How would one translate the word ‘God’ into, say, Sanskrit?

Here is the question: How would one translate the word ‘God’ into, say, Sanskrit? Now, the answer has to satisfy certain conditions because the question also meets certain conditions. Let me say very clearly what all these are, so that the playground and the rules are transparent and favour no one party in the dispute.

1. I propose we accept the best theory of meaning that exists in the market place. As far as I know, the book that plays this role most admirably, while satisfying the proponents of different theories of meaning expounded during the last century or so, is Prashant Parikh’s “Language and Equilibrium” (The MIT press, 2010). His formal apparatus allows for the existence of ‘word meanings’ without sacrificing the idea that the meaning of sentences are context-dependent and makes sense of even such statements as “the meaning of red light is…” That is to say, it does not restrict ‘meaning’ to words and sentences alone; it also allows us to deal with ‘word meaning’ as well, as it is in our case. If my colleagues unanimously prefer another ‘theory of meaning’, I would like to know what it is. In all probability, I would not take issue with an alternate choice.

2. The Indian cognate of the word ‘God’ must also satisfy the use and meaning of the words ‘theos’ and ‘Deus’. This is an obvious condition because the Greek and Latin words are at the origin of the meaning of the English word.

3. This Sanskrit word should be capable of being used sensibly in all those contexts where ‘God’ has been used, primarily (a) by Catholic theologians during the last two millennia; (b) by the Protestant theologians since the Reformation. That is to say, the Sanskrit word should generate the same well-formed sentences (both syntactically and semantically) that ‘God’ produces. If it does not, obviously, it cannot be a cognate.

4. The Sanskrit word cannot have a purely stipulative meaning. That is to say, it cannot be a word with only a technical meaning that an individual author stipulates. Such a stipulation would then be a part of some or another theory where a word has been “defined” in some particular way. It must satisfy the condition that it has a ‘word meaning’, i.e., it be well-known and used in the literature very frequently, the way ‘God’ is used in English.

5. This word must be used in the same sense that ‘God’ is used by Christian theologians of all persuasions in the course of the last two millennia. That is to say, (A) we must make sense of, say, Shankara and Ramanuja using this Sanskrit equivalent for ‘God’   the way, say, we can use ‘God’ to make sense of Aquinas and Luther. Not only that. (B) This word should also make sense of the writings of these four as well. If people really do believe that these two Christian thinkers used ‘God’ in entirely differing senses, I want references and explications of these so-called ‘astonishingly different meanings’. This would imply that the Christian ‘God’ of Aquinas and of Luther are different entities. And that would, indeed, be a result worth writing about.

6. Simply suggesting that words like ‘Ishvara’, ‘Brahma’ and such like do the job is an inadmissible move for the simple reason that this is what the dispute is about. Nor is an argument from authority (Thinker ‘X’ or ‘Y’ used it) acceptable because it is a fallacy in informal logic to use that as an argument.

7. One requires arguments for proposing a Sanskrit equivalent. I shall leave it to the competence of my colleagues to choose the arguments they find fit. However, they will be scrutinized for logical and linguistic consistency.

8. The time limit for this exercise, I suggest, be set to 24 hours. This should be more than ample because my colleagues have repeatedly said that Indologists have been thinking about this problem for more than a century now and have suggested that my students are not aware of this gigantic work. I am willing to buy this claim, if people are able to satisfy the above conditions at the snap of their fingers, in a manner of speaking. However, if my colleagues want a different time limit, I am willing to accept any reasonable suggestion.

I am willing too to accept other reasonable conditions, if my colleagues formulate them with reasonable arguments and on reasonable grounds.

If these or even other reasonable conditions (that could be proposed) are met, I will personally withdraw some of the claims I have been proposing and defending for a long time now. This is a huge concession because I am wagering my intellectual work of decades on the collective ability of my colleagues to translate just one word. In return, what are my colleagues willing to stake?

I very much look forward to an exhibition of erudition (references to writers) translating itself into arguments that meet the challenge I throw down. Let us see how many of us, as the Americans say, either put up or shut up.

  • Arun

    Condition 5A seems a little unreasonable. Shankara and Ramanuja may not have talked about God at all; but that logically does not preclude there being a Sanskrit word for God satisfying all the other conditions, in which case it might be obscure.

  • Arun

    I suggest going through Vishnu-sahasranam, and dividing the names into what could apply to the God of Aquinas and Luther, and what cannot apply. E.g, sarvajna – omniscient – might apply; Krishna – dark complexioned does not; any name that uses dharma or karma does not, and so on.

    Wiki has a list of the thousand names: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vishnu_sahasranama