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. The following post offers some illustrative examples, limited to those cases where I did analyze the differences. 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. These bodies are organized hierarchically, such that a childhood body is like a trunk, which then manifests into many branches which are successive bodily stages within childhood. All these bodies collectively are called “childhood”, because they are manifest from a trunk called “childhood”. The “deha” is an ensemble of trunks—child, youth, old age—out of which many branches, twigs, and leaves manifest one after another. When a leaf manifests from a branch, the branch is not changed. This is represented in language by saying that the period from 5 to 10 years of age is “childhood”. Childhood is not a momentary state; it lasts for 5 years! But within those 5 years, there are many individual bodies, that are like branches and leaves of the trunk. Due to the persistence of the childhood body for a period of 5 years, we cannot say that the body is changing continuously. In short, “childhood” is a real thing, not merely a euphemism about a collection or succession of bodily states. This reality of “childhood” is recognized by our mind, but not seen by our senses.
- Thus, the higher-level state appears, stays for a long time, but the lower-level states are shorter-lived. The succession of states is continual, but not continuous. The illusion of material observation is to flatten this hierarchy and eliminate words like “childhood”, “youth” and “old age” from our scientific vocabulary, and simply take about the moment-to-moment changes. This illusion is rejected in this verse, where “childhood”, “youth” and “old age” are recognized as real states, and their collection is the “deha”. A scientific understanding has to accept words such as “childhood”, “youth”, and “old age” as real things, and because they persist for long durations, therefore, the change from one body to another cannot be called continuous, although it can be called continual.
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 has many connotations. In some connotations, it indeed means not confused, not bewildered, or resolute. But in other connotations, it can mean not under intoxication. Of course, the latter interpretation leads to chaos.
- The point is this: It doesn’t make sense to change “self-realized” to “sober” in the translation because the “self-realized” state is superior to the “sober” state. The “sober” state is in the mode of sattva-guna, while “self-realized” is transcendent to sattva-guna. It may be true that a sober person is not bewildered but it is certainly true that the self-realized soul is not bewildered. The fact is also that the state of sobriety can be sometimes destroyed, but the state of self-realization is not.
- In short, replacing self-realized with sober is an incorrect correction, because a more universal and true statement is replaced by a more contextual and lesser true statement. Textually one can argue that there is no problem, but it is a fact that commentators add their realization into the translations and commentaries. In this case, the change overturns that realization and replaces it with a lesser true statement. The realization says: Even a sober man can sometimes be bewildered, but the self-realized soul is not bewildered. The change overturns it.
- This is hence a case of textually correct but philosophically imperfect change. But again, why do we need commentaries if we could just interpret the text correctly based on the text itself? A commentary exists precisely because such issues have to be clarified.
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 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 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 situation is sometimes clarified by calling the Lord “Param Brahman” from whom “Brahman” manifests. By that clarification, the “Param Brahman” is included as a part of “Brahman”, and yet, it is deemed to be the source of “Brahman”. This is just like a spider weaves a web around itself and then lives inside that web. In this case, the web is Brahman and the spider is “Param Brahman”.
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.
- This is very important because the material nature is not just a collection or set of 8 things. It is also one thing. This is just like saying that “reality” is one thing, even though it comprises many parts. Or that the “universe” is one thing even though it comprises many parts. This is a deep anti-reductionist stance in which the whole is not merely a composition of the parts, but stands independent and apart from the component parts. This anti-reductionism is reflected in the use of the term altogether but not in all together. The latter term indicates a “set” which is nothing but the component parts, and the former a whole that can also be divided into parts. By changing altogether into all together, the understanding of material energy is transformed from non-reductionist to reductionist.
Challenges in Correction
If we look at these issues, we can see that correction is a 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. But that doesn’t mean that every expression is technically correct.
From an English, grammar, or linguistic convention, altogether and all together are practically the same. However, if we discern the anti-reductionist stance underlying the philosophy of nature, then they are completely different. Terms like “comprising the living entities” can seem indistinguishable from “all the living entities” but there is a huge difference, which is seen if we make the distinction between impersonalism and personalism. Then, there are obvious differences between continuous and continual, but they are seen only if we understand that all change is discrete however the cause of that change is eternal. That discreteness entails that observed time is momentary and the cause of that momentary change is eternal. If we don’t make that distinction, then there is no difference between Causal Time and observed or parametric time; God’s invisibility as time would be transformed into the visible effects (i.e., changes) perceived in time.
All these are deeply philosophical and technical issues about whole and part, some “whole” being merely a collection of parts, while some whole being independent of the parts, the manifestation of the material world as a tree in which only the leaves are perceived, and yet, deeper states are always used in ordinary language and are mentally perceived, and how change is discrete but the cause of change is continuous (such that the discrete thing is temporary and the continuous thing is eternal). In a logical and technically precise language, these issues would not arise. But in English, where the precision is lacking, extra care is needed to make any seemingly innocuous correction.