DSR professor unravelling the secrets of forbidden text written by Buddhist priest in Nepal

March 29, 2021 by Nicole Bergot

In 1914, a Buddhist priest worked in secret, translating a sacred text into a forbidden language, publishing it using a printing press smuggled into Kathmandu from India. From that act of defiance grew a century-long movement of resistance that finally saw the ban on the Newar language lifted in 2007. Despite the pivotal role this played, there are no studies or translations of the text that marked the beginning of modern Newar literature. To better understand both the person who stood in opposition to the state and his re-telling of that sacred text, Christoph Emmrich, a professor of historical studies at UTM with a graduate appointment in the Department for the Study of Religion, will lead a Jackman Humanities Scholar in Residence project to create a transliteration of the words secretly printed a century ago.

DSR: Describe the Scholar in Residence project.

CE: The Scholar in Residence project will focus on the transliteration of a Buddhist text called the Lalitavistara or “The [Buddha’s] Extensive Play,” from Sanskrit, and Newar, the language into which it was translated.  The students involved in this project will produce the first ever bilingual synopsis of the text and bring it into Roman script for English speakers.

DSR: What is significant about this project?

CE: In 1914 a Buddhist priest, Niṣṭhānanda Vajrācārya, in the Kathmadu Valley, Nepal, published his translation of a revered scripture, the Lalitavistara, “The Extensive Play [of the Buddha]” from Sanskrit into an indigenous Nepalese language called Newar. What was extraordinary about his translation was that it had to be done in secret, with a printing press smuggled into Kathmandu from India. The reason for the secrecy was because the Hindu-centric Nepalese regime at the time had banned anything Buddhist and anything Newar, a small indigenous community practicing long-standing forms of tantric Hinduism and Buddhism. This act of defiance toward the regime was the beginning of modern Newar literature, and most importantly, one of the first modern recreations of an Asian classic, and a founding work of modernist Buddhism.

There are no studies, or even a translation of the text that exist, largely because the Newar text can only be understood in relation to the text it is recreating in Sanskrit, and very few scholars know both Sanskrit and Newar. So therein lies the opportunity for the participants of the Scholar in Residence project.

DSR: What is the goal of the project?

CE: What the project will do is take two texts, the original and translation, both in Devanagari script (the script used to write many Indian and Nepalese languages such as Hindi, Sanskrit and Nepali). Then he or she will be transliterating it into Roman script (the standard script of the English language). So from Devanagari script into Roman, a script that we can read in English.

The goal is to produce a text in which we have a synopsis – on one side the Newar text (the translation or transcreation from the Sanskrit original of the book) and on the other side the Sanskrit text from which the new text was created with translation and commentary.

DSR: What do you hope to discover over the course of the project?

CE: We want to see the degree of creativity that went into the first translation by Niṣṭhānanda Vajrācārya. What was the author wanting to do? He was not interested in just a one-on-one translation. It wasn’t just A to B – he wanted to do something different. On the very general level, he wanted to involve commentary.  Interestingly, he doesn’t mark where there is a translation and where there is a commentary. His language was prohibited, and he added comments to make the text more accessible. How does that commentary look? What does he have to say to his audience? He is making the text more accessible. Does he use colloquialisms? He was known to be a great raconteur. He would sit in a public space and tell all these Buddhist stories. How does that storytelling ability come into this retelling of this text? We want to know the author back then, in that context.  He was doing this at his own peril, by smuggling in a printing technology from India into Nepal, where the monopoly on printing was with the government who was prohibiting the language Newar, who was only allowing Nepalese. What is the role of author, translator and re-teller, the person who is in opposition to a dictatorial state, and who comes up with a creative new way of telling this story and commenting on it? We want to understand all of this.

DSR: Why are you personally so invested in this text?

CE: In a reading group I am currently leading, in which international faculty and Department for the Study of Religion students are reading this text, I’ve been surprised at the impact of his initiative, which allowed him to become a hero of the Newar movement. And this grew into a whole movement of resistance after a century. It was only in 2007 that the prohibition on Newar as a language was officially lifted, it took a whole century! And in the course of that century, what was created was Newar language nationalism. An oppressed language created a huge push towards energising this community. Niṣṭhānanda Vajrācārya was turned into a hero, one of the founding figures of the movement.

He was trying to create a canon, a collection of the most important texts, and put them all together into one. He was creating a reader. Politically what he was trying to do was create a new community. He was Buddhist and he was about speaking to Buddhists, he wanted to create modern Buddhists, who were more aware of Buddhism, and able to read Buddhist texts in their language, Newar. It was about taking away the monopoly from the priests and sharing it with the people, to give them a living literature and strengthen the community within the oppression. Religion in Nepal is always about enjoying life, it’s huge festivals; it’s joy and conflict and celebration and danger, it’s life! So a lot of the text is fun to read; religion is entertaining and that’s why it's such a part of our life, and this is displayed in his translation.

What is ironic is that today, Newar activists have begun shedding Nepalese words, they now prefer to write in pure Newar, but if you look at Niṣṭhānanda’s language, he used a mix of Nepalese and Hindi words; he was writing in colloquial Newar. He didn’t translate into literary Newar, but into accessible Newar.

The movement started by Niṣṭhānanda Vajrācārya has allowed Newar to become the official literary language of the Newars. But it’s done by someone whose was not “pure” at all.  He is doing one thing, and the people receiving his legacy carrying on are stressing the pure Newar side, without seeing that he is inclusive, and the beauty of his language is that it brings in the other language. He wants to write as people speak. The later language Newar movement is purifying the language, but making it less accessible; this purist trend is doing something very different.

DSR: What is your Scholar in Residence dream team?

CE: This Scholar in Residence is open to undergraduates, which, I think, makes it special, and the project is designed in a way that there are different kinds of tasks, so you can join in a basic level to do some of the work. At the most basic I expect the student to be able to read Devanagari script. Then he or she will be transliterating it into Roman script. And if they don’t know the script, I am prepared to give them a table which they would then learn by heart. Then they would be able to transliterate from Devanagari to Roman. I would sit down with them and figure out their abilities, and then offer training in whatever skills they need. Ideally, people who apply will have Devanagari knowledge, from an Indian or generally South Asian background, who, for example, know Hindi, and then it would just be a question of learning the transliteration system. Most importantly, my dream team consists of students who are eager to explore how the passion for one’s mother tongue and the devotion to one’s religion come together in creating community under politically challenging circumstances