by Kenneth Champeon, Jun 10, 2003 | Destinations: India / New Delhi

The first time I read the Bhagavad Gita was for me an experience similar, I suspect, to taking a strong analgesic or euphoriant. The "thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to" - Hamlet's phrase - and all the petty worries du jour were washed away. As might be expected, I became addicted to this sacred drug, and I read the text with much the same devotion as Gandhi had, or Thoreau.

The copy I had was one of those sad, yellowing, and fusty paperbacks that are the bane of all booksellers everywhere, but it served. It was pocket-sized, portable, humble, willing to be dog-eared and marked over, and whenever I felt a case of the blues coming on, I would read one of its slokas - Sanskrit cousins to stanzas - and be transported. I once overheard the sage assertion that one is either addicted to drugs, or addicted to gods, the world otherwise being insufferable. Krishna was my god at the time.

Recently I came across a new translation (adaptation is a better word) of the Gita by one Stephen Mitchell, who has apparently set for himself the ambitious goal of translating or adapting much of the world's religious canon, as well as a great many mystical poets, most notably Rilke. This Gita is an adaptation because Mitchell, as he admits, knows little Sanskrit, the language in which it was originally composed. Because I know little Sanskrit either, I'm not sure how to judge Mitchell's success (and I'm not sure how he judges his own) but, as next to no one reads classical languages anymore, measures of success will perforce be measures of verisimilitude.

On the whole, Mitchell's Gita is, poetically speaking, as good as any I've seen. There are, however, a few passages that jar. One comes early, in Krishna's first response to the warrior Arjuna's unexpected refusal to prosecute a long-running civil war (described in full in the dauntingly long Mahabharata), for fear that he will only inflict more suffering upon his allies, his enemies, and himself.

In the version I came to know, I believe Krishna responded by saying, among other things, "The wise mourn neither the living nor the dead." This is perfectly economical, and moreover has the virtue of ending on the strong word "dead." Mitchell renders this line as "Wise men do not grieve for the dead or for the living." I see no reason why it has to be "wise men", even apart from the standpoint of political correctness, and the line is unnecessarily long and ends on the bland word "living." Such is one price of Mitchell's decision to render the Gita in trimeter quatrains.

At a later point (Chapter 2, "The Practice of Yoga"), Krishna is trying to demonstrate to Arjuna how "dwelling on sense-objects" leads to ruin. He presents a causal scheme. Dwelling on sense-objects --> attachment --> desire --> anger --> confusion --> weak memory --> weak understanding --> ruin. This was clear enough in my original version, and convincing enough that I recall copying out the lines and taping them to a wall. But in Mitchell's version, the trimeter quatrain prevails over sense where it had previously prevailed over economy and beauty. "From anger, confusion follows; /from confusion, weakness of memory; /" - so far, so good, and then - "weak memory - weak understanding; /weak understanding - ruin." My arrows might have served Mitchell better than hyphens, which are not only baffling grammatically but suggest equals signs, which are symbols of identity, not causality.

There are a few other cases of dissonance logical and poetical, but to regard them would postpone the important problem, to wit: What's this poem all about? And how could people as different as Thoreau, Gandhi, Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, Robert Oppenheimer, millions of Indians, and I regard it as perhaps the most beautiful and profound of the world's religious texts ("in comparison with which," wrote Thoreau, "our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial")?

First, the title. Bhagavad Gita, or the Song of God (Mitchell has "Blessed One" in place of God.) Apt, because when Krishna speaks it is almost as if one were listening to the whole of creation. A brief summary of Hindu cosmology: Every person has an Atman, or Self, or Soul - an entity locked up, as it were, by the body. When the body dies, its matter is reconstituted, but the Atman endures, taking up residence in a new body. The Atman's goal is to escape this cycle of rebirth in order to reunite with the Brahman, called by Emerson the Over-soul, by Mitchell "the One".

It is this cosmology which permits Krishna to persuade Arjuna that killing is not necessarily a bad thing: the Atman, the important part, does not die. This apparent endorsement of killing remains the central controversy surrounding the Gita. Apparent? Actual?

Thoreau thought actual. In A Week on the Concord he wrote that Krishna's argument was "defective. No sufficient reason is given why Arjoon [sic] should fight." That the Atman does not die could justify just about every imaginable course of action - suicide, for example, or quietism.

But Krishna has his retorts, caustic not witty. Arjuna, he says, you are a warrior. Your duty is therefore to fight. (Very well, says Thoreau, for a caste-bound Indian - what is my "duty"?) Moreover, if you do not fight, your enemies will "sneer and mock" you. "What deeper shame could there be?"

This appeal to Arjuna's sense of honor and duty (the motto of West Point is "duty, honor, country", in that order) persuades Arjuna. But it fails to persuade us, increasingly concerned with wealth over honor, and rights over duties.

Gandhi, embodiment of nonviolence, was unable to accept that his beloved Gita was pro-war. In his familiar legalistic prose, he writes, "Let it be granted that, according to the letter of the Gita, it is possible to say that warfare is consistent with the renunciation of" the fruit of one's actions. But the spirit of the text, he seems to suggest, favors "perfect renunciation" and such is "impossible without perfect observance of ahimsa [nonviolence]."

Leave it to the lawyer Gandhi to fall back on the letter/spirit distinction. But it is a distinction with which I tend to agree. What, then, is "perfect renunciation"? It is not, the Gita makes clear, perfect inaction, which in any case is impossible. "If I stopped acting," says Krishna, "these worlds/would plunge into ruin; /chaos would overpower all beings; /mankind would be destroyed." No, "the true renunciate neither desires things nor ignores them." When he acts, he does so not to attain results, for these results are out of his control. Aim at the bull's-eye, but do not set your heart on striking it, or you will be miserable. Mitchell sums up the message in two words - "let go" - and quotes the Tao Te Ching for corroboration. "Do your work, then step back. /The only path to serenity."

There was a time in my life when serenity seemed a worthy goal, the only goal. Now I am not so sure, and the Gita doesn't work the analgesic wonders that it used to. The world is much too busy, I fear, for serenity to be attainable, and the busy-ness only grows. Walden Ponds dwindle. Planes fly into buildings, TVs blare, bombs fall. Arjuna makes more sense to me now than Krishna, when the lapsed warrior "sank down into the chariot and dropped his arrows and bow, his mind heavy with grief."

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Review of Mitchell, Stephen. Bhagavad Gita [Harmony Books, New York, 2000].

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