Interpretation of Indic texts

Knowing Sanskrit definitely helps in understanding the essence of Indic Texts. Even partial knowledge of Sanskrit may help to at least have a sense as to whether the commentator has interpreted correctly. Western scholars who are interested in Sanskrit texts usually learn Sanskrit. Unfortunately, this is not so with many Indian intellectuals even though it is easier for them. For an Indian it is not that much difficult to learn Sanskrit since majority of words of any recognised reginal language have Sanskrit roots. Even Tamil, that developed parallelly with Sanskrit, later on incorporated many Sanskrit words.

Institutional authors of any genre usually sideline the individual and independent authors when it comes to reaching the masses. When I say institutional authors I mean the authors belonging to a particular sect or organisation. For examples a large number of devotees belonging to ISCON have written commentaries about many Indian texts. They claim that their interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita is the only original interpretation. It goes without saying there are two hundred other commentators who also claim the same thing.

The reality is that when institutional authors write about such ancient texts their interpretation has to be twisted at many places to fit in with the basic ideology or premises of the sect. Unfortunately, compared to an individual and unbiased author, the institutions are rich in resources and have huge network of their own to market these books extensively.

I include the authors writing for big publishing houses in the category of institutional authors because the publishing houses also have their own ideological leanings and are rarely unbiased. Quite often they accept or reject a book not on the quality of writing but based on whether the author tows their ideological line.

Occasionally, by mistake the work of an honest institutional author goes past their censor board may be due to oversight. Thus was I able to once come across a good interpretation of a text which was sponsored by a missionary organization. When my computer crashed last time I lost a large number of my ebook collection and unfortunately I am not able to recall it now.

Indic texts, I mean Hindu texts in particular have a wide spectrum of institutional and individual interpreters. This spectrum is as wide as the texts themselves. There are more non-Hindu interpreters of the texts than the followers of the religion. Anybody can write anything about these scripture. So far no fatwa has been issued to any one for committing sacrilege by negatively twisting the meaning of sacred Hindu literature.

Of course there are vested interests who intentionally twist the interpretations to suit their agenda. But the texts do pose some inherent problem even for the genuine seeker of truth.

One problem is that words themselves undergo change in meaning over a period of time. Some of these texts were written thousands of years back. Some of these compositions belonged to esoteric schools where the composition was a code for remembering or a veneer while the actual wisdom was transmitted directly from ta Guru to the Disciple either verbally or by creating a situation where the disciple got the intended experience. The literal meaning of the Upanishad is to sit near. The transmission of knowledge or the spiritual experience happened from a guru to a disciple who lived in a very close circle. Thus, there are certain texts whose meaning can be grasped only being close to a skilled master and not by any amount of study or research.

It is surprising that sometimes scientists have been able to connect with some of the Upanishadic texts better than the scholars. Throughout my posts in this series I have brought out a few of these aspects. Those who are interested to know more on this can read the book ‘The Tao of Physics’ written by Fridjoff Capra. He brings out a balanced view without the hyperboles sometimes ebbing indulged in by the chauvinists.

If you are not a mystic or a scientist at least you should have the sprit of a poet to somewhat appreciate the beauty of the Upanishads. That is how scholars miss it. Scholars may be useful when it comes to the interpretation or analysis of non- mystic texts like Charaka Samhita or Kama Sutra. But when it comes to interpretation of Upanishads or other mystic literature they fail miserably. When I say scholars I include both western and eastern scholars. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan’s commentaries on the Upanishads are devoid of all that is beautiful and profound about these mystic contemplations.

For grasping the meaning of the mystic texts the reader also has to be some kind of a meditator, or an honest spiritual practitioner, or a serious seeker of truth. Here let me make it clear that to be spiritual or to be a seeker of truth you need not be a hardcore religious ritualist or a staunch believer in a concept of God. If you are just a religious zealot or you want to take up reading texts like Upanishads just as an intellectual curiosity, you are most likely to miss their beauty.

Thus, caught in the melee of the ideological battles of the institutional interpreters and honest but novice attempts by nonpartisan intellectuals, the seeker of truth has a tough time finding out an authentic interpretation of the Indic texts.

Of course all interpretations by the institutional authors are not biased. For example I find the commentaries of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar very authentic. The works of Shri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Swami Sivananda and the works by their order of disciples quite authentic. At least there is no intentional misrepresentation.

All said and done don’t get afraid to explore the world of Indic texts. Maybe with experience you will come to know what is authentic and what is not.

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This is the alphabet I post of Blogchatter AtoZ Challenge 2021. My theme this year is ‘The beauty of Sanskrit and Sanskrit texts’, where in I explore selected compositions in Sanskrit and also some unique aspects of Sanskrit language and texts. Join with me in my journey to understand India’s spiritual and intellectual heritage. All the posts of AtoZ Challenge 2021 can be accessed here.

19 thoughts on “Interpretation of Indic texts

  1. a very pertinent post. It points, quite correctly, that when texts are backed by publishing houses and religious sects, the interpretation is biased.
    I also liked the point that you made that there needs to be spiritualism inherent in translation to showcase the beauty

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Will check out the book you suggested sir. Your posts are making me more and more curious to explore the mysticism of the Upanishads. If you happen to remember the name of the e-book you lost do let me know sir.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I liked when you said the poet will appreciate the Upanishads better. Your post today is very interesting and engaging. How due to lack of knowledge of Sanskrit or due to lack of funding the good interpretation can be lost
    I am thoroughly enjoying reading your series
    Deepika Sharma

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Commentaries of religious scriptures by sectarian people are extremely biased.
    I believe it is very important to be a spiritual person to understand the beauty and depth of Upanishads.
    I agree with the points that you have mentioned. Will check out the book you recommended. A very enriching & thought-provoking post. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very valid point.
    I once bought Bhagwad Geeta from ISKCON and first few chapters were about how you are boiled in hell of you consume non vegetarian.
    I always doubted every version of a religious text apart from the source itself, ever since that.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. As it happens, this is the very first post I am reading in this series and as if by providence I am faced with the the task cut out before the interpreters, thereby readers of the Indic text, underscored by your deft observations. It is indeed a challenge to unravel both beauty and wisdom of the scriptures especially in the context of the smog created by the institutional interpreters.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. That is really a matter of great concern. We never know how far are these twisted versions, from the truth. We only have our Vedas and Upanishads as the sources to gain knowledge regarding our culture and heritage. I strongly back your point that learning the Sanskrit language can be one of the best ways to reach closer to the original versions of our great sculptures. The government of India had initiated some free programs in the recent past, encouraging people to learn our ancient language. We should take benefit from such programs.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. People interpret based on their knowledge, understanding & skills.
    I feel one needs to study several interpretations to come closer to what the authors wished to convey. Sadly, they didn’t leave us any guide-books for reference 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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