Friday, December 25, 2020

The Bhagavad Gita and The Bhagavad Gita for Millennials, by Bibek Debroy - Review


The Bhagavad Gita, Translated by Bibek Debroy

The Bhagavad Gita for Millennials by Bibek Debroy

This is a review of two books. Both about the Bhagavad Gita, both written by the same person, both obviously similar in many respects, but both also different.

Let’s take The Bhagavad Gita translation first. It is a verse by verse translation of the 700 verses, or 699, depending on how you count them, of the Bhagavad Gita, with the Sanskrit shlokas (verses) on one page and the English translation on the facing page. There is no interpretation, no commentary; just a literal translation of each verse. The author (Bibek Debroy, not Vyasa) writes in the Introduction that ‘A translator’s job is to translate, not to interpret.’ and somewhat modestly, ‘Interpretations are best left to those who are learned.

With over two-thousand seven-hundred translations of the Gita between 1785 and 1979 in fifty languages identified, why do we need yet another translation, and why this particular book? For several reasons. There is an inevitable loss when translating from Sanskrit to English – a loss of context, exact meanings, and of course, the beauty of the Sanskrit poetry which cannot be reproduced in English, no matter how hard one tries. Some words cannot be translated to English with complete fidelity. For example, ‘duty’ is at best a partial translation of the Sanskrit word ‘dharma’. Given these limitations, it becomes all the more important to not compound this loss by translating words without understanding their context. Bibek Debroy tells us that some less than adequate understanding of Sanskrit leads to Gudakesha (another of Arjuna’s names and which means one who has conquered sleep, derived from gudaka – sleep, and isha – lord) being translated as someone ‘whose hair is in a bun’, which is etymologically possible, but contextually implausible. Then there are problems that arise from an incomplete reading of the Mahabharata itself. For instance, 1.5 contains ‘पुरुजित्कुन्तिभोजश्च’. This refers to ‘Purujit from the Kuntibhoja clan’. Some translators, however, treat Purujit and Kuntibhoja as two separate individuals. Consider also what is lost in translations that substitute words for convenience or otherwise. For instance, in 1.36, Arjuna laments to Krishna, ‘O Janardana! What pleasure will we derive from killing the sons of Dhritarashtra? Although they are criminals, sin alone will be our lot if we kill them.’ To understand why the Kauravas are criminals that deserve the death penalty, you have to read the footnote in this book that tells us that according to the shastras, ‘they are six types of criminals – arsonists, poisoners, those who bear arms to kill you, those who steal wealth, those who steal and those who steal other people’s wives.’ If you substitute the word criminal with evil, you lose something in the translation.

This translation seeks to avoid all such pitfalls. If you want to appreciate the Sanskrit, the shlokas are reproduced in Devanagri. In cases where the Sanskrit sentence flows to the next one, rather than combining the translations across all these shlokas, the translation sticks to a verse by verse cadence. That makes the job of a reader trying to match the shloka to the English translation easier.

Given all this, this book should become a go-to reference for people wanting a faithful, accurate, and copiously footnoted English translation of the Bhagavad Gita. More than eight-hundred footnotes, spread across sixty pages, provide additional notes and context without interrupting the flow of the translation. It helps that Penguin have produced a very high-quality hardcover edition, with an equally beautiful cover (illustrated by Upamanyu Bhattacharyya and designed by Devangana Dash).

The first book is a faithful, verse-by-verse translation. But a more fundamental question may arise in the mind of the reader – how should I read the Gita? Why should I read it? For that, we should turn to the second book – ‘The Bhagavad Gita for Millennials’. I will say that ‘Millennials’ is somewhat restricting, since people of all ages will benefit from this book.

The Millennials book seeks to, and succeeds in, introducing the reader to the world of the Gita in its various dimensions. We get to know, for example, that there are at least fifty-eight Gitas, including the Bhagavad Gita. They are present in the Mahabharata (obviously), but also in the Ramayana, Puranas, upa Puranas, Parashara Samhita, and Yogavasishtha Ramayana. Furthermore, the Mahabarata itself has seventeen Gitas in addition to the Bhagavad Gita, which should illustrate to the reader why this Gita is often called the Bhagavad Gita.

The book also answers several questions as a typical reader may have about the Mahabharata and the Gita. Like, who composed the Mahabharata, why was Krishna Dvaipayana called Vedvyasa, what is the BORI (Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute) Critical Edition, was the Gita written by one or multiple authors, is the Gita a later interpolation into the Mahabharata, and so on. To take one such question, one scholar subjected the Gita to a statistical analysis and arrived at the conclusion that the Gita was indeed composed by a single person. You can also look at the Bhishma Parva, of which the Bhagavad Gita is a part of, and find no discontinuities there. The answers to some questions can only be probabilistic, not deterministic.

Which leads to another natural question –the historicity of the Mahabharata. Or the historicity of the most famous character in the epic – Krishna. Archaeologist B.B. Lal answered the question on the historicity of the Mahabharata more than half a century ago when he led the excavation at several places across northern India that are mentioned in the Mahabharata, and found evidence of several Panted Graw Ware sites dating back to the second millennium BCE. We can rely on the evidence presented by the Chandogya Upanishad that references Krishna, the son of Devaki, the account of the Greek traveler Megasthenes, the Sanskrit grammarian Panini’s 5th or 6th century BCE work, Ashtadhyayi, and so on. The circumstantial evidence points to Krishna as a historical person. It is important to point out that it is the historicity of Krishna that is covered, not his divinity – an important distinction that should not be conflated.

But what makes this book unique is probably the second chapter. The author takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of why there is no substitute to reading the Gita in its original Sanskrit. Because translations cannot be completely faithful recreated, they are often transcreations, and no translation can capture the beauty of the Sanskrit poetry in the Gita. Having said that, we are told how to break up a Sanskrit shloka – the process of breaking up the words is called पदच्छेद – to rearrange it in a linear fashion. Several verses are thus subjected to the process of dissection, revealing the order in which the words are to be read, opening a pathway to understanding even seemingly difficult shlokas. If you are curious, you can jump straight to page sixty-one and read what is perhaps the most famous and oft-quoted shloka from the Gita. You will find the Sanskrit shloka, its पदच्छेद, and an English translation, followed by the author’s admonition on the perils of reading only a part of the Gita, or worse, half a shloka.

Having introduced the reader to the mechanisms of reading, rearranging, and understanding the shlokas in the Gita, the book then elucidates several shlokas and their concepts by taking the reader on journey in the form of stories from the texts. Most are from the Mahabharata, for obvious reasons, but several from other texts also such as Upanishads and the Puranas – the Isha, Chandogya, and Katha Upanishad, or the story of king Puranjana from the Bhagavata Purana, or Madalasa and Raja Harishchandra from the Markandeya Purana, and so on. As an aside, since the Gita is a religious text, the chapter ‘What Am I Not?’ should be of special interest to agnostics.

What then is the suggested order of reading these books? For me, the answer is obvious – read the Millennials book first, keeping the translation as a handy reference. Start on it, but do not treat it as a weekend read. The translation is for a slower, more careful, more contemplative reading. The footnotes should be reason enough for a person to want to read the unabridged Mahabharata, which also, of course, Bibek Debroy has translated (published by Penguin). The Millennials book combines his knowledge of Sanskrit, encyclopedic knowledge of Hindu texts, and woven together with fine felicity.


Disclaimer: views expressed are personal.

Disclosure: the Bhagavad Gita copy was provided by Penguin India, the Bhagavad Gita for Millennials by Rupa, both courtesy Bibek Debroy.  

An edited version of this review was published in the New Indian Express on Dec 6th, 2020.

© 2020, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.