Library of India

National Book or not, what’s the Bhagavad Gita all about?

A new translation pinpoints the core philosophy of Arjuna's dialogue with Krishna.

When a union minister wants the Bhagavad Gita to be declared India’s National Book, she might be amplifying the ideology that drives the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. But what does the Gita actually tell its readers? And what do its rhythms convey, over and above the words?

Here’s a translation of the crucial verses, 2.11 to 2.25, which get to the heart of the matter.

About the translation

Explains the translator Mani Rao: The Gita is a poem, and in Sanskrit, chanted or read aloud. The stanzas of the Gita do not have end-rhymes but have internal symmetry including assonant word-pairs. Plain prose translations cannot convey this liveliness. Metrical translations have a more basic challenge – fidelity to meaning. Between prosaic prose translations and straitjacketed metrical translations is the territory of free verse. However, most translations in free verse focus on line breaks, they look like poetry but do not sound like it, and do not attempt to catch the language-play of the Sanskrit Gita. I make these the additional aims of my translation, in addition to fidelity.

The Verses

The Recommendations
Concludes Mani Rao: I must confess I never imagined I would care to engage in an intimate and enduring conversation with a text that spells out birth-caste as karmic, or killing as dharmic. I took consolation in the wider narrative that is not as much about fighting as about detachment – Krishna recommends the sattvic path as the most joyous, and non-violence is part of the sattvic path; whereas, Arjuna, as a warrior, is a rajasic doer. Besides, the battle is within the clan, the challenge is about standing up for what one believes is “right”, about readiness even to oppose one’s own kin.

Thus, the Gita’s recommendation is to take a broader view of humanity, and be genuinely impartial. As for caste, I temper my objections with the point Krishna repeatedly makes, that all beings are part of the divine.

As I read and re-read the Gita, it is Krishna’s admission of love for the devotee that most moves me. Translators tend to present bhajami as I serve or I worship when it refers to devotees, and as I reward when it refers to Krishna (see 4.11); my sense of Krishna’s feelings towards the devotee guides me not to differentiate between the two instances. How can Krishna possibly not be in service to the devotee, when he plays the role of Arjuna’s driver in the story, and takes the time (over seven hundred stanzas) to enlighten Arjuna? Time and time again in the Gita, Krishna declares love for the devotee, and seems to long for the devotee’s wisdom and love. The Gita is not only a poem, it is a love poem. May fidelity, then, be deep, complex, and lively.

Excerpted with permission from The Bhagavad Gita: A translation of the poem, Mani Rao, to be published by Fingerprint.

Mani Rao is a poet and translator. Her latest books are New & Selected Poems (Poetrywala) and Kalidasa for the 21st Century Reader (Aleph Books).

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