Thursday, August 27, 2015

Accurate, Literal, and (Not) Whatever You Think

Here's a very, very brief primer for "reading" sources in the Indian traditions, particularly texts that were originally composed in Sanskrit. Actually, it's just a series of bullet points but I'm asked these questions so very often that I thought it worth the summary. Forgive the cursory and uncensored language, I mean to help.

I'm often asked about translations of texts in the yoga traditions and which ones to choose. There are dozens of Yogasutra, Bhagavad-Gita, and Upanishad translations. Other works can be more obscure or difficult to find without access to a University library, even in this day and age of interwebbyness. It's difficult for those not trained in the history of scholarship (yes, that's a subject too that requires years of training) to sort through the issues: philological skill (language-comprehension in context and history) and the agenda of the translator are often unclear. You likely don't even know the translators are grappling with these issues and if they aren't grappling, that's a problem.

In general it's not unfair to say to the lay reader that a "boring, dry" scholarly translation is likely a thousand times more reliable than something "poetic" and "readable," or the work of your favorite theologian. Deal with that. There's no easy way into these works and it's generally not worth the 10,000 hours it would take to learn to read them in the original. A little bit of language study would be worth your while with the caveat that a little knowledge is often a dangerous, i.e., misleading thing.  If you've ever studied Sanskrit (or any difficult language) you know that it's time consuming and mostly drudgery.  That's just the price of admission and I'm not kidding about the 10,000 hours either. In the Indian case there are no Sanskrit texts without correlative oral interpretations; commentaries from lineage authorities provide the critical insight into the influential (or not) trends of meaning. Orality trumps written authority in nearly every case, no matter what kind of authority is assigned ---even the immaculate revelatory shruti that is assigned to the Veda. What teachers say is what tradition thinks things mean. Start there. Remember that it is unlikely that any two teachers actually agree. Now for the pointers:

1. ALL (now) written texts presume commentary and appear in the context of historical conversations. No one is right or wrong, only bringing their agendas and making their cases.
2. All commentators maintain the superiority of their interpretation. No one holds an opinion that is just as good as someone else's.
3. Commentators cite selectively to suit their agendas and make a point of not telling you if there are contrary or conflicting points of view unless they mean to denounce them. All writing and argument is dialectic, no one is happy about their opponents' wrongness. Opponents are never right.
4. Commentators aren't interested in being fair to opposing points of view; arguments are straw men filled. Also, just because there is amity and alignment in lineage or the larger circle of tradition does not mean there is agreement: students often deeply disagree with their teachers and just don't tell you: more selective citation and deliberate oversight.
5. Texts are the tip of the iceberg, no matter how much and how little is written. Imagine at least five times as much in terms of content. In a sutra text, the presumption of meaning is the commentator's stock in trade but the presumption of knowledge is exponential to the text. In other words, if you think you can interpret a particular yoga sutra you not only need multiple commentaries (to get a comparative grasp), you need a vast history of ideas that are presumed.
6. Every translation is another layer of interpretation. There are no translations that don't come with agendas. Knowing the translator's agenda is no simple matter so you'd be well-advised to ask. As a matter of course, never read only one translation.
7. Indian philosophy is written by experts for each other. It is technical, insular in composition, and rarely "poetic" OR clear. The more "poetic" the translation, the more likely the translator is skewing it to sound sweet. The judgment is between accurate (this is the sense of meaning) and literal (these are the words), and that is almost always a very difficult call even for professional scholars. You are not professional scholars. But you know that.
8. Last, (eight here for the number of Bhairavas: inside joke, lots of those in texts), there's nothing sacred about any text or idea. "Sacred" means to privilege and that will cause reluctance or reticence to apply your critical awareness. Given how hard it is to interpret (see the previous seven points), you should be careful leaping into meaning (because you're likely full of shit). However, if you take your own interpretation seriously then you're well within your rights because that's what Indian tradition has always done: interpret to suit themselves. If this last point wasn't rife with irony and paradox we will need another and another primer.