Academics, Different Readings

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Question: As a student of Religious Studies, I notice that the general focus of scholars in this field is on context, society, institutions, power dynamics, etc. When they read the Gītā, they ask why it emerged based on society, who the author was, what the motive was etc. I feel it is a mistake to approach the scriptures like they do. Do you have any suggestions on how to work in this system?

Answer: There are two views about śāstra— emic and etic (the insider and outsider view). And they are divergent. They will never meet. The insider’s view is based on śraddhā, and an outsider’s view is based on pure analysis, primarily from a historical point of view. An insider is not so much interested in historical development of ideas but interested in understanding the idea or principle and applying it in one’s life.

The outsider has no interest in applying it to his life. His interest is only academic, which is primarily the historic development of an idea. The insider is interested in an experience and the outsider in writing papers. So as Rudyard Kipling said, “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

The only suggestion I can give is that while working with them, play their game but internally follow your heart.

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Question: I have noticed slight differences in various editions of Sanskrit texts, although the overall meaning seems to be the same. Can you shed light on this discrepancy?

Answer: In India, the tradition was to learn a text by hearing it from a guru. Students memorized the text by hearing and then passed the knowledge on to their own students or disciples. Most people therefore did not have a physical copy of the text. Those who wanted a copy of a text either made a copy themselves by copying from a physical text or engaged someone else in copying the text. In the course of copying a text, mistakes were sometimes made.

These mistakes could be of two types:

  1. The mistake was such that it was not easily detectible because it fitted grammatically and semantically. To give you a modern example: When you misspell something while typing on your computer, it is marked. But sometimes you can type a wrong word that also exists, and thus the computer does not detect it. These types of mistakes lead to difference in readings.
  2. Mistakes which were grammatically wrong or did not fit into the meter or did not make sense. Later on, when someone read the copy of the text they noted the mistake and tried to correct it by either referring to another copy or by guessing the correct word.

These are some reasons why you may find different versions of a text like the Gītā. A popular text like the Gītā tends to have less variation in its editions than other books like the Purāṇas, which are not as popular.

 

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