Philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita

A Contemporary Introduction

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Keya Maitra
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , March
     2018.
     208 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781350040182.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book is primarily a new translation of the famous Hindu religious text the Bhagavadgītā (henceforth BG), or “Song of the Blessed One,” although as we shall see below it offers much more than yet another translation. The BG is 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. At the same time, it is not really 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 usually asserted that the BG was composed at a relatively late point in the MBh’s composition or even inserted after the epic’s completion, likely 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. 

The author, Keya Maitra, is to be commended for offering a concise work that is suitable for teaching undergraduates yet is also accessible to students of philosophy who do not read Sanskrit yet wish to incorporate the BG’s teachings in their own research. The book itself offers an informed introduction followed by the eighteen chapters of the BG, a “Selective Glossary of Sanskrit Terms,” references, and an index. Each of the eighteen chapters  begin with a helpful summary and conclude with a “philosopher’s corner” clearly designed to assist with teaching as well as clarifying notes on the text. In my opinion, a distinctive feature of this edition is its examination of the BG from a philosophical, almost “detached” point of view, which may annoy readers who want to view the text contextually from either philological or religious studies perspectives. However, I believe that any potential annoyance on this front is unnecessary since there are already plenty of translations of the BG that will appeal to readers and teachers in those fields.

Despite the author’s stated focus on philosophy, Maitra also demonstrates the breadth of her research by citing Indological research in the introduction and analysis, which I found to be a nice nod to previous scholarship that helps connect this translation to the wider discourse on epic literature. J. A. B. van Buitenen (1928-1979), whom she cites, has, for example, asserted that the MBh was first a bardic tradition from which later versions were composed, and students will be equipped to go down the vast “rabbit hole” of his translated editions of much of the epic if their interest persists. Maitra also demonstrates familiarity with the work of Franklin Edgerton (1885-1963), Surendranath Dasgupta (1887-1952), the comparativist K. C. Zaehner (1913-1974), and the more recent scholarship of Gerald Larson. However, it would have been nice to also read her perspectives on the research of Alf Hiltebeitel and James Fitzgerald, insofar as the BG’s philosophy pertains to the MBh, yet their voices are notably absent. Also absent is the Sanskrit textual exemplar that she used for her translation; was it the critical edition of Vishnu Sitaram Sukthankar (beginning with the twenty-third adhyāya or “chapter” of the Bhīṣma Parvan), or was it another, more accessible source? It will also be disappointing to the Sanskrit reader that there are no diacritical marks used for the Sanskrit terms, nor a section outlining the author’s transliteration scheme. The absence of these marks is especially felt since in the author’s prefatory note on how to use this book she emphasizes the importance of leaving several Sanskrit technical terms (e.g., guṇaprakr̥tipuruṣa) as they are rather than attempting to translate them (one exception being her translation of karma as “action”). Such a scheme may be appropriate when writing for lay readers so as to avoid confusion, but in an academic context the use of diacritics and transliteration standards is often a huge boon for both students and teachers alike since they can ease one’s transition into formal Sanskrit study (or, indeed, the study of any other Indic vernacular or classical language).

This aside, one positive aspect of the BG that this work brings out is the importance of yoga to its teachings. Instead of attempting to translate yoga as “discipline” or “path,” as many other translations of the BG do, the author leaves yoga as “yoga.” This is ultimately a boon for the reader, since it will immediately strike the reader that this yoga (< Sanskrit root yuj, to “yoke”) is not the modern postural yoga of the contemporary studio. Scholars often question yoga’s assumed meanings, such as for example David White who argues in Sinister Yogis that yoga in the BG ought to be contrasted with prior meanings such as entering another’s body or the apotheosis of the hero who is yoked or “hitched” to his rig in death. Scholars also question the extent to which yoga in the BG can be contrasted with samādhi in the classical yoga of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra (i.e., the Yoga Sūtras and their commentarial tradition or bhāṣya), noting the BG’s emphasis on devotion (bhakti) to a personal deity. With yoga as “yoga,” such questions are left to the reader’s knowledge and engagement with academic scholarship on yoga.

All in all, Keya Maitra deserves much praise for a translation that will be widely appealing to a reader at any level of familiarity with the BG or its yogic dialogues. Her willingness to  engage the text’s visionary potential—she even skillfully cites William James (1842-1910) in a passage about perceiving Kr̥ṣṇa (114)—and its philosophical underpinnings (e.g., the metaphysical concept of the three guṇ as) takes rare skill and a keen awareness of textual nuances. The summaries and “philosophical corners” are also added bonuses that will assist anyone with the task of interpretation by providing helpful material that the curious student can use to dive deeper.

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): 

Keya Maitra is Chair and Professor in the Department of Philosophy at University of North Carolina, Asheville.

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