Arthur W. Ryder

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Arthur W. Ryder
Arthur W. Ryder.png
Born8 March 1877 Edit this on Wikidata
Died21 March 1938 Edit this on Wikidata (aged 61)
LanguageEnglish language Edit this on Wikidata

Arthur William Ryder (March 8, 1877 – March 21, 1938)[1] was a professor of Sanskrit at the University of California, Berkeley. He is best known for translating a number of Sanskrit works into English, including the Panchatantra and the Bhagavad Gita.

In the words of G. R. Noyes,[2]

Taken as a whole, Ryder's work as a translator is probably the finest ever accomplished by an American. It is also probably the finest body of translation from the Sanskrit ever accomplished by one man, if translation be regarded as a branch of literary art, not merely as a faithful rendering of the meaning of the original text.


Ryder was born on March 8, 1877, at Oberlin, Ohio, in the United States. He had his early education at Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, from which he graduated in June 1894, to join Harvard University. He got his A.B. degree from Harvard in June 1897. After teaching Latin and literature at Andover for a year, he went to Germany for graduate studies. He studied at the University of Berlin and the University of Leipzig, from which he got the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in 1901, with a dissertation on the Rbhus in the Ṛgveda. He was an instructor in Sanskrit at Harvard University from 1902 until January 1906, when he moved to the University of California at Berkeley,[1] to its linguistics department,[3] as an instructor in Sanskrit and German.[4] He became an instructor in Sanskrit alone later in the same year, became assistant professor in 1908, associate professor in 1919, and professor in 1925.[4] From his arrival at Berkeley until his death, Sanskrit was a separate department with Ryder as chairman and sole member, after which it was absorbed into the Department of Classics.[4] When in summer 1920 Berkeley first began offering courses in religion and religious education, Ryder was among the faculty, along with Herbert Francis Evans, Walter Goodnow Everett, Morris Jastrow Jr., and Walter B. Pitkin.[5]

He was a member of the American Oriental Society and the American Philological Association.[6] He was also a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and wrote the society's annual poem for its meeting in 1912.[7][8][9] It is also said that he was at one time ranked one of the two best chess players on the Pacific Coast.[10]


In 1905, when still at Harvard, Ryder translated Śudraka's Mṛcchakatika into English as The Little Clay Cart, which was published as volume 9 of the Harvard Oriental Series. He translated Kālidāsa's Abhijñānaśākuntalam, Meghadūta, and other works, as well as the Bhagavad Gita[11] and several volumes of verse translated from works by Bhartṛhari and others. His prose translations included the Panchatantra in 1925,[12][13][14] excerpts from which were published as Gold's Gloom,[15] Daṇḍin's Daśakumāracarita as The Ten Princes of Dandin, and Twenty-Two Goblins,[16] a translation of Vetala Panchavimshati. He also wrote excellent original verse which he circulated privately, but did not publish.[1]

Some verses from his translations were set to music.[17][18] His Little Clay Cart was enacted at the Hearst Greek Theatre in Berkeley in 1907,[19] a production that included a real live elephant on stage.[20] Also enacted there in 1914 was Shakuntala, which was performed by the Mountain Play Association, who were invited to perform there[20] after their performance in a natural amphitheatre on top of Mount Tamalpais, California.[21] These two were the only Indian dramas performed there until 2004.[19][22] His Little Clay Cart was also enacted in New York City in 1924 at the Neighborhood Playhouse,[23][24] which was then an off-Broadway theatre, at the Theater de Lys in 1953,[25] and at the Potboiler Art Theater in Los Angeles in 1926, when it featured actors such as James A. Marcus, Symona Boniface and Gale Gordon.[26] Following his death in 1938, some of his original poems were published in a posthumous memorial volume with a biography, along with several of his translated verses.[2] This was the only book of original poetry published by the University of California Press for several decades.[27]

Views on scholarship and education[edit]

He was known for his love of the language, preferring to publish whatever most delighted him, rather than scholarly articles.[28] In fact, he was outspoken in his contempt for such articles, holding the view that Sanskrit ought to be studied not for philological reasons, but for the great literature it opened.[29]

Scholarship is less than sense
Therefore seek intelligence.

— an epigram Ryder translated from the Panchatantra and quoted often.

Perhaps for this reason, Time magazine described him as the "greatest Sanskrit student of his day",[30] and an Italian Sanskritist[31] said of him: "Ten men like that would make a civilization".

At a time when the university curriculum was undergoing upheavals, Ryder was a staunch defender of the traditional system of education in the classics. In his ideal world, the university curriculum would have been mostly limited to Latin, Greek, and mathematics, with subjects like history, philosophy, physics, and languages like Sanskrit, Hebrew, German, and French being allowed to serious students only later, as a sort of reward. The then-new disciplines like psychology and sociology were dismissed "out of hand as not worth damning."[4]

Style of translation[edit]

His translations were noted for their high fidelity to the originals[1][11][32] despite his practice of translating into lively and natural conversational language[33] using rhyme and modern English idiom:[28][34][35]

Your nature is a thing you cannot beat;
It serves as guide in everything you do:
Give a dog all the meat that he can eat
You can't prevent his gnawing at a shoe.

— from the Hitopadesha.

In particular, his translation of the Shakuntala was regarded as the best at the time,[36] his "accurate and charming" translation of the Panchatantra remains popular and highly regarded, while his translation of the Bhagavad Gita was not so successful.[37]


Despite being described as "a loner with a caustic wit", as an educator he was encouraging and generous toward students, and consequently he found many devoted students.[29] Harold F. Cherniss described him as "a friend half divine in his great humanity".[2] When Anthony Boucher, who had been a student of his at Berkeley, wrote his novel The Case of the Seven of Calvary, he based the lead character of "Dr. Ashwin", professor of Sanskrit, after Ryder. (Ashvin is a Sanskrit word meaning a "rider".)[38]

Another of his devoted students was J. Robert Oppenheimer. In 1933, Oppenheimer, then 29, was a young physics professor at Berkeley and studied Sanskrit under Ryder. Ryder introduced him to the Bhagavad Gita, which they read together in the original language. Later Oppenheimer cited it as one of the most influential books to shape his philosophy of life, famously recalling the Gita at the Trinity test.[39] He described his teacher thus:[30]

"Ryder felt and thought and talked as a Stoic ... a special subclass of the people who have a tragic sense of life, in that they attribute to human actions the completely decisive role in the difference between salvation and damnation. Ryder knew that a man could commit irretrievable error, and that in the face of this fact, all others were secondary." Tartly intolerant of humbug, laziness, stupidity and deceit, Ryder thought that "Any man who does a hard thing well is automatically respectable and worthy of respect."

Ryder died on March 21, 1938, of a heart attack,[2] while teaching an advanced class with only one student.[23][29]



Although Ryder disdained "scholarship", he published a few scholarly papers early in his career.

  • Arthur William Ryder (1901), Die Ṛbhu's im Ṛgveda., Druck von C. Bertelsmann, ISBN 9780524022320. Dissertation (in German).
  • Ryder, Arthur W. (1902), "Note on bṛhácchandas, AV. iii. 12. 3", Journal of the American Oriental Society, American Oriental Society, 23: 77–78, doi:10.2307/592381, ISSN 0003-0279, JSTOR 592381.
  • Ryder, Arthur W. (1902), "Krṣṇanātha's Commentary on the Bengal Recension of the Çakuntalā", Journal of the American Oriental Society, American Oriental Society, 23: 79–83, doi:10.2307/592382, ISSN 0003-0279, JSTOR 592382.
  • Ryder, Arthur W. (1906), "Notes on the Mṛcchakaṭika", Journal of the American Oriental Society, American Oriental Society, 27: 418–454, doi:10.2307/592869, ISSN 0003-0279, JSTOR 592869.

Besides books, some were published in the University of California Chronicle.

Original poems
  • Arthur W. Ryder (1912), "Tolstoi—A Critical Symposium", University of California Chronicle, vol. 14, pp. 430–436
  • Arthur William Ryder; George Rapall Noyes (1939), Original poems: together with translations from the Sanskrit, University of California Press


  1. ^ a b c d University of California: In Memoriam 1938
  2. ^ a b c d George Rapall Noyes (1939), "Arthur William Ryder", Original Poems, together with translations from the Sanskrit (PDF), University of California Press
  3. ^ "From Gazette Files: Twenty Years Ago Today", Berkeley Daily Gazette, p. 4, Jan 7, 1926, Through the efforts of President Benjamin Ide Wheeler the department of linguistics at the University of California is to be enriched by the acquisition of Professor Arthur W. Ryder of Harvard University, one of the greatest authorities in the world on Sanskrit language and literature.
  4. ^ a b c d Joseph Fontenrose (January 1, 1982), Classics at Berkeley: The First Century 1869–1970, Department of Classics, UCB
  5. ^ "Religious Courses Taught on Campus", Berkeley Daily Gazette, p. 8, April 27, 1920
  6. ^ John W. Leonard; Albert Nelson Marquis (1913), Who's who in America, Marquis Who's Who, p. 1816
  7. ^ "Phi Beta Kappa to Hold Reunion", Berkeley Daily Gazette, p. 2, May 6, 1912
  8. ^ "College President to Deliver Oration and Professor Ryder to Read Poem", San Francisco Call, vol. 111, no. 155, p. 9, 3 May 1912
  9. ^ Arthur W. Ryder (1912), "Tolstoi—A Critical Symposium", University of California Chronicle, vol. 14, pp. 430–436
  10. ^ Scott Alan Burgess, ed. (1993), Adventures of a freelancer: the literary exploits and autobiography of Stanton A. Coblentz, Wildside Press LLC, pp. 37–38, ISBN 978-0-89370-438-4, "The publication of my poems brought me new contacts. Above all, I think of Arthur W. Ryder. My first meeting with this professor of Sanskrit and notable writer on Hindu lore occurred before the days of my Examiner appearance, and at the cost of a brief diversion I will tell of it. One evening the members of the university chess team played a team from the faculty. As a sharer of the not highly esteemed, not greatly contested honor of belonging to the student team, I was one of the warriors who was to charge with knights and rooks against a member of the teaching staff. I arrived at the hall of combat aglow with hope— the pride of recent victory over a member of the Stanford team (in a long-drawn game, a last-ditch affair won by a single pawn). Still, the narrowness of my conquest did not make me any the less confident. Now to bring one of the professors crashing into the dust! I found myself seated opposite a quiet-looking, middle-aged man with a clear-cut virile face, who seemed placidly unaware of his impending doom. But something, alas, went wrong at the game's very start. After a mere half-dozen moves, I was hopelessly ensnarled and, after another two or three moves, I was entirely stunned by that most disheartening word, "Checkmate!" How had it happened? In my humiliation, I could not explain. But the flush on my cheeks was somewhat relieved when I learned that my opponent was ranked as one of the two best chess players on the Pacific Coast.
  11. ^ a b Charles Johnston (February 23, 1930), "A New Translation of The Bhagavad-Gita", The New York Times, p. 68
  12. ^ "The Wisdom of Kashmir", The New York Times, p. E4, October 18, 1925
  13. ^ "Old Sanskrit Legends Are Given in English", The Evening News, San Jose, California, p. 8, Oct 17, 1925
  14. ^ "New Sanskrit Tales in English Volumes", Lewiston Evening Journal, Chicago, p. 9, Oct 15, 1925
  15. ^ Charles Johnston (November 29, 1925), "In India Too There Lived An Uncle Remus: Ancient Tales of the Panchatantra Now Appear in English", The New York Times, p. BR2
  16. ^ "Swapping Heads Presents Queer Family 'Mix-Up'", The Evening News, San Jose, California, p. 5, Dec 24, 1917, OCLC 32749491
  17. ^ Lied and Art Song Texts Page[permanent dead link]
  18. ^ "Singer and Cellist Will Give Concert", Berkeley Daily Gazette, p. 4, Oct 2, 1919, The 'Arrows of Love Fly True,' in the third number, is a translation from the Sanskrit made by Professor Arthur W. Ryder of the university and set to music by H. B. Pasmore.
  19. ^ a b Archived 2012-02-16 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ a b "Famous Play to be Given in this City", Berkeley Daily Gazette, p. 3, June 5, 1914
  21. ^ "Hindu Drama on a California Mountain-Side". The Independent. Jul 20, 1914. Retrieved August 23, 2012.
  22. ^ Sudipto Chatterjee, South Asian American Theatre: (Un/Re-)Painting the Town Brown
  23. ^ a b "PROF. A. W. RYDER, OF SANSKRIT FAME", The New York Times, March 22, 1938
  24. ^ Lauren Hobbs Sexton, The Distance Traveled: Little Clay Cart in Athens, Georgia Archived 2010-07-02 at the Wayback Machine
  25. ^ Milton Bracker (June 7, 1953), "Story of a Determined Lady", The New York Times, p. X3
  26. ^ Edwin Schallert (December 9, 1926), "'Clay-Cart' Hero Wins: 'Twas Ever Thus—Even in the Sanskrit", Los Angeles Times, p. A9
  27. ^ August Frugé (1993), "Chapter 15: The Poetry-Hating Director", A Skeptic Among Scholars: August Frugé on University Publishing, University of California Press, p. 217
  28. ^ a b Eda Lou Walton (November 19, 1939), "Translations from the Sanskrit epics", The New York Times, p. BR2
  29. ^ a b c Henry F. May (1993), Three Faces of Berkeley: Competing Ideologies in the Wheeler Era, 1899-1919, Center for Studies in Higher Education and Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, Berkeley, ISBN 978-0-87772-342-4
  30. ^ a b "The Eternal Apprentice", Time, p. 75, November 8, 1948, archived from the original on December 20, 2009, retrieved March 21, 2009
  31. ^ "South/Southeast Asia Library | UC Berkeley Library".
  32. ^ Grierson, George Abraham (1906), Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, Cambridge University Press for the Royal Asiatic Society, p. 259
  33. ^ Harvey Clarke (February 3, 1926), "'The Panchatantra' is translated by Arthur W. Ryder", St. Petersburg Times, St. Petersburg, Florida
  34. ^ Murray, M. A. (June 1956), "Review: The Panchatantra", Folklore, Folklore Enterprises, Ltd., 67 (2): 118–120, ISSN 0015-587X, JSTOR 1258527.
  35. ^ Kees W. Bolle (1979), The Bhagavadgītā: a new translation, University of California Press, p. 222, ISBN 978-0-520-03741-0
  36. ^ G. L. Anderson, 1959: "Arthur W. Ryder's translation of Kalidasa's work is the best in English, though Monier Williams' translation of 'Shakuntala' is satisfactory and Sir William Jones' (1789) is still worth reading." Cited in Cannon; Pandey (1976). "Sir William Jones Revisited: on His Translation of the Śakuntalā". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 96 (4): 528–535. doi:10.2307/600085. JSTOR 600085.
  37. ^ Gerald James Larson, The Song Celestial: Two Centuries of the "Bhagavad Gītā" in English
  38. ^ "The Anthony Boucher Chronicles".
  39. ^ Hijiya, James A. (June 2000), "The Gita of Robert Oppenheimer" (PDF), Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 144 (2)

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