As many readers know, I teach in a Great Books program where our courses center on the discussion of important primary texts across all major liberal arts disciplines — humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The center of authority in the classroom is not the professor, but the course materials, and accordingly we are encouraged to be a “jack of all trades” and teach outside our scholarly expertise. Hence this semester I am actually teaching a natural science course on different views of astronomy and cosmology through history. While a traditional Great Books program would focus only on Western sources, we have aimed for greater inclusivenes. My current syllabus includes Hindu, Chinese, and Islamic sources alongside Western materials.
This brings me to the topic of my post, the Vaiśeṣika Sūtra, an ancient Hindu text that espouses something like atomism. It was clearly a slam dunk for my course, to include alongside Democritus and Lucretius, but I have been repeatedly frustrated by the lack of a useable English translation of the text. This old edition is festooned with so much commentary as to be unreadable. Meanwhile, more recent editions are unusable for different reasons. The translation by Debasish Chakrabarty leaves so many words untranslated — including, absurdly, the words for the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) — as to be almost completely unreadable. Subhash Kak’s rendering is somewhat better, but still leaves far too many words untranslated and is burdened with a line-by-line commentary that alternates between boring reiteration and a tendentious attempt to demonstrate that the text anticipates everything in modern science. I can’t give either of those translations to my students and expect them to make heads or tails of it. I realize that no translation fully captures all the nuances of the foreign language — yet the solution is surely not to simply give up and expect the reader to learn dozens of foreign terms before they can approach the text at all.
Finally, driven by desperation, I went through the old edition, which at least translates the text into English, and transcribed the aphorisms of the original text. I provide the result here in case anyone might find it useful. It includes some clarifying footnotes of my own, as well as some material related directly to my classroom context (such as a division of the reading for two class sessions). I am aware that a full understanding of the text and its legacy requires engagement with the commentary, but I cannot pretend to provide that in the context of my class in any case. Presenting the original text, relatively unadorned, will at least give my students an overview of its breadth and key claims.