Translations of the Gita that aren’t too frustrating

Friends, I’ve been teaching the Bhagavad Gītā in Indian philosophy and World philosophy courses for over a decade, as well as incorporating selections of the Gītā into other course offerings. I’ve yet to use a version that isn’t frustrating. Even those that are philologically credible are often clunky or make interpretative choices that I find at odds with easy classroom use. This year I found myself translating relevant verses on the fly while lecturing, out of dissatisfaction with the texts.

Of course, I haven’t read every translation or even most (and thus no offense to those of you who have penned translations yourselves; assume I haven’t tried yours!).

I am asking veteran teachers for suggestions on what works. In my case, I’m teaching philosophy students and humanities students for the most part, not aspiring Sanskritists.

I’m not fishing for criticisms of existing translations. And I’m not going to mention the ones I’ve found frustrating, because my point isn’t to complain but rather locate useful directions.

About Matthew Dasti

Matthew R. Dasti is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University.

20 thoughts on “Translations of the Gita that aren’t too frustrating

  1. I’m not a teacher but I studied Sanskrit at the feet of a world renowned Pandit. I recommend Baladeva Vidyabhusaba’s bhasya (translated by HH Bhanu Swami), Radhanrishnan’s translation, Holy Geeta by Swami Chinmayananda, and Gita As It Is by Prabhupada.

  2. Hi Matthew, I’m fairly familiar with five or six of the most highly regarded / commonly used ones, and eventually settled on using Vedic scholar George Thompson’s, published by Macmillan imprint North Point Press in 2008 (goo.gl/wvoL9T), to use in an Asian Classics Great-Books-type program at U-Chicago a few years ago. I see now that it was also recommended by Stephanie Jamison, Victor Mair, and the late Frits Staal. It seemed to do a good job of communicating the register and poetry of the original, while also being accurate. If I remember correctly, its introduction was also well done. Best, Ryan (Yale)

  3. I am a fan of the Winthrop Sargeant translation (from SUNY). It has a word for word break down in a column to the right of the verse, then translates the verse as literal as it can for each line, and then gives a more eloquent translation after all of that for the entire verse. It is very easy to discuss certain verses in depth, and give variants to the author’s translation in a way that makes sense to students (sometimes just changing a single word).

    Students also can see how the literal meaning needs to be transformed and then they understand more how the English alters the meaning/wording slightly and how translation is a poetic task in itself.

  4. Understanding practical Gita starts with chapter 11. There the lord is personified as the society (past,present and future) as also the nature.

    Having assimilated this idea, reinterpret the verses. Where the Lord is mentioned, mean it as the society around you and nature. Then you get meaningful interpretations.

    You will find it difficult to give “moksha” a meaningful ptactical interpretation. That is overcome by taking a still older Indian, Tamil, book called THIRUKKURAL. There the relationship of man to society is elaborated.

    If intersted refer my book
    “PHILOSOPHY OF PENINSULAR INDIA” by visweswaran available as amazon edition, both print and kindle.

  5. For what it’s worth, and not just because it was the favorite English translation of my Sanskrit teacher (she was an excellent teacher and I was a poor student), I always preferred Winthrop Sargeant’s translation (the first and second editions) as well, only to become a devotee of Feuerstein’s translation (2011; with Sanskrit text, romanized transliteration, and word-for-word translation, as well as ‘extensive notes and supporting essays’).

  6. “make interpretative choices that I find at odds with easy classroom use”

    Matt, could you explain this a bit more? What in particular would you like in a translation of the Gītā that is missing in existing translations? For instance, are there certain technical terms you want translated in a different way? Do you find translations being “consistent” at the expense of context-sensitivity? Do you want a translation that is poetic/lyrical? What is most important to you of the features you want?

    • Good question, Malcolm. I have not found classroom sucess with versions that translate the text in English verse, which is sometimes tedious for undergraduate students to read in bulk. In other cases, Sanskrit terms are translated which I’d rather keep untranslated (yoga, Brahman, etc.) And yes, “consistency” at the cost of context sensitivity is also a problem with others.

  7. Madhva’s school on Gita First sloka ;
    The question was asked on the night of the tenth day of the battle.
    Before the battle, Sri Vedavyasa told Dhridarashtra that he can be provided the faculty of sight, if he so desires, which offer he rejected saying he would like to hear a running commentary, instead. Sri Vedavyasa gave the commentator the following facilities to enable him to carry out his commentator’s role. They are–Vision like a binocular, similar hearing faculty, ability to infer what is in the mind of the perceived, freedom from thirst and hunger. Sanjaya went to the battlefield and gathered the events. After 10 days, he returned to Dhridarashtra and informed him of the fall of Bhishma.
    Startled at the news, Dhridarashtra asks Sanjaya to narrate the events from Day one. Hence the question
    Sanjaya is the charioteer and minister for Dhridarashtra. He is the son of Kavalkana. The phrase Samyak Jayathi indicates, that he had conquered desires and anger. He narrates without bias.
    Out of the 700 slokas, the utterances by Lord Krishna is 574.
    Arjuna –84, Sanjaya –41, Dhridarashtra—1.
    ” Mamaka ” means that the sons of Dhridarashtra are as blind as the father and aligned to the uncle Sakuni.
    Pandavas, being Dhridashtra’s brother’s sons are disowned by Dhridarashtra with contempt. Dhridashtra is oblivious of the well known fact that Pandavas are liked by God Krishna. He is keen on knowing the achievments of his sons.
    Readers, for each of the 700 slokas, there is indepth Madhva Dvaita commentary. I am ready to share the commentary.
    Thanks for giving me an opportunity

  8. I appreciate the responses so far. Let me underscore that what I’m looking for is feedback from experienced teachers of what works well for them in the undergraduate classroom (and perhaps why). I’m not asking for favorite versions or editions from one’s favorite Ācārya, Vedāntins or whatnot.

  9. I use Stephen Mitchell’s Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation in my undergraduate seminar The Philosophy & Practice of Yoga. Students find it very accessible, and I was delighted to discover, eminently quotable! This showed me that they were reading, thinking, re-reading, etc. I take on the responsibility of providing background, teaching them Sanskrit terms for critical concepts, and I have Chinmayananda and Feuerstein in class with me so that interpretational issues can be taken up as they are provoked by students’ own questions and puzzlement. For what it’s worth, these students begin with the Katha Upanishad (Easwaran) and closely study Patanjali. There again, I find assigning the very accessible edition by Mukunda Stiles coupled with Bryant’s excellent Yoga Sutras of Patanjali for deeper dives a terrific strategy.

    • Thank you for this, Susan. I know that students do tend to enjoy Mitchell’s version. I just find it hard to use it in good conscience, because I find it problematic that somebody “translates” something by looking at a bunch of translations and then writing something nice. Maybe I need to get over that. One can go into detail on specific verses while letting them get the gist from that.

      • I certainly appreciate your concerns. But I don’t think there is anything that we need to “get over”. One thing my students over many years have taught me is to meet them where there are. Once we do that, they will happily travel with us to where we think they “ought” to be. So I’ve never felt that I need compomise theoretial rigor, historical accuracy, etc., for getting students engaged.

  10. Hello Matthew,

    Have you tried Barbara Stoler Miller’s translation? It’s very readable and inexpensive, with a glossary at the back. It used to be the one that Prof. Joel Kupperman used in his classes.

    Can’t comment on how it compares with other translations, since I have not read other English ones except cursorily.

    • Thanks for this, Boram. I have and chose it for the reasons you’ve mentioned as well as the nice short essays. I wish she left some terms, like “yoga”, “yogin”, and “brahman” untranslated, though.

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