The Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Mystique of William Buck

Beat Generation Being A Writer Classics Eastern Fantasy History Language Love Nature Reading Religion Summer Of Love

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:

Listen --

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?"

"Yes."

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.

17 Responses to "The Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Mystique of William Buck"

by Gary Sides on

William Buck was a very wealthy man. He once owned the Anchor Steam Brewery, but I believe sold it to Fritz Maytag in the early 1960's. His family, the Bucks, were early fruit dealers in California who sold out to Pacific Fruit in 1933. His mother, Eva B Buck died in 1990 and is buried beside her son William Buck at the Vacaville Elmira Cemetery. I believe he was a very early bohemian in the San Francisco scene. His wife, Jane Hamner Buck also died young as did his father. Frank Buck,jr.

by Levi Asher on

Hi Gary -- I'm so excited to hear his information! I was hoping this blog post would stir up some answers.

Your statement that he was wealthy is consistent with the reports that he subsidized printings of Sanskrit originals in order to complete his translations. I am googling the Buck family now and finding many new leads. Thanks!

by mtmynd on

When you uncover the causes of his death, I'd appreciate knowing that.

Being so wealthy and so young and married to boot gives me pause to wonder what had happened to this fellow.

by Gary Sides on

Levi, since the following is very interesting and you may not run across this in your googling, there is a long paragraph dealing with William (Bill) Buck in an oral interview of Shirley Staschen Triest published in 1997 that is crucial to understanding the William Buck story. page 280.

"Anyway, Bill Buck was a nebbish. A nebbish is somebody who for some reason just can't quite make it. He was all right, but he just couldn't understand himself. He was obviously smart and able, but he was very unhappy. He was very appreciative of everything you did for him, but he hung around like a weight around your neck; he was always there and wanted to know what's this and what's that. Anyway,one day, not only is Jane (Hamner Buck) gone she would take off once in a while but the two kids are gone. I didn't know where they were, and this went on for several days. finally we found out that she was supposedly living with Wallace, the former librarian who at the time weas living on the hill in Sausalito. Wallace was really her best friend; he later went into a monastery in New York State. Anyway, Jane and Bill had moved to Nevada. Meanwhile I'm incredulous. All of a sudden I'm alone on the barge. Bill, Pam and Buckwheat had all moved out aroud the same time, lock, stock and barrel. Also Bill(Buck) bought the Boobam Bamboo Drum business, and I'm out. Next thing. he tries to buy the barge, unsuccessfully. My mistake by the way, I should have sold it to him (laughter). Next thing, he puts out a book of poetry by Jane and himself and Wally. In the meantime, I'm getting paranoid about what they might do next. In the meantime, I'm getting involved with Maya Angelou.
During this time, all of a sudden, we find out, or I find out that Bill is probably from one of the richest families in California, the Buck family. When I realized he was a multimillionaire, I began to understand why Jane left; she was tired of living a life of poverty. Then Bill Buck bought the Anchor steam brewery. Anchor Steam beer had been one of Jane's favorite things in the world. She introduced me to it at the Crystal Palace in San Francisco. People I remember were saying he had bought her a new Mercedes, which in those days were not ordinary at all. Eventually they moved to Bolinas. Bought a huge house in Bolinas. They went to Thailand in the far east, leaving their kids in charge of some sweet but not necessarily reliable friends of ours, the Simpsons. During that time, our children (the Bucks children), Radha, and Adam especially got polio. Later on they found out that Adam had muscular Dystrophy as well. Radha had a very light case of polio. When they notified Bill and Jane, they didn't come back from asia immediately. That left the Simpsons on the spot, they were not supposed to contact me. I was very upset though. Then when they returned, eventually Bill Buck when mad. He was in a wheelchair and was translating Hindu books. I mean the man did not know any Sanskrit, I don't know how it was done, but through the influence of his family, or maybe through subsidy, anyway, the University of California published it. While he was doing this work, he would lock himself up in the top floor of his house and he wouldn't come down for long periods of time. He finally became psychotic, and his grandmother and Jane had him institutionalized. By this time they had had a son Paul. And after he got out of the institution, he didn't go back to Jane. They had gotton rid of the house in Bolinas, and Jane had another house in Nevada, and now she needed me. So we became friendly again. We remained friendly to the end of her life. By this time Jane had moved three times more. Adam eventually Died."

by TKG on

Hi Levi. I love this stuff as well. It reminded me a bit of Gladys and Xianyi Yang who translated so much stuff from Chinese to English including modern and classic Chinese literature. But they are very different actually and there is a lot known about them, with a nice Wikipedia entry and Xianyi even wrote his autobiography.

This William Buck is easier to find as Bill Buck. The most info was in the oral history of "Bohemianism" in SF. The info from Gary about Anchor Steam helped a lot. Anchor Steam is a beer I knew growing up in the Bay Area. Anchor Porter I always thought was at near Guinness Stout quality for drinking with a good steak dinner.

Here's a link about the Buck family at the Buck foundation page. There's a photo of the young William Benson Buck with his Mom and sister.

http://www.buckfoundation.org/history.html

Despite growing up in the area the Buck family isn't one I recognized before this little mystery. I do know of the Buck Institute and now know where the name comes from.

From the oral history, I think we may be disappointed about Bill Buck. If you read between the lines it makes it seem that maybe Buck simply supported Sanskrit scholars for the translation.

That doesn't mean he didn't go over it all and read all the other translations and write it up in his own words and make it his own work. But it seems he didn't do the Sanskrit translation, at least that's my impression and guess.

I'm sure there are Berkeley professors who know more. The van Noot fellow who wrote the intro probably has knowledge on this.

I didn't see anything about why he died so young. Maybe there is an obit in a Bay Area paper (SF Chronicle or Examiner, or even Sacramento Bee) from the time.

Thanks Levi. This was great.

by Levi Asher on

Gary and TKG -- thank you so much. It is amazing to ask a question on my blog and get such complete and unexpected answers. I have been reading all of this information and now I am even more fascinated … and yes, finally, a picture of Bill Buck (as a kid) can be found on the Buck Foundation page!

I suspected that he was from a wealthy family (how else could a 22-year-old devote his life to Sanskrit?). And I'm not going to be too disappointed if it turns out that the translation effort was more of a group effort than a singular one -- that does not, in my opinion, reduce the scope of Buck's achievement. If he could combine the separate efforts of other Sanskrit translators to get this work done, more power to him. The quality of the work speaks for itself.

I wonder if anyone can find information about why he died so young. No answers available as far as I've found yet.

I suppose it's because I'm on the East Coast that I am completely unfamiliar with the Buck Foundation and the history of the Anchor Steam Brewery. I will buy a six pack of Anchor Steam in Bill Buck's honor this weekend!!!

by Eamon on

Interesting stuff Levi. I remember reading parts of this book and thinking "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" and "Siddhartha." Another favorite was "The Tao of Pooh." I went through a phase where I read all of those books you mentioned. I'd like to hear more about William Buck and love the comments here.

by Krish Tewari on

Thank you for finding this information. I'm reading Buck's Ramayana (I started it a couple of years ago and then real life got in the way). I'm re-reading it and the language is beautiful and I also have wondered who this William Buck is.

by Sam on

I just discovered the William Buck publication of Mahabharata, and I wondered about this William Buck person. And through Google, I landed on this website.

Regarding Buck's source materials:

The published book itself explicitly says (in the intro and preface) that Buck was working not from his own knowledge of Sanskrit language but rather from an 11-volume, over-5,000-page English translation of Mahabharata, made by Indians, in India.

I don't have the Buck book with me right now, but I'm pretty sure I remember it saying that the Indian multi-volume English version got bogged down in publication (over financing), and Mr. Buck helped them over the hump with the needed money.

So, as an earlier commenter ("TKG") has guessed, Williiam Buck WAS subsidizing translation, done by other people -- but not in any under-cover manner -- it's out in the open.

I'm very glad I got to read your blog write-up, and the earlier comments -- all very informative.

Sam

by Baruch on

Like many others, I've wonder about William Buck, his passion for the epics, and his brief lifetime.

I'd always suspected some sort of illness, because of Buck's poignant references to time and the illusory nature of reality. I know that this is a mainstay of Hindu belief, but Buck's comments always seemed to contain hints of great sadness.

I feel skeptical about Buck "going mad" as was claimed. Nothing in his work sounds "mad" to me.

At any rate, I'm glad to have found this information. It puts a human face on William Buck, even if it's a particularly sad face.

by Leon Gauthier on

This is a very interesting blog; I enjoyed reading it. Being the anal character that I am, I had to point out one small flaw in you telling of the Mahabharata:

"Its most well-known scene is that of the apparition of Krishna in a chariot driven by Arjuna, a heroic soldier who suffers a Hamlet-like moment of hesitation before going into battle."

Actually, Krishna is the driver of the chariot.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks Leon -- of course you're right, I will fix that now.

I think what I meant is that the chariot was occupied by Arjuna, but of course Krishna was the driver.

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