Saturday, July 14, 2012

Sanskrit aṅga अङ्ग not a "limb"

Monier-Williams' dictionary, p.7
 In most of our dictionaries, we find that the Sanskrit word aṅga अङ्ग means "limb, member."  "A limb of the body" says MW, following his teacher Wilson.
As a result, when we have expressions like aṣṭāṅgayoga अष्टाङ्गयोग or aṣṭāṅgavidyā अष्टाङ्गविद्या, we commonly get translations like, "yoga of eight limbs" or "the science with eight limbs (medicine)."
If you open the bonnet (US hood) of your car, you see an engine with ... what?  Limbs?  I don't think so.  I think you see components, or parts.  A textbook is divided into, what, limbs?  No, sections, or parts. 

H. H. Wilson's dictionary, p.9

I'd love to see translators of the word aṅga  अङ्ग try harder, and offer some inner resistance to the dead hand of our nineteenth-century dictionaries.  It's as if a mass of [dictionary] words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details (with sincerest apologies to Orwell.)
Next time you see aṣṭāṅgayoga अष्टाङ्गयोग, allow yourself to think instead, "the yoga with eight components." Or when you see aṣṭāṅgavidyā अष्टाङ्गविद्या, think, perhaps, "the science with eight parts."  If you see vedāṅga  वेदाङ्ग translated as "limb of the Veda," you can be sure that the translator isn't seeing the metaphors s/he's using.  What on earth would a "limb of the Veda" possibly be?  All the original author is saying is that the Veda has components or adjunct parts.  And don't let yourself use "ancilliary" either.  When did you last see that in a contemporary English novel?  In my dictionary, it's flagged as "very rare."
Too often, we indologists write and translate in mental companionship with our predecessors from the nineteenth century, and we write for colleagues who too often do the same. 
If you find yourself writing "limb" for aṅga अङ्ग, snap out of it.
Here I am, with Orwell, jeering loudly at worn-out and useless dictionary-bound translations.


For an argument in favour of "auxiliary" or "subsidiary" see S. Vasudeva (2004) The Yoga of the Mālinīvijayottaratantra (Pondicherry), p. 367, n. 1:



  1. well, not exactly, since the vedāṅgas are not included in the vedas per se. but this is a good point: aṅga has a semantic range closer to "member" than "limb."

  2. I think MW is not necessarily following Wilson here alone. The whole entry reads like an English translation of what you find in the smaller Böhtlingk:

    I wonder if the common (and as you have pointed out, in many cases clearly false) translation of अङ्ग as "limb" might have something to do with the fact that the German word "Glied" can be translated as "limb" but is semantically much wider. Although it might not be that common today to mean by "Glied" just a part of a whole, I suspect it was in the 19th century. (See the synonyms that Böhtlingk gives for "Glied" in 4): "Glied — , Theil eines Ganzen , Bestandtheil")

  3. Anonymous9:46 am

    In regard to aṣṭāṅgayoga, Bhoja's vṛtti 2.29 is helpful here: iha kāni cit samādheḥ sākṣād upakārakāṇi yathā dhāraṇādīni, kāni cit pratipakṣabhūtahiṃsādivitarkonmūlanadvāreṇa samādhim upakurvanti
    yathā yamādayaḥ | tatrāsanādīnām uttarottaram upakārakatvam | tadyathā
    saty āsanajaye prāṇāyāmasthairyam | evam uttaratrāpi yojyam || In other words, in this context, some aṅgas such as concentration directly aid the attainment of samādhi, others such as Yamas do so indirectly by removing hindrances (vitarkā yogaparipanthinaḥ) such as violence to living beings which is contrary to the aim of samādhi. In this system, one aṅga assists the higher aṅgas. For example, "when Āsana is mastered, steadiness [of the body] in Prāṇāyāma [is achieved]".
    So the essential point is that an aṅga is necessary for the attainment of the other aṅgas and the goal. Drop one, and the system doesn't work. For more on the technical meaning of aṅga see Somadeva Vasudeva's Mālinīvijayottaratantra, 2004, p. 367, footnote 1.

    1. Thanks, Jason. And Somadeva's footnote (referring to Sanderson, etc.) is usefully precise. However, perhaps this is making too much of a meal of things. अङ्ग meaning "secondary" is a very common sense, after all. It's good to bear it in mind.

    2. Anonymous9:29 am

      Yes, I agree that we must altogether abandon 'limb' in the case of aṣṭāṅgayoga, and that when this term was used in Purāṇas and medical literature, the intended meaning may have been 'yoga with eight components'... but in Pātañjalayoga and the later medieval yoga traditions which follow, aṣṭāṅgayoga had a more technical meaning, and this helps to explain some sūtras such as 2.49 (tasmin sati ... prāṇāyāmaḥ) or Haṭhapradīpikā 2.1.