Ancient History & Civilisation

Modern Gitas: Translations

CHAPTER 5

Krishna said: “The one who shows me the highest devotion and shares the highest mystery [of these teachings] with my devotees will reach me, no doubt about it. No other person does me greater service than this. No one in the world is dearer to me.”

— Bhagavad Gita 18.68–69

At the conclusion of his discourse, Krishna commends to Arjuna the great value in disseminating the teachings contained in the Bhagavad Gita. Reading this passage in the early twentieth century, Jayadayal Goyandka heard Krishna giving him direction for his own life. Goyandka was a member of the entrepreneurial Marwari community, and he had decided that the great service he could provide would be in the publishing business. He established the Gita Press in 1923, and began to publish inexpensive editions of theBhagavad Gita with Hindi translation, making the work widely available throughout northern India. Later the press brought out translations in fourteen major Indian vernacular languages. Its Web site currently lists one 123 different Gita publications, including translations and commentaries. It was his dream, Goyandka later recalled “to see the Bhagavad Gita and other scriptures made available in each and every house-hold of the land, just as the British made tea and tobacco available everywhere throughout the country.”1 The Gita Press reports that it has now sold 71 million copies of the Gita in Hindi, Gujarati, Telugu, Oriya, and other vernacular Indian languages as well as Sanskrit.

As with every great religious work of antiquity, the continuing and expanding life of the Bhagavad Gita depends on its engaging new audiences in languages other than its original. After the Christian Bible, the Gita is certainly one of the most frequently translated works in the religious literature of the world. In the most thorough bibliographic study of this text, covering the years up to 1982, Winand Callewaert and Shilanand Hemraj found 1,412 published translations of the Gita in 34 Indian languages. Around the world they identified 1,891 translations in 75 languages.2 In English alone, they were able to locate 273 published translations of the work in the two centuries since Wilkins first rendered it into English in 1785. And new translations have appeared every year in the three decades since their study. The Bhagavad Gita has reincarnated itself in English-language publications well over 300 times.

One might add to this list, as indirect translations, novelized reworkings of the Gita theme and teachings. Among these, the earliest is Chatterjee’s 1884 Bengali novel, Debi Chaudhurani, in which Krishna’s teachings are imaginatively put into practice in a modern setting by a female protagonist. More recently, Krishna has been shifted from charioteer to African American golf caddy in Steven Pressfield’s The Legend of Bagger Vance (1995), set in Georgia during the Depression.

The Gita’s New Clothes

Krishna compares the process of a soul’s reincarnation to a person changing clothes: “Just as a person might take off old clothes and put on other new ones, so the soul abandons an old body and enters into other new ones” (2.22). Translations of the Gita also reembody the Sanskrit source in new forms, each one striving to retain some essential aspect of the original. But unlike a soul reincarnating in one new body, a new translation does not require the death of old ones. It simply adds to the expansive life of the original text. We live in a world containing many diverse embodiments of the Bhagavad Gita, a large closetful of Gitas.

Each translation results from a series of choices. These choices reflect the translator’s own premises, aims, and conception of what that work most essentially is. In a valuable study of Gita translations in English, Gerald Larson speaks of the “strategic decisions” every translator must make. He analyzes these along four axes: the stylistic pedagogical, interpretive, and motivational continua.3 Does the translator seek to maintain primarily the stylistic character of the Sanskrit original or to produce a literary rendering in appropriate English? What kind of audience does the translator envision for the work? Does the translator consider the task as rendering the meaning of the work in its time of composition or as it might take on new significance in contemporary times? What personal motivations or subjective reasons does the translator bring to the task of translating theGita? Along with the skill that any translator brings to the task of navigating between Sanskrit and English, these strategic decisions together will help determine the shape of the Gita’s new English clothes.

There are also choices involved in the textual accompaniments that surround a translation in the body of a publication, or the “paratext” in Gerard Genette’s productive phrase.4 Does the book also contain interspersed commentary? Or parallel Sanskrit text? Does it have footnotes, and what issues do these notes address? Does it have an introduction? What topics are addressed there? How do these materials relate the Bhagavad Gita intertextually to other religious and literary works? As Genette reminds us, these “threshold” materials extend the work itself, mediating between the primary text and its public audience, guiding readers toward and within the translation.

In this chapter I consider four exemplary modern translations of the Bhagavad Gita into English, all from the period since World War II and Indian independence. They were selected from the three-hundred-plus possibilities to highlight distinct approaches to the work. In each case, the translation reflects fundamental commitments and choices of the translators: an accomplished Indological scholar, a poet who specializes in world religious literature, a prominent guru from a Vaishnava devotional lineage, and a distinguished Indian philosopher grounded in the Advaita Vedanta tradition. My aim here is not to evaluate translations according to standards of fidelity or felicity but instead to observe the differing ways each publication extends the continuing life of the Bhagavad Gita within the modern world.

A Scholar’s Gita

“In the course of translating the Mahabharata,” writes Van Buitenen, “I was bound to reach the point where, in that last moment of stillness before the battle, Arjuna shrinks away from its abomination, and Krsna, his friend and charioteer, persuades him of its necessity.”5 An erudite Dutch Indologist and distinguished professor of Sanskrit at the University of Chicago, Van Buitenen took on the monumental task of translating the entire Mahabharata single-handedly. Working his way diligently through the great epic, he had already completed its first five books before he reached the Bhagavad Gita, early in the sixth book or Bhishmaparvan. This prolonged journey through the Mahabharata to reach the Gita was formative for the commitments and strategic choices behind Van Buitenen’s scholarly translation, titled The Bhagavad Gita in the Mahabharata (1981).

As an Indologist, Van Buitenen is committed to a contextual and historical reading of the Gita. He argues persuasively in his introduction that the Gita was “a creation of the Mahabharata itself,” rather than an independent work that somehow “wandered into” the epic at some later date. To make his case, he summarizes the plot to highlight Arjuna’s dilemma, which he sees as a tension fundamental to the Mahabharata as a whole. He also includes eight chapters preceding the usual eighteen of the Bhagavad Gita proper as well as the chapter after it to demonstrate the “subtle narrative weaving” that binds the Gita into the Mahabharata.6

In his introduction, Van Buitenen also locates the Gita as part of the social and religious discourse of classical India. In its own historical time of composition, he argues, the Gita addressed vital contemporary ethical, theological, and metaphysical issues. The work adapted concepts from other Indic schools of thought such as Mimamsa, Vedanta, Samkhya, Yoga, and Buddhism, and it put forward innovative new ideas carefully disguised as old ones. Van Buitenen uses his introduction to sketch the historical background necessary for the reader to view the Gita in its classical milieu. While he is certainly aware that the Gita has led a rich continuing life since that time, Van Buitenen’s emphasis is decidedly on the Gita in the time of its Indian composition.

Van Buitenen chooses to render the Bhagavad Gita primarily in prose, as he does for most of the Mahabharata. The great majority of the epic was composed in the shloka form, a flexible verse form consisting in four unrhymed lines of eight syllables each, with some syllables required to be long or short. Indian poets found this verse form particularly amenable for narrative composition, and the simple rhythmic pattern suited it well for oral recitation. An enormous amount of classical and medieval Sanskrit was written in shloka form. By rendering the epic shloka in prose rather than English verse form, and running the verses together into paragraphs rather than enshrining each one separately, Van Buitenen hopes to convey the conversational quality of the original, “the friendly and at times intimate tone and the directness of language” characteristic of the work.7 Many readers, however, will not find Van Buitenen’s translation particularly friendly. It retains numerous Sanskrit terms and stays close to the intricate technical arguments that Krishna often advances, instead of paraphrasing or introducing extrinsic concepts. In keeping with the scholarly approach, this publication includes the Sanskrit text, in Roman transliteration, on opposing pages to facilitate easy reference to the original for those acquainted with the original language.

In his historicist approach, Van Buitenen continues a venerable lineage in Western Indological scholarship devoted to the Bhagavad Gita. Appearing first with Wilkins and other British Orientalists of late eighteenth-century Calcutta, and taking institutional form in nineteenth-century Germany with philologists and scholars like the brothers Schlegel, the Gita has been maintained in many university settings in India, Europe, and North America by professors of Sanskrit like Van Buitenen. Their central task is to reconstruct the history and culture of ancient and classical India, especially as it was transmitted in Sanskrit texts. From Wilkins’s time on, the Gita has provided a particularly valuable and challenging window into that historical world, resulting in a steady stream of erudite translations and scholarly studies. Other noteworthy translations in the Indological lineage prior to Van Buitenen include those of Telang (1882) and Edgerton (1944). For a persistent reader, Van Buitenen’s translation and introduction offers the closest available approximation of the Bhagavad Gita in its original context.

A Poet’s Gita

What if one takes the Bhagavad Gita not just as a historical artifact of classical India but also as a profound religious poem addressing “some of the most important truths of human existence”? This is the point of departure for Stephen Mitchell’s Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation (2000). “The Gita is usually thought of as a great philosophical poem,” he writes in his introduction. “It is that, of course. It is also an instruction manual for spiritual practice and a guide to peace of heart. But essentially it is, as its title implies, a love song to God.”8 For Mitchell, the task of the translator differs dramatically from that of a textual historian like Van Buitenen. The resulting translation and publication is bound to look quite different in diction, style, and content.

Mitchell is a talented poet and prolific translator of religious literature from around the world. He has taken on the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and Yehude Amichai. Mitchell has rendered numerous ancient classics, including the Book of Job, the Tao Te Ching, selected portions from Genesis and Psalms in the Hebrew Bible, and the Epic of Gilgamesh. More recently he has added the Iliad to this impressive corpus of translations. In translating the Gita, Mitchell makes no claim to fluent knowledge of Sanskrit or any expertise in ancient Indian religious thought. Scholarly readers may criticize Mitchell for this, but it does not appear to bother him. There are, he observes, plenty of English Gitas from which to work.

The main problem, as Mitchell sees it, lies in finding a suitable verse form in English to render the Sanskrit shloka. He seeks a form that has the “dignity of formal verse,” yet is also “free and supple enough to sound like natural speech.”9 His choice is a loose trimeter quatrain. Each shloka is treated as a separate unit of four lines, three stressed syllables per line. By isolating individual shlokas (as most translators do), Mitchell may lose some of the conversational or discursive style that Van Buitenen hopes to capture. But each verse can stand on its own, like pearls in a necklace, as a potential starting point for reflection and meditation. Respecting the integrity of the poem, Mitchell does not impose any of his own commentary, nor does he include annotations to the translation.

If Van Buitenen guides the reader toward a world of classical India, filled with debating proponents of various religious persuasions, Mitchell’s introduction encourages the reader to locate the Gita in a timeless circle of sages. Emerson and Thoreau, Lao Tzu, Chinese Zen masters, a Sufi sheikh, Jesus, the Hebrew prophets, Gandhi, and Ramana Maharshi—all are invoked to inhabit this gathering of agreeable religious teachers and “spiritually mature human beings” from all times and places. Like these other teachers, says Mitchell, the Gita speaks directly to a fundamental question: How should we live? Krishna does not set out just to change Arjuna’s life but rather to transform all of us. It is an inward transformation, Mitchell emphasizes. He imagines the Gita speaking to Emerson and Thoreau as a “kinsman, an elder brother,” revealing to them truths they already knew, albeit imperfectly. So too we all possess, somewhere within us, the wisdom that Krishna has to teach. A poem like the Gita can remind us of this latent understanding and bring these truths into consciousness.

Mitchell’s translation is not the first poetic Gita in English. The legacy of literary translations began with Arnold’s charming 1885 blank-verse rendering, which made such an impact a few years later on the young Gandhi. Another distinguished literary rendering is the translation coauthored by California-based Vedanta Society teacher Swami Prabhavananda and British novelist Christopher Isherwood, published in 1944. Seeking to avoid the pitfalls of Indological translations with their “obscurity and archaic un-English locutions,” Isherwood tried to match the different types of discourse he found in the Gita with a mixture of English styles, both prose and verse, instead of sticking with a single verse form.10 Others have attempted to combine a scholarly attention to the Sanskrit original with a poetic rendering in English, including the recent versions by Barbara S. Miller (1986) and Laurie Patton (2006).

By placing the Bhagavad Gita among a select circle of mystical writings, Mitchell continues another lineage. I call this the “perennialist” line, following Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy (1945).11 The successful British novelist moved to the United States in 1937, and toured the country lecturing on pacifism. During World War II, he intensively studied mystical religious works, especially Indian ones. Huxley collected passages from the works of saints, prophets, and sages from all traditions that, he argued, conveyed a single shared mystical worldview encompassing metaphysics, psychology, and ethics. He called this the “Highest Common Factor.” As Huxley explained to Henry Miller, he sought to present the doctrine “taught by every master of the spiritual life for the last three thousand years—a doctrine of which the modern world has chosen to be ignorant, preferring radios and four-motored bombers and salvation-through-organization, with the catastrophic consequences that we see all around us.”12 Writing in California during the cataclysm of the Second World War, he came to see this mystical religion as the sole hope for the world’s survival.

Of all the works he synthesized, Huxley stated that Krishna’s battlefield teachings at Kurukshetra offered the most systematic scriptural statement of the perennial philosophy. Mitchell’s California at the beginning of the twenty-first century appears to be a more serene place, and he sees personal transformation rather than the salvation of world civilization as the Gita’s primary agenda. But Huxley and Mitchell, and many others in California and elsewhere, have shared the conviction that this work of classical India addresses issues and provides guidance that is universal, timeless, and pertinent to all humans.

A Devotee’s Gita

For Bhaktivedanta, also known as Swami Prabhupada, the essential fact about the Bhagavad Gita is its speaker. The Gita contains the words of Krishna, and Krishna is the “Supreme Personality of the Godhead.” Just as Arjuna accepts Krishna as the divine Absolute during their conversation, so Swami Prabhupada accepts Krishna. In his view, all readers of his translation should do so, too. The teachings of the Gita are infallible because the original teacher is perfect. This places stern demands on the translator. Prabhupada sees his task as passing on the “mission” or presenting the “will” of Krishna. Other translations, he writes, are not authoritative because the translators have expressed their own opinions in them. By contrast, Prabhupada’s translation claims to present the Bhagavad-gita As It Is.

Prabhupada was a vigorous seventy-year-old Bengali Vaishnava renouncer when he arrived by steamship in the United States in 1965. He had been initiated three decades earlier into the Gaudiya Vaishnava community, which traced itself back to the sixteenth-century Bengali devotional saint Chaitanya. In the 1930s, Prabhupada’s direct guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, had urged Prabhupada to write in English and spread Krishna Consciousness to the West. Accordingly, Prabhupada spent many years diligently working on an English translation of the Bhagavata Purana, which the Gaudiya tradition considered the preeminent scripture. When he finally gained passage to the United States, the renouncer traveled with just forty rupees and almost no personal possessions except his precious India-published translation of the first canto of the Bhagavata.

Prabhupada soon began chanting the names of Krishna and conducting Gita classes on New York’s Lower East Side. He attracted a group of curious and eager followers there, and shortly thereafter, also in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, both centers of the 1960s’ youth counterculture. From this grew the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), one of the most successful and certainly most visible of all the new Hindu groups established in the United States during the 1960s.13

As he began teaching to new acolytes, however, Prabhupada quickly recognized that the Bhagavad Gita was a better starting point than the Bhagavata for conveying the essentials of Krishna Consciousness. In 1966–67, he worked devotedly on a new translation of the Gita that could be published and distributed in the United States. It was published first by Macmillan in an abridged version in 1968, and in 1972 an unabridged version came out. This was the first translation of the Gita I owned, given to me by Chicago followers of Prabhupada in 1972.

To present the Gita “as it is” to a new Western audience, Prabhupada adopts an Indian pedagogical mode of presentation. Each individual verse is given first in Sanskrit Devanagari script and then in Roman transliteration. Every word of the verse is glossed, and then Prabhupada gives his translation of the verse, followed by his own commentary, often quite lengthy, intended to unpack the religious significance or “purport” of the verse. Prabhupada indicates little interest in the poetry of the composition, and his presentation makes it difficult to read the Gita apart from the apparatus surrounding it. That is consonant with Prabhupada’s conception of the text and of his own purpose. The Gita presents “Vedic knowledge,” and he wishes to convey and explain this universal truth fully to his Western followers.

The Bhagavad Gita, as Prabhupada sees it, intends to transform a reader into a devotee of Krishna. This is an urgent task, for we live in the ever-deteriorating conditions of the Kali-yuga, the age of decline. “The purpose of the Bhagavad-gita,” he remarks, “is to deliver mankind from the nescience of material existence.”14 The Gita is best understood by any reader who can identify with Arjuna. Just as Arjuna was confused on the battlefield, all sensitive humans are confronted with anxieties caused by living in a material world. Arjuna was already a friend of Krishna, and by hearing Krishna’s teachings he came to accept him as the highest Absolute. So too the modern reader should accept Krishna, at least theoretically, as the Supreme Divinity, Prabhupada proposes, for the teachings of the Gita to make sense. The same salvation offered to Arjuna is available to everyone through the transmitted words of the Bhagavad Gita, which teaches Krishna’s Supreme Personality and the appropriate path of devotional service to him. For Prabhupada and his lineage, the supremacy of Krishna and discipline of bhakti are unequivocally the Gita’s central themes. Other paths in the Gita appear only as steps toward bhakti.

Many Indian gurus coming to the United States to promulgate various forms of Hinduism have adopted the Bhagavad Gita as a key text to present their teachings. First were the teachers of the Vedanta Centers established by Swami Vivekananda, such as Swami Abhedananda and Swami Nikhilananda. The translation by Prabhavananda and Isherwood also falls within this lineage. Among the 1960s’ generation of Hindu gurus, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (founder of Transcendental Meditation) published a partial translation,On the Bhagavad-Gita, in 1966, and Swami Satchidananda (founder of Integral Yoga) published The Living Gita. Prabhupada’s work was the first English translation of the Gita to supply an authentic interpretation from an Indian devotional tradition. And thanks to the indefatigable efforts of his ISKCON followers, the Bhagavad-gita As It Is has become by far the most widely distributed of all English Gita translations. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust estimates that twenty-three million copies of Prabhupada’s translation have been sold, including the English original and secondary translations into fifty-six other languages.15

A Philosopher’s Gita

“Every scripture has two sides,” writes Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, “one temporary and perishable, belonging to the ideas of the people of the period and the country in which it is produced, and the other eternal and imperishable, and applicable to all ages and countries.”16 Radhakrishnan recognizes the doubleness of the Bhagavad Gita, a scripture that is both historical and abiding. While he acknowledges and respects the historical conditions of its composition, this modern Vedanta philosopher takes as his primary task in translating the Gita to offer “a restatement of the truths of eternity in the accents of our time.” Writing in the years immediately after World War II and the partition of British India into Pakistan and India, Radhakrishnan believes that the world’s pressing need is for the “reconciliation of mankind.” The Gita, he holds, is particularly well suited to this purpose.

Radhakrishnan embodied doubleness throughout his own life. As a child from a pious South Indian Brahmin family sent to Christian missionary schools, he became interested in comparative philosophy and religious ethics as a way to reconcile the tension he experienced between Hindu devotion and Christian doctrine. He became a leading advocate for the philosophical viewpoint of Advaita Vedanta, whose greatest exponent was the lifelong renouncer Shankara. But unlike that ascetic, Radhakrishnan led an active life engaged in worldly affairs, including stints as ambassador, vice president, and president of the republic of India. He held academic positions in both colonial India and imperial Britain, where he was a Spalding Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics at Oxford. In the midst of this doubleness, Radhakrishnan sought reconciliation. The dominant thrust of his philosophical work was to find commonality between the Indian and European traditions in a shared idealism. More broadly still, he hoped to find accord between religious and spiritual values and the dominant scientific and materialist worldview of the twentieth century.

This emphasis on reconciliation runs through Radhakrishnan’s understanding of the Bhagavad Gita as well. The main inspiration of the Gita, he maintains, came from the Upanishads, but its purpose was to refine and draw together the various currents of the thought and practice of its time into an “organic unity.” Moreover, the Gita’s historical unification transcends its own day. The author of the Gita, says Radhakrishnan, “reconciles the different systems in vogue and gives us a comprehensive eirenicon which is not local and temporary but is for all time and all men.”17 The modern Vedantin Radhakrishnan agrees with key parts of Shankara’s medieval interpretation: nondualism, the centrality of “spiritual experience,” and the superiority of the path of knowledge. In contrast to Shankara, though, Radhakrishnan also highlights the value of ethical action in the world. He takes seriously Krishna’s charge to Arjuna to carry out his duties, as part of the Gita’s perennial message.

As an Indian philosopher writing for a general and international audience, Radhakrishnan chooses a commentarial mode of presentation for his translation. Individual verses appear first in Sanskrit transliteration and then in prose translation, followed by brief commentary. Radhakrishnan’s prose does not aspire to elegance; his aim is to convey the meaning of each verse directly. In the commentary, Radhakrishnan cites various Vedic and classical Indian works as well as the principal Vedanta commentators. These references ground the translation in its Indic tradition. Radhakrishnan occasionally goes further afield, referring to parallel ideas in works of poets (Emerson and Wordsworth), Christian writers (Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas), and Western philosophers (Plato, Plotinus, and Spinoza). By doing so, Radhakrishnan lifts the Gita out of its own cultural world into the single shared world of humanity to which he believes it ultimately belongs.

Radhakrishnan’s own legacy is complex. His primary philosophical debt is to the Vedanta tradition and particularly the nondualist school of Shankara. Coming of age in the first half of the twentieth century, Radhakrishnan followed Vivekananda and Aurobindo as key figures in the modern restatement of the Vedanta perspective, sometimes called “neo-Vedanta.” Radhakrishnan met with Gandhi in 1947 at Birla House in Delhi and received permission to dedicate his translation of the Bhagavad Gita to him. Following Gandhi, Radhakrishnan emphasizes the vital importance of ethical action in the world—not always part of the Vedanta outlook. Straddling the transition from colonial India to independence in 1947, he discovered a new opportunity to address a postcolonial world just emerging from the horrors of World War II. The Gita could do double duty. Radhakrishnan’s translation is a work that speaks to and for the newly independent Indian nation-state. Like Radhakrishnan himself, the classical Gita is an ambassador representing India on the global stage. At the same time he views the Gita as a work that may assist humanity in the “great movement toward integration” occurring in the twentieth century, from “national societies” into the “world whole.”18

“The Shatterer of Worlds”

To illustrate these four distinct approaches to the task of translating the Bhagavad Gita for modern audiences, let us look at how each translator renders the same passage. I select two verses with unmistakable resonance for modern society.

On July 16, 1945, at the dawning of the atomic age, J. Robert Oppenheimer watched the first human-controlled atomic explosion at Los Alamos, New Mexico, from a bunker twenty miles away. As director of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer was responsible for overseeing the creation of the bomb, which the project called “Trinity.” He was a brilliant professional physicist, and also a gifted amateur student of Sanskrit. As he observed the awesome detonation of Trinity, Oppenheimer later recalled, passages from the Bhagavad Gita sprang to his mind.

If the radiance of a thousand suns

Were to burst at once into the sky,

That would be like the splendor

Of the Mighty One …

I am become Death

The shatterer of worlds.19

These occur in the Gita during Arjuna’s vision of Krishna’s all-encompassing form. The second excerpt is part of Krishna’s own explanation to the awestruck warrior. Since the warriors on the battlefield are already destroyed by his own divine will, Krishna goes on to urge Arjuna to act as his instrument in the upcoming war. Oppenheimer undoubtedly shared Arjuna’s anxiety and dread as he watched the atomic conflagration, and he later came to portray his own role in the worldwide conflict as an instrument of a higher authority, much as Arjuna did.

This passage is certainly a dramatic one, but it is relatively simple and devoid of technical terms. Yet one can readily discern, by juxtaposing Van Buitenen’s and Mitchell’s treatment, significant differences in translational approach and presentation.

Since this passage departs from the usual shloka meter, Van Buitenen shifts from prose to verse format, but his scholarly approach shows through.

The Lord said:

I am Time grown old to destroy the world,

Embarked on the course of world annihilation:

Except for yourself none of these will survive

Of these warriors arrayed in opposite armies.

Therefore raise yourself now and reap rice fame,

Rule the plentiful realm by defeating your foes!

I myself have doomed them ages ago:

Be merely my hand in this, Left-handed Archer.20

This approaches a literal translation, sticking as closely to the Sanskrit word order as is feasible here. Yet there is little effort, along the stylistic continuum, to create a literary rendering in English verse. The Sanskrit original contains a consistent eleven syllables in each quarter, and a set pattern of long and short syllables. Van Buitenen makes no discernible attempt to create a parallel patterning in the target language. For him, certainly, the meaning of the passage must come foremost.

Mitchell takes greater care to create a pleasing English rhythm in his verse, but also shortens the passage.

The Blessed Lord said:

I am death, shatterer of worlds,

annihilating all things.

With or without you, these warriors

in their facing armies will die.

Therefore stand up; win glory;

conquer the enemy; rule.

Already I have struck them down;

you are just my instrument, Arjuna.21

Mitchell aims at the central message here and conveys it succinctly. A comparison of the two renderings will show, however, the cultural detail that Mitchell must leave out to arrive at his more forceful treatment: the old age of Time, the specific exclusion of Arjuna from death’s grip, the plenitude of the kingdom that Arjuna may rule after victory, and more. Such historical accuracy is less important, in Mitchell’s approach, than creating a version that will speak directly to his modern English-speaking audience.

Swami Prabhupada brings a different motivation to the task. The goal is to demonstrate Krishna’s divinity and explicate his message within a Gaudiya Vaishnava perspective. Prabhupada chooses prose, interspersed with his “Purport.” “The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: Time I am, the great destroyer of the worlds, and I have come here to destroy all people. With the exception of you [the Pandavas], all the soldiers here on both sides will be slain.” He expands the “blessed lord” of Mitchell to “Supreme Personality of Godhead,” the fundamental principle of his religious orientation. Krishna’s own words here appear less dramatic and more conversational. After the verse, Prabhupada reminds the reader of Arjuna’s initial reluctance to fight and observes that the widespread death to come is part of Krishna’s plan. “Time is destruction,” Prabhupada continues, “and all manifestations are to be vanquished by the desire of the Supreme Lord. That is the law of nature.” Following his two paragraph commentary, the translator goes on to the next verse. “Therefore get up. Prepare to fight and win glory. Conquer your enemies and enjoy a flourishing kingdom. They are already put to death by my arrangement, and you, O Savyasaci, can be but an instrument in the fight.” This passage leads Prabhupada to emphasize the comprehensiveness of Krishna’s design. “The whole world is moving according to the plan of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” It is thus salutary to understand this divine plan rather than lord it over material nature. “If one is in full Krsna consciousness and if his life is devoted to His transcendental service,” Prabhupada assures his readers, “he is perfect.”22

Like Prabhupada, Radhakrishnan adopts the Indic format of verse and commentary, but his commentary leads in a different direction. He interjects a heading to the passage, “God as the Judge,” then gives his prose translation. “The Blessed Lord said: Time am I, world-destroying, grown mature, engaged here in subduing the world. Even without thee (thy action), all the warriors standing arrayed in the opposing armies shall cease to be.” It seems that Radhakrishnan wishes to soften Krishna’s dramatic statement with Time only “subduing” and not “destroying” the world, and his quaint Victorian “thee” and “thy” are bound to distance a modern reader. But his commentary pushes toward a universal theology. The Krishna who speaks here is identified as God, and his message is likened to Christian theological concepts. “There is an impersonal fate, what the Christians call Providence, a general cosmic necessity, moira, which is an expression of a side of God’s nature and so can be regarded as the will of His sovereign personality, which pursues its own unrecognizable aims.” From here, Radhakrishnan moves to the next verse, in which Arjuna says, “Therefore arise thou and gain glory. Conquering the foes, enjoy a prosperous kingdom, By me alone are they slain already. Be thou merely the occasion, O Savyasacin.”23 This verse leads Radhakrishnan to a lengthy discussion of human agency in light of the divine will, in which citations from the Bible—Job, Luke, and Paul—serve to familiarize and underscore Krishna’s brash commands. In his commentarial exposition, Radhakrishnan here situates Krishna in a theological dialogue with the Judeo-Christian tradition, aiming at a broader understanding in which the Bhagavad Gitawill take its place as one expression of a universal human philosophy encompassing East and West.

What is the best English-language translation of the Bhagavad Gita? That will of course depend on the reader. In the Gita, Krishna commends all those who share his teachings with others. Yet we see how this sharing of the Gita can take myriad forms. Just as different translators bring different backgrounds and agendas to their task of rendering Krishna’s message, so readers will themselves bring their own differing aims to the work. Among the great plurality of translations, embodying diverse approaches to the Gita, the reader also is called on to select a path. If Krishna is correct, all those various translational paths will indeed lead the reader to him and his words.

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