Theosophical Bhagavad Gita Translations in the late 19th and early 20th Century. « Esoteric Translations » as Cardinal Features of the Global-Colonial Discourse

  • Thesis

    Translations as such are invisible in their place of use, as Lavinia Heller puts it.1 Therefore, they become authoritative representations of the other, as they make otherness comprehensible. At the same time the translator and his motivations for translating vanish in the purpose of bridging an information gap between cultures. Hence, I argue, that examining translational endeavours is key to research concerned with transcultural encounters. Furthermore, research on theosophical translations is crucial for understanding the global-colonial discourse in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries as the Theosophical Society was a major cultural broker between India and the West. It will be shown that theosophical translations were fundamentally informed by the dimensions of heterodoxy and orthodoxy and different epistemologies.

    Translation within the Theosophical Society

    Focussing on a prominent text, the Bhagavad Gita (hereafter: BhG), I will examine the discourse on translations within the Theosophical Society. By closely examining Annie Besant’s Bhagavad Gita translations, which were published in several editions (1895, 1896, 1904, 1905 and 1907, reprinted 1908, 1911 and 1922) I will ponder upon basic translational difficulties such as the adaption of concepts of foreign cultures in a new cultural context and the question of untranslatability. These difficulties do not only concern translations of Indian « sacred text » but are crucial for all texts translated or used within a colonial discursive continuum. This is especially true for « sacred texts » as they contain concepts that usually need further exegesis. Therefore, their proper translation is highly contested. Besant’s editions of the BhG differ significantly not only in terms of the translation itself but as well in their para texts and intended purposes. It can be shown that Besant changed her epistemological approach several times which led to different translations. Comparing these translations to the translations of other Theosophists (Mohini Mohun Chatterji, BhG-Translation 1887, T. Subba Row, party BhG-Translation in lecture text, Quan Judge, BhG-Translation, 1890) shows that these differ notably and are sometimes even opposed to each other. If we examine theosophical journals it becomes obvious that translations were widely discussed, applauded and criticised. Not only does this disclose that translations were important for negotiations of orthodoxy and heterodoxy within the Theosophical Society but that fundamental questions of accessing « occult wisdom » underlie these discussions.

    1 See Heller, Lavinia, 2013: Translationswissenschaftliche Bergiffsbildung und das Problem der performativen Unauffälligkeit.


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    Heller, Lavinia: Translationswissenschaftliche Begriffsbildung und das Problem der performativen Unauffälligkeit von Translation. Berlin: Frank & Timme 2013.

    Israel, Hephzibah: Translating the Sacred. Colonial Constructions and Postcolonial Perspectives. In: A Companion to Translation Studies. Hrs. von Sandra Bermann u. Catherine Porter. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell 2014.

    Long, Lynne: The Translation of Sacred Texts. In: The Routledge Handbook of Translation Studies. Hrs. von Carmen Millán u. Francesca Bartrina. Milton Park, Abingdon, NY: Routledge 2013.

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    Sharpe, Eric John: The Universal Gītā. Western Images of the Bhagavadgītā / A Bicentenary Survey. London: Duckworth 1985.


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