New translation of the Bhagavad Gita!

A new translation of the Bhagavad Gita from Norton by Gavin Flood and Charles Martin sent me into Namaste on 14th Street for a comparison. Flood and Martin’s introduction is welcoming and informative; I took note especially of their description of the poem’s form, which echoes the larger epic, the Mahabharata, in which it sits.  The news is that Sanskrit epic poetry is, like Latin and Greek, quantitative, arranging patterns according to length of syllable, a quality we no longer hear.  But it is apparently at the same time (!) accentual, in trochaic tetramenter. The authors helpfully give this modern example from Larkin:

On the day of the explosion
Shadows pointed towards the pithead.

Sometimes a form called the tristubh puts in an appearance, apparently for special emphasis; the tristubh is a quatrain of eleven-syllable lines.

Flood and Martin follow the meter of the original, as here. Krishna says:

Value knowledge over practice,
meditation over knowledge;
highest is renunciation,
whence comes, immediately, peace.

Who does not hate any being,
is friendly and compassionate,
without possessiveness and ego,
the same in grief and joy, enduring,

the yogi who lives in content,
firmly resolved and self-restrained,
whose higher mind is fixed on me,
who is devout is dear to me.

One from whom the world does not shrink
one who does not shrink from the world,
freed from distress, from impatience,
from fear and joy, is dear to me.

Who sits apart, indifferent,
pure, able, free of anxiety;
who has abandoned all busyness,
and is devout, is dear to me.

Who neither hates nor rejoices,
who neither grieves nor desires,
abjuring pleasant and unpleasant,
and is devout, is dear to me.

He who is one with foe and friend,
and one in honor and disgrace,
in cold and heat, joy and anguish,
freed from attachment to results,

with one response to praise or blame,
contented with whatever comes,
silent, homeless, steady in mind,
devout, he is most dear to me!

Those who honor this immortal
law, as I have described above,
keeping their faith, intent on me
as highest, are most dear to me!

North Point and HarperOne have also brought out new Bhagavad Gita translations in the last five years. For the edition from North Point (a storied press that appears to have ceased to exist), George Thompson argues forcefully for prose translation, though his introduction gives even more detailed attention to prosody, and promises close fidelity to the original text. He renders the first stanza of our example thus:

For in fact wisdom is better than practice, and meditation is better than wisdom. Abandoning the fruit of action is better than meditation, for from this abandonment peace follows immediately.

Noting that highly inflected Sanskrit produces more words when turned into English, Graham Schweig for HarperOne’s edition choses a shorter line, to bring out the internal patterning of the original couplets, which fall into internal divisions of four. He places an emphasis on following the word order of the original.

For knowledge is better
….than practice;
….is preferred
….over knowledge;
From meditation comes
….the relinquishment
….of the fruits of action;
….from relinquishment
….comes peace, immediately.

Schweig’s edition includes a transliterated Sanskrit version and detailed notes on pronunciation.

In 1944 Christopher Isherwood, who had embraced Vedanta with a number of like-minded English intellectuals, produced with Swami Prabhavananda a still-available translation that endeavored to incorporate explanation for the uninitiated:

Concentration which is practiced with discernment is certainly better than the mechanical repetition of a ritual or prayer. Absorption in God—to live with Him and be one with Him always—is even better than concentration. But renunciation brings instant peace to the spirit.

Isherwood’s has the same introduction by Aldous Huxley that shows up in my graying old edition from the Ramakrishna Vivekananda Center in New York by Swami Nikhilananda (also 1944), which resembles Thompson but is a bit more dusty.

Like many who were knocking around New York at the time, I first plunged into these works in the wake of Peter Brook’s overwhelming production of the Mahabharata at BAM in 1987. (The full nine-hour stage production does not seem to have been recorded. Brook recreated it as a six-hour movie for PBS that was released on VHS, but the only available DVD has been cut to a mere three hours.) Brook’s production beautifully rendered the Bhagavat Gita second-hand, something partially overheard by Arjuna’s comrades as they wait for him to join the battle. Brook’s script was based on a lovely retelling by William Buck from California that is just now being reissued in an anniversary edition. All four of these together make for an immersive and transforming experience.

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