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Will the Real Bhagavad Gita Please Stand Up?

in Philosophy

by Bob Weisenberg

Bhagavad-gita-KrishnaArjuna

The Bhagavad Gita is so rich and versatile that it tends to take on the character of the translator or commentator:

Give it to an historian and you get history. (Feuerstein)

Give it to a Bhakti (yoga of love) and you get love. (Schweig)

Give it to a teacher of dharma (life purpose) and you get dharma. (Cope)

Give it to a social activist and you get social activism. (Gandhi)

Give it to a psychologist and you get psychology. (Dass)

Give it to a believer and you get religion. (Prabhupada)

Give it to a poet and you get poetry. (Mitchell)

Give it to a literature professor, and you get literature. (Easwaran)

Give it to a businessman and you get leadership. (Chatterjee)

This is a far as I’ve personally gotten. Others?

~

See also
Bhagavad Gita in a Nutshell:
Big Ideas & Best Quotations.

 

top image via veda.wikidot.com/bhagavad-gita

Bob Weisenberg is Editor of Best of Yoga Philosophy and former Yoga Editor & Assoc. Publisher of elephant journal. He is the author of Yoga Demystified, Bhagavad Gita in a Nutshell, and Leadership Is Like Tennis, Not Egyptology. as well as Co-editor of Yoga in America and a contributor to The Poetry of Yoga. Contact Bob at facebook, Twitter, or e-mail.

44 comments… add one

  • Chris

    Nice, Bob !

    Being the Divine-Song, it can be sung in a variety of styles, depending on the mood of the Singer !

  • Give it to Hollywood and you get a mediocre movie – The Legend of Bagger Vance (see also Gita on the Green)

  • Willy

    Give it to a meditator and you get …well, you know. Check out Paramahansa Yogananda’s version. Big, two volume, everything is a direction to meditate more, generally speaking, it’s a great version.

  • Sean McLaughlin

    Here’s a new translation from YogaVidya.com:

    http://www.yogavidya.com/gita.html

    I am not part of YogaVidya Publishing nor get any kickbacks for hawking their products. Don’t have this one, but their Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Shiva Samhita, & Gheranda Samhita were great!

  • Mary

    I have found Stephen Mitchell’s version to have a profound impact on my life. I strongly recommend this version. I am sure each of the interpretations have something profound to share. Namaste

  • Thanks to everyone for the additional recommendations.

    Bob W.

  • Nobodyi n here

    Let’s not forget Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s translation of chapters 1 – 6.

    http://www.amazon.com/Maharishi-Mahesh-Yogi-Bhagavad-gita-Translation/dp/0140029133/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1374870561&sr=1-2&keywords=maharishi+mahesh+yogi+on+the+bhagavad+gita

    Basically, it “splains” what the roots of TM are: Arjuna, be without the 3 gunas (i.e., meditate).

  • Give it to a soccer mom, and you get “Finding More on the Mat: How I Grew Better, Wiser and Stronger through Yoga.” http://www.amazon.com/Finding-More-Mat-Stronger-through/dp/0984875506/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1375108282&sr=1-1&keywords=finding+more+on+the+mat

  • Not sure this counts, but it’s interesting to think about.

    Put the Gita in the hands of a proselytizing Vivekenanda, and it becomes a way to explain Hinduism to Christians:

    “Krishna is loved and worshipped in the same way as you do Christ. The difference is only in the age. The Hindus keep the birthday of Krishna as you do Christ’s. Krishna lived five thousand years ago and his life is full of miracles, some of them very similar to those in the life of Christ. The child was born in prison. The father took him away and put him with the shepherds. Allchildren born in that year were ordered to be killed. He was killed; that was his fate.”

    (From his talk on the Gita, San Francisco May 26, 1900 http://www.vsc.iitm.ac.in/Vivekananda/Complete%20works/Complete_Works_of_Swami_Vivekananda_-_Vol_1.pdf)

  • Gee, Mid. That’s not a very nice story!

    Bob

  • I don’t mean to pass judgment, not at all.

    As I understand the history, Vivekenanda set out to bridge a huge cultural gap, and he succeeded brilliantly. We’d be having a very different conversation here if he hadn’t.

    I’m grateful for what he did, and it tickles my brain to ponder it.

  • I was just pulling your leg, Mid.

    Seriously, though, I do question the usefulness of the analogy he made. To many Krishna is an avatar (original usage of the word, before the movie) for the wondrous universe itself, and not a real life person like Jesus.

    I assume this is true of Vivikananda, too, but that he felt he needed to stretch to connect with his audience.

    Bob

  • Chris

    Mid and Bob :

    Vivekananda may have been even closer to the mark than he himself realized !

    Hinduism is the most inclusive religion on earth, going so far as to say that every living soul can ultimately attain Godhood, and that the Self and the Divine are not two different things.

    The vast, deep river of Hinduism flows quietly and peacefully, making available its cooling, nourishing waters to any who seeks to quench his or her Thirst. The peaceful mighty river of Hinduism has flowed for 5000 years, nourishing Billions of Souls, but has never once breached its banks and cruelly flooded its surroundings to thrust its waters upon those who did not seek it. In 5000 years, there has not been one Hindu Terrorist, one Hindu Conquistador or one Hindu Inquisitor.

    Anybody who embarks on the quest for Self-Realization is already a good Hindu. Thus, one might belong to a Christian Denomination, and still be a good Hindu.

    Indeed, there is reason to believe that JC may have been the World’s first Semitic Hindu.

    JC is believed to havejourneyed to India in his youth (the missing years of JC’s life, that the Bible won’t talk about), and apprenticed himself in the Gurukuls and Ashrams of the learned Hindu Rishis (sages) of India. There, the excellent pupil JC imbibed the ancient Hindu philosophies from his Gurus, and himself became an enlightened, self-realized soul – a Mahatma, a true Yogi. The enlightened JC then traveled back to the Middle East to preach to his people the wisdom he had acquired in India.

    JC’s teachings are very much in consonance with Hinduism :

    (1) “As you sow, so shall you reap ” —> This is the Christian equivalent of the Hindu law of Karma.

    (2) ” Let him throw the first stone, who has not sinned ”.
    This is JC’s recognition of the fact that all souls (Aatmas) present on this earth are present on the earth, only because these souls are as yet, not without sin.
    The Hindu philosophy of Reincarnation (Punar-Janam) believes that the soul (Aatma) is indestructible, and undergoes several cycles of Birth, Life, Death and Rebirth. If properly guided, an Aatma attains a higher-state-of-being in each successive life, until that Aatma ultimately becomes self-realized and sinless, and attains Moksha ( Liberation from the cycle of Birth, Life, Death and Rebirth). Thus, any Aatma that is actually present on this earth, is, as yet, not without sin, and is at only some intermediate point along this Great-Journey towards becoming a self-realized soul.

    (3) There is much evidence to suggest that JC was a vegetarian, which would be in tune with the Yogic Principle of Ahimsa.

    (4) After surviving the Crucifixion, JC is said to have sought safe-haven in his Alma-Mater India, and once again journeyed to the Kashmir region of India, where he lived to a ripe old age. JC is buried in Kashmir. ( Kashmir is the land of the ancient Hindu sage, Rishi Kashyapa. The name Kashmir comes from the Sanskrit “Kashyapa-Meru” ( Kashyapa’s Lake) ).

    (5) Being a self-realized Soul, JC recognized that there are several different Paths to Enlightenment. Thus, JC never said peevish things like, ” I am the ONLY WAY” ( meaning, I am the only ticket to Heaven). These mean-spirited statements were, after JC’s passing, disingenuously inserted into the Bible, and falsely attributed to JC, by the Vatican (the Marketing Department of the Unholy Roman Empire) as part of its Empire-Building-Strategy, via the Giant Pyramid Scheme of Catholicism.

  • I’ve always been partial to Radhakrishnan’s translation(s) and work on Indian philosophy.

  • Hi, Ira. Great to hear from you. Could you tell us more about this translation and why you like it? Thanks,

    Bob W.

  • Patricia

    I have been studying the Bhagavadgita with Prof. Douglas Brooks through Rajanaka Yoga (www.rajanaka.com). Dr. Brooks, being a religious studies professor and interested in the historical roots of Indian culture, recommends the translation by J.A.B. van Buitenen. The introduction, written by one of van Buitenen students, states: “For the first time in English, or in any other language outside of the Sanskrit, so far as we know, van Buitenen gives a translation of the Bhagavadgita in the Mahabharata based on the critical text. This means first, as “straight” as a first-class Sanskritist can give it. It means down the throat. Raw. It means without bullshit, without mystification. It means clear, staight through. It means the real reader/student/passionate seeker/climber can start his work…”

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Bhagavadgita-Mahabharata-van-Buitenen/dp/0226846628/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1375204840&sr=8-1&keywords=bhagavadgita+buitenen

  • Thanks for the recommendation, Patricia, and for the interesting background.

    I’m a big fan of the “Translation Notes” that accompany most translations, in which the translator lays out his or her own reasons for “still another” version of the Gita.

    The interesting thing is that most do it because they find serious problems with all the existing versions, and they are finally going to do it right!

    This has been going on for about 100 versions now. Feuerstein’s literal and richly annotated version is just the most recent.

    Bob W. Editor
    Best of Yoga Philosophy

  • Shankara

    Give it to a Yogi and you get it right!
    Srimadbhagvadgita, which is sometimes simply known as Gita, is one of the primary sources of spiritual knowledge in Indian tradition. Gita explains those ancient expedients, which when practiced, give a direct darshan of Lord Shrikrishna as the extremely brilliant epitome of Time itself.

    Despite there being many commentaries of Gita available today, there is not a single yogic commentary written specifically by a yogi. This inspired Shailendra Sharma to come up with one such commentary which could be of use to a layman as well as a yoga scholar. Shailendra has explained the knowledge that has come down via his lineage of Gurus as well as realized through his own ardent practice of yoga.

  • I am weeping over Mitchell’s *poetry* so plan to stop right there (or here)! Thanks so much for pointing me to it, Bob.

  • You’re most welcome, Suzanne.

    Bob

  • I like the one from the Clay Sanskrit Library, Translated by Alex Cherniak. Three delightful features:

    1) It comes a great bonus feature. The BV here is only one chapter in the translation of the Mahabharata (it’s book 6, volume 1 of the set), and the volume its in also includes the epic episodes that come before and after it. So this version really gives you a feeling for the larger context of the story.

    2) It has Sanskrit on facing pages (romanized). Gives even a Sanskrit dilettante like me a rough feeling for the sound of the original words. If I persist, I can even ferret out some of their meanings.

    3) Along the same lines, I love the language of this translation. It’s muscular and tough, besides being stunningly beautiful in places. I feel more or less confident that the meaning of the English stays close to the original – since the series seems to be a work of scholarship. The translation avoids the common weakness of academic translations, which to me can sound stilted or be obtuse.

    By contrast, my own reaction to some of the other translations I’ve read (even the one by Mitchell, a poet whose other works I’ve read and totally love) is that they can sound sappy or overblown – this is just my idiosyncratic take, to be sure. For me, personally, I often end up thinking the translators let their own feelings sweep them far away from the original meanings of the text.

    Not this one. What I read here is the tale of a warrior, full of clarity and truth.

    Anyway, here’s its location in our big jungle-warehouse: http://www.amazon.com/Mahabharata-Book-Six-Volume-Sanskrit/dp/0814716962/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1375275731&sr=8-1&keywords=gita+cherniak

  • Thanks for this recommendation, Mid, and for all your reasons why. I’ll definitely want to take a look at this one.

    Bob

  • For general information–some scholars feel the Bhagavad Gita was grafted into the Mahabharata from an outside source, since it’s message and style is so out of synch with the rest of the epic.

    I wonder if you have an opinion about this from your study, Mid.

    Bob W.

  • Guess that’s true of many of these texts – who knows what came from where?

    I took some BV workshops with Edwin Bryant a few years ago (Rutgers Indologist and , author of a translation of the Y Sutras). His perspective on the BV really stuck with me, whcih was (my rough paraphrase) that the modern interpretation of the BV – the battlefield as allegory for human consciousness – is a modern spin, popularized by Gandhi. In the original it was a battle tale, meant to appeal to people in the warrior caste. It’s message: “You want enlightenment? Do your job, period.”

    That context of the BV makes the beautiful bhakti in it all the more striking, a flash of brilliant insight by the original poet.

    If Edwin said anything about the BV being a transplant into the Mahabharata, I missed it. Which wouldn’t be impossible. :>)

  • Does it make sense, from your own reading, that such a soaring message of universal love and absolute oneness could make sense in the midst of such war-mongering and impending carnage (very few of the people on this battlefield survive–almost everyone is slaughtered in the end, right?)?

    Bob W.

  • Interesting question.

    Love-filled slaughter feels like an oxymoron to my own middle class American brain. Luckily for me, I’ve never been put into a position where my heaven-ordained duty called for me to kill someone else. So from that perspective my answer to your question would be that no, it doesn’t seem to make sense.

    However on the other hand my life has called for me to do things that would have seemed unthinkable when I was younger, causing radical reconfigurations in my belief systems. I think this is true of many of us, in one way or another, especially after our odometer passes a certain number. It’s analogous, although possibly less dramatic, to what happens to Arjuna.

    This is where I go when I read the BG – to an awareness that events may utterly shatter my expectations, behavior patterns, and beliefs. They may leave me shaking in my boots, just as Arjuna was at the beginning of the story.

    But that moment when the bottom drops out, when “my body is trembling and my hair is standing on end,” may also be an important beginning. Possibly, it may open an unexpectedly beautiful dialog with an avatar.

    So from that vantage point I find the war-love story entirely acceptable. To get to that point of view I only have to imagine that I have a closer and more familiar experience of killing. It’s not hard for me to believe a certain set of people among those battling tribes in India may been closely familiar with it.

    Not to mention the people in the far-off slaughterhouses that supply my neighborhood Whole Foods. I pile their animal-conscious burgers into my body every week, by the pound.

  • Chris

    Mid,

    Stuffing one’s face with the flesh of slaughtered-animals ?

    Now, THAT is NOT a Dharma-Yudh, no way, no how !

  • Chris

    It was a Dharma-Yudh (Righteous War).

    The rules of warfare were honored (for the most part), such as, no combat after sundown, no striking below the waist in a battle of maces, no attacking an enemy whose chariot has become disabled, etc.

    Both sides believed in the righteousness of their respective cause.

    They who fought bravely, in the best prescribed traditions of a Kshatriya-warrior, and became martyred in battle, attained Moksha, regardless of which warring side they represented. Thus, even the arch-villain Duryodhan attains Moksha upon his death, for he had fought on the battlefield like a true Kshatriya, till his very last breath.

    So, the central-message might be that we should each persevere in our respective ordained duties, even in the most confounding of circumstances.

    And yes, the Pandavas were the only survivors of the Mahabharat war.

  • Hey thanks for the precise comments, Chris. That’s fascinating.

    So I guess I should persevere in my ordained duty to NOT participate in an a-dharmic war like the dumb one my species has been waging on edible animals.

    This would be most confounding to my taste buds, to be sure. Not to mention confounding my belief that I’m a species of animal just like the hundreds of others species who eat animals for a living.

    Granted, those members of the other species may do their killing with an unspoken respect and reverence far exceeding mine.

    Today, for lunch, no burger!

    I await enlightenment.

  • Chris

    The Yogic Principle of Ahimsa (Non-Violence) automatically places Meat out-of-bounds for any Yogi.

    Thus, a Yogi cannot have both his (Yoga)Mat AND his Meat. He must choose wisely between Mat and Meat. A Yogi cannot, ever, stuff his face with Meat !

    Ahimsa does not imply cowardice in warfare. In any Dharma-Yudh (Righteous-War, fought for the purpose of establishing Justice), the Yogi must fight courageously for the Righteous-Cause !

  • Here is the way I see the choices for a reader to process the war setting of the Gita:

    Gandhi’s Bible or a Call to War?

    Bob W.

  • Chris

    Bob,

    In our American Context, I think this might make sense :

    Some of the most-overlooked Life-Lessons are learned, and with the steepest learning-curve, from the ugly, screaming Drill-Sergeant, who gets all in your face, on the drill-ground.

    Thus was the vacillating Arjuna ‘shown the way’ by his Drill-Sergeant, Krishna.

    Krishna revealing his ‘Vishwa-Roopam” to Arjuna, in all its awful Majesty – that’s just the Sarge making sure the recruits are “scared-straight”.

    ” When you’re lined up on the Drill-Ground or the Battlefield, it’s to get the job done, Soldier ! ” And, is THAT not the Central-Message of the Bhagvad Gita ?

    Suddenly, the war-setting of the Bhagavad Gita starts to make sense.

  • Well now, that’s still another interpretation I hadn’t heard before, Chris! Krishna as Drill Sergeant!

    Just reinforces the point of the whole article that “The Bhagavad Gita is so rich and versatile that it tends to take on the character of the translator or commentator.”

    Thanks for writing.

    Bob W.

  • Jeff Jiva

    Great list! I’m gonna have to check some of these out.

    I love Sri Swami Satchidananda’s The Living Gita. I’ve always found the commentary very enlightening.

  • Thanks for the recommendations, Jeff.

    Historical note for our readers–this is the man who famously opened the Woodstock music festival in 1969 http://bit.ly/14iup2d. (Further historical note–I was in college in San Francisco that year. I didn’t make it there, but Woodstock was big, big news as it was happening.)

    Bob W.

  • Pamela

    I find that the translation I am most attached to is the one that got to me first which for me was Eknaths. Like a first love the one that opens you up emotionally is the one you always remember.

    But the others are juicy also. Just making a list of the one or two I don’t yet have x

  • Yes, I love that translation, too, Pamela.

    I like the word you used “juicy” to describe the Gita. I honestly didn’t get the Gita at first, but I kept after it, probably because I didn’t start with one of the more accessible commentaries. But I kept at it, and that’s one of the reasons I enjoy helping other people through it–because I struggled with it myself at first.

    Bob W. Editor
    Best of Yoga Philosophy

  • I think the best version of anything is the one that creates the greatest tool of connection. We had to read the Easwaren version for my teacher training and I got lost in it. It was not for me personally. I enjoyed Where is the BG for dummies ? :) Hold up…found it, and adding it to my summer reading, thanks Bob!

    http://www.goodreads.com/reader/38374-bhagavad-gita-for-dummies?percent=0.122732

  • Thanks for tracking that down, Amber. Now we need a review!

    Those “For Dummies” books can be surprising. Look who co-authored “Yoga for Dummies”, none other than the venerable Georg Feuerstein, author very first Bhagavad Gita translation in my article above:

    http://www.amazon.com/Yoga-For-Dummies-Georg-Feuerstein/dp/0470502029/ref=tmm_pap_title_0

    Bob W.l

  • William Price

    Hi Bob,

    My favorite Gita, before Feuerstein’s was Winthrop Sargeant’s. They are very similar in format, but I like the fact that Georg included extensive essays.

    Which brings me to my point: the gita stands on its own, in it’s native Sanskrit. However, for an explanation, I reach for Sri Aurobindo’s ‘Essays on the Gita.’ I highly recommend it for serious yogis of all practices.

    Thanks for hosting this discussion!

    Will

  • Hi, William. Great to hear from you.

    I’ve got to get my hands on that Sargeant version I keep hearing about. Every new translator seems to refer to it as their primary reference. Which brings up the question, how does Feuerstein’s translation itself differ from Sargeant’s? What made him feel he needed to improve upon it?

    I also love the Feuerstein essays. He points out in one of my favorites that the wide diversity we see in my article existed back when the Gita was written as well. In fact, it was a attempt to reconcile the already wildly divergent ideas about what yoga was, which is why it so often seems to contradict itself. Feuerstein embraces this diversity and explains it very well.

    Bob W. Editor
    Best of Yoga Philosophy

  • I read the Prabhupada version in college. I picked it up from some Hare Krishnas on campus (of course). It was one of my first introductions to Eastern religion and yoga, and probably had a lot to do with me eventually becoming vegetarian.

    So all in all it was a positive influence. But it was only much later that I realized it’s not the authoritative translation it’s made out to be.

  • Hi, Ryan. I read Prabhupada’s version first, too. It honestly seemed too much like the heaven and hell, spirit vs. body, ritualistic, sin-centric Roman Catholicism I grew up with–in short, just another “follow all these rules and don’t screw up” religion. (These are just personal reactions, not criticisms. I acknowledge and respect that a great many people love Prabhupada, which is why I included it above.)

    But I did sense there was a lot more there if I just tried other translations, which led to all the books above, and to the Gita being one of the most important books in my life and the basis of my everyday spirituality.

    Thanks for joining us here.

    Bob W. Editor
    Best of Yoga Philosophy

  • Is the Bhagavad Gita the greatest thing since sliced bread or simply a dusty historical text? You’ll find those opinions and everything in between in our Discussion of the Week–Matthew Remski’s facebook post: https://www.facebook.com/matthew.remski/posts/10153208118650602

    Bob W. Editor
    Best of Yoga Philosophy

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