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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