Translating Shankara (Śaṃkara, Śaṅkara)

By  Jacqueline Suthren-Hirst

Mulling on Monday’s lecture, I wondered a bit more about the question we ended up with:  what are we doing when we translate an eighth century text in Sanskrit into modern English?  Should we be trying to build bridges with it to help us enter into its thoughtworld (using what Prof Williams referred to as an assimilative translation) or trying to realise how very different a worldview it presupposes (using a defamiliarising one)?  Should we be making the strange familiar to us or, through another perspective, making what is familiar to us strange?

Let’s take the onion-skin meditation.  First of all, the image of peeling away the layers of an onion is mine.  So I used something with which you were all familiar to help you envisage a technique which was probably (and is probably!) very alien to most of you.  But the way the layers are peeled away to try to get to the very centre of the onion (is it a final layer of cells, or space within?) is very reminiscent, at one level, of the notion of peeling away the ‘sheaths’ or layers which the Taittiriya Upanishad envisaged over two and a half thousand years ago.  And the way Shankara builds on that text – removing food (body/matter), breath, mind (thoughts), understanding (making sense of things), bliss (the highest good/value) to help the pupil understand brahman beyond/within can be modelled quite nicely by the layers peeled away.

At another level, though, we will have completely missed the fact that the original text was based on a precise arrangement of the Vedic ritual altar, and that Shankara is also getting us to look at that which is eternal and the ground of all, beyond the world of ritual which for him ties us to rebirth.  Does it matter that I didn’t mention that in the lecture?  Or that the understanding of what constitutes a person (the five sheaths)  uses categories which look relatively familiar but belong to a very different psycho-physiology?

What about ‘God’ as a translation for ‘brahman’ then?  You had some good ideas on this one and I hope that you will think about it further in the seminar.  Does it, for example, make any difference if I write ‘Brahman’ with a capital letter and no italics, making it sound a bit like a proper noun, or name?  (There aren’t any capitals in Sanskrit. by the way).  Even the way we choose to write the word in roman letters (this kind!) starts to affect the way we think about its possible meanings.

As part of an assimilative translation, the term ‘God’ might help us to understand the notion of brahman as the ground or source of all that there is.  Because it comes from a root √bh, to grow great, it could bear similarity to the notion of God as that than which no greater can be conceived.  Shankara makes a point similar to this near the beginning of his commentary on the Brahma Sutras.  But ‘God’ comes with a lot of cultural loading – or rather many different cultural loadings.  And for many of us, whether we subscribe to such a view or not, ‘God’ implies a monotheistic view which we might subconsciously contrast with a polytheistic (and possibly idolatrous) ‘many gods’ view, or with a pantheistic ‘God is everything’ view.  We might not even question where such categories come from or whether they really fit much Indian material.  (Come to John Zavos’s “Religion in Modern South Asian History” to think about this further!).

This isn’t simply an issue of our cultural and historical difference from Shankara’s world though (whatever our own backgrounds might be).  The pupil, as we saw in the Thousand Teachings extract, comes to a point where he wants to worship brahman.  But Shankara asks him:  Why do you say, “I am one thing and He is another”?  The pupil needs to go a step further and realise that the principle of consciousness which grounds him (and the pupil is male for Shankara) is none other than the principle of consciousness which grounds the whole universe.  That is why, according to Shankara, the Upanishad can say:  ‘You are that’ (i.e. you are identical with the source of all = Self = brahman).  (Other Indian thinkers profoundly disagreed with him)

But as we saw, if we then say, ‘You are God’, that completely distorts what Shankara is getting at.  You, the individual, differentiated by your mental-material constituents, are certainly not God.  You need to strip those away, says Śaṃkara, to realise the Self which grounds us all.  It is that Self which is brahman.  All else is superimposition, our misconceptions of what brahman is.  (By the way, you might have spotted that I have used another familiarising translation here: ‘Self’ for ‘atman’.  This is the standard translation now.  Earlier translators chose ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’.  What are the different resonances of each word for you?  What might that alert you to?)

How might we capture Shankara’s understanding of ‘brahman’ in a defamiliarising translation, then?  Sometimes it is rendered as ‘ultimate reality’ – a phrase which has various layers of meaning.  Does it have any for you?  For those familiar with Shankara’s thought, it recalls that Shankara, like some Madhyamika Buddhists, recognised a conventional level of reality and an ultimate level – or rather, there is only one reality but conventionally we misperceive it.  The task for the person who desires liberation from the world of rebirth is to understand it correctly.  And that is where our discussion of language came in.  So I leave you with the question to go on thinking about:  if brahman is beyond language, but Vedic language is the only valid means of knowing brahman, how does language work to help ‘make the penny drop’? Or is the first presupposition incoherent, as some of Shankara’s later opponents would argue?  Where then does his understanding lead to? A void? Atantalising glimpse? An insoluble puzzle? or, liberation?



About andrewcrome

Lecturer in religions and theology at the University of Manchester.
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