On Translation – Nabokov, Borges & Sri Aurobindo

Nabokov & Borges seemed to have had opposing views on literary translation. While reading that post I could not but help think about Sri Aurobindo’s approach to literary translation, more specifically, translation of poetry.

The two contrasting views, as articulated in the post, are: Literal translation and Free-form Translation. Nabokov adheres to the literal school and views any change  in a translation as a deformation. While Borges delights in the “happy and creative infidelity” of the translated material to the original.

Sri Aurobindo had the following to say on literal vs free-form translation:

A translator is not necessarily bound to the exact word and letter of the original he chooses… We find that literal translation more completely betray than those that are reasonably free – turning life into death and poetic power into poverty and flatness.

Above quote was taken from an essay (warning, its a PDF file) by Usha Mahadevan on Sri Aurobindo’s Tirukkural translation. Some splendid examples there of how a translation could retain fidelity to spirit of the original, rather than the word-forms.

First Kural, first line – “Agara Mudala Ezhuthellam..”

Rev. G.U.Pope translates as, “A as its first of letters, every speech maintains”

Sri Aurobindo translates as “Alpha of all letters the first”.

Read the essay (PDF again) for some more examples contrasting Sri Aurobindo’s approach and others in dealing with Tirukkural.

I posted a comment on the Dialogos site about my views on literary translation. Yes, I do know its presumptuous to put my views in a post where Nabokov, Borges and Sri Aurobindo are mentioned..but hey, my Master is a tad lenient at such things 😉

Word-sense, sound rhythm, feeling and emotional aftertaste all make up our experience of language. To retain fidelity over all these factors while transplanting an idea from one linguistic landscape to another is a challenge.

For me, translation is less about the words than it is about transcribing that soul-state which yielded the words. The “sanctity of source text” resides not in the words but in the idea behind them and in the mind & heart that produced them.

To leave a reader in the target language the same joy, feeling and insight evoked by the original should be the primary goal.

Specific linguistic characteristics of the source language, say culture-specific ideas, puns, brevity of expression, sound rhythms…are more difficult to bring across and will invariably undergo a deformation, or mutation, driven by abilities of a target language and the translator.

So what do you think? Any strong views?

Note: Okay, I know this is not the most pressing issue for mankind's problems...but..damn..will shut up now!

Krishna – Sri Aurobindo

Krishna's birth Of all Avatars of the Divine Sri Krishna alone has a special place. Sri Rama is venerated. Every other Avatar prior to him is acknowledged and prayed to. But none is adored with the intensity and rapture that Sri Krishna is. Why is that so? We would not know entirely, until the same intensity of devotion and divine insight is given to us.

But suffice to say, I don’t care..I don’t need a reason to adore Sri Krishna. I adore him because what would I be without this capability to adore? Why would I give myself to an inferior joy?

There is plenty of devotional poetry composed around Sri Krishna. But I like the below poem by Sri Aurobindo.

Krishna

At last I find a meaning of soul’s birth

Into this universe terrible and sweet,

I who have felt the hungry heart of earth

Aspiring beyond heaven to Krishna’s feet.

I have seen the beauty of immortal eyes,

And heard the passion of the Lover’s flute,

And known a deathless ecstasy’s surprise

And sorrow in my heart for ever mute.

Nearer and nearer now the music draws,

Life shudders with a strange felicity;

All Nature is a wide enamoured pause

Hoping her lord to touch, to clasp, to be.

For this one moment lived the ages past;

The world now throbs fulfilled in me at last.

– Sri Aurobindo

Hinduism with Spine

Swami-Vivekananda

Hinduism is often portrayed as a religion of peace and pacifists. Its legion of world shunning monks and yogis(the genuine ones anyway), reinforce this perception. Sometimes its not even a religion but an Eternal Dharma, a rule of living rightly that goes beyond the worship of its hundred thousand gods.

But all this other-worldliness, the excessive disregard of the world and the adoration of the Eternal and all its manifestations has had an unfortunate side-effect. And that is of lacking a spine, or a true measure and understanding of its own identity.

Origin of our Weakness

I would not be an expert to categorically state whether it was the many hundred years of Muslim rule, or the many hundred years of British rule, or perhaps a weakness that predated both these aggressors that allowed these aggressions to happen. But bottom line we have turned out to be a people lacking a spine.

We spout words about our ancient culture that we have no effing clue about. When our brothers from other religions convert our folks we quote the constitution that allows conversions. When more of our brothers from other religions of peace slaughter us, we quote mantras for peace and convince ourselves to let bygones be bygones. After all an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, as a leading light of the nation had said. When one of us decides to give others a taste of their own medicine we are the right wing!

Don’t get me wrong. If you know me or attempted to read and understand what I have written you will know am all for universal brotherhood and I mean it sincerely. But each culture has to stand up for itself, no one else will come to its aid. Or we will go the way of the Tibetans, the Mayans and all the other peoples that have perished under the onslaught of more ignorant cultures.

Do we understand our religion?

Each of us who profess to be Hindus will have to understand our heritage truly. Not the crap shown on TV serials, or the clueless nonsense spouted by the traditionalists, or the ones that give you certificates. Nor should we believe that spirituality is to be done at the last stage of life, it is such moronic thinking that has given rise to a nation without spine. That allows some so-called secular element within our founding members to interpret our subtle notion of universal brotherhood as a free for all, to come and do as they please. Enough is what I say.

What we need

From now, let each of us vow to understand our identity and our true heritage by going back to the original sources, the Vedas, Upanishads and the Puranas. Not as intellectuals, not to spout verses without understanding or realizing them. But as students and aspirants to the living truth of these scriptures, the One Divine who transcends everything.

The Method

I want us to do this not as Sanyasis or renunciates, not as intellectuals far removed from reality, not as arm-chair custodians of our heritage. I want us to uphold our values in the thick of material life. To build out the wealth of our nation again and not to see Narayana in poverty alone. To create art that once again captures the myriad infinities of the soul’s beauty. To engage our brothers in strength and pride of our identity and heritage. To churn out perfection in every thing we do and take our place once more at the forefront of civilizations.

The Impediments

It is not easy, this double mode of existence. Long has been our enslavement, impoverished our spirit and our members weak. A little wealth and little success rocks the boat of our pride too much. We are as children, who go into rapture at the smallest bauble. We are not a nation of Arjunas and Ashokas anymore. Even our villains are not fit to take the world stage, we have no strength to even do evil on a grandiose scale. Our Balis and Hiranyakashipus are just myths now.

But this need not be the case anymore. And it can start with us. Today. Let us reconnect with the Self within, in our own way. A little perfection in all that we do, a little service to elevate humanity, a little strength to stand up for our identity and a lot of humility is all it takes to offer as sacrifice to the immanent Divine.

The Guide

After all, as Sri Aurobindo states, “He who seeks the Divine is sought by the Divine”. Let us offer our works, paltry though it be, and Sri Krishna shall be with us. We have endured a lot until now, it is time for us outgrow our limited self-conception.

This post is dedicated to Swami Vivekananda.

Does Steve Jobs Do Yoga?

Usually the search terms that lead the handful of people to my site are fairly standard. But few days ago the title of this post led someone here. If that was you dear reader, then sorry I did not have a ready reply then and will address it now.

Before moving to the answer I will have to state some assumptions. By Yoga I take it to mean something more than the physical aspect of it. Not the smattering of breathing exercises done for physical well-being and balance in life. Yoga is a mystic yearning for the Divine, a perspective that acknowledges the superficiality of material forms and seeks to exceed it into the truth that sustains everything. Yoga is state that the Vedas and Upanishads describe and offer the roadmap for. Yoga is a world-view that sees the connectedness of things and more.

There are two parts to the answer, we move from the abstract to the precise.

All Life if Yoga…

..says Sri Aurobind0. So read that again. All life, not just the virtuous and the religious, all of life is Yoga. This statement, as with many of Sri Aurobindo’s statements, reveals both i) an immanent and essential truth and ii) an available end goal.

The former points to the fact that any life, literally anything, to exist would be impossible without the tacit support of the Divine. (This is a moral minefield when viewed from the stance of day to day life, let us not consider that aspect in this blog post. If you are interested we could return to it later.). The latter is the explicit affirmation of the possibility that all of life can be Yoga or an union with the Divine. Not just the supra-normal states of consciousness like various Samadhi states but even the mundane moments of our lives too can be in Yoga, can be experienced union with the Divine.

With this definition, not just Steve Jobs but even you and I are in Yoga!

Now that is sort of nice but it does not give a method to get to this state in the first place. And besides answers our original question with too abstract a framework. We can do better, so let’s continue.

Yoga is Skill in Works..

..says Sri Aurobindo. This is a more accessible definition and something we can work with. Like a Vedic or Upanishadic mahavakya this little thought’s illumination belies its size! Yoga is said to be skill in works. There is no mention of what works, it does not matter. I could be a serf serving the whims of a landlord  and following instructions to the dot or its modern day equivalent of sitting in a cubicle and following processes to the letter. And still could exceed the conditions of my birth, outgrow the mortal limitations placed upon me and grow into the consciousness of the Divine. All of this while performing the normal works of a human existence.

The divisions set up by society with the Chaturvarna or the Four Fold Caste System, that condemns me to a class of works determined by birth and heredity, though a sham and a corruption of the principle Manu had in mind, do not limit my potential to attain the highest states unavailable to the priest who chants litanies for years.

Skillful execution of work, like the pursuit of a moral living, has no end to its perfection. And beyond a certain threshold of skillful work one is invariably widened and soon see ourselves touching the borders of heaven. What began as work is transmuted into Yoga.

With this approach one would easily agree that Steve’s extraordinary skill for producing, or at least orchestrating the production of, beautiful things he most definitely is doing Yoga. Not in the sense of being seated in meditation and chanting a mantra but more like Arjuna who though in the thick of battle is in union with Sri Krishna due the skill of his craft and devotion to his dharma.

Relevance for India and Indians

The path of salvation through works is especially relevant for us Indians. To do this with all the rigor and perfection and devotion we can muster will yield both material and spiritual rewards. Long have we viewed yoga as something performed after we are old, the current material and moral poverty is a direct result of this world view. 1000 odd years of foreign rule and influence have destroyed our self-identity. It is time now to unshackle ourselves, not just with the mantra and deity but also with the skill that yields material abundance and strength.

Invictus and Invitation – Two Poems

I saw the movie Invictus recently. It chronicles how a game of Rugby brings together the erstwhile victims and perpetrators of Apartheid in South Africa. The movie is brilliant by itself what struck me was the poem Invictus that plays a significant role in the movie and hence its use as the title.

While reading about the poem on Wikipedia, could not help but notice that it was written by someone who was not exactly dealt the best cards by life.

And I was reminded of another poem, again written by someone not in the best of circumstances, called Invitation.

I reproduce both these below.

Invictus – By William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

Invitation – By Sri Aurobindo

With the wind and the weather beating around me

Up to the hill and moorland I go

Who will come with me? Who will climb with me?

Wade through the brook and tramp through the snow?

Not in the petty circle of cities

Cramped by your doors and your walls I dwell;

Over me God is blue in the welkin,

Against me the wind and the storm rebel.

I sport with solitude here in my regions,

Of misadventures have made me a friend.

Who would live largely? Who would live freely?

Here to the wind-swept uplands ascend.

I am the Lord of tempest and mountain,

I am the Spirit of freedom and pride.

Stark must he be and a kinsman to danger

Who shares my kingdom and walks by my side.

I wonder what it is about the human condition, that makes it grow radiant when under the crucible of misfortune. Arrayed against the furies and fates, the piffling human soul grows vast enough to take on the elements, space and time.

The Benevolent Tyrant

anantavishnu

I had grown deaf to thy call, the flute was heard no more;
And thou dost come with the sword of the warrior.
No longer the promise of eternal embraces,
Now is the cold grasp of mortality.
But thou dost hunt with an infinite sight
And I have grown too large for any lair.
Thou art dire O Beloved,
But I know thy embrace shall cancel my opposites.
Come then, Benevolent Tyrant, I shall run no more.

To the aspirant beset with the travails of karma and circumstance, the world seems a veritable hell. All turns into a fount of his continued misery. The future is no more, only a painful lingering of the past.

One is reminded of an aphorism by Sri Aurobindo – 

I used to hate and avoid pain and resent its infliction; but now I find that had I not so suffered, I would not now possess, trained and perfected, this infinitely and multitudinously sensible capacity of delight in my mind, heart and body. God justifies himself in the end even when He has masked Himself as a bully and a tyrant.

Is the “justifies in the end” bit what we usually paraphrase and call as hope? Or faith?

5 Indispensable Books to Guide Your Soul

This is for each of you who have aspired to a higher state within.

Sometimes one hits a wall. A wall of obstruction that prevents us from making progress. These states come out as an unease, a state of disquiet, a sense of being alienated from the world and its events.

However this state of unease is not a conducive condition for any sort of contemplation. Sri Aurobindo talks about ‘uthsaaha’, the Sanskrit word for enthusiasm, as a necessary condition for all yogic endeavors.

But enthusiasm and hope are not the easiest of qualities to gain when one is beset by travails within and without.

Sometimes, just sometimes, there are intimations..like postcards from eternity. They arrive without warning. The discerning mind of the aspirant latches onto them.

Every time I have lost my grip, and was to slip into the abyss, a life-line has been thrown to me, often in the form of a book. Today I shall share details of 5 of these books. My review shall be brief, for the essence has seeped deep within me and the specifics of time, place and plot have given way to reveal the story of every aspiration and mine.

The Sannyasin

Satprem A partly autobiographical work of Satprem, a disciple of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, it speaks of the chief protagonist Nil’s attempts to storm the gates of Heaven. And how in the process this pleasant green earth eludes him. The impossible intensity with which Nil feels the burning question, all point to an experience lived and savored, not merely thought out in the mind and cast on paper.

Siddhartha

41RV449YN2L._SL160_ Contrary to what I expected this is not the story of the one called the Buddha. Rather its the story of character called Siddhartha who lived during Buddha’s times. He too wishes to reach the source and find answers. But unlike the Buddha, this Siddhartha’s methods and means are more commonplace, which makes this book resonate more deeply with our own quest.

 

 

Ka

51T6Q1WDFYL._SL160_ The story and myths of the Indian pantheon. A god of birds in search of ransom that would redeem his mother, the king of gods who often falls prey to lust, a Rishi who whispers the highest secret to his wife with the lower gods straining to catch the cadence of it – words hardly do justice here. The author displays a very rare understanding of the symbolic and metaphorical nature of the Hindu psyche. Forget the Ganges, take a dip in this book, and the gods might just notice you.

 

Last Temptation of Christ

51585A01V6L._SL160_ The Christian institution I studied in attempted numerous times to ‘save’ my soul. None of these evangelical methods worked of course. The super-son or the super-lamb portrayals popular with the common mass and the official system, or the sanitized and simplified biblical version might suit the evangelistic purposes of the establishment but means very little to the true seeker. Read it to understand the very real torments even of the chosen ones. Also know what it is to suffer, that wounds of the flesh are mere trifles before the anguish of eternal separation from the Highest Divine. This book has single handedly birthed in me a profound devotion for Christ.

Essays on the Gita

41mXMgHhZdL._SL160_ There is a scene in the assault on Minas Tirith in LOTR with Pippin and Gandalf. Pippin wonders aloud, “I didn’t think it would end this way”, to which Gandalf replies, “End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path… One that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass… And then you see it.”. The setting is critical. Right in the thick of the battlefield, Gandalf chooses to comfort the hobbit with a truth that is universal. Such is the setting of the Gita. In response to Arjuna’s shirking from the great battle of Mahabharata, Sri Krishna, the incarnate Godhead, sings of the eternal nature of the soul and the imperative to follow ones duty, however bitter the act and the outcome. One can almost hear in the intimacy of the inner ear Sri Krishna himself. This more than any other version of the Gita seems to channel the Higher Word without the interpreting agency of the human element.

Of course this is a just a quick list. The number of books that I have sought solace from are many. Based on time and your interest, I shall share more.

21st Century Style Snake-Oil?

As humans a few ubiquitous limitations constrain us all, regardless of our affiliations. Whether we subscribe to the hypothesis on space and time or the axioms of math or the subjective escape into the rarer realms or the conjuring tricks of sound and light or as a traficker of ideas, Death ends us all.

The problem of Death must have been one of the earliest pre-occupations of thinking man. It can easily be imagined how the very first reasoning animal-man would have confronted a reality that snatches away what he has adored until a little while back.

Here is article from Wired that covers another attempt to do away with Death. It covers Ray Kurzweil‘s pursuit of ‘singularity’, a state in the evolution of humanity as defined by von Neumann.

The notion of what the singularity seems to have been added upon later. From what I understood it seems to be the sudden burst in the advancements in machines, that will exceed the capabilities of humans.

But look at it in another way. Is this any different from the ascetic who isolates himself in the mountain-cave? Contorting his physical and mental self, to catch the rhythm of an existence that allows something of him to pass on beyond gates of physical self, and hence death?

Perhaps singularity wears different masks? Is it the same as Buddha’s Nirvana? Or the Nirvikalpa and Savikalpa Samadhi of the various Yogas? Or more even the supramental state of Sri Aurobindo’s yoga? Or is this all merely a scientific snake-oil? What do you think?

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Thoughts and Aphorisms – Bhakti – 3

The sixth in the series on Sri Aurobindo’s aphorisms and my understanding of it.

It was a blistering 45 degrees Celsius in that famous temple town in southern India, cradled by an arc of mountains that reflected the searing heat. One felt the upper lip burning with every exhalation of breath. I was like a cauldron into which fate had poured unpleasant ingredients. Where the traveling pilgrims saw God and his benediction I saw an unyielding Tyrant. The heat brought it to breaking point. In the middle of road, near the outskirts of the town, away from all that I loved and hoped, I was being dissected.  And it was not the first, or the last, time I felt life-sapping pain.

******************************************************

Who amongst us has not known pain? It is one of the few universals that make up the human condition. Whether it is physical pain or the more destructive emotional pain, it is such an intense feeling that we almost instinctively recognize and avoid it.

To the aspirant pain is a harsh reality, more than a common man with conventional ambitions. I believe the pain one undergoes is in proportion to the quest undertaken. To gain a glimpse of the Infinite is to challenge the vast machinery of manifest existence and its rules. We pay the price to unravel every knot and to peer through every appearance.

But an Omniscient’s creation would not manifest something without purpose, pain included. Sri Aurobindo says-

I used to hate and avoid pain and resent its infliction; but now I find that had I not so suffered, I would not now possess, trained and perfected, this infinitely and multitudinously sensible capacity of delight in my mind, heart and body. God justifies himself in the end even when He has masked Himself as a bully and a tyrant.

To consider one type of experience would suffice to understand what positive changes pain can manifest. I would like to mention how my appreciation of music has changed over these troubled years. I have always listened to music, especially classical music, with a certain intensity. Have tried to perceive it with my heart since I have no formal training or knowledge of music. One of the most exhilarating experiences in my life was when I intuitively understood Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. I still cannot explain it but it stands like an unseen monument within my heart, a thing of constant awe and joy!

I believe what made this possible was a re-forging of the emotional being. The old vocabulary was pulled down. The landscape within had been changed, newer pathways established. Life was not lived in the senses alone. Other worlds could enter my bleak existence. Honeyed whispers of a higher self could reach me now.

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Thoughts and Aphorisms – Karma – 2

The fifth in the series on Sri Aurobindo’s aphorisms and my understanding of it.

Sacrifice plays a central role in the spiritual ecology of India. The Gods are said to be fostered within us by sacrifice, they enter into communion with us by sacrifice, man rises to the stature of the Gods by sacrifice…even the act of creation is said to be a sacrifice on the part of the Supreme Divine, since he consents to be bound by the illusion of ignorance and rise through the infinite cycles of existence to the primal state.

But this lofty idea has been through quite some contortions, to put it mildly, in current times. Tonsuring ones head is a very popular ‘sacrifice’ down in southern India, giving up non-vegetarian food or certain days, fasting on certain days etc. All of them have one thing in common, whatever is convenient to give up is given up. Even when this is not the case, say giving up non-vegetarian food, it often benefits the doer, rather than “fostering the gods within”.

And now the Guru clears the cobwebs and defines how sacrifice aught to be.

Limit not sacrifice to the giving up of earthly goods or the denial of some desires and yearnings, but let every thought and every work and every enjoyment be an offering to God within thee. Let thy steps walk in thy Lord, let thy sleep and waking be a sacrifice to Krishna.

The scope of sacrifice is very clearly defined and needs no further explanation. But the interesting point to note is to whom the sacrifice should be offered, “..to God within thee”. Very Advaitic in its formulation and even impersonal. But the very next line clears up the lofty impersonality with the call to found all our acts, waking and sleeping within Krishna, the Beloved of the aspiring soul.

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