Vyāsa (to whom the work is attributed) milking the purāṇa out Kāmadhenu, the wish-fulfilling cow of Hindu myth. Or 11387 f.10 recto

Spreading Hindu texts: Tellings and translations

Dr Jacqueline Suthren Hirst explores the Hindu sacred texts, discussing how some, the Vedic texts, remain unchanged, whilst others are open to different versions, tellings and translations, using the great Hindu epics as examples.

The difference between śruti and smṛti texts

Hindu sacred texts tend to be divided into two groups. The śruti (‘hearing’) texts are the Vedas. They are technically the most authoritative texts. They could only be transmitted by brahmins and their mantras could not be altered, so translations were strongly discouraged. The smṛti (‘recalling’ or ‘remembering’) texts form a vast category which includes the epics we look at below. Although technically secondary to śruti, smṛti texts are much better known. In some cases, they are even treated as if they had the same authority as the Veda. The Mahābhārata, for example, is referred to as the ‘fifth Veda’. Smṛti texts were open to everyone. They often contained encouragement to go on telling their stories in different contexts or had local forms, and so were open to expansion, different versions, translations and tellings.


A palm leaf manuscript of a renowned Malayalam translation of the Udyoga Parvan (‘Book of Effort’) chapter in the Mahābhārataṁ by Tuñcattŭ Eḻuttacchan. MS malayalam 39, f017r

A palm leaf manuscript of a renowned Malayalam translation of the Udyoga Parvan (‘Book of Effort’) chapter in the Mahābhārataṁ by Tuñcattŭ Eḻuttacchan.

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The transmission of śruti texts

If you wanted to make sure that you could remember something for a long time and pass it down, what would you do? Try to learn it by heart? Remember the outline? Write it down exactly? Save it to the cloud? With the śruti texts, the sound of the Vedic mantras was believed to maintain cosmic and social order, when recited exactly. So for thousands of years, brahmins have learned to recite the Vedas by heart, accompanied by head and hand gestures, so that they could be passed down exactly. Writing could not do the same and neither, of course, could translation.

From the late 1950s, an anthropologist called J.F.Staal recorded Nambudiri brahmins in Kerala, south India, chanting the Sāma Veda. Their community had never worked from written texts. In comparison with written texts and community recitations elsewhere, there was remarkable consistency. The Vedas have thus spread, via different branches of brahmin reciters, through the centuries and throughout India to the present day, although some branches have now been lost. Alongside this oral transmission, around the early second millennium CE, the Vedas were finally committed to writing and extensive Sanskrit commentaries were composed by authors like Sāyaṇa (d. 1387).

Have the Vedas been translated?

The principal Upaniṣads form the fourth ‘layer’ of the Vedic texts and explore the basis of the cosmos (ultimate reality or brahman) and of the person (the self or ātman). The principal Upaniṣads had already been incorporated into written Sanskrit commentaries c.500 CE. In the 17th century, an expanded collection of around fifty Upaniṣads was translated into Persian by, or under, the Mughal emperor, Dārā Shikoh (completed 1657). Persian was the Mughals’ court language, widely used across north India as a shared language by educated people. Around 1801, the French scholar and linguist, Anquetil-Duperron, translated a copy of the Persian translation into Latin. It was one of the earliest translations of a Hindu text known in Europe, albeit an indirect one. The earliest English translation of an Upaniṣad straight from Sanskrit, the Īśā, made earlier by Sir William Jones, was also published in 1801. The Vedic hymns were not translated until the late 19th century as brahmin reciters were reluctant to break millennia of tradition that restricted transmission to qualified brahmins.


Title page of the 1869 edition of the Rig Veda Samhita by Friedrich Max Müller one of the earliest English translation of the Rig Veda hymns.

Title page of the 1869 edition of the Rig-veda-Sanhita by Friedrich Max Müller.

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In addition to issues of sanctity, translating poetic hymns is particularly difficult. Here are two examples from the well-known Nāsadīya Sūkta (Ṛg Veda 10.129.6–7). The translators even disagree about the title. The first is by the 19th century philologist, Max Müller. The second is by a gifted young linguist, Krishnan Ram-Prasad. Note how he leaves his wonderful last line.

Not the non-existent
Nor aught nor naught existed; yon bright sky
Was not, nor heaven's broad woof outstretched above.
What covered all? what sheltered? what concealed?
Was it the water's fathomless abyss?...

Who knows the secret? who proclaimed it here,
Whence, whence this manifold creation sprang? –
The gods themselves came later into being. –
Who knows from whence this great creation sprang? –

He from whom all this great creation came.
Whether his will created or was mute,
The Most High seer that is in highest heaven,
He knows it, – or perchance e'en He knows not.
(Max Müller et al., 1859)

A song of non-existence
Non-existence did not exist; nor indeed, did existence exist then.
Neither was there an atmosphere, nor a heaven beyond.
What moved? Where from? Under whose protection?
Was there water, deep and impenetrable? …

Who really knows – Who here could tell us
Where it was born from? Where is this creation from?
The gods are on the near side of the creation of this world;
So who knows where it came into being from?

Where this creation came into being from,
Whether it was created or not,
Only the one who is overseer of this world, in the highest heaven, knows.
Yet if he does not know
(Ram-Prasad, 2019)

The transmission of smṛti texts

Unlike the śruti’s Vedic hymns that stayed unchanged for millennia, the stories of the smṛti texts have been told over and over again in different oral and written forms, and in everyday languages as well as in Sanskrit. Different tellings and translations were not only allowed, they were essential: they helped different communities make the stories their own.

When we are thinking about texts and their different tellings and translations, we tend to think there must have been an original text on which all the others were based. In other words, all other tellings are retellings. This is not necessarily a good model for thinking about smṛti texts, in particular the two famous Hindu epics, the Rāmāyaṇa attributed to Vālmīki and the Mahābhārata attributed to Vyāsa. Both of these massive texts have been translated into many different languages and have indeed been retold. ‘Telling’ is a term A K Ramanujan and others have used to help us think not just of an ‘original’ and a ‘retelling’, but to value each narrative in its own right. One way of thinking about this is to imagine a pool which contains particular characters, plots, places and relationships. Each composer or group ‘dips their fingers’ into that pool, and creates their telling in a particular way. It is important to realise that this pool has been dipped into in an amazing variety of ways by different people, not all of them Hindu. Buddhists, Jains, Indo-Islamic love-story composers, secular poets and modern dalit writers have explored its depths, echoed its themes, or challenged its power, as well as Hindus.

Rāma stories: a tradition of multiple transmissions

The famous Sanskrit Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa is often treated as a Hindu original, but some scholars think it grew around a not particularly religious hero tale (c. 5th century BCE) or was first and foremost an example of beautiful poetry, as its own introduction claims.

Mewar Ramayana

A colourful illustrated scene from the Mewar Ramayana

The last painting in the Mewar Rāmāyaṇa depicts the gods witnessing Rāma’s ascent to heaven. His brothers, monkeys, bears and humans also enter the waters and sacrifice their lives in order to ascend to heaven with him.

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Later Sanskrit Rāmāyaṇas know Vālmīki and reference his version, but they are not simply ‘retellings’. Rather they use a storyline for their own purposes. The Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa, c. 1500, combines belief in the importance of repeating Rāma’s name with the philosophy of the Advaita Vedānta school. In Advaita Vedānta, the only reality is brahman, consciousness, the ground of the universe. The universe is simply an illusion. Just like we might mistake a shiny shell for silver, or a rope hidden in a dark corner for a snake, so we wrongly project a world of difference onto brahman and think that we are separate selves. In the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa, it is the transcendent mantra of Rāma’s name that draws the devotee to Advaitin understanding. Very different is the 16th century Adbhūta Rāmāyaṇa, a text from north-eastern India in the Śākta tradition. The narrative is quite distinctive from other tellings, and Sītā has a more prominent role. In it, Rāma first defeats the ten-headed Rāvaṇa with Sītā’s help, but is unable to tackle the thousand-headed Rāvaṇa who then appears. Sītā takes on the form of the bloodthirsty Goddess and defeats this Rāvaṇa, showing herself to be the Supreme Being.

One of the earliest tellings we have in the vernacular (mother-tongue) is Kampaṉ’s 11th century, Irāmāvatāram, written in Tamil, a major south Indian language. This telling is part of a rich literary culture in Tamilnadu, south-east India, whose modern commentators include a well-known Muslim judge. However, not all Tamils have accepted the Rāmāyaṇa as part of their shared heritage. In 1880, some Tamil Śaivas and Smārtas declared it favoured Vishnu-worshippers (also spelt Viṣṇu) and oppressed Śaivas.[1] In the early 20th century, the Sanskrit Rāmāyaṇa was seen as a sign of north Indian Aryan oppression of south India and brahmin (Hindi-speaking) dominance over other groups who spoke different languages.

One of the most influential tellings is Tulsīdās’s Rāmcaritmānas, completed around 1574 in Banaras. Its language is Avadhi, a language then spoken in north India and related to modern Hindi. Tulsīdās apologised that he was not a great Sanskrit poet but wrote for people in a language that they would understand. His writing style was powerful and captivating and the Rāmcaritmānas remains important today. It has been highly influential in spreading devotion to Rāma, not least through chanting Rāma’s name. It has been translated into many other Indian languages, and may be read each morning by Hindu women in portions as part of their daily devotions. It is also recited at great melas (festivals), often over nine days, by well-known reciters who now travel the world, drawing huge crowds.

Transmitting the Mahābhārata’s many narratives

The Mahābhārata opens with a narrative about how it was handed down. Vyāsa, the traditional narrator, told the story at a snake sacrifice. There it was heard by Ugraśravas, ‘a teller of ancient tales’, who in turn passed it on to brahmins gathered for a different sacrifice in the Naimiṣa forest. So the Mahābhārata is a text which encourages its hearers to go on passing it on! Its eighteen volumes contain not only the main story of the terrible war between cousins for the kingdom, but also numerous sub-stories (upākhyānas) which narrators tell to different characters to parallel or challenge their own views or experiences. The famous story of Nala and Damāyantī is told by the seer, Bṛhadaśva, to Yudhiṣṭhira, the eldest Pāṇḍava cousin, when he has lost everything in a gambling match, and has been banished to the forest. Yudhiṣṭhira complains that he has been cheated and is the most unfortunate person in the world. Bṛhadaśva tells him about Nala and Damāyantī in response.

Like the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, the Mahābhārata has been translated into many Indian and other languages worldwide. One famous translation into Persian, the Razmnāma, was made under the Mughal emperor, Akbar, who was interested in it as a document of statecraft. The first copy was produced between 1584 and 1586, a remarkable achievement, given the Mahābhārata’s length.

Razmnamah: the Persian Mahabharata

Razmnamah: the Persian Mahabharata

A copy of the Razmnāmah (ʻBook of Warʼ), a Persian translation of the Mahābhārata. In this scene from the fourteenth book, the Aśvamedhikaparva (ʻhorse sacrificeʼ) the brothers Kusa and Lava are attacking Bharata, Lakshmana and the monkey army.

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The most famous section from the Mahābhārata (6.23) to be transmitted separately is the Bhagavad Gītā, the story of Arjuna’s dilemma about whether to fight his cousins and teachers in the great war, and Krishna’s (also spelt Kṛṣṇa) teaching in response. Not simply the most translated Hindu text, it is said that, after the Bible, it is ‘probably the most translated (religious) work in world literature.’ It has circulated both as part of the Mahābhārata and on its own since its earliest Sanskrit commentaries around the middle of the first millennium CE.

Translating the Purāṇas

Like the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, the Purāṇas have also been widely translated. Like them too, it is very important to remember that the Purāṇas ‘do not belong in books’, as Milton Singer famously said. These stories of the deities have circulated orally in many different versions, with storytellers augmenting the stories from one Purāṇa with those from others which complemented them or applied to a particular audience. Translators have often worked in a similar way, which made earlier European scholars accuse them of forgery or inaccuracy. This misunderstands a living tradition which, very differently from the Vedic texts, is to be passed on creatively through its many tellings and translations. As S N Sarma says of Assamese Purāṇa translations: ‘One of the favourite methods adopted by the translators to make their stories more lively and interesting was to introduce into the texture of one story the descriptions and incidents of the same story narrated in some other purāṇa’. [2]

The Brahmavaivarta Purana

Or 11387 f.10 recto Vyāsa (to whom the work is attributed) milking the purāṇa out Kāmadhenu, the wish-fulfilling cow of Hindu myth.

Vyāsa (to whom the work is attributed) milking the purāṇa out Kāmadhenu, the wish-fulfilling cow of Hindu myth.

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Transmitting other sacred texts

In addition to the commonly recognised texts above, many Hindu devotional traditions also developed sacred texts of their own, either alongside or in challenge to Sanskrit traditions. For example, the Tamil hymns of the sixty-three south Indian Nāyaṉmārs, devotees of Shiva (also spelt Śiva), who composed from around the 6th century CE, were collected into a twelve volume compilation, the Tirumuṟai, in the 12th century CE as the sacred texts of the Tamil Śaiva Siddhānta school. The talented poet and academic, A K Ramanujan, has made a beautiful English translation of some of the Nāyaṉmār hymns in his Speaking of Śiva. Śaiva Siddhānta was a school found across India; its own Sanskrit texts were linked with particular temple rituals. Tamil followers often distanced themselves from these, though the relation between Tamil Śaiva Siddhānta and Sanskrit Śaiva Siddhānta has been complicated down the centuries. Śaiva Siddhānta remains important among many (especially professionals) in the widespread Tamil diaspora in Sri Lanka, Europe, Fiji, Malaysia, Mauritius and so on.

This example reminds us that the sacred texts of particular Hindu traditions were transmitted in different languages and remain important to devotees of those traditions, wherever in the world they are and even if they have not spread in other translations.


[1] ś and ṣ in Sanskrit are broadly pronounced like English ‘sh’.

[2] Epics and Purāṇas in Early Assamese Literature (Gauhati: Pratima Devi, 1972, p. 154), cited in Ludo Rocher, The Purāṇas (Otto Harrassowitz, XXX), p. 52.

  • Jacqueline Suthren Hirst
  • Dr Jacqueline Suthren Hirst is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, where she was a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Religion (South Asian Studies) for many years. As a former high school teacher and teacher trainer, her academic work has remained focussed around issues of pedagogy both in her main research area, the Indian philosophical school and texts of Advaita Vedānta, and in her teaching specialisms of Indian storytelling and gender issues. Her books include Sita’s Story (1997), Playing for Real: Hindu role models, religion and gender (2004, edited with Lynn Thomas), Śaṃkara’s Advaita Vedānta: a way of teaching (2005) and Religious Traditions in Modern South Asia (2011, with John Zavos).

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.