“It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.”

Buddha-Buddhist-Quotes-442

I’ve seen this one around a lot, and since someone just wrote asking about it I thought I’d address it.

“It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.”

The quote is from Thomas Byrom’s “rendering” of the Dhammapada. The word “rendering” is in quotations because there is every indication that Byrom knew no Pali — the language in which the Dhammapada was written — and that he concocted his version with the help of other translations, a dictionary, and a large dose of wishful thinking. Pali can be a tricky language to decode even if you’re relatively familiar with the language. Even with a good grasp of Pali grammar, the verse works in particular are hard to decipher, because the regular rules of grammar are dispensed with in order to fit the words into the meter. Add in a soupçon of ambiguous vocabulary, a pinch of cryptic language that merely hints at experiences beyond all but the most spiritually advanced, a sprinkling of textual corruptions, and a heaped teaspoon of anachronisms, and sometimes even the best translators are left guessing.

Take away an understanding of the grammar, and basically what you have is word-salad. The non-Pali expert is now at an advantage! Because he or she, unconstrained by actual knowledge, can just make something up that more or less refers to the words in the verses, without having to worry about how those words might have been intended to work together in order to produce meaning. The non-Pali expert can rearrange the words and make up something new. Byrom seems to have done this, as does Ann Bancroft.

This particular verse is not one of Byrom’s worst, although I still wouldn’t go as far as to say that he actually translated it.

Here are three versions side by side: Thanissaro’s, Buddharakkhita’s, and Byrom’s.

103–105. Greater in battle
than the man who would conquer
a thousand-thousand men,
is he who would conquer
just one —
himself.

Better to conquer yourself
than others.
When you’ve trained yourself,
living in constant self-control,
neither a deva nor gandhabba,
nor a Mara banded with Brahmas,
could turn that triumph
back into defeat.

103. Though one may conquer a thousand times a thousand men in battle, yet he indeed is the noblest victor who conquers himself.

104-105. Self-conquest is far better than the conquest of others. Not even a god, an angel, Mara or Brahma can turn into defeat the victory of a person who is self-subdued and ever restrained in conduct.

It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.

You’ll notice that although the first two are radically different in style, they both cover the same ground, semantically speaking. Byrom’s even at a glance, is far more compact. Most of the meaning and detail has been lost.

“Better to conquer yourself than others” (Thanissaro) or “Self-conquest is far better than the conquest of others” has been turned into “Then the victory is yours.” NoW Byrom’s version is nice and poetic, but it’s not what’s in the Pali. “Heaven or hell” has appeared out of nowhere. Byrom basically takes the word-salad in front of him and arranges it into nice patterns.

It’s an odd thing, this business of publishers getting people who either don’t know the language (Byrom, Bancroft) to “translate” sacred texts, or asking people of other religions (e.g. Mascaro, who was a Hindu). There’s nothing in principle wrong with a non-Buddhist translating a Buddhist text, but there can be problems when the translator has his own religious agenda.

Unfortunately, Byrom’s “rendering” is one of the more popular versions of the Dhammapada out there. It’s achieved the status of being “beloved” and many people will say it’s their favorite. Unfortunately, although poetic, Byrom’s Dhammapada is just not the Dhammapada.

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Bodhipaksa

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16 thoughts on ““It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.”

  1. “…although poetic, Byrom’s Dhammapada is just not the Dhammapada”
    Perhaps, using his own methods we should “render” it as Byrom’s Ham Pam Dada?

  2. Is there anywhere I can see the original text? I’d love to see what Byrom was physically looking at when ‘translating’. Thanks

    • That’s an interesting idea, but there must be dozens of translations out there and it would be hard to make comparisons. What I might be able to do is to take a few selected verses and do a comparison of those. Even just the first two verses can be indicative of the translator’s fidelity to the text.

  3. This one’s more of a very loose translation than a flat out misquote. The basic message that it’s better to conquer yourself than others, and that no one not even a divine being can take that from you is retained. But, it’s been simplified and westernized.

    I can see why this “quote” gets passed around, being shorter and snazzier, but I do like the more accurate translations better.

  4. Sorry, there were typos in my last comment…

    I was wondering if it is fair to say that the first sentence, “It is better to conquer yourself than win a thousand battles,” is accurate while the rest after that is not?

    • Pretty much. The first sentence is a reasonable paraphrase of “Self-conquest is far better than the conquest of others,” combined with a reference to the “thousands” in the previous verse (“Though one may conquer a thousand times a thousand men in battle, yet he indeed is the noblest victor who conquers himself”).

      • Thank you very much. My friend recently got “It is better to conquer yourself than win a thousand battles.” tattooed on his side and I wanted to follow up on this before telling him how much he messed up.

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