Friday, January 24, 2014

How not to translate Vedic texts. Witzel is an example.

The following note by Dr S.Kalyanaraman says it all - why Vedic texts are not to be translated. Mt Witzel's article is the provocation for his note. Anyone following the Vedic culture would concur with him.

Vedas are not texts books to be studied in Harvard or  Oxford. If they do, there are no greater fools than them. I have posted articles by Veda adhyayin Mr R.Ramanathan on how Vedic study must be done. Some of them can be read here:

On my part let me quote a verse from Tamil Grammar book of Sangam age, Tholkappiyam. The context is how letters are born from within our body by the movement of air from specific locations such as stomach, chest, throat and nose. The Sound that travels from these parts as air, comes out as a letter from the mouth. That is how the letters / alphabets are born. After explaining all the letters of Tamil language, the writer of this text, Tholkappiyar alias Thrunadhoomagni says that "a doubtlessly well analysed matra or duration of these sounds that form in this way can be found in the Vedas recited by Brahmins".Meaning to say that the sound quality of a letter is to be found out from the way Vedas are recited. Why he says that is because every letter that is born from within our body and uttered by mouth carry some potency and Vedas have mastered the way each letter must be pronounced in ways that bring out the potency needed from that letter in a given condition. The verse in Tamil is produced below with its meaning.

1எல்லா வெழுத்தும் வெளிப்படக் கிளந்து
சொல்லிய பள்ளி யெழுதரு வளியின்
பிறப்பொடு விடுவழி உறழ்ச்சி வாரத்
தகத்தெழு வளியிசை யரில்தப நாடி
அளபிற் கோடல் அந்தணர் மறைத்தே.
இஃது, எல்லா எழுத்திற்கும் ஆவதோர் புறனடை உணர்த்துதல் நுதலிற்று.
எல்லா எழுத்தும் - எல்லா எழுத்துக்களும், 
வெளிப்பட கிளந்து சொல்லிய பள்ளி- வெளிப்பட விதந்து 
சொல்லப்பட்ட இடத்தின்கண்ணே, 
எழுதரு வளியின் - எழுகின்ற வளியானே, 
பிறப்பொடு விடுவழி - தாம் பிறக்குந் தொழிலுடையவாதலொடு 
தம்மைச் சொல்லும் இடத்து, 
உறழ்ச்சி வாரத்து அகத்து எழுவளி இசை - திரிதருங் கூற்றையுடைய 
உண்ணின்று எழும் வளியானாய இசையை, 
அரில் தப நாடி-பிணக்கமற ஆராய்ந்து, 
அளபின் கோடல் - மாத்திரை வரையறையாற் கோடல், 
அந்தணர் மறைத்து - பார்ப்பார் வேதத்துக் கண்ணது.

This shows the Nature of Vedas - எழுதாக் கிளவி in Tamil, meaning 
it is 'unwritten word' whose aim is to create or derive certain benefits 
with the aid of potency of the letters by means of pronouncing it in certain ways.
In the beginning I said there are no greater fools than those
who treat Vedas as text books and even as history books.
It is not just because they don't know or follow the rules of how to study Vedas
but also because they have absolutely no knowledge of
how Vedas are seen within Vedic culture -
a leaf of which is quoted above from the Tamil grammar book of Tholkappiyam.



How not to translate Vedic texts. Let us be wary of academic mistranslations.

Expanding the study of meanings (semantics), some tend to camouflage translations as a 'cover' for study of a civilization (kulturwissenschaft) based on texts. 

This strategy results in taking the meanings of words or metaphors out of context and attribute 'mythical' overtones in ancient texts. 

An honest scholar should just concede as Veda itself has done in a number of occasions: 'I do not know'.

To gain adhikāra in studying a Vedic text, the scholar should first imbibe, adhyayana, the cultural traditions and treat the text as sacred.

There is no secrecy involved in the texts. If secrecy was the intent, the traditional transmittal of texts would not have been preserved with such intensity for thousands of years. Why not accept the possibility that the expressions were intended to transmit 'insights' as they occurred among the savants whose life mission itself was a journey into the cosmic wonder?

Some academics seem to translate itihāsa as myths. This is simply a motivated approach, motivated by the strategy to debunk tradition. There is no evidence in any ancient text to assume such a meaning for the genre of knowledge called itihāsa. I leave it to experts in historiography to evaluate the sources of history presented, if at all, in ancient Vedic texts. Deliberations engaged in prose texts are memory markers and aids to placing the performance of a sacred process in context. Many such discussions are evaluations of nuances in the the processes of performance of Yajña, as tradition enjoins. Repetitions in texts are perhaps mnemonic aids which reinforce the precise meanings intended for the use of specific words deployed to delineate the processes.

Chandogya Upanishad for example cites:

Ea somo rājā, tad devānām annam tam devā bhakyanti.

There is no need for a philologist to wax eloquent on the semantics of each word in this line. Clearly, the kavi is using a mix of metaphors referring to soma as king, as food and for divinities.

Who are the divinities? This core semantics itself has been a subject of deliberated right from the days of Yāska. Even Pāini does not dare to enter into the semantics of chandas and restricts himself to delineating the language features of derivative Sanskrit.

In my view, it will be an act of academic irresponsibility to bypass the traditional pundits and ignore the explanations offered by them.
Mysore palace has brought out a 36 volume excursus on the Rigveda. The text is in Kannada. For sincere scholars, who are interested in devoting themselves to the study of Vedic traditions and heritage, it will be apposite to start with these 36 volumes.

One should study these deliberations with care and try to understand the processes which were intended to sustain the sanctity of the Yajña. The gurukulas have to provide such educational opportunities for serious students, śiṣṭā.

The Vedic universe has many pillars: tam (cosmic order), Satyam (existential truth), Yajña (sacrifice), Dharma (social practice), Brahman (the sacred word, mantra). Firs step, pause and evaluate if the English pronunciation we have made of these pillars is correct. Many exegeses may be needed to expound on the true import of each of these pillars of Vedic knowledge, not excluding some exercises related to Indrajāla or viśvanīḍa.

We do not even know what Yajña signifies. Let us announce humility as we enter the domain of studying Vedic traditions and heritage.

PS: This note has been provoked by the strategies revealed by an academic at

S. Kalyanaraman
January 24, 2014

S. Kalyanaraman

1 comment:

sury Siva said...

thought provoking and enlightening.

In the last fifty years, I have had occasion to see the works or listen to scholars on vedhas and not unoften was wondering too as to why they have gone far away from what the Vedhas say, in my understanding.

Your article does serve a purpose. To those who are capable ,it would do them good if they first read the vedhas through a Guru with proper intonations recite several times several months so as to imbibe and understand them and then only proceed to write what he understands of it.
A verbatim translation, as you verily said, serves no purpose.

subbu rathina sharma.