The Bhagavad Gita: a New Translation
Back in late 2006 I began a personal but intermittent cultural literacy project in which I aimed to begin reading about global religions, including tackling their originating documents when possible. Since then, I’ve studied Judaism, Islam, Taoism, and Buddhism but have time and again avoided the vast subject of Hinduism. What prompted me out of my reluctant was the movie Gandhi, given the affectionate way the titular character regarded the book.
What attracted me to this translation was the cover art and a sewn-in burgundy ribbon intended to serve as a bookmark. The inside page quality and coloration were also obviously chosen with care, with an attention to quality that is rare and so much the more appreciated.
The Gita itself takes the form of a conversation between the god Krishna and a human being named Arjuna, who is reluctant to engage in a battle to reclaim his homeland. Although the articles I read introducing the Gita claim that Krishna disguises himself as Arjuna’s charioteer, in Mitchell’s translation he is referred to throughout the book as The Blessed Lord and speaks of himself in the first person as a divine entity. Midway through, he explicitly reveals himself as the God, the being from which all deities find their source, and shows Arjuna his true physical form.
Before this, and following it, Arjuna and Krishna converse about the meaning of life, suffering, wisdom, the path to righteousness, the value of faith, and many diverse but related concepts. Krishna opens the conversation by encouraging Arjuna to have courage. Their conversation expands from there, Arjuna asking Krishna to elaborate on one question or another.
In reading, I saw the origins of ideas I associate with Hinduism — reincarnation and universalism, for instance. I also saw the origins of ideas I associated with Buddhism (Krishna identifies desire as the enemy of wisdom). Even translated into contemporary English, the Gita is not a light read, but Mitchell’s offering is lucid on the average, and I tended to find myself caught up in the narrative flow — pausing only to refresh my memory of what a particular untranslated Hindi word meant.
Although translated poetry assuredly loses something in the process, Mitchell manages to convey beauty and simplicity here. Unlike his translations of other works (Gilgamesh and the Tao te Ching, which I’ve previewed but don’t have access to), Mitchell refrains from ‘updating’ the text with modern idioms and allusions. If you’re interested in reading the Gita for literacy purposes — or just looking for poetry that reminds you Hindu and some Buddhist religious principles — I’d say Mitchell’s translation is promising.