Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Want to dive deeper into yoga philosophy and asana with the study of Sanskrit? Join Richard Rosen—author, YJ contributing editor, and co-founder of the former Oakland- and San Francisco Bay-based Piedmont Yoga Studio—for Sanskrit 101: A Beginner’s Guide. Through this 6-week introductory online course, you will learn Sanskrit translations, refine your pronunciations, explore its historic highlights, and more. But, even more significantly, you will transform your practice as you begin to understand the beauty and meaning behind the original language of yoga. Sign up today!
Pick up any English translation of the Yoga Sutras, and you’ll not only get a literal rendering of each sutra itself but also the author’s commentary on it. That’s because aside from humans’ nature to philosophize, some additional words and explanations are often required to fully convey the meaning of the original Sanskrit aphorism. Here, Richard Rosen, who leads our Sanskrit 101 course, shares a few examples of Sanskrit words that lose something in their translation to English.
Deeper Meanings of 4 Common Sanskrit Words
“Ahiṃsā is usually translated as “not hurting,” which is taken to mean “not hurting” anyone physically,” Rosen says. For example, many vegans cite ahiṃsā for animals as their guiding principle. “But actually the word includes not hurting with words and in thought.” Doesn’t that take this yama to the next level?
Avidyā is typically translated as the not knowing or seeing of the one’s true Self. “This is sort of right, but there’s a bit more,” Rosen says. “Avidyā is actually a positive misapprehension or a case of mistaken identity—not only do you not know your Self, but you mistake your constructed everyday self for your true Self.”
Samadhi is sometimes translated as ecstasy, Rosen points out, which can be broken down to its roots to mean “to stand” (stasis) “out” (ex) of yourself. “But samadhi is literally ‘putting together,’” he says. “In essence, the meditator is ‘standing in’ her object of meditation, seeing it in its fullness, bypassing the limitations of the senses.” The word coined by Romanian academic Mircea Eliade to more accurately relay this idea is “enstasy.”
In the Yoga Sutra, vairagya, usually translated as “dispassion,” is introduced alongside abhyasa, or “zealous practice,” as an essential tool for life. “Vairagya literally means ‘growing pale,’” Rosen says. “That is, we are colored by our desires and when we learn to give away the things we are clinging to, we grow paler and paler and more and more translucent until we reach a point where the light just shines right through us.” Knowing that, “dispassion” doesn’t quite get the point across, does it?