Vyabhicāra-duṣṭāḥ and my philosophy of translation

A few days ago, a group of devotees connected to Jiva got the following letter:

Radhe Radhe to all devotees. Yesterday I finally got around to printing out the translation by Jagatji that Vilasaji had sent (below). However, I noticed that the translation of a key verse does not agree with me at all, even though the translation appears literally correct. The translation asserts that the gopis are 'sullied by the sin of adultery'. The gopis are not adulterous at all; their behavior only *seems so*. I reproduce Babaji's translation below Jagatji's for comparison.

Jagatji's translation:

kvemāḥ striyo vana-carīr vyabhicāra-duṣṭāḥ
kṛṣṇe kva caiṣa paramātmani rūḍha-bhāvaḥ
nanv īśvaro ’nubhajato’viduṣo’pi sākṣāc
chreyas tanoty agada-rāja ivopayuktaḥ

Contrast these forest-dwelling women, who have been sullied by the sin of adultery, with this ascended stage of love for the Supreme Soul, Krishna. Surely God brings the most direct auspicious benefit to those who worship him constantly, even if they do not have any knowledge, just like the king of medicines cures one who uses it [even without knowledge of how it works, etc.].

Babaji's translation from the Prīti Gīti book;

What is the status of these simple women who wander in the forest, seemingly of unchaste behavior, and how great is this mahābhāva for Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Self? There is a great difference between the two. Yet, it is true that Bhagavān Kṛṣṇa directly grants the ultimate welfare to one who constantly serves Him although the worshiper may be ignorant about His true nature, just like ambrosia, the king of medicines, cures an ailing person even if consumed without knowledge.

Words have meanings which they invoke in the mind. The meaning of the word adultery is: giving up one's husband for a lover. This meaning does not apply to: giving up one's husband, and accepting Krsna as one's lover (I am sure you have seen Sri Visvanatha's commentary).

Sri Jiva writes that vyabhicara is having desire for someone else other than Krsna. So vyabhicara-dustah applies to everyone other than the gopis- everyone else is adulterous, but not them.

Given the copious refutations by the acharyas, and most importantly, the context - Uddhava is prostrating himself before the gopis, and he is the topmost dharmic person who cannot even think of sin - I don't think it is imposing bias to interpret the words so that they do not convey a pratikūla meaning.

Radhe Radhe

In actual fact, your remarks illustrate exactly why I translate the way that I do.

I hope you understand that I try to present the Sandarbha translations in as literal a way as possible. This allows the commentator to elucidate doubts like the one expressed here. Naturally Jiva Goswami will not allow the accusation of adultery to stand. Yet, that is the whole magnificence of the gopis' bhakti is that they abandon family, society and the religious law in order to serve Krishna. So my translation is literally correct. Now the question is, is it permissible to project any biases onto the text when we translate it? This is a constant problem and one that has different levels or degrees of balance. The words vyabhicāra-duṣṭāḥ are clear. Their clarity was intended by the original author of the Bhāgavatam who understood full well the weight of his choice.

But please remember that my translations are, at least where Jiva and Babaji are concerned, specific to the Sandarbhas.

In the Sandarbhas, Jiva Goswami cites verses from the Bhāgavatam that often have immediate meanings that go contrary to the Vaishnava siddhānta or ruci. This would have applied in the 16th century as much as it does now. In fact, it is a recognized characteristic of the Bhāgavatam, and indeed of the rishis and Bhagavān Himself. to whom the parokṣa-vāda is dear.

Those verses are therefore in need of commentary and elucidation according to the understanding of our ṭīkākāras. The Bhāgavatam would likely never have become so influential if it hadn't been for the commentary of Sridhara Swami, who dealt with many questions like the ones you are troubled by, clarifying contradictions and inconsistencies, as well as obscure meanings of words. And there are a lot of those in the Bhāgavatam. You blame my translation instead of blaming the Bhāgavatam or Vyasa!

To translate the interpreted meaning instead of the actual words of the Bhagavatam as they are renders the commentary irrelevant and would further result in confusion for the English reader, who would wonder what the point of the commentary was at all if it is just repeating what was already said in the verse. And one with a little knowledge will look at the translation and say, "Hey, this is not in the verse. This is not what it says!"

This was particularly problematic with Kushakratha's translations [and, I believe, Babaji's early first drafts]. They used the BBT translations of Bhāgavata verses I suppose out of respect for Prabhupada and in feeling that the translation should be standardized, like the King James Bible or something. The BBT translations are generally full of extra material, however, which frequently resulted in complete confusion when reading those translations in the context of the Sandarbhas.

Sri Jiva does have a precise thought process that we try to follow. We assume that he does not quote a verse out of place. Often, he only quotes verses partially, precisely because he does not want to clutter his argument with extraneous material.

For the historically interested student, this makes a lot of sense. It allows you to see more clearly how the commentators are thinking and disagreeing with each other to establish more and more profound siddhāntas.

The imperative of the scholastic system, however, insists that the scriptures be the authoritative source of any interpretation that they make. This occasionally requires that a text's words' meanings are stretched in order to fit them. A translation of a work of this character should reflect what is going on in the mind of the author AND the commentator.

In order to bring our work on the pivotal theological opus of our sampradāya to the level of scholarly sophistication that Babaji Maharaj wishes to achieve, in order to gain widespread acceptance for it in the scholarly community as an authentic rendition of Jiva Goswami's thought, to put into view the magnificence of his presentation as a thinker, and so that his stature as a scholar and a teacher of prema-dharma be more fully understood by all, we are best served by this approach.

That is, the most honest and helpful approach would be not to hide the immediate meanings of the words of the Bhāgavatam in order to placate the prejudices of some and thereby obscure the intent of Jiva Goswami's purports. And, of course, our Babaji Mahashaya masterfully follows up to clarify more fully what JG often says in very succinct or abbreviated manner.

Of course in a songbook the principles of translation would be different because the purpose and the functional audience are different. In such a case, it makes sense to use a translation that has been given the slant that the teacher desires.

To put it another way is that we go to the abhidhā vr̥tti or literal meaning and stick to that for as long as it is possible. Lakṣaṇā is a natural reaction of the mind when abhidhā proves inadequate to making sense of the complete thought. Nevertheless, lakṣaṇā still has something to do with abhidhā vr̥tti. The cowherd village might not be IN the Ganga, but it certainly has something to do with the Ganga. Vyañjanā is where the commentator's role becomes necessary and his own voice comes out.

Jai Sri Radhe.


Jagadananda said…
Enjoyed reading your translation elucidation.

In my own experience I came to the conclusion that apart of the case that you describe when you have a sastric text accompanied with and in the context of multiple commentaries, it is hopeless to translate literally as the text will be incomprehensible or misunderstood. Dealing with a modern text we do not appreciate how much context, historical, scientific, cultural we bring while interpreting it. Also many shastric texts irrespective of the tradition are sutra-like in style, meaning they are terse, like a shorthand summary. They are meant to be unpacked and explained.

Also the same thing can be said by an author in different ways, meaning real understanding of the author's text and intentions means one is comfortable to say what the author says in more suitable and explicit way for a modern reader. That is the translation unaccompanied by a commentary meant for a modern general reader has to expand and fill the missing contexts as much as possible.

Too many Sanskrit translations in the West are made by Sanskrit students who lack the rigorous training in Sanskrit, all accompanying angas, knowledge of the whole literature in the field, etc. Bob Thurman said that at a Sanskrit conference a question was asked whether it is possible to translate without understanding. And the answer was positive! The reason given: a translator translates words, there is no reason to understand what the author wants to say!!

So now it is clear to me that if I pick up a translation and it is obtuse, it does not mean that that the text is esoteric, but that the translator just translates the words, not being bothered by not understanding the text himself.

Of course, Babaji and the Team are doing super wonderful job to bring JG thought to the modern reader!

Best, Vita
Jagadananda said…
pātivratyaṁ kva nu para-vadhūtvāpavādaḥ kva cāsyāḥ
premodrekaḥ kva ca para-vaśatvādi-vighnaḥ kva cāyaṁ
kvaiṣotkaṇṭhā kva nu bakaripor nitya-saṅgādy-alabdhiḥ
mūlaṁ kṛṣṭvā kaṣati hṛdayaṁ kāpi śalya-trayī naḥ ||11.121||

On the one hand, she is the most devoted wife,
and yet she is falsely accused of being the wife of another man.
On the one hand, her love is so strong,
and yet she always faces hurdles due to being under others' control.

And though she is so anxious [for his company],
she is unable to be with him always:
These three harpoons tear at my heart,
having been plunged to the core of my being.

Prem Prakash said…
What a terrific post, dealing with such a very important topic. We are trying to understanding what our acharyas are teaching while using the medium of two languages, while, one, English, is poorly suited to the subtle and sublime. I feel this communication is taking place on three levels, addressed in this post, which I think of as science, art, and grace.

First, we absolutely need the literal translation if we hope to enter into the mind of the writer. We owe a debt to the great scholars who can bring forth the text in it’s original form. This is the science of translation. In this context, we pranam to Jagatji.

Second, we benefit from a rendering, flushing out the meaning of the text. Those with greater spiritual insight help us by infusing the verses with their understanding, bringing words to life. In this context, we pranam to Babaji.

Third, we need challenge ourselves to integrate the teachings as they are, without distorting them so they meet our social and psychological stipulations. Demands are placed on us to relinquish our comfort and rise in bhakti. Our personality-based sensibilities may be disturbed, but if we fail to wrestle with the authentic teachings we stay stuck in our current level of understanding, in mental paradigms which confirm our pre-existing notions, and we will not enjoy the grace which allows us a small glimpse into the magnitude of the gopi’s love.
Madanmohan Das said…
"English is poorly suited for the subtle and sublime." Oh dear, that hurts, I think you are quite mistaken.
Anonymous said…
Jagat does not do literal translations enough of the time. He chooses to Iskon-ize his translations and thereby induces Iskon themes. For example where it is written Radha, Radhika, or Priya for Radha - he is choosing to use Srimati Radharani - thereby losing the actual thought and feelings of the Gosvamins and other CV Achargyas. Cv is a madhurgya tradition, not asargya one.
Jagadananda said…
Well, Madanamohanji, I have to admit that you are doing a good job of proving me wrong. The problem of translation, the inevitability of "losing something" when you cross from one world into another. For me, Gadadhar uses too many Bengali words, but I understand what he is doing. It really is the same thing that Prabhupada was doing: He wants to change the English language itself.

One of the great qualities of English is its capacity for assimilation. English speakers are not afraid of new words (though you with your pre-19th century sensibilities might resist), so to some extent we insinuate them.

The point about a language is communication. In Vaishnavism we want to communicate more than simply ideas, you want to communicate a transformation of identity. For me that means that all translation is indeed treason.

In other words, as a sadhaka of Braja-rasa I should really totally abandon even the language of my birth and upbringing. On the other hand, there is no alternative but to accept the existential situation of being an Anglophone and to know that somehow I am bound to this medium and to the social world mediated by it.
Jagadananda said…
Dear Anonymous,

Radhe Radhe. Thank you for your critique. I will keep it in mind in the future. It is difficult to entirely be free of one's conditioning or to even be conscious of it. I am always trying to improve as this is supposed to be my specialty. I have spent the entire ten years I have been working on the Sandarbhas trying to de-Iskconize our language, but I am glad to see that there are people who are able to detect that our efforts have still not borne full fruit.

Nevertheless, if I have any insight into the thoughts and feelings of the Goswamis, it will hopefully manifest even through the paltry tools that are my words.

tad vāg-visargo janatāgha-samplavo
yasmin prati-ślokam abaddhavaty api
nāmāny anantasya yaśo'ṅkitāni yat
śṛṇvanti gāyanti gṛṇanti sādhavaḥ

Jai Sri Radhe!

The staff of wisdom has the “cold-knowledge-of-yogic-science” at one end and “warm-grip-of-faith” at the other.

A point of balance exists between the two, this is where the free-thinking man using the tools of his unshackled mind moves the finger of his intellect to the centre.

(Whilst explaining this, the yogi will balance the centre of his yoga-danda upon the tip of his upraised fore-finger holding up the yoga-danda high in the air above his head)

When wisdom is balanced upon a single grain of truth (the seed [star] of yoga), it is in the love of this truth that one pierces the thin veil of the flesh and goes forward into the great light.


Wisdom “to clear(ly) see (the) bright (light) (and be) cleaned, purified, pure”

From Old Norse vísdómr. Equivalent to wīs +‎ dōm.

Wīs: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/wis#Old_English

From Proto-Indo-European weyd “to see:” https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Indo-European/weyd-

Cognates with Sanskrit विद् (vid) 1. “to know, understand, perceive, learn, become or be acquainted with, be conscious of, to regard (see)” 2. “knowing, a knower” 3. “to seek out, look for (to see)”




from Proto-Indo-European dʰóh₁mos; dʰeh₁- (“to put”) +‎ -mos (suffix forms action/result noun from a verb stem) “that which is put, placed:




From Proto-Indo-European puHtós (“pure, clean”):


Which cognates with Sanskrit पूत (pūtá) “cleaned, purified, pure, clear, bright,” see 1:

Anonymous said…
"What is the status of these simple women who wander in the forest, seemingly of unchaste behavior, and how great is this mahābhāva for Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Self? There is a great difference between the two."

What 2? in jagats there are 2 and in Satyanarayan there is 1

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