These days it’s very popular to rely on Sanskrit dictionaries to understand finer meanings of ślokas from Bhagavad Gītā and other scriptures. Everyone thinks he has the ability to check the translations before putting trust in the ācāryas. How does that work, exactly?
There are tons of English translations of Bhagavad Gītā and they come from a variety of sources. If one speaks some other language besides English there’s a good chance that there’s a variety of translations into that language straight from Sanskrit, too, bypassing English. In the end one can sit and look at about dozen different readings of the same verse and carefully compare them to select the best one. Do it with one verse, do with another, and pretty soon you’ll get a good picture of which translations can be trusted, which are more to your taste, which are more “authentic”, which are more academic or more devotional, or cultish. A couple of days of such “studies” and you can call yourself an expert.
When someone brings up some Gītā topic you can easily recall these different interpretations and if there are any discrepancies you can argue that your selected version is the best and any other reading is inferior. You can single out some words and refer to online Sanskrit dictionaries to argue that any other translation is biased. Take “paripraśnena” from BG 4.34, for example. In Prabhupāda’s translation it’s “submissive inquiries” but the word submissive is missing from dictionaries. Gotcha, right?
This is a very advanced case of arrogance that can’t be answered easily. First of all, a dictionary does not help in translation as much as one would hope. There are nuances of meanings that might not have direct equivalents in foreign language and there are cultural differences, too. Straightforward translation is “asking questions about something” but there could be many ways questions are typically asked. There are disciples asking their gurus, children asking their mothers, servants asking their masters, husbands asking their wives, and there are journalists asking politicians and politicians asking each other. There are students asking teachers and students questioning dogmas.
If one comes from a vaiśṇava tradition and tries to convey the meaning to a westerner than adding “submissive” to stress that it should not be “challenging” is perfectly appropriate. Up until not very long ago “challenging” was not the way questions had been asked in the west, too, but nowadays challenging has become the norm, even if expressed respectfully. For modern people “question” is associated with “question everything and demand logical answers” but in spiritual inquiries we can’t comprehend the true meaning of rather simple answers for years. Unlike modern people we do not see ourselves as perfect recipients of wisdom ready to judge our teachers before they even finished talking because we already have figured it all out.
Besides that, what authority do dictionaries have anyway? Who compiled them and how? Modern people simply assume that dictionaries are correct without giving it a second thought. “Academics”, they say, but what does it mean?
In reality some Englishmen went to India and studied local languages from natives. Some pundits taught them Sanskrit, too. Armed with this rudimentary knowledge they tried to read scriptures and constructed their own understanding of what they all mean. Based on this understanding they noticed how familiar words were used in different contexts and so they thought they were ready to compile a dictionary. It wasn’t a translation of a transcendental vision but a description that would have made sense to a Britisher. That’s where we come to the breath of Nārāyaṇa thing.
Original Vedic sound was not meant to describe common items made of matter and relationships between them. It’s the language of transcendence, coming to us from the spiritual world. Our material elements arranged themselves under the influence of this vibration and so they are not direct equivalents but rather poor imitations of the original. It’s like tracks of ice skaters which do not fully convey the beauty of their dance but you can get a general idea that first they were in this corner and then when to that corner and then they rotated for a while in this spot. In case of Sanskrit, however, we have never ever seen the ice skaters, all we have is matter shaken up in various forms. We can learn the words left and right and turn around but we’ll never have a clue about the real beauty of the transcendental dance.
English academics might have put a lot of work into compiling and updating their dictionaries but it was all done through academic studies. To really understand the Vedic literature one must serve a proper guru, too. Without that component they never have had actual spiritual realizations so all they have is an empty carcass devoid of life. How can we accept them as an authority on spiritual inquiry then? It doesn’t make sense.
Why do they ignore numerous injunctions in the Vedas to go and serve your guru with full faith and devotion? This faith, coupled with faith in śāstra, will automatically reveal the spiritual import of Vedic literature. It’s very simple, isn’t it? Why don’t they try?
Because they don’t want to. They are studying Vedas not to learn anything but to appear learned, to please their own egos and to cement their own position as prominent scholars. The objective goal of their inquiries is self-gratification, not self-realization and so they get appropriate results.
There’s another aspect to “breath of Nārāyaṇa” concept – the Lord is the source of every bit of knowledge in this world and everything we ever learn is coming from Him. Why do we have contradictions then? Because they reflect our different relationships with Him.
His devotees stay faithful to His message and they interpret His words to increase their devotion. Those inimical to the Lord, however, add another flavor to the meanings and screw out different interpretations. We never get Kṛṣṇa’s words straight out of His mouth, they always come to us through somebody. Even the texts themselves are the product of Śrīla Vyāsadeva’s work, and He didn’t hear the Bhagavad Gītā directly either, only Arjuna did. Sañjaya might have been faithful to the message heard but he was speaking in front of Dhṛtarāṣṭra so some modifications must have been made on topics sensitive to his master, no matter how principled brāhmaṇa he had been. Some other people compiled Vyāsa’s Mahābhārata into classic Sanskrit and there are still slight differences in the current texts so someone must have left their own input. In our tradition we trust the intermediaries between us and Kṛṣṇa but that cannot be said about advaitins or academics.
In those traditions they interpret Kṛṣṇa’s words to fit their world view and express their relationships with the Lord – those of enmity, for example. Whatever Kṛṣṇa says, they are not going to surrender themselves to His will and would rather stress other verses spoken by the Lord. This attitude leaves its impression on their translations and that’s how we come to discrepancies – it’s a reflection of people’s different desires vis-à-vis the Lord.
And where did these desires come from? Forced on them by the modes of nature. When Kali yuga came Lord Śiva volunteered to help with giving people atheist philosophy, too, which led us to Ramakrishna and then Vivekananda who popularized this interpretation of Hinduism in the West. Western materialism had its own roots dictated by its own historical conditions, too.
At the end of the day – everything comes from the Lord and this world dances according to His will, producing a variety of the phenomena, some nice, some ugly, some pleasing, some frightening, some devotional and some academic. To increase our devotion we should seek parts of the world where devotional sentiments are prevailing and avoid those parts that are controlled by the lower modes. That’s all there is to it, really.