The Problem with Sanskrit Translations
To translate literally means “to carry across,” and in the broadest sense it entails more than covering an utterance from one language to another. Even when two people converse face to face with the additional nuances of tone, mood, rhythm, volume, emphasis, or gesture to reinforce the message, the spoken word may be open to interpretation. On the printed page, without those additional signals, the latitude for interoperation becomes even wider.
Additional layers of complication arise when the message has to be put into another language. Ideally, in carrying meaning across linguistic boundaries, a translation should assure as safe a passage as is humanly possible. The journey can be fraught with difficulty, because each language embodies its own world-view, conditioned by place, time, and culture. The divide can be small and the crossing easy if two languages are closely related; it can be great and fraught with hazard if they are not related at all. In the case of Sanskrit and English the two languages are distantly related and separated by half a world and thousands of years. They speak for very distinct cultures.
What makes a good translation? Obviously fidelity is paramount, but fidelity to the letter of the text all too often produces something lifeless and slavishly literal that paradoxically may obscure rather than clarify. Life a successful original work, a successful translation should speak with clarity and vitality. Translation, as much as the original writing, is a creative act.
If translation is to succeed, it must speak naturally in the translator’s own voice even while preserving the tone and quality, and above all the meaning, of the original. An expert translator is a discerning listener, sensitive to the moods, colours, and nuances of the source language, to the author’s feelings and ideas, and to the conditions that shaped them. Such a translator allows the original text to speak for itself in a different language to a new audience of a different time and place. The aim must be to communicate the message authentically enough across the various divides to that the reader can benefit from it in the manner intended.
Sanskrit conveys a world-view centred not on objects as matter but on objects as process. Even the word for world, jagat, means “that which moves.”
In any language a given utterance may have more than one level of meaning, and its understanding will be determined by the capacity of the hearer or reader. The difficulties are compounded in the ancient scriptures, which attempt to express the inexpressible heights of spiritual experience that can only be hinted at and never articulated with razor-sharp definition.
The Secret Language
The word Sanskrit means refined which points to the fact that Sanskrit is structurally special compared to other languages.
Sanskrit is somewhat like a secret code, an encryption that can compress multiple layers of meaning in one sound. It is arguably one of the oldest languages in the world. Early civilizations like the Anasazi, the Celts, the Indus Valley, and the Australian Aborigines used symbols to encode knowledge that would have been easily understood by the people who were a part of these traditions. One symbol alone can contain metaphysical principles, wisdom, events, and even warnings – the meaning of which would have been orally transmitted from one generation to the next over the centuries. Remember that writing itself is a symptom of the Kali Yuga.
One Sanskrit word can have a confluence many meanings; some are very subtle with layers of information encoded within them. These layers are understood in accordance with and relative to levels of consciousness.
History of Sanskrit
Sanskrit spent more than a thousand years as a fluid native language, but then it “froze” in the 5th century BCE when the grammarian Panini formalized it. He described Sanskrit so comprehensively that it has remained nearly the same for more than two thousand years. In his days, Sanskrit was just “the language” spoken by the learned men of his time. But to those that followed him, Sanskrit was the perfected language forever protected from the fluidity of human life.
The highest form of language is that wonderful, extraordinary communication God has with his own infinite nature. And as he expresses himself to himself, he creates this whole world made of word and meaning.
– Mark Dyzckowski
When Sanskrit was formalized in this way, it lost some of the vitality that we find in other languages. But in exchange, it became a timeless and placeless language unlike any other. It speaks from a world that has long disappeared from the earth. By learning Sanskrit, we can open our ears to that world and let some of its voices be heard once more.
Vibrations of Consciousness
Through Sanskrit an understanding was developed of how to go back to the source of our very own consciousness. This is because understanding the structure of language is the same as understanding the structure of thought. There also developed a deep understanding of the power of sound on our consciousness. Sound creates a particular experience or perception in ourselves. That’s what makes Sanskrit unique – they mapped how sounds affect our perception. They therefore combined sounds in a way which speakers could bring their consciousness to a deeper level.
A few Sanskrit terms: The various schools such as Vedanta, etc. have different meanings for many Sanskrit words. Here I have given you the general meaning, but mainly the Kashmir Shaivite understanding – and occasionally mine.
Ahamkara: the state of I-ness, the I-making principle, the I-feeling; the [delusional] idea that you are an individual ego, separate and distinct from the Oneness. Ahamkara is the small personality ego-self identity; that limited ‘I-consciousness’ which feels that it is separate and distinct from the unlimited I-consciousness that is the Oneness, Parabhairava, meaning God consciousness. [VSF]
Ananda: bliss, the nature of Shakti is bliss, delight.
AntarAtma: The conditioned inner soul consisting of the subtle body (puryastaka); different from the gross physical body that covers the soul. [Jaideva Singh]
Anu: literally means ‘atom’ and refers to the limited individual (jiva) who breathes and is conditioned by the body.
Anugraha: the act of Grace. “The act of unfolding or revealing His (God’s) nature” accomplished by the individual, but dependent on the will of God. There are nine levels of Grace. [Swami Lakshmanjoo in Kashmir Shaivism] My understanding is that Grace is God consciousness expanding within you, revealing and allowing you to recognize that your Real nature is the Oneness. [VSF]
Anutarra: the Highest, Supreme; the Sanskrit vowel ‘a’.
Atma: the inner Self, soul, not the limited individual ego; from the root verb meaning ‘to move constantly.’ [Jaideva Singh]
Avidya: primal ignorance consisting of the feeling of imperfection that leads to extroversion (looking for completion in the temporal illusory hologram).
Bandha: bondage, limited knowledge; bondage due to primal ignorance.
Bhairava: the Highest Reality; BHA – sustain, support & maintenance of the world, RA – withdrawal & dissolution of the world, VA – creation & projection of the world. [Jaideva Singh]
Bhakti yoga: Union with God through devotion. [Explained by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter XII.]
Bhuvanadhva [SLJ]: “the Path of all the worlds” and these worlds are said to number one hundred eighteen. Not one planet, rather this whole cosmos is called one world. One hundred eighteen of these worlds have been ‘seen’ found by Shaivite yogins in Samadhi. [Kashmir Shaivism]
Bindu: a point, metaphysical point.
Bindu [Abhinavagupta’s thinking as understood by Paul Muller-Ortega]: The point (bindu) or dot (vindu) that stands within the Heart; a point whose nature is the vibrating hum (nada) and is found in all living beings. Bindu comprises both an undivided light and a sounding vibratory roar. The bindu is at once pure illumination (prakasha) as well as the vibratory sound (vimarsha) generated as that vibratory sound continuously maintains self-consciousness by referring back into itself. The bindu is spoken of as pure consciousness. [‘The Triadic Heart of Shiva’]
Buddhi: discriminating intelligence, the intellect, the discriminative faculty; from the root-verb budh, meaning ‘to enlighten, to know.’ [John Grimes]
Cakra /pronounced chakra/: literally ‘wheel,’ the collective whole of the Shaktis; there are seven cakras (wheels of light) in the human body; from the root-verb car meaning to ‘move.’ [J. Grimes]
Cit /pronounced chit/: the Absolute, foundational consciousness; the consciousness that is the unchanging principle of all changes [Jaideva Singh].
Darśana: worldview; vision of reality; way of seeing; map of the path to walk.
Deva: gods, celestial beings, one who shines, from the verb-root div meaning ‘to shine.’
Devas [SLJ]: the ‘gods’ are your own sense organs – the five senses, the mind (manas), the intellect (buddhi), and the individual ego (ahamkara).
Hrydaya: the Heart as the center of the Self and God consciousness. It is within and simultaneously everywhere, ubiquitous.
Hrydaya – defined by Abhinavagupta in Muller-Ortega:
The Heart is the very self of Shiva [the Oneness], of Bhairava, and of the Devi, the Goddess who is inseparable from Shiva. As consciousness the Heart is the unbounded, infinite light (prakasha) as well as the freedom (svantantrya) and spontaneity (vimarsha) of that light to appear in a multitude and variety of forms.
The Heart is the ultimate (anuttara), which is both utterly transcendent to and yet totally immanent in all created things. The Heart embodies the paradoxical nature of Shiva that is the plenum, that is the unbound fullness and simultaneously an inconceivable emptiness.
The Heart is in a state of perpetual movement, a state of vibration (spanda), which is continually contracting and expanding, opening and closing (unmesa-nimesa), trembling (ullasita), quivering (sphurita), throbbing, waving, and sparkling (ucchalata). The Heart is the Ocean of Consciousness and creates the emission of the entire universe. [Paul Muller-Ortega – The Triadic Heart of Shiva]
Jagat: the world, cosmos.
Jiva: the individual soul, an embodied portion of the Oneness.
Jivanmukti: being Liberated (mukti) while still living in the body.
Jñana: Wisdom Knowledge; from the verb-root jña, meaning ‘to know.’
Kancuka /pronounced kanchuka/: The five coverings of Maya that conceal the Oneness: 1) time bound, 2) attachment that comes from the feeling of emptiness, 3) limited knowledge, 4) place bound (the Oneness is and ‘feels’ ubiquitous), 5) the impression of limited creativity.
Kula: the embodied cosmos, Shakti manifesting herself in 36 tattvas. [Jaideva Singh]
Krama: a sequential order, stages; God realization through worshipping aspects of the Divine Goddess in sequence.
Khecari /pronounced khe-cha-ree/: one who moves in space (kha), which is the vast expanse of consciousness.
Lila: play, sport, divine play; the idea that creation is a play of the divine, existing for no other reason than the mere joy of it. [J. Grimes]
Loka: a world or plane of existence.
Mala: see Mala.
Mantra: sacred words used in chanting; from the verb-root ‘man’ meaning to think, “that which saves the one who reflects.” Jaideva Singh’s etymology of mantra: manana – pondering over the highest light of I-consciousness; trana – protection by terminating the transmigratory existence full of difference.
Matrika: see Matrika.
Matrika-cakra: theory of the alphabet (see Shiva Sutra 2.7).
Maya: the power of illusion, the principle of appearance; the beginning-less cause that brings about the illusion of the world.
Maya [SLJ]: The kingdom of Maya (illusion) is the state in which we have come down from undifferentiated knowledge, and we are no longer aware that everything is filled with divinity. We have become one with that Maya, the [temporal] illusion of differentiated perception (of the 31 elements – the tattvas); and thus are absolutely deprived of our real nature, which is undifferentiated God consciousness.
Maya tattva: The principle that throws a veil over pure consciousness and is the material cause of physical manifestation, the source of the five coverings (kancukas). [Jaideva Singh]
Mukti: liberation from bondage, also Moksha.
Para: the Highest, the Absolute, Supreme.
Pashu: the bound individual, literally ‘beast.’
Prakasha: shining, luminous, effulgence, illumination. Literally light; the principle of Self-revelation; consciousness; the principle by which everything else is known. [Jaideva Singh]
Prakriti: the element known as ‘nature’ that creates the three gunas. [SLJ]: the three gunas emerge from Prakriti, the field where the three tendencies, the three qualities, rajas, tamas, & sattva arise and flow forth.
Rajas: action, passion; one of Prakriti’s three gunas. Rajas means attachment which results from not being full, it leaves the impression in purusha that he is not full, not complete, and he must have this or that to become full; he feels he is incomplete, which gives rise to ambition, greed, aggression. [SLJ]
Tamas: the principle of inertia and delusion, one of Prakriti’s three gunas.
Sattva: the ‘quality’ that is truth, pure, goodness, illuminating; one of Prakriti’s three gunas. [Being in the Sattvic (pronounced sat-wic) state will elevate your consciousness and allow the God within you to reveal all wisdom and Knowledge – VSF].
Pralaya: the dissolution of manifestation, periodic cosmic dissolution.
Prana: vital energy, life breath.
Pranana: the breathless breath.
Purusha: the limited soul, bound and entangled by the five kancukas. In Shaivism Purusha is the unrealized soul that responds to Prakriti, and is bound and limited; purusha becomes the ‘victim’ plaything for Maya; deluded by the veiling of his own nature, purusha takes on limited individuality. [Swami Lakshmanjoo – Kashmir Shaivism]
Puryastaka: the subtle body (the physical body is the temporal manifestation of the subtle body). “Entering into the puryastaka and moving about in all forms of existence, the Self is to be known as the inner soul (antarAtma), bound by the residual traces of good and evil deeds. [Svacchanda Tantra XI, 85 – Jaideva Singh] These ‘residual traces’ are known as Samskaras or Vasanas and are embedded in the subtle body and draw the soul into its future lives through repeated births and deaths, Samsara. [VSF]
Puryastaka: composed of the five Subtle Elements (the five senses tanmatras: smell – gandha, taste – rasa, form – rupa, touch – sparsha, sound – shabda), manas (mind), buddhi (the discriminating intellect), and ahamkara (the ego, attributing any action or knowledge to yourself, as in “I have done this”). [SLJ]
Sabda: sound, sound as word.
Samadhi: one-pointedness, absorption, a unifying concentration; collectedness of mind in which there is a cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. [Jaideva Singh]
Samvit: Supreme consciousness.
Samsara: the wheel of repeated birth & death, transmigration.
Shakti: power, energy, potency; Shiva’s power to manifest.
Aghora Shaktis: The Shaktis that lead the aspirant back to God consciousness; they inspire the empirical selves (jivas) towards the path of Liberation (moksha).
Mahaghora or Ghora Shaktis: the Shaktis personified as deities that push the individual soul (jiva) towards a downward path in Samsara; the deities (as seats of the sense organs) who hover about the consciousness – the psychic center above the head (Brahma-randhra) – with a ‘terrible noose’ and delude people constantly. [“Strangled with hundreds of nooses of expectation, giving into desire and anger…” The Bhagavad Gita XVI.12 – J.A.B. van Buitenen translation.]
Shaktipata: spiritual awakening through the descent of divine grace.
Shiva: literally auspicious, the Divine foundation, ultimate Reality.
Shuddha-vidya tattva: “This exists when purusha actually realizes his own nature and yet that realization is not stable; it is flickering, it is moving. Sometimes you realize it, sometimes you forget it.” [SLJ – Kashmir Shaivism]
Siddhi: power, supernatural powers attained through yogic practices. These yogic powers exist in the sphere of Maya and thus are obstacles to be avoided by the yogi.
Susupti: dreamless sleep.
Spanda: apparent motion in the motionless Shiva (the Oneness) which brings about the manifestation, maintenance, and withdrawal of the universe. [Jaideva Singh]
Sutra: short sentence statements, many times without a formal verb, which, like a string, run through and bind together that which they are revealing.
Svatantrya: the absolute Free Will of God, [God is the Oneness that pervades and permeates All – VSF]
Tattva: That-ness, a principle or category (from ‘tat’ – that); the elements.
Turya: the fourth state of consciousness beyond the waking, dream and deep sleep states; the witness consciousness.
Vasanas: residual traces of acts and impressions, tendencies, conditioning; also called Samskaras.
Vimarsha: self-referential consciousness, awareness. Vimarsha is the capacity of consciousness to be conscious of itself; vimarsha continuously doubles back on itself to engender self-referential consciousness. [Muller-Ortega]
Visarga: emanation, creation, the power of emission.
Yoni: womb, source; metaphorically the entire universe is created, emerges, explodes, shoots forth from the Divine Yoni, the matrix.
Upayas: the ‘means’ to God Realization, skillful means, means of liberation, technique, way, path, means of approach. In Kashmir Shaivism there are four upayas; each preceding step may lead to the next naturally:
Anavopaya: (also called kriyopaya), the means that is dependent upon concentration, mantra, breath, and other techniques; external aids.
Shaktopaya: (also called jñanopaya), the means by which God consciousness is achieved through grace and one-pointedness; recognition of one’s own essential unity is sought.
Shambhavopaya: (also called icchopaya), thoughtlessness is the means; knowledge of the ultimate Reality arises through a mere exercise of will power.
Anupaya: (the highest) effortless spontaneous God Realization; you do not have to do anything; for very advanced aspirants. [According to Swami Lakshmanjoo, sometimes Lord Shiva, the Oneness, just simply grants this kind of spontaneous Grace to the seeker, even to a few of those who might not be seeking! It is cosmic ‘play’ – Lila.]