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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

The Birth of Kumára


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To purchase The Birth of Kumára

Title: The Birth of Kumára
Author: Kālidāsa
Genre: Poem
Written: ca. 5th century
Length: 345 pages
Original in: Sanskrit
Availability: The Birth of Kumára - US
The Birth of Kumára - UK
The Birth of Kumára - Canada
La naissance de Kumara - France
La storia di Śiva e Pārvatī - Italia
Kumarasambhava - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: NYU Press
  • Sanskrit title: कुमारसम्भवम्
  • Translated by David Smith
  • Previously translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith (cantos i-vii), as The Birth of the War-God (1853); M.R.Kale (cantos i-vii; later editions include viii), as Kumārasambhava (1917); and Hank Heifetz, as The Origin of the Young God (1985; re-issued as Kumarasambhavam)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid translation of a fine poem, though more supporting material would be welcome

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bulletin SOAS* . (50:2) 1987 J.L.Brockington
J. of the AOS* . (107:2) 4-6/1987 Robert A. Hueckstedt
J. of Asian Studies* . (47:1) 2/1988 B.S.Miller
Journal of Religion* . (68:2) 4/1988 David L. Gitomer
J. Royal AS* . (1) 1987 Peter Khoroche
Pacific Affairs* . (60:1) Spring/1987 Kathryn Hansen
The Telgraph* . 31/7/2015 Subhoranjan Dasgupta
ZDMG . (160:1) 2010 A.A.Esposito

(* review of a different translation)

  From the Reviews:
  • "The translation itself is commendably close to the original and Heifetz has attempted to make some of the less immediately obvious detail clear by occasionally inserting an explanatory remark into the translation, usually though not invariably drawing attention to such additions in the notes, conversely, he sometimes silently simplifies a phrase (...). His style and the clarity of the expression are certainly an improvement on earlier translations, but such explanatory padding has not infrequently detracted from the tautness of the original expression, as has a tendency to prefer periphrastic expressions" - J.L.Brockington, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies

  • "This translation should serve as a model for anyone who aspires to translate poetry from the Sanskrit into English. Not only is it accurate, which is the easier part of translating, but it is also poetically sound, by far the more difficult part. (...) Despite its overall accuracy, beauty, and grace, a few improvements could be made in the translation and the notes" - Robert A. Hueckstedt, Journal of the American Oriental Society

  • "This version by Heifetz surpasses any extant translation and gives the reader a fine sense of the movement and content of the work. The verses are rendered with care and considerable skill in sustaining the narrative flow. Heifetz is sensitive to the various levels of meaning presented in a verse or verse sequence and is attentive to the poem's technical terminology." - Barbara Stoler Miller, Journal of Asian Studies

  • "Heifetz's rendering is nearly always accurate and achieves its effects with a restrained elegance. He rejects the elevated diction to which translators of Sanskrit often resort, but also eschews compression of syntax and imagery, thereby draining certain passages of the intense drama they possess in the original." - David L. Gitomer, Journal of Religion

  • "The translation keeps closely, too closely, to the original (...), taking intelligent and not uncritical account of the commentaries of Aruṇagirinātha and Nārāyaṇa, as well as that of Mallinātha. There is a bare minimum of extra words to help out the meaning, no padding, and often a deft concision of phrase. The notes go some way to elucidating the seemingly unavoidable obscurities of the translation: mythological allusions are explained, attention is drawn to the varying metres of the original, and deviations from the literal meaning of the Sanskrit are conscientiously accounted for. (...) The translator has not managed to sustain that verbal intensity and rhythmic inevitability which distinguish poetry from prose. But what can one expect ?" - Peter Khoroche, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland

  • "The poem establishes a paradigm, in which the sexuality of the gods, as of all living beings in nature, expresses the fundamental cosmic duality of separation/union, quiescence/fertility. This is an accurate, comprehensible translation that stays close to the Sanskrit. It formally reproduces the original's compression: the predominant line length of eleven to twelve syllables is imitated in the English, as is the stanza structure -- four lines of equal length." - Kathryn Hansen, Pacific Affairs

  • "I would regard this poem as a mini-epic which includes much more than mere eros. Emotions and acts of deprivation and banishment of the gods, their sorrows and agonies, the coming together of the Holy Trinity -- Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma -- when Shiva proceeds to marry Uma are all vibrantly present in the poem, which pits the helpless gods against the victorious demon. We are treated to a cosmic spectacle where the dramatis personae are the embodiments of good and evil, of the sacred and the profane." - Subhoranjan Dasgupta, The Telgraph

  • "Smith bleibt auch von dem gewöhnlichen Dilemma eines Übersetzers nicht verschont: Einerseits will er möglichst nahe am Original bleiben (S. 19), andererseits ist dies mit einer literarisch anspruchsvollen Wiedergabe nicht immer vereinbar. So sieht er sich gezwungen, manche Passagen etwas freier zu übersetzen, um dem poetischen Anspruch des Originals gerecht zu werden. An manchen Stellen hätte Smith versuchen können, ohne Abstriche an den Stil etwas näher am Sanskrittext zu bleiben. (...) Zusammenfassend kann man sagen, daß The Birth of Kumára der Clay Sanskrit Library eine im Großen und Ganzen sorgfältige Textwiedergabe mit korrekter Trennung der Komposita und Sandhis darstellt, deren Übersetzer trotz einiger Ungenauigkeiten einen guten Mittelweg zwischen Textnähe und poetischer Wiedergabe des Originals gefunden hat." - Anna Aurelia Esposito, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Birth of Kumára does not, in fact, describe the birth of Kumára, as only the first eight cantos -- the final one recounting Kumára's conception -- come down to us as recognizably Kālidāsa's work. (An additional nine cantos exist in various forms, but are widely considered the work of one or more other authors; the work is generally presented only as it is here, through the eighth canto (with the early translations by Ralph T.H. Griffith and M.R.Kale stopping already with the seventh, omitting the steamy eighth).)
       The focus of The Birth of Kumára is on the bringing and coming together of Kumára's parents, Shiva the Destroyer -- 'Eight-formed', 'the God of gods' -- and Párvati, 'the mountain's daughter' (as her father is Himálaya, 'the king of mountains').
       Párvati is also known as Uma, as:

Later on,
when her mother tried
to stop her asceticism
by saying "U ma, Oh no !"
the fair-faced girl
went by the name Uma.
       She is, in fact, a reïncarnation of Shiva's first wife, Sati, her pure form having: "entered the womb of the mountain's wife", and takes after her in her devoutness; she is also a paragon of beauty. And she is also destined to marry Shiva, as Nárada: "declared / she was to be Shiva the Destroyer's / one and only wife".
       Her father is certainly all for it, but:
Yet the mountain could not marry
the God of gods to his daughter
without him asking for her.
       At the time, however, Shiva is off on a Himalayan peak, "practicing yogic restraint for ascetic power", not looking for a (new) wife. Himálaya does at least nudge his daughter in Shiva's direction, by sending her off to serve him, which he is amenable to.
       Meanwhile, the heaven-dwelling gods have a problem: they are being "oppressed by Táraka", and know no way of dealing with this demon. They call on Brahma for advice, and he tells them the obvious:
Who could withstand him in battle,
advancing ready to fight,
except a portion
of Dark-red Shiva's
ejaculated seed ?
       And Uma/Párvati is the only suitable host:
Self-born Brahma has declared
that among women she alone
is fit to be ground for
the ejaculation of his semen.
       And, indeed, the resulting offspring Kumára's destiny will be to defeat Táraka. So it seems in everyone's interest to get Uma and Shiva together, which the gods try to facilitate by sending in 'Kama the intoxicator', love itself (complete with Cupid-like bow and arrow) -- but Kama blows it, much to Uma's chagrin. She then hopes to prove herself through her own asceticism -- "she plunged into / the ascetic's way of life", and that proves to be the ticket -- though her alluring beauty, described at great length, surely doesn't hurt either.
       Shiva is, of course, eventually won over, and they marry.
       The final canto -- the somewhat notorious eighth -- describes their intimacy, with Uma/Párvati initially having difficulties adjusting to it:
In his merciless embraces
her hands hung at her side.
Though love was painful for her
and she was lacking in response,
making love to his wife
was dear to her Lord.
       Helped by some sips of 'wishing-tree wine', Párvati does warm up to things, and they heat up. Párvati finds herself: "under the power of them both -- / Trident-bearing Shiva and intoxication" -- and certainly for contemporary readers the scene can be discomfiting, what with: "Her rolling eyes, her slurred speech, / her drops of sweat, her aimless smile". Once started, there's also practically no stopping them -- though the focus is very much on insatiable Shiva, with: "his thirst for the delights / of sexual pleasure unsated".
       The relatively simple story has its charms, but it is in the way the characters are evoked and presented, and the poetry of the rich descriptions that the real appeal of the work lies. David Smith's translation is very free in form -- in contrast to Kālidāsa's strict adherence to meter in the original -- but he uses this considerable leeway to good effect in trying to reproduce what the Sanskrit does, meaning-wise (while of course losing most of its rhythm). As he also explains in his Introduction:
     My translation seeks to be as close as possible to the Sanskrit, to be entirely comprehensible, and to bear some relation in its own right to poetry, that is to say: to make it plain to the reader that it is a translation of poetry, to be read slowly and with care; to make it plain that the text is one to be savored. Short lines are used to make the syntax clearer.
       Hank Heifetz's translation, now published as a Penguin Classic, shows a different approach; compare, for example, 1:40; in the original:
स्तनद्वयं पाण्डु तथा प्रवृद्धम्
मध्ये यथा श्याममुखस्य
तस्य मृणालसूत्रान्तरमप्यलभ्यम्
       Smith has it:
The lotus-eyed girl's pale breasts,
pressing against each other,
so grew
that between them,
with their black nipples,
there was not room
even for a lotus fiber.
       Heifetz has it:
She with her eyes like dark waterlilies had full breasts
and they were of a light color, with black nipples,
and pressed so closely together not even
the fiber of a lotus could find space between them.
       The Clay Sanskrit Library edition does have the Sanskrit original facing Smith's translation -- though transliterated, rather than in the devanāgarī script, which some readers might find more awkward (or difficult ...) to deal with (though it does, of course, give readers who have no Sanskrit whatsoever and only read Latin script a sense of what the Sanskrit might sound like).
       Smith's Introduction is very short, and while offering sufficient summary and some useful context -- though he suggests his: "remarks are best read after the reader has made an initial perusal of the poem" --, for the most part he really lets, as he acknowledges, the text (and translation) speak for itself, as there is no real annotation or more in-depth background and information. (Smith does conclude his Introduction noting that: "I am preparing a critical edition with full annotation of the poem" -- but nearly two decades later (this volume was published in 2005) that is apparently still not yet available; it would certainly be welcome.)
       Often lush, Kālidāsa's poetry does come through in The Birth of Kumára -- especially in the physical descriptions, especially of Uma/Párvati,, but also in scenes such as those around Brahma, as well as Kama (and then his widow), or, for example, where:
At his command all the forest
stood stock still as if movement
were painted in a picture,
the trees motionless,
the bees stilled, the birds silent,
animals' roaming abandoned.
       The tensions, and then passion, in the story also make for an captivating and pleasing read, with many interesting contrasts; it reads quickly and well.
       Smith's translation gives a solid sense of the original and reads well enough, though the edition as a whole feels a bit thin; the story and characters of The Birth of Kumára (and the tradition of Sanskrit literature and poetry) are likely too foreign for most readers to fully appreciate without at least some more background and supporting material.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 August 2023

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The Birth of Kumára: Reviews (* review of a different translation): Other works by Kālidāsa under review: Kālidāsa: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indian author Kālidāsa probably lived during the reign of Candragupta II (ca. 380-413). Only three dramas and a few poems of his survive, but he continues to be revered as one of the greatest Sanskrit playwrights and poets.

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© 2023 the complete review

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