Which Bhagavad Gita?

“With no desire for success, no anxiety about failure, indifferent to results, he burns up his actions in the fire of wisdom. Surrendering all thoughts of outcome, unperturbed, self-reliant, he does nothing at all, even when fully engaged in actions.

There is nothing that he expects, nothing that he fears. Serene, free from possessions, untainted, acting with the body alone, content with whatever happens, unattached to pleasure or pain, success or failure, he acts and is never bound by his action.” (BG, 4.19-26)

Boom. Could anybody say it better? Who do you think did say it? Rudyard Kipling, whose two impostors are the seed of my entire book?

Actually, it was Krishna, in conversation with Arjuna, on the eve of an 18-day battle that would kill about four million (!) and which only eleven men would survive. Here are Arjuna and Krishna, his charioteer, in between the opposing armies just before the battle, as Krishna reveals to Arjuna the two crucial secrets to our lives: how to know and do your duty, and how to live.

I’m talking, of course, about one of the greatest poems (books, texts) ever written, the Bhagavad Gita, or “song of God”. It is a relatively short song inserted into a huge (!) epic story, the Mahabharata, which is several times the length of the Bible, or of the Iliad and Odyssey combined.

I’ve been re-reading the Gita in several translations while researching one chapter in my book. Why? Because Hannibal faced the same dilemma that Arjuna faced, when he broke down sobbing before the great battle, a battle that he suddenly did not want to fight at all, but which, as Krishna made him realize, he could not not fight. So Arjuna faced the same conundrum that Hannibal and Scipio faced: how to get into the right frame of mind to live life.

Oh, wait a minute. Did I say that Hannibal was in the same situation as Arjuna? I meant, that we all are in the same situation as both Arjuna and Hannibal. That is the point of the Gita, and also (more humbly) of my book.

Now, for those of you who love the Gita, I thought I’d do a quick review of the three translations and commentaries I’ve recently re-read. That way, maybe, I can help you choose the one that’s right for you.

The Gita is a poem in the original Sanskrit, and the translation that best preserves the beautiful, easy, fluid feel of a poem is the Bhagavad Gita by Stephen Mitchell (Three Rivers Press). The opening quote above comes from his translation.

A slightly less beautiful but perhaps more helpful and accessible translation is The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners by Jack Hawley (New World Library). The title sounds as if it were a sort of “For Dummies” version, but it’s not. It’s intelligent, and editorializes a bit whenever the words in the poem mean something very different from the same words in our ordinary language.

Then, of course, there is the intimidating two-volume brick God Talks with Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita by Paramahansa Yogananda (Self-Realization Fellowship). That is the kosher version among yogis, because it’s academically and intellectually thorough. I’ve tried several times to get through it and failed. If it’s beauty, ease and enjoyment you’re looking for, don’t pick this one. But….

do pick this one if you have even the slightest interest in a deeper understanding of the Gita. For example, the thing to get about the poem is that there are two battles going on: the external one involving four million warriors and elephants and chariots; and the internal one that we all wage every day. Paramahansa Yogananda is great at the genealogy of all the people in the war, so that you realize, for example, that Arjuna and his four brothers are the intelligent and higher parts of our mind, who are fighting 100 cousins, who are the powerful but lower parts of our mind, such as anger, desire, greed, and so forth.


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6 thoughts on “Which Bhagavad Gita?

  1. Hi Andreas,
    Love the way you wrote this article.
    For me Gita is a great song explained by Krishna to Arjuna during the greatest battle ever took place in those times. (or battles… external and internal of human kind). which applies to this day and age. We all go through these battles on a daily basis between good thoughts and bad.
    Come to think of it almost all religious literature some how focuses on the same points.

    But as a person who was born into the culture where an epic poem such as Maha Bharata originated from, I took most of the stories for granted while growing up and by neither giving it a second thought nor realizing it, until just a few years back, that I followed the morals of those stories most of the time.

    Arjuna is the real HERO of the epic. My favorite character of all times and not just because he shares my name…well sort of… except that ‘J’ coming in between 

    How did you get interested in Eastern Philosophy? Was there a particular reason you were drawn to it? Just curious, because you write these articles with such passion!!

    When asked this question, most non Indians phrase it as….” I must have been an Indian in my past life” 


    • Thanks, Aruna.

      How did I get interested in Eastern Philosophy?

      It’s possible that I really was an Indian in my past life. (Perhaps one of the ants Indra’s parade.)

      Seriously, to me, the question phrases itself differently: How is anybody NOT interested in Eastern Philosophy? Or ANY philosophy?

      If a tradition — eastern, western, northern or southern — has timeless and universal wisdom on offer, why would anybody not study that tradition?

  2. Hmmm!!! I sometimes wonder the same thing!!!
    What is there not to be interested in… about philosophy… which constitutes one’s viewpoints about the ways of life, various values and belief systems that govern the entire humanity and as you said, it offers timeless traditions and wisdom.

    But I have known people…some who get bored talking about philosophy, some who are just not into it, but most of all I get puzzled when people get restless anytime the topic is brought up. It is ‘as though’ the idea troubles them and ‘as though’ they don’t want to hear what they already know. Unfortunately, they are looking at it from the other side of the mirror so to speak.

    It is true though, that a thing, topic, idea, etc…can be construed as either a positive or negative. Having knowledge it self is not good enough. One needs to be able to comprehend and apply towards one’s life.

    Oops…I see…I am going on a different path (topic) . I will keep quiet now.

  3. Thanks for sharing the link Sanjeev. I found it to be very interesting.
    Bhagavadgita discloses unending values which are critical yet at the same time, elementary.

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