As promised, this begins my best shot at using my dubious (lack of) credentials and general linguistic snottiness to review English translation(s) of Ṛgveda. All pseudo-information provided beneath the cut!
There are many more translations in existence than the few that I’ll be reviewing in these posts. These are only the ones of which I have personal experience and/or knowledge, over the year and a half that I have been reading Ṛgveda.
I am well aware that in covering the early British translations, I am stepping on many metaphorical land mines. These were the first Vedic texts that I found and read; I am only just – in the last six months or so – learning enough about history and language to seek out better versions. I feel it’s important to review these very popular translations, and provide information about their origins and significance.
If you have information, links to other translations, recommendations, corrections, or points to make, please leave a comment! I will certainly update these posts as I learn more.
H.H. Wilson: Full translation available here. This hymn is Ṛgveda I.7.
~~”The chanters (of the Sáma) extol Indra with songs; the reciters of the Ṛich, with prayers; the (priests of the Yajush), with texts.
Indra, the blender of all things, comes, verily, with his steeds that are harnessed at his word – Indra, the richly-decorated, the wielder of the thunderbolt.
Indra, to render all things visible, elevated the sun in the sky, and charged the cloud with (abundant) waters.
Invincible Indra, protect us, in battles abounding in spoil, with insuperable defences.
We invoke Indra for great affluence; Indra, for limited wealth, – (our) ally, and wielder of the thunderbolt against (our) enemies.
Shedder of rain, granter of all desires, set open this cloud. Thou art never uncompliant with our (requests).
Whatever excellent praises are given to other divinities, they are (also, the due) of Indra, the thunderer. I do not know his fitting praise.
The shedder of rain, the mighty lord, the always compliant, invests men with his strength; as a bull (defends) a herd of kine.
Indra, who alone rules over men, over riches, and over the five (classes) of the dwellers on earth.
We invoke, for you, Indra, who is everywhere among men. May he be exclusively our own.”~~
Some good points: Wilson was the first European to publish an English translation of Ṛgveda, so this text is an interesting work from a historical perspective.
In this translation, I see some glimmerings of the Deva’s true nature. Observe Indra hymned as “granter of all desires” and the “blender of all things,” the one who “invests men with his strength”; it’s good phrasing.
Wilson also provides the ṛṣi (Seer), candas (metre), and devatā (Lord) for every hymn. Providing that information is the right way to honour Vedic knowledge, and most other texts don’t give the proper citation.
In fact, let’s pause and cite that knowledge now: For this hymn, the ṛṣi is Madhuchandas, the candas Gāyatrī, and the devatā Indra.
What’s not-so-good: Wilson’s personal history is very uneven; on the one hand, he fought against the proposal to make English the only medium of instructions in Indian schools, and believed that the British should not force Christianity or British culture upon India. On the other, he did believe that the Vedic texts were human creations, that Vedic thought was fundamentally false, and that Christianity should replace Hinduism. More recently, a scholar named Natalie P.R. Sirkin has provided evidence that Wilson plagiarized the work of another unnamed, deceased scholar, passing off both Vedic and Puranic translations as his own.
In this first translation, we see the beginning of a typical roll-call of serious errors. To be fair, this was, in part, due to the clash of cultures and religions at work as European Christians tried to approach Indian Hindu texts. Mostly, though, it was due to the ungodly personal motives of the translators.
Note the focus on “wealth,” “riches,” and other materialist/European concepts in the above text. Also, some of his exposition on the verses is brain-curdling; underneath the line about “five (classes) of the dwellers on earth” appears a comment about the “extremely low level of civilization” of the tribal peoples of India, for example.
A minor personal irritation is that the capitalisation and italicisation throughout the text are distracting.
Who might find this text useful: Historians/people interested in the first-ever English RV version, folks wanting to support the Open Library project by reading their texts, readers who like free books, those who have never read RV before and want a very literal, simple translation before moving on to more complex interpretation.
Pitfalls of this text: Inherent racism, possible plagiarism, belief in Christian conversion of India.
Ralph T.H. Griffith: Full translation available here. This is ṚV I.5 (same ṛṣi, candas, and devatā as I.7 above).
~~”O come ye hither, sit ye down: to Indra sing ye forth, your song,
companions, bringing hymns of praise.
To him the richest of the rich, the Lord of treasures excellent,
Indra, with Soma juice outpoured.
May he stand by us in our need and in abundance for our wealth:
May he come nigh us with his strength.
Whose pair of tawny horses yoked in battles foemen challenge not:
To him, to Indra sing your song.
Nigh to the Soma-drinker come, for his enjoyment, these pure drops,
The Somas mingled with the curd.
Thou, grown at once to perfect strength, wast born to drink the Soma juice,
Strong Indra, for preëminence.
O Indra, lover of the song, may these quick Somas enter thee:
May they bring bliss to thee the Sage.
Our chants of praise have strengthened thee, O Śatakratu, and our lauds
So strengthen thee the songs we sing.
Indra, whose succour never fails, accept these viands thousandfold,
Wherein all manly powers abide.
O Indra, thou who lovest song, let no man hurt our bodies, keep
Slaughter far from us, for thou canst.”~~
What’s useful: Reading the Griffith translation provides familiarity and a common vocabulary with a lot of books about Veda and about Hinduism, because Griffith’s is the most well-known and widely-published/-quoted/-excerpted translation (partly because, like Wilson’s, it is now in the public domain and therefore free to use).
There is something kind of cool in Griffith’s text, which is easy to miss if reading silently to oneself. Read the first line of this hymn aloud. O come ye hither, sit ye down: to Indra sing ye forth, your song, companions, bringing hymns of praise.
It reads like a walking-song or marching-chant throughout, and this is because Griffith translated rhythm as well as meaning in the text; he rendered the Vedic verse into English metre: mostly iambs, with some trochees here and there. I cannot imagine how long this took to do, and while the result is sometimes stilted – the obvious effect of trying to stuff free Sanskrit verse into the straitjacket of English poetry – it’s an accomplishment nonetheless.
What isn’t useful at all: Here is more flagrant racism, with references like “the Dāsa colour” flaunted throughout; also, Griffith chose the simplest, most literal meanings possible for the Vedic hymns, and unless reading his version with a keenly discerning eye, one would think that the Vedic peoples were simply getting drunk and praying for livestock, crops, and money. Finally, there is a difference between “mysticism” and “incomprehensibility,” and unfortunately, his word-choices sometimes make a hymn unreadable and/or ridiculous.
Who might find this text interesting: Historians, poets, folks wanting to support the Sacred Texts Archive by reading their texts, readers who like free books, those who have never read ṚV before and want a very literal, simple translation before moving on to more complex interpretation.
Pitfalls of this text: Inherent racism and materialism, highly formal language that can be difficult to read, possible Christian agenda (I don’t know enough of Griffith’s life to confirm this).
Max Müller: No full translation available online. Excerpts provided here. The following is a (truncated?) version of ṚV VII.23 (ṛṣi Vasiṣṭha, candas unknown, devatā Indra).
~~”Let no one, not even those who worship thee, delay thee far from us! Even from afar come to our feast! Or, if thou art here, listen to us!
For these who here make prayers for thee, sit together near the libation, Iike flies round the honey. The worshippers, anxious for wealth, have placed their desire upon Indra, as we put our foot upon a chariot.
Desirous of riches, I call him who holds the thunderbolt with his arm, and who is a good giver, like as a son calls his father.
These libations of Soma, mixed with milk, have been prepared for Indra; thou, armed with the thunderbolt, come with the steeds to drink of them for thy delight; come to the house!
May he hear us, for he has ears to hear. He is asked for riches; will he despise our prayers? He could soon give hundreds and thousands; no one could check him if he wishes to give.
Make for the sacred gods a hymn that is not small, that is well-set and beautiful! Many snares pass by him who abides with Indra through his sacrifice.
What mortal dares to attack him who is rich in thee? Through faith in thee, O mighty, the strong acquires spoil in the days of battle.
Thou art well-known as the benefactor of every one, whatever battles there be. Every one of these kings of the earth implores thy name when wishing for help.
If I were lord of as much as thou, I should support the sacred bard, thou scatterer of wealth, I should not abandon him to misery.
I should award wealth day by day to him who magnifies; I should award it to whosoever it be.
We have no other friend but thee, no other happiness, no other father, O mighty!
We call for thee, O hero, like cows that have not been milked; we praise thee as ruler of all that moves, O Indra, as ruler of all that is immovable.
There is no one like thee on heaven and earth; he is not born, and will not be born. O mighty Indra, we call upon thee as we go fighting for cows and horses.”~~
What’s okay: There’s a certain wily poetry in some of Müller’s translations; this hymn is a good example of that, and despite the same “thee” and “thou” constructions of Griffith and Wilson, Müller’s verse has probably the richest expression and is the most modern and readable.
What is most definitely not okay: Müller’s history is that of a hugely celebrated public scholar, whose personal letters revealed a private agenda of subterfuge and conversion. As this very comprehensive analysis argues, Müller has probably done more to damage Vedic thought in both East and West than any other translator. He also may be credited with introducing a bogus translation of the word Ārya as a racial concept, and with popularising the innately prejudiced Aryan Invasion Theory. Such was Müller’s tremendous influence that, over a hundred years later, serious scholars are still working to get this trash thrown out of history books and university lectures.
Who might find this text useful: Historians, folks wanting to support the Sacred Texts Archive by reading their texts, readers who like free books, those who have never read ṚV before and want a literal, simple translation before moving on to more complex interpretation. Also, those who know Sanskrit may find this translation entertaining; there are several stories told of Müller which, if true, demonstrate that he actually didn’t know Sanskrit very well, if at all.
Pitfalls of this text: Inherent racism and a distinct, active agenda to destroy Hinduism by proving Christianity superior.
These texts are widely available. They are very easy for Westerners to read and are cited often, even in Hindu texts written by Indians. I do think that a basic knowledge of these translations – a few hymns here and there – helps with understanding many books based upon them, and helps in refuting them as well. However, for more in-depth reading, and particularly for the devotee, I would strongly urge the reader to ponder this question raised by Vāmadeva Śāstrī, on writing about the Aryan Invasion Theory:
“Many Hindus still accept, read or even honor the translations of the ‘Vedas’ done by such Christian missionary scholars as Max Muller, Griffith, Monier-Williams and H. H. Wilson. Would modern Christians accept an interpretation of the Bible or Biblical history done by Hindus aimed at converting them to Hinduism?”
I conclude this summary with one opinion: It never ceases to amaze me that, despite being translated by people who basically loathed the religion they represented, and somewhat mutilated by poor understanding, these hymns are still beautiful. Such is the strength and power of eternal Veda – impossible to corrupt! And while the damage done by early translators in the popular imagination does continue, we see also that the truth about those folks and their work has emerged, and that this truth has paved the way for better translations to come.
I will review these later, mostly better translations in my next post.
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