The Rigveda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India. Translated by Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton. South Asia Research. New York. Oxford University Press, 2014. 3 vols. Pp. 1693. $420.
It is a great pleasure to review a volume, or rather a set of three volumes, which represents an outstanding achievement, and a significant milestone not only in Vedic and Sanskrit studies, but also in South Asian studies in its widest sense. This is the first time the entire Rigveda (RV), the earliest literary monument of India, has been translated into English for over one hundred years. The only previous complete English translation, that of Rev. R. T. H. Griffith from 1889-92, is so outdated philologically as to be unusable (although unfortunately it is sometimes still used). During the twentieth century complete or nearly complete translations have been published in German (Geldner 1951, finished, apart from an introduction, by the time of his death in 1929), French (Renou 1955-69), and Russian (Elizarenkova 1989-99). A new German translation (Witzel, Goto, and others 2007-) is underway but to date it only covers Mandalas I-V out of ten Mandalas or Books.
This new English translation by Jamison and Brereton scrupulously recognizes and builds on previous RV scholarship, but it attempts to offer a completely fresh interpretation of the whole text. The individual poems are treated as complex and refined pieces of ancient oral literature, where the linguistic expression is of paramount importance in conveying the hymn's "message" and distinguishing it from others with similar themes. At the same time the RV receives full recognition as a liturgical composition imbued with references to ritual practices, which were the precursors of the later elaborate Vedic Srauta rituals.
Jamison and Brereton's publication also has a considerable advantage over the anthologies of selected RV hymns, and over the new complete German translation that is appearing by installments, in that the authors have achieved an overview of all 1028 separate compositions that make up the RV and the extensive Western scholarly literature devoted to them. Insights from one composition are regularly applied to elucidating obscurities and problems in others, and every attempt has been made to harmonize the translations of the two authors. (The distribution of hymns between the authors is detailed on pp. 83-84 of the introduction.)
For Vedicists and historical linguists this publication contains demonstrations of how interesting dozens of RV hymns are which have not found their way into anthologies or which have been neglected because they have been judged too obscure in content or difficult to construe syntactically (e.g., the hymns to Indra, II.11, II.13, II.15, which have been eclipsed by the popularity of II.12 with the refrain "he, o peoples, is Indra," or the difficult but linguistically interesting I.46 to the Asvins, or the puzzling VI.48 in several lyric meters which includes three mysterious stanzas whispered to the god Pusan). For the student of South Asia in the broader sense, who perhaps does not...