About 2000 years ago there lived a Chinese Emperor, Hsi Hwang Ti. He was very angry with his subjects for a strange reason. They read a great deal and those who could not read listened to those who could. Now, Hsi Hwang Ti could not be sure that all the books written – history, philosophy and fiction – sang only his glory or that of his forefathers. And who knew there might be authors who had even dared to criticize the Emperor himself!
In any case, thought Hsi Hwang Ti, the people had no business to read and bother about things that did not concern them. They ought to work hard, be loyal and pay their taxes. Only thus could peace be maintained.
So he ordered that all books be destroyed. Books in those days were blocks of wood with words carved on them. They were not easy to hide. The Emperor’s men combed the empire, going from town to town, village to village, making bonfires of all the books they could lay their hands on. That was the time when the Great Wall of China was being constructed. Many books – huge round logs – were rolled into the Wall and used instead of stones. Sometimes scholars who refused to part with their books were buried with them in the gigantic Wall!
The years passed. The Emperor died. But a few years after his death, almost all the books which were believed to have been destroyed, reappeared written on new polished blocks. Among them were the works of Confucius, the great philosopher, which are read by people all over the world to this day.
This is not the only instance of an attempt to destroy books.
When the University of Nalanda was at the height of its glory in the seventh century, Hiuen Tsang, the famous Chinese traveller and scholar who was studying there at that time, dreamt one night that the beautiful buildings of the university had disappeared and instead of teachers and pupils the place was full of buffaloes! This dream almost came true when three sections of the large library of the university were burnt down by invaders.
Once there was a great library in the ancient city of Alexandria. It contained manuscripts collected from several countries. Hundreds of people from many lands including India went to study there. But this invaluable library was deliberately burnt down in the seventh century. The invader who destroyed it argued that if the innumerable books did not say what the sacred book of his faith said, they ought not to exist and if they said what his sacred book had already said, they did not need to exist!
So, many a time books have been destroyed but the books believed to have been lost or destroyed have reappeared either in their old form or in a new form or in a new form. After all, books are a product of man’s wisdom, experience, knowledge, feeling, imagination and vision. So, even if books are destroyed, these qualities in men do not perish. The last words of a Danish priest of the second century, Ben Joseph Akiba, who was burnt alive along with a book of wisdom he had compiled are worth remembering here: “The paper burns, but the words fly away.”
These are people who love books better than their life. They preserve the books they love at great risks. According to India tradition, for instance, God was so fond of books that once when there was a deluge and everything was destroyed by water, He took the form of a fish and rescued the Vedas. There are others who do not mind if their favourite book is lost for they have memorized the entire text.
In ancient times people had a remarkable knack for memorizing texts. The Iliad and the Odyssey, two epics of Homer the great Greek poet who lived 900 years before the birth of Christ, were remembered by professional reciters generation after generation. These epics together consisted of 28,000 lines. Some bards could even remember four times that length.
This gift of memory immediately brings to mind the Vedas, India’s earliest books and according to many, the world’s. For a long long time, the verses of the Vedas were not written down, but passed on orally from father to son or guru to disciple.
The Vedas were composed in an ancient form of Sanskrit. Although we have always had several languages in India, Sanskrit in olden times was used all over the country. Poets and scholars from every corner of India have contributed to Indian literature through the Sanskrit language.
The philosophy and sciences of ancient India reached distant lands. Along with them travelled to far-off countries beyond the Himalayas and across the wide seas many a jewel from India’s grand treasury of tales – the Kathasaritasagara, the Panchatantra and the Jatakas. It is well known that many of the parables of the Bible, the fables of Aesop of Greece, the folk-tales collected by the Grimm brothers of Germany and the tales retold by Hans Andersen of Denmark had their origin in India.
India’s literary past is indeed great. This series is only a small window on that vast colourful garden. With the years you will sample and enjoy great books like the Gita, the Yogavasistha, the Tripitaka, the Dhammapada, the Granth Saheb, and the Jnaneswari apart from the books about which we will tell you in the next few episodes of this series.
From Manoj Das, 1973, Books Forever, National Book Trust, India
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