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Sanskrit Manuscripts in the South Asian Rare Books Collection

(The following is post by Jonathan Loar, South Asian Reference Librarian, Asian Division)

In 1938, the Library of Congress received a three-year grant from the Carnegie Corporation to establish a project for the development of Indic studies, which was the Library’s first initiative to collect South Asian materials systematically. This grant enabled the project’s director, Horace Poleman, to spend about a year in India between 1939 and 1940. Urgency moved him to collect both rare books and contemporary works on modern affairs, as the outbreak of World War II cast uncertainty on the future of obtaining publications from India and the rest of the region. Poleman’s trip resulted notably in the Library’s acquisition of a large number of Sanskrit manuscripts, such as the Vyavasthasarasangraha (a compendium of Hindu authorities on religious law), Sarasvatistotra (a hymn of praise to the Hindu goddess of learning and music Saraswati), and a copy of Raghunandana Bhattacarya’s Tithitattva (a treatise on Hindu rituals to be performed on specific lunar days) dated to 1628.

Sanskrit is one of the principal classical languages of ancient India. The word itself means something like “perfected,” “refined,” or “well put together” (sam – together, krta – done, made). Works in Sanskrit are found throughout Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu religious traditions. For many Hindus, it is a sacred medium of expression – the language of ancient scriptures such as the Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita. Many people are familiar with Sanskrit in the Devanagari script – the same script used for Hindi, Nepali and other modern vernaculars – but Sanskrit texts have also been written in other writing systems, (e.g., the Grantha in southern India, the Sharada in Kashmir). To get a sense of what the language sounds like, check out some samples of poetry and prose from contemporary Sanskrit authors in the Library’s South Asian Literary Recordings Project.

Sanskrit vowels and consonants with a guide to pronunciation, from H.H. Wilson’s “An Introduction to the Grammar of the Sanskrit Language,” 1841, Library of Congress general collections. Also freely available on HathiTrust.

Poleman was prepared for his acquisition trip to India. In addition to holding a doctorate in Sanskrit from the University of Pennsylvania, he had already authored a comprehensive census of Indic manuscripts in North American libraries. The range of manuscripts in the Library’s collection reflects his deep understanding of Sanskrit literature. The majority deal with religious subjects, like the Anantapuja (worship), Shraddhasankalpa (funerary rites), and Gayatrisahasranamastotra from the Rudrayamala (esoteric religion, or tantra). There are also smaller works from sections of the Padma Purana, Brahmanda Purana, and other puranas, or religious texts that tell the stories of Hindu gods and goddesses. Notable works on other topics are the Vaiyyakaranasiddhantaratnakara (grammar) and Sanketakaumudi (astrology).

The manuscripts acquired by Poleman for the Library, as well as several other manuscripts acquired or received as donations over the years, are part of the South Asian rare books collection’s “Indo-Aryan Ms.” series. Searching the Library’s online catalog with “Indo-Aryan Ms.” in quotation marks is a quick way to browse records for about 470 of these manuscripts. Here are highlights of four exemplary manuscripts in the series.

Bhagavad Gita. Indo-Aryan Ms. 173. Date: 1729.

Indo-Aryan Ms. 173, Bhagavad Gita (1729). South Asian rare books collection, Asian Division.

Estimated to have been composed between 200 BC and 200 AD, the Bhagavad Gītā (literally “Song of the Lord”) is one of the most beloved works of Hindu religious literature. The Bhagavad Gita, which is part of the voluminous Mahabharata epic, is an extended conversation between the warrior Arjuna and his charioteer, the Hindu god Krishna. When Arjuna’s courage wavers on the battlefield, Krishna delivers teachings about the necessity of doing one’s duty without attaching selfishly to the fruits of action, as well as the importance of devotion (bhakti) to God. The image of the manuscript seen here includes verses seven and eight of the text’s fourth chapter, where Krishna promises to return, age after age, whenever righteousness declines.

Kalpasutra. Indo-Aryan Ms. 213. Date: 18th/19th century.

Indo-Aryan Ms. 213, Kalpasutra (18/19th century). Top image: the chief disciple after Mahavira’s passing, Indrabhuti Gautama, surrounded by auspicious symbols. Bottom image: Mahavira in the Pushpottara heaven. South Asian rare books collection, Asian Division.

Attributed to the monk Bhadrabahu (4th century BC), the Kalpasutra is an important work in the Jain religious tradition. It contains the sacred biographies of tirthankaras, literally “ford-makers,” or spiritual adepts who teach and show others the path toward the soul’s liberation from reincarnation. Prominent in this text is the life story of Mahavira (6th century BC), the twenty-fourth Jain tirthankara and near-contemporary of the Buddha in eastern India. Like many Jain scriptures, the language of the text is classified as Prakrit (i.e., Ardhamagadhi Prakrit), a type of vernacular that developed historically from Sanskrit. The South Asian rare books collection has two copies of the Kalpasutra with beautiful illustrations; the other copy from the mid-15th century is pictured on the main page of the South Asian Collection Research Guide.

Picture of right palm with inscriptions. Indo-Aryan Ms. 155. Date: 19th century.

Indo-Aryan Ms. 155, Picture of palm with inscriptions (19th century). South Asian rare books collection, Asian Division.

This double-sided folio represents the Sanskrit genre of rekhashastra, or the science of palmistry. Many such manuscripts depict the palm highlighted with various lines (rekha), according to which the palmist can make prognostications about one’s health, lifespan, and personality traits. In the Asian Reading Room, there are a number of secondary sources on rekhashastra in various languages: Malayalam, Telugu, Hindi, Nepali, and Gujarati, as well as many English works in the Library’s General Collections.

Shivasahasranamavali. Indo-Aryan Ms. 194. Date: 19th century.

Indo-Aryan Ms. 194, Shivasahasranamavali (19th century). South Asian rare book collection, Asian Division.

A sahasranama is a Hindu religious text that lists 1,000 names of a particular deity. Reading a sahasranama calls to mind the deity’s different qualities and stories. This incomplete manuscript has more than 400 names of the Hindu god Shiva. Among his many names, Shiva (auspicious) is also Shambhu (benevolent), Ugra (fierce), and Gangadhara (the one who holds the sacred Ganga River in his matted hair).

Sanskrit Manuscripts in the Albrecht Weber Collection

Fifty-five Sanskrit manuscripts are in the collection of the 19th-century German Indologist Albrecht Weber, which the Library of Congress acquired in 1904. Some of these are Weber’s handwritten copies of manuscripts housed in other institutions and collections, and some are copies produced by other scholars, mostly in the late 19th century. Thirteen are in Devanagari script, while the rest are a mix of Devanagari and romanized transliteration. Many also contain Weber’s handwritten marginalia, indicating his notes on variations in different manuscripts of the same work.

Weber Ms. 14, the Kathaka Samhita of the Black Yajur Veda, an ancient Hindu scripture in Sanskrit with a mixture of verbal formulas, or mantras, used in religious rituals. This manuscript in the Weber collection is in Sanskrit with romanized transliteration, and it bears Albrecht Weber’s initials with the date of August 23, 1859. South Asian rare book collection, Asian Division.

An itemized list of manuscripts in the Weber collection is available in the 1902 German publication, “A Catalog of the Library of the Late Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Berlin.” The relevant pages of this work with the manuscript titles and other information are available in the South Asian Collection Research Guide.

Access to Sanskrit Manuscripts at the Library of Congress

All of the Library’s Sanskrit manuscripts are part of the Asian Division’s South Asian rare books collection. The Asian Division’s rare book policy states that access to rare materials is reserved for individuals engaged in scholarly research. To inquire about these manuscripts or to make the necessary appointment in advance to view them, please contact South Asian reference staff through the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian online inquiry form.

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