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Songs of Ecstasy (Tantric and Devotional Songs from Colonial Bengal)

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Item Code: NAQ828
Author: Hugh B. Urban
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2001
ISBN: 0195139003
Pages: 206
Other Details 9.40 X 6.30 inch
Weight 440 gm
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Book Description
Translator's Note

"The Secret Mastery of Difference"

The translator is the secret master of die difference of languages, a difference he is not out to abolish, but rather, he puts to use as he brings violent or subtle changes to bear on his own language, thus reawakening within it the presence of that which is at origin different in the original. (Maurice Blanchot)

This book is a companion volume to another book, The Economics of Ecstasy: Tantra, Secrecy, and Power in Colonial Bengal, also published by Oxford University Press. Whereas The Economics of Ecstasy engages the theoretical issues of secrecy and concealment, as it played in one particular Tantric sect known as the kartabhajas, the Songs of Ecstasy is a body of translations meant to accompany the first text. Together, I would hope, these two volumes open up a surprising and revealing new window, both onto the world of colonial India and onto the larger issues of secrecy, discourse, and power in the history of religions as a whole. Those of you who have already read The Economics of Ecstasy may therefore wish to skip over most of chapter I (this volume), which summarizes the main arguments of the companion book.

From the outset, however, I should also admit the limitations of this book. The songs translated here are surely among the most difficult and most esoteric songs known in the Bengali language. They are, moreover, songs that are clearly rooted in a specific social and historical context: the context of colonial Calcuttt at the dawn of the nineteenth century. Hence, rather ironically, a huge amount of the language and imagery of these songs no longer has much relevance to contemporary Kartabhaja practitioners, who will often either ignore or else strongly re-interpret the language drawn from a century before. A large portion of the Kartabhaja songs, for example, use the imagery of the British East India "Company" (kompani), imported goods from England, and the mercantile trade in the bazaars of the colonial center little of which has any meaning for contemporary devotees. Therefore, in my own attempts to make sense of these enigmatic songs, I have had to go back and resituate them within the context of colonial Calcuttta and its environs at the dawn of the nineteenth century. And in to doing, I have often had to disagree in many fundamental ways though always respectfully with the interpretations of contemporary Kartabhaja devotees, for whom much of this early colonial language is no longer relevant and is often ignored or covered over. To read these songs historically, therefore, often means to read them against the grain of the ways in which they are read and used by disciples today.

As such, the Songs of Ecstasy raise, in the most acute way, all the critical debates in contemporary translation theory and in the problem of crosscultural under-standing as a whole. First, and most basically, they raise the question of whether we ever really can translate a body of esoteric texts-that is, texts deliberately concealed within highly enigmatic and encrypted language. As Arthur Schopenhauer put it, "Poems cannot be translated, they can only be rewritten, which is always quite an ambiguous undertaking" and this undertaking is perhaps only infinitely more ambiguous and complex in the case of specifically esoteric poems.2 Originally designed to be transmitted in narrowly controlled channels between masters and disciples, the Songs of Ecstasy are intended to generate an intense experience of gnosis and spiritual ecstasy, something that cannot be communicated in ordi-nary exoteric language. Some scholars, such as Edward Conze, have therefore con-deeded that the esoteric discourse of Tantra simply cannot and ethically, should not be translated or understood by anyone other than initiated insiders:"There is something both indecent and ridiculous about the public discussion of the esoteric in words that can be generally understood."

Second, these songs also raise the larger ethical issue of translation in a postcolonial and some would say, neocolonial world order: namely, should we even try to penetrate, uncover, and translate the esoteric teachings of a formerly colonized people, recasting them and thereby assimilating them into the now globally hegemonic discourse of American English? What right does yet another American scholar have tee come and tell Indians what their religious and cultural traditions "really mean?" In his work Kali’s Child, for example, Jeffrey kripal at tempted to delve into the secrets of the great Bengali mystic, Sri Ramakrsna, by retranslating the original Bengali texts and unveiling some of the saint's deep sexual conflicts and homoerotic impulses. This same book, which won a major award from the American Academy of Religions, faced intense controversy, scandal, opposition, and finally censorship among the Indian community itself, many of whom felt that it was yet another example of Western cultural imperialism and exploitation.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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