How non-translatable Sanskrit words can enrich the English vocabulary

An exclusive excerpt from Sanskrit Non-Translatables that stresses on the Sanskrit words that cannot be translated to English.

 |  24-minute read |   25-11-2020
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Sanskrit Non-Translatables is an audacious attempt at Sanskritising the English language by introducing powerful Sanskrit words into English vocabulary without translation, thus enriching it.

French words like Déjà vu and Connoisseur etc are used in English as it is, as there are no equivalents in English for these terms. There many such examples from other languages where words are assimilated it English. However, a lot of words picked from Sanskrit, when translated to English lose the essence of the words.

We present an exclusive excerpt from the book.

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Sanskrit Non-Translatables. 302 Pages. Rs 450. Excerpt courtesy: Amaryllis (An imprint of Manjul Publishing House)

Dharma is a term intrinsically unique and central to the Indian civilization. It is derived from the Sanskrit root dhr which means ‘to support’ or ‘sustain’; dharma thus means ‘that which supports or upholds the world and its beings’. Hinduism is called sanatana dharma (i.e., the eternal dharma) which supports the physical, social and moral order of the entire manifested world. Sanatana (eternal) here is not a qualification of dharma; it means that whatever is eternal is dharma and also that what we call dharma, has to be eternal. Dharma defies an exact rendering into English or any other language; it does not refer to a system of abstract ideas or beliefs having no essential connection with life nor is it a set of rules to be blindly followed in daily life without any understanding of the basic principles. Hindu dharma is actually the Hindu way of life. Hindu dharma is very wide and universal in its scope. It is not based on the message of any single prophet or Avatara or on the teachings of any one sage, saint or religious reformer. Although the Veda-s are regarded as the authority in Hindu dharma, the Manusmriti (2.6) regards the traditions and practices of those who know the Veda-s, the conduct of virtuous people and an individual’s conscience as important sources. Hindu dharma is thus founded on the varied experiences and teachings of muni-s, rishi-s, acharya-s and bhakta-s, making it nurturing of diversity, naturally assimilative and a highly efficient system with an open architecture for adaptation. A few terms related to Hindu dharma and their mistranslations are considered here.

Samskara is not Ritual or Ceremony

Samskara-s refer to the various purificatory actions done for sanctifying and refining the body, mind and intellect of a person. The performance of these samskara-s is essential to make an individual a practicing Hindu. Most Western scholars generally translate samskara as ‘ritual’; ritual or ceremony refers to a series of actions performed that may or may not have a spiritual consequence. The flag ceremony in most countries and taking the oath of office are examples of rituals and ceremonies which have no spiritual consequence and are secular in nature. The word samskara is derived from the verbal root kr by adding prefix sam and it means ‘purification’ or ‘embellishment’. Hindu dharma believes that it is rare for a jiva to gain birth in a human body and hence it takes great care to protect and nurture the body and mind of an individual. Samskara-s aid this by purifying and embellishing the body, mind and intellect of a person to make it a worthy dwelling place for the atma. Samskara-s can be likened to the process of installation of software on a computer and are meant to efficiently run a human body. A total of forty-one samskara-s is required to be performed at various milestones in a person’s life to consciously mold and refine one’s character. Garbhadhana is the first one and the final samskara is shraaddha or antayeshti which is done after the death of an individual. Shraaddha is also performed annually for a person by his descendants in perpetuity. Garbhadhana is done at conception to attract a good atma to take birth and purify the minds of the prospective parents before conception.

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Samskara-s are not irrational and futile priest-craft but give a sense of identity to an individual, when performed at various milestones in a person’s life. The samskara-s at different ages of an individual, such as initiation (upanayana), tonsuring (mundana), end of studentship (samavartana), marriage (vivaha) and others, help one recognize the change in his identity and become sensitive and aware of one’s duties and responsibilities. Samskara-s guide the life of an individual according to one’s age. While rituals in Abrahamic traditions also exist and have religious significance, samskara-s in Hindu dharma are significant because of their effects on the karmic imprints at the level of the chitta. The outward samskara-s are believed to create an elevated state externally, while imprinting the effects of this in purifying the chitta. As the Abrahamic framework neither has the concept of antahkarana nor karma, translating samskara as ritual is superficial and misleading. The word ‘ritual’ is also used to denote formalism such as signing a treaty or an agreement as seen in ‘corporate ritual’ and ‘bureaucratic ritual’. Hindu samskara is wholly different from this. Samskara-s for Hindus are the experiential side of their dharma and an outward physical expression of the subtle inner spiritual forces.

Hanuman is not Monkey God

Hanuman is one of the most popular and revered deities in Hinduism who is believed to bestow strength, wisdom and knowledge on His devotees. Unfortunately, Western scholars tend to frivolously translate Hanuman as ‘monkey god’ to stereotype the Hindus as primitive and ignorant people who worship monkeys, snakes and elephants. In Hinduism, there are certain deities whose divine bodies may bear some resemblance in their external features with particular creatures in our mortal world. However, it would indeed be unintelligent to regard a deity as simply a monkey or an elephant on the basis of this partial external resemblance. Hanuman is described as a vanara in the Ramayana. Vanara-s were devata-s who incarnated to help Bhagavan Shri Rama; they took birth in bodies with partial resemblance to monkeys and humans. Thus, to translate Hanuman as ‘monkey god’ or Ganesha as ‘elephant god’ only betrays the ignorance and intention of the translator. Hanuman is a highly learned devata, erudite scholar and widely acclaimed for his knowledge of Veda-s and Vyakarana. This is in obvious contrast to a monkey, which is a very rajasika creature, unlike Hanuman, who embodies pure sattva guna. Hanuman is also called Kapisha and one of the meanings of the word kapi in Sanskrit is ‘monkey’. However, the word kapi also means ‘one who resembles or has a complexion like that of a monkey or an ape’. Vanara-s were a different type of human beings and the word vanara itself is derived from the Sanskrit word va and nara which means ‘slightly like human being’. Another Sanskrit word which is used to denote vanara-s is kimpurushah, formed by a combination of two words kim and purushah. Purushah again means ‘human being’ and kim means ‘what’ and is used here in the sense of amazement. Vanara-s may have been a different species of human beings that is no longer extant, which had some physical features of monkeys. Hanuman is a great bhakta of Bhagavan Shri Rama and is considered as an avatara of Bhagavan Shiva who appeared on earth to assist Bhagavan Shri Rama in His fight against the evil asura-s. Hanuman is considered among the seven chiranjeevi-s (immortals) in Hinduism who are ever present physically on earth.

Sanskriti is not Culture

Sanskriti is commonly and loosely translated as ‘culture’. Culture is defined as the quality in a person or society that concerns excellence in arts, letters, manners and scholarly pursuits. Sanskriti, on the other hand, is not just confined to the material world and includes the pursuit of a higher purpose. Samskara and sanskriti are cognate words; sanskriti is a means to create samskara-s that will transform a person into a valuable member of society.

Sanskriti comes from the Sanskrit root kr which means ‘to do’ or ‘to make’, and the prefix sam conveys a sense of embellishment or some additional improvement. Etymologically, sanskriti refers to actions done for the holistic refinement and perfection of all the potentials within a human being. The Sanskrit word prakriti means ‘the raw natural life without any refinement’, such as the way animals live. Sanskriti embraces all the aspects of an individual’s life and is not merely confined to fine arts. Sanskriti provides the guiding principles for an individual to cultivate innate potentials for individual and social refinement. Sanskriti is for the harmonious perfection of all the four varna-s in the traditional Hindu society. Purushartha-s in dharmic traditions recognize man’s needs and provide a framework for their legitimate pursuit and development. This social set-up is based on the Vedic foundation and sees divine manifestation everywhere, thus creating a life-affirming view not subject to extremes of nihilism or hedonism. Dharmic society leverages its Vedic psychology to guide and direct man’s daily life for optimal individual and collective well-being, while keeping the spiritual goal of moksha as the overarching aim. It is this unique set-up which incorporates profound concepts of rasa and samskara-s, to create a vibrant way of life, i.e., sanskriti. Hindu sanskriti, therefore, is an inseparable part of the integrally unified Hindu dharma. Aesthetic and sensual pursuits in sanskriti are thus under this framework, differing from ‘culture,’ which is ill-defined in comparison, devoid of any unified or singular metaphysical foundation, and is a case of Western synthetic unity. Sanskriti is not just concerned with one life span of an individual but considers an atma’s journey through several births. However, Western culture assumes just one life, to be spent in pursuit of material pleasures. Such a culture can be arbitrary, at the individual’s discretion, and include choices that might be harmful to the individual and society, reflected in the frequent usage of words such as ‘pop-culture’ or ‘drug-culture’. In the Hindu culture, such hedonism and destructive behavior is called vikriti, which is the opposite of sanskriti. In contrast, the word sanskriti can only be applied for deeds with the motive of spiritual upliftment of an individual and society. Sanskriti should be used only for positive lifestyles based on dharmic principles, and vikriti for abusive forms of lifestyles.

Agama is not Ritual Text

Agama-s are a vast body of literature and not accurately studied or even compiled in modern times. They provide procedures for temple worship, temple-architecture, town-planning, fine arts, administration, healing with the use of Shakti-s, even bringing rain, and virtually every domain of practical living connected with temples in the Hindu society. They also describe the various utsava-s or festivals to be celebrated and the processions to be conducted at temples. Veda-s and Agama-s are complementary to each other; Agama-s can be considered as the applied side of the Veda-s and have been passed down through the traditional guru-shishya parampara. They have been incorrectly translated as ‘rituals’. The Agama-s provide specific procedures for the consecration or sanctification of a building, an image or an item to make it effective for the purpose of worship. They also describe presentation of music, dance, drama and other performances in the presence of a deity. These procedures cannot be labeled as rituals because these are the ways, according to Hindu thinking, to realize the transcendent, omnipresent and immanent absolute reality. The procedures specified in the Agama-s facilitate the visualization of that absolute reality to offer worship. The ceremonies and procedures in the Agama-s are intended to affect the workings of the cosmos, although the effects may not be immediately perceptible in every case. The Agama-s describe the protocols performed for invoking the deity’s personal presence in the temple in the form of the vigraha. The processes explained in the Agama-s are practical ways to develop a personal relationship and receive direct experience of the divine. The Agama-s are broadly classified into three groups: Vaishnava Agama-s, Shaiva Agama-s and Shakta Agama-s, according to their affiliation with a particular deity. The Agama-s, similar to the Dharmashastra-s, provide procedures for carrying out all the samskara-s; thus, Agama-s are a complete knowledge system dealing with the entire gamut of events in a person’s life from birth to death. The procedures provided in the Agama-s are karma-s to be performed to produce certain outcomes. They are designed as per the principles of causation. They eventually lead a person to uplift their consciousness and discard their conditioned existence in this physical body and attain liberation – which, according to Hinduism, is the ultimate purpose of human birth. Agama-s, like science, are not based on mere speculation but on the actual experience of the yogi-s and seers who investigated the subtle inner workings of this nature.

Naga is not Naked

The Naga-s form a very ancient sect of Hindu ascetics known for their martial arts and extremely strenuous sadhana-s. They traditionally remain without clothes and besmear their body with specially prepared vibhuti or bhasma which can be loosely translated as ‘sacred ash’. The Western world is greatly fascinated by them because they keep their bodies unclad, leading to the misportrayal of the Naga-s as ‘naked’ sadhu-s. Such a portrayal undermines the underlying philosophy behind this practice followed by the Naga-s, while also giving undue importance to just one aspect of their spiritual life, overshadowing other significant ones. It is important to distinguish the Naga-s from Western nudists, with whom they are unfortunately compared. The Naga sadhu-s are fiercely independent, dignified, confident and austere in their behavior unlike Western nudists who practise sensual self-indulgence. In contrast to the Western nudists, the Naga sadhu-s remain unclothed to detach from all worldly feelings and desires. The Naga-s have risen above all bodily identity and do not care about worldly opinion. Their unclad bodies (digambara) covered with bhasma signifies their freedom and renunciation of all materialistic and worldly concerns. According to Hindu philosophy, the physical body is not the true identity of an individual and misplaced focus upon it leads to a further entanglement with the material world. The bhasma covering a Naga sadhu is a reminder of the transitory nature of the physical body, which eventually turns into ash on cremation. This is a part of their sadhana for spiritual realization and not meant for any hedonistic enjoyment like the Western nudists. A person is ordained as a Naga only after undergoing rigorous tests and tapasya spanning several years. The initiates obey many strict vows which include sleeping on the bare ground, not having more than one meal a day, not indulging in flattering or abusing anyone and, of course, not covering themselves with any cloth. Thus, an initiate has to earn the title of a Naga by proving his worth and it cannot be gained just by discarding clothes. The Naga-s are organized into formal groups called akhada-s and each akhada has its own rules, policies, organization, governance, and lineage traced to ancient times. The Naga-s undergo training in the use of traditional weapons, wrestling and other martial arts for this purpose. Some Naga-s are shastradhari sadhu-s (weapon wielding) and others are shaastradhari sadhu-s (specializing in the shastra-s). When the Naga-s move in any procession, for example, during the Kumbh mela, they display their martial skills with the various maneuvers of their swords, tridents (trishula-s) and spears (bhala-s). Thus, the Naga-s are a class of warrior sadhu-s found within many sampradaya-s or traditions of Hinduism. They do their sadhana for spiritual emancipation but are additionally responsible for the protection of non-combatant sadhu-s and can resort to violence for that purpose if necessary. In historical times, there have been some key battles fought and won by the Naga-s and they do not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for the protection of dharma. In 1757 ce, the Naga sadhu-s fought against the fanatical Afghan forces of Ahmad Shah Abdali at Gokul near Mathura. Ahmad Shah Abdali’s decree led to an indiscriminate slaughter of people including sadhu-s and the burning of the region around Agra and Mathura for seven days. Four thousand Naga sadhu-s offered stiff resistance to the Afghans at this crucial moment. Around two thousand Naga sadhu-s sacrificed their lives in this battle at Gokul. Given this incredible history and background of the highly dignified Naga sadhu-s, it is derisive to compare them with nudists as the two are the very antithesis of each other.

Dasa is not Slave

A Sanskrit word is often deliberately mistranslated into English by Western scholars with an ulterior motive to denigrate the Hindu tradition. A case of spiteful mistranslation can be found in the Sanskrit word dasa. The word dasa is mistranslated as ‘slave’ so frequently that almost everyone accepts this as the correct meaning. Thus, the word devadasi comes to mean ‘female slaves of the temple’. People see dasa as equivalent to the shameful and inhumane system of slavery followed by the Westerners until just a few generations ago. The word slave denotes one who is under the forced authority of another person. A slave is completely controlled by his owner and is forced to obey the owner’s commands and a slave could be beaten or even killed by his master with impunity. The Europeans were involved in brisk slave trade and captured and forcefully transported them from the African countries to the Americas and Caribbean islands. Similarly, Islamic invaders forcefully took skilled artisans and craftsmen from erstwhile India to Central Asia as slaves to construct various monuments for them. Slaves were disposable property of their masters and in medieval and modern times, were bought and sold in markets. In Hindu dharma, dasa is nowhere near a derogatory word like ‘slave’ but carries a sublime philosophical meaning. It is considered to be the true nature (svarupa) of a jiva to be a dasa of Bhagavan. One is not a dasa to another human being but only to Bhagavan, through complete surrender to Him. Dasa is one who feels blessed by offering seva to Bhagavan and derives ananda from it. Hanuman is an ideal example of a dasa and is worshipped for the same. Being a dasa of Bhagavan is the highest honor for a person and to attain a continuous dasya bhava towards Bhagavan is the culmination of all spiritual sadhana-s. If dasa meant a slave, then such a high regard for it would not have been possible. The slave-masters in Western history did not treat their slaves as human beings and the question of worshipping the slaves would be ridiculous. A dasa realizes oneself to be an amsha of Bhagavan and as belonging to Him; he feels delighted to do seva for Bhagavan out of prema and his own volition. There is no compulsion or coercion from anyone on him to behave in this manner. Thus, the word dasa has no similarity with the word slave. Slave is a disrespectful term, whereas in India, dasa is a venerated term and this can be seen from the names of many great bhakta-s such as Tulsidasa, Surdasa, Ramdasa and Krishnadasa who proudly called themselves as dasa.

Seva is not Service

Seva is a Sanskrit word commonly used to denote selfless activities done for realization of Bhagavan by the Hindus. It has become commonplace to equate seva with ‘service’, even though service refers to work done by one for another person or an organization, often in expectation of some material benefit. The word seva does not refer to work done by someone in an office, shopping center, hotel or other customer service for monetary benefit. Seva refers to the activities done by an individual for the pleasure of Bhagavan without any trace of egoism and is rendered through one’s body, mind and wealth. Thus, seva is a devotional act and the highest form of worship of Bhagavan. It is defined as the unbroken flow of mental activities towards Bhagavan. Even a penurious person has the capacity to offer the finest items to Bhagavan during his manasika seva with an unswerving emotion of love. Seva is motivated purely out of love and reverence for its recipient. In Hinduism, the whole world of insentient and sentient entities is regarded as an amsha or a part of Bhagavan and He exists within all of them as their inner controller; thus, the concept of seva includes all the jiva-s. This is reflected in the emphasis given to offer seva to one’s guru, parents, the elderly, guests or any suffering jiva. Seva and Bhakti are closely related and synonymous. Seva can be offered to Bhagavan directly or indirectly through one’s obligations towards family and society or by helping someone in distress. The realization of the underlying presence of Bhagavan in every jiva along with a complete lack of self-interest is essential for one’s actions to qualify as seva. It is not only a means to spiritual upliftment, but an end in itself. Service without this principle to help out fellow humans is not seva because such service does not perceive them as manifestations of Bhagavan. Seva demands a purity of mind and a sevaka’s (performer of seva) mind should be free from anger, greed, lust, pride and other negative emotions. Such a pure mental orientation is denoted by the term seva-bhava and a person doing seva has to cultivate this seva-bhava within her/him. The concept of seva is a very important element of the Sikh dharma and the Sikhs lay great stress on kar seva. Kar means ‘hand’ and kar seva thus refers to seva done with hands. The Sikhs consider it meritorious and an act of piety to offer seva in gurdwara-s. They do it willingly for the pleasure and happiness of their guru-s and the Supreme Being. In Christianity, missionaries are motivated to help the poor or needy non-Christian people with the purpose of converting them. Such charitable actions are based on vested interests and cannot be called seva. All the seemingly good work done by them only masks their true agenda of conversion.

Guru is not Teacher

Guru is one of the several words of Sanskrit that has officially been recognized as part of the English lexicon and used in two ways – as an expert, such as management guru or investment guru and as a teacher of any subject, ranging from cooking, sports to science or any other vocation. Teacher is defined as ‘a person who teaches or instructs as a profession’ and therefore expects remuneration. The Sanskrit word guru is, however, very different in its original meaning and has been distorted and trivialized in its adoption. The word guru is formed by gu, meaning ‘ignorance’ and ru, referring to ‘the remover’, to denote one who removes ignorance. Guru helps his shishya-s overcome the bondage of the material world by showering them with wisdom. Bhagavan appears in the form of a guru as a tattva-darshi to help comprehend the Veda-s and elevate people’s consciousness for moksha. A guru is thus an abode of all virtues and serving him is tantamount to the worship of all the devata-s. A person must exhibit an immaculate moral rectitude to be called a guru, besides possessing profound knowledge of the shastra-s. The word teacher does not demand so many essential qualifications; anyone with a requisite college degree or other academic qualifications is entitled to become a teacher. Guru, no doubt, is an expert in his subject and also acts as a teacher, but these are necessary, and not sufficient, characteristics of a guru. In the Indian tradition, no part of human life and activity is devoid of spirituality. The secular and mundane subjects such as military warfare, taught by the guru-s, were also based in spirituality. The various weapons such as Brahmastra, Varunastra, Indrastra required the knowledge and application of a higher science of mantra-s, as seen in the spiritual instruction of guru Dronacharya in the Mahabharata. This ancient Indian military science (Dhanur-vidya), along with others such as engineering (Sthapatya) and Ayurveda, are all part of the Veda-s called the Upaveda-s. The guru who teaches these is no doubt dealing with something practical (vyavaharika) but this knowledge is always inseparably linked to the transcendental knowledge (paramarthika). Being pragmatic in vyavaharika life does not make the activity secular in the modern sense; it is always to be performed as part of one’s sva-dharma. As mentioned earlier, a guru must also be a role model of exemplary moral character for his/her students. A guru will not be involved in any act of moral turpitude. However, a teacher in the modern sense is not bound by any such moral code. A teacher can be brilliant in his subject with a plethora of accolades but that cannot be a measure of his character. In fact, in modern Western society a distinction is made between the academic and personal life of a teacher and the flaws of personal life are overlooked as private matter. However, for a guru, personal life is far more significant than academic life. The reverential attitude which the personality of a guru evokes in his students is the very foundation of a guru-shishya relationship. This would not be possible if the guru happens to be morally corrupt, notwithstanding his mastery over his subject. This is the reason that the unflinching veneration accorded to Dronacharya by Ekalavya in the Mahabharata would not be normally possible for a modern teacher to receive from one’s student. A guru is one who has mastered his senses and behaves with dignity and equanimity. The purity of his inner being is manifested in scrupulous outer behavior and propriety. A guru sets himself as an example for his students to emulate by practicing the virtues that he preaches. The education imparted by a guru is not merely within the classroom, but also shows the disciples the art of leading a dharmic life. In the gurukula system of traditional education, a person lived with the family of his guru and learnt from his behavior towards his children, wife, parents and friends. Another point of distinction between a guru and a teacher is that the latter imparts knowledge to students for regular monetary benefit, whereas this was considered anathema in the gurukula system. It was only after the completion of education that a student was expected to offer something in return to the guru as guru-dakshina. The continuance of the tradition of knowledge inherited was paramount for the guru and not monetary benefit. This is still in practice by some guru-s of classical Indian music. The Sanskrit word guru cannot just be added as another synonym for the word ‘teacher’ to enhance the English language. It should come into English on its own terms and without any trivialization of its original meaning.

Shraddha is not Faith

Shraddha is commonly mistranslated as ‘faith’. Faith is described as confidence or trust in a person or thing based on casual conviction or blind belief. For example, faith could be directed towards an airline known for its punctuality or a person considered to be honorable. Faith can also be belief in the commandments of a particular religion or confidence of an individual in one’s government or society. Faith is also used in the sense of loyalty or commitment towards a promise, or an organization based on character or as a part of a contract. The word shraddha etymologically derives from a combination of two words, srat and dha. Srat is a Vedic term for truth (sat) and dha means ‘to hold’ or ‘to nourish’; shraddha thus means ‘to hold or align your mind with the truth or reality’. Shraddha in its original and primary sense denotes feelings of reverence towards the divine or a spiritually evolved being; in the secondary sense, shraddha can also be used in the context of mundane things. Having shraddha for the shastra-s is not the same as having faith in an airline; the latter is a transaction based on reputation and business prospects. There are four types of shraddha: the first is the transcendental shraddha directed only towards Bhagavan and the other three are material shraddha-s affected by the sattva, rajas and tamas guna of prakriti.189 One’s shraddha in Bhagavan is the result of karma carried over from previous lives and accompanies a jivatman after death. Shraddha purifies the antahkarana and augments the efficacy of sadhana.190 Shraddha cannot be used in the context of negative and profane matters. Hindus have shraddha in the rivers Ganga or Yamuna because they are the manifestations of the divine Mother. Similarly, Hindus have shraddha in Veda-s because they are the very speech and prana of Bhagavan.191 The Sanskrit word closest to faith would be vishvasa. Shraddha contains the sense of vishvasa in it but goes much beyond; it is associated with reverential feelings. One can have vishvasa in a business transaction for instance, without having shraddha associated with it. Shraddha also refers to the absence of ‘ill-will’, ‘spite’ and ‘judgment’ (asuya) while doing charity (dana). The Danasagara places great importance on shraddha and refers to it as an essential character of the donor, i.e., dana must be done happily, unconditionally and without judgment of the recipient. 

Also read: How believing in human kindness and altruism can be a new way to think

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Rajiv Malhotra and Satyanarayana Dasa

Rajiv Malhotra and Satyanarayana Dasa are the authors of the book - Sanskrit Non-Translatables.

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