Monday, December 5, 2011

An Ornament for Jewels: Love Poems For The Lord of Gods by Venkatesa

In this companion volume to Singing the Body of God (Oxford 2002), Steven P. Hopkins has translated into contemporary American English verse poems written by the South Indian Srivaisnava philosopher and saint-poet Venkatesa (c. 1268-1369). These poems, in three different languages - Sanskrit, Tamil, and Maharastri Prakrit -- composed for one particular Hindu god, Vishnu Devanayaka, the "Lord of Gods" at Tiruvahindrapuram, form a microcosm of the saint-poet's work. They encompass major themes of Venkatesa's devotional poetics, from the play of divine absence and presence in the world of religious emotions; the "telescoping" of time past and future in the eternal "present" of the poem; love, human vulnerability and the impassible perfected body of god; to the devotional experience of a "beauty that saves" and to what Hopkins terms the paradoxical coexistence of asymmetry and intimacy of lover and beloved at the heart of the divine-human encounter. Moreover, these poems form not only a thematic microcosm, but a linguistic one embracing all three of the poet's working languages. Like the remembered world of Proust's Combray in the taste of madeleine dipped in tea, or Blake's World in a Grain of Sand, we taste and see, in this one particular place, and in this one particular form of Vishnu, various protean forms and powers of the divine, and trace a veritable summa of theological, philosophical, and literary designs.

Each translated poem forms a chapter in itself, has its own individual short Afterword, along with detailed linguistic and thematic notes and commentary. The volume concludes, for comparative reasons, with a translation of Tirumankaiyalvar's luminous cycle of verses for Devanayaka from the Periyatirumoli.

As much an argument as an anthology, this book will be of interest to students and scholars of South Asian studies, comparative religion, and Indian literatures.

"In An Ornament for Jewels, Steven Hopkins presents in luminous English versions the poetry of Vedantadesika, eminent theologian as well as master poet in three classical languages: Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Tamil. Crisp, elegant, yet flowing, these translations are jewels in their own right, conveying the precision of Desika's language (in each of the three languages he handled), the rich imagery of the poems, and the gut-wrenching immediacy of the poet's adoration of Devanayaka in his beloved shrine. With this book, Hopkins has established himself as one of the finest translators of pre-modern poetry. A spectacular achievement." --Indira Viswanathan Peterson, David B. Truman Professor of Asian Studies and Chair of the Asian Studies Program, Mount Holyoke College

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