The Difficulties of Interpretations of Samskrut Texts & the Problems with Translation

The word Mantra has entered the English language and we all use it easily.  Most of us know a few Mantra and we recite these based on what we have been taught. But as we enter the realm of the Upanisad, we shall see that interpretation and translation are far from easy.  The earliest sages of the Eternal-Dharma had the same problem. Witness what the Bruhad-Devata says:

  • While interpreting a Mantra, one should take into account the dictionary meaning, the context, the reason and also the time and place of occurrence as well as the propriety that attaches to the utterances – Bruhad-Devata, II.8.

Now compare this ancient instruction with what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the US Supreme Court said while interpreting a somewhat obscure provision of the American Constitution. Justice Holmes observed that words are not crystals. He said that words do not always bear the same meaning. His view was that words must be read in the light of the context, the general tenor and purpose of the relevant provisions and therefore they cannot be regarded as crystals.

Here are two thoughts from two entirely different worlds, one in India of a couple of thousand years ago and the other in 19th-20th century America. Great minds think alike, don’t they?

Now consider the problems facing today’s reader who seeks to read or write the meaning of the Upanisad in English. Justice Holmes was merely speaking about interpreting words written in English into English thought. Here we are about to embark on a journey into interpreting the Upanisad in English. Great minds have expressed the difficulties of such an exercise. Below we quote a couple of authorities: 

  • Dr. RadhaKrishnan, Samskrut Scholar and Former President of India“In the Upanisad, we find harmonies of speech which excite the emotions and stir the soul. I am afraid that it has not been possible for me to produce in English translation, the richness of melody, the warmth of spirit, the power of enchantment that appeals to the ear, heart and mind.”
  • Robert Ernest Hume, an early pioneer of Samskrut with Max Muller  and author of The Thirteen Principal Upanishads“Texts such as these are among the hardest, to present adequately in another language and a completely satisfying translation is well-nigh unattainable”.

So why bother? The Upanisad occupy a unique place in the development of Indian thought. All the later systems of Indian Philosophy have been rooted in the Upanisad. Just read the words of great thinker:

  • Swami Vivek-Anand – “Strength, strength is what the Upanisad speak to me from every page….Ay, it is the only literature in the world where you find the word Abhaya, fearless used again and again; in no other scripture in the world is this adjective applied to God or to man. And the Upanisad are the great mine of strength. Therein lies strength enough to invigorate the whole world. The whole world can be vivified, made strong, energized through them. They will call with trumpet voice upon the weak, the miserable and the down-trodden of all races, all creeds, all sects, to stand on their feet and be free. Freedom – physical freedom, mental freedom and spiritual freedom – are the watchwords of the Upanisad”

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