Sanskrit Non-Translatables—The Rationale Behind the Book

The  new publication “Sanskrit Non-Translatables” is a ground-breaking and audacious attempt at Sanskritizing the English language and enriching it with powerful Sanskrit words. While it is commonly observed that Sanskrit terms have been inadequately translated into English and thus lost some of their original connotations and crucial nuances, with this book the authors attempt to reverse the process. It is a reference guide to protecting key Sanskrit terms and philosophical concepts from being distorted, plagiarized, or trivialized to the point of obsolescence.

Babaji has co-authored this book with author and researcher Rajiv Malhotra, the founder-director of the “Infinity Foundation.” The Foundation’s books have the common approach of presenting an analysis of distorted theories about ancient Indian religious culture and of exposing the falsity and Eurocentric assumptions of such theories. The book is now available here through this website

In the following Babaji explains the rationale behind the book:

As human beings we have the ability to think and formulate ideas in our minds. We also have the ability to communicate our ideas, knowledge, and experiences to others through the medium of language. Language is composed of words, which themselves have meanings. According to Sanskrit Vyakaranam, translated as “grammar,” there are four categories of word meanings: substances, qualities, actions, and names. Substances are those things which have both qualities and action inherent in them. For example, a table is a substance because it has qualities such as color, form, weight, etc. A quality is that which inheres in a substance and cannot exist without that substance. Qualities may be taste, colors, weight, shape, size, and so on. An action is that which also inheres in a substance and has a beginning and an end. It denotes a change in matter. The fourth category of meaning is that of the names which we give to objects, such as “cell phone.” Names are given as per our preferences.

Sanskrit words are derived from basic units of language, called dhatus or roots, and are formed by applying suffixes to these dhatus. Therefore, Sanskrit words often have some derivational meaning due to the variety of ways of combining dhatus with suffixes. For example, the word “pachaka” or a “cook,” derived from the root “pach,” meaning “to cook,” is formed by applying a “nak” suffix to express a sense of agency. Because of this characteristic of Sanskrit words, it may not be always possible to translate them adequately into English. The reason for this is that English nouns may not convey the same derivational sense that was conveyed by the original Sanskrit word. For example, the Sanskrit word “atma” is commonly translated as “soul” in English. But if we compare the sense of the word “atma” to that of “soul,” then we find that it is an incorrect translation. The word “atma” is derived from the root “at,” which means “to move,” and thereby signifies continuity or eternality. According to Bhagavad Gita (2.20), atma is neither created nor destroyed. However, “soul” does not have that connotation at all. Therefore, once we translate the word “atma” as “soul,” it loses its original sense. And those who understand what a soul truly is would misunderstand what atma is. Atma and soul have different and even opposing characteristics. According to Christian theology, animals and plant life do not have a soul. But according to Vedic scriptures, there is an atma in every living being, including plants and creepers. Generally, the word atma refers to the innermost conscious being beyond body and mind. However, it also can mean “mind, body, intelligence, supreme being, and object of love.” None of these meanings are conveyed by the word “soul.”

Furthermore, because Sanskrit nouns have a derivational sense, one word can have various meanings. For example, the Sanskrit word “go,” commonly used for “cow,” is derived from the root, “gam,” which means, “to go.” Thus, originally, the word “go” signified anything that moved. Although it is primarily used for “cow,” that is not the only meaning of this word. The word “go,” as per Apte’s Sanskrit dictionary, also means, “earth, ray of light, a star, sky, thunderbolt of Indra, a cattle, a diamond, heaven, an arrow, speech, Sarasvati, mother, water, the eye, a bull, the hair of the body, a sense organ, the sign Taurus of the zodiac, the sun, the number 9, the moon, a singer, a billion, a cow sacrifice, a house, a cow’s hoof, a mule, a snake, a kind of deer, and a pestle.” But if you translate the word “go” as “cow” or any of these other meanings, then it becomes fixed in that meaning only. However, if the word “go” is kept as it is, then it can be given any of those meanings according to the context. That is why a Sanskrit sentence or sloka would have different meanings as per the context and the intent of the speaker. After all, language is used by the speaker to convey some meaning, and the meaning depends upon the intention of the speaker.

Besides this, there are certain words in Sanskrit that have no equivalent in English. Many words contain a specific idea, which cannot be translated into just one word. Therefore, it is prudent to refrain from translating such Sanskrit words into English only for the sake of convenience. The unintended consequence of convenient translation is that the Sanskrit word loses its original sense and thus the very purpose of the speaker is lost.

The intention behind our book, Sanskrit Non-Translatables, is to preserve the deep and rich meanings of some important Sanskrit words. Our hope is to educate modern Indians as well as Western English speakers who may have the tendency to loosely translate Sanskrit words into English without paying attention to the deep meaning contained in the word. By translating these words, one acquires an improper understanding. Unfortunately, this may lead to misconceptions, biased thinking, and wrong actions. Therefore, it is wiser to use the original Sanskrit words when writing or speaking in the English language. We have many words in our local Indian languages that are borrowed from English, for example, “telephone,” “computer,” and “train station.” Thus there is no harm in reversing the process for the sake of maintaining and disseminating the legitimate knowledge and wisdom of our sages.

More in this topic in the media: Babaji’s article about Sanskrit Non-Translatables.

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Comments ( 1 )
  1. acyutananda das

    “ananda’ ‘Prema’ ‘Cetana’ “Dharma” “karma” ‘Brahman” I could only understand these terms when after time in sadhana under the direction of a satguru. Dadami buddhi yogam tam yenam upayanti te

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