Attaining Nibbana: Orientalism, Protestantism, and Translation


If your inclination upon reading the title of this post was to say, “What?!”, let me note that you would have been less likely to do so if I’d said, “Attaining Nirvana”.  You still might wonder what the heck that has to do with Orientalism, Protestantism, and translation–we’ll get to all that–but at least you’d recognize the word “nirvana”.  “Nirvana”, though a loanword from Sanskrit, has become sufficiently naturalized in English that we no longer need to use all the diacritical marks of proper Sanskrit transliteration (according to which it would be “nirvāṇa”), nor do we even have to italicize it (as is the proper usage for foreign words not considered to have been assimilated).  Moreover, most people have at least a vague notion of what nirvana means.  True, for most Americans not familiar with Buddhist thought, “nirvana” is more of a synonym for “paradise” than its correct meaning of “blowing out” or “extinction” in reference to finite, conditioned existence.  Still, the point is that it’s hardly an unknown word to the average modern English speaker.

What’s interesting is that we use the Sanskrit term “nirvana”.  The oldest scriptures of Buddhism are the so-called Pali Canon, which, though most closely associated with Hinayana* Buddhism, is more or less accepted in most existing branches of Buddhism.  Pali is an ancient language of India (technically, a Middle Indo-Aryan language), and it is related to Sanskrit.  The relationship of Pali to Sanskrit is somewhat like that of Italian to Latin–that is, a later language that has derived from an earlier, “classical” language.  Whether Pali derived directly from Sanskrit or not is debated, but the analogy is good enough.

In the development of Italian from Latin, there were grammatical and phonological changes.  I’m not interested in the grammar, but in the phonology.  In general, consonant clusters of Latin were simplified in Italian, and vowels were often simplified, with diphthongs (combinations of two vowels) turning into simple vowels, or long vowels becoming short vowels.  Examples of consonant simplification would be Latin octō (eight) becoming Italian otto and factum (deed) becoming fatto.  An example of vowel simplification is the transition from aurum (gold) to oro.

The same thing happens with Pali vis-à-vis Sanskrit.  The Sanskrit name of the historical Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, shows both of the above processes as it changes into the Pali Siddhāttha Gotama.  The “rth” of Sanskrit simplifies to a doubled “tth” in Pali, and the diphthing “au” become “o”.  Other examples of well-known Sanskrit words and their Pali equivalents are dharma/dhamma, karma/kamma, and finally, nirvāṇa/nibbāna.  In short, the familiar “nirvana” (from this point on I dispense with diacritics for both the Sanskrit and the Pali) was, in the earliest Buddhist scriptures written as “nibbana”, that being the correct form in Pali, the language in which they were written.  Why, then, do we say “nirvana” instead (not to mention “dharma”, “karma”, and so on)?  Why do we privilege the Sanskrit forms, when Sanskrit wasn’t even the original language of the Buddhist canon?

Indic literature first became available to the West in the 18th Century in a trickle of translations in the 18th Century.  The trickle became a flood in the 19th Century.  The first translations were mostly of Hindu literature–the Bhagavad Gita and such.  Buddhist literature came later.  This is not surprising.  Buddhism had mostly died out from the Indian subcontinent (except for Sri Lanka) by the time the Europeans got there, so it was Hinduism with which they first came in contact.  Gradually, the Europeans came in contact with Hinayana Buddhism and Pali.  They had already encountered Mahayana Buddhism in China and Japan; but it was not at first apparent to them that this was the same religion, albeit in a different form, as the more austere religion of Sri Lanka (and also of most of Indochina, with which they had later contact).

It’s important to note at this juncture that the vast bulk of Indological studies and translations from the Indic languages was done by English and Germans.  In the former case, it was for the obvious and practical reason that England took possession of India.  In the latter, Germans had largely been instrumental in developing historical linguistics, and many of the most eminent linguists were German.  Thus, they had motivation to study Sanskrit, Pali, and other Indic languages as a way of further investigating the history of the Indo-European languages.  These English and German scholars shared four characteristics in common:  First, they were mostly Protestant (Anglican and Lutheran, primarily); second, they inherited a certain amount of the cultural rationalism of the Enlightenment; third, they came out of an educational system that still gave a privileged place to the Latin language, even if to a lesser extent than previously; and fourth, they tended to view Eastern cultures through the lens of Orientalism.  It’s important to understand these characteristics in order to see the intellectual baggage that the translators of the century before last carried with them.

The first of these factors–the Protestant background of the Indologists–resulted in a particular view of Christian history.  Christianity, so the 19th Century Protestant view went, began with the teachings of Christ, which were simple, straightforward teachings dealing mainly with morality.  The early Church was egalitarian with a relatively non-hierarchical structure.  As time went on, the original simple message of Jesus of Nazareth was increasingly overlaid with layer after layer of complex speculative theology.  The religion was also corrupted by absorbing aspects of the surrounding pagan culture and by developing increasingly elaborate rites and rituals.  Eventually, the Protestant Reformation managed to scrape away these accretions and return Christianity to its roots.

The second factor–the commitment to rationalism–led to a tendency to view many types of traditional beliefs as superstitious and inferior to the worldview of modern Westerners.  The third factor–the exaltation of Latin–caused a certain fetishizing of Classical languages as superior to their later descendants.

The fourth factor was viewing the East from the perspective of Orientalism.  I’m using the term “Orientalism” here in the manner of the late Edward Said in his most famous and controversial book, Orientalism.  Said’s thesis is complex, and it could be discussed at considerable length.  To give the main points I’m looking at in reference to this post, the idea was that the West tended to reduce the East to its own cultural categories, and, as noted in the linked page above:

Orientalism concluded that “Western knowledge of the Eastern world”, i.e. Orientalism fictionally depicts the Orient as an irrational, psychologically weak, and feminized, non-European Other, which is negatively contrasted with the rational, psychologically strong, and masculine West. Such a binary relation, in a hierarchy of weakness and strength, derives from the European psychological need to create a difference of cultural inequality, between West and East, which inequality is attributable to “immutable cultural essences” inherent to Oriental peoples and things.

All of these common views of the early Indologists had effects on their relationship to and views of Buddhism.  As Protestants, they used the Protestant-Catholic framework in viewing Buddhism.  The elaborate, colorful, and ritualistic Mahayana Buddhism of China, Japan, and other parts of East Asia was viewed as the result of syncretism with the native traditions of those areas and a corruption of the “pure” and “original” Hinayana.  In short, Mahayana was “Catholic” Buddhism to the–of course, “superior”!–“Protestant” Buddhism of the Hinayana countries.  The Vajrayana of Tibet and Mongolia was less well-known, being more or less lumped in with the Mahayana.  This preference for the Hinayana tradition as the most “authentic” form of Buddhism led to a preference for the Pali Canon over the vast literatures of the Mahayana and Vajrayana.

The rationalism of the era strengthened the preference for the Hinayana, since the complex rites and rituals of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism were seen as based in superstition and magical thinking.  Hinayana was seen as emphasizing rational means of mental and spiritual development, while being unencumbered with later accretions.  This is not completely accurate, actually–most Hinayana countries have many festivals and rituals that involve the lower-ranking spirit beings known in Sanskrit as devas and by various other terms in the other languages of Buddhist countries.  Still, such practices were either ignored or dismissed as the practices of the ignorant masses.

The preference for Latin passed over into a preference to Sanskrit.  Sanskrit was the first classical Indic language encountered by the West, and it came to be seen as setting the standard for Indology.  Pali was encountered later.  True, Pali is the language of the Hinayana canon, and the Western scholars tended to prefer Hinayana Buddhism.  However, many Buddhist scriptures had later on been translated into Sanskrit because of the continuing importance of Sanskrit in Indian culture.  Many later Buddhist writings were composed in Sanskrit.  In fact, so many Buddhist writings appeared in Sanskrit that the version of Sanskrit used in these writings is known to scholars as Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.  Moreover, many Buddhist terms–karma, dharma, samsara, and so on–are shared with Hinduism, and since the Hindu scriptures are written in Sanskrit, the Sanskrit forms of those terms had already begun to pass into circulation in the West.  This, combined with the preference for Sanskrit in general, led to a preference for Sanskrit forms.

The Orientalism of the translators led them to interpret Eastern cultures and religions in Western categories of thought.  We’ve seen this with the notion of Hinayana being “Protestant” Buddhism.  The tendency to view the East in general as “irrational” and “psychologically weak” strengthened the tendency to downgrade the Mahayana and Vajrayana and to upgrade the Hinayana, which was seen as being more philosophically similar to Western notions.

Thus, in summary, Hinayana texts and concepts were seen by the first generations of European students of Buddhism as being more worthy and authentic, and so the Indic terminology was preferred.  Of the Indic languages, Sanskrit was held supreme, though it was not the original language of Buddhism.  These factors, plus the already existing habit of taking Sanskrit forms of religious terms as loanwords, resulted in the use of Sanskrit, rather than Pali, forms of Buddhist terminology.  Thus, going back to the title of this post, we say “nirvana” instead of “nibbana”, “dharma” instead of “dhamma”, “sutra” instead of “sutta”, and so forth.  Some contemporary writers on Buddhism do actually use the Pali terms; but they are a small minority.  For better or worse, we’re pretty much stuck with the Sanskrit.  I have to say that though it’s not logical, I find that the Sanskrit sounds better, more aesthetically pleasing, to me.  I find the sound of “nirvana” much nicer than that of “nibbana”, for example, despite knowing good and well that the latter term is the original, in the Buddhist context, at any rate.  Even our aesthetic preferences are influenced by the decisions and preferences of English and German scholars from a hundred and fifty years ago!

I end with an amusing thought.  In some alternate universe in which the Pali forms gained precedence in the West instead of Sanskrit, there might have been a groundbreaking 90’s band named Nibbana, and a late 90’s TV show named Dhamma and Greg!

Part of the series “Religious Miscellany


*Note:  I’m aware that “Hinayana” is often considered to be non-politically-correct and derogatory when used to refer to the school of Buddhism which uses only the Pali Canon and which is not Mahayana or Vajrayana.  The term “Theravada” is thus often substituted.  However, “Theravada” is not a synonym for “Hinayana”.  As a matter of fact, there were at one time eighteen different schools of the Hinayana, of which Theravada–the “Doctrine of the Elders”–was only one.  To draw an analogy, Protestantism is a large subdivision of Christianity, but it is further divided into denominations–Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Anglican, and so on.  If one imagines at some future date that only, say, Presbyterianism is left of all the Protestant churches, then for the people of that era, “Presbyterian” would be viewed as “Protestant”.  However, even if it were the last surviving Protestant denomination, “Presbyterianism” would still not be equivalent to “Protestantism”.  By the same token, it’s not accurate to treat “Theravada” and “Hinayana” as meaning the same thing.  The reason for the issue is that “Hinayana”–“Smaller Vehicle”–was never used by the Hinayana schools as a self-name, coming rather from Mahayana polemics; and it is argued that there is a negative connotation–not just “small”, but “petty” or “lower” or “base” vehicle.

There have thus been some attempts to find a suitable replacement for the term “Hinayana”.  Some have suggested “mainstream Buddhism”.  However, that not only privileges Hinayana above Mahayana and Vajrayana, it seems to go against the observed reality.  There are far more Mahayanists and Vajrayanists in total than there are Hinayanists–so if anything, the first two divisions are the ones that are “mainstream”.  “Traditional” Buddhism is possible, but ambiguous. “Primitive” Buddhism automatically makes the assumption that the Hinayana is closer to the original teachings of the Buddha, something that Mahayanists and Vajrayanists would dispute, and which is difficult to establish, anyway.  “Śrāvakayāna“–the “Vehicle of the Hearers”–has been suggested, but that term is mostly unfamiliar to Westerners.  Taking all this into consideration, and realizing that there are no really good options available, I have decided–guardedly–to go on and use “Hinayana” while stipulating that not a particle of disrespect or derogation is intended towards modern-day Theravadins or any of the ancient Hinayana schools.  Thus, when I use the term, please recall that I’m using it in as neutral a manner as possible, for lack of a better term.


† It’s worth pointing out that modern scholars consider the question as to what form of Buddhism is more “authentic” to be much murkier than it seemed in the 19th Century.  The Mahāsāṃghika  was an early school of Buddhism which is believed to have been the precursor of Mahayana Buddhism.  The interesting thing is that the Mahāsāṃghika recension of the Vinaya–the division of Buddhist scripture dealing with the rules for monks–seems to be older than the recension used by other sects, including the precursors of the Hinayana.  It has also been argued that some Mahayana concepts seem to be implicit, if not yet fully developed, in older writings.  Thus, while the exact relationship and development of the various Buddhist branches is still not totally clear, it would be simplistic to paint the Mahayana as less “authentic” or “degraded” with respect to the Hinayana, as the 19th Century scholars tended to do.

Part of the series “Religious Miscellany

Posted on 17/02/2018, in Buddhism, language, language and linguistics, linguistics, literature, religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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