I recently learned of an outstanding series of books modeled after the Loeb Library series of Greek and Roman Classics that allows readers to become acquainted with another source of ancient writing. Founded in the 1990's, the Clay Sanskrit Library has now published over 50 volumes of classical Indian literature. The pocket-sized volumes include Sanskrit texts in Roman script together with a new English translation on the facing page, much like the Loeb volumes. The volumes include scholarly notes on the texts and some guides to the Sanskrit. But the major use of these volumes will be to introduce the literature to interested lay readers who lack Sanskrit. I am interested in the series because I have been studying Buddhism for several years.
I selected this volume, a play called "Much Ado about Religion" for my introduction to the series based on the short summary on the Clay series website. The play discusses conflicts among religious teachings in a culture in which several divergent religions need to live side by side. The play also discusses the implications of religious conflict in an attempt to understand religious truth.
The play dates from about 880 - 900 C.E. and is set in Kashmir. The author, Bhatta Jayanta, was a prodigious and brilliant scholar who composed several logical treatises. He was an orthodox follower of the Vedas in his religious beliefs and was close to the ruler of the time and place, King Shankara-varman, who in the passage of time does not come down with a strong reputation for either wise leadership or for religious toleration. An introduction to the play by the translator, Csaba Dezso, provides sufficient historical background to understand the work.
The play is in four acts, with each act proceeded by a prologue. The chief character is a young graduate of a Vedic school. Highly intelligent and committed to the Vedas, he is, at the outset of the play, determined to show the folly of religious traditions other than the Vedic teachings. In the first act, he visits a Buddhist monastery where he demolishes arguments put forth by a Buddhist monk purporting to show the impermanence of all things and the non-existence of self. His victory is proclaimed by a group of ostensible neutrals called "arbiters". I was interested in reading this Vedic criticism of the Buddhism which I have studied.
Buoyed by his triumph, in the second act the graduate does much the same thing in a debate with a member of the Jain school. But Jayanta suggests qualms about the destructive, eristic character of the debates. More important that the apparent triumph over the Jains, the graduate attacks a sect known as the "Black Blankets". Adherents of this sect are shown as huddling under the blankets and engaging in illicit sex. The graduate will not tolerate immorality. He goes to the king and has the Black Blankets banished from the kingdom.
The Buddhists, Jains, and other groups who have been vanquished in debate fear that they will suffer the fate of the Black Blankets. To alleviate their concerns, the king issues a decree stating that all religions will be respected in the kingdom as long as they follow their own traditions and do not engage in immoral practices or actions against the state. The third act is set in a conference of learned religious leaders of various schools. A freethinker and an atheist rises to challenge the decree by saying that there is no God and no authoritative scripture. The graduate, together with a scholar from one of the dissenting schools, work cooperatively to offer arguments that purport to show God's existence together with the authority of the Vedas.
In the climactic fourth act of the play, the king sends a different scholar to explain the policy of toleration and to attempt to reconcile the claims of the varying religious traditions. This scholar gives a lengthy and eloquent speech about the nature of religious authority and religious truth. The scholar argues that all religions emanate from God and that the various religions, though couched in different forms suitable to the capabilities and predilections of their adherents, ultimately agree with each other. He says, among other things:
"With regard to the highest human goal, there is no contradiction among scriptures, since all teach the very same reward: deliverance. Nevertheless, differing salvific paths are taught, according to the intellect of the beings to be favored. ... The many means taught by various scriptural approaches converge in the single summum bonum, as the currents of the Ganges meet in the ocean."
The play thus ends with a lesson of respect and toleration for all true religions, with the exception of groups such as the Black Blankets which teach immorality or disrespect.
There is a great deal of satire in this play but also much to ponder. The translation is good and with the notes the play is accessible and readable. The theme of the play is timeless. I enjoyed reading this play and I look forward to reading other books in the Clay Sanskrit Library.