On the battlefield in Kurukshetre, as the Pandavas and the Kauravas prepare for war, Arjuna balks at the idea of killing his cousins and uncles, and refuses to fight. The Bhagavad-Gita contains the subsequent dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna in which Krishna convinces Arjuna to engage in battle by explaining key Hindu beliefs about duty, salvation and the soul.
The critically acclaimed author of three previous collections of poetry including the 2011 Donald Justice prize winner Heaven and Earth and two novels, Amit Majmudar spent years trying to translate the Gita into a version that preserved both its ideas and music. Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita With Commentary marks his third attempt at tackling the text he describes as being “at the centre of his universe.” Majmudar spoke to Scroll.in about the Gita’s place in nationalist India, the reasons the Gita has endured for 2000 years, the similarity between one’s taste for art and one’s taste for religion, form, and the challenges of translating a text of monumental significance. Excerpts from the interview:
“At the gate of the Bhagavad-Gita there stands a line. It is a line that dares and discourages the translator who thinks of stepping across it: dharmakshetre kurukshetre.” I was intrigued to find this note at the end of Godsong that discusses the difficulty of translating the first phrase. I was even more intrigued by the idea that a gate exists for the Gita. Why do you see it as a gate? And what enabled you to step across it?
I see it as a gate because of its elusive, compact, meaning-replete perfection. It demands of any aspiring translator: Match THIS, mortal.
What enabled me to step across it? Nothing but what we Midwesterners call moxie: “force of character, determination, or nerve.” I simply believed I could do it, and I did it – how well, is for the reader to decide.
The Gita can be a difficult poem to read or perhaps more correctly, as you point out, to listen to. Like Arjuna, the listener (or the disciple or the curious reader) spends most of their time listening to Krishna hold forth. One almost feels frustrated at times by the recursive nature of Krishna’s insistence, and Arjuna’s reluctance. What would you say allows the Gita to endure?
Listening to Krishna hold forth is the most beautiful and illuminating way I can imagine spending my time. The Gita is difficult because it is so comprehensive. The Gita isn’t a scripture that simply says, “Worship me! Do this! Don’t do that!” Its function is to reformat the human mind like a hard drive. It offers you a way to think of the entirety of your existence. What you may experience as frustration, boredom, or whatever is really the resistance of the mind that is set in its old way. It is shutting down because it has a systemic inertia. You have to stay with it – Krishna praises abhyaas and dhyaan. The saatwik happiness begins as poison and ends up as nectar, amrut. You have to put in the time to win immortality. The Gita takes many lifetimes to master.
“It is the greatest poem of friendship, after all, in any language. Twenty-five years ago, a friendless, near-sighted brown kid set it at the centre of his universe. It has been there ever since.” What was the first version of the Gita you were exposed to? I remember my grandmother gave me a very slim, very simple English translation that summarised the ideas.
I think I came across the Bhagavad Gita As It Is when I was a teenager, just because it was there in the library. I don’t recommend it. I also recall browsing a version by Zaehner and Mascaro when I was younger.
When you learned Sanskrit, did you find that your understanding of the Gita expanded?
My understanding of the Gita expanded in that I understood that it is, consummately, a poem. There are so many phonetic effects in it that it is as densely packed with these effects as a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I am not a world champion Sanskritist – I have no formal training in Sanskrit, Indian or Hindu studies, or poetry – but even my level of knowledge unlocked the patterns of anaphora, syntactical juxtaposition, and alliteration that are missing from most translations. I made a point to preserve these things.
“People loved their own religions and diverged in their opinions the same way they loved some kinds of music or art and not others. It was a matter of taste. There was no disputing religion for the same reason there was no disputing taste.” I am interested in this realisation that perhaps people are drawn to religions the way they can be to a particular poem or song. What role would you say being born into a particular family – Hindu or not, upper-caste or not, one exposed to violence or not, etc., – plays in forming this taste?
Well, I probably wouldn’t have translated the Gita if I hadn’t been born a Hindu. But the Gita indicates that my birth into my given family was not accidental. The gods planned me out. I believe that. It drives me to do what I do.
It’s an interesting moment in India’s history for a new translation of the Gita to come out. The country is steeped in Hindu nationalism. What would you say the Gita might have to offer these troubled times?
The Gita is the antidote to fanaticism in our time. Krishna even says that different people worship different gods, and he is in all of them; that he grants “to each [believer] for each [god] / A faith that does not waver.”
The story of the journey of your translation was fascinating. You started out with a poem that could be sung, then one in the style of a screenplay, and finally arrived at one that engages more than one meter. What made you decide on four-line stanzas whose lines are more or less the same length, and why did you choose to capitalise the letter at the start of each line?
These quatrains mimic the natural music of the shloka meter, which falls in recitation into a pattern very like two hemistiches with a caesura (shop talk for half-line, pause, half-line). This actually resembles most closely, in English, the Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter of Beowulf for a variety of reasons. This idea had not occurred to me until earlier this year. So I’m pleased to report that my next Gita translation, currently underway, is into the musical scheme resembling the oldest English language verse form, alliterative verse with a caesura.