On new translations in Indian philosophy

One of the immediate frustrations one faces in teaching Indian philosophy is that good translations are sorely lacking, certainly into English and I suspect into any Western language, perhaps even any non-Sanskrit language. A Source Book of Indian Philosophy, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore, has been one of the most frequently used works since its publication – in 1957. Radhakrishnan and Moore have been dead for decades. And their work leaves much to be desired, filled with so many ellipses that one feels like one is reading Radhakrishnan’s and Moore’s ideas rather than those of the original authors; the ellipses are disruptive enough that the reader can spend more time wondering what was omitted than learning the original.

And yet with respect to some texts at least, Radhakrishnan and Moore still have yet to be surpassed. I was excited for the publication of Deepak Sarma’s 2011 Classical Indian Philosophy: A Reader as a potential replacement for Radhakrishnan and Moore. Indeed in my class this year I am using Sarma’s excerpt from Rāmānuja’s Vedārthasaṅgraha, alongside Radhakrishnan and Moore’s translation of Rāmānuja’s Śrībhāṣya. Yet some of Sarma’s excerpts, as Andrew Nicholson rightly noted in his review in JAOS 133(3), are embarrassingly awful, considerably worse than anything in Radhakrishnan and Moore. What could Sarma, his original translator, or the editor have possibly been thinking in allowing the fifth Vaiśeṣika Sūtra to be rendered as “Pṛthivī, āpa, teja, vāyu, kāla, dik, ātmā, and mana are the _dravya_s”? As Nicholson rightly notes, this is “hardly a translation at all”. Worse, it’s not as if these are complex multivalent Sanskrit technical terms that pose great difficulties for the translator such that they are best left in the original – the first ones, for example, are just the classical four elements of earth, water, fire and air. One gets the impression that Sarma’s work had no editor or even proofreader, so that overall, Radhakrishnan and Moore’s work remains superior despite its flaws – though a teacher is fortunately able to pick and choose, drawing some translations from one and some from the other, as I do.

All this is a way of saying how much we need new translations of classic works in Indian philosophy. As such it functions as something of a prelude to my main topic: Matthew Dasti and Stephen Phillips’s recent The Nyāya-Sūtra: Selections with Early Commentaries, for which this post and the next post constitute a review of sorts. This translation is not a reader but a rendering of a single text, the Nyāya Sūtra – the terse aphorisms foundational to the Nyāya school of Indian logic – and some of the later commentaries on it that constituted the bulk of the Nyāya school’s work.

I am happy and lucky to count both Dasti and Phillips as collaborators and friends – Phillips generously sponsored me to be a visiting researcher at the University of Texas during my PhD, and Dasti is one of my co-founders on the Indian Philosophy Blog. I’m also happy to say their rendering of the Nyāya Sūtra and commentaries is the best out there for its intended purpose of teaching undergrads; it fills a real need. It is a bonus that, as is generally true for books from Hackett, the book is mercifully inexpensive.

Dasti and Phillips have chosen to translate not only the standard commentary, Vātsyāyana’s Nyāya Bhāṣya, but the subcommentaries of Uddyotakara and Vācaspati Miśra. The excerpts they’ve picked from the subcommentaries are quite helpful to the reader, as is the introductory material that they have composed themselves to guide the reader. In the grand old tradition of Indian philosophical writing genres, this serves as a commentary in its own right – sometimes even a commentary on Vācaspati’s commentary on Uddyotakara’s commentary on Vātsyāyana’s commentary on Gautama’s original sūtras. The result, in this respect, is less confusing than it sounds: a reader trying to pick apart the different layers of commentary to distinguish Vācaspati from Vātsyāyana will probably get confused, but Nyāya readers themselves would likely have treated the text, including the commentaries, as a whole. Overall, the layers of commentary in the translation, from Vātsyāyana to Dasti and Phillips themselves, serve the purpose that they are intended to serve, of helping the reader tease out the meaning of the texts they comment on. (Naturally, such commentaries typically have their own agendas, as they are the characteristic genre of innovation through conservatism; one could quite reasonably argue that Dasti and Phillips are more faithful readers than Vācaspati.)

The book contains only selections rather than the complete texts. This is an entirely justifiable decision, given the decision to render commentaries and subcommentaries. Providing a complete translation of the original sūtra and bhāṣya would have been a manageable task; it is what Mrinalkanti Gangopadhyaya did in his previous translation. (Gangopadhyaya, for his part, leaves many words untranslated. Unlike in Sarma’s collection, his decision is defensible, as these are at least complex words like pramāṇa that have technical meanings difficult to render. As such his translation is helpful to scholars who can scan English more quickly than Sanskrit, but is less helpful to undergrads than Dasti and Phillips.) Providing a complete translation of the massive subcommentaries would have been a waste of effort, given the intended undergraduate audience. And generally Dasti and Phillips rightly provide complete excerpts, allowing one to read each passage as it was rather than guessing what is hidden behind Radhakrishnan and Moore’s proliferation of dot-dot-dots.

All of this is of great value to the student and the teacher. I used the text successfully in my Indian philosophy class last year; multiple students then described Nyāya as a highlight of the class, something that would stick with them. They enjoyed seeing how Indian thought could be so devoted to logical rigour, against the stereotypes of a touchy-feely “Eastern mysticism”. (I imagine that somewhere in svarga, B.K. Matilal was smiling when they said that.) So I’m using it again with my class this year, and currently expect I will do so in future sessions as well.

The book also drives me crazy. Next time I’ll talk about why.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

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