Apaurusheya, shruti and revelation: theoretical dispute

The problem about translating ‘sruti’ is not as easy as it has been made out to be. Is it possible to translate it as ‘revelation’ or even as ‘divine revelation’? Because it has so far been translated in this manner, we can only conclude that it is indeed possible to do so. Next issue: how accurate is this translation? The answer to this question depends upon what ‘revelation’ or ‘divine revelation’ is supposed to mean.

If one does not want to prejudge the issue about the nature of Indian traditions, in the first place, we need to give credence to the fact that ‘sruti’ is what is heard. Committing the Veda’s into writing has always lagged behind the transmission of the oral tradition. Not only because writing was a later invention, but also because singing the hymns in a right manner (which has always been a question of oral transmission in India) is as important as reciting the verses accurately. Furthermore, unlike in other places in the world, the discovery of script did not put an end to oral transmission in India. Even to this day, literacy supports orality, a fact of great significance when we discuss about the alleged conflict between orality and literacy.

The second point is that Veda’s are supposed to be ‘apaurusheya’. How to understand this Sanskrit word? It merely translates as ‘not (of ) from purusha’. Who or what is the Purusha? Is there a contrast here between ‘Purusha’ and ‘Prakruti’? The latter can be broadly translated as ‘Nature’. Is the claim that the ‘sruti’ originates in Nature? If this reading is acceptable, then unless Prakruti is seen as ‘divine’, ‘sruti’ cannot be translated as Divine revelation.

Thirdly, even if this contrast is not drawn, it is difficult to see how ‘apaurusheya’ can be translated as ‘divine’ revelation without making the notion of `divinity’ into an unexplicated concept. The `divine’ in the Semitic religions is an entity with person-like characteristics: God has Will, purpose and acts according to His will. (These properties make some entity into a person). The word `apaurusheya’ denies this notion of personhood (translating `purusha’ as `person’) to that which delivers the message. Is it something like “akaashavani” (literally the voice of the sky)? In that case what does the notion of divinity mean if we call sruti the `divine revelation’? What is `divine’ about `akaasha’? In any case, what is `divine’ about `sruti’? Consequently, those who want to translate apaurusheya as `divine revelation’ will have to build a theology first. That is, they have to explain what `divinity’ means before assuring us that sruti is `divine revelation’.

Fourthly, what is the revelation in the Veda’s? Only that which is hidden can be revealed, if we go by the meaning of the word. I have yet to come across someone who is able to tell me what was `hidden’ before the Veda’s `revealed’ it to us. Is it the existence of Indra? Or of agni? Or of Soma? Or of what? Does sruti reveal what is hidden from `hearing’? Or does it reveal what is hidden from sight? Or does it reveal what is hidden behind the veil of ignorance? In which case, to what is it revealed? To the ear? To the eyes? To Manas? In short, it simply raises finitely many questions without ever having the hope of answering them without constructing some elaborate theory.

The third and the fourth point tell us that linguistic translation is not the issue here, but one of theoretical interpretation. Consequently, asking a Sanskritist will not solve our problem. The Sanskritist will simply say that he has been `taught’ that Sruti means `revelation’ or even `divine revelation’.