There are many words in Sanskrit that do not have direct equivalents in other languages. Ardent supporters of Sanskrit, therefore, makes two controversial claims. First, that any translation into another language must distort the meaning. Second, to preserve the meaning we must either introduce the same words into the lingua franca of that language, or we must continue to study the Sanskrit texts in Sanskrit alone. This post discusses the problem—of using English-equivalents of Sanskrit words—and its resolution.
Table of Contents
The Origin of the Translation Problem
For the better part of Vedic history, the Vedic texts remained in Sanskrit. Even their commentaries were presented in Sanskrit. Those who studied these texts, or read their commentaries, were well-versed in Sanskrit. The problem of translating the Sanskrit texts into other languages therefore never arose in the former times. This problem has arisen in recent times because a very small number of people know or understand Sanskrit. The project of translating Sanskrit texts into other languages (especially English) was conceived during colonial times. Then, numerous English equivalents of Sanskrit words were proposed, and English-Sanskrit dictionaries were created by the colonialists.
In many cases, the original meanings in the Vedic texts may not match their English equivalents, because there wasn’t an English equivalent. Nevertheless, those translations have become the mainstay of ordinary understanding, with both positive and negative results. The positive result is that many people across the world know of the Vedic texts precisely due to those translations. The negative result is that often the translations may misascribe meanings to the texts which were not the intended meanings of the texts themselves.
An Example of Translation Problems
Consider for example words such as ātmā and Īśvara which are translated into English as soul and God. The English understanding of these words—or shall we say, their Western ‘connotation’—is often imbued with the meanings of soul and God in Christianity, which can lead to a misunderstanding.
For example, Christians believe that only humans have souls, that the souls are not reborn, that after death they go into a limbo state (which is why the term “rest in peace” is used after death), and on the day of judgment (the end of the world), all the souls are judged by God and sent eternally to heaven or hell. Contrast this idea with the Vedic view, where ātmā exists even in plants, birds, fishes, beasts, etc.; it is reborn into new bodies after death; there is no day of judgment, as karma is constantly created due to our actions, and there is nothing called eternal heaven or hell; based on the guna and karma, the ātmā may ascend and then fall, or fall and then ascend; therefore, the doctrine of liberation to Īśvara’s place is different from the material heaven and hell.
Similarly, Abrahamic faiths believe that God enters into contracts with humans (called covenants); if the humans keep their side of the contract, then God honors His side of the bargain. The Jews for instance believe that God drew a contract with the people in Israel, and other populations and lands could potentially have their contracts with God. Based on this, Jews don’t proselytize. The Christians on the other hand believe that the Jewish contract with God was revised by Jesus and that the new contract applies to everyone on earth. Therefore, the Christians try to convert others into Christianity. Muslims, on the other, believe that the contract was re-revised with the advent of Muhammad, and is the final contract with humanity. Therefore, the Muslims consider Jews and Christians as heretics because they follow the ‘older’ contract.
Contrast this idea with the Vedic tradition, where God never enters into any contract. Those who love Him unconditionally, He loves them unconditionally. For everyone else, whose love is conditional (i.e., contractual–based on receiving something in return), God is not involved. They are rewarded or punished according to their actions, delivered by the law of karma.
Given these radically different ideas about soul and God, or ātmā and Īśvara, the critic of translations argues that by using the English words during translations, the meanings of the original words are polluted. Therefore, we must either use the original words or continue reading the Sanskrit texts.
Ordinary Language Contextuality
This critique of English translations misses an important point about the contextuality of the words and treats them as universal denotations of meaning. A minor segue into ordinary language reveals that the word “President” can denote the head of a nation, or the leader of a football club—depending on the context. The term “the President” can sometimes denote a general noun (e.g., “the president commands the armies”) or a specific noun (e.g., “the president will address the nation today”). Therefore, the word “President” has no universal meaning, independent of the context of usage.
A new branch of philosophy called “Ordinary Language Philosophy” was invented in the early 20th century just to deal with the problem of linguistic contextuality. Ludwig Wittgenstein was the earliest champion of this idea, and many others followed after him. But this problem existed even during Greek times. For example, Greeks wondered about the definitions of words (Socrates was big on definitions). To call someone a “human”, one had to define the meaning of “human”. A tall, muscular, white man was chosen as the ideal definition of “human”. By that definition, all other races, and even tall and white women, were somewhat less human. The roots of modern racism and gender politics lie in Greek philosophy where words had to have a universal denotation because contextuality of meaning was philosophically impossible.
Post-modernism now overthrows this position to claim that words have no meaning apart from their cultural context and usage. This now means that words like “good” and “right”, “beauty” and “truth” have whatever meaning that we like to collectively give them; each culture or subculture is free to define these words in whatever way they please; there is simply no meaning to any universalist idea (not just the words) other than our chosen usage.
In short, Western philosophy has oscillated between two radical extremes of (a) having fixed or universal meanings of words, or (b) having no meanings other than the changing cultural context and usage.
Contextuality in Technical Languages
Both these extremes are patently false. For example, we know that by a “circle” we mean a perfect round. But sometimes, even an imperfect round is called a “circle”. That latter usage of a “circle” arises in contexts where a contrast is made to other things that might be relatively squarish or triangular. Context reveals which of the usages is meant. Just because something is contextually called a “circle” doesn’t mean that we change the definition of a circle from a perfect round to whatever that shape (e.g., approximately circular) is. Likewise, the meaning of “President” as the commander of armed forces is not used when talking about the President of a football club. We determine the context, and we adapt the meanings of the words to that specific context.
A similar problem of contextuality exists in the use of ordinary terms like ‘particle’, ‘wave’, ‘energy’, ‘force’, and ‘momentum’ in physics, which have completely different meanings in ordinary language. A particle in physics is not a dust particle; it has a very precise definition—it is that which moves uniformly and linearly unless disturbed by a force. Classical particles are completely different from quantum particles, but Particle Physics uses the term ‘particle’ even though they are contextually distinguished from classical particles. Similarly, a wave is not necessarily a water wave. It is anything that is vibrating, which simply means that it has a period. By that definition, an electromagnetic wave is a wave, even though it has two orthogonal vibrating components. A wave function in quantum theory is also a wave but it has two components—one moving forward and the other moving backward. Context defines what we mean by particles and waves, and different physics theories reuse the term in different ways. These words don’t have a universal meaning; their meaning is completely contextualized. Terms like ‘energy’, ‘momentum’, and ‘force’ have completely different meanings in physics and ordinary language. The physicists don’t lose the ordinary meaning when using the physics meanings.
Contextuality in Sanskrit Words
We can now return to the problem of Sanskrit translations. The critic of these translations assumes that words must always have universal meanings; therefore, if ātmā and Īśvara are translated into English as soul and God, then they must mean precisely the meaning in the Christian English speaking world. Such critics are either ignorant of the problem of contextuality, or about the many thousand years of history that has oscillated back and forth on this issue, or other political and cultural issues have taken higher priorities in their minds. For instance, a critic of translations can adopt a position similar to post-modernism in which the meaning of words is defined by the cultural context. Since ātmā and Īśvara are always fixed in the cultural context of Sanskrit literature, therefore, those who read these texts “control” the meaning; translating them into the soul and God transfers the “control” to others.
But preventing the translations, or restricting their adoption, doesn’t solve the interpretive problem, because even in Sanskrit there are numerous meanings of the same words. The word ‘artha’—which is generally understood as ‘meaning’—itself has many meanings. For example, when used along with puruṣa, the term puruṣārtha means “the goal of mankind”. When used with indriya as in indriyārtha, the term means the “objects of the senses”. When used with pada as in padārtha, it means a “symbol with meaning”. And when used with śabda as in śabdārtha, it means “the effect of the sound on some consciousness”. This is not different from the various contextual meanings of ‘president’ or ‘particle’ or ‘wave’. We are not going to get away with the problem of contextuality just by restricting the translatability of words. Instead, we face that same problem within each language, and that problem exists within Sanskrit too.
In each case, the reader must understand the context, which implies that they cannot lift the meanings from other contexts into the context unique to the reading of a given Vedic text. We can cite many such examples.
For instance, the term ‘space’ in modern scientific terminology means something like a box, but in Vedic texts, it is like a tree, that expands from a root. The term ‘time’ means a linear arrow from past to present to future in modern usage, but in Vedic texts, it means a circular movement. The term ‘nature’ in English means something impersonal, but nature in Vedic texts is a person. Terms like ‘soul’ and ‘God’ mean monolithic entities for most people today. But the soul in Vedic texts has three aspects—called sat-chit-ānanda—just like God. Similarly, God has infinite aspects within these three aspects, which the soul doesn’t. These infinite aspects are hidden in each of the other aspects, such that the eyes of God can perform the function of hands, tongue, genitals, legs, etc. Therefore, each form of God can potentially reveal a different form, although when He doesn’t, there is a prominent manifested form.
Words like Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether don’t mean in Vedic philosophy what they mean in ordinary language. They are technical terms with unique meanings (kind of like the quarks in particle physics have properties such as color, charm, and spin—which do not correlate with the words used in ordinary language). Terms like Advaita have numerous meanings like non-difference, oneness, non-duality, and unity. Only the experts know what that word means, in which context, and how it must be understood in that context.
By using Sanskrit terms instead of English words, we don’t get over the problem, because when a novice reads the word ‘bhūmi’, he is not going to think of the specialized usage (i.e., the universal class that encodes smell). He is likely to think of the ‘bhūmi’—i.e., the earth—on which we are living. When the term ākāsh is used, the novice will think of the sky in which birds fly, rather than as the domain in which each location is a unique meaning. Distance in ākāsh would be inferred as a length rather than as the difference in meaning.
The fact is that there are hundreds of technical terms in Sanskrit which have a different meaning than ordinary usage. You just have to pick up a Sanskrit dictionary and see those meanings. Staying within Sanskrit doesn’t solve the problem of understanding, interpretation, or transmission. The problem remains the same—if the translations or commentaries are read by novices.
Subject-Matter vs. Linguistic Expertise
However, if the translations are done by knowers of the Vedic tradition, then quite often the translation process clarifies the meaning somewhat. For example, the term Advaita can be translated as non-difference, which would mean something completely different than oneness (non-difference is a whole-part relationship, while oneness is a merger of part into a whole). Likewise, Prakriti can be translated as “modes of nature” which has a radical meaning—we never perceive any two things simultaneously; the senses of hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, and seeing operate alternatively; similarly, the consciousness alternates between perceiving and thinking, between judging and feeling, etc. Nature is modal in the sense that there are many non-simultaneous aspects of perception. Terms like “Supreme Personality of Godhead” have a very technical meaning if used instead of Bhagavan.
The point is this: in the hands of a true expert on Vedic knowledge, language doesn’t matter; the expert will transmit the knowledge in that language perfectly. But one has to listen to the expert over time, and understand how he uses those words. Similarly, in the hands of the non-expert, even the original language—e.g., Sanskrit—is ineffective because there are numerous meanings of every single word, and which meaning must be used in a context is not necessarily given simply by awareness of Sanskrit grammar and dictionaries.
Philosophy of Meaning and Reality
A deeper point regarding language is that it is just like a coordinate system to describe reality. There is indeed an absolute space of meanings and it constitutes reality. In that absolute space, a sound is a unique name to identify a location (and therefore meaning). That absolute sound-meaning identity or equivalence is called śabda-brahman in Vedic texts, where brahman is the space, and śabda is the different locations in space called out by unique names.
However, that absolute space of names and meanings can also be described from other observer-centric perspectives, akin to using many coordinate systems in modern geometry. Thereby, there are infinite ways to express the same meaning using different words, quite like it is possible to describe the same location in space using different coordinate system numbers. Confusion arises only if we take the numbers from one coordinate system to be the numbers in another coordinate system. We cannot do that. We have to preserve the mapping between the names used by an observer, and that observer. Those are the names unique to the coordinate system used by that specific observer.
In practical terms, this means that one has to get into the shoes of the author to understand what he means and look at things from his perspective. However, seeing and describing are different things. You can see the same thing, and yet describe it in different words. A translation is an author changing his description, without changing the reality or their location in reality. Darshan, or what they see, while standing in their place, is not tied to a language. It is not a different vision. It is a different description of the vision. This is just so that people who can be in the same coordinate system, and yet, not in the same location as the author, can see reality differently and enter the author’s shoes. If we insist on them changing their language prior, they might never do anything.
A translation may not be perfect if there are no equivalent words. But it is better than no description at all and better than the descriptions of those people who don’t know. The absence of equivalent words is like trying to approximate an irrational number with a rational number. You can, if you try, get very close. But you can never find a rational number identical to the irrational number. We can criticize this problem of approximation, or we can appreciate that it is way better than trying to approximate an irrational number by a prime.
The Vedic system of education was always tied to teachers. This is why it was oral. You go to a teacher, listen to them, serve them, and ask them submissively. The teacher will put you in his shoes because you live in his proximity. He will make you see things from his perspective. You will understand what he means when he uses certain words in his unique ways. Books impersonalize this personal connection. Now you read the teacher, without knowing the teacher, serving him, or asking him submissively. You just speculate what he is actually saying. This is a problem. But a book is much better than the student never being able to find the teacher, live in his proximity, and seek the truth by serving him. It is also much better than reading the books authored by those who don’t know what they are talking about but cannot stop talking.
The crucial ingredient in a translation is (a) reading the words of one who truly knows, (b) reading them repeatedly to enter the same shoes as the author, and (c) being prepared to see things in a completely different way. The qualification of a translator is (a) subject-matter expertise, (b) linguistic expertise, (c) appreciation of the fact that the reader lives in alternative shoes, and (d) the readiness to emphasize, distinguish, and demarcate those areas that are likely to be misunderstood by those in alternative shoes through their explanations.
An explanation is contextualized by trying to get the message to the reader before asking him to change his language before passing him the message. This is compassion. It is a lot of hard work. And it may not have perfect results. But it is practiced by great Acharyas. Linguistic expertise is a small component of all that goes into a translation. Small is neither too big, nor is it non-existent. The problem of translation exists, but it is smaller than the problem of not getting the memo. Then that problem is overcome by the sincere efforts of the translators to use the most appropriate words. It is further overcome by them explaining how to understand those words through purports, in addition to translations. And it is further overcome by repeated association with the author.
Subject-Matter and Linguistic Expertise
If the issue of expertise is converted to an issue of language, then the issue is misrepresented. The Vedic culture is non-sectarian; it is not limited to those born in India. Why? Because the soul and God are transcendental to the material world—not just a given land, but also the planet, and even the entire universe. In each place, time, and situation, for a given type of person and character (which is called deśa, kāla, and pātra), the same knowledge can be presented using a different language. That change of language is just like a coordinate transform to describe reality using a new coordinate system. The use of the same words doesn’t entail the same meaning, just like ‘particle’ and ‘wave’ don’t mean the same thing in ordinary language and physics. The disambiguation of words requires clear definitions, sustained usage, and sustained study under the guidance of a subject-matter expert.
The precise issue today is that Vedic texts are not studied under the guidance of experts. Rather, people think that they can read Vedic texts like literature, history, or poetry. When technical information is converted into metaphorical information, then misinterpretations are more than likely to abound. But the problem is not limited to those who interpret the text in English. The problem is equally well manifest even in those who read the texts in Sanskrit. There is no point in debating in which cases the misunderstanding is dominant; the point is that it can be dominant with or without knowledge of Sanskrit. Therefore, the focus should be on understanding the science, and not debating the language. Nobody today buys the argument that English is a better language for science than Japanese, Chinese, or German. Papers are frequently translated from one language to another—by experts in the field, and language experts, not merely by experts in one area. The same is true for the Vedic texts too.