Monday, April 23, 2012

BUDDHACARITA: Chronology and Merits of Various Translations

The Buddha is thought to have died shortly before 480 BCE. The 28th patriarch in India, Bodhidharma, is thought to have arrived in China some time between 502 and 550 CE (during the reign of Liang Dynasty emperor Wu). Given that Aśvaghoṣa was the 12th patriarch in India, the law of averages should put him on the BCE side, whereas modern scholarship puts him in the 1st or 2nd century CE. In summary, it is probably safe to say that Aśvaghoṣa wrote the Buddhacarita no later than around 150 CE.

As mentioned in the previous post, we only have the first thirteen and a bit of the original twenty-eight chapters of the Buddha-carita in Sanskrit. But we do have translations of all twenty-eight chapters in Tibetan and in Chinese.

In chronological order, then, here are the versions of Buddha-carita that have appeared, in the original Sanskrit, then translated into Chinese, Tibetan, and English.

Before CE 150
Buddha-carita mahā-kāvya
crafted by the crafty crafter of epic Sanskrit poetry,  Aśvaghoṣa. 

c. CE 420
translated (or in many places paraphrased) from Sanskrit into Chinese probably by the Chinese monk Baoyun (376–449). Text in Chinese characters (Taisho Daizokyo Vol. 4. No. 192) available online,04,0001a02&key=192&ktn=&mode2=2

c. 1270
buddha tsa ri ta ma h’a k’a bya
translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan, probably between 1260 and 1280 (see D. P. Jackson, “On the Date of the Tibetan Translation of Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita,” Studia Indologiczne 4 [1997]: 54). Text in romanized Tibetan available online through University of Oslo.

“A Life of Buddha” by Aśvaghoṣa Bodhisattva translated from Chinese into English by Samuel Beal, Sacred Books of the East Vol. 19. Text available online

The Buddha-Carita or The Life of Buddha by Aśvaghoṣa, translated from Sanskrit into English by EB Cowell, Clarendon Press, Oxford. Text with metrical analysis and translation available online through Ānandajoti Bhikkhu's website.

The Buddhacarita or “Acts of the Buddha,” translated from Sanskrit into English by EH Johnston, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. (Part I : Sanskrit Text, Sargas I-XIV. Part II : English Translation Cantos I-XIV. Part III English Translation of Cantos XV-XXVIII from Tibetan and Chinese Versions.)

Life of the Buddha by Aśvaghoṣa, translated from Sanskrit into English by Patrick Olivelle, Clay Sanksrit Library. (Translation into English from the Sanskrit of Cantos 1 – 14, with romanized Sanskrit text on facing page, together with summary of Cantos 14 – 28 based on EHJ's work.)

The Chinese Buddhacarita, “In Praise of Buddha's Acts,” translated into English from the Chinese by Charles Willemen; Available online through Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

Of the three Sanskrit-English translations, each has its own merits.

EB Cowell's translation was the first (the Editio Princeps) and was published sufficiently long ago to allow it now to be in the public domain. Plus Cowell, as a noted self-taught translator of Persian poetry, evidently had a natural way with words.  Unfortunately for Cowell the Sanskrit text on which he based his 1895 translation was found to be less reliable than the much older manuscript on which EH Johnston was able to base his 1936 translation.

EH Johnston's text and translation of the Buddhacarita, as also of the Saundarananda, are monumental works of scholarship.

Patrick Olivelle's translation for the Clay Sanskrit library also seems to me, on first reading, to be an excellent job of work. One of the particular merits of this last translation is the four-line format which preserves where possible the order of the original four pādas, while at the same time reading naturally in English – a difficult balancing act to pull off, as I know from trying to do it in translating the Saundarananda.

I must confess that over the past few weeks I have asked myself how much anybody (except maybe me) stands to benefit from me doing another translation.

On the other hand, the first chapter of Aśvaghoṣa's Buddha-carita is titled bhagavat-prasūtiḥ, which EH Johnston in 1936 translated as “Birth of the Holy One,” and which Patrick Olivelle in 2008 translated as “the Birth of the Lord.” (The canto titles do not appear in EB Cowell's translation.)

The Chinese translation, interestingly, simply has “Birth, Chapter No. 1” (生品第一). It would be interesting to know how the canto title was rendered into Tibetan.

The translation of  bhagavat-prasūtiḥ into Chinese as one character,   , Birth, has the merit of avoiding terms like "Holy" and "Lord" that are laden with religious baggage. The Chinese translation totally fails, however, to translate  bhagavat, and so in that sense something is missing from the Chinese translation.

EB Cowell noted in 1894: “The Tibetan version appears to be much closer to the original Sanskrit than the Chinese; in fact from its verbal accuracy we can often reproduce the exact words of the original, since certain Sanskrit words are always represented by the same Tibetan equivalents, as for instance, the prepositions prefixed to verbal roots. I may here express an earnest hope that we may ere long have an edition and translation of the Tibetan version, if some scholar can be found to complete Dr. Wendzel's unfinished labour.

EH Johnston added in 1934, in the Preface to the publication of his Sanskrit text: “Since the beginning of the [20th] century the use of Tibetan translations for the correction of faulty Sanskrit originals has also come to be much better understood, and lately the translation of the Buddhacarita has been made accessible to students in an edition by Dr. Friedrich Weller, constant use of which has convinced me of the high standard of excellence it attains.”

Dr. Friedrich Weller, I fear, was writing in German, which does not help me. But if anybody knows of any translation of any part of Buddhacarita from Tibetan to English, I would be grateful to hear about it.

Considering the political situation today in China, the competing merits of the Tibetan and Chinese translations seem to take on added significance.

The powers that be in China today seem to regard Tibetan Buddhism with suspicion, as being full of religiosity and superstition. I also regard Tibetan Buddhism, along with other forms of Buddhism, with that kind of suspicion. But on the evidence of the Chinese translation of  bhagavat-prasūtiḥ  as simply , have the Chinese exhibited a tendency in the historical evolution of their own civilization to throw the baby out with the bath water? Aśvaghoṣa included the word  bhagavat  in his title for a reason.

The dictionary indicates that  bhagavat  can indeed mean “holy” (applied to gods , demigods , and saints as a term of address). But from where I sit, Johnston's translation of Aśvaghoṣa's  bhagavat as “the Holy One” and Olivelle's translation “the Lord” are, if not literally wrong, nevertheless highly unsuitable to the transmission of the Buddha's teaching in the 21st century. Those translations come down without good reason on the side of the irrational, the non-scientific, the spiritual, the religious.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, so Christians say, was born as the son of God. But from where I sit, what Christians say (what for some reason BBC Radio 4 Long Wave pays Christians to say on the daily bloody service when I would much rather be listening to Book of the Week) about virgin birth, resurrection, and all the rest of it, is pure crap, with no basis in reality.

bhagavat can mean “holy,” but originally  bhaga-vat  means possessing  bhaga, i.e., good fortune, happiness, welfare, prosperity; or dignity, majesty, distinction, excellence, beauty, loveliness.

I have never witnessed the birth of a Holy One, or the birth of the Lord. So I remain totally sceptical that there ever was any such thing. But on two occasions I have witnessed the miraculous, majestic birth of an excellent, incredibly perfectly formed human baby.

So, on the basis of what I know to be true, and not on the basis of what religious people think and say, I shall translate the title of Buddhacarita Canto One along the lines of “The Birth of a Beautiful Baby” or “The Birth of a Splendid Baby” or, more simply, “A Splendid Birth” or “Majestic Birth.”

In this way  I shall aim to produce, if nothing else, a translation that at least does not offend irreligious readers and listeners like me, who is sick to death of hearing Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Muslims and the rest talk and act as if their religious delusions had some basis in reality. Isn't nature miraculous enough by itself, without Holy Lords poking their oar in?

Aśvaghoṣa, we have seen in Saundarananda, liked ambiguity. By using a word like  bhagavat, whose original meaning is irreligious but which religious people can imbue with religious meaning if they want to, Aśvaghoṣa steered a course which allowed him to get his message across without offending religious types in his audience.

But the age in which we live is a different age. It is an age in which -- so long as I avoid visiting outposts of religious fundamentalism -- it is more or less safe for me to express the irreligious thoughts which I have expressed above. The only oppressing force that has stopped me from expressing such thoughts more clearly hitherto has been my own ignorance.

I hope, therefore, to produce a translation which, unlike the Chinese non-translation of  bhagavat, is true to what Aśvaghoṣa wrote in Sanskrit; and at the same time, if I can produce a translation that, unlike previous translations, causes maximum offence to the religious and the superstitious, then so much the better.

Recently Jordan drew my attention to a facebook page titled “I fucking love science.”

Me too.

In that sentence, “I fucking love science,” I venture to submit, is the essence of the Buddha's four noble truths, viz:

1. “I” the suffering subject.
2. “Fucking” a word which negates religious idealism.
3. “Love,” expressing affirmation of something that really exists.
4. “Science” – a method for abandoning ideas and discovering the truth. 

1 comment:

bhavanathjha said...

In 2012 I have restored the doomed portion of Buddhacharitam using poetic-translation into Sanskrit language considering the poetic dtyle of the poet Ashvaghosh. My detailed description is available here: