Lost in Translation

  • By Venkatachala I. Sreenivas
  • June 2, 2022
  • Author simply explains the mistake of comparing Sanskrit words with English ones because many a time there is no corresponding English word in Western thought.

Our sages developed many concepts unique to Hinduism. Problems arise when translating the words representing those unique concepts into another language. The other language may lack an equivalent word or words for the concept, a concept which might not even exist in the society that uses that language. In that case, the substituted word or words may not convey the intended meaning of the concept, resulting in misunderstanding and misuse.


Because of the widespread use of English along with our ignorance of Sanskrit we try to understand and explain our scriptures to others through the medium of English. In this process we run the risk of interpreting the concept as perceived by the Western mind and not as our sages intended. For example, let us consider the word mithya.


First published in Journal of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.


To understand the Sanskrit word mithya, we must understand the meaning of two other words - sat and asat. Asat is that which has no existence, like the son of a barren woman. Barrenness of a woman and her having a biological son are mutually exclusive. Sat is that which exists in all the three periods of time—past, present, and future. 


For a better understanding, let us consider two terms, gold and a gold ring. Gold was present before the ring was made, will continue to be present while the ring exists, and remains even if the ring is melted and converted to some other ornament. Gold did not undergo any intrinsic change in becoming a ring or some other ornament. Gold does not lose any of its properties or acquire any new property when it becomes a ring or any other ornament. In addition, gold can exist without becoming a ring or any other ornaments. However, the gold ring and other ornaments require gold for their existence. In this example, the ring and ornaments are mithya and gold is sat.


Mithya is characterised by name, form, and function. Gold in a particular form is named ring and serves a particular function. Sat and mithya represent two orders of reality, the former being absolute reality and the latter, relative or dependent reality.


In Western thought, the concept of mithya does not exist and hence has no corresponding word. The word mithya is often translated as ‘illusion’. The dictionary meaning of illusion includes fantasy, imagination, fancy daydreaming, phantom, hallucination, misconception etc. The discrepancy between the meaning of the Sanskrit word mithya and English word ‘illusion’ is obvious and indicates the harm such a translation can produce. 


While understanding the meaning of the maha vakya, (brahma satyam jagat mithyam) as Brahman is sat and the Universe an illusion, we will have difficulty in convincing ourselves and others about the truth of the statement, since our experience of the Universe with our five senses is undeniable. The Universe has an order of reality. It is not a fantasy, illusion, or misconception.


On the contrary, if the Universe is understood as mithya and Brahman as sat, we can confidently explain that the Universe is dependent on Brahman for its existence, just as a ring is dependent on gold for its existence. Then it will be clear that the Universe enjoys a dependent order of existence without misunderstanding and misrepresentation. There are many such examples — Dharma, Karma, Janma, Atma, Srusti, Laya, etc.


Unfortunately, we have a tendency when asked what mithya is, to say that it is an illusion and if asked what an illusion is, to say it is mithya. Such an approach does not improve our understanding. We will be deceiving ourselves with a false sense of having gained knowledge.


To properly understand the lofty philosophical principles of our scriptures, we should use the original words and understand their meaning. Like other branches of knowledge, philosophy has its own technical terms. To have a clear understanding of the scripture of any religion, it is imperative to understand the concept behind the technical words. This is even more crucial when translating the vast and voluminous Hindu scriptures containing so many profound insights.


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, April 30, 2022 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.


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