Lost in translation: The erosion of Sanskrit

Simplistic and inaccurate English translations of Sanskrit words trivialize dharmic concepts and is symptomatic of hegemonic Western  Judeo-Christian paradigms. Sanskritisation of the English language is about protecting our dharma; it is about protecting the integrity of Sanskrit words; preserving the vibrational characteristic of the Sanskrit language; it is not condoning trivialization.

Sanskritising the English language calls for a zero-tolerance policy against trivialization and oversimplification of dharmic concepts say Shri Rajiv Malhotra and Dr. Shri Satyanarayamna dasa Babaji in their upcoming book Sanskrit non translatables: The importance of Sanskritising English

Many Sanskrit words are simply not translatable. This non translatability of key Sanskrit words attests to the non digestibility of many Indian traditions. Holding on to the Sanskrit terms and thereby preserving the complete range of their meanings becomes a way of resisting colonization and safeguarding dharmic knowledge.

Rajiv Malhotra in Being Different

The only aspect of my Anglophone education that I cherish is choosing Sanskrit as my second language in both school and in college.  My mother, who has a flair for the language, believed that this was the language of our civilizational, religious and spiritual heritage. Even as she taught me Sanskrit, she’d insist that I do not anglicise Sanskrit pronunciation—that was anathema to her and rightly so!  At school and college,  we also had this interesting feature of using English in our Sanskrit examination. But the core concepts had to be supported with relevant lines and keywords from the original Sanskrit text.

I was reminded of this when I recently re-read  Being Different and watched a  curtain-raiser by Rajiv Malhotra of his latest book Sanskrit Non-translatable: The importance of Sanskritising English by Shri  Rajiv Malhotra and  Dr. Shri Satyanarayana Dasa Babaji to be published shortly.

Being Different marked the beginning of a movement to highlight the multi-layered ecosystem amplified and nuanced connotations embedded in Sanskrit words—all of which diluted, eroded, glossed over, and whitewashed by simplistic English translations that are often inaccurate,   distorting and misleading.  In doing so,  the book spearheaded a movement to resist the digestion of Sanskrit words into English.

Language is not merely a collection of words. Encoded in the language is the unique cultural context in which the language is anchored. This cultural context colours and informs the various connotative hues of a word.

“To understand a culture is to live it. The unique experiences of different cultures are not always interchangeable and the words used to refer to those experiences must remain intact; if linguistic categories get lost, so, over time, does, the diversity of cultural experience. Many cultural artifacts have no equivalent in other cultures, and to force such artifacts into the moulds that the West finds acceptable and familiar—to appropriate them—is to distort them. This  too is a  form of colonisation and cultural conquest,” writes Malhotra in Being Different.

In Raghuvamsha,  Mahakavi Kalidasa begins the narrative poem with this sloka:  

Vagarthaviva sampruktau vagarthapratipattaaye

Jagatah pitarau vande Paravati Parameshwarau

We bow before our Divine parents Parvati and Parameshwara, who remain united like speech and its meaning.  Personally, this profound sloka captures the hyphenated reality of speech and meaning which are inextricably bound and undifferentiated in their Unmanifest essence.

Any language has two levels of meaning: conceptual and experiential.  Words by themselves are signifiers. They point towards something; they symbolize or stand for something. Thus, the word apple signifies a  red colour slightly indented round fruit that grows on trees in cold regions and is sweet or tangy to taste.  However, the experiential meaning of the word apple can only be savoured if one personally eats an apple!

Sanskrit, being a vehicle for the philosophy, religion, metaphysics and point of view of dharmic religions and traditions is experiential and based on ‘embodied knowing’ (adhyatmika vidya or the position that the truth must be rediscovered and directly experienced by each person)  in contrast to the history-centrism of Abrahamic faiths.

Another significant difference is that Indian languages are verb-based; unlike Western languages, which are noun based. This significant difference also adds to the non-translatability of certain Sanskrit terms and the spectrum of meanings that a word in Sanskrit connotes.

Let’s look at a few common examples of Sanskrit non-translatables that have been mistranslated and distorted.  Are Devas equivalent to gods and Asuras to demons?  Are Guru and Acharya equivalent to teacher?  Is Atma equivalent to the soul?  Are murtis equivalent to idols? Is dasa equivalent to slave?

If there were to be an award for the most distorted Sanskrit word in its English translation, it must be linga.  Grossly mistranslated as the phallus, this, unfortunately, has emerged as the normative and mainstream perception of this word in the essentially Hinduphobic Western discourse. However, lingam has a  spectrum of connotations that also include sign, mark, spot, token, badge, emblem and also gender.

In this video, Shri Rajiv Malhotra and Dr. Shri Swami Satyanarayanan dasa Babaji discuss the difference between a teacher and Guru, which they hold , are poles apart.  A teacher is a person who imparts domain skills as a profession. Perhaps the Sanskrit equivalent of a teacher is Acharya. A Guru, however, is an evolved person who is capable to dispelling the darkness of ignorance in his sishya or disciple.   However,  in contemporary English usage, the word Guru has gained widespread currency as a catch-all term for a skilled professional, which is not what the Sanskrit word Guru embodies.

Similarly,  according to Shri Rajiv Malhotra and  Dr. Shri  Satyanarayana dasa Babaji the word dasa has been mistranslated by Western intellectuals as slave. However, the word dasa has no connection with the shameful and inhumane system of slavery practised by the Europeans until a few centuries back. Dasa is a venerated term in India as can be seen from the names of many great saints like Tulsidasa, Surdasa etc. who proudly called themselves as dasa.   

The English translation of murti as idol is loaded with negative stereotypes and connotations and demonisation of idols from the perspective of Abrahamic traditions which regard worship of idols as idolatry and a cardinal sin. The Abrahamic traditions, therefore, authorise and condone violence against idol worshippers. On the other hand, the Sanskrit word murti means ‘awakened’, ‘real’, and ‘expressive of the Divine Spirit.’ In the sanatana dharma tradition, murtis are infused with prana prathishta, a ritual where the murti is infused with sacred presence or prana or Divine Presence.

Thus, there is a sacred tradition and heritage  associated with  murtis, highlighted perceptively by Sri Aurobindo when he said, “It is not to the stone, but to the Divine person figured in the stone that the prayer is offered.”

In the Dharmic tradition, the true nature of the  Atman or the Self is  Satchidananda or Truth-Consciousness-Bliss. The Atman is a reflection of the Supreme transcendent Self known as Brahman, which is  a complete contrast to the Judeo-Christian concept of the soul or spirit that is tainted with the Original Sin. Besides, the dharmic world view of karma or conscious choice-making and reincarnation are part of the journey of the Atman, and such cosmological and theological underpinnings are not part of the soul or spirit in the Abrahamic tradition.

Simplistic and inaccurate English translations of Sanskrit words trivialise dharmic concepts and is symptomatic of hegemonic Western Judeo-Christian paradigms. Sanskritising the English language calls for a zero-tolerance policy against trivialisation and oversimplification of dharmic concepts.

“Simplistic translation of Sanskrit words leads to dilution and deletion that paves the way for inculturation and digestion of dharmic concepts by a hegemonic world view. We need to be aware that certain Sanskrit terms have no corresponding equivalents in the English language because of cultural asymmetry. Sanskritising the English language implies having the courage to use the Sanskrit terms when there is no equivalent  English translation.  We need to have the knowledge, skills, and attitude to uphold the use of such words and argue compellingly against the use of substitutes in English translation. Sanskritisation of the English language is about protecting our dharma; it is about protecting the integrity of Sanskrit words; preserving the vibrational characteristic of the Sanskrit language; it is not condoning trivialisation,” says Shri Rajiv Malhotra with panache and purpose.

(Featured Image Source: emsamskriti.com)


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About the Author

Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera.