YHVH and AI


« Leshan Giant Buddha« , built during the Tang dynasty (618–907)

At the time of the introduction of Indian Buddhism in China, the scholars of the Chinese Empire, confronted with the arrival of new ‘barbaric words’ (i.e. the sacred names and religious terms inherited from Buddhism) considered it preferable not to translate them. They chose to only transliterate them.

A tentative translation into the Chinese language would have given these terms, it was thought, a down-to-earth, materialistic sound, hardly likely to inspire respect or evoke mystery.

Much later, in the 19th century, a sinologist from Collège de France, Stanislas Julien, developed a method to decipher Sanskrit names as they were (very approximately) transcribed into Chinese, and provided some examples.

« The word Pou-ti-sa-to (Bôdhisattva) translated literally as ‘Intelligent Being’ would have lost its nobility and emphasis; that is why it was left as veiled in its Indian form. The same was done for the sublime names of the Buddha, which, by passing in a vulgar language, could have been exposed to the mockery and sarcasm of the profane.”i

There are words and names that must definitely remain untranslated, not that they are strictly speaking untranslatable, but their eventual translation would go against the interest of their original meaning, threaten their substance, undermine their essence, and harm the extent of their resonance, by associating them – through the specific resources and means of the target language – with semantic and symbolic spaces more likely to deceive, mislead or mystify, than to enlighten, explain or reveal.

Many sacred names of Buddhism, originally conceived and expressed in the precise, subtle, unbound language that is Sanskrit, have thus not been translated into Chinese, but only transcribed, based on uncertain phonetic equivalences, as the sound universe of Chinese seems so far removed from the tones of the Sanskrit language.

The non-translation of these Sanskrit words into Chinese was even theorized in detail by Xuanzang (or Hiouen-Thsang), the Chinese Buddhist monk who was, in the 7th century AD, one of the four great translators of the Buddhist sutra.

« According to the testimony of Hiuen-Thsang (玄奘 ), the words that should not be translated were divided into five classes:

1°) Words that have a mystical meaning such as those of the Toloni (Dharanîs) and charms or magic formulas.

2°) Those that contain a large number of meanings such as Po-Kia-Fan (Bhagavan), « which has six meanings ».

3°) The names of things that do not exist in China, such as the trees Djambou, Bhôdhidrouma, Haritaki.

4°) Words that we keep out of respect for their ancient use, for example the expression Anouttara bôdhi, « superior intelligence ».

5°) Words considered to produce happiness, for example Pan-jo (Prodjna), « Intelligence ». »ii

Far from being seen as a lack of the Chinese language, or a lack of ideas on the part of Chinese translators, the voluntary renunciation to translate seems to me to be a sign of strength and openness. Greek once allowed the Romance languages to duplicate each other, so to speak, by adding to the concrete semantic roots of everyday life the vast resources of a language more apt for speculation; similarly, Chinese has been able to incorporate as it stands some of the highest, abstract concepts ever developed in Sanskrit.

There is a general lesson here.

There are compact, dense, unique words that appeared in a specific culture, generated by the genius of a people. Their translation would, despite efforts, be a radical betrayal.

For example, the Arabic word « Allah » literally means « the god » (al-lah). Note that there are no capital letters in Arabic. There can be no question of translating « Allah » into English by its literal equivalent (« the god »), as it would then lose the special meaning and aura that the sound of the Arabic language gives it. The liquid syllabes that follow one another, the alliterative repetition of the definite article, al, “the”, merging with the word lah, « god », create a block of meaning without equivalent, one might think.

Could, for instance, the famous Koranic formula « Lâ ilaha ilâ Allâh » proclaiming the oneness of God be translated literally in this way: « There is no god but the god »?

If this translation is considered too flat, should we try to translate it by using a capital letter: “There is no god but God” ?

Perhaps. But then what would be particularly original about this Islamic formula? Judaism and Christianity had already formulated the same idea, long before.

But the preservation of the proper name, Allah, may, on the other hand, give it a perfume of novelty.

The Hebrew word יהוה (YHVH) is a cryptic and untranslatable name of God. It offers an undeniable advantage: being literally untranslatable, the question of translation no longer arises. The mystery of the cryptogram is closed by construction, as soon as it appears in its original language. One can only transcribe it later in clumsy alphabets, giving it even more obscure equivalents, like “YHVH”, which is not even a faithful transcription of יהוה, or like “Yahweh”, an imaginary, faulty and somewhat blasphemous transcription (from the Jewish point of view).

But, paradoxically, we come closer, by this observation of impotence, to the original intention. The transcription of the sacred name יהוה in any other language of the world, a language of the goyim, gives it de facto one or more additional, potential layers of depth, yet to be deciphered.

This potential depth added (in spite of itself) by other languages is a universal incentive to navigate through the language archipelagos. It is an invitation to overcome the confusion of Babel, to open to the idiomatic lights of all the languages of the world. We may dream, one day, of being able to understand and speak them all, — through some future, powerful AI.

Some words, such as יהוה, would still be properly untranslatable. But, at least, with the help of AI, we would be able to observe the full spectrum of potential semantic or symbolic “equivalences”, in the context of several thousands of living or dead languages.

I bet that we will then discover some gold nuggets, waiting for us in the collective unconscious.

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iMéthode pour déchiffrer et transcrire les noms sanscrits qui se rencontrent dans les livres chinois, à l’aide de règles, d’exercices et d’un répertoire de onze cents caractères chinois idéographiques employés alphabétiquement, inventée et démontrée par M. Stanislas Julien (1861)

iiHoeï-Li and Yen-Thsang. Histoire de la vie de Hiouen-Thsang et de ses voyages dans l’Inde : depuis l’an 629 jusqu’en 645, par, Paris, Benjamin Duprat,‎ 1853 .

Yōḥ, Jove, Yah and Yahweh


Mars Ciel ©Philippe Quéau 2020

In the ancient Umbrian language, the word « man » is expressed in two ways: ner– and veiro-, which denote the place occupied in society and the social role. This differentiation is entirely consistent with that observed in the ancient languages of India and Iran: nar– and vīrā.

In Rome, traces of these ancient names can also be found in the vocabulary used in relation to the Gods Mars (Nerio) and Quirinus (Quirites, Viriles), as noted by G. Dumézili.

If there are two distinct words for « man » in these various languages, or to differentiate the god of war (Mars) and the god of peace (Quirinus, – whose name, derived from *covirino– or *co-uirio-, means « the god of all men »), it is perhaps because man is fundamentally double, or dual, and the Gods he gives himself translate this duality?

If man is double, the Gods are triple. The pre-capitoline triad, or « archaic triad » – Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus -, in fact proposes a third God, Jupiter, who dominates the first two.

What does the name Jupiter tell us?

This name is very close, phonetically and semantically, to that of the Vedic God Dyaus Pitar, literally « God the Father », in Sanskrit द्यौष् पिता / Dyauṣ Pitā or द्यौष्पितृ / Dyauṣpitṛ.

The Sanskrit root of Dyaus (« God ») is दिव् div-, « heaven ». The God Dyau is the personified « Heaven-Light ».

The Latin Jupiter therefore means « Father-God ». The short form in Latin is Jove, (genitive Jovis).

The linguistic closeness between Latin, Avestic and Vedic – which is extended in cultural analogies between Rome, Iran and India – is confirmed when referring to the three words « law », « faith » and « divination », – respectively, in Latin: iūs, credo, augur. In the Vedic language, the similarity of these words is striking: yōḥ, ṡṛad-dhā, ōjas. In Avestic (ancient Iranian), the first two terms are yaoš and zraz-dā, also quite similar.

Dumézil states that iūs is a contraction of *ioves-, close to Jove /Jovis. and he adds that this word etymologically refers to Vedic yōḥ (or yos) and Avestic yaoš.

The three words yaoš, yōḥ (or yos) and iūs have the same etymological origin, therefore, but their meanings have subsequently varied significantly.

In Avestic, the word yaoš has three uses, according to Dumézil :

-To sanctify an invisible entity or a mythical state. Thus this verse attributed to Zoroaster: « The religious conscience that I must sanctify [yaoš-dā].”ii

-To consecrate, to perform a ritual act, as in the expression: « The consecrated liquor » [yaoš-dātam zaotram].iii

-To purify what has been soiled.

These concepts (« sanctification », « consecration », « purification ») refer to the three forms of medicine that prevailed at the time: herbal medicine, knife medicine and incantations.

Incidentally, these three forms of medicine are based respectively on the vitality of the plant world and its power of regeneration, on the life forces associated with the blood shed during the « sacrifice », and on the mystical power of prayers and orations.

In the Vedic language, yōḥ (or yos) is associated with prosperity, health, happiness, fortune, but also with the mystical, ritual universe, as the Sanskrit root yaj testifies, « to offer the sacrifice, to honor the divinity, to sanctify a place ».

But in Latin, iūs takes on a more concrete, legal and « verbal » rather than religious meaning. Iūs can be ´said´: « iū-dic« , – hence the word iūdex, justice.

The Romans socialised, personalised, legalised and ‘secularised’ iūs in a way. They make iūs an attribute of everyone. One person’s iūs is equivalent to another person’s iūs, hence the possible confrontations, but also the search for balance and equilibrium, – war or peace.

The idea of « right » (jus) thus comes from a conception of iūs, founded in the original Rome, but itself inherited from a mystical and religious tradition, much older, and coming from a more distant (Indo-Aryan) East. But in Rome it was the juridical spirit of justice that finally prevailed over the mystical and religious spirit.

The idea of justice reached modern times, but what about the spirit carried in three Indo-Aryan languages by the words iūs, yaoš-dā, yōs, originally associated with the root *ioves– ?

One last thing. We will notice that the words yōḥ and Jove, seem to be phonetically and poetically close to two Hebrew names of God: Yah and YHVH (Yahweh).

iG. Dumézil. Idées romaines. 1969

iiYasna 44,9

iiiYast X. 120

Brief Comments on Ten God’s Names


Paulus Ricius, also known as Paulus Israelita, was a humanist and Kabbalist of Jewish origin, converted to Christianity in 1505. He is known for his contributions to « Christian Hebraism » and for his refutation of Jewish arguments against Christianity through Kabbalah. He was one of the architects of the ‘Christian Kabbalah’ . His work Sha’arei Orah – in Latin Portae lucis, the « Gates of Light », was a source of inspiration for comparable projects initiated by scholars such as Conrad Pellicanus or Guillaume Postel.

By consulting Ricius’ Artis Cabalisticae – Hoc est reconditae theologiae et philosophiae scriptorum (1587), as well as De Arcana Dei Providentia and Portae lucis, I found a list of ten names of God that is worth studying.

1. אדנּי Adonai – The Lord

2. אל חי El Hay – The One who Lives

3. Elohim Zabaoth – The God of the Armies

4. Adonai Zabaoth – The Lord of the Armies

5. יהוה YHVH – Yahweh

6. אלהים Elohim – God (literally: The Gods)

7. אל El – God

8. יהֹוִה The YHVH Tetragram, with Elohim’s vocalization:YeHoViH

9. יה Ioh – First and last letter from YHVH

10. אהיה Ehieh – « I am »

The order of these ten names of God is relatively (but not entirely) arbitrary. No hierarchy is possible or relevant in such a matter, one may assume. Let us note that Guillaume Postel, Thomas Aquinas and Paulus Ricius (and many other specialists) offered very different views on the Names to be retained and listed.

As a matter of principle, God’s Names should be considered to have equal value or status.

However, that does not mean that these Names convey the same meaning, the same weight or have the same value.

Almost two centuries after Ricius, Leibniz proposed thirteen names of God, based on God’s own statement to Moses in Ex. 34:6-7 (as already discussed in my blog The other Other) .

It is interesting, I think, to compare Ricius’ list and Leibniz’ one, with their differences, additions, and yawning gaps.

While comparing and weighing both approaches, one has to remember that the count made by Leibniz is indeed arbitrary, and the base for his reasoning quite fragile, though intellectually stimulating.

There is no certainty either that Paulus Ricius’ version of the ten Names may be more accurate.

We should not be too shy entering this field of questioning, either. What is here at stake is to look for some kind of heuristics, akin to serendipity, to help us, poor humans, in mapping our way around a very difficult subject.

For that matter, it may seem relevant to analyze the relationship between the ten names of God and the ten Sefirot, which are divine emanations.

Here is the list of Sefirot as declined in Latin by Paulus Ricius:

Corona. Prudentia. Sapientia. Pulchritudo. Fortitudo. Magnificentia. Fundamentum. Confessio. Victoria. Regnum.

The Hebrew names of Sefirot quoted in the Kabbalah are the following:

Keter (crown), Hokhma (wisdom), Bina (understanding), Hessed (mercy), Gevurah (discipline), Tiferet (beauty), Netzah (victory), Hod (splendour), Yesod (foundation), Malkuth (kingship).

The Sefirot names are organized in a figure, which evokes a kind of human body, very schematic, with corona for head, sapientia and prudentia as two eyes or two ears, fortitudo and magnificentia for both arms, pulchritudo for heart, confessio and victoria for both legs, fundamentum for ‘foundation’ (euphemism for anus) and regnum for sex.

It is certainly worth trying to meditate on possible equivalences or connections between the Sefirot and the ten Names of God, looking for analogies or anagogies :

CoronaKeter may be linked to ‘Adonai’. The Lord wears the only crownthat be. However, who anointed Him? And what this crown is made of? Gold or thorns?

PrudentiaBina may be linked to ‘YHVH’. God is prudent, and understanding. This is why He did not reveal the meaning of His Name, nor its vocalization.

SapientiaHokhma may be linked to ‘El Hay’. Wisdom is always alive in God.

PulchritudoTiferet may be linked to ‘Elohim’. The Scriptures mentions the beauty of the three Men ‘who were God’, meeting Abraham under the oak of Mamre.

FortitudoGevurah may be linked to ‘Adonai Zabaoth’. The ‘Lord of the Armies’ incarnates the essence of forceand discipline.

MagnificentiaHod may be linked to ‘Elohim Zabaoth’. How could the ‘God of the Hosts’ not embody magnificence in all its glory?

FundamentumYesod may be linked to ‘Ioh’. The Name Ioh incarnates the foundation of divinity, with its two fundamental letters.

ConfessioHessed may be linked to ‘Yehovih’. How can you get mercy without at least requesting it, by confessing your sins? The Tetragram YHVH intertwined with the vowels of Elohim is analogous to mercy penetrating the heart.

VictoriaNetzah may be linked to ‘El’. Only El, at the end of times, — or at the ‘extreme’ summit of His eternity –, will be victorious.

RegnumMalkuth may be linked to ‘Ehieh’. By saying « I am whom I will be », God establishes His reign once for all, for the present and the future.

Of course Kabbalah literature is rich in temptatives to link the sefirot to different Names of God.

For instance, just to give a glimpse of possible, acceptable, variations on the same theme, one may quote the following series of associations, that I found in the online literature on the subject.

I would like to note in passing that, after having forged the associations listed above, I discovered that two associations (out of ten) were similar in the list quoted below. I mention this only to show the power (and the limitations) of heuristic serendipity in this obscure arcane.

RegnumMalkuth linked to Adonaï ha Aretz, The Lord of the Earth.

FundamentumYesod linked to ‘Shaddaï El Haï (The Omnipotent Living God).

Magnificentia – Hod linked to Elohim Zabaoth (The God of Armies), — like we did (see above).

VictoriaNetzah linked to ‘YHVH Zabaoth (YHVH of the Hosts).

PulchritudoTiferet linked to ‘Aloah‘ (The Divinity).

FortitudoGevurah linked to ‘Elohim Gibor’ (The Strong God).

ConfessioHessed linked to ‘El‘ (God).

PrudentiaBina linked to ‘YHVH‘, — just like we did (see above).

SapientiaHokhma linked to ‘Iah‘ (another vocalization of the short Name ‘YH’)

CoronaKeter linked to ‘Eyeh‘ (‘I am’).

What can we learn from this sort of exercise?

We learn that all divine Names are ‘ living’ metaphors, which means that they ‘live’ and the may ‘die’.

But all these metaphors, in a way, are also (metaphorically) ‘gravid’, ‘pregnant’ with other, unheard of, new Names, yet to be born out of the most profound depths of language and of our souls.