I recently heard about a British Library project to reassemble and digitize a 17th century illustrated edition of the Ramayana, a classical Hindu epic. This sounds pretty cool, and it reminded me of a different edition of the Ramayana that I once owned myself.
This was just a cheap pocket paperback, a novelization of the great poem, published alongside a similar edition of the other great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. These two books, the life work of a young American translator named William Buck, were designed to be accessible and enjoyable versions of their extremely long and complex originals. Of course the great epic poems had to be condensed and simplified to fit into these forms, but the popular paperbacks provide a rich reading experience that must capture at least some of the significance of their gigantic counterparts.
William Buck’s Mahabharata is the one I read all the way through and remember most vividly, because it’s a colorful, wise and beautiful long tale that begins with the household altercation that resulted in an elephant head being placed on the body of a boy named Ganesha, the son of Shiva, who is noted (in the story that surrounds the story) as the scribe who is writing the text:
For three years Vuasa composed the Mahabharata in his mind, and when it was finished, he summoned Ganesha to be his scribe.
Shiva’s son came and asked, “Why call me?”
Vyasa replied, “Do you not remove all obstacles and barriers? You are the god of thieves and writers. Write down my book as I tell it to you.”
Ganesha swished his trunk around. “OM! But there are books and books. Is yours a very good one?”
Ganesha laughed, and his huge belly shook. “Well just let me get rid of all these things …” He set down the conch shell and the lotus, the discus and axe that he held in his four hands. “… and I shall write for you; but if once you stop the story, I will leave and never return.”
Vyasa said, “On this condition: if you don’t understand what I mean, you must write no more until you do.”
“Done! The very day I was born I made my first mistake, and by that path I have sought wisdom ever since.”
Buck began translating the Mahabharata in 1955, the year Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl, and his production seems to reflect a nascent Beat sensibility. This can be seen in the fresh and bright language, in phrases like “you are the god of thieves and writers”, in the idea that the entire Mahabharata must be proclaimed in a single burst of breath, and in the idea that Ganesha must completely understand the story as he is writing it down. I don’t know if Jack Kerouac ever read William Buck’s translations, but he would have approved.
The Mahabharata is a morality tale about a war that was fought between two family clans in the north India region between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. Its most well-known scene is that of the apparition of Krishna in a chariot occupied by Arjuna, a heroic soldier who suffers a Hamlet-like moment of hesitation before going into battle. This scene provides the setting for the Bhagavad Gita, the most famous section of the work. The rest of the tale, as told by William Buck, is the legend of the family that fought this war. It includes creation myths, encounters with nature, romantic confusions and sexual escapades, journeys into forests, cosmic games of dice.
I can’t remember where I obtained my own copies of these paperbacks, but I know I read them while I was studying philosophy and religion in college in the 1980s, and that I recognized the secondhand paperbacks as relics from the Summer of Love, clearly designed to appeal to hippies who listened to Ravi Shankar and George Harrison and to fit into bookshelves alongside Trout Fishing in America, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five, Steal This Book, Soul on Ice, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, A Child’s Garden of Grass, The Joy of Sex, The Tao of Physics, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Siddhartha. The strange and short life story of William Buck seemed to add to the sense of a hippie mystique.
Every edition I have ever seen of these books (I lost my first pair, which looked like the ones pictured above, but was able to purchase new editions of Buck’s Mahabharata and Ramayana on Amazon) contains the same short introductory story, which relates that William Buck was a 22-year-old in Carson City, Nevada when he discovered an ancient Bhagavad Gita in a library. He became a Sanskrit expert in order to translate these books, struggled to find original texts to translate, toiled to nearly insane dimensions to untangle the obscure narratives and characters encapsulated within, and died in 1970 at the age of 37 while working on a third epic, the Harivamsa. That is the only information about William Buck I have ever been able to find.
I’ve tried hard to find more information about William Buck. What did he look like? (No photograph, as far as I know, has ever accompanied the books.) How did he get such a cool name, and why did he die so young? The biggest question of all is this: how did a 22-year-old in Nevada manage to learn Sanskrit, and how did a non-professional translator manage to do such a great job with these two impossible texts?
Other readers must have asked the same question, because a Google search brings up several admiring mentions of William Buck, all containing the same sparse facts listed above and none beyond. It reminds me of an old joke about Homer: “Did you hear the news? They discovered that Homer did not write The Oddysey and The Iliad. It was a different Greek blind poet with the same name.” The joke, of course, is that we know nothing about Homer except that he was a Greek blind poet who wrote The Oddysey and The Iliad.
Today, one might say “Did you hear the news? William Buck did not translate the Mahabharata and Ramayana. It was a different 22-year-old in Carson City, Nevada with the same name.” Indeed, the name of William Buck seems to rise to epic proportions itself. The Mahabharata, like many great epics, is a tale within a tale within a tale. The mysterious William Buck has always felt to me like a character in the story that surrounds the story that surrounds the story — scribbling madly like Ganesha but never failing to understand.