The Bhagavad Gita

A Guide to Navigating the Battle of Life

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Ravi Ravindra
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Shambhala
    , May
     2017.
     320 pages.
     $19.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781611804102.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book advertises itself as a “New Translation and Commentary” of a classic Hindu religious text, the Bhagavadgītā (henceforth BG), or “Song of the Blessed One.” The BG is of course a central text in the formation of Hindu identity, especially from the colonial period to India’s independence in 1947 and onward to the present day. Yet it is not completely a standalone text since it is found in the sixth parvan or “book” of the Mahābhārata (henceforth MBh), one of two major Sanskrit epics (the other being the Rāmāyaṇa). It is often asserted that the BG was composed at a relatively late point in the MBh’s composition or even inserted after the epic’s completion, sometime between 300 BCE to 300 CE. 

The storyline of the MBh directly informs the BG’s setting on the eve of battle between the sons of King Dhr̥tarāṣṭra (who are also known as the Kauravas) and the Pāṇḍavas (the “sons of Paṇḍu,” although they were really fathered by deities). Arjuna, one of the five heroic Pāṇḍavas who also figures greatly throughout the epic, takes Kr̥ṣṇa for his charioteer yet is struck by a mental crisis before the battle; Arjuna’s dialogue with Kr̥ṣṇa accordingly forms the substantial content of the BG. While Ravi Ravindra does contextualize the BG within the broader story of the MBh, it is disappointing that he does not even briefly engage the research of Indologists and historians on the epic—aside from a passing reference to the comparativist R. C. Zaehner (1913-1974)—especially since his treatment of various characters in the context of the BG’s verses and in a separate appendix is otherwise detailed and very insightful.

The book itself contains acknowledgments, a “Note About Diacritical Marks,” an introduction, eighteen chapters corresponding to the eighteen divisions of the BG, an appendix on characters in the MBh, footnotes, a glossary, a bibliography, and an index. Despite the ambitious offerings, this is no update of Franklin Edgerton’s classic Harvard translation, nor does it intend to be. Instead, the author’s advice-giving tone from the outset will appeal more to wisdom-seekers and comparative religionists than philologists and serious students of South Asian languages and religions. Indeed, the odd transliterations of Sanskrit terms (e.g., marks for long vowels yet no differentiation between sibilants, and the use of “cha” for both phonemes ca and cha) will of course be immediately off-putting to the Sanskritist, or even general reader trained in such conventions, and may even create confusion for readers who try to reference such technical terms in a dictionary. Such an unorthodox transliteration scheme may be acceptable for a translation designed for the popular reader, such as Laurie Patton’s well-executed Penguin Classics translation that makes use of a similar scheme, but this strikes me as unacceptable for an academic work without a compelling reason to do so. Beyond mere diacritical nitpickiness, however, there is also great inconsistency in the way Sanskrit terms are variously italicized, capitalized, or left otherwise unmarked, which I felt often created confusion while reading. 

Despite the above qualms, in my opinion the author is to be commended for an engaging translation that welcomes a comparative approach to the BG’s religious content and teachings on yoga. Interspersed throughout the author’s interpretations of the chapters are quotations from the Bible, the writings of G. I. Gurdjieff (1866-1949), Jeanne de Salzmann (1889-1990), Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), and several other spiritually-minded writers from various traditions. I find this open-minded approach to be refreshing in fields like Hindu Studies and Yogic Studies in which authors too often devote much time—and many pages—in stoking the flames of popular controversies over cultural ownership and religious exclusivity. 

Yet the question still remains: “Why these authors?” Gurdjieff and Krishnamurti are just one step removed from the Theosophical Society and its metaphysical milieu, which appears to provide a primary avenue of this edition’s readership—this much can be gleaned from the acknowledgments and in-text “blurbers.” Given this audience, it is disappointing that the author does not engage more deeply with discourses on India and modern occultism insofar as it pertains to the BG and some of its early translated renderings, such as The Song Celestial by Sir Edwin Arnold (1832-1904), who also penned a work on Buddhism known as The Light of Asia; both works were known to many members of the Theosophical Society. Furthermore, “Occult South Asia” is a growing field that has been populated for several years now with works by contemporary authors like Karl Baier, Gordan Djurdjevic, Julian Strube, and Henrik Bogdan, who have variously reflected on the “Theosophical Orientalism” of Henry Olcott (1832-1907) and Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891) as well as contrasting perspectives that populate the later works of Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), John Woodroffe (1865-1936), and Kenneth Grant (1924-2011). Of course, it is the prerogative of the author to either dismiss or accept the opinions of any author for the sake of a comparative argument. However, I felt that the author dismissed a much wider occult commentarial tradition on the BG and its system of yoga by not explicitly addressing his reasons for choosing Gurdjieff and Krishnamurti over their predecessors and contemporaries. 

Of course, there is still much in this edition that is of interest and will surprise discerning readers who think they know the ins and outs of the BG. For example, karma-yoga and bhakti-yoga are well known, but how many modern yogīs know that buddhi-yoga (somewhat problematically translated as “yoga of awareness”) also figures prominently in the BG? The book is also worth consulting for perspectives that widely differ from the commentarial tradition of Śaṅkara (ca. 8th cent. CE), whom the author flatly rejects in a footnote (269n6). All things considered, in my view the book’s novel approach to the BG outweighs its defects and would be a useful comparative resource for lay readers and those new to the story and its message. It is hoped that its precedent can provide a foundation for future comparative interpretations of Hindu religious texts

About the Reviewer(s): 

Keith E. Cantú is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ravi Ravindra, PhD, is an international speaker and the author of books on religion, science, and spirituality. A Canadian of Indian birth, he is Professor Emeritus at Dalhousie University in Halifax, where he served for many years as a professor in Comparative Religion, Philosophy, and Physics. His spiritual search has immersed him in the teachings of Yoga, Gurdjieff, Krishnamurti, and Christianity, as well as interreligious dialogue and the relationship between science and spirituality. He is the author of numerous books, notably his translation of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras with commentary, his writings on Krishnamurti and the Gurdjieff Work, and his comparisons of Indian and Christian mysticism.

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