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Review: 5 Bhagavad Gitas

posted by Vineet Chander

gita_modern.jpgToday, November 28, 2009, millions of Hindus around the world will celebrate Gita Jayanti, the “birthday” of the sacred wisdom text, Bhagavad Gita.

(It is actually the anniversary of the day the Gita is believed to have been spoken – according to the tradition, over five thousand years ago – by Lord Krishna to his friend and devotee Arjuna. In keeping with Hinduism’s idea that all of existence has a personal aspect to it, devotees consider the Gita to be a sort of divine personality, with a birthday of its own.)

The Gita is among the world’s most beloved wisdom texts, both within and outside of the Hindu community. The masters of every major school of Hindu philosophy have written commentaries on the Gita, and in more recent times, some famous readers of the text include Aldous Huxley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Albert Einstein, and even President Barack Obama (apparently, he read it in college). Gandhi claimed it as his favorite text and a source of inspiration; Robert Oppenheimer quoted from it when the first atom bomb was detonated.

I’m often asked to recommend an edition of the Bhagavad Gita, especially for a non-Indian audience. This can be tricky…


There are hundreds of translations available in the West, and they each
offer a different experience of the same text. For instance, the Gita
that I first fell in love with (and still consider my Gita) is A.C.
Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s Bhagavad Gita As It Is. Its strong
emphasis on living the philosophy through the practice of Bhakti (what
the author calls “Krishna consciousness”) has been praised by many
people, and criticized by others.  

Still, in the spirit of sharing my own experiences with the Gita, here are five editions that I especially find interesting:

Top 5 Gita The 5 Best 5 Gitas on My Bookshelf Right Now

gita_prabhupada.jpg1. Bhagavad Gita As It Is
Author: A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Summary:
Reported to be the most widely distributed edition of the Gita, this is
the edition that sparked the worldwide Krishna movement. Prabhupada’s
translation (including elaborate Sanskrit to English transliterations)
transports each verse from ancient India to the contemporary world. His
commentary (“purports”), though sometimes longish, is celebrated as
among the most powerful presentations of the path of devotion to
Krishna – which many understand to be the Gita’s heart and soul – in
the world.
What I Like About It: Its bold and unapologetic in presenting Krishna, calling on the reader to live the Gita, not just read it.
What I Don’t: The strong tone and insistence on a Bhakti interpretation may strike some as preachy or evangelical.

gita_miller.jpg2. The Bhagavad Gita: Krishna’s counsel in time of war
Author: Barbara Stoller Miller
Summary:
A classic in its own right, Miller’s translation is clean and readable.
In her capable hands, the Gita’s message flows.  Another plus: the
paperback is portable and includes an insightful appendix exploring why
Henry David Thoreau took the Gita to Walden pond.
What I Like About It:
It is accessible and non-intimidating to a first-time reader; short and
sweet without missing out on the essentials of the text.
What I Don’t: The
lack of a commentary or textual illumination makes navigating difficult
or ambiguous passages a lonely and sometimes frustrating exercise.

gita_mitchell.jpg3. The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation
Author: Stephen Mitchell
Summary: Mitchell’s
offering is a relatively recent addition to the cornucopia of Gita
translations and has quickly become a favorite. Emphasizing that the
Gita is, in fact, a song (like all Hindu wisdom texts composed in
metered verses), Mitchell’s rendition attempts to preserve the poetry
and fluidity of Krishna’s timeless message, even while extrapolating
that message to a contemporary context.
What I Like About It: Mitchell
engages with seemingly problematic or contradictory aspects of the
Gita, uplifting interesting questions and forcing readers to delve
within for answers.
What I Don’t: Perhaps in an effort to
appeal to a broad audience, Mitchell’s translation tends towards the
beautiful-but-vague–especially when discussing divinity or theology.  

gita_schweig.jpg4. Bhagavad Gita: The Beloved Lord’s Secret Love Song
Author: Graham M. Schweig
Summary:
A wonderful blend between impeccable scholarship and heart-felt
devotion, Schweig’s edition aims to use the art of translating the
Gita’s poetry and precise word choice to uncover its more esoteric
lessons. Schweig paints – both through his poetic translations and in
his textual illumination essays – a portrait of a Krishna who loves his
devotees and yearns to connect with them.
What I Like About It: The
translations capture both accuracy and aesthetics – a rare combination,
indeed – and make the esoteric delightfully understandable.
What I
Don’t: At times the sheer heft of the book and occasionally
overly-academic tone of the essays make an edition that prides itself
on being a love song seem more like a textbook

gita_ramdass.jpg5. Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita
Author: Ram Dass (Richard Alpert)
Summary: Technically,
Paths to God is not a translation of the Gita or even a summary study
of the text. Instead, Ram Dass  (the acclaimed author of cult classic
Be Here Now) essentially expanded upon the syllabus of a Gita course he
taught in the 1970s. The result is a collection of anecdotes,
reflections, and meditative exercises that approaches the Gita as a
manual for spiritual life.
What I Like About It: Engaging and warm, the book uses the Gita as a springboard to help readers look deeper within.
What I Don’t:
It jumps around at times, pursuing charming but distracting tangents or
veering more towards Ram Dass’s personal musings than what the Gita
actually says.

***
Happy reading!



  • Dunestrider

    I agree with your #1 choice, but I am amazed that you included “Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita” by Ram Dass on the list. Did you only read five Gitas?
    I consider Ram Dass to be a “bhogi yogi”, and this book is nothing more than a self-indulgent autobiography. Here is my review that I published on Amazon.com:
    “The twelfth canto of the Bhagavata Purana describes how, in the present age of Kali Yuga, irreligion replaces religion. This does not occur overnight; it is a gradual process. And one catalyst of the process is the ‘watering down’ of religion.
    “Just as when acid comes into contact with milk, the milk is transformed (into curds and whey), similarly, when beatnik and hippie philosophy mingles with Eastern thought, you get the watering down of Hinduism (and Buddhism).
    “Such is the case with this book. I started reading this book with an open mind; after all, even the Bible has a few pearls of wisdom in it.
    “However, one only has to read a few pages to see how shallow and hollow this book is.
    “The clincher for me was in Chapter 7 (‘Renunciation and Purification’). Here the author discusses the concept of ahimsa (non-violence, particularly towards animals). In a nutshell: the author says that he gave up being a vegetarian so that he would not be proud of being a vegetarian.
    “This type of thinking is absolute nonsense, and can be shown by following similar logic: ‘I should become a thief so that I will not be proud of not being a thief’. ‘I should become a murderer so that I will not be proud of not being a murderer.’ The author should just admit that he can’t control himself, and his taste buds are controlling him. So much for him being a teacher of transcendence!
    “The person who has no knowledge of Hinduism, and is sincerely inquisitive of it, will walk way with the dismaying impression that Hinduism is a happy-go-lucky, ‘do your own thing’, ‘everything goes’ pseudo-religion, with no real substance. But Hinduism has schools of thought (for example, the Gaudiya-Vaishnava school) that is nothing short of the science of religion and philosophy par excellence.
    “The bottom line is, I am very sorry I bought this book. I don’t want to donate it to the local Public Library or sell it on eBay (as I usually do with unwanted books), because I do not want to be a party to spreading nescience. If I had caged birds, you know what I would do with the pages of this book. But I don’t, so it looks like this book is heading for the recycle bin.”
    If you want to read a decent translation of the Bhagavad-gita, with relevant commentary for the modern reader, I highly recommend Eknath Easwaran’s trilogy: “The End of Sorrow”, which covers the first six chapters of the Gita; “Like a Thousand Suns”, which covers the middle six chapters; and “To Love is to Know Me”, dealing with the remaining chapters. Yes, sometimes the author blurs the likes between bhakti-yoga and humanism, but it is still an extraordinary series of books.

  • Deana Birks

    I, too, am surprised you included Ram Dass but not Eknath Easwaran, whose translation is my favorite and whose commentary is full of practical, down-to-earth wisdom. You can also get the Eknath Easwaran translation without commentary. The translator’s background as an Indian professor of English literature makes this translation one of the most beautiful from a literary standpoint.

  • Anan E. Maus

    Here’s one, entire text online, all free:
    Commentary On The Bhagavad Gita
    http://www.srichinmoylibrary.com/books/0022
    (In 2007, Sri Chinmoy was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev)

  • BOBBY ST

    for mayn years I study Holy Bible,but in my past young age I readed Bhagavatgita and “SRI ISOPANISHAD” with some points of mantras I agree!but in general NO! because those indian so call sacred books!do,nt give answer of very simple questions! about a savior and a chance to every human being being with GOD(we call heaven)Bhagavatgita is written only for very small group of people!Bible is written for all people who live on the earth.Bhagavatgita is for philosophers!But Bible is for all because all of us belong to one family to the GODS FAMILY,only difference is that those who agree 100% with Bible,those are chosen by the HOLY SPIRIT TO HEAVENLY FAMILY BIBLICAL GOD IS MERCIFFUL AND JUST AND GOD OF LOVE!HE GAVE HIS WORD FOR EVERY HUMAN BEING?!!Bhagavitagita is only understandable to the small group of people!This book do,nt solve daily problems and dreams of salvation.Bible give us solution!Just read HOLY BIBLE and do,nt waist time,because according to Bible time line, our life on the earth very quicly go to the End on 5/21/2011

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