Bhagavad-Gita Translations

  Whatever may be one’s understanding and knowledge, surprisingly and embarrassingly, simple questions can sometimes throw off one face down flat on the ground. You want to hide somewhere. One such simple question used to be an outstation visitor asking me in the small place I lived in India: “What is the best place to eat in your town?”  What can I say when I myself never ate anywhere outside, having been brought up in a family where it is considered that it is a despicable thing to eat out? (Of course, this was much prior to the IT and DINK (Double Income No Kid) culture made its worldwide invasion!)

I faced a similarly embarrassing question in Vedanta the other day.  A friend on one of the ubiquitous social networks first appreciated my ability to answer lucidly on Advaita related questions. I naturally got inflated. Then she enquired if she could ask a question on Bhagavad-Gita. I readied myself to brace any challenge feeling inside me that BG cannot be a problem. When I expressed my willingness to answer, she shot at me: “What is the best Bhagavad-Gita translation that does not deviate from the original in its meaning I would recommend to her.”  There were two limiting conditions. She was a Westerner studying Advaita Vedanta on the Direct Path; and two, she did not know Sanskrit.  Though I read many BG translations, I had not read any BG version without Sanskrit. Further, Bhagavad-Gita is commonly taught in the Traditional Path of study as it is one of the three canonical texts (prasthAna trayI). I did not know any of the Western Advaita teachers who melded BG verses into their teaching. I was totally deflated.  I literally had to run for cover and hide my face. Fortunately for me, a few good friends came to my rescue. I share the information I got from them here as others may find it useful.

  A.  From the Internet:

1.  As Advaitins, we take Shankara’s interpretation and explanation to be the Gold Standard for Bhagavad-Gita. Swami Gambhrananda’s translation is very faithful to the original.  But it is quite bulky, gives word to word meaning of the verses and also the English translation of Shankara’s commentary. 820 pages. It is available free online at:

http://michaelsudduth.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Srimad-Bhagavad-Gita-Shankara-Bhashya-English.pdf

2.  Here is a good translation of each verse, and a commentary in brief . There are Audio MP3 of the Sanskrit verses given chapterwise on each page:

http://www.astrojyoti.com/bhagavadgeeta.htm

3.  Here is a link where the verse is given in Sanskrit script along with its transliteration. There is an Audio mode rendition of each verse in a musical style. The translated  meaning is not always perfect. Also there are commentaries from four view points. The Link is:

http://www.bhagavad-gita.org/Gita/verse-02-20.html

4.  Here is an authentic version of Gita by Swami Nikhilananda. It is a free download  of about 400 pages online:

http://estudantedavedanta.net/Srimad%20Bhagavad%20Gita%20with%20Commentary%20-%20Swami%20Nikhilananda%20(1944)%20[English].pdf

5.  There are a collection of Bhagavad-Gita commentaries from different schools of Vedanta at IIT, Kanpur site:

https://www.gitasupersite.iitk.ac.in/srimad?language=dv&field_chapter_value=1&field_nsutra_value=1

However, none of the above may meet the needs of a Westerner who is getting initiated into Direct Path Advaita.

  B.  From Dennis:

6.  Best of all is the 9 volume Gita Home Study course  by Swami Dayananda. But that is a major commitment and expensive so only the very serious would be interested.

7.  A really good introductory book is ‘The teaching of the Bhagavad Gita’ by Swami Dayananda. This takes one through the entire Gita and deals lucidly with the main topics but does not translate every verse. It’s a thin paperback (168 pages).

  C.  From John:

Unfortunately most translations tend to reflect the beliefs or traditions of the author. The one by Yogananda, “God Talks with Arjuna” is good. But one has to keep in mind that it is focused on Kryia Yoga. Nevertheless, it does a good job in explaining Sanskrit terms and concepts to the Westerner. It is one of the few that describe the metaphorical meaning behind all the characters.

A New Translation by Georg Feuerstein is excellent. Georg was one of the best Yoga scholars of the last 30 years.

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/gatheringnectar/2014/09/confused-about-english-translations-of-the-bhagavad-gita/

The link above gives a very good idea about five different translations citing the translation of the same shloka from all the five for comparison.  It also provides a couple of hints on how to choose the version that suits your requirement.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Dennis and John for their very valuable inputs.

6 thoughts on “Bhagavad-Gita Translations

  1. Very useful review for everyone, Ramesam – thank you! I downloaded the Gambhirananda and Nikhilananda versions – I have the former only in book form and the latter not at all. I think it is probably true that there are hundreds of versions available – literally. I have 37 versions, some occupying multiple volumes!

    One final recommendation, actually, is the commentary by Swami Chidbhavananda. This is one of the few that I have actually read all the way through (1000 pages). It has all the Sanskrit and word by word translation. Its USP is that it has lots of quotations and stories from Sri Ramakrishna. This does mean that one ought to be aware of the neo-Vedanta idiosyncrasies of course but it also makes it eminently readable.

    Best wishes,
    Dennis

    P.S. See my page of recommended reading at http://www.advaita.org.uk/reading/read_gita.htm

  2. Hi Ramesam

    I’ve found Sw Nikhilananda’s translation of the Gita and synopses of Shankara’s comments to be readable and faithful to the intent.

    Could I also add the translation of the Gita Bhasya by Krishna Warrier, which I found easier to read relative to Swami Gambhirananda’s more terse translation.

    Best wishes
    venkat

  3. Thank you, Dennis, Ramesam, and Venkat for the very helpful suggestions and Info re BG. For over 2 yrs. I have been desperately, and unsuccessfully, looking for the trans. by A. Mahadeva Sastry (1961). I find more inspiration reading translations in older (classical?) English than in modern ones. I paid $100 for a slim volume (128 p.) of The Upanishads published as an inexpensive Mentor book – without Sanscr. and being only ‘Selections’ – translated by Sw. Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester. It may have been the only copy left from all over the world!

  4. Hi Martin,

    The Mahadeva Sastry version was the one used by SES (where I began by Advaita investigations) but Shankara’s bhAsya is much abridged. The Gambhirananda version contains the complete text (I believe) and is far superior in its English rendering in my opinion.

    Best wishes,
    Dennis

  5. The Prabhavananda, Frederick Manchester Upanishads is available in the ‘Mass Market Paperback’ edition, used, from Amazon.com from $2.93 – https://www.amazon.com/gp/offer-listing/0451615891/ref=tmm_mmp_used_olp_sr?ie=UTF8&condition=used&qid=&sr=
    I’ve had a scan through it and I must say that it does look very readable and an excellent rendition of the essential stories and meaning.

    It also appears to be available for free download from https://s3.amazonaws.com/saveas04/the%20upanishads%20breath%20of%20eternal.pdf although you may need to register first.

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