Sanskrit is a very rich language and old language. One word may have multiple meaning.

Language evolve on change time to time. Vedas were at least written around 1500bce.

So how do we know that the translation we are reading and understanding is correct. And that's how people have understood the Vedas when they were first composed.

[Skandaswami's commantary is the oldest but he commentated on vedas at around 7th century that still more than 1700 years late]

  • You have what is called the nirukta which explains how words are derived. To understand the Veda (Samhita) completely, you’ll need to have knowledge of nirukta, vyakarana and nighantu. And basic knowledge of shiksha (pronunciation)
    – Adiyarkku
    Mar 10, 2021 at 16:19
  • @Archit language changes. And what is nirukta, vyakarana and nighantu. Mar 10, 2021 at 16:42
  • Translation can be authentic if you know the traditional meaning. The traditional meaning can be found from nirukta- this shows how words are derived and their meaning. Vyakarana = grammar how to form the word. Nighantu is a similar concept to nirukta but I guess more than derivation it has the meaning of the words. So if the translation is in accordance with the traditional meaning it’s correct
    – Adiyarkku
    Mar 10, 2021 at 16:55
  • @Archit what do you mean by traditional meaning. The oldest commentary was written in 7th century. At that time many words have changed their pronunciation and their meaning. Mar 10, 2021 at 17:02
  • 2
    @Archit now you have made it even worse. 5000 years language have changed so much. More than what it has changed as compared to 1500bce means 3500 Mar 10, 2021 at 17:26

4 Answers 4


Sanskrit is a very rich language and old language. One word may have multiple meaning.

Language evolve on change time to time. Vedas were at least written around 1500bce.

So how do we know that the translation we are reading and understanding is correct. And that's how people have understood the Vedas when they were first composed.

That is why the Rishis have created four Vedangas: Vyakarana, Nirukta, Shiksha, and Chandas.

  • Vyakarana is Vedic grammar and linguistics.
  • Nirukta is etymology of Vedic words.
  • Shikha is pronunciation of Vedic words.
  • Chandas is how Vedic poetic meters are constructed.

Each Vedanga has a set of texts written by celebrated Rishis.

Panini's Ashtadhyayi is a foundational treatise for understanding Vedic grammar. Yaska's Nighantu for understanding Nirukta. The Pratishakhyas for each Vedic shakha are to understand the Shiksha for each Vedic Shakha. Chandas and Pingala sutras to understand Chandas.

On top of this, each Vedanga text was commented upon by several scholars later on. The most notable commentator of Panini's Ashtadhyayi is Patanjali. Patanjali's Bhashya is studied even till today.

In addition to these Vedangas, there is the unbroken chain of Vedic recitation and transmission which is continuing even till today. There are 11 ways to recite the Vedas:

Eleven such ways of reciting the Vedas were designed – Samhita, Pada, Krama, Jata, Maalaa, Sikha, Rekha, Dhwaja, Danda, Rathaa, Ghana, of which Ghana is usually considered the most difficult.

Pada patha is word by word recitation.

On top of this we have the Smritis, which serve as a commentary on the Vedas:

itihasa puranabhyam vedam samupabrahmhayet | bibhetyalpashrutadvedo namayam pratirishyati || - Mahabharata

"One should interpret the Vedas with the Puranas and Itihasas"

  • Vyakarana is Vedic grammar and linguistics. Nirukta is etymology of Vedic words. Shikha is pronunciation of Vedic words. Chandas is how Vedic poetic meters are constructed. Even these were written in vedic Mar 11, 2021 at 17:29
  • 1
    @DarkKnight They aren't. They are written in Panini's classical Sanskrit. If they were written in Vedic to understand Vedic, then it wouldn't make sense. One can understand classical sanskrit even today in one year of study.
    – Ikshvaku
    Mar 11, 2021 at 18:03
  • 2
    @DarkKnight Here is another fact. Classical sanskrit has remained unchanged for thousands of years. A sanskrit grantha written 3000 years ago, is in the same language as a grantha written 1000 years ago, and one written 100 years ago. They are all visibly the same exact sanskrit language, and can be understood with Panini's grammar.
    – Ikshvaku
    Mar 11, 2021 at 18:05
  • 1
    @DarkKnight see see Ikshvaku hit the nail on the head. This is your solution for - now you have made it even worse. 5000 years language have changed so much. More than what it has changed as compared to 1500bce means 3500
    – Adiyarkku
    Mar 11, 2021 at 18:41

This is a good question. Yes, it is not easy to understand the Vedas.

It is unfortunate that a complete translation of the Vedas in Bengali is still not available. We are grateful for the help offered for this translation by the honorable West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bandopadhyay. In doing this work we are finding that there is currently no Vedic expert with profound traditional knowledge. It is already very late. The few who do have some knowledge of the Vedas are very old. So we are having problem in trying to translate the Vedas.

Free English translation of Publisher's Note in the Bengali Rig Veda by Swami Suparnananda

The translator, Professor Nilanjana Sikdardutta, acknowledges that she is having difficulty in translating the Vedas in Bengali.

Sayanacharya's 14th century commentary of the Rig Veda is well known. However, Sayana's commentary is from the point of view of Purva Mimansa. Modern scholars do not fully accept Sayanacharya's commentary since the Rig Veda was composed long before the appearance of Purva Mimansa. ....Thus one has to know the history, sociology, anthropology, dharma, darsana etc in order to understand the Rig Vedic mantras. We have in addition to Sayanacharya's commentary tried to interpret according to the meaning of the Rig Vedic words.

Foreign scholars have translated many times in English and German. Of these translations in English, Ralph T. H. Griffith (1973 edi), Wilson (1866 edi) and S. W.Jamison and J. P. Brereton (2014), have been used. ..........

.... I have tried to translate Sanskrit tatsama words and the complicated sentence structure of Rig Veda in simplified Bengali. Still lack of knowledge of traditional understanding of the Vedas has made it impossible for me to translate some Rig Vedic verses with the necessary clarity. I apologize for this shortcoming.

Free English translation of Introduction to Bengali Rig Veda by Professor Nilanajan Sikdardutta

Prof NS is an expert in Sanskrit and Bengali. Otherwise she would have not been asked to translate the Sanskrit Vedas into Bengali. She is having trouble in translating the Vedas because the archaic Sanskrit used in the earliest layer of the Vedas is different from the Sanskrit of Mahabharata. Languages change over time and makes the job of scholars difficult. We are fortunate that Goudapada and Sankara have written commentaries of the Upanishads. Neelkantha's commentary on the Mahabharata makes understanding the Mahabharata relatively easy.

  • 1
    Thanks for the answer, but why are you emphasizeing on Bengali translation. I am a North Indian. Hindi and English these are the languages I can read Mar 11, 2021 at 13:41
  • 1
    I am not asking you to read the Bengali version of the Vedas. I am pointing out that lack of traditional interpretation of the Vedas is making it difficult for a translator to interpret the Vedas. Prof NS knows Sanskrit but still acknowledges that she is not understanding some verses of the Vedas. Mar 12, 2021 at 12:14

The knowledge of Vedas was received through the chain of disciplic succession, but in course of time, the succession was broken, and therefore the science as it appears to be lost.

This means that you can't directly read and understand Vedas on your own. The reasons :

  1. The manuscripts are very old and in DEVNAGRI script, which is difficult for a common man to translate in an understandable language.
  2. There needed a lot of time and efforts to understand.

Read this to understand more, "Originally there was only one Veda, and there was no necessity of reading it. People were so intelligent and had such sharp memories that by once hearing from the lips of the spiritual master they would understand. They would immediately grasp the whole purport. But five thousand years ago Vyāsadeva put the Vedas in writing for the people in this age, Kali-yuga. He knew that eventually the people would be short-lived, their memories would be very poor, and their intelligence would not be very sharp. “Therefore, let me teach this Vedic knowledge in writing.” He divided the Vedas into four: Ṛg, Sāma, Atharva and Yajur. Then he gave the charge of these Vedas to his different disciples. He then thought of the less intelligent class of men – strī, śūdra and dvija-bandhu. He considered the woman class and śūdra class (worker class) and dvija-bandhu. Dvija-bandhu refers to those who are born in a high family but who are not properly qualified. A man who is born in the family of a brāhmaṇa but is not qualified as a brāhmaṇa is called dvija-bandhu. For these persons he compiled the Mahābhārata, called the history of India, and the eighteen Purāṇas. These are all part of the Vedic literature: the Purāṇas, the Mahābhārata, the four Vedas and the Upaniṣads. The Upaniṣads are part of the Vedas. Then Vyāsadeva summarized all Vedic knowledge for scholars and philosophers in what is called the Vedānta-sūtra. This is the last word of the Vedas."

I hope you get to know what one can do in order to get the essence of the Vedas in recent times.

  • Thanks, but my question is about language and linguistic evolution of a language. Language evolve and change. So how can we understand the true meaning of a vedas as it was composed around 10000 years ago. Mar 11, 2021 at 13:45
  • The point to understand is that the evolution of human has done physically but the Vedas contained the science of the whole universe and its working. To grasp that level of knowledge, the linguistic barrier is a very small hurdle, you have to rise to that level, by proper Dhyan Yoga and follow someone who is good at that. Take it like this, "P.hd is done in the supervision of a senior scientist or scholar who has enough knowledge and the next thing is you trust them." Mar 11, 2021 at 13:58
  • youtu.be/nRHR8D6QcHo 450 CE until c. 1150 see this. This is how much english have changed. Sanskrit is even older. Mar 11, 2021 at 15:06

So how do we know that the translation we are reading and understanding is correct.

We don't. A translation depends on the translator's own understanding of the text and what meaning they see the Sanskrit words, which have multiple, as having. For example, 'go', "cow", also means "ray of light" or "heaven".

Even in those rare cases of translators understanding the mantras, we do not get the whole understanding in just the translation but the explanation and commentary. There is always an explanation to the mantras to make sense of them and unpack any seeming contradictions. Whether a commentary is provided for us or we understand the context ourselves, it is necessary to have the context surrounding a mantra so we understand its meaning and what it is referring to.

And that's how people have understood the Vedas when they were first composed.

How people understood the Vedas when they were first composed was through their understanding of Vedic Sanskrit, the figurative use of language. As others have said, the Nirukta demonstrates this. Sanskrit words could be derived from a root which give an idea of its etymological meaning and therefore the meaning of the word. This understanding is lost when people take a word as meaning one thing without knowing its etymology. So, the word could be translated literally, but its use in the mantra could be in the context of its etymology. This context is lost without knowledge of Nirukta or Vedic etymology. This use of language continues in subsequent texts and is why there are misinterpretations - because people overlook the fact that many of the words are translated as meaning one thing when they have multiple meanings. There is a lot of wordplay and double-meanings which most people do not see.

I'll give an example. The word 'Puruṣa' is translated as either "Self", "person" or "man". It is said to come from the root 'pṝ'- "to fill". Just from this, we do not see how it can mean these three things. We are missing the context. However, Nirukta adds,

2.3. Puruṣa: puri ṣāda ("one who sits in a city"); or puri śaya ("one who sleeps in a city"); or is derived from ‘pṝ’ (“to fill”), i. e. he fills the interior, with reference to the inner Self.

We find this understanding in the Upaniṣads, as well as other etymological meanings. Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad:

1.4.1. Since, before (pūrva) all this, he burnt up (us) all the evils from everything, he is puruṣa.

2.5.18. This Self (puruṣa) is lying-in-the-citadel (puriśaya) in all citadels. There is nothing that is not covered by him, nothing that is not surrounded by him.

So, this contextual understanding informs all references to puruṣa in the Vedas, Upaniṣads, and subsequent texts. And this is just one word; it is the same for many other words. This means that, from 'puruṣa', it is wrong to deduce it only means 'man' or 'person', which some translators do.

Further, its place in Yoga or Sāṃkhya is taken as being different to ātman but, from its etymological meanings and context in which it is used in texts, we see it is no different. In the Vedas, puruṣa was used in the same way Brahman was in the Upaniṣads and Vedānta in general.

Aside from all of this, we won't get the full understanding just from a translation, no matter how good it is. The Vedas' mantras deal with experience or knowledge of the Self, just like the Upaniṣads do. The difference is in how they went about it. The Vedas used a lot of analogies to convey their teachings but in a way where we don't see the comparison. E.g., two birds on a tree with one eating fruit whilst the other looks on. It is a metaphor but, from just this image alone, without experience or knowledge of the Self, we do not see how it equates. Several Upaniṣads then used the same imagery to clarify how it relates to the Self, the same way they did with the imagery of the chariot, charioteer, reins and horses.

The mantras are also emotive in nature. In other words, the language and imagery is inspired by a feeling that is being expressed. This is the same as how poets express emotions not in a literal manner.

So, we miss all of this context from just reading a translation. The purpose of the mantras is to digest the imagery and still the mind, where the meaning becomes clear. Another angle of the mantras is that, often, what the mantra is saying is the same as the effect on the mind the mantra has. They are both instructions for how to practise it and what effect it has. Simplified, like with any mantra, its power is in its vibration and effect on the mind more so than it is a literal meaning of the words which comprise it. The meaning of the words and the mantra is revealed (śruti) in its transformative and quietening effect on the mind it has. It is from this place of stillness and seeing the meaning of the mantras that each Vedic mantra was inspired by, created from and pointing back to.

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