Bhagavad-Gita Multiple interpretations- Part Three

17 Oct

Continued from Part Two


Bhagavad-Gita in translations

As mentioned in the earlier part, the influence of the Bhagavad-Gita began to spread far and beyond Asia following its translations into English and other European languages during the latter part of 18th century, The Bhagavad-Gita captured the attention of the western scholars, intellectuals as also that of the general-readers. That, not merely widened the extent of its readership but also lent it the scope for deriving varied interpretations

In 1785, the Gita became the first Sanskrit work to be translated into English; and, it provoked widespread excitement among English Orientalists, German Romantics, and American Transcendentalists. By about 1890, the Gita was accessible to average European and American; and, it came to be regarded as India’s national or spiritual symbol

In its extended life, the Bhagavad-Gita was enriched with new meanings and new relevance in new settings. Different aspects of the work came to the fore.   The new hearers and new readers found in it  the ways to answers  their varied concerns.

The translations of the Bhagavad-Gita have a very interesting history. Ms. Mishka Sinha in her A History of the Gita’s Transnational Reception, 1785-1945 has very ably chronicled the saga of Gita’s translations  and interpretations during and after the eighteenth century. She writes in the introduction to her paper: ‘the Gita as a received and translated text was significantly altered (during this period) in certain specific ways which continue to influence its present understanding both in the West and in India’. Much of this installment of the article is based on Ms. Sinha’s paper.


Code of the Gentoos Law

With the rapid spread of the British colonial environment and the rise of the East India Company, the British courts in India had to adjudicate on increasing number of legal disputes among the locals. The Court of Directors of the East India  Company decided  to take over the administration of civil justice ; and, felt that it would help its business interests if it could involve in what they termed as ‘Hindu learning’ to decide on civil matters. Accordingly, Warren Hastings who was appointed as Governor General of Bengal in April, 1772 was asked to execute the Company’s decision; and, interalia come up with a ‘Judicial Plan’. His immediate object thereafter  was to  devise an arrangement  to dispense law/justice  to the Indian litigants  in ways that are as close  as possible to their own customs, in matters of person and property; and, particularly, on matters considered as religious. But, the dispensation of justice had to be according to the British norms and by British Judges; and it was made   explicitly clear that employing the Indian scholars or pundits as judges was totally out of question.

 [The criminal cases were to be decided according to British laws.]

By August 1972, Warren Hastings submitted his ‘Judicial Plan of 1772’. It  declared that ‘in all suits regarding inheritance, marriage, caste, and other religious usages, or institutions, the laws…of the Shaster with respect to Gentoos* shall be invariably adhered to’.

[* A brief explanation about the term ‘Gentoo’ appears necessary here.

It is said; ‘Gentoo’ is a corruption of the Portuguese word Gentio, meaning a gentile, a heathen, or native. The Portuguese (who perhaps were the earliest to colonize India) after they landed on the west coast found that the native inhabitants of India also included Jews and the Moors (Muslims). They did not quite know what those other indigenous pagan religious groups were called. But, the Portuguese named them as Gentoos – the native heathens. Thus, as early as in the sixteenth century, Gentoo was a term commonly employed, basically, to distinguish local religious groups in India from the Indian Jews and Muslims. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Gentoo as ‘a pagan inhabitant of Hindustan, a heathen, as distinguished from Mohammedan’.

It is explained; that such concept of ‘heathen’ is derived from the Christian-world view. According to medieval Christian belief, the entire population of the world was classified into four major religious groups: ‘lexchristiana, lexiudaica, lexmahometana and lexgentilium’; that is, Christians, Jews, Muslims and the rest ‘Heathens’. The ‘idolaters’- of any sort -, who were said to form roughly nearly two-thirds of the world’s population, were also grouped under ‘heathens’ (gentilium).

Till about the eighteenth century, the native population of India (other than Jews and Muslims) were labelled by the Europeans as Gentoos. That is the reason why the first digest of the Indian legislation drafted by the British in 1776 for the purpose of administering justice and to adjudicate over civil disputes among the people of India belonging to local religious groups was titled as A Code of Gentoo Law.

In the introduction to the Code of the Gentoo Laws, (pages xxi-xxii) it was explained that the terms ‘Hindustan’ and ‘Hindoo’ are not the terms by which the inhabitants originally called themselves or their religion. In fact, in very distant past when their books were created, the religious distinctions as we know did not yet exist. And,  their land was originally called as Bharatha-khanda or Jamboodweepa, in Sanskrit. Hindustan is a Persian word unknown to the original inhabitants of the land.   It was only since the era of Tartars (Muslims) the name Hindoos came into use to distinguish them from the Mussalman conquerors. Thus, the term ‘Hindoo’ was employed mainly to demarcate some class of natives from some other class of natives. The translators, therefore, decided to reject the term Hindoo; but to retain Gentoos which term was then in common use among the Europeans.

It was only later when the British realized that the Indian Gentoos had numerous religious groups and sub-groups among them, the term ‘Hindoo’ came to be used in place of the Gentoo. Accordingly, in the British official records, ‘the religion of the Hindoos’ gradually displaced ‘the religion of the Gentoos’. The word Gentoo later became archaic and obsolete,

Until then, what is now called as Hinduism was officially referred to  by the Europeans as the religion of the Gentoos. In the early years after that change, which is till end of    early nineteenth century, the word ‘Hinduism’ was in common currency ; and , it largely meant  ‘the primal and ancient religion of the subcontinent’.  But in the later years, the scope of the term Hindu as a religion was restricted to cover non-Muslims and non-Christians.

Thereafter, the word Hindu (though not originally Indian) which till then commonly referred to a geographical region (Hindu-stan), a cultural association, or language (Hindu-stani) or to a common religion of the land etc came to acquire specific religious connotations and characteristics. Consequently, the concept of the ‘Hindu religion’, that is ‘an Indian religion with a coherent system of beliefs and practices that could be compared with other religious systems’ got established.]

That Declaration led to taking up the huge task of building a body of jurisprudence to serve as the source of indigenous case-laws. Hastings, for that purpose, ordered Nathaniel Halhed (1751-1830), an orientalist as also a philologist, to supervise the task. Halhed, who was well versed in Persian and Bengali started with compiling Hindu legal code from a Persian version of the original Sanskrit.

Thereafter, a panel of ten pundits was commissioned to compile a digest of ‘Hindu’ legal literature based, mainly, on the body Dharma-shastras from the original Sanskrit texts. The digest compiled from various sources was named Vivada –arnava- setu or the sea of litigation.

The process had to be hastened with the establishment of Supreme Court in 1774, as an Appellant Authority

And, for the benefit of the English Judges ignorant of Sanskrit, it became necessary to prepare a translated version of the compilation made by the Pundits (Vivada –arnava- setu) in addition to that of the  selected ancient Sutras relating to civil matters of person and property (Vyvahara).  Such translated compilation/ compendium were made in two versions; one in English and the other in Persian. The task of translation and its publication was entrusted to Nathaniel Halhed. The English version of the digest was titled A Code of Gentoo Laws or Ordinations of the Pundits; and, was published in 1776 to serve as a source for ’legal accomplishment of a new system of government in Bengal, where, it was said :  ‘the British laws might , in some degree, be softened and tempered by a moderate attention to the peculiar and national prejudices of the Hindoo ; some of whose Institutes, however fanciful and injudicious, may perhaps be preferable to any which could be substituted in their room’.

That gave birth to the concept of a Hindu Personal Law.

[Attempts were also made to codify the Shastras and to establish the chronological sequence of the texts in order to trace the authority to a single original source. Such attempts were not successful; and, an agreed sequence of authoritative chronological order of the ancient Dharma-Sutra texts could not be established. However, by 1864, the long years of these exercises yielded a peculiar kind of case law in the form of a chain of interpretations by the English judges based on what they thought were the authoritative portions of the Hindu texts. That completely transformed the “Hindu Law” into a form of case law, as the British Judges of the Colonial India saw it fit. What we have today is a forest of citations referring to previous judges’ decisions- as in Anglo Saxon – derived legal systems; and it is left to the skills of the judges and lawyers to find the precedent and to make the law. Those precedents are again those that were set up by the English judges. What started as a search for the “ancient Indian Constitution” ended up with English law for India and Indians made by the British – just what Indians would have wished to avoid.]

Such projects could not have been carried out successfully without the cooperation of the unacknowledged “native pundit” who provided the all-important linguistic expertise as well as cultural and historical context surrounding the texts in translation. But, sad to say they did not seem to have been treated fairly. Unacknowledged on title pages of translated texts, these scholar-translators were often portrayed as crafty Brahmins deliberately misleading; offering “obscure” textual interpretations; and possibly jeopardizing translation projects.

Bhagvat-geeta or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon

Following his involvement in the compilation of a digest of ‘Hindu’ legal literature based mainly on translations from Sanskrit texts, Warren Hastings asked Charles Wilkins , a merchant in the service of the East India Company to attempt translate Bhagavad-Gita , the most well known Hindu Book , into English. 

NPG D7848; Sir Charles Wilkins by John Sartain, published by  Moon, Boys & Graves, after  James Godsell Middleton

[ Charles Wilkins (1749 –1836), who was trained as a type-setter and printer, came to India during 1770, while he was about twenty years of age; and, joined the service of East India Company as a writer, or junior clerk. He learnt Persian and Bengali; and, was soon appointed as Company’s official translator of Persian and Bengali. He was also the first to attempt to design the typeset of the Bengali script, which task he completed in 1778 with the assistance of a gem-engraver and the expert blacksmith, Panchanana Karmakara.  Charles Wilkins assisted William Jones (1746 –1794) a scholar and Judge in the Supreme Court in Bengal, to establish the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784. Wilkins moved to Varanasi to learn Sanskrit from Kasinatha Bhattacharya recognized as Sarva-shastra-guru – Master of all Shastras.  During this period, he attempted translating portions of Mahabharata into English under the guidance of his teacher (though he did not credit or acknowledge Kasinatha in his published translation). Wilkins’ translation of Mahabharata remained incomplete. He, however, could complete the translation of Bhagavad-Gita, a segment of the Mahabharata.

For more: please check:

Sir Charles Wilkins’ Basic Contribution to Indology in the West By Swami Tathagatananda ; and

Wilkins, Kasinatha, Hastings, and the First English Bhagavad Gita by Richard H. Davis]

Warren Hastings had a great fascination for the Gita; and, was thrilled by Wilkins’ translation. He persuaded the Court of Directors of the East India Company to publish the work at the company’s expense. Charles Wilkins’ English translation of the Bhagavad-Gita was first brought out under the auspices of the Asiatic Society, Calcutta in November 1784. And, it was only later that it was published from London in 1785.

In his preface, Warren Hastings, praising the literary merits of Wilkins’ work, described it as: “a performance of great originality, of a sublimity of conception, reasoning and diction almost unequaled, and single exception among all the known religions of mankind of a theology accurately corresponding with that of the Christian dispensation and most powerfully illustrating its fundamental doctrines.”

Hastings asserted that the study and true practice of the Gita’s teachings would lead humanity to peace and bliss. In his Introduction , Hastings while quoting  few translated verses said :

‘Among many Precepts of fine Morality I am particularly delighted with the following, because it has been the invariable Rule of my latter Life, and often applied to the earlier State of it, before I had myself reduced it to the Form of a Maxim in writing. It is thus:

: – Let the Motive be in the Deed, and not in the Event;

: – Be not one whose motive for Action is the Hope of Reward. Let not thy Life be spent in Inaction. Depend on Application;

:- perform thy Duty, abandon all Thought of the Consequence, and make the Event equal, whether it terminate in Good or Evil; for such an Equality is called Application;

William Hastings was confident that Gita ‘will survive when the British domination in India shall have long ceased to exist’.

The Bhagavad-Gita rendered into English by Charles Wilkins Charles was formally published in 1785 under the elaborate title: Bhagvat-geeta or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon; in eighteen lectures; with notes; translated from the original, in Sanskreet, or the ancient language of the Brahmans; (London: C. Nourse, 1785). It earned the reputation of being the first widely known text to have been directly translated from Sanskrit into a European language. And, that brought Gita to the attention of Europe and other regions.

[Later, Wilkins’ translation went into several improved and revised editions in 1809; 1849.1885; 1959; and 1970]

In his preface, Wilkins mentioned that his objective in translating the Gita into English was:’ to encourage a form of monotheist “Unitarianism” and to draw Hinduism away from the polytheism ascribed to the Vedas’.

However, both Charles Wilkins and Warren Hastings had anticipated that the British interest in Gita would most likely be generated from ‘curiosity towards a strange cultural object’. They surmised, unerringly, that this aspect would ultimately prove the most significant attraction for their readers in England.

Accordingly, in England, Gita initially gained publicity mainly as a curious cultural object retrieved from the unknown past of the distant East or as a glimpses of the ‘ immature and primitive stage of human civilization..  The majority of general readership in Britain was primarily interested in traveler’s tales, however wild and fanciful.

As an early review put it; ‘Ultimately, the Gita’s importance lay not in any intrinsic quality it may have possessed, but in its value as “a curious specimen of mythology and an authentic standard of the faith and religious opinions of the Hindoos’.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century the Bhagavad-Gita was treated as either poetry, song or as literature of philosophical nature rather than scripture.

Apart from the general readers, Wilkins’ work attracted the attention of Christian Missionary who sought to use it to counter Hindu arguments; and to down-size Krishna as an Indian copy of Jesus. Gradually, the Gita spread to the writers and authors looking for the exotic. William Blake the celebrated Romantic poet in his picture The Bramins (1809) depicted Wilkins and Brahmin scholars working on the translation. Blake’s drawing suggested that the importance of the Gita lay ‘in its significance as an object of secret knowledge recovered through intellectual labor and imperial triumph from its hitherto unknowable form within a previously hidden tradition’.(Sadly, Blake’s drawing of The Bramins is said to be lost) 

Despite a fairly favorable initial reception, Wilkins’s translation did not achieve much significance in its early decades. Gradually, the  curiosity gave place to serious study by the scholars. William Jones advised all those who wished to “form a correct idea of Indian religion and literature” to forget “all that has been written on the subject, by ancients and moderns, before the publication of the Gítà” (Jones 1799: 363).

Other translations

Within a decade after its publication, Charles Wilkins’s translation gained wide publicity; and, it was further translated into French (Le Bhaguat –Geeta ou Dialogues de Kreeshna et d’Arjoon ..) by Abbé Parraud (1787); followed by translation into Russian by Nikolay Ivanovich Novikov (1787) – which is said to have inspired Count Leo Tolstoy; and into German (Der Bhaguat-Geeta, oder Gesprache zwischen Kreeshna und Arjoon)   by Friedrich Von Majer (1802).


(Said to be world’s first French translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Parraud. Please click here to download the Book in PDF format)

There were also other translations.

Friedrich Schlegel (formally: Karl Wilhelm Friedrich; 1772-1829) a German poet, philosopher and Indologist in his monumental work, Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (On the Language and Wisdom of India) – Heidelberg, 1808, observed the similarities in the grammatical structures of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Persian and German . He argued that a people originating from India were the founders of the first European civilizations. He came to the conclusion that Sanskrit was the earliest form or the source of all the other classical languages.

Friedrich Schlegel’s study of the India and Indian languages inspired his elder brother August Wilhelm von Schlegel to move to Paris in order to study Sanskrit. The Schlegel-brothers, particularly the elder Friedrich, came to be regarded as the founder of the Romantic school, which profoundly influenced the development of German literature since the beginning of the 19th century.

August Wilhelm Von Schlegel (1767-1845), who was the Professor of Indology and Sanskrit in the University of Bonn, published the Latin version of the Gita with original Sanskrit text (1823). This was the first direct translation of the Gita into a European language.

Between 1820 and 1830, August Schlegel published Indische Bibliothek, a collection of Indian texts. He is considered the founder of Sanskrit philology in Germany. His praise for the Bhagavad Gita was: If the study of Sanskrit had brought nothing more than the satisfaction of being able to read this superb poem in the original, I would have been amply compensated for all my labors. It is a sublime reunion of poetic and philosophical genius.

As a result of the early German philosophical engagement with the Bhagavad-Gita, the text not only continued to be translated by European,  British and Indian scholars but was also accorded a Bible-like status..

A few years later, a French translation of the Gita was made directly from Sanskrit by Jean-Denis Lanjuinais (1832); and published Posthumously. He had remarked that it was a great surprise to find among these fragments of an extremely ancient epic poem from India . . . a completely spiritual pantheism . . . and . . . the vision of all-in-God’.

Another direct translation into French was made by Émile-Louis Burnouf in 1861- (La Bhagavad-Gîtâ, ou le Chant du Bienheureux, poème indien).

And, a Greek translation by Demetrios Galanos was published posthumously by in 1848.

[Another translation of the Bhagavad-Gita into German by Dr. Franz Hartmann, a German medical doctor, theosophist and occultist , gained much attention , perhaps for wrong reasons. [ Bhagavad Gita, Die [nach diesem Titel suchen, White Lotus, Leipzig, 1924 ]

Heinrich Himmler was a Nazi , often described as the architect of the Holocaust. He was a very complex person indeed.  According to Felix Kersten (his personal massage therapist), from 1941 until his death four years later,  Himmler carried a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita in his pocket; and,  read passages from it regularly every night. The book was a translation of the Gita  by Dr. Franz Hartmann.] 


Other English translations

In 1882, John Davies, Member of the Royal Asiatic society, of the Cambridge philological Society, came up with a prose translation of the Bhagavad-Gita published by the English and Foreign Philological Library; London Kegan Paul , Trench, Trubner  & Co, 1882 with an elaborate title : Hindu Philosophy The Bhagavad Gita or the sacred Lay, a Sanskrit Philosophical poem. Edwin Arnold in the preface to his translation the Gita (The song Celestial) lauds the prose transcript of Devies as being ‘truly beyond praise for its fidelity and clearness.’

The Davies’ translation was followed, in 1885, by that of   J. Cockburn Thomson—a former student of H. H. Wilson, the first Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford produced an improved translation of the Gita from the original Sanskrit text as The Gita or a Discourse between Krishna and Arjuna on Divine matters (a Sanskrit philosophical poem translated with copious notes, an introduction to Sanskrit philosophy and other matters); published by Stephen Austin, Hertford- 1835. According to Thomson, Wilkins translation was “far from giving a clear idea of the work … and still less of its philosophy.”

Charles Johnston, a retired English civil servant in Bengal and a Sanskrit scholar, brought forth a translation in 1908 in Flushing, New York of the Bhagavad Gita: “The Songs of the Master.” Johnston, in his lengthy Introduction paid rich tribute to the ancient text: ‘The Bhagavad Gita is one of the noblest scriptures of India, one of the deepest scriptures of the world. . . . a symbolic scripture, with many meanings, containing many truths. . . . [That] forms the living heart of the Eastern wisdom’.

A feature of these early English translations was to present the Gita as an expression of higher, abstract philosophical ideas within Hinduism, as distinct from its lower, popular, superstitious forms.

And, One hundred years after the publication of Wilkins’ translation Sir Edwin Arnold translated the Gita into blank verse – The Song Celestial (1885).  It achieved great fame as the most important and most widely-read version of the Gita. It also inspired Gandhi into the life-long study of the Gita. (Let’s talk more of these in the next Part)


Spread of Gita’s influence

Wilkins’s translation made its way throughout Europe, and across the Atlantic, where it became a key scripture for American Transcendentalists. Carlyle presented Ralf Waldo Emerson with a copy of Wilkins’ translation of the Gita which proved to be his greatest source of inspiration. That also influenced the Concord (Transcendental). All other similar movements in America, in one way or the other, are indebted to Concord. Henry David Thoreau, living at Walden Pond in 1846, wrote of ‘bathing his intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta.’

From about 1880 the number of translations of the Gita began to raise steeply, both in English and in other European languages, while translation into Indian vernaculars also increased at the same time. At this juncture the text began to occupy a new cultural space within a broader context, and ignited intellectual debates in the West. Such translations and commentaries mainly focused on the allegorical or symbolic aspects of Gita and on the universal relevance of the text.

The participation of Swami Vivekananda at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 and his subsequent series of talks in various cities of America also introduced the Bhagavad-Gita in particular and Vedanta studies in general to the western world. By then, the Gita was beginning to gain   considerable significance in India’s struggle for freedom, where some groups interpreted as a call for armed protest against British Rule in India. At the same time, there were also others like Gandhi, preaching the values of a self-disciplined, non-violent struggle against oppression.


Approach of the translators

Since then, the Gita has been translated into more than seventy-five languages. There have been hundreds of commentaries in Eastern and Western languages. Outside of India, the Gita is regarded as the first and the foremost work opening the way to understand Hinduism. The Gita has continued to live through the responses and interpretations of generations of readers.

As Richard H. Davis writes in the introduction to his The “Bhagavad Gita”: A Biography:

 ‘The work has lived a vivid and contentious existence over the centuries since, through readings and recitations; translations and commentaries that have transcribed this classic into many currents and disputes.

Thus , the medieval  Hindu Gurus, British colonial scholars, German romantics, Globe-trotting spiritual speakers, Indian anti-colonial freedom fighters, western students and spiritual seekers all have engaged in dialogue with the Gita, each in his/her own manner’

But, again, there was a basic difference between the attitudes and the approach of the western scholars and the Indian translators/ commentators.

For most of the Western academics and researchers, ‘the translated Bhagavad-Gita was a proof of an ancient and glorious civilization; and, they  believed that the work was culturally important.  Almost all such translations of the Bhagavad-Gita during the nineteenth and the early twentieth century, treated it as a literary work, a song or as a philosophical poem; but , not as scripture.  For example; Bhagavad-Gita or The Sacred Lay -A Sanskrit Philosophical Poem (J Cockburn Thompson 1855); Hindu Philosophy The Bhagavad Gita or the sacred Lay, a Sanskrit Philosophical poem (John Davies,1882)  ; and, The Song Celestial or Bhagavad-Gita (Edwin Arnold,   1900 ).  Edwin Arnold, in the preface to his translation, refers to Bhagavad-Gita as ‘famous marvelous Sanskrit poem in which in plain and noble language it unfolds a philosophical system ‘. He observes that when translated it would enhance English literature’.

And, for the Christian Missionary translators it was a philosophical text that needs to be countered; but, surely, not a ‘sacred scripture’. They consistently made a distinction between the abstract philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita and the superstitions of the Hindu mired in mythology of gods ‘stained by cruelty and lust’ (John Davis 1882). Thus while the high philosophy of Bhagavad-Gita might approximate somewhere near to Christian principles, it would not be adequate to redeem the lost souls of the Hindu.

The primary purpose of missionary writings on Hinduism  and the Gita was to understand the beliefs of the peoples they were seeking to convert, so that future missionaries could come well-prepared to defend Christianity The noted examples of such early works were: De Open-Duere tot het Verborgen Heydendom [1651- The Open Door to Hitherto Concealed Heathenism] by Abraham Roger (d. 1649)  ; and, ‘Genealogy of the Malabarian Gods from Native Writings and Letters’ by Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg(1682–1719). Such missionary interest in “heathen” Hinduism continued in the following century with William Jones’s essay, “On the Gods of Greece, Italy and India” (1788) and William Ward’s A View of the History, Literature, and the Mythology of the Hindoos (1815-18).

[ Hephzibah Israel, a Lecturer in Translation Studies, University of Edinburgh, in her well researched paper Translating the Sacred: Colonial Constructions and Postcolonial Perspectives writes :

Thus, apart from Christian missionaries and Orientalist scholars, a whole range of Europeans – travelers, traders, colonial administrators – translated sacred texts of various kinds and for a variety of purposes. These translations were “speech acts” from different perspectives, sometimes working at cross purposes, sometimes colluding to produce convenient stereotypes of native cultures. Translation became a key mode of interpretation for these diverse interests. Common evaluative tools of textual interpretations and exegeses were employed across textual genres for the purpose of translation. The result was a shared archive of translated knowledge of what came to be termed the “Hindu mind” in colonial parlance

Although missionary and imperial interests did not always coincide, such translation activity helped to build a corpus of knowledge regarding key aspects of Indian “culture” that both could draw on and use for their respective purposes: shared methods of interpretation, shared attitudes toward languages and their interrelations, and shared translation techniques contributed to a shared understanding of their non-European “Others.”]


But, for the Indian translators, the Bhagavad-Gita was a sacred scripture, a Holy Book and one of the three fundamental texts (Prasthana-traya) of the ancient Dharma. They write in a tone that respects the Gita’s resilience and acknowledges the reverence it commands from its adherents. They have the faith that the Gita is still vibrantly alive, and “will continue to reincarnate itself in new ways’. Translating the Gita, and explaining the ‘inner-meaning (Anthara-artha) was an act of fulfillment, of educating fellow Indians; and as a duty to spread the truth. It was also an attempt to present Gita as a Universal message; and Hinduism as an open-ended outlook of life in contrast to other rigid religious faiths.

A significant number of Indians engaged in translation, offered the Bhagavad-Gita as an example of the highest Hindu philosophical thought. For instance ; Tiruvalum Subba Row’s Discourses on the Bhagavat Gita (1888) and  R. Sivasankara Pandiyaji’s  translation, Bhagavad Gita Sara Bodhini or The Essential Teaching of The Bhagavad Gita (1897)  sought  “to help students in studying its philosophy” and to “lead them back to a purer faith”.

Even among the Indians, particularly of colonial India of early 20th century, the nationalists promoted the Gita as a central work of an emerging Indian national ethos.  According to them, the new battlefield was the British Raj, calling for concerted social and political action. The form of such action was , however, a matter of debate – violence Vs non-violence.  

[The Gita Press at Gorakhpur did remarkable work, in the early twentieth century, in spreading the message of the Gita among the common people. It widely distributed copies of Gita translated into Hindi and other languages. And, during the turbulent period of resistance to colonial rule, Gita , somehow,  came to be seen as a symbol of’ ‘nationalism’. And, during that period, anyone possessing more than a single copy of the Gita was suspected by the British as a ‘trouble-maker’. In a move to resist or even overwhelm the British, the Gita Press during 1927 distributed , freely or at a nominal price  , copies of ‘Gita Diaries’ , which also featured selected  verses from  the Gita spread  over the whole year; along with  verses for  daily meditation .]


Kashinath Trimbak Telang


The first Indian to translate the Gita into English was Kashinath Trimbak Telang (1850-1893) a Sanskrit scholar of merit, an Indologist and a Judge at the Bombay High Court.  He first published the translation of the Gita in verse form during 1875. Later in 1882, his prose-translation was brought out as Vol. 8 of the ‘Sacred Books of the East ‘series edited by Max Muller with the title The Bhagavadgita with the Sanatsugatiya and the Anugita (Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1882).The volume of Telang’s translation of the Gita included his translations of the Anugita* and Sanatsugatiya**.  

Kashinath Trimbak Telang was one of the only two Indian scholars invited by Max Muller to contribute to the ‘Sacred Books of the East ‘series; the other being Sir RG Bhandarkar. Telang’s Gita, scholarly and methodical, turned out to be amongst the more popular books in India, selling over two hundred copies (the practice of the readers of those times was to borrow books from the library than to buy). But sadly, Telang’s translation did not receive serious reviews in England. Edwin Arnold, in the introduction to his translation of the Gita wrote:’ Mr. Telang has also published at Bombay a version in colloquial rhythm, eminently learned and intelligent, but not conveying the dignity or grace of the original’.

 [* Anugita (that which follows the Gita), appears in the Ashvamedha Parva of the Mahabharata, as a sequel to the Bhagavad-Gita. It again is a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna. It takes place at the Pandava’s palace in Indraprastha, as Krishna was on his way back to Dwaraka after helping to restore the kingdom of Hasthinapur to the Pandavas following their victory in the war at Kurukshetra.   

**The Sānatsujātiya     appears in the Udyoga Parva   of Mahabharata as teaching imparted by the sages   Sanat-sujāta    to the blind king   Dhṛtarāṣṭra. It is a philosophical classic   , composed in five chapters (Adyāya 41-46).]


The Theosophists

The Theosophists came upon the Gita by about 1890s. Apart from providing explanations in theosophical terms, they highlighted the allegorical representations of the Gita. Shri T. Subba Row, an early Indian initiate into Theosophy, explained that Krishna in the Gita represented Logos the objective expression of the Absolute; while Arjuna represented the monad, Nara, the individual soul Jiva   in conjunction with Buddhi and Manas.

Mohini Chatterji, in her translation of the Gita (1888) and William Quan Judge, in his Essays on the Gita (1890) presented an entirely allegorical interpretation of the Mahabharata. Annie Besant extended the allegory to India’s struggle for freedom.

According to Besant’s interpretation, the struggle by Arjuna was “to destroy a usurper who was oppressing the land; and, it was his duty as prince, as warrior, to fight for the deliverance of his nation and restore order and peace’.  The parallel she constructed between Mahabharata war and the Indian freedom struggle came to be widely accepted; and, influenced the political stance of many leaders including Tilak. Besides, Annie Besant pointed out to the universal nature of the Gita, saying: ‘To speak of the Gita is to speak of the history of the world’.


The Gita in the twentieth century

There have also been valued translations by western scholars such as Franklin Edgerton, Robert Charles Zachner, Kees W Bolle, JAB van Buitenen and W Douglass P Hill.

However, two translations that appeared in 1935 and 1944 which brought together Indian and prominent western scholars are regarded very significant in asserting to the spiritual authenticity of the East and upholding the Universal relevance of the Bhagavad-Gita. Both translations were rich in allegorical interpretations and symbolic possibilities of the text.

These two translations, Ms. Mishka Sinha writes:

‘these two translations of the Gita reveal the influence of the inherited ideas and interpretations from the nineteenth century. Each is the product of collaborations between Indian and Western translators, and the authors of each unquestioningly accept the assumption of universal relevance that the Gita began to acquire in the period between 1880 and 1910.

Both translations were concerned with the symbolic possibilities of the text; however, the  interpretation  accompanying the second translation represents the culmination of the process begun by the literary an d allegorical interpretations of Arnold, Gandhi and the Theosophists, by turning the ordinary, surface meaning of the Gita on its head

Each could lay claim simultaneously to the spiritual authenticity of the East, and the cultural authority of the West, by bringing together Indian translators—Hindu swamis visiting the West—and prominent Western authors.’

The Geetatrans. by Shri Purohit Swami (London: Faber & Faber, 1935)

Shri Purohit Swami (1882-1946) a Hindu monk came to Britain 1931, at the instance of his Guru Shri Bhagwan Hamsa. He began with delivering a series of lectures on Indian philosophy and on Bhagavad-Gita. He became involved with British ‘spiritualists’ who helped him set up an Ashram in London. The Swami came in contact with the noted Irish poet, dramatist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1923), William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), who had a deep interest in spiritualism. He had been introduced to Hindu philosophy in 1886 through the Theosophical Society.

purohit_swami yeats

WB Yeats wrote introductions to Purohit Swami’s two books: An Indian Monk, with introduction by W. B. Yeats (London, Macmillan, 1932); and, Bhagwan Shri Hamsa, The Holy Mountain, trans. by Shri Purohit Swami, with introduction by W. B. Yeats (London: Faber & Faber, 1934)

At the instance of WB Yeats, Purohit Swami wrote a commentary on Bhagavad-Gita in a manner that could be understood by the British general reader. He avoided overuse of ancient Indian concepts and Sanskrit terms that might be unfamiliar to English-speakers. Yet, he managed to translate every word of the text into English.  Yeats took upon himself the task of helping the Swami publish his work. For that purpose, Yeats approached the well known publishing house the Faber & Faber, where the poet-scholar T. S. Eliot was the Editor. He was hoping that Eliot would also write an introduction which would enhance the prestige and acceptability of the Book. But, Eliot was reluctant to oblige Yeats and the Swami. Despite Eliot’s reservations, Faber took on the publication of four books by Purohit Swami, with the rider that they be either introduced by or in some way associated with the name of W.B. Yeats. However, the Book was published without an introduction by Yeats.

In 1935, the Swami’s translation of Bhagavad-Gita was published by Faber & Faber under the title The Geeta; The Gospel of the Lord Shri Krishna (1935). The Swami dedicated the Book ‘To my friend William Butler Yeats’, on his seventieth birthday.  Thereafter, the association between Purohit Swami and WB Yeats flourished. Yeats devoted much of his last years to the publication and promotion of Purohit Swami’s works. The two worked together to produce many books of great merit. In 1935, the Swami published a translation of the Mandukya Upanishad, for which Yeats provided an introduction. Later in 1938, they brought out the translations of Patanjali’s Aphorisms of Yoga (Faber & Faber, 1938); as also the translations of The Ten Principal Upanishads (Faber & Faber, 1938). Yeats wrote introductions for both the Books. And, Yeats included the Swami’s translations in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892–1935.

The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita, trans. by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, with an Introduction by Aldous Huxley (Hollywood: M. Rodd Co., 1944)

In 1944 the Gita appeared in a translation by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood

swami-prabhavananda christopher-isherwood

Swami Prabhavananda (1893-1976) a monk of the Sri Ramakrishna Order arrived in the USA during 1923. Initially he was attached to the Vedanta Society of San Francisco. After two years, he established the Vedanta Society of Portland. In December 1929, he moved to Los Angeles where he founded the Vedanta Society of Southern California in 1930, which grew into a very influential organization.

The Swami was a learned scholar who wrote number of commentaries on Vedanta and other Indian philosophies.  He attracted the attention of several scholars like Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, Frederick Manchester and Christopher Isherwood.

[ Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) was an English novelist, playwright, and screen-writer. After leaving Cambridge University in 1925, Isherwood in company of his school-friend WH Auden ( 1907-1973),  who was also a poet, travelled over Europe and then on to China (1938). Isherwood, Upward, and Auden formed the early core of the Leftist literary thirties generation in England. In January 1939, Auden and Isherwood (homosexual mates)  set sail for the United States. While living in Hollywood, California, as a screen-writer, Isherwood befriended Aldous Huxley with whom he sometimes collaborated. It was through Huxley that Isherwood came into contact with Swami Prabhavananda, head of the Vedanta Society of Southern California; and, became his disciple. With Swami Prabhavananda, Isherwood made a new English translation of the Bhagavad Gita, published in 1944. 

Though Isherwood did not become a monk, he remained a Hindu for the rest of his life, serving, praying, and lecturing in the temple every week and performing many literary chores for the order, including writing a biography, Ramakrishna and His Disciples (1965). His last book, My Guru and His Disciple (1980), records his conversion to Hinduism and his devotion to Swami Prabhavananda. ]

Of the many books authored by Swami Prabhavananda, his translation of the Bhagavad-Gita in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood (The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita,) published by M. Rodd Co, Hollywood, in 1944 is most well known. It carried an introduction with by Aldous Huxley. The Time Magazine (1945) in its review lauded the translation as’ a distinguished literary work” that was “simpler and freer than other English translations (three of which have been published in the past year)’.

Huxley’s introduction to The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita, which explained the allegorical interpretations of the Gita in various layers, became as famous as the Book itself. In it, he expounded the Universal ‘perennial philosophy, of the Gita. He said: :“The Bhagavad-Gita is perhaps the most systematic scriptural statement of the Perennial Philosophy [for] a world at war it stands pointing, clearly and unmistakably, to the only road of escape from the self-imposed necessity of self-destruction.”

As the Swami’s translation appeared in 1944, which was just after the end of World war II, the questions of war, violence gained special significance. Writing in the midst of a war of destruction and violence on an unprecedented scale, Huxley reread and re-imagined the Gita in a mode which rejected the utter need to kill. He, like Gandhi, emphasized that the true message of the Gita is not violence; but, on the contrary, the futility and uselessness of violence, self-destruction; and, the harm it can bring upon whole generations. 

The other noted translations

The Bhagavadgita in the Mahabharata- A Bilingual Edition – Translated by J. A. B. van Buitenen, edited by James L. Fitzgerald. The University of Chicago Press,  Chicago, 1981

A. B. van Buitenen (1928-1979), a traditional scholar-translator, was an Indologist and Professor of Sanskrit in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. Towards the end of his rather short life he focused primarily on the study of Mahabharata.

His translation of the Bhagavad-Gita edited by James L. Fitzgerald and published posthumously (1981), is rated very highly by the scholars and ardent students of the Gita. His translation, based on the critical text and   studded with an in-depth scholarly introduction and many useful footnotes, is praised for its authentic presentation and illuminating clarity. It’s acclaimed for its accurate rendering and retaining the directness of the original text.

 The Bhagavad Gita (Classics of Indian Spirituality) by Eknath Easwaran; The Blue Mountain centre of meditation; 1985

Eknath Easwaran (1910-1999) was a scholar and a spiritual teacher who wrote several books on meditation. He is also known for his translations of the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads and the Dhammapada. It is said; Easwaran developed interest in the Gita under the influence of Gandhi whom he met in his young age.

Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Bhagavad-Gita is rendered in clear, beautiful English; and is easy to read. Easwaran also wrote a three volume commentary, The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living, as well as a simpler commentary called Essence of the Bhagavad Gita In his Essence of the Bhagavad Gita, Easwaran explains the  teachings of the Gita in a modern context and comments on the Gita’s view of the nature of reality, the illusion of separateness, the search for identity, the meaning of yoga, and how to heal the unconscious. The book views the key message of the Gita as how to resolve our conflicts and live in harmony with the deep unity of life, through the practice of meditation and spiritual disciplines.

The Bhagavad-Gita by Georg Feuerstein, Brenda Feuerstein; Shambhala Publications; 2011

A more scholarly translation of the Gita comes from Georg Feuerstein. His translation with detailed notes is good for academic study. The left-hand page contains the Sanskrit in both Devanagari and transliteration, while the right-hand page contains a very literal translation, usually with several footnotes. A section in the back contains a word-by-word literal translation.

[There is also a first-ever translation of the Bhagavad-Gita into Maltese  by Dr Michael Zammit, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Malta; published by PIN Publications, Herbert Ganado Street, Pieta, PTA 1450, Malta. The audio version,  Bhagawad Gita ta’ Wjasa, Dr Zammit’s translation is being webcast on the University of Malta’s website. Please also read Dr .Zammit’s interview with Ms. Venetia Ansel the noted scholar , writer and publisher.]


Mishka Sinha mentions that of all the translations and the commentaries on the Bhagavad-Gita published between 1880 and 1910, Telang’s translation; Edwin Arnold’s The Song Celestial; Translations by the Theosophists; and Gandhi’s Gita are notable for the influence they exerted as also for the explanations of the universal relevance, the allegorical and symbolic significance of the text.

Let’s talk about Edwin Arnold’s translation and about Gandhi on Gita in the next part.


Continued in Part Four

References and sources

  1. Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita and Images of the Hindu Tradition: by Catherine A. Robinson
  2. The Bhagavad Gita and the West: The Esoteric Significance of the Bhagavad-Gita by Rudolf Steiner
  3. Exploring the Bhagavad Gitā: Philosophy, Structure, and Meaning by Ithamar Theodor
  4. The Bhagavad Gita: A Text and Commentary for Students by Jeaneane D. Fowler
  5. Fighting Words: Religion, Violence, and the Interpretation of Sacred Texts by John Renard
  6. The Failure of Allegory: Notes on Textual Violence and the Bhagavad Gita by Laurie L. Patton
  7. A Comparative Study of the Commentaries on The Bhagavadgītā by T. G. Mainkar
  8. Bhagavad-Gita in Mahabharata Translated and Edited by J. A. B. van Buitenen
  9. My Gitaby Devdutt Pattanaik
  10. The Bhagavad-Gita and modern thought introduction by Shruti Kapila and Faisal Devji
  11. The quest for objective truth – Modern Indian Interpreters of the Bhagavad Gita Edited by Robert Neil Minor
  12. Who Wrote Bhagavad-Gita by Meghnad Desai
  13. Da’ud ibn Tamam ibn Ibrahim al-Shawn – The Bhagavad Gita interpreted – Edited by Daud Shawni
  14. A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 2 by Dr. Surendranath Dasgupta
  15. A Companion to Translation Studies edited by Sandra Bermann, Catherine Porter
  16. The “Bhagavad Gita”: A Biography By Richard H. Davis 


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Posted by on October 17, 2016 in Bhagavad-Gita, General Interest


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