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An Eastern reading list from Oxford World’s Classics

By Kirsty Doole


The great works of the Eastern world have provided inspiration for this month’s Oxford World’s Classics reading list. From those you have probably heard of (like the Kamasutra) to those you may not have (such as The Recognition of Sakuntala), these classic works provide a window on the classical worlds of India, China, and the Middle East.

Sayings of the Buddha, edited and translated by Rupert Gethin

Buddhist religious and philosophical beliefs derive from the teachings of Gotama the Buddha, a wandering ascetic in India during the fifth century BCE. One of the main sources for knowledge of his teachings is the four Pali Nikayas, or ‘collections’ of his sayings. Written in the ancient Indian language Pali, which is closely related to Sanskrit, the Nikayas are among the oldest of all Buddhist texts.

This selection of the Buddha’s sayings reflect the full variety of the Pali Nikayas, covering the Buddha’s biography, philosophical discourse, instruction on morality, meditation, and his ideas on the spiritual life.

Myths of Mesopotamia, edited and translated by Stephanie Dalley

The ancient civilization of Mesopotamia was located between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The myths collected here, originally written in cuneiform on clay tablets, include the Creation and the Flood, and the famous Epic of Gilgamesh, the tale of a man of great strength, whose heroic quest for immortality is dashed through one moment of weakness.

Stephanie Dalley, who translated and edited this volume for Oxford World’s Classics, may be familiar to readers as the author of The Mystery Of The Hanging Garden Of Babylon, a new book that questions whether the Hanging Garden of Babylon was really in Babylon at all.

Statue of Laozi in Quanzhou, China.

Daodejing by Laozi; edited and translated by Edmund Ryden; introduction by Benjamin Penny

The Daodejing by Laozi is one of the most important texts in the philosophical tradition of Daoism, and is one of the most widely-known texts in China. Also called the Classic of the Way and the Life-Force, it expresses the main beliefs of Daoism, and upholds it as a way of life as well as a philosophy and religion. The dominant image is of the Way, the mysterious path through the whole cosmos modelled on the Milky Way. A life-giving stream, the Way gives rise to all things and enables the individual, and society as a whole, to harmonize the various demands of daily life and achieve a more profound level of understanding.

The Recognition of Sakuntala by Kalidasa; translated by W. J. Johnson

The Recognition of Sakuntala is a play in seven acts originally written in Sanskrit in the fourth century CE. It follows the relationship between King Dusyanta and Sakuntala, a hermitage girl, as they fall in love, are separated by a curse, and are ultimately reunited. Overwhelmingly erotic in tone, in peformance The Recognition of Sakuntala aimed to produce an experience of aesthetic rapture in the audience, akin to a mystical experience.

Arabian Nights’ Entertainment, edited by Robert L. Mack

The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment is famous as being the first literary appearance of Sinbad, Aladdin, and Ali Baba, among others.

The Sultan Schahriar’s misguided resolution to shelter himself from the possible infidelities of his wives leads to an outbreak of barbarity in his kingdoms and a reign of terror in his court, stopped only by the resourceful Scheherazade. Scheherazade nightly postpones Schahriar’s murderous intent by telling him tales that have entered our language like no others. The stories contained in this ‘store house of ingenious fiction’ initiate a pattern of literary reference and influence which today remains as powerful and intense as it ever was.

Pañcatantra: The Book of India’s Folk Wisdom, edited and translated by Patrick Olivelle

The Pañcatantra is the most famous collection of fables in India and was one of the first Indian books to be translated into a Western language. A significant influence on the Arabian Nights and the Fables of La Fontaine, the Pañcatantra teaches the principles of good government through the medium of animal stories. Its positive attitude towards life and its advocacy of ambition and enterprise counters any preconceived ideas of passivity and other-worldliness in ancient Indian society.

The Bodhicaryavatara by Sanideva; edited by Paul Williams; translated by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton

Written in India in the early eighth century AD, Santideva’s Bodhicaryavatara became one of the most popular accounts of the Buddhist’s spiritual path. It takes as its subject the profound desire to become a Buddha and save all beings from suffering, enacted by a Bodhisattva. Santideva not only sets out what the Bodhisattva must do and become, he also invokes the intense feelings of aspiration which underlie such a commitment.

Important as a manual of training among Mahayana Buddhists, especially in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the Bodhicaryavatara continues to be used as the basis for teaching by modern Buddhist teachers.

Kamasutra by Mallanaga Vatsyayana; edited and translated by Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar

“When the wheel of sexual ecstasy is in full motion, there is no textbook at all, and no order.”

There aren’t many people who haven’t heard of the third century CE manual of erotic love. But it’s about much more than just sexual positions. It covers the topics of finding a partner, maintaining power in a marriage, committing adultery, living as or with a courtesan, and using drugs. Composed in Sanskrit, the literary language of ancient India, it combines an encyclopaedic coverage of all imaginable aspects of sex with a closely observed sexual psychology and a dramatic, novelistic narrative of seduction, consummation, and disentanglement.

Kirsty Doole is Publicity Manager for Oxford World’s Classics, amongst other things.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter, Facebook, and the OUPblog.

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Image credit: Statue of Laozi in Quanzhou, China. By Thanato [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons  

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