Lost In Translation -Vedic Sciences
There is so much dirt being thrown at Vedic Sciences these days, that it is appalling. But at the same time, we can also see, a number of Vedic experts coming out and explaining the knowledge base one piece at a time in response to this dirt throwing exercise. Vedic Sciences is so vast that, it takes many experts to continue this work for a long time to come. When I started watching the videos and started reading about these misconceptions that come about around Vedic Sciences, I’ve realized one thing. The main reason behind such misconceptions is the translation. When I say ‘translation’, I don’t mean just the linguistic sense, but a number of other factors that contribute to this translation errors. In this article, I have systematically organized such different factors into a few categories and included examples of wrong translation in each category. The purpose of this exercise is to urge the readers to keep an open mind. When we hear a lecture/debate/conversation by Vedic Experts, let’s remember these translation issues. That way we’ll have the appropriate context to approach the Vedic Sciences.
Translation – Different categories
This issue is easy to understand. When someone translates some work from one language to another, they eventually hit vocabulary limitations. A particular word that’s in the source language may not have it’s equivalent in the destination language.
Then that translator has got two options. Either
They can use the word as is in the new language, ex: Yoga, Dharma and Karma (యోగ, ధర్మ మరియు కర్మ ) (योग, धर्म और कर्मा )., or,
Find the nearest word. Sometimes it works and sometimes it totally backfires. And worse, it can create such a wrong impression in the minds of the target audience that, it may take centuries worth of effort to clear that mistake. Ex: Grahas vs. Planets. Graha means any object that grabs the other object. So Sun is also a graha. Planet means a certain type of object that rotates around the Sun. So Sun is not a planet. By using the term ‘planet’ to describe ‘graha’, the translators had done a great disservice to Indian astronomy. Now the target audience has come to the conclusion that Indians did not know that Sun is not a planet. In fact, they knew very well. They also knew this. Not only earth, but Sun also exerts gravitational force and hence keeps the objects in their orbits around the sun as the term ‘graha’ describes. (For the explanation of Graha Vs. Planet in the context of Vedic Astronomy, please refer to my articles on Jyotisha published in this site). Another example of a similar mistake is “Panchamahabhuta Vs. Elements”. Others include, but not limited to “Rasi vs. Signs/Constellations”, and “Nakshatra Vs. Stars”. Rasis are not exactly constellations. Nor Nakshatras are stars. Nakshatra is not a star, it’s an asterism, it’s a group of stars. Each Nakshatra is 13.33 degrees space in the 360-degree zodiac. I’ve explained this in Jyotisha related articles that are posted on this site.
*This category of translation issues was not only limited to ‘Sanskrit to English’ translation, but such things also happened while translating from ‘Sanskrit to other Indian languages’. For example: In Valmiki Ramayana, Hanuman was mentioned as “Vanara” and he was described as a Sanskrit scholar. Here, Vanara means “Van”+”Nara”, someone who lives in forests. So as per the Valmiki Ramayana, Hanuman, Sugriva, Vaali etc. were all forest dwellers. Otherwise, it’s not possible for Hanuman to have learned Sanskrit. Yet, when this term was translated to other regional languages, “Vanara’ was taken as Monkey. What if we translate the term “Girijan” as someone other than human? “Giri” means mountain and ‘jan’ means people. So Girijans literally means mountain dwellers. If they move to the cities, they are no longer Girijans literally speaking. Same with Vanars. If they start living in the cities, they’re no longer forest dwellers as per its original intended meaning. See what happened with Ramayan. Entire Ramayan is brushed off as fiction, because Hanuman, a Vanar is wrongly translated as a monkey, and it’s not possible for a monkey to speak like a human or act like Ram’s representative (Rama duta/రామ దూత/राम दूत)
Reference: To learn more about how Ramayan’s original essence got muddled through translations, read the following Quora discussions.
Literal Vs. Figurative speech
Unfortunately, the entertainment industry has become our primary source for our knowledge about our history, our sciences, and our philosophy. Whatever the entertainment industry shows us gets etched in our memory, and we refuse to even consider the intended meaning of the original concept.
Example: “Chitra Gupta”. When we hear the term ‘Chitra Gupta”, a figurative concept, a comic image comes to our mind immediately. We tend to think of a comic sidekick to Yama Dharma Raja. But that’s not the case. The literal and the true meaning is different.
Here’s the true meaning of ‘Chitra Gupta”. It’s a concept and not a person. “Chitra” means “in print or image”. Hence in Indian languages, ‘A chitra patam (చిత్ర పటం)” refers to a painting or a picture. “Gupta” means “secret”. So ‘Chitra Gupta” means ‘A secret in-print”. A secret in-print of what? ‘A secret in-print of our karmas that turn into our ‘samskaras’ and behavioral patterns later. Who maintains this secret in print? We do. Our own chitta (there is no equivalent word in English for ‘chitta’, but the nearest is the conscious memory) maintains that. Now, do you see why in Telugu “Chittam Prabhu (“చిత్తం ప్రభు”)” means ‘okay”?. Because it literally means “I got it in my (conscious) memory my lord”.
Stories around ‘Chitragupta’ are just that, stories. Indian civilization has been using stories for millennia mainly to introduce difficult concepts to children/adults in an entertaining way and later, via association, Vedic experts teach the main concept behind the story.
Framework and Context
Consider this case.
There is a person ‘random 1”, born and raised with this belief. “Human birth itself is a sin. The only way out of that sin is to adopt (convert to) a particular belief (The Saviour theory). Then after death, you go to heaven and all the others go to hell. There is no other path”.
Then this person comes across this other belief (Karma and Moksha theory). “You’re responsible for your actions. If you do good deeds, it’ll result in good things. Else, you pay for your actions. You’ll enjoy the fruits of your deeds.(Karma).
There are many paths to the ultimate truth. Experiment, find out your path for yourself and you’ll dissolve into that ultimate truth through your path (Moksha theory)”.
Now the person ‘random 1’ cannot understand this concept. Saviour theory is at odds with Karma and Moksha theory. Karma and Moksha theory puts the ball in your court. Whereas the savior theory puts the ball in the hands of the savior. Karma and Moksha theory is hard work. You not only need to be aware of what is right and what is wrong all the time (dharma vs. adharma), you also need to behave (karma will come back to you duly). On the top it, no one laid down a specific path (there are many paths) and I need to figure out my suitable path through experimentation.
Which theory is more practical for a person or for the society? Figure out for yourself.
Interestingly, what happens to be the most democratic theory (experiment and find out your path and you have got a lot of options) is branded as superstition. Whereas the other theory is branded as sacred.
So because of this framework collision, certain concepts resulted in wrong translations. Accordingly, the word ‘Sin’ is translated as “pap”. In fact, there is no equivalent word for ‘sin’ in Indian languages. We’ve got only the deeds according to dharma or adharma. Punya is a deed that is in accordance with dharma and papa is a deed that comes under adharma.
Another example: Usage of symbols the wrong way. A famous example is Swastik, which is a sacred symbol of the Indian civilization. Unfortunately, the Nazi Germans turned that into a racial symbol. But Swastik retained its original meaning in India.
Even god is not above dharma/adharma when he/she (if there is the god at all) takes human form. You have to pay for your karma.
I don’t know who said this, although this is attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, I am not sure. These days, all types of quotes are attributed to the leaders like Gandhi and Vivekananda without their permission and they, unfortunately, cannot even refute the attributions.
But here’s that quote.
“After inventing the theory of Karma, god could retire.” (Source: Anonymous)
Influence of foreign invaders.
This is easy to understand, but difficult to overcome. We don’t even need to explain this: That foreign invaders tend to impose their language, religion, their beliefs on their subjects. History has proved it repeatedly, be it about the Native American population, or the historical context behind African Slaves, or the Aborigines of Australian continent or how the Greek religions were ridiculed and branded as “pagan religions’ by their masters, the Romans. Or take this example. But for the foreign invasions, this article would have been in Hindi/Telugu. The foreign invaders are not going to teach their subjects that, ‘wow, you respect the environment so much that you actually have got festivals to celebrate the rivers? Wow. You’re so advanced that you’ve got sciences like Ayurveda, Yoga and Vedic Astronomy?. Or Wow, you’re the richest country in the world (which India was when it was invaded).”. Instead, they teach their subjects that your religion is wrong, your beliefs are witchcraft and your science is superstition. And they won’t stop there. They institutionalize it. This results in intentional wrong translation of the key books, key concepts and very important stories and historical facts. This was not limited to India. In fact, India is probably the only civilization that managed to salvage its history, science, and literature to a good extent. Mainly due to it’s a) vast geography and multilingual population (how many languages can an invader kill?), b) it’s vast knowledge base, and c) solid scientific basis of the Vedic literature. Because Vedic Literature is a fact, a science and is orally transmitted, you can’t just brush it off.
For example: Watch the following video to understand the true meaning of the word ‘Thugs”
Another example: If you’re fortunate enough to have spoken to a native American (which I was), ask them about their original belief system. You’ll see their love for nature, which in recent times has become the main topic of the world population. Such nature lovers, could they have been uncivilized?
Sometimes ignorance and half knowledge can lead to the quest for proper knowledge. But prejudice (prejudice, i.e. pre-judgement) almost always leads to arrogance. Without hearing the prosecution and defense sides, a prejudiced jury is very likely to come to a wrong conclusion. Hence jury selection becomes very important. Same goes for semi-educated people like us. `We’re armed with our half-knowledge that primarily came from the invaders. These invaders in turn for their own selfish motives taught us that most of our science, our history, our literature, is uncivilized and superstitious. We’re so blinded by this prejudice that even the most powerful eyeglasses are not able to give us the vision needed to see the science in Vedic Sciences.
For example, Ayurveda clearly distinguishes between body types and recommends the treatment and daily routines based on body types. In addition to that, Ayurveda focuses on prevention a lot, which is such a common sense thing to do. Yet, we’re taught and some people still think that this is a silly, primitive, uncivilized medical system.
Another example: We think that the entire Jyotisha is predictive. We have no idea about the astronomical basis of Jyothisa. Or the statistical analysis or the philosophy that drives the predictive part of it. We’re more than happy to accept the ‘weather’ predictions on TV. (For more details, refer to a video by Venkata Chaganti here: https://youtu.be/n74KcchLKXE).
But when similar models are used for predictive astrology that includes monsoon predictions with similar or even better accuracy, we brush it off. Did you know that predictive astrology uses statistical models? The data was collected over millennia and it gets continuously updated and adjusted taking into consideration new age careers and other geographical and social changes? Did you know that multiple international Vedic astrology conferences are conducted every year where the data is shared, discussed and new observations based on the data come up all the time?
“The Science I know is the only Science out there” syndrome
Even the best of the best scientists out there do not claim that they know everything that is there to know. But we, the common people, claim that Vedic Science is not Science, but it is superstition. Some of this type of ignorance comes from all the above factors. And some of it comes from this arrogant belief that our textbooks have got everything and what is not in the textbooks is not science. If we already knew everything that is science, then where is the need for continued research? Ok. Alright, there is this other argument as well. Since we cannot yet prove somethings that are in Vedic Sciences via an experiment, then it’s not science. But
Let’s consider this fact. What all we took on face value that the scientists proposed in the past was not proved there and then. Did you know that “Higgs Boson” particle was theorized in 1964 and was proved later only in 2012, and even till today questions remain?”, Also “The Theory Of evolution” is still being challenged in the scientific community?” and did you know that when Newton proposed his 3 laws of motion, it was just that, a proposal? They were verified and observed much later and they’re still being tweaked. Did you know that there is no solid proof for the big-bang theory yet? (Refer to Venkata Chaganti videos on YouTube for more details on this subject).
The best way to prove a science is via its applications. The very fact that the application of Vedic Sciences like Ayurveda, Yoga, and Jyotisha (at least the astronomy part) actually work for sure, establishes the validity of the basic foundation of the Vedas. Veda literally means knowledge. If there are a few sutras that we, the modern people are yet to understand, maybe because they are yet to be re-proven?
In summary, we can go on giving more and more examples in each category. The point is this. A lot of science is branded as superstition due to these translation issues, not just in India, but in other countries like Australia, Greece, Iraq, a good number of African countries and America as well. Translation issues are not limited to vocabulary limitations, but all these other categories also mask the true meaning of the terms. Entire cultures, languages and native sciences are lost in the process. This is not a small issue that we can brush off. Whichever geography we’re from, let’s not reinvent the wheel. Instead, let’s see how much of science we can salvage,
That does not mean that the latest technology is any less. Let’s not tell ourselves that, because we’re saying that, ‘what got branded as superstition is not always superstition, but it’s a valid science’, we’re not automatically disregarding the latest technological developments. Nor are we condoning the true superstitions. But there is a lot that we can learn from the wisdom of our forefathers. They managed to live healthy and contented lives without destroying 70% of the other species on earth, which we’re headed towards these days in the name of civilization. We don’t need to give up on our cell phone or internet to combine the good from the past with the present and make our lives more meaningful.
Food for thought
All of this is coming from an individual with a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering, a Masters in Computer Engineering and another in Business Administration. And who worked in Big Data, Human-Computer Interface, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, so-called the advanced technology for 18 years. I am continuing to work in technology through my volunteer work and “I love technology’ is an understatement. I have not listed my western education background or my work here to show off or to claim that I am smart. When I talk/listen to Vedic experts. I can truly understand where I stand when compared to those great seekers of knowledge despite my new age education.
I am only highlighting this: a. My attempt at discussing Vedic Sciences does not mean that I am against Sciences, Engineering, and Technology. Far from it. B. Armed with that kind of new age technological background, if I dedicated myself to Vedic Sciences, consider the possibility that I have got a relevant background to be able to differentiate between Science vs. Superstition.