Confused about English translations of the Bhagavad Gita?

Confused about English translations of the Bhagavad Gita? September 18, 2014

Krishna giving the Gita to Arjuna.
Krishna revealing the Gita to Arjuna.

Translation is tricky. There is the issue of what the individual words mean, and the issue of the idea being translated. For example, you’ve probably seen signs in Spanish that say, “Prohibido fumar.” You could translate this, “smoking is prohibited” but everyone translates it, “no smoking.” Why? Because that’s how you say the exact same idea in English.

When you translate literally what the words actually mean in a dictionary, you risk a stilted rendering. When you translate freely the ideas expressed, you risk over-interpreting the text for the reader.

When I head to the bookstore, I hit the Hinduism section first. It’s usually tiny and comprised entirely of five books I’ve already read. Sometimes four of those books are translations of the Bhagavad Gita. Over the years I’ve read a dozen or so translations, some better than others. Here are a few of my favorites (for comparison, I’ve chosen chapter 4 śloka 11):

blog.english-translations-gita.bhagavadgitaThe Bhagavad Gita by Eknath Easwaran

4.11 “As men approach me, so I receive them. All paths, Arjuna, lead to me.”

Eknath Easwaran’s translation is hand-down my absolute favorite. The English is clear and beautiful. Easwaran fell in love with English literature as a child and grew up to be an English Professor before he moved to America to teach meditation. All of his writing, whether scripture translations or otherwise, reads smoothly. This translation contains neither the Sanskrit text nor a commentary. Easwaran also wrote a three volume commentary, The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living, which does contain each verse in Devanagari script, as well as a simpler commentary called Essence of the Bhagavad Gita which does not.

blog.english-translations-gita.satchidanandaThe Living Gita by Sri Swami Satchidananda

4.11 “However people sincerely call on me, I come to them and fulfill their hearts’ desires. They use many paths to reach me.”

This is a translation with the commentary interspersed. The verses are offset in bold font and numbered, and every so many verses there is commentary that fills between a few paragraphs to a few pages and often includes stories about saints or little anecdotes from Satchidananda’s life. The commentary on this verse is about a page and a half and ends, “In a way, everybody has his or her own religion. Because minds vary, each mind has its religion. Your approach is your religion.” This version contains my favorite commentary. It doesn’t contain the Sanskrit.

blog.english-translations-gita.chinmayanandaThe Holy Geeta by Swami Chinmayananda

4.11 “In whatever way men approach Me, even so do I reward them; My path do men tread in all ways, O son of Pritha.”

Ever notice that bookstores have an entire aisle (or two!) filled with Bibles? They come in all different sizes and various styles of cover. I browse those aisles just to look at all the beautiful options (even though, no matter how pretty the cover, the text still doesn’t resonate with me). I’ve often wished for a copy of the Gita in a beautiful cover.

This is my prettiest Gita. It’s hard cover, with an illustration on the inside and a bookmark attached with a ribbon. Unfortunately, the paper is also the onion paper used in Bibles, so thin the text on the other side bleeds through, and after only a few pages of reading it starts to cause eye strain (for this reason, I wish it also came in ebook form, but it doesn’t).

The verses appear in the original Sanskrit, both in Devanagari and transliterated, as well as in translation (but the translation is not directly under the Sanskrit).The commentary is meaty – a direct translation of just the verses with nothing else could easily come in at 100 pages, while this version is a whopping 1273 pages. No wonder it uses such thin paper! The commentary for 4.11 reads in part, “Attachment and aversion are not the weaknesses of the Lord. He is a mass of Dynamism, the source of all activities and achievements. We are given the equipment through which we can, as we like, invoke this Infinite Mind. If we rightly invoke and carefully use the equipments, as a reward for our intelligent self-application, we can reach the Goal of our activities. If we misuse them, the very same Divine Force can be the cause of our utter disaster.”

blog.english-translations-gita.Bhagavad-GitaBhagavad Gita by Swami Satyananda Saraswati

4.11 “Son of She Who Excels (Arjuna), in every way which men seek Me, in that same way I come to them, for every way that men follow is My path.”

I’ve been taking online classes from the Devi Mandir for years. Shree Maa and Swami Satyanana Saraswati have taught me how to do puja, and I’ve tuned in to their webcam on many holidays. I can’t tell you how many sentences I’ve started with, “Swamiji says…” I’ve watched thousands of hours of classes and bhajan and puja from these gurus and completed two separate courses on this text.

This translation contains the original text in Sanskrit, in large bold transliteration, and in English. The verses are sometimes awkward in English due to Swamiji’s habit of translating the meaning of names instead of the name itself. For example, in the first two ślokas, instead of “Dhritarashtra said” and “Sanjaya said,” it’s translated, “Blind Ambition said” and “He Who is Victorious Over All said.” This style of translation blends the commentary into the translation itself, which may or may not be what you want. This edition contains the Gita Mahatmya and the viniyoga – in other words, this book assumes you plan to chant the Gita in Sanskrit (or, in my case, listen along while a professional singer on my iPod chants the Gita in Sanskrit. I’m partial to Geetamritam: Melodious Rendition of the Complete Bhagavad Gita by Vanishree and Vijayalakshmi).

blog.english-translations-gita.feuersteinThe Bhagavad-Gita: A New Translation by Georg Feuerstein
4.11 “Just as these [yogins] resort to Me, so do I love them [in turn]. Everywhere, O son-of-Prithā, humans follow My ‘track.’” (There is a footnote for the word track that reads, “The terms vartman (‘track’) can also be rendered as ‘path.’”

This is the most scholarly translation I own. The left-hand page contains the Sanskrit in both Devanagari and transliteration, while the right-hand page contains a very literal translation, usually with several footnotes. People who are familiar with how in-depth Bible studies are conducted would be at home with this version. A section in the back contains a word-by-word literal translation if you want to check which word meant what. For 4.11 it says, “ye (plural) = who; yatha – just as; mam = to me; prapadyante = they resort; tams (tan) = them; tathaiva (tatha + eva) = thus verily, here: so; bhajami = I love; aham = I; mama = my; vartmanuvartante (varma +anuvartante) = they follow [my] track; manusyas = humans; partha = O son-of-Pritha; sarvasas = everywhere.” This is clearly not a book you’d pick up for casual reading, but I’m just nerdy enough to appreciate it.

The translation you prefer will depend on how you plan to use the text.

  • Want a version that reads clearly in excellent prose? Try The Bhagavad Gita by Eknath Easwaran.
  • Want a friendly commentary that isn’t too bulky or academic? Try The Living Gita by Sri Swami Satchidananda.
  • Want a beautiful, heirloom-quality book? Try The Holy Geeta by Swami Chinmayananda.
  • Want to chant the Gita or to follow along while someone chants? Try Bhagavad Gita by Swami Satyananda Saraswati.
  • Want to study the text verse-by-verse in-depth and study the Sanskrit? Try The Bhagavad-Gita: A New Translation by Georg Feuerstein.

The best translation is the one you get the most out of.

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