No translation of Plato is definitive; no translation of the Tao Teh King; no translation of the Bhagavad Gita. The more searching and impressive a work, the more it is impossible to convey, in any one version in another tongue, its full meaning. For that reason, the great classics of meditation require ever new translations, and each one adds a facet to the total sense. A new translation is always sufficiently formidable a task to deter anyone lacking in devotion, especially if he is familiar with the labors of his predecessors. A new translation of a great work, by a competent scholar, is therefore to be received with gratitude. It is especially to be welcomed if he has avoided, as I think Swami Nikhilananda has avoided, the warping of new translations by old: where a previous translator has hit upon a happy expression, a later translator is often constrained to avoid that expression, to seek the different solely for the sake of differing. The translation here given seems to me to be natural and direct, conveying the sense in admirably idiomatic English. At the same time, there has been no hesitation about using a few Sanskrit terms, such as dharma, yoga, maya, essentially untranslatable, whose meaning the reader readily acquires. No one who desires to grasp the spirit of religious aspiration of India can afford to remain unacquainted with this, "The Lord's Song." It is, in a sense, the New Testament of Hinduism.
It had an important message to a people whose religious ideal tended to be contemplative and mystical, who had the genius to reveal to the world that ultimate goal for thought and reverence sometimes called "The Absolute," the One without a second. Its message was the meaning of action, the justification even of warfare in the light of union with the Ultimate. It is therefore the direct answer to those who identify the Indian spirit with that sort of mysticism which involves retreat from the world of affairs. Its position, as that one of the world's classics most intimately known by so many millions, is assurance that its temper is indicative of the inner quality of modern India. This fact lends a special interest to the commentary which accompanies the text. It is an adaptation from the extended commentary of Sankaracharya, the greatest exponent of the Vedanta system of philosophy in its strictly monistic form. There can be no doubt about the profundity of Sankara's work, its great philosophical importance, and its permanent message to a world tempted to the distractions of pluralism. In my personal judgment, Sankara missed the peculiar message of the Bhagavad Gita above referred to : his comments attempt to bring the Gita back to the supremacy of meditation over action as the condition of union with God. (p. 102) To scholars, this tug between differing points of view will add a spice of historical piquancy to the work. To the average reader, the effect of the difference may be confusing.
Many of these comments, moreover, directed as they are to an India of the ninth century of our era, may appear either unnecessary or unenlightening to the man of today. If so, let him consider that the service to American scholarship in presenting Sankara's view of the Gita in such close relation to the text will surely justify a hurdle so easily taken. May this majestic poem find its way into the familiar literary friendship of many readers, and contribute to the sense of spiritual kinship with the most gifted people of Asia, akin to us both in blood and in language.
The aim of this new translation of the Bhagavad Gita is to present the book to the English-speaking public of the Western world as a manual of Hindu religion and philosophy. To achieve that purpose, notes and explanations have been added to the text, and the connexion of thought between the verses has been shown, wherever that seemed necessary. The explanations follow, in the main, the commentary on the Gita by Sankaracharya. Abstruse and technical portions of the commentary have been omitted as of no particular interest to most readers of the book. There has also been included the story of the Mahabharata, which will acquaint the student of the Gita with its background and with the character of Sri Krishna. The bewilderment many students feel at the choice of a battle-field for the unfolding of a scheme of the Highest Good and liberation will, it is hoped, be removed by a perusal of the story. In the Introduction the translator has made an attempt to explain some of the philosophical concepts of the Gita, such as the meaning of duty, its place in the moulding of the spiritual life, and the meaning of action and actionlessness from the relative and the absolute standpoint. The diacritical table will help Occidental students in the pronunciation of unfamiliar Sanskrit words. The glossary will enable them to understand the meaning of Sanskrit expressions left in the text and notes for want of equivalents in English. It is hoped that they will simplify the problems faced by Westerners in studying the Bhagavad Gita. There are in existence many English translations of the Bhagavad Gita.
The present translator has profitably consulted two of these, one by D. S. Sharma and the other by A. Mahadeva Sastri. In addition, he has looked into Essays on the Gita by Sri Aurobindo. The works of Margaret E. Noble (Sister Nivedita) and Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy have proved useful in the writing of the story of the Mahabharata. He has also received invaluable help from Mr. Denver Lindley and Mr. Joseph Campbell, who revised the manuscript. It is a real pleasure to acknowledge the translator's indebtedness to them all. Humanity is now passing through a critical stage of transition. Many branches of physical science, psychology, sociology, and humanism are placing every day at our disposal a wealth of facts of which hitherto we have been unaware. They need collation and synthesis in order to be useful to the life of the individual and society. There is also the primal antithesis between this world and the other world, between secular duties and spiritual values. Men are confused and picture life as full of shreds and patches. But they feel a profound need of seeing life as a seamless garment. To those who sincerely seek, the Bhagavad Gita may be a means of coordinating these apparently contradictory facts.
By SWAMI NIKHILANANDA
The Bhagavad Gita, popularly known as the Gita, comprises eighteen chapters—the twenty-fifth through the forty-second—of the section on Bhishma in the Mahablirata. It takes the form of a dialogue between Sri Krishna and Arjuna on the battle-field of Kuru-kshetra. The setting of the battle-field contributes a dramatic element to the book and relates religion to the realities of life. The Gita is one of the most important religious classics of the world.
Hindus of all sects and denominations revere the book. It is read daily by unnumbered Hindus for spiritual inspiration and is held in the highest esteem by all—men and women, young and old, householders and monks. The teacher of the Gita is Krishna, who is regarded by the Hindus as the supreme manifestation of the Lord Himself. Ideal friend, wise teacher, far-seeing statesman, devout yogi, and invincible warrior, Krishna harmonizes in His character the various conflicting activities of life. He is the most highly esteemed religious prophet in India. From the human standpoint Krishna and Arjuna are friends and companions; but in a deeper sense they are one soul in two bodies, two aspects of the one Reality, each incomplete without the other. Their conjoined forms are still worshipped in India under the name of Partha-sarathi, Krishna as Arjuna's charioteer. Again, at the shrine of Vadri-Narayana, in an almost inaccessible part of the Himalayas, they are worshipped as Nara-Narayana, Arjuna as Nara, Man, and Krishna as Narayana, God. The two, God-Man, form the total picture of the Godhead. There are many who regard the story behind the Gita not as historical fact but as an allegory. To them Arjuna represents the individual soul, and Sri Krishna the Supreme Soul dwelling in every heart.
Arjuna's chariot is the body. The blind King Dhritarashtra is the mind under the spell of ignorance, and his hundred sons are man's numerous evil tendencies. The battle, a perennial one, is between the power of good and the power of evil. The warrior who listens to the advice of the Lord speaking from within will triumph in this battle and attain the Highest Good. The Upanishads, the Gita, and the Brahma-sutras —technically known as the three prasthanas—form the bed-rock of Vedanta philosophy. These religious classics are, as a rule, read by the monks of the Vedanta school, who have renounced the world in quest of Truth. Many commentaries have been written on these texts by the celebrated philosophers of India. According to Hindu tradition, a philosopher or sage seeking to preach a new doctrine must gain his sup-port from the Upanishads, the Gita, and the Brahma-sutras, which alone are the valid authorities on super-sensuous truths. Among the most important commen-tators on these books may be counted Sankaracharya (A.D. 788-820), Ramanujacharya (A.D. 1017-1137), and Maddhvacharya (A.D. 1199-1276), generally known as Sankara, Ramanuja, and Maddhva. Each of them has explained the ancient teaching differently. The soul and the world are spoken of by the non-dualist Sankara as one with Brahman, or Ultimate Reality; by Ramanuja, the upholder of Qualified Non-dualism, as parts of Reality; and by the dualist Maddhva, as different from Reality.
According to the commentators themselves, these views are mutually incompatible and exclusive. Nevertheless they need not be; for man's relationship with Ultimate Reality is relative to his conception of himself. When he identifies himself with the body, then he is certainly different from God. (Dualism.) When he regards himself as a living being, then he is a part of the Universal Life. (Qualified Non-dualism.) But when he realizes that he is incorporeal Spirit, beyond time, space, and causality, then he is one with the Universal Spirit. (Non-dualism.) Apparently the Gita accepts all three views as pertaining to man's various stages of spiritual evolution. The present translator, in his notes and comments, has followed, in the main, Sankara's commentary. Sankaracharya, called Sankara for short, is one of the brightest stars in the firmament of India. He is one of the pillars of the Eternal Religion of the Hindus. Unfortunately, very little is known of the life of this wonderful man. The scholars are by no means unanimous about the date of his birth. According to one celebrated Hindu scholars he was born about the middle or the end of the sixth century, and according to another' in A.D. 680 or a few years earlier. According to some European scholars3 he was born in A.D. 788 and died in 820. Sankara belonged to the simple, scholarly, and industrious Nambudri sect of brahmins of Malabar in south India. The village of Kaladi, on the west coast of the peninsula, is pointed out as his birth-place. Even while a boy he showed utter indifference to material pleasures and renounced the world at an early age in quest of Truth.
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