What made you think of translating the Isha Upanishad?
The Isha Upanishad is my favourite Upanishad. Gandhiji said, if all the Upanishads and all the other scriptures were reduced to dust and ashes and only the first stanza of the Isha Upanishad survived, Hinduism would live forever. It touches the very core of your being. Its simplicity is its magic, not its religious undertones. In fact, it is not even religious in that sense. It’s the silver lining playbook of your life. Pick it up whenever you are sad or disappointed or feeling lonely. It will help you rediscover the real truths of life, the amazing mysteries.
The Isha Upanishad is in poetic form. Was that one of the reasons why it attracted you?
Of course. Poetry, like music, is the simplest and the ultimate act of creativity. That is why we all turn to poetry in moments of our deepest despair. We find joy in the words of others who have lived through the same experience and found grace, beauty and joy in the midst of sadness. That is how Hindi film music became so popular. Some of the greatest poets of the Urdu language, such as Sahir, Faiz, Kaifi, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, began writing poems that became memorable songs. People identified with the words of these songs. It became their own words of love, hope, anguish and joy.
How did this book ‘transform’ you?
All writing is life altering. The Isha is special because it talks of eternal verities, truth in the larger sense, life as know it, see it, feel it. It is like the Psalms or the Dhammapada, rich in imagery, powerful in its impact. It gave me insights I had missed in earlier drafts. Every new draft was part of the process of transformation.
How much, according to you, is lost in translation?
Most people say beauty is skin deep and not lasting, for me beauty is everything. Every translator sees an original work differently. Who will read an academically correct, boring treatise pretending to faithfully capture the nuances of the original? I chase the poetry at the risk of being unfaithful at times. As Robert Frost once said, poetry is that which gets lost in translation. I don’t let that happen.
Are the illustrations by Sunandini Banerjee an interpretation of your translation or an interpretation of the original text?
As far as I know she worked from the translation I sent her and her art has turned out to be very exciting. In fact, she has just been acknowledged as one of the world’s 30 top book designers and the only one from India. So we are all quite excited and getting ready to do another Upanishad now, the Mundaka and a collection of 10th and 11th century love poems that are an absolute delight — wicked, sexy, and yet in a strange kind of way, very moving and beautiful stuff. That’s why I love the classics. They keep surprising you all the time. Thank God, there were no conscience keepers at that time, no moral police, no censors. Just a celebration of life and living.