mission.
What are your plans?
Going forward, we will produce on average five volumes a year. This should be an institution of its own. We have endowments. As long as we can find high quality translators, one will see books come out. In a purely personal capacity, I want to see free digital editions come out. I think we have the opportunity to make it even more accessible, but there are other stakeholders who need to be convinced about it. The aim of the game is to make it accessible to everyone. In print, we are trying to make it as low-cost as possible. By month end, these will available on e-commerce sites also.
What is the message of this institution?
It is non-partisan and does not have any agenda. I want more people to read these things. Hopefully, we will be able to spread the word that this is also India, a place of glorious civilisation where there is intellectual depth and content that we should be proud of, that our forefathers of the land produced. We want the institution to survive for the next 100 years and should be across several generations.