Mistranslations of Central Upanishadic Terms


Comments on Serious Mistranslations of The Central Upanishadic Terms

Ramakrishna Puligandla

I am provoked to write this brief essay on my having seen so many articles and books, ancient, modern, and contemporary, the authors of which, Westerners as well as Indians, translate “Brahman” as God and “Atman” as soul and self. Such translations are in full and complete contradiction with the original meanings and referents of these terms, as per the Upanishadic texts themselves.

Let me begin with a clarification of “scripture.” Many scholars, Western as well as Indian, refer to the Vedas as “scriptures;” some even called the Vedas “the Hindu Bible.” Scripture in its original meaning is the word of God, as clearly referring to the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Koran, all of which belong to the so-called Abrahamic traditions. The Vedas are not the word of God, nor are they revealed to the Vedic sages by an external agency called “God.” They are self-revelation, in the sense that truth and to whom it reveals itself are non-different (one and the same). Remember the Mahavakya, the great pronouncement, “Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman)? Brahman is the truth and I am Brahman and therefore I am the truth. In light of these considerations, the Vedas are to be most correctly and faithfully referred to as “Sacred Writings” (of Hinduism). Does Hinduism have a scripture? Yes. The Bhagavad-Gita is the scripture of the Hindus. As per the tradition, it is indeed the word of God (Krishna).

I have carefully gone through the Vedas and several translations and commentaries on them, ancient, modern, and contemporary. I was disappointed and disheartened to find that Western as well as Indian scholars (who should know better) translate “Brahman” as God and “Atman” as soul; yes, they also refer to Atman as self, sometimes with the “s” capitalized. In what follows, I shall clarify and correct these egregious errors in translations, and hence the misunderstanding of these terms (“Brahman” and “Atman”).

I shall not burden the reader with cartloads of quotations and citations; I do not need those ornaments, for my analysis is confined to the fundamental concepts and propositions of the Upanishads; all references and their documents are readily and plentifully available in the Upanishads themselves.

We are told again and again that Brahman is formless, nameless, indescribable, uncreated, unborn, undying, eternal, immortal, imperceivable, and inconceivable (cannot be grasped by senses and mind), and Brahman is not to be mistaken for the God(s) worshipped by people. “Brahman” is not a name, since Brahman is formless (only that with a form has a name); “Brahman” is merely a linguistic symbol to facilitate communication, and hence one can use any linguistic symbol. We are further told that Brahman is not the creator of the world; rather, Brahman is the world and more; and nothing positive can be affirmed of Brahman; Brahman is neither a he nor a she but the That (Tat). One can only say what Brahman is not (neti, neti). What all this means is that it is a very serious mistake to translate “Brahman” as God, as understood in theistic traditions, Abrahamic as well as non-Abrahamic. One may now ask, “What, then, is God? Hindus have many Gods; so, what is the difference between Brahman and God?” Here are the answers.

Human beings, being frail and feeble, attempt to have a conception of the inconceivable and perceivable Brahman (ultimate reality). Such attempts result in various religious traditions, each with its own conception of the inconceivable ultimate reality (Brahman), governed by the tradition’s language, myths, social-political and economic arrangements, etc. These conceptions are the Gods of different religions with their own scriptures. Each tradition is convinced that its own conception is the true and correct one and attempts to convert other peoples into its own religion. In this manner arise religious conflicts, hatred, violence, and wars.

In the Upanishadic tradition, especially as per the Advaita of Samkara, everyone is free to have her/his own conception of Brahman, known as “Ishwara (personal God).” One is entitled to worship God in any form (description) that pleases one most (Ishta Devata). The God that one chooses can be male, female, or androgynous. What matters most is that the God one chooses pleases one most. It is God, understood in this way, one worships; and to this God one offers heartfelt prayers and of Her/Him one asks for gifts, kindness, mercy, forgiveness, etc., Brahman, being formless, cannot be worshipped and prayed to. We hear from time to time that someone saw God as a Cross in the sky, as Virgin Mary, or Jesus himself. What we should ask here is: Why did that person see God in this way, but not as Shiva, Rama, Durga, Krishna, Allah, etc.? The reason is clear; the person who sees God in the above way is a Christian, and he/she is conditioned to see God in this way; people belonging to other traditions see God in ways governed by their conditioning. Thus, God is merely an appearance; one needs to find that (Brahman) of which God is an appearance.

What all the above observations point to is that God, unlike Brahman, is a conditioned (relative) reality. Does this mean that God is unreal? No, God is not unreal but neither real nor unreal. God is not real and unconditioned; only ultimate reality (Brahman) is real and unconditioned; “real” in the Upanishadic teaching is that which always is, untouched by time and circumstance. One does not see or remember God in one’s deep sleep. If God were real, He/She would not have disappeared in our deep sleep. God is not unreal, either, since people claim to see God (let us not worry here about the truth or falsity of their claims). God appears to people as an object of their consciousness; objects appear, disappear, and reappear, whereas Brahman, being real, is always there, in all of our modes of being, waking, dreaming, and deep sleep, unlike God who is not there in deep sleep. People see God; no one sees Brahman, since Brahman is not an object of consciousness. Brahman is to be experienced in prajnya, non-dual intuition, transcending senses and mind.

All the above considerations make it clear as to why “Brahman” is not to be translated as God. There are many Gods (God of the Jews, God of the Christians, God of the Muslims, Gods of the Hindus, etc.), whereas there is just Brahman, the non-dual reality.

I come now to a consideration of the translation of “Atman” as soul. Authors, Western and Indian, of papers and books regularly translate ‘Atman” as soul. Such a translation is wholly erroneous. Herebelow are my arguments.

“Atman,” as per the Upanishads, is pure, objectless consciousness. Atman is formless and hence nameless. “Atman,” like “Brahman,” is not a name, but merely a linguistic symbol to facilitate communication. You can use any other word for “Atman” and it makes absolutely no difference to the meaning of “Atman.” As has been pointed out earlier, only objects can have names since they have forms; and since Atman is not an object (phenomenon), it cannot have a name (“Phenomenon” is anything that is or can in principle be an object of consciousness). You can call anyone who has no name by any name you wish. Atman is non-dual; this means that “Atman” cannot be used in plural (Atmans). In the Abrahamic traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, “soul” is used in plural (there are souls). For this reason, “Atman” should not be translated as soul.

According to the above traditions, there was a time when souls did not exist; they came into existence as creations of God. Hence souls have beginnings, unlike Atman, which, being ultimate reality, Brahman, always is and hence is beginningless. This is another reason that “Atman” is not to be translated as soul.

Can “jiva” be translated as soul? No, such translation is ruled out by the following considerations. “Jiva” in the Upanishadic tradition means living (animate) being, a psycho-physiological complex, wholly constituted of phenomena (objects of consciousness). As such, jivas have beginnings and ends. In the Western religious traditions, it is taught that souls are immortal, going to heaven or hell after death. Here is the contradiction: anything that has a beginning has inevitably an end; and since souls have beginnings, they also have ends, and hence are not immortal. Jivas are mortal, since they have beginnings and ends. Therefore, “jiva” also is not to be translated as soul. “Soul” is a Western concept and has no Upanishadic counterpart.

Let me now turn to the translation of “Atman” as self. It is now among scholars, Western and Indian, the universally accepted translation (“Atman”= self). It is also true that one sometimes finds in the Upanishads themselves passages where “Atman” is rendered as self. Let me emphasize here that “self” is never used in plural in the Upanishads. Some scholars translate “Atman” as Self (instead of self), thereby distinguishing the jiva, empirical ego, from Atman (pure, objectless consciousness). This is fair, but my purpose in this essay is to reject as inappropriate and incorrect all translations of “Atman” as self (s and S). Here are my arguments for this claim.

“Self” in its original meaning is individual presence; this means that “self” inevitably and ineluctably refers to an individual entity. As pointed out earlier, some scholars translate “Atman” as Self, in order to distinguish it from self, an individual entity. But the Upanishads resoundingly teach that Atman is always non-dual; that is, there cannot be Atmans. John does not have his own Atman as numerically different from that of James. John and James are simply two different manifestations of one and the same non-dual Atman. Let me further emphasize this point by pointing out that the Atman of John’s cat is non-different from John’s Atman. Rigorously speaking, there is no John possessing his own Atman, either; John is the Atman (Chit aham, I am consciousness; sentences such as “I am conscious” and “I have consciousness” are incorrect and misleading, according to the Upanishads). The passages in the Upanishads in which “Atman” is referred to as self (Self) are not to be understood as referring to an individual entity, but to pure, objectless consciousness. In view of all these considerations, I suggest that “Atman” be not translated as self or Self, but simply as pure, objectless consciousness, the non-dual reality, non-different from Brahman.

I wish to conclude this essay with a few pertinent remarks on the characterization (categorization) of Samkara, whose grandest and unsurpassed systematization of the Upanishadic teaching is known as “Advaita Vedanta.” I have, over the years, come across a number of papers and books by Western scholars and their uncritical and loyal Indian followers, where Samkara is referred to and classified as a theologian. Such a characterization of Samkara is simply wrong and wholly inappropriate and hence positively misleading.

Who exactly is a theologian? “Theology” literally means discourse on God and his creation; theology is talk about God. Even when theologians write works on other subjects and topics, their perspectives and orientations are clearly theological. Am I objecting to doing theology? Certainly not; people are free to dedicate themselves to whatever they wish to inquire into and write about. What I strongly object to is the common Western (and Indian) characterization of Samkara as a theologian.

Samkara is not a theologian, since his remarkable and distinguished works and contributions are not about God, but about the ultimate reality (Atman, Brahman). Yes, Samkara, like all other inquirers, did talk about God. But God (Ishwara) is only a secondary reality (Saguna Brahman), an appearance. Samkara’s whole inquiry is centered about and focused on ultimate reality (Brahman, Atman), not God. His inquiries are profoundly philosophical—phenomenological and analytical. St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are theologians; yes, they did some philosophical inquiry, but their inquiries are to fully serve their theologies. Samkara, unlike St. Anselm and Aquinas, did not bother to produce arguments (ways) for the existence of God. Thomas Aquinas titled one of his works Summa Theologica, not “Summa Philosophica.”

True, Samkara composed Dakshinamurthy Stotra, Saundarya Lahiri, etc., which certainly can be regarded as theological works; but the point is that these works are not part and parcel of his main inquiries, such as Brahmasutra Bhashya, which is thoroughgoingly philosophical (phenomenological and analytical). In light of these considerations, Samkara should correctly be regarded as a philosopher (tattvavetta) and not as a theologian.

Advaita Vedanta is a grand philosophical system, not a theological system. Whether or not one finds oneself in agreement with Samkara’s Advaita Vedanta, one should most appropriately classify Samkara as a philosopher, not as a theologian. Professor Eliot Deutsch is among the few Western scholars who clearly understood this point; his fine work is titled Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction, not “A Theological Reconstruction” (University of Hawaii Press, 1968).

Ramakrishna Puligandla
Emeritus Professor of Philosophy
The University of Toledo
Toledo, Ohio, USA
June 6, 2010



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