Is there a Sanskrit word for “intelligence” (or any other word)?

A reader wrote me:

I would like to know whether there is a similar term in Indian philosophy (sanskrit) for ‘Intelligence’. Can we equate it with the term prajñānam?

The problem with such questions (I do not know about you, but I often receive them), is that they are based on an atomic concept of sentences, as if there were a 1:1 correspondence among concepts and words and among language 1 and language 2. This theory has long been superseded both in linguistics (see Saussure’s discussion of how not even “tree” can be easily translated) and in translation theories. Moreover, as a scholar of Mīmāṃsā, I tend to imagine that the contribution of each word in a sentence is at least also a result of the contributions of the other words in the same sentence.

Thus, at least in case of philosophical concepts, one cannot focus on a single term, i.e., on a “dictionary approach”, but rather on what Umberto Eco calls the encyclopedic approach, i.e., offering a broader definition instead of a 1:1 translation. Moreover, each discussion of a (European) philosophical term needs to be preceded by an analysis of the term itself. Ideally, one should reconstruct it, too, through an encyclopedic approach (what does “X” entail? in which contexts is it used?).

In the case of “intelligence”, prajñā (not prajñāna) is often used, even more so in Mahāyāna texts, for “wisdom”, it can mean also “discrimination” and can therefore be compared to “intelligence”. I would, however, rather suggest buddhi, which stands for one’s ability to engage intellectually, especially because it does not have the sapiential aspect of prajñā and because buddhimat `having buddhi‘ can often be used in contexts in which in English one would speak of “intelligent” people. Another possibility would be prekṣā, again because of the use of prekṣāvat in order to define people who are able to consider things before deliberating.

What do readers think? How do you conceive “intelligence” in Sanskrit?

Cross-posted on my personal blog

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

3 thoughts on “Is there a Sanskrit word for “intelligence” (or any other word)?

  1. I think this is right. We are often misled into expecting one-to-one translations because we are used to languages that are more closely related. In French, after all, there is a word that means “intelligence” exactly – it’s even spelled the same as in English, just pronounced differently. One-to-one translations sometimes happen because languages are closely and directly related to each other, as many European languages are; and sometimes they happen because a neologism has been coined in one language simply to translate a word from the first language; I believe that is the case for the Japanese translation of “philosophy” as tetsugaku, just as the English word “sublation” exists to translate German Aufhebung and for no other purpose. (Though the latter case is instructive in its own way: I always avoid “sublate” because it seems to serve no useful purpose. If you want an actual English word understandable to English-speakers, use “supersede”; if that doesn’t matter to you, then you might as well leave Aufhebung untranslated.)

    On intelligence specifically, there’s an interesting book called Naming the Mind on the history of contemporary psychological vocabulary, which notes that the term “intelligence” was rarely used in English until the rise of modern psychology, which adopted it as a way to identify a common variable of mental ability between humans and animals.

  2. In the more familiar philosophical contexts, I rarely like translating buddhi as “intelligence” myself, although I think the case you’ve made is reasonable, esp. your starting with buddhimat and prekṣāvat (the latter being what I thought of at first, akin to being reflective or circumspect).

    In English, my sense is that the most general use of the term “intelligence” is to refer to a sort of capacity to reflect and make good judgements, either theoretical or practical.

    When understood as an episodic state of awareness, as Nyāya has it, buddhi would be better translated as “cognition” or “knowledge” and doesn’t capture this sense.

    But even in the Sāṃkhya (and borrowed Vedānta) usages, in terms of its being part of the “inner-organ” or something akin, it doesn’t feel entirely right to me, either. I guess because buddhi has a sort of discriminatory function in these contexts, “intelligence” is a reasonable choice. But does it capture the sort of intelligence that we think of in terms of purely theoretical talent or practical wisdom (phronesis)? I don’t think so, because everyone has buddhi in Sāṃkhya. But not everyone has theoretical or practical wisdom.

    If we just mean sapience, then there are a host of terms like cetanā that seem apt.

    I wish I had a simple answer. But like “mind” for manas, I don’t really like it, but I can’t come up with a good alternative.

    Your point about the folly of looking for 1-to-1 points of translation are spot on.

  3. I think to use buddhi as intelligence would need to have reference to a particular textual tradition that uses it as such, or be in reference to that tradition. I have found that different traditions can use the term with lots of variation- meaning intellect, or thinking, or almost a viveka, and sometimes meaning ‘mind’ itself. In Orissa, they use the term dhī quite regularly to refer to intelligence. In Jaimini Upadeśa Sūtras, someone who is rich is śrīmanta and someone who is intelligent is dhīmanta. I would not translate prajñā as intelligence in the way it is most often used in English.

    I have been researching the term ‘prajñā’ this winter, using Upaniṣads, Yoga Sūtras and Charaka Saṁhitā to define/explicate prajñā. I think there is quite a difference from how it is used in the Hindu texts and how it is used in the Buddhist texts, similar to how the word dharma is used differently. The hardest part of translating prajñā is that there is no English word that captures all of its meanings, as it is more of a concept similar to paśyanti, and one not existing in English. In the Āyurveda traditions, prajñā has been translated as the ‘innate body wisdom’- taking on the connotation of interoception and introspection and somatic awareness from something similar to Damasio’s embodied-cognition perspective. In the Upaniṣads it is compared with ātman and prāṇa. I have tentatively been translating prajñā as ‘implicit knowing’ or ‘felt sense knowing’ to describe its pre-cognitive/pre-rational sense of awareness-knowing- a concept only discussed in western psychology in recent decades.

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