16 Apr

The Problem of Scriptural Exegesis

Exegesis, according to Wikipedia, is “a critical explanation or interpretation of a text, particularly a religious text”. In the Vedic tradition, it exists as the commentaries by previous āchāryās who have explained the scriptures in various ways according to time, place, and circumstances. Such commentaries are essential for one key reason—the meanings of the words are continually evolving with time, and if we simply read the original text, we might interpret it according to the present-day meanings of the words, which might not be the meanings as were previously intended. This post discusses the consequences of changing meanings on the understanding of scriptural knowledge.


The Evolution of Words and Meanings

We are all familiar with the fact that every culture invents new words, and gives the old words completely new meanings. In the last few decades, for example, the words “cool” and “hot” have acquired completely novel meanings; depending on context both words can indicate something desirable and attractive. Modern society has also invented many new words such as “affluenza” and “bling” which previously did not exist. These words in due course of time might acquire additional meanings. Some of these words may disappear from our vocabulary and then be rediscovered with new meanings.

As we go through time, therefore, it is hard to say what the true meaning of something stated in the past was, unless we immerse ourselves into the time, culture, and context in which it was originally stated. Oxford Dictionary’s online blog states that “On average, we add approximately 1,000 new entries to Oxford Dictionaries Online every year”. A thousand new words every year! As a contrast, the typical vocabulary of a native English speaker is about 5000 words, with twice as many words used in writing. That means that more words are added to a dictionary in 10 years than your entire vocabulary! Since our vocabulary is not continually expanding, many older words will gradually disappear from active use over time. Thus, active words in use change over time, and if you haven’t updated your vocabulary over your lifetime, you might not be able to understand most of what the younger generation will be talking by the time you get old.

This fact presents serious problems of understanding the meanings of the texts that were authored long ago. What meanings do you think people would give to the text being produced right now, a few centuries from now? Will they see strange words that they don’t understand? Or will they bother to find out the meanings of the words from a dictionary that is contemporary to the text? What about phrases such as “couch potato” and “piece of cake”? If the words “couch” or “cake” acquired new meanings, what would these phrases mean then?

Wittgenstein’s Language Games

Ludwig Wittgenstein, probably the most important 20th century philosopher, brought to fore the key idea that the words don’t have fixed meanings. Rather, their meanings are dependent on the context of their use. He called these words “tools” meant to get a “job done”. Wittgenstein gives the example of a mechanic working with an assistant in a workshop. When the mechanic says “screwdriver”, the assistant hands him a screwdriver. When the mechanic says “sledgehammer”, his assistant gets him a sledgehammer. If this same mechanic went to a pub or a bar later in the day, then the use of the words “screwdriver” and “sledgehammer” would get him cocktails rather than tools.

Wittgenstein’s point is that words don’t have fixed meanings. Depending on the context, the same word has different meanings. As the contexts change, new words are invented, and some of the old words are discarded. Some words don’t make any sense in some contexts, but are very meaningful in other contexts. Kissing a woman on the cheek might be considered a mark of respect in some cultures, and a mark of disrespect in other cultures. Patting the back of person who is junior to you might be acceptable, but patting the back of someone who is older or more senior would be an insult.

In so many ways, what we called words or vāk—which represents the things that we can observe—have a contextual meaning. Depending on the context, some actions are meaningful and acceptable. In other contexts, the same actions become unacceptable or meaningless. If you are talking about a “President” while standing in a football club, you most likely mean the president of the football club. If you are talking about a “President” in a news channel, you likely mean the president of that nation. The word “President” doesn’t have a universal meaning; rather the meaning is context-sensitive.

The Tree of Meanings

This idea is enunciated in Vedic texts as an “inverted tree” of meanings. In this tree, the higher nodes represent abstract concepts, while the lower nodes represent details. We can think of the higher and lower nodes in a tree as the outline and the details in a picture, respectively. The outline precedes the details and it cannot be erased before erasing the details. Therefore when the universe is annihilated, the details are removed before the outline. Similarly, when the universe is created, the outline appears before the details. During the partial annihilation of the universe, some of the lower planetary systems are destroyed while the higher planetary systems still exist; this means that some of the details are wiped out while the outline of the picture exists. Later, the details are again filled within the outline.

The outline is the “context”, the details are the “words”, and the meaning of the word is the relationship between the “context” and the “word”. Since the meaning is the relation between the word and the context, no word by itself has meaning. Rather, the meaning is the “position” the word has in relation to the context.

In the above example, the “workshop” and the “bar” are contexts. The sounds “screwdriver” and “sledgehammer” are words. The context (workshop vs. bar) is the outline, and the sound (screwdriver vs. sledgehammer) is the detail inside that context. The meaning of the sounds is given in relation to the contexts. This “meaning” can be objective if space were a tree in which the workshop and bar were higher nodes, and the words “screwdriver” and “sledgehammer” were details of these higher nodes. The branch connecting the detailed nodes to the abstract nodes would now represent the meaning.

The Problem of Exegesis

I went through the above long-winded description of different ideas to illustrate one key point, which is that the meanings of the words change with the contexts, because the meanings depend on context. The same words therefore can potentially have multiple meanings depending on the context. The word “Hari” for example, sometimes means a “monkey”, at other times means a “lion”, and at yet other times means a “thief”.

We can observe the variance between the words and meanings empirically in the everyday world. This idea has been formally articulated in Western philosophy. And this idea is the bedrock of the semantic worldview in Vedic cosmology as well. That should, hopefully, leave no doubt in our minds that it is impossible to know the meaning of a text—e.g. a scripture—unless one puts oneself into the same context, culture, environment, ethos, and belief system as the speaker or author.

Given this problem of meaning, the interpreter or commentator of a scriptural text has only one key job: he must put the audience or the readers into the same context as the author of the scripture. This is, however, not as easy as it sounds, because the context is everything that joins a leaf or fruit to its root. How can you become aware of this entire context before you read the first word? After all, we expect that all this context will only be built up over time as you understand more and more about the scripture, and you can then return to the same text with this new contextual build-up and find new meaning in the old text. The problem, however, is that if you start reading without the full context, then you obtain an incorrect understanding of the text, which is then used to interpret the next text which too turns out to be incorrect, and so on, ad infinitum. You must somehow magically arrive at a perfect understanding of something based on which you can then interpret the next thing correctly and after that all the interpretations fall into line.

The question is: How do you get a perfect understanding of even one verse or text? If you can obtain a perfect understanding of just one text or verse, then it might be sufficient to provide the context which can then be used to understand the rest. But there is no way to know if any of your understanding is correct, because you can never be sure if you are actually placed—even for a brief moment—in the same context as the author itself.

Of course, the problem would get much worse if there are many authors of the text. For example, if the Veda were authored by many authors instead of just Vyāsadeva, then the problem of understanding Veda would be much harder because you don’t know which part is authored by which person, and therefore you don’t know which context to put yourself into, and therefore the true meaning of anything. Even with a single author, the problem is hard because you cannot know if you are in the same context as the author. The problem is unsolvable if there are multiple authors, and you don’t know who wrote what.

The Meaning of Revelation

It is for this reason that Vedic knowledge is considered inaccessible to “outsiders”—i.e. those who are not properly following a spiritual master who can place you in the same context as the author. Of course, the problem is not unique to Vedic texts but can be found in any area where a single term can be given many meanings. For example, an equation X + Y = Z can also be given many meanings—e.g. X = people below 50, Y = people above 50, and Z = all the people. The meaning depends on the context in which this claim was made, and if you know the context you can give this claim numerous meanings.

Vedic knowledge is revealed, which means that the person who is writing a commentary has to exist in the same context as the author by which he can understand the intended meaning. The words of a text do not by themselves fix the meanings because meaning is the relation between a word and its context—which, quite interestingly, happens to be another sound. Therefore, being in the right context to translate the text means having some sound, following which other sound can be given meaning.

The Interpretation of Technical Terms

Vedic texts contain numerous words which have no equivalent translation, but some translation has to be provided when the scripture is translated into English. For example, we frequently translate the word prakriti into the word “nature” although there is no equivalent word in English. When the word ‘nature’ is used as replacement of prakriti, it evokes certain kinds of images. It could evoke the image of forests, trees, rivers, mountains, and such, or it could mean the entire universe around us, including our own bodies, in which case it effectively amounts to assuming that nature equals atoms and molecules. There is no good way to express prakriti in English because it comprises not of molecules and atoms, but of three logical states called sattva, rajas, and tamas. Prakriti is not the environment around us, nor is it trees and birds. And yet, all these things are produced due to prakriti. The term prakriti is actually a unique scientific concept, which has no counterpart in English today. And yet, the number of such terms in the Vedic texts is so large that if we stop providing equivalents then the text would be mostly Sanskrit. In that spirit, prakriti is translated into “nature” but given that there is no precise definition of “nature” in English itself, everyone is freely supplanting this word with personal imagery in unique ways.

Thus, attempts to avoid a translation (because it might be inaccurate) end up creating a bigger problem, namely, that someone else is providing an unauthorized translation anyway, which the rest of the world would read anyway, and whatever is said in that translation becomes the final word on the scripture because there is no alternative presentation given that those who try to provide an extremely accurate translation of the original text are unable to find the equivalent words in the new language. Given that problem it is better to provide a translation (even if imprecise) than not provide anything.

There are also many words in Vedic texts which have counterparts in English or other languages, but the meanings of these words have no similarity to the Vedic meanings. Such words include terms like “space”, “time”, “object”, “cause”, “motion”, “atom”, “field” etc. Therefore, when scriptures are translated into English, equivalent words may be used, but the understanding or meaning of these words has no similarity.

For example, most people today think of “space” as a very big box, when in Vedic philosophy it is like a tree. Most people think of “time” as a straight line when it is a circle in Vedic philosophy. Most people think that “objects” are things that lie outside the observer, when an “object” is a concept in the observer’s mind in Vedic philosophy. Most people think that objects are “moving” in space, when the motion in Vedic philosophy is a phenomena not reality. We commonly think that “atom” is a physical particle, when the “atom” in Vedic philosophy is a symbol of information called “sound”. We commonly think that meanings are in our minds, but in Vedic philosophy meaning is the location in space. We think of a “field” as a force that surrounds us, whereas in Vedic philosophy “field” is the role in which a person is placed that gives them and others rights and responsibilities to act.

Practically every technical term in Vedic texts has a different meaning than we think. Even word-for-word translations of the Sanskrit text into English are therefore not adequate, because, for example, when the Vedic texts describes “space” how do you understand that it means a tree rather than a box? Vedic knowledge cannot be acquired just because we have the books which we are able to read. This knowledge can only be acquired after we understand a new set of concepts. But the new set of concepts cannot be acquired unless we wash away the concepts that have been imparted to us from childhood.

How Materialism Influences Thinking

A common example of how modern education has influenced our thinking in significant ways is the idea that the three dimensional world we perceive through our eyes is the real space. However, if we closely study Vedic philosophy, we can see that the phenomenal world that we experience—i.e. the three dimensional space—is actually not real. It is rather a construction produced from a reality that we never perceive.

The material reality is a tree with God as its root, which unfolds and enfolds its branches due to time, and while the soul wanders on the tree, he finds new experiences because the branches of the tree are interacting with each other due to previous karma. This is the summary of the reality in Vedic philosophy with five components—God, soul, time, matter, and karma—that produce an experience in which we cannot see God, soul, and karma. While time is seen as changes, its cyclic nature is not understood and we see only linear progression. Finally, most of subtle material reality beyond sensation (mind, intellect, ego, and morality) is not seen. Thus, we can understand that we are definitely not seeing three out of five categories. We experience time, but we totally misjudge its nature. And we do experience only a fraction of the material categories.

With so little being perceived, we still have a tendency to claim that the world is just like we perceive it. The most ostentatious example of such illusion is the idea of proximity. For example, if I am holding someone’s hand I think that the person is very close to me. I may have no clue that the person whose hand I’m holding may hate me, and therefore is mentally very far away, although the two objects which are very far away are made to interact creating a sense of proximity. Allured by the physical sense of proximity, we are unable to see how the minds are different and distant. We get physically attracted and enter relationships and then suffer through them because the minds are nowhere close.

Barriers to Spiritualization Today

Today we can find key Vedic texts translated into many languages across the world. However, the mission of spreading Vedic knowledge remains incomplete because language is not the only barrier to understanding. A far bigger barrier is deeply ingrained ideas and concepts drawn from the cultures, education, and the society we live in presently. As we come to grips with the message in the Vedic texts, we are often faced with numerous contradictions between what the scripture states, and what we are able to accept based on our prior education, current society, and the cultural environment all around us. Spiritual knowledge cannot spread widely if its message contradicts deeply ingrained ideas in society. In fact, religion today is in rapid decline because its values, ideas, and aspirations are in contradiction with those of the modern world. In this environment of ideological conflicts, we have to ask the following question: Given that we already broke the language barriers, which barriers are next?

We can see that even though people read the books, the books are not understood for two reasons. First, because ordinary words such as “space”, “time”, “object”, “cause”, “motion”, “atom”, “field”, etc. have radically different meanings. Second, there are numerous words such as prakriti, mahattattva, ākāsh, jala, vāyu, agniprithiviprāna, karma, guna, etc. which simply have no counterpart in the English language.

As a result of the above two reasons, even ordinary phenomena—e.g. motion and perception—have a radically different explanation, which we cannot understand unless we (1) grasp new meanings of the words that English already uses, and (2) understand the original meanings of the words that don’t exist in English. The translated books that we can see are not sufficient if the words in them mean something different than what everyone is used to, or if the books contain words which don’t have an English counterpart, but some words have to be chosen in order to complete the translation.

The Atheistic Legacy of Scriptural Translation

To translate texts from one language to another, a dictionary is required. In the case of Sanskrit to English translation, a Sanskrit-to-English dictionary is required. These dictionaries were originally produced by German and British translators during the colonial era although (a) they had no spiritual inclination or initiation, and did not study under the tutelages of an enlightened master, and (b) they had explicit motivation to denigrate the Vedic culture, texts, and civilization as being “inferior” to the modern European civilization. Since the Europeans could no longer claim that Europe was the “cradle of the civilized world” as the Vedic culture seemed much older, there were explicit attempts to undermine the importance and relevance of Vedic knowledge in modern times. Vedic texts were only of historical interest, but not of scientific, cultural, linguistic, philosophical, or socio-economic interest.

The dictionaries that we are using for translation today were created in the colonial era by Europeans, and their purposes were not entirely genuine. As a result, today we have words such as ākāsh, jala, vāyu, bhūmi, agni etc. being translated as “Ether”, “Water”, “Air”, “Earth” and “Fire”. The immediate problem arising from such a translation is that Vedic thought seems primitive relative to the table of chemical elements created by modern science. It appears that while science is telling us about electrons and protons, Vedic philosophy is indicating that the world is a mixture of tap water and stove fire. You don’t have to say much more after you provide such a translation and the original culture accepts it, because with such a translation, the people in the Vedic culture would begin to loathe themselves.

The problem here is that scientific concepts using ordinary words have been translated without a context so as to look like ordinary things. Modern science too uses ordinary concepts such as “energy”, “momentum”, “charge”, “force”, “color”, “spin”, etc. but we would be fools to think that the meanings of any of these terms is just how these words are used in physics. Every term in physics has a precise meaning—given by a mathematical formula and a measurement procedure—quite different from the meanings of these words in English. The reuse of the same words for an entirely different purpose is not the problem. The problem is that we don’t know the context in which it is used.

It helps to remind ourselves that “screwdriver” and “sledgehammer” have different meanings in a workshop and a bar. Sounds are not meanings by themselves unless we know the context. Unfortunately, we don’t have that understanding today. We are not giving a precise logical, mathematical, or conceptual definition to the terms in the scriptures. We use them loosely and we don’t understand their meanings. As a result we can breed a new generation of poets and litterateurs but not scientists and philosophers. Just as an ordinary man doesn’t become a soldier by wearing the soldier’s dress, similarly, using the same words doesn’t make us knowledgeable in Vedic philosophy unless we know the word’s meanings.

Spirituality Begins in New Concepts

The biggest barrier to understanding Vedic texts today is new concepts. We already have the books in many languages but we lack the concepts to understand them. Enamored by our sense perception based thinking, we consider the illusion to be reality and thus we cannot understand reality. When this reality is presented in Vedic texts, people think that this presentation must be a fantastic poetic imagination. Our urgent mission should be to explain the meanings of words, because the meanings we currently attach to such words are clearly unreal or false, while the new meanings that can help us understand this knowledge are totally unknown. This is quite like words such as “energy”, “momentum”, “charge”, “force”, “color”, “spin”, etc. have radically different meanings in physics and everyday use.

Unless we understand the meanings of words such as “space”, “time”, “object”, “cause”, “motion”, “atom”, “field”, etc. in a new way, we can never understand other words such as prakriti, mahattattva, ākāsh, jala, vāyu, agni, prithvi, prāna, karma, guna, etc. Consequently, the words such as “soul” or “God” would not be understood according to the Vedic texts. Indeed, most people today think that when they walk on the road, their “soul” is going along because the soul is in their heart, and the heart is moving. Consequently, the soul’s transmigration through different bodies—within this life—is never understood because are always thinking about “motion” instead of transmigration.

Vedic texts cannot be understood without a complete overhaul of modern thinking. The translations of Vedic scriptures don’t make sense because we are using words whose meanings we don’t understand. We can read the books any number of times, but that is not going to make us enlightened because we conjure a false imagery imparted by modern education. We have to find a way to explain these books to everyone.

Did Ācharyas Not Foresee This Problem?

We can ask ourselves: if the problem is so serious, why haven’t the ācharyas talked about it? This question is somewhat naïve because the ācharyas have indeed asked us to “study” the books not merely “read” them. And, furthermore, the problem is evident even at a distant glance because the descriptions of texts such as Śrimad Bhāgavatam are not comprehensible. So, to claim that ācharyas did not foresee the problem is incorrect. They have foreseen, but the alternatives to the problem are far worse.

Given that translation is a hard problem should we not translate the texts into English and other languages because they don’t have the equivalent words and the words in many cases have different meanings? This turns out to be a nonstarter because it entails Vedic knowledge remains inaccessible to most people due to a linguistic barrier. The translations lift us out of the older linguistic barriers, and then present to us the next problem of the conceptual and semantic barriers.

Overcoming the Barriers

The real solution requires the development of a true scientific understanding of the texts accompanied by the presentation of the real meaning of words such as “space”, “time”, “object”, “cause”, “motion”, “atom”, “field”, etc. followed by the clarification of the words such as prakriti, mahat, ākāsh, jala, vāyu, agni, prithvi, prāna, karma, guna, etc. which can then lead us to the true understanding of words such as “soul” and “God”. The journey is not easy, but what are the alternatives?

With such an understanding, many modern words (e.g. “spin”, “mass”, “momentum”,  “charge”, “quark”, “lepton”) would become meaningless and cease to exist. And several new words such as prakriti, guna, karma, manas, prāna, vāk, etc. would be added to our vocabulary. Acquiring Vedic knowledge means acquiring a new vocabulary to describe the world.

The next barrier to spirituality is understanding the books that the Ācharyas have given us. We have enough material at hand to realize that there is something to be understood. Just because we can read it, however, doesn’t mean we know it. We are actually reading a scientific text without a scientific training. Just as a book on advanced physics, mathematics, cosmology, or biology can be written in English, but the meaning of that book cannot be grasped until we immerse ourselves into the science itself, similarly, Vedic texts too cannot be understood just because they are now written in our native languages. A familiarity with the language is not enough. One also needs a familiarity with the concepts and such a familiarity necessitates a scientific explanation of the Vedic words.