Indic Knowledge Systems: Between The Translatable And The Non-Translatable

by Sreejit Datta - Jun 15, 2021 05:18 PM +05:30 IST
Indic Knowledge Systems: Between The Translatable And The Non-TranslatableRig Veda manuscript.
  • Translation, especially of Indic texts whose basis is realisation, brings its own challenges.

    In her essay “The Politics of Translation”, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak describes how “in translation…meaning hops into the spacy emptiness between two named historical languages.”

    Here’s what could go wrong while learning the scriptures, if one is not rooted in nativity.

One of the many challenges that we as students and teachers of Hindu and other Indic knowledge systems encounter in our pursuits is language.

To be more specific, it is the challenge of translation. The overwhelming majority of our primary material is available either in Sanskrit or in other Indic languages in their original form.

But, a very large section of our audiences in both India and elsewhere can only access this material in English. And, in all likelihood, it wouldn’t be realistic to expect this large audience to somehow soon become conversant with either Sanskrit or the various other Indic languages and their modes of discourse, which embrace both oral and written forms.

Hence translation.

Now, translation brings its own challenges. In her essay The Politics of Translation, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak describes how “in translation…meaning hops into the spacy emptiness between two named historical languages.”

In other words, there is a palpable degree of uncertainty in-built into the meaning-making process as far as the activity of translation is concerned. But what if such meaning is something other than what was intended by the text, either oral or written?

“Intended by the text” need not be a scandalous idea — not at least in the Indic context. This is simply because, unlike in the West, we still regard Śabda pramāṇa, or verbal testimony of the self-realised being, as a perfectly valid and authoritative source of right knowledge across most branches of our indigenous knowledge systems.

In addition, many of our traditional commentators even specify that words and phrases contained in the Vedic Saṁhitā-s cannot be taken in their literal sense, because they are strictly ‘mantra’ — an instrument with a body of sound that rescues the individual, who chants them properly and meditates upon them, from the miseries of human condition by attuning their “psyche towards the acquisition of the supreme state of knowledge, towards brahma-jñāna”, to quote Swami Agehananda Bharati.

Therefore, again unlike in the West, our texts are not amenable to frivolous deconstruction or wilful interpretation as is so commonly done with texts from various literary and religious canons in this ‘post-modern’ age. Instead, they need to be approached through their own special hermeneutic methods, which the aspiring interpreter needs to patiently learn through initiation and practice — it is a set of skills which needs to be acquired over time through instruction and careful application.

Back to discussing translation. If Śabda pramāṇa, or verbal testimony of the self-realised being, is regarded as a valid and authoritative source of right knowledge in our culture, and if words contained in revelation cannot necessarily be taken in their literal sense, then, in such a scenario, who or what criteria ensures fidelity in the English translations of our texts?

Again, the term ‘fidelity’ need not be frowned upon. If the deep-intuitive metaphysical vision or Darśana of a self-realised sādhaka is lost in translation, and in its place some misleading connotation, some distorted meaning, slips into (if not wildly, unpredictably, or even forcefully “hops into”) the end product that is supposedly the English translation of the Indic source text, but which is really only an elusive shadow of the Spivakian “spacy emptiness between two named historical languages”, then what is the point?

If stray connotations are anyway going to creep into the translation, if it ends up producing ‘distorted meaning’, which is more of a ‘meaninglessness’ than a ‘new meaning’ in this present context of the vision or Darśana being linguistically twice-removed — once while representing it as a mere string of letters on a surface, utterly bereft of its essential design as a powerful sonic device, and then again while translating — then how worthwhile does the effort and time spent in the activity of translation sound?

Shouldn’t such precious time and effort instead be spent teaching the source language to a group of eager learners?

Therefore, the cautious translator and reader of Indic texts asks the following question: What are the ways of discerning the validity or appropriateness of the words, phrases, substitute figures of speech and other such linguistic devices that constitute translations of Indic concepts, practices, and texts, if any?

The answer is not straightforward, and contrary to what some may believe, the answer does not lie in the radical position that many words and phrases in “Sanskrit are non-translatable” either.

Within the Indic traditions, metaphysics and especially ontology has taken the help of logic and epistemology to back up its visions, or Darśana-s, which remain at the core of Indic thought.

Such a vision is born out of a deep intuition, which in turn results either from sadhana — disciplined and dedicated practice under a Guru who identifies with a paramparā — or from Divine Grace.

Perhaps, these may generate the necessary wisdom, the requisite adhikāra to carry out meaningful interpretation and translation as well (or to carry out interpretation through translation; because, strictly speaking, translation is, after all, a form of interpretation — and the translator no less than a judicious interpreter of the source text that she has undertaken to translate).

Do we have historical examples of such translators and their works of translation? We do indeed have several such instances from the recent past — we have the examples set by translators like Sri Aurobindo, Sri Anirvan, Tagore, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, among others, who have copiously translated multiple Indic texts, containing a myriad ideas, concepts, and symbols which are essentially perceived by the organ of the deep-intuitive vision that is Darśana.

So, it is reasonably clear that such translation, such conveying of Darśana-induced linguistic constructs, is not impossible either in theory or in practice.

A word of caution in conclusion. We frequently say things like “Indian philosophy” and “the six major schools of Indian philosophy” when what we really have in mind is Darśana or Ṣaḍ-Darśana.

Are Darśana and philosophy one and the same? If not, how does Darśana differ from philosophy?

Swami Agehananda Bharati points out that Darśana consists in such postulations as, if properly learnt from a Guru-paramparā and meticulously practiced, will heal human beings of their general suffering or the ‘human condition’, pithily defined by disease, senescence and death.

Philosophy, on the other hand, since the time of Aristotle and especially in the last three centuries in the West, has come to primarily mean analytic philosophy, whose chief ingredients are linguistic and syllogistic — the cognitive devices that help us attain a discursive, rather than an intuitive, understanding of the world.

Major Indic Darśana-s boldly declare that the metaphysically stipulated Supreme Truth is beyond the constructs of language as well as the powers of the intellect: “yato vāco nivartante | aprāpya manasā saha |” — that from which words turn back without attaining (it) and the mind also returns baffled (the Taittirīya Upaniṣad).

Therefore, in the Indic traditions, the point of emphasis is praxis. To quote Swami Agehananda Bharati, “Darś therapeutic”. Let us be mindful of this distinction between the Indic Darśana-s and modern Western Philosophy, and benefit equally from both.

(The author is an Assistant Professor and Director of Centre for Civilisational Studies at the Rashtram School of Public Leadership in Sonipat, Haryana.)

Sreejit Datta is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Centre for Civilisational Studies at the Rashtram School of Public Leadership in Sonipat, Haryana. Variously trained in comparative literature, Hindustani music and statistics, Sreejit happens to be an author as well as an acclaimed vocalist who has been regularly writing and performing across multiple genres. He can be reached at
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