Folks, I've been meaning to write this for months, given the importance of this topic. I think we need to tweak our understanding of this matter because it is way off the mark right now. The so-called translation problem is even worse than we think it is. It is not a problem involving words and meanings but is more of a theoretical problem that relates to the entire framework that shapes the way we think.
Ever since our colonization we have taken on the Abrahamic way of talking without really understanding what we are talking about. This has been one of the greatest failing of Hindus. While our enemies were busy studying us to death, we sat back and did not care to understand what their religion and culture were all about.
As a result of this, we adopted their way of thinking so that now we no longer have an intuitive understanding of many of the words in our own languages. This is especially true when it comes to talking about human psychology. We are as clueless about words such as manas and buddhi as as anyone from the West who wants to study our traditions. When it comes to words like these we do with them exactly what we do with words like deva and puja. We map them on to certain words in English and understand them in the way that the West has taught us to understand them. This is what is so insidious about the translation problem. It is not confined just to translation into English. It encompasses the way we talk in our native Indian languages. The framework of the western cultural experience has been so dominant in the last 300 years that language-use in Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Gujarati, Marathi, Sanskrit, and every other Indian language has been distorted.
Please remember that many of these words have to do with basic human psychology. These are words that we use to talk about ourselves, our friends, husbands, wives, parents, kids, and other human beings. Therefore, we cannot sit back and proclaim that there are many Hindu experts and scholars who do know what they are talking about. Given the fundamental importance of a vocabulary that allows us to talk about ourselves, we cannot sit back and rely on a community of specialists. We must be able to relate to these words as we live and breathe. Even if our experts tell us what these words mean, how do we understand them in ourselves? Is my desire for a dosa an expression of my manas or my buddhi? When I want to punch somebody, what prevents me: buddhi, chitta, manas, dharma, or, to use Christian terminology, the conscience? What if my buddhi and manas both support me in wanting to punch someone? What then is the difference between the two? What do I need to train if I want to improve? How do I identify that entity? How do I know what trains it? Your experts, it turns out, will have to appeal to the words I already know in order to explain to me what buddhi or manas is. Merely knowing a word cannot help me identify it in myself. Our approach to studying human psychology was different from the subject 'psychology' that is taught in schools and universities.
Distortions in our understanding of our own traditions had already started with the Islamic colonization. They became more systematized when the missionaries and European scholars began with their translations. The next level of distortion started when Indians themselves adopted this way of talking in English. Finally, distortions occurred when Indians then translated their way of talking in English back into the Indian languages. After all these distortions, there is no way of telling how the cognition of Indians has changed in the past few centuries. In many ways we are as clueless as anyone from the West who studies our traditions. What they learn from studying Patanjali is also what we learn by studying Patanjali. This is the reason why earlier generations of Indians did not object to the translations the British came up with. It’s because our understanding of Ishwara is as shallow as our understanding of God.
This problem cannot be solved by merely retaining words in our own language. As a first step we have to understand the culture that inflicted this framework that we have become trapped in. In other words, the so-called translation problem is a theoretical problem, and as long as we accept the theoretical framework provided by the West, whether it involves religion or cosmology or whether it has to do with human psychology, we will not be able to solve the problem.
We need to develop alternative theoretical frameworks to rival those of the West. Our frameworks may well be superior when talking about human psychology, let’s say. They may not be adequate when talking about the cosmos. Accordingly, we can adopt, adapt, or discard our frameworks. Meanwhile, just quibbling over the meaning of what brhamanda exactly means is a useless exercise. What may have been cutting edge at the time of Aryabhata and Agastya may not be relevant any more. The fact that we are willing to accept every bit of knowledge that was produced 5000 years ago without any critical reflection is further proof of the fact that we are so out of touch with our traditions. It is not about studying some ancient text but really understanding their approach to knowledge. With all due respect, merely using Sanskrit words in some contexts is a useless exercise. If we really understood what we were talking about, we would be able to express it in any language.
Rajiv Malhotra responds:
Indeed, the mis-translation is not just of words but the ideas behind them. Once you require the original word to be retained, you also force people to think what the words mean more deeply. Because puja is not same as prayer, it compels the person to learn what puja is, where and why it differs, and why the difference matters a lot.
The Sanskrit non-translatables initiative started in BD has far reaching implications, beyond just preserving certain words. Each word is an ecosystem of knowledge, a signpost to deep structures. Once we get critical mass on board this venture, it will snowball in many directions. But first lets take issue with common translations we find our netas, gurus, purohits doing all the time. Build from there. This is one of several initiatives in parallel to take back control of our civilization. The SI2 conference will have many outstanding papers on such matters.
Forum member YKW adds:
Rajivji has very rightly said that the mis-translation is not just of words but the ideas behind them. Emergence of Aryan Invasion theory to an extent is the result of such a mis-translation and mis-interpretation of Vedic works. Substituting mere dictionary equivalents for words and Ignoring the method and interpretive principles of ancient rishies while translating the multi-dimensional and symbolic language of the Vedic texts made them unintelligible and beyond human comprehension. Such a mutilation and bungling with the the Vedic language due to ignorance or by choice also kills the very spirit of the profound ideas contained in the ancient texts. It was Maharishi Dayanand Saraswati(1824-83) who in recent times pointed out that how misinterpretation of the texts led to several misconceptions/misgivings which finally ended into many obnoxious customs and evil practices in the society. Hence, the need to put things in the right perspective.
I am giving below few examples of mistranslation and misinterpretation from the book "Original Home of the Aryans" which is english translation of the work 'Aryon Ka Aadi Desh'. The book is written by Swami Vidyanand Saraswati(former Principal, Arya College, Panipat and Fellow Punjab University), pub by Sarvadeshik Arya Pratinidhi Sabha, New Delhi, Ed.1987. Excerpts from the book:
"Griffth in his note on the Rigvedic hymn (1-10-1) writes: "The dusky brood: The dark aborigines who opposed the Aryans," i.e., the dark coloured aborigines who opposed Aryans are called Dasa or Dasyu. In order to prove the aborigines as dark-coloured he refers to the six mantras of Rigveda (1-101-1; 1-130-8; 2-20-7; 4-16-13; 6-47-21 and 7-5-3) in which the word Krishna has been used. As a matter of fact different types of colours are mentioned in these mantras and not human beings. Skandswami has interpreted Krishna-garbha as black clouds. That is why in the Vedas the so-called leaders of Dasyus, Shambhar, Chumuree, Dhumi, Varchin, etc. are classified as different types of clouds."
"On account of lack of knowledge about the poetic description in the Vedas, the foreigners have distorted the meanings of the words. The foreigners have tried to show that the aborigines were phallus-worshippers. They have based conclusions on the word Shishan-deva which is used in the Vedas to denote persons who are lusty and sensuous. Yaskacharya has interpreted this word as abrahmacharya i.e., who does not observe brahamacharya. This word occurs in the Rigveda (7-21-5 and 10-99-3). In these mantras prayer is addressed to Indra that evil persons should not cause impediments in their noble works. These mantras have no reference to worship. Sensuous persons of any country, time and society are shishnadevas."
"The word anas is used in the Vedas. The foreign scholars have interpreted it as "without nose or with flat nose." Their view is fallacious. The word "nas" does not mean nose. it refers to sound. The Hymn in which this word occurs in the Rigveda (5-29-10) speaks of clouds: the word, therefore, in the context means clouds which do not thunder. It has no reference whatsoever to flat nose or noselessness."
Swami Vidyanand further remarks that the camp-followers of the Western scholars continue to see through the eyes of their western masters. The great exponent of Indian culture,K.M. Munshi has written quite diabolically about Aryans and Rishies and described them beef eaters, drinkers, gamblers, etc, in his book Lopa-Mudra. In the preface to the book Shri Munshi has stated that whatever he has written in the book is based on Rigveda. However, when Swami Vidyanand asked him to quote the mantras on the authority of which he had written all this in his book - he wrote back as under in his letter dated 2nd February, 1950.
" I believe the Vedas to have been composed by human beings in the very early stage of our culture and my attempt in this book has been to create an atmosphere which I find in the Vedas as translated by Western scholars and as given in Dr.Keith's Vedic Index. I have accepted their views of life and conditions in those times."
Talking about the pernecious effects of mis-interpretation and mis-translation, Swami Vidyanand Saraswati further says that by adopting literal meanings of words instead of etymological or derivative meanings,the Vedas have been shown as a book of facinating stories. In this way our brains have been stuffed with rocks of faithlessness in the Vedas. (Note: The above english translation of the book Aryon Ka Aadi desh i.e.,- Original Home of the Aryans by Swami Vidyanand Saaswati is out of print, however, Hindi enlarged edition , pub.by Arya Prakashan, Ajmeri Gate, Delhi is available).