Translation seen as an exacting process

You might have heard (or read) about this mantra from the Upanishads:

“असतोमा सद्गमय ।
तमसोमा ज्योतिर्गमय ।
मृत्योर्मामृतं गमय ॥”

It’s one of the most commonly known mantras. Typically, the second line, i.e. “tamaso maa jyotirgamay,” is often adopted as the motto of educational institutions in India. (One of the schools I attended had it, and so does the Department of Mechanical Engineering at COEP, where I did my PhD.)

How well do we (I mean the quoting Indians) know about the exact meaning of this mantra?

Here is a typical translation, coming from, what else, Wiki [^]:

“from the unreal lead me to the real,
from the darkness lead me to the light,
from the dead lead me to the immortal”

Here is another translation, with a write-up that serves to highlight the kind of trickiness that is involved in translating a brief gem like this [^]:

“Lead me from the asat to the sat.
Lead me from darkness to light.
Lead me from death to immortality.”

Here, Vedarat, the translator, simply refuses to translate the terms “sat” and “asat”! Apparently, he cannot make up his mind whether Yadnyavalkya (the Vedic seer who authored this mantra) meant “existence” or “truth” when he uttered “sat.”

It obviously would be “truth” here, but realize the extent to which an acceptance of philosophic fallacies such as the primacy of consciousness and intrinsicism [^][^] help muddy any honest attempts at proper translation.

It would be a different matter if Yadnyavalkya himself were to mean “existence” or “reality” instead of “truth.” But that’s not the case here. And, he also would not intend to deliberately keep the matter ambiguous here; no ancient Vedic sage ever did. … Yes, you can find a lot of mysticism in his other writings as well. Yet, judging from the context, it should be obvious to anyone that the meaning he clearly had in mind here was “truth,” and not “reality.”

Yet, the latter-day mystics confuse the issue.

Translation is a demanding process; it is an exacting process. It requires not just sensitivity to the various possible nuances of a word, but also the clarity of thought as to the exact shade that the original author might have meant. That kind of a clarity in turn requires, at least for translation of abstract statements or statements of general philosophic truth, a sufficient knowledge of the basic philosophical issues and ideas. Far too often, people carelessly bring their own assumptions into translations, and it is impossible to detect their insertions unless you do a bit of philosophic detection.

For example, I am sure that the above Wiki translation was done by some Western guy, not Indian. (Or at least, in case it was an Indian, he was one who had very heavy Western influence on him.) Why do I say so? Simple.

Look at the third line in his translation. The translator offers: “from the dead lead me to the immortal.” Implicit idea here is that there is a realm of the dead, and of the immortals. But this is a very Christian idea (and, possibly, Abrahamic in general).

The ancient Vedic sages never thought in terms of a soul going into a state of limbo after death, or its awaiting the day of the final judgement at the hands of a robes-wearing, electricity-carrying masculine God at some uncertain time in future. Theirs was a far more naturalistic viewpoint; sometimes, it can even be taken to be rather atheistic in nature. They did not necessarily believe in a human-like God dispensing out judgements and deciding on the fate of the soul.

The soul, to the ancient Vedic authors, was a natural phenomenon. The states of the soul, to them, were bound simply by a causal law (such as the law of karma). The very idea of some other consciousness or soul directly affecting even the future course for some time, let alone its fate for eternity, would be unacceptable to them. At the most fundamental level, nothing else in the universe, no other power in the universe except for the wilful soul itself could determine its own “gati” (progress/direction) and its own state, according to their typical viewpoint. (This does not mean that, in principle, prayers wouldn’t be useful. More on that, sometime later.)

Therefore, they simply wouldn’t think in terms such as the realm of the dead—which is, historically, a very, very  recent idea, and specifically Christian (or Abrahamic) in source. Not Vedic.

However, the point I wanted to make today was not about the meaning of “sat.” It was about the form of the statement that every English (or even Marathi/Hindi etc.) translation of this ancient Sanskrit mantra takes. It’s a very curious thing, all by itself. I mean, the form suggested by the part “lead me…”

Implicit in such a form is the idea that there is someone other than you in the picture. He would lead you from A to B, where A are all undesirable things, and B are the desirable ones. You thereby assume a more passive role. It’s his leadership that really counts. It’s almost as if your leader is capable of leading you from light to darkness, but since you have no power left over your own fate, you end up earnestly urging him to do otherwise, to lead you from darkness to light.

And that’s why, I often thought, that the prayer was laughable.

If you don’t have any independent means to figure out whether the journey is occurring from bad to good, and not from good to bad, and, further, if you also essentially need an external agency, a leadership, for that journey, then, these two facts put together, leave you completely at the mercy of the leader. Essentially, it makes a spiritual slave out of you.

From my readings of the Upanishads over the past decade or so, I knew that they could be sometimes completely mystic, but not always so. And, they could easily go to the highest reaches of abstraction, the most fundamental philosophic matters. But precisely because they are so abstract and so lofty in terms of the subject matter and the goals, they therefore wouldn’t be capable of creating a prayer of such a form, I thought. Certainly not when what they were aiming for was the “peace of the soul.”

After all, this is one of the Upanishadic “shaanti mantras”. It is not a mantra for propitiation of whimsical Gods as in the main Vedas; Upanishads come after the Vedas. And, this is one of the mantras that are supposed to be recited either before the commencement of studies or meditations, or at the end of it all—the rituals, or studies, or meditations, so as to consolidate it all, via a moment of peace.

And, so, I decided to look more closely at this mantra.

And, I figured out that my suspicion was right. There is no hint of someone else leading you at all, contained in that mantra. The whole idea is an extraneous, parasitical idea that some translator initially inserted, and then, all the latter-day translators picked up this habit. Obviously, out of some interesting underlying philosophic motivations!

Let me take just one line for illustration, viz., “tamaso maa jyotirgamay.”

First, let us split up the “sandhi” (or jointed) words into their components, and note the forms of the nouns and the verbs.

“tamas” means things such as the inactivity or dullness of the soul, or (the literal) darkness, or the darkness of the soul. “tamaso” has “tam” at its root, and “tam” means darkness. “tamas” is a derived word that means something that derives from or issues from or is a byproduct of, darkness. “tamaso,” in turn, is the modification to “tamas;” such a modification implies that a “from” kind of a relationship applies in this context. So, “tamaso” means: “from darkness dullness [literally, or from darkness or dullness of the soul].”

“maa” simply means “no” or “not”. Think of the modifiers like “un-” “non-“, “in-” etc. in English. They all are negators in various senses. Similar is the “maa” in sanskrit. It is a modifier that serves to negate. (And, if I recall my Sanskrit correctly, it is a strong form of a negation. “Don’t at all!” is the sense conveyed by “maa.”)

What is being negated here? Of course the “tamas.” No “tamas!” That’s what “tamaso maa” means.

The next word is “jyotirgamaya.” It’s a compound word made from two components: “jyoti” and “gamaya”.

When the form assumed by “jyoti” is such that it has the “visarg” (or what is denoted by a colon), resulting in “jyotihi”, and when it combines with something beginning with a vowel like “ga” then the “hi” is to be replaced by “r-.”

“jyoti” is a noun that means things such as: flame, light, brightness, etc. Now, “jyotihi” is the first person (or case) singular form of this noun which would makes “jyoti” the subject, or alternatively, “jyoteehee” would be the second case plural form, which would make it the object. I would rather rely on context than the knowledge of today’s Sankrit typists, and thereby conclude that here it is the first case singular, and so, the “jyot-” here has the “rhasva” (or short) “i”, not the “deergha” (or long) “ee”.

“gamay” is a modified form of the verb “gama.”

“gama” itself means: “to go.” The well-known usages of this root-verb appear in “gaman,” which means “departure” or “going away,” and “aagaman” which means “arrival.” (“aagaman,” literally speaking, only means: “anti-departure;” it is derived by applying the “a” modifier, another negator, to the more basic “gaman.” Now, anti-departure, of course, means: arrival. Sanskrit sometimes seems to work in a funny way, at least initially, but then, realize that if you keep man at the epistemological center of the universe, then from the viewpoint, going is more natural than coming. The actor in coming is someone else—not you. The actor in going, however can be you, yourself. And, thus, departure is not defined as anti-arrival; it is arrival that is defined as anti-departure.)

Now, the modification implicit in “gamay” is all that is left to discuss, and so, you can easily see that the particular form of this modification (as got after starting from the root “gama”) could be the real game-settler.

Unfortunately, my knowledge of Sanskrit is not at all good; in fact, it is barely elementary. (I just had two years of Sanskrit in the 8th and 9th standard, and that too, only as half of one language subject—the other half being Hindi.) And, unfortunately, I could not easily locate from an Internet search any easily traceable document or a text-book that shows a verb similar to “gama” going to the modified form “gamay.” A lot of material is easily found that shows “gama” –> “gachchati” etc., but not “gama” –> “gamaya.” The Spoken Sanskrit dictionary  [^] has “gamayati” but not “gamaya.”

From the best guess that I can make, “gamay” could be something like the “bhaave prayog” implied probably for the plural in Sanskrit, i.e. for many persons (more than two persons) in general. Or, it could be something like a “bhaave prayod” but for a single person. Thus, it would mean something like “may I/we go”

So, “jyotirgamay” simply means: “may I/we go towards brightness.”

Putting it all together, the translation should read something like:

“From darkness, may I/we go towards brightness.”

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. … There is no dark world let alone the world of the dead, and there is no bright world for eternity. And, there is no leader either, not even implicitly.

The words—the roots, their modifiers, the resultant modifications (i.e. the sense of the grammatical person, etc.) and the rules of “sandhi” i.e. of joining parts of words—all put together, go on to state only this much. “From darkness may I/we go towards brightness.” A sense of “being lead” is not even hinted at. There is no leader, not even implicitly, and there is no action of being lead—not even implicitly.

Yet, every English translation goes like “Lead me from…”

The psychology and philosophy of these translators might make for an interesting thought, wouldn’t it? They want to insert something that Yaadnyavalkya (or whoever first wrote that mantra) didn’t obviously have in mind, in the first place. And they do so with a philosophic viewpoint that is mystical, passiveness-primary, and implying of a leader—i.e. mystical, action-negating and therefore virtue-negating, and collectivist.

All the authors and commentators—whether Western or Indian—are guilty of exactly this crime. Via a faulty translation, they at least passively and implicitly further the axis of mysticism, amoralism and collectivism.

And, that kind of an interpretation is smeared on Yaadnyavalkya’s original hymn expressing the exalted human soul’s earnest desire for its own betterment—and, by implication, on its own.

On the occasion of this Diwali, let’s earnestly resolve to reach for the truth from any state of ignorance; to go towards the brightness of gaining knowledge from a state of the inactivity of the soul; and to go from every position or principle (or actions) that is destructible or un-maintenable in the long run (or any position that carries contradiction) towards the positions or principles that are insusceptible to destruction—the positions or principles that are enduring or permanent. Let’s resolve to do that.

And, let’s resolve to do it as a matter of our individual responsibility, and without being dependent on any other person—i.e. independently.

[For obvious reasons, there won’t be “A Song I Like” section—this prayer itself, if said with a proper understanding the meaning of its words, and with sufficient solemnity, is a song. And, it is a song that I do like.]