Colonial Consciousness and Sanskrit Concepts

1. Many are concerned that English translations of some words from native languages distort their meaning. If we restrict ourselves to terms like ‘Deva’, ‘Dharma’ and such like, the worry is not just that their translations distort the meaning of these words (as we use them in our native languages) but that they suggest something (by way of reference and meaning) that does not even exist in these languages.

2. With respect to some of these words, we can build a reasonable case in defense of this stance. That is because there is at least some theory about religion that we accept (however provisional or conditional such an acceptance might be) using which we can show that ‘Deva’ cannot be translated as ‘God’. So far so good.

3. Could we generalize this point to say that no Sanskrit word (or any word from a native language) should be translated into English? Such an attempt would face two kinds of problems: (a) Are all translations (from one language into another) then a folly? Should we take this stance, then it appears to me that we would become so absurdly parochial that no one would take us seriously. The very idea that contributions from one language (or some one’s culture) are contributions to humanity would be undercut. So, we would have to allow for some kinds of transformations of the meaning of words in the process of translation as inevitable to an understanding of people and languages different from us. (There are other reasons too, but we need not go deeper into them now.) (b) We need to put restrictions on the translations of only some words from the native languages or from Sanskrit and, in each case, we need to give a reasoned defense of our stance. How are we going to defend these restrictions in a reasonable way?

4. The first way of doing so is to appeal to a theory that some of us accept and build arguments on that basis. Note, however, that the acceptance of some theory or another is itself subject to certain cognitive constraints; not every set of sentences can be called a ‘theory we accept’. Living in the twenty-first century is both a privilege and a pain: we know something about the nature of human knowledge and the status of scientific theories. Such a theory is not built for most of the words we use in Sanskrit or other native languages. For instance, such is definitely not the case for the word ‘Dharma’. We know of no theory of Dharma that meets the cognitive criteria that we expect a scientific theory to meet.

5. There is another way of approaching this task. Where we do not have an explicit theory to help us along the way, there we can appeal to something like an “intuitive theory” that cultures transmit to their members. Has the Indian culture of today transmitted an ability (to us) that allows us to make sense (intuitive or otherwise) of some of these words? Here is where, I am afraid, the shoe is going to pinch. I think that it has not. In one particular area at least, we are as clueless what these words mean as any other westerner!

5.1. Consider the following words we effortlessly use, while talking about human beings: “ahamkara”, “Chitta”, “Manas”, “Bhavana”, “Raaga-Dvesha” and their kin. Bracket away (for the time being) what you have learnt about these words from some text or another (authored by people like Patanjali or Abhinavagupta or Shankarachaarya or whoever) because millions upon millions of people use these words without having read such texts. Having done that, ask the following questions to yourself: What is ‘manas’? What, in the human psychology you intuitively know, does it refer to? What is Chitta? What is the difference between “Buddhi”, “Manas” and “Chitta”? Is there a difference between “manobhaavana” and “Manovikaara”? Is “Chittashuddhi” the same as not having any “Manovikaara”? If yes, “chitta” and “Manas” refer to the same entity; if no, what is the difference? Was Duryodhana an “ahamkari” or a “Durahamkari”? What is the difference between the two? How do you identify these two states as being different? And so on and so forth.

5.2. It is my claim that you are as clueless as any other westerner. What he learns from studying a Patanjali or an Abhinavagupta is also what you learn (after having taken individual cognitive differences into account) by studying these authors. Actually, the cards are stacked in favor of the westerner because his understanding of his native language (say, English) is more profound than your understanding of English. He at least possesses an intuitive psychology that tells him that these concepts are “different from and alien to” those he is familiar with. In our case, we are deceived: because we can use these words unreflectively (and, in this sense, proficiently) we are deceived into believing that we know what these words mean and what they refer to. We do not.

5.3. If this is true, and I am convinced that it is, it reveals another layer of what I have been calling the “colonial consciousness”. We have taken to English the way ducks take to water because we do not know (intuitively) what the words from our own languages mean! This is the reason why the earlier generations of Indians did not object to the translations the English made: we knew neither what “Dharma” meant nor do we know what “normative ethics” means. Our understanding of “Ishwara” is as shallow as our understanding of “God”.

5.4. There are many, many, implications to what I am saying. One such that is immediately relevant for our purposes is this: the discussion about whether or not we should retain or translate Sanskrit words into English does not arise from any deep understanding of our culture and traditions but from our ignorance of the same.

6. Unlike ‘atom’ or ‘quark’ (most non-scientists who use these words are also able to explain their non-technical meaning), the words I am talking about refer to our conception of human beings. Do we need to possess them to talk meaningfully about others and think meaningfully about ourselves?

6.1. Consider the possibility that they are entirely technical. In that case, in the absence of knowing what these theories tell us, there is no way we can make sense of these words. In that case, we possess another intuitive model (or theory) of human beings that we use to make sense of ourselves and others. What are some of the concepts from that intuitive model? Given that all the words we use in daily life (without reading these texts) are technical terms, and we do not use other words (which are they?) from our intuitive theories and models about human beings, we do not use our intuitive theories to understand ourselves and others. In that case, our intuitive theories might as well be non-existent. We use words we do not understand; and we do not use the words which we might understand.

6.2. Consider the second possibility that we do not possess such “silent” theories about ourselves and the world. Then, the consequences are just the same: we use words that we do not understand in order to make sense of ourselves and other human beings.

If I am not a physicist, the translation that ‘atom’ as the smallest particle of matter (replaced later by ‘quark’) will do without disorienting me. However, whatever my profession, I cannot do without words to think about myself, my wife and kids, and other human beings. If I use words that I do not understand, then I end up not understanding myself, my wife and children and my surroundings.

6.3. Given the fundamental import of these words like buddhi, manas, ahamkara and so on, it is not sufficient that there exists a community of specialists somewhere who can (anyway) only explain what an Abhinavagupta or a Shakara said or meant. Even if they tell me what, say, Manas means in Sanskrit, how do I identify it in myself? Is my desire for a dosa an expression of my manas or buddhi? When I want to rape another woman what prevents me: buddhi, chitta, manas, dharma, or, as Gandhi put it, “the conscience”? What do I need to change or train if I need to improve? How do I identify that entity? How do I know what trains it? Your experts, it turns out, will have to appeal to the words I already know in order to explain to me what Buddhi or Manas is. But then, what are some of these words that I should already know so that I may understand these experts? Where are they?

Further, I need to apply it in my daily life. I need to identify, in my everyday living, whether manas and buddhi are different; whether they are the same; whether I have ahamkara or not and so on.

6.4. I am not comparing the alleged scientific temperament in the US to our lack of knowledge. I say that your average Joe knows what he means by ‘ego’ (even if it is not a Freudian conception), what concentration is, and what attention is, what determination is, and what stubbornness is. Well, I am saying that we cannot: all the words we use, and the so-called “technical terms” are the only ones we know, are those whose meaning is known only to those specialists that you talk about.

Does not this situation bother you?

7. You ask: “If there is a distinction to be made between how we use words like ‘mind’ and ‘praarabdha’, I would welcome any discussion on this point.” There is one kind of similarity, viz., lack of clarity. Think of words like `culture’, `religion’, `God’, `Will’, etc. They have been called “essentially contestedconcepts” in the literature indicating that people have indefinitely many disputes about the meaning of these concepts (that is to say, there is no consensus about the definition of these words). The second similarity is that, by virtue of the absence of such a consensus, its usage in the daily language is itself slippery. You can easily create confusions in the daily conversation about the use of such words. Without fear of controversy, the use of `manas’ (and such like) also share these properties. But there is something more.

Even if one does not know what `will’ means, what `God’ means, what `mind’ or its relation to the brain is, and such like, there are institutions and practices that lend meaning to these words: there is the entire apparatus of the judiciary that lends meaning to `will’; there is the church and religious institutions; there is the talk and structure of human rights… There are any number of ongoing reflections about the nature of `mind’ and `brain’, the nature of `personal identity’,… In sum, there are a whole host of practices current in the western culture of today that give some or another kind of `technical meaning’ to these words and these meanings percolate downwards into the society through a number of structures like media, schools, and so on. This is absent in India..

To explain the difference further requires research. In what way, for instance, is a book on Abhinavagupta (that about 10 people might read) different from book about a dualistic theory about mind and the brain (which is, perhaps, read by 100 people)? Answering this question is a part of the research. All I can do is draw attention to the sensed difference and embed feeling this in a hypothesis that is capable of further development. But it is, as yet, not possible to convince that this is indeed the case. What if someone says that there is no difference between India and the west in this case? I have no arguments to convince a skeptic at this moment.

8. The same answer applies here as well: “It would be good to outline what needs to happen in our reflections to make progress beyond that.” We need to do research. The research itself can be conducted on different levels. For instance, one could begin to identify the cluster of terms, where we confront this difficulty. For instance, we have no such problem when talking about the `stone’ or the `cow’. We face it, I think, when we talk about human beings. Is it the case that in some aspects this problem is more severe than in other aspects even when we talk about human beings? This is an important way of circumscribing the problem. We can, for instance, start reflecting about how we teach language to a baby: are we concerned about teaching the meaning of words, or do we focus on something else? One could also look in another direction: when we read texts (say the Gita or the Mahabharata), what do we focus upon? Finding out the meaning of some or another word (`Dharma’ for instance) or do we read it with some other goal or purpose? What is it? How does this goal or purpose indifferent (in some what, which way?) to the meaning of words? And so on.

In other words, here as elsewhere, only research can answer the questions we raise.