Recently, while preparing for a presentation, I started looking up Bhagavad-Gita translations and found some curious discrepancies, which make the translations scientifically inaccurate. On finding these in the select verses that I was looking up (i.e., not an exhaustive study), I went back to the original translations and found that these scientific inaccuracies do not exist in the original translations. This post discusses just a few of these, and I don’t claim any sense of completion to these being the only ones. I don’t intend to rake up another controversy about translations, but I find that a serious study is needed to understand the changes and retain only those which stand up to philosophical scrutiny. The following post offers examples of such scrutiny, limited to those cases where I did analyze the differences. For those who are curious, the old translations are from asitis.com and new ones from vedabase.io.
Table of Contents
As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.
As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.
The change of Continual to Continuous:
- Continual and continuous have different meanings. In a movie reel, for example, the pictures are contiguous and continual, but not continuous. We can speak of “continual bus departures”, but that doesn’t mean “continuous bus departures”. This difference is hugely problematic for the scientifically trained mind, which looks for precisely these kinds of clarifications.
- The issue of continuity is a very long one in mathematics, and we know today that nature is not continuous, although it is continual. Continuity contradicts atomism, and ideally, space and time must be understood as continual but not continuous. In short, everything is discrete.
- The use of the term continual means that the bodies are also discrete. But the use of the term continuous means that the bodies are not discrete. That is the difference between quantum mechanics and classical mechanics. Replacing one with another is very non-trivial.
- The key question is: What is the body or deha? The answer is that it is the COLLECTION of all bodies that will MANIFEST in this life. The purport clarifies this: “Since every living entity is an individual soul, each is changing his body every moment, manifesting sometimes as a child, sometimes as a youth, and sometimes as an old man.”. The “deha” is an ensemble of states—child, youth, old age—out of which one state manifests after another from the ensemble. This manifestation is not continuous, because the states themselves are discrete. However, it is continual.
- In short, one state appears, stays for some time, disappears, and is replaced by another one. The succession of states is continual, but not continuous—there is a moment where there is no state. But it is so short, that we cannot perceive the discontinuity in the states. This is just like the succession of pictures in a movie reel—they are continual, but not continuous.
The change of Self-Realized to Sober:
- The Sanskrit here is dhira or one who is not disturbed. The term adhira means one who is disturbed. Dhiras tatra na muhyati means that one who is not disturbed is not confused or bewildered by this change. So, non-disturbance is the person’s quality, and not getting confused or bewildered is the effect. Indirectly it is implied that confusion results from disturbance. Therefore, there is a psychological process—you are disturbed first, then you are confused.
- The term dhira is initially translated in the word-for-word as “sober” and then sobriety is explained in the purport: “Any man who has perfect knowledge of the constitution of the individual soul, the Supersoul, and nature—both material and spiritual—is called a dhira or a most sober man”. Sobriety however doesn’t capture the non-disturbed meaning, although a self-realized soul does. The correct correction would have been—”the resolute are not confused”.
- The term dhira is derived from the root dhi which means intellect, fixed, resolute, etc. The English translation of “sober” is inaccurate at best. Sobriety often means someone not under intoxication. That however doesn’t entail freedom from disturbance or confusion.
- The point being made is this: Correction is not a bad thing, provided it is a correct correction. In this case, replacing self-realized with sober is an incorrect correction, that worsens the problem (the problem existed prior to the worsening).
Besides this inferior nature, O mighty-armed Arjuna, there is a superior energy of Mine, which are all living entities who are struggling with material nature and are sustaining the universe.
Besides these, O mighty-armed Arjuna, there is another, superior energy of Mine, which comprises the living entities who are exploiting the resources of this material, inferior nature.
The removal of Dharyate or “sustaining the universe”:
- This is absolutely inexcusable, because a whole line of the verse, namely, yayedam dharyate jagat, has been misinterpreted in the new translation. The word-by-word of dharyate as “being utilized or exploited” is inaccurate in both the old and new translations. The root dhar means to hold or sustain. The original English translation (namely, that the living entities are sustaining the universe) is correct, the original English word-to-word (the living entities are exploiting or using) is incorrect, and the new translation uses the incorrect word-for-word to change the correct translation into an incorrect one. Now, one mistake has become two mistakes.
The use of “comprises the living entities” is philosophically inaccurate:
- The material energy is one thing, which then divides into many things, so the material energy “comprises of many objects”. But the soul is one thing, and it never divides into many things. There is no such thing as “superior energy that comprises of living entities” because it indicates that there is one thing—called the “superior energy” which then divides into many souls.
- This division of superior energy into many souls is precisely the doctrine of impersonalism in which the para is Brahman, which then divides into many individual souls. Therefore, when the term “comprises the living entities is used”, then impersonalism reappears in a subtle way. It now means that there is one Brahman, which then divides into many individual souls.
- The “superior energy” doesn’t comprise the souls, but is all the souls collectively. This is indeed the original translation – “which are all the living entities” – and it is philosophically correct. It is not the division of one thing into many, but a collection of many a priori distinct things.
- As an aside, Brahman is not a thing; it is a state. When a soul enters that state, it is said to enter Brahman. Sometimes, the term Brahman is used to denote the Supreme Lord (as in the case of Vedanta Sutra), in which case it is a thing, but then, it is not the “superior energy”. The context distinguishes which use of the term should be employed in the current situation.
The phrase “struggling with material nature” is not in the verse, but not technically inaccurate.
- Verse 7.14 uses the term duratyaya which means “very difficult to overcome”. Literally, it means inscrutable, or impossible to understand. When the phrase “struggling with material nature” is used, the usage is not incorrect because the same thing is said later. But it is not present in the Sanskrit text itself. It can be treated as the interpolation of verses.
Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence and false ego—altogether these eight comprise My separated material energies.
Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence and false ego – all together these eight constitute My separated material energies.
The conversion of altogether into all together:
- I kept this at the end because it requires a deeper analysis of what material energy is. The energy is one thing, but you can cut this energy in two ways. First, you can slice it diagonally like a pie, in which there are 8 different pieces of the pie. Second, you can slice the pie circularly, such that the successive pieces of the pie are inside the previous piece of the pie.
- When the pieces of the pie are inside the previous piece, then the next piece is actually part of the previous piece originally, and then separated from that piece subsequently.
- The material energies are actually separated from each other in a second way—i.e., the next piece comes out from within the previous piece. Thus, for instance, a part of pradhāna becomes mahat, a part of mahat then becomes ahaṃkāra, a part of ahaṃkāra then becomes the intellect, a part of intellect then becomes the mind, and so on with the five elements.
- Hence, 8 distinct things are not manifest at once, they are manifest one from within another. This manifestation is seen in the coverings of the universe in Vedic cosmology. There is a “space” called Earth inside a space called “Water”. If the Water space disappears, then the Earth space disappears automatically. It is pie inside a pie inside a pie, not diagonal pie pieces.
- This is when a very subtle distinction between altogether and all together appears. The term all together indicates 8 diagonal pieces of the pie, and the term altogether indicates one thing that is also 7 other things—if you so choose to distinguish, discriminate, and analyze. Otherwise, there is just one thing—the material energy, or bhinna-prakriti. Hence, you can say that there is only one bhinna-prakriti, or two of them, or three of them, up to 8 of them.
Challenges in Correction
If we look at these issues, we can see that correction is a very slippery slope. It can be done, but it is not about English, grammar, linguistic conventions, etc. There are a thousand ways of expressing the same idea, not just one way. But that doesn’t mean that every type of expression is technically correct.
From an English, grammar, or linguistic convention, altogether and all together are practically the same. But if we discern the layers of meaning behind everything, then one of them is correct and another one is not. Terms like “comprising the living entities” can seem indistinguishable from “all the living entities” but there is a huge difference, which can be known only by the philosophically astute. Then, there are obvious differences between continuous and continual, but they are seen only if we are attentive. They can be chalk and cheese—like classical and quantum mechanics—to the person who is astute.