Tag Archives: Edwin Arnold

Bhagavad-Gita Multiple interpretations- Part Four

Continued from Part Three


Among the translations of the Bhagavad-Gita that appeared during the closing decades of the nineteenth century, the one rendered in verse by Sir Edwin Arnold (The Song Celestial) – was widely read and well accepted by all the sections of readers. Apart from gaining great fame as a wisdom-text, it also exerted influence on Theosophists, thinkers and ardent seekers of the Truth, the most notable among who was MK Gandhi. Edwin Arnold’s translation gained greater significance as it brought its influence on Gandhi; and, through Gandhi and his non-violent protests on India’s struggle for freedom.


[Sir Edwin Arnold (1832-1904) was an English poet, teacher and journalist. After leaving the University of Oxford, Arnold worked as a schoolteacher in Birmingham before becoming the Principal of the British Government Sanskrit College at Pune India, in 1856. He returned to England in 1861 to join the staff of the Daily Telegraph, where he was  its Chief Editor from 1873 to 1889.

The years that Arnold stayed in India proved to be a highly significant part of his life. Here, he was drawn to the Eastern traditions. He learnt Sanskrit and gained familiarity with ancient texts. After returning to England, he wrote a series of books in prose as also in verse  on   the great personalities and the well known texts and songs of the East.

He also published several volumes of shorter poems as well as collected essays Japonica (1892). His other works included : The Light of Asia (1879 an epic poem in blank verse describing the life and teachings of the Buddha; Pearls of the Faith (1883), on Islam; The Light of the World (1891) on life of Jesus; The Song Celestial (1885) translation of the Bhagavad-Gita; adaptation of the Japanese play Adzuma or The Japanese Wife (1893);  The Tenth Muse (1895) – adaptations of Japanese poetry;  With Sadi in the Garden (1888); Potiphar’s Wife (1892);  and Indian Poetry (1904).

His fame as a poet rests mainly on: The Light of Asia subtitled The Great Renunciation ( Donohue, Henneberry & Co , London July 1879) – a narrative poem; a free adaptation of the Lalitavistara a Mahayana Buddhist  Sanskrit text compiled, in both prose and verses,  around the beginning of the Common Era  describing the life of Gautama Siddhartha who attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, the Awakened One; and on The Song Celestial   or Bhagavad-Gita   (From the Mahabharata)  Being a Discourse Between Arjuna,   Prince of India, and the Supreme Being  Under the Form of Krishna (Trubner & Company London,1885 )]

[For more about Sir Edwin Arnold ; please read the article written by Sri K S Ramaswami Sastry , included in the book The eminent Orientalists : Indian, European and American (pages from 218 to 256) ]

Light of Asia, published by Trübner & Co, London, 1889. British Library, C.188.a.211

The Song Celestial 

In 1885, exactly one hundred years after Sir Wilkins’ English translation of the Bhagavad Gita was published, Sir Edwin Arnold’s blank verse rendering of the Sanskrit text appeared as The Song Celestial.  He dedicated the Book to India and to England:

 So have I read this wonderful and spirit-thrilling speech;  By Krishna and Prince Arjun held, discoursing each with each; So have I writ its wisdom here,—its hidden mystery; For England; O our India! as dear to me as She!’

Sir Arnold also published an edition dedicated to the American people ‘with all gratitude and attachment ‘(Boston; Roberts Brothers; 1885). It enjoyed wide circulation and many scholars of the Gita acknowledged its influence on readers.

By the time The Song Celestial appeared in 1885, Edwin Arnold was already a highly regarded Victorian poet, well known for his oriental verse The Light of Asia.

In the preface  to The Song Celestial , Arnold  recalled the translations of the Gita made earlier in European languages  – by Burnouf (French); Schlegel (German);  Lassen (Latin); Stanislav Gatti (Italian); Galanos (Greek) ; as also the English translations of Thomson, Davies ( in prose) and that by Kasinath Telang. He acknowledged with gratitude the help derived from their works; and, added that ‘English literature would certainly be incomplete without possessing in popular form a poetical and philosophical work so dear to India’.

The two factors that distinguished Arnold’s translation of the Gita from the earlier ones were: he chose the poetic form and within it he adopted the blank-verse form; and, the other was that rather than reproducing the literal Gita,  he brought out the substance and intent of the original verse in an easy-to-read narration.

Thus, Arnold succeeded, in some measure, not only in maintaining the fidelity of the oriental text, but also in bringing the original closer to the reader.  His rendering of the Gita was described as ‘smooth, eloquent, and reliable’.

song celestial3

Autographed by the Author (as Edwin) on 9 June 1885

In the preface to his work, Arnold explained:

 “The Sanskrit original is written in the Anushtubh metre (Chhandas), which cannot be successfully reproduced for Western ears. I have therefore cast it into our flexible blank verse, changing into lyrical measures where the text itself similarly breaks.  For the most part, I believe the sense to be faithfully preserved in the following pages.”

The blank verses in late Victorian English lent the Gita a new look; and made it easy for the English-knowing persons worldwide to read and to recite the Gita. That helped to enhance the appeal and acceptance of the Gita among the general readers both in the West and in the East.

The Gita was no longer a religious text; but had become a sort of romantic universal, non-denominational viewpoint of the world and of life at large. Arnold’s poem allowed the Gita to be received by a new public audience. The Song Celestial gathered appreciation across England and Ireland, while at the same time acknowledging Arnold’s contribution in making Eastern texts accessible to a broader spectrum of readers.

Within a month of its appearance in print, it had become the most sought after book in the Leeds Public Library. A large part of the general readers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century was composed of borrowers of books and journals from local libraries. It was this readership that gauged the popularity or otherwise of a Book.

Many of his verse are often quoted; For instance:

: – It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection. 

: – A gift is pure when it is given from the heart to the right person at the right time and at the right place, and when we expect nothing in return

: – It is true that the mind is restless and difficult to control. But it can be conquered, through regular practice and detachment. Those who lack self-control will find it difficult to progress in meditation; but those who are self-controlled, striving earnestly through the right means, will attain the goal.

:- If one ponders on objects of the sense, there springs Attraction: from attraction grows desire; Desire flames to fierce passion; passion breeds Recklessness; then the memory—all betrayed— Lets noble purpose go, and saps the mind, Till purpose, mind, and man are all undone

:- In all things, in all natures, in the stars; Of azure heaven, the unenduring clouds, In flower and tree, in every pebbly stone ;That paves the brooks, the stationary rocks; The moving waters, and the invisible air, and utter in humble adoration, We, who from the breast ; Of the frail earth, permitted to behold ; The faint reflections only of Thy face Are yet exalted, and in soul adore..!


Symbolism and Allegories

The early commentators of the Gita belonged to certain specific Schools of philosophy or traditions; and, their view of the Gita and their interpretations depended upon their concept of the Supreme reality, the individual and the world; and the nature of relationship between these entities.

Edwin Arnold stayed clear of such medieval interpretations of the Gita; but at the same time, he brought into his rendering the symbolisms and allegorical representations that he saw in the Gita. In a way of speaking, it could be said that Edwin Arnold revived; breathing a fresh life into the tradition of the allegorical interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita that somehow was fading away. Where Arnold succeeded was in communicating those symbolisms and allegories and their universal nature, in a lucid, eloquent form that could be enjoyed by the general-reader.

Since the early periods, the allegorical interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita have been in vogue, by looking upon Kurukshetra as not a mere geographical region or a historic battle. For instance; Abhinavagupta, in his Gitartha-sangraha, a commentary on Bhagavad-Gita, refers to a tradition of interpreting Kurushetra as zone of war that takes place between the righteous and un-righteous tendencies within the human body-mind complex.  According to him, Kurushetra is something more than a geographical venue where a battle took place among the cousins and their supporters.

Similar allegorical interpretations of the Gita became quite a regular feature by the turn of the nineteenth century; and , it has been carried forward ever since.

Edwin Arnold referred to Kurukshetra as human body, the field where Life disports.

Yea! Son of Kunti! for this flesh ye see
Is Kshetra, is the field where Life disports;
And that which views and knows it is the Soul,
Kshetrajna. In all “fields,” thou Indian prince!
I am Kshetrajna. I am what surveys!

For Sri Aurobindo, ‘the physical fact of war is only an outward manifestation of a general principle of life. The war symbolizes all aspects of struggle that takes place all the time, both in our inner and outer living.. Life is a battle and a field of death; this is Kurukshetra’.

For Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Kurushetra signified Dharmakshetra, a just war against oppressive foreign rule.

The theosophists and through them Gandhi followed Arnold’s interpretation that Kurukshetra is where an eternal struggle is taking place within us. Such an interpretation gained greater acceptance starting from the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century and later.

Gandhi gained acquaintance with the Bhagavad-Gita through Edwin Arnold’s The song Celestial; and, he accepted and adopted the allegorical interpretation of the Gita as rendered by Arnold. And , that  left an everlasting influence on his outlook, his ways of thinking and devising his struggles, and on his very life. 

Gandhi esteemed the Song Celestial as the best translation of the Gita. And, it became a source of inspiration; and to his lifelong study of Gita in his search for Truth.

In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Part I, Chapter XX – Acquaintance with Religions) Gandhi wrote about the Song Celestial with glowing admiration of the book:

The book struck me as one of priceless worth. The impression has ever since been growing on me with the result that I regard it today as the book par excellence for the knowledge of Truth. It has afforded me invaluable help in moments of gloom. I have read almost all the English translations of it (the Bhagavad-Gita), and I regard Sir Edwin Arnold’s as the best. He has been faithful to the test, and yet it does not read like a translation.


How Gita came into Gandhi’s life

Gandhi came upon Bhagavad-Gita through the Theosophists and The Song Celestial of Sir Edwin Arnold, while he was a student in London during 1899.  In his Autobiography, Gandhi talks, in fair detail, about how he was introduced to the Gita ; and , the influence it cast on his outlook and on his life in total.

The young Mohandas Gandhi, not yet twenty, arrived in London in 1888   to study Law in order to become a Barrister. He was venturing out of home and out of India for the first time; and, was terribly ill-adjusted to the alien world. In particular, he sorely missed the home-cooked Gujarati vegetarian meal.


Lonely and starving, the young Gandhi was happy to find a safe haven in the London Vegetarian Society (LVS). Here, he befriended many vegetarian reformers and writers of the day like Henry Salt, Anna Kingsford, Dr. Allison, Joshua Oldfield and Edward Maitland.


Through his association with the members of the LVS, Gandhi came to know the prominent Theosophists of the day, such as Madam Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the Olcott brothers, and Annie Besant, who would later become an important leader in the Indian independence movement.

Annie Besant clipped (1847-1933)[In his autobiography, Gandhi mentions that the Theosophists friends who introduced him to Arnold’s poem also introduced him to Madame Blavatsky and Mrs. Besant. He ‘politely declined’ his friends’ invitation to join the Theosophical Society, though he read, at their instance, Madame Blavatsky’s Key to Theosophy.]


Gandhi’s theosophist friends in the LVS —the two Olcott brothers— who were studying the original Sanskrit text of the Gita alongside its rendering in English by Edwin Arnold (The Song Celestial) approached Gandhi for help in reading text and in understanding the meaning of certain Sanskrit words in the text, perhaps because Gandhi was from India and he might know Sanskrit. But, Gandhi had neither read the Gita nor did he know Sanskrit. Gandhi was embarrassed; and, as he confessed in his Autobiography;

 ‘I felt ashamed, as I had read the divine poem neither in Sanskrit nor in Gujarati… I was constrained to tell them that I had not read the Gita, but that I would gladly read it with them, and that though my knowledge of Sanskrit was meager, still I hoped to be able to understand the original to the extent of telling where the translation failed to bring out the meaning. I began reading the Gita with them’.

Determined to prove himself, Gandhi succeeded in turning that sense of ‘shame’ into a strong motive to take up the study of the Gita.

‘My first acquaintance with the Gita began in 1888-89 with the verse translation by Sir Edwin Arnold known as the Song Celestial. On reading it, I felt a keen desire to read a Gujarati translation. And I read as many translations as I could lay hold of ‘.

Talking about his encounter with the Song Celestial, the book that “stimulated in . . . the desire to read books on Hinduism, Gandhi wrote an article in his nationalist weekly journal Young India (1925)

“My first acquaintance with the Gita was in 1889, when I was almost twenty. I had not then much of an inkling of the principle of Ahimsa . . . Now whilst in England my contact with two English friends made me read the Gita . . .My knowledge of Sanskrit was not enough to enable me to understand all the verses of the Gita unaided. . .They placed before me Sir Edwin Arnold’s magnificent rendering of the Gita. I devoured the contents from cover to cover and was entranced by it. The last nineteen verses of the second chapter have since been inscribed on the tablet of my heart. They contain for me all knowledge . . .I have since read many translations and many commentaries, have argued and reasoned to my heart’s content but the impression that first reading gave me has never been effaced” .

Gandhi read the Gita as one would do a literary work, rather than as a religious text. Further, he pictured the Gita as an elaborate allegory.

And who are Dhritarashtra and Yudhishtira and Arjuna? Who is Krishna? Were they all historical characters? . . . I regard Duryodhana and his party as the baser impulses in man and Arjuna and his party as the higher impulses. The field of battle is our body. An eternal l battle is going on between the two camps and the Poet seer has vividly described it. Krishna is the Dweller within, ever whispering in a pure heart.

A-himsa – Nonviolence


Among all leaders of the Indian independence movement, none was more devoted to the Bhagavad Gita than Gandhi. He called it his ‘dictionary of daily reference’; his ‘spiritual reference book’; and, his ‘Mother.’ He spoke and wrote widely on it throughout his life. Gandhi, in contrast to other major nationalist leaders, held no commitment more important than his principle of non-violence.

But, he ran into a serious interpretive problem, because in the course of the Gita Krishna persuades the reluctant warrior Arjuna to take part in an internecine disastrous battle.

The question whether the true teaching of the Gita favors violence or non-violence became vitally important to Gandhi. He needed a clear , firm and an honest answer to anchor his faith in his struggle for India’s freedom ; to provide a principled public resistance; and, above all to ensure the authenticity of his inner spiritual life.

Gandhi believed that the message of the Mahabharata itself was the virtues of non-violence; and , the Gita which was but a small segment of it carried a similar message. He wrote:

 The author of the Mahabharata has not established the necessity of physical warfare; on the contrary he has proved its futility. He made the victors shed tears of sorrow and repentance; and has left them nothing but legacy of misery. At the end of the Mahabharata, nearly everyone on both sides is killed.

According to Gandhi, Gita which is embedded in Mahabharata also demonstrates the futility of violence. The true message of the Bhagavad-Gita, Gandhi asserted, is non-violence and peace.

Gandhi chose to view the Kurukshetra battle as an allegorical- ethical struggle between Dharma and A-dharma.  He wrote in his Autobiography:

‘Even in 1888-89, when I first became acquainted with the Gita, I felt that it was not a historical work; but that, under the guise of physical warfare, it described the duel that perpetually went on in the hearts mankind, and that physical warfare was brought in merely to make the description of the internal duel more alluring. This preliminary intuition became more confirmed on a closer study of religion and the Gita.’

Gandhi admits that verse 2.37 and those around it seem to approve violence

हतोवाप्राप्स्यसिस्वर्गंजित्वावाभोक्ष्यसेमहीम् | तस्मादुत्तिष्ठकौन्तेययुद्धायकृतनिश्चय: || 37||

Hato vā prāpsyasi swarga jitvā vā bhokhyase mahīm / Tasmād uttihha kaunteya yuddhāya kita-niśhchaya

 सुखदु:खेसमेकृत्वालाभालाभौजयाजयौततोयुद्धाययुज्यस्वनैवंपापमवाप्स्यसि || 38||

 Sukha-duḥkhe same kṛitvā lābhālābhau jayājayau / Tato yuddhāya yujyasva naivaṁ pāpam avāpsyasi

 BG 2.37: If you fight, you will either be slain on the battlefield and go to the celestial abodes, or you will gain victory and enjoy the kingdom on earth. Therefore arise with determination, O son of Kunti, and be prepared to fight

 G 2.38: Fight for the sake of duty, treating alike happiness and distress, loss and gain, victory and defeat. Fulfilling your responsibility in this way, you will never incur sin.

But he argues that the later verses that speak eloquently about equanimity and self-control cancel the violent aspects of these verses.

Gandhi came to believe that without total observance of Ahimsa (non-violence) in every form it would not be possible to gain freedom from attachment.

And, that led Gandhi to offer a particularly distinct interpretation of the Bhagavad-Gita, where Krishna instead of asking Arjuna to fight the war, instructs him to ‘fight the battle within the self; to battle passion and selfishness’.

The Bhagavad-Gita, he explained, repeatedly, is not about the battle that is waged on the field of dirt soaked in blood; but, the Kurukshetra – Gandhi argued, must be taken as an interior one, where the forces of good and evil are locked in never-ending struggle.  He said: When Krishna tells Arjuna to fight, he is telling him to overcome any self-interested inclinations; and, to carry out his own righteous duty. Gandhi based his authority as an interpreter of the Gita on his personal endeavor ‘to enforce the meaning in my own conduct for an unbroken period of forty years.’ Gandhi also claimed that the Gita was not a Hindu work, but rather one of “pure ethics,” which a person of any faith might read’

[ Richard H. Davis the author of “The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography “: also published as a series of very well researched and candidly written articles , writes under the Section titled  : Krishna , the Gita , and the Indian Nation (in Erenow) :

In 1929 Gandhi composed an introduction to the translation, “Anasaktiyoga” (the discipline of non-attached action), which is his most succinct interpretive statement on the Gita. The introduction and translation were released on March 12, 1930, the day that Gandhi began his salt Satyagraha. Again in prison from 1930 to 1932, Gandhi wrote a series of letters to the ashram, giving a simplified chapter-by-chapter summary of Krishna’s teachings for those who found his earlier commentary difficult to comprehend. His last recorded discussion of the Gita took place with the American writer Vincent Sheean in January 1948, three days before his assassination.

In writing on the Bhagavad Gita, Gandhi does not claim any scholarly credentials for himself. His authority lies rather in his attempt to govern his life according to its precepts. “At the back of my reading,” he writes in his “Anasaktiyoga,” “there is the claim of an endeavor to enforce the meaning in my own conduct for an unbroken period of forty years.”21 Beyond this personal dimension, Gandhi’s interpretation of the Gita is a deeply political act. Writing in the 1920s, Gandhi faces several challenges. Like other activists, he views karma yoga as the most relevant teaching of the Gita. But in light of his own commitment to nonviolence (ahimsa) and his desire to make this a fundamental principle of the Indian independence movement, he needs to counter those like Tilak as well as the revolutionaries who employ Krishna’s teachings to justify the use of violence in a righteous cause. At the same time, he seeks to separate the Gita from the more Hinduist claims on the text, like those of the Hindu Sangathan or the RSS.

Gandhi’s disinterest in historical veracity lays the groundwork for an allegorical reading of the epic and the Gita. Kurukshetra, in Gandhi’s internalist reading, is within each of us. The epic battle is a struggle between dharma and its opposite, between the forces of good and evil. “Pandavas and Kauravas, that is, divine and demoniacal impulses, were fighting in this body, and God was watching the fight from a distance,” Gandhi explains. “Please do not believe that this is the history of a battle which took place on a little field near Hastinapur. The war is still going on. As a non-historical moral allegory, the Mahabharata and its Bhagavad Gita have permanent value.

Gandhi engages Tilak’s interpretation more directly over one particular passage. In Gandhi’s translation it goes: “In whatever way men resort to Me, even so do I render to them. In every way, O Partha, the path men follow is mine” (4.11). Tilak cited this verse to prove that the Gita upholds the principle of “tit for tat,” or retributive violence. We should act toward others as they do to us. The aggressive violence of British occupation, Tilak had argued, may legitimately be met with violent resistance by freedom fighters.

Gandhi counters that the verse cannot be interpreted in this way. We cannot justify retributive violence. The verse lays down God’s law, Gandhi observes, and not a directive for human interaction. Krishna will “worship a person as the latter worships Him.” As Gandhi sees it, the message of the verse is “we reap as we sow.”25

Krishna does not explicitly endorse the principle of nonviolence in the Gita, Gandhi admits. Nevertheless, nonviolence is a corollary of Krishna’s primary teaching—namely, non-attachment to the fruits of action. Any action that cannot be performed without attachment is taboo, and this means that murder, lying, dissoluteness, and the like are disallowed. Although the Gita was not written to justify nonviolence, Krishna takes it for granted. To reinforce this point, Gandhi cites his own experience. Perfect renunciation such as Krishna advocates is not possible without perfect observance of nonviolence.

The principle of non-attachment applies even to the righteous work of the freedom struggle. The danger with nationalist thinking, according to Gandhi, is that it may lead to the adoption of “bad means,” which Gandhi terms duragraha. “If we are attached to our goal of winning liberty, we shall not hesitate to adopt bad means.” Gandhi refers here to all those nationalists who justify acts of vilification or violence by citing noble goals, such as victory, prosperity, and good fortune. By contrast, Krishna recommends that we should not be attached even to a good cause. “Only then will our means remain pure and our actions, too.”26

Gandhi ends his disquisition on the Bhagavad Gita by stressing the value of Krishna’s teachings for the hard work of discipline that he urges on himself, members of his ashram, and all who read his words. He reiterates his conviction that the Gita is a work of universal ethics, not the possession of a particular national or religious community. “This is a work which persons belonging to all faiths can read. It does not favor any sectarian point of view. It teaches nothing but pure ethics.”27 The Gita may be, as Gandhi puts it, a “deity of the mind,” but it is not an exclusive “Hindu Bible.”

Gandhi’s nonviolent and nonsectarian reading of the Bhagavad Gita would prove enormously influential in India, disseminated through his newspapers, publications, and translations into all the vernacular languages. At the time, many Indians fit Gandhi himself into the theological framework of the Gita. Just as Krishna says that he incarnates himself in age after age, whenever dharma is threatened, perhaps Gandhi was the avatar of this age.28

Not all Indians shared Gandhi’s approach to the text, of course, or judged him with such reverence. Ironically, Gandhi’s assassin also saw himself as a Gita-style karma yogin. In January 1948, after Indian independence and the catastrophic communal violence surrounding the partition of the subcontinent, Gandhi began to hold daily public prayer sessions in Birla House, Delhi, reciting passages from the Gita and Quran along with religious works from other traditions. On the evening of January 30, Nathuram Godse interrupted Gandhi at the prayer grounds with two bullets fired at point-blank range.]


The following is an extract from Gandhi’s interpretation of the Gita’s position on violence:

I do not believe that the Gita teaches violence for doing well. It is pre-eminently a description of the duel that goes on in our own hearts. The divine author has used an historical incident for including the lesson of doing one’s own duty even at the peril of one’s life. It inculcates performance of duty irrespective of the consequences; for, we mortals, limited by our physical frames, are incapable of controlling actions save our own. I do not agree that the Gita advocates and teaches violence in any part of it. See the concluding discourse at the end of Chapter Two. Although that chapter lends itself to a violent interpretation, the concluding verses seem to me to preclude any such interpretation. The fact is that a literal interpretation of the Gita lands one in a sea of contradictions. “The letter killeth, the spirit giveth life.”

[It appears that Gandhi was not the first to reject war and violence amidst which the Gita was born. And, even during the medieval times there was a certain uneasiness in accepting the necessity of war in solving disputes

There is an interesting passage in the Bhagavata Purana (dated perhaps around sixth century) which explains how that Purana came to be composed by Vyasa.  In the Fifth Chapter of the First Canto of the Bhagavata Purana ( 1.05.08 – 40), Sage Narada admonishes Vyasa for justifying violence and glorifying terrible acts of war fought in the name of the Dharma, causing death and destruction of countless lives. You described the war in a mighty manner . Narada points out the danger that some misguided readers of Mahabharata might come to believe that it is not wrong to indulge in violence if it could serve the interest of what they deem to be Dharma, honor etc. Narada advises Vyasa to try to undo the damage he had caused by composing a work that preaches the virtues of devotion, love and peace; and, above all , the glory and splendor of the Lord Vasudeva. That was now, it is said, Bhagavata Purana came to be composed.

yathā dharmādayaś cārthā munivaryānukīrtitāḥ, na tathā vāsudevasya mahimā
anuvarṇitah (S.B. 1.5.9)

Though both Narada and Gandhi abhorred violence, their view on Mahabharata differed.  Narada was unhappy with violence and destruction being shown as the way to resolve disputes. But Gandhi argued that that the true message of Mahabharata was indeed the futility and the condemnation of violence.

Perhaps no one else before Gandhi had explicitly said that the message of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad-Gita, truly, is non-violence.]

Gandhi pointed out that Gita in fact holds out a method by which truth-force (Satyagraha) could be achieved.  Gandhi was now determined that if one has to fight, one should fight non-violently.  Thus, Violence and denial of violence became major issues for debate and action.

Gandhi’s faith in Ahimsa as the core of the Gita gave rise to Satyagraha as an effective means to express one’s protest; and, to offer resistance without indulging in violence.

According to him, a Satyagrahi should be willing to die like a soldier (Kshatriya) for the cause of India’s independence. Satyagraha was Gandhi’s unique contribution to fight against oppression and injustice.

It has been my endeavor, as also that of some companions, to reduce to practice the teaching of the Gita as I have understood it. The Gita has become for us a spiritual reference book. I am aware that we ever fail to act in perfect accord with the teaching. The failure is not due to want of effort, but is in spite of it. Even through the failures we seem to see rays of hope.

This was in sharp contrast to the interpretation offered by the leaders of India’s nationalist movement such as Sri Aurobindo and others to fight a just war for liberating the Motherland. Sri Aurobindo viewed Nazis as agents of ’negative spiritual forces’ in the world working against the evolution of humanity towards freedom and dignity. He called upon Indian people to support the war efforts of the British in their fight against the fascist Nazi Germany.

I am not sure which of these two positions – of Gandhi or of Sri Aurobindo- is nearer to the true teaching of the Bhagavad-Gita..!

gandhi and martin buber

[But, the justification that Gandhi gave for not supporting the British in the war against the Nazis; and some of the things he said in that context is really hard to digest. Among other things, he cited his principle of non-violence as the reason for not agreeing to go for a War. Further, in a highly controversial letter addressed to Martin Buber during the gruesome period of the holocaust of the Jews, he advised that it would be better in the long term if the Jews practiced non-violence in response to their exterminators.

“The Jews of Germany can offer Satyagraha under infinitely better auspices than the Indians of South Africa.” “The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of Jews (but) to the God-fearing, death has no terrorNo person who has faith in a living God need feel helpless or forlorn. ” (1938)’.

In his reply, Buber made it clear that it was simply wrong of Gandhi to assume his struggles in South Africa for justice and India for independence were comparable to what the Jews were facing in Germany.

Buber was quick to expose the limitations of Gandhianism before a state ideology as brutal as Nazism: “Do you think perhaps,” he asked, “that a Jew in Germany could pronounce in public one single sentence of a speech such as yours without being knocked down?”

Buber also raised the age-less question of non-violence and the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Mahabharata; and, questioned Gandhi’s statement about India being “by nature non-violent”.

Please click here for Martin Buber’s spirited and eloquent reply to Gandhi.

Please also read Avner Falk’s article : Buber and Gandhi

Gandhi, of course, did not reply to Buber, thereby bypassing  a potentially interesting conversation about ways to resolve  complex moral and political dilemma.

However, in May 1947, Gandhi addressed his last words on the subject to Jewish militants who had resorted to terrorism against their former British patrons as well as Arabs: “It has become a problem which is almost insoluble. If I were a Jew, I would tell them: ‘don’t be so silly as to resort to terrorism, because you simply damage your own case which otherwise would be a proper case.’

But having said that, one has also to acknowledge that even after seven decades of partitioning the adjacent lands into India-Pakistan; Israel- Palestine, violence has not helped in resolving their disputes.  The peaceful coexistence of the warring neighbors is still a distant dream. ]



Gandhi regarded the eighteen verses (from 55 to 72) of the Second Chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita which describe the nature and characteristics of a sthitaprajna (sthita: steady or established, and prajna: wisdom), the one who has achieved control over his inner self, as the essence of the Gita. For Gandhi, the rest of the Gita was a commentary on this passage, which in his view was ‘the essence of dharma’.

In support of his argument, Gandhi often quotes the last twenty verses of the Second Chapter of the Gita which describe a person who has attained equanimity and control over his inner self; and, does not cling to anything.

He in particular admired the verse at 2.64::  ‘One not joined by passion and hatred, always moving in the sphere of the senses by the senses, the one who thus restrains the Self , and who governs the Self attains peace.’ This verse is explicitly about self-control and could an argument for the Gita really being about non-violence, about negating violence, as Gandhi thought.

रागद्वेषवियुक्तैस्तुविषयानिन्द्रियैश्चरन् | आत्मवश्यैर्विधेयात्माप्रसादमधिगच्छति || 64||

Rāga-dveha-viyuktais tu vihayān indriyaiśh charan / Ātma-vaśhyair-vidheyātmā prasādam adhigachchhati

BG 2.64: But one who controls the mind, and is free from attachment and aversion, even while using the objects of the senses, attains the Grace of God.

This section of the Gita speaks about the qualities, values and attitudes that a wise person should strive to develop in all aspects of her/his life.

The key qualities of a sthitaprajna include: abandonment of all worldly desires and attachments to sense-objects and pleasures, to attractions as well as repulsions: to lust, anger, greed, envy, fear and such other things that destroy reason. The often quoted verses 62 and 63 of chapter two contain the psychological truth and wisdom that guide the wise both in the everyday life as also in spiritual quest:

ध्यायतो विषयान्पुंस: सङ्गस्तेषूपजायते | सङ्गात्सञ्जायते काम: कामात्क्रोधोऽभिजायते || 62||

dhyāyato vihayān pusa sagas tehūpajāyate / sagāt sañjāyate kāma kāmāt krodho ’bhijāyate

While contemplating on the objects of the senses, one develops attachment to them. Attachment leads to desire, and from desire arises anger.

क्रोधाद्भवति सम्मोह: सम्मोहात्स्मृतिविभ्रम: | स्मृतिभ्रंशाद् बुद्धिनाशो बुद्धिनाशात्प्रणश्यति || 63||

krodhād bhavati sammoha sammohāt smiti-vibhramaḥ / smiti-bhranśhād buddhi-nāśho buddhi-nāśhāt praaśhyati

Anger leads to clouding of judgment, which results in bewilderment of the memory. When the memory is bewildered, the intellect gets destroyed; and when the intellect is destroyed, one is ruined.

“Man, musing on the objects of senses, conceives attachment to these; from attachment arises desire, and from (frustrated) desire arises anger (v. 62); anger leads to confusion and confusion to the lapse of memory; from the loss of memory one’s reason is destroyed, and once reason is destroyed, one perishes (v. 63). Besides cultivating non-attachment to sense-objects and desireless-ness for them, a person must also be equipoise in pleasure and pain, happiness and misery (v. 55 – vita-        raga- bhaya-krodhah); such a person remains unaffected by honor or dishonor, praise or blame, success or failure (v. 38: sukhe dukhe same krutva labha labhau jayajayou). A sthitaprajna must be in control of his mind and senses; should be free from ego, treat everyone equally, and not differentiate between a piece of gold and one of iron’.

Gandhi asserted that a person embarking on Satyagraha, rooted in the principle of non-violence must inculcate the virtues and attitudes of a Sthita-prajna. According to him, one who has achieved such self-control is the true Jnani.

[The Lord said:  A man is called one whose insight is firm when he forsakes all the desirable objects that come to his mind, Partha, and is sufficient unto himself. Not distressed in adversities, without craving for pleasures, innocent of passion, fear and anger, he is called a sage whose insight is firm. Firm stands the insight of him who has no preference for anything, whether he meets good or evil, and neither welcomes nor hates either one. When he entirely withdraws his senses from their objects as a tortoise withdraws its limbs, his insight stands firm. For an embodied man who does not eat, the sense objects fade away, except his taste for them; his taste, too, fades when he has seen the highest.

— Translation by J.A.B. van Buitenen]



Gandhi regarded Anasakti or non-attachment to the fruits of one’s actions is the principal message of the Gita. Gandhi believed such Disinterestedness is a state of mind; and, it can never be attained and cultivated without exercising self-control and developing a sense of renunciation. He said: ‘One whose left hand does not know what his right hand does, such a one knows what is to be equal-minded. Our yardstick is the ability to see others as ourselves. We should think whether we should be happy if others are did to us what we did to them’.

Anasakti yoga that Gandhi developed and advocated is essentially an attitude of non-attachment to objects as also to the results of one’s actions. It is about letting-go (as in Zen) and internal renunciation.

 Gandhi believed that the Gita does not favor renunciation or total withdrawal from the world resulting in inactivity, nivritti. Instead the Gita teaches the Jnana that endorses renunciation of desires, of fruits of action. It promotes activity pravritti the opposite of renunciation of action.

The Anasakti that Gandhi advocated is not Sanyasa, the renunciation of the world; but, a sort of detached attitude that is not glued to its objects and to the outcome of one’s action (Karma-phala) while being actively engaged in the world and participating in its ongoing process.

While explaining the principle of Anasakti, Gandhi clarifies: “In no way it means indifference to the results of one’s action. The renunciation (Karma-phala-tyaga) denotes absence of hankering after fruit;  because, attachment, worry, haste affect our nervous system and upset the balance of our mind” (Anasaktiyoga, 7). It is not unnatural to feel happy about the good outcome of one’s hard work, but it is wasteful, both spiritually and psychologically, to invest all one’s emotions and energy in fretting over the results instead of focusing on perfecting the work’.

The Anasakti, Gandhi said, is the way of the Karma Yogi a man of action. While remaining active in the world, he performs his  duties  in the spirit of ‘nish –    Kama- karma’, that is, without desire for the fruits of action, as in the spirit of   ‘sthitha-prajna’– a person well-established in wisdom—who is equipoise, detached, desireless, and dedicated to God.

This principle of renunciation of the desire for the fruits of action recurs like a refrain throughout the Gita; it is particularly emphasized in Sankhya Yoga (Ch. 2, v. 47): ‘karmanye vadhikaraste ma phaleshu kadachana ‘: your business is with the action only, never with its fruits; in Karma Yoga (Ch. 3, v. 19): ‘tasmat asaktaha satatam karyam karma samachar’: therefore, perform action constantly without attachment; in the Jnana-vibhaga Yoga (Ch. 4, v. 20): ‘tyaktva karmaphalasangam’: abandon attachment to the fruit of action; and in the Bhakti Yoga (Ch. 12, v. 11): ‘sarvakarmaphala-tyagam tatah kuru yatatmavan’: renounce therefore all fruit of action with self control.

Gandhi’s appreciation of the Gita


Gandhi, over the several articles he published in The Young India, mentions of the unique features of the Bhagavad-Gita that led him to revere it. To put those virtues in a summary form, the following, according to Gandhi are the admirable merits of the Gita:

Universal – Perennial Philosophy beyond geographical, racial or religious limitations;

Eternal- true for all times;

Free from dogma – it is non-sectarian, and is also not a collection of ‘dos and don’ts’;

Appeals to the head and the heart – knowledge, technique and devotion;

Multi-dimensional – it offers multiple choices for the ardent seeker to choose according to disposition (Prakrti) from the path of knowledge (Jnana) or discrimination between the Real and the seemingly real; the path of action (Karma) or selfless action for the good of all; the path of Devotion (Bhakthi) surrender in absolute faith and immense love to the will of God; the path of Yogic discipline (Raja-yoga)

Practical text – (Sadhana Tantra) – practical-ethical guide for a worthy life – it does not ask you to run away from the world- it does not approve escaping from the world (nivrtti) and from your  responsibilities in your  spheres of associations, but asks you to perform your  duties diligently (pravrtti)

Selfless action – Nish-Kama-karma -to perform ones duties and actions in a selfless manner (Anasakti) and in equipoise (Sthita-prajna) not attached to the fruits of action;

Reference Book- one can always turn to Gita in dark moments, crises of faith and through all the trials and tribulations of life ;

The Mother- just as the mother it protects, nurtures and supports ones faith in life and in its true values ; provides comfort when in distress; and leads from darkness to light;


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
  17. Bhagavad Gita; the song celestial by Sir Edwin Arnold

  1. The Gita according to Gandhi by Mahadev Desai (First Published: August 1946)

     19.Mahatma Gandhi and the Bhagavad Gita by Dr. by Uma Majmudar

  1. Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gītā and Images of the Hindu Tradition By Catherine A. Robinson
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Posted by on October 17, 2016 in Bhagavad-Gita, General Interest


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Bhagavad-Gita Multiple interpretations- Part Three

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.

[Please check here for varieties of translations and commentaries on the Bhagavad-Gita.]


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.

warren hastings

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.

code of Gentoos

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 skill and wisdom of the judges and lawyers to search for an apt precedent; and,  to apply it to make the point of law. Those precedents were  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.


[Please read the paper produced by Ms. Komal Pande, the Assistant Curator for Numismatics and Epigraphy at the National Museum in New Delhi, describing how Charles   Wilkins manufactured a set of metal printing founts or typefaces, that could be used to mechanical print the Bengali language.]

sanskrit type set

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’ life and works by Shamboo Chander Dey ; under the series  Eminent Orientalists :Indian, European and American (pages 27 to 45)

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).

Bhaguat gita

(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.


The scholars Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee, in their much acclaimed work The Nay Science: A History of German Indology, (Oxford University Press, 2014)  write:

The earliest translations of the Gita (into German) emerged in the context of the Romantic fascination with the Orient.

Johann Gottfried Herder; Friedrich Majer; Friedrich Wilhelm Schlegel; August Wilhelm Schlegel, as well as the Philosopher-Statesman Wilhelm Von Humboldt had produced Gita editions or Gita translations and commentaries…

In his Zerstreute Blatter of 1792, J G herder had included three collections of verses from the Bhagavad-Gita under the heading ‘Gedanken einiger Brahmanen’ (thoughts of some Brahmans) . The collection included a total of eleven verses chosen from Chapters Two and Three of the Gita; and, were individually titled ‘Die Verstorbenen’ (The Dead Verses : 2,11,13,14 and 15); ‘Dreifacher Zustand’ (Three-fold Condition:  Verse 2,27); and, ‘Religion’ (Religion : Verses 3, 10, 11, 12, 13,14 and 16)….

Herder’s poetic rendering was followed in 1802 by the first complete translation of the Gita into German (albeit from the English edition of Charles Wilkins , rather than from Sanskrit) by his student Friederich Majer. Majer’s translation included an introduction, in which he pointed out the affinities between the Gita’s doctrine and Platonic and Spinozistic philosophy.

This tradition of philosophical appreciation was continued by Friedrich Wilhelm Schlegel, who appended an excerpted translation of the Gita to his 1808 study , Die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier .


Friedrich Schlegel 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 : Ein Beitrag zur Begrûndung der Alterthumskunde (On the Language and Wisdom of India) – a lengthy comparative study of Indian language and philosophy – Heidelberg, 1808, observed the similarities in the grammatical structures of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Persian and German . As an appendix to his book, he included direct translations from Sanskrit into German of extracts from the Bhagavad Gita  (about one-fifth of the Gita in metrical German ) and other important classical Indian texts. The  work of Schlegel marks a significant moment of transition in the European study of the Bhagavad Gita and other classical Sanskrit works. While  explaining his choice of the Bhagavad Gita as his first Indic publication, Schlegel described the work as “a famous philosophical poem, praised in the whole of India, whose wisdom and sanctity can hardly be surpassed by any other.”

Schlegel 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.  In 1818, Wilhelm became the first academic professor of Sanskrit in Germany, at the University of Bonn. 

The Schlegel-brothers, particularly 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 preceded , in 1855, 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.

Swami Vivekananda color

[poster by an unknown artist, published by Goes Lithographic, Chicago , 1893 ; believed  to have been sponsored by Henry Slayton, Organizer of Vivekananda’s lecture tour.]

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. He declared. “We believe not only in universal tolerance, but we accept all religions as true.” This Parliament, he went on, could be seen as a fulfillment of Krishna’s statement in the Bhagavad Gita: “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to Me”. 

The Swami asserted that the foundation of Hinduism is the revelation found in the ancient Vedas; and , the Bhagavad Gita is the most authoritative commentary on the Vedas.

One of the Gita’s main achievements, according to Swami Vivekananda, is its reconciliation of different paths in classical India. Krishna’s original insight, he observes, was that all these various spiritual disciplines could be seen as valid means to a common end. The same reconciliation could be applied, at the end of the nineteenth century, on a worldwide basis. Among the topics of debate before parliament delegates was the possibility of a future “universal religion.” Swami Vivekananda closed his lecture by endorsing the concept of a universal religion; but suggested  it may already exist in the form of ancient Hinduism.

While in USA , the Swami quoting  the Gita,  stressed two main themes he believed that most people in the United States needed. First is Krishna’s tolerance of multiple paths toward spiritual attainment to counter the doctrinal rigidity he perceived in American Christianity of the time. Second was Krishna’s principle of non-attachment to the fruits of action in order to temper the acquisitive materialistic ethos of the American gilded age. 

[During Vivekananda’s cross-cultural career as a public speaker, the Gita conveyed differing messages to different audiences; depending on the Swami’s sense of the needs of his American or Indian listeners.

While in India, Swami stressed  on the Gita’s message  of socially engaged action or the path of karma yoga. “First of all, our young men must be strong. Religion will come afterwards,” he taught, “You will understand the Gita better with your biceps, your muscles a little stronger. You will understand the mighty genius and the mighty strength of Krishna better with a little of strong blood in you.”.. Swami Vivekananda approvingly quotes Krishna’s admonition to Arjuna, as a directive to young India : “Yield not to un-manliness, Oh Partha”]

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.


Each translation results from a series of choices. These choices reflect the translator’s own premises, aims, and conception of what that work most essentially is. In a valuable study of Gita translations in English, Gerald Larson speaks of the “strategic decisions” every translator must make. He analyzes these along four axes: the stylistic pedagogical, interpretive, and motivational continua. Does the translator seek to maintain primarily the stylistic character of the Sanskrit original or to produce a literary rendering in appropriate English? What kind of audience does the translator envision for the work? Does the translator consider the task as rendering the meaning of the work in its time of composition or as it might take on new significance in contemporary times? What personal motivations or subjective reasons does the translator bring to the task of translating the Gita? Along with the skill that any translator brings to the task of navigating between Sanskrit and English, these strategic decisions together will help determine the shape of the Gita’s new English clothes.

There are also choices involved in the textual accompaniments that surround a translation in the body of a publication, or the “para-text” in Gerard Genette’s productive phrase. Does the book also contain interspersed commentary? Or parallel Sanskrit text? Does it have footnotes, and what issues do these notes address? Does it have an introduction? What topics are addressed there? How do these materials relate the Bhagavad Gita intertextually to other religious and literary works? As Genette reminds us, these “threshold” materials extend the work itself, mediating between the primary text and its public audience, guiding readers toward and within the translation.(Source : Erenow)


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 Colloquy between Krishna and Arjuna on Divine Matters (J Cockburn Thompson 1855); 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).]

For more on the life and work of Kashinath Trimbak Telang – please read the article  by Vasant. N Naik, included under The Eminent Orientalists: Indian,European and American (pages from 79 to 91)


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 Mohun Chatterji (1858-1936), a member of the Bengal Theosophical Society (from 1882) and a significant member of the Theosophical Movement, in her translation of the Gita – The Bhagavad Gita or  The Lord’s Lay (1887), aimed to  create a distinctive identity for modern Hindu spirituality in the Western intellectual world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Bhagavadgita Mohini Chatterjee

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

A Philosopher’s Gita

“Every scripture has two sides,” writes Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, “one temporary and perishable, belonging to the ideas of the people of the period and the country in which it is produced, and the other eternal and imperishable, and applicable to all ages and countries.”

Dr. Radhakrishnan recognizes the twin aspects of the Bhagavad Gita, a scripture that is both historical and abiding. While he acknowledges and respects the historical conditions of its composition, this modern Vedanta philosopher takes as his primary task in translating the Gita to offer “a restatement of the truths of eternity in the accents of our time.” Writing in the years immediately after World War II and the partition of British India into Pakistan and India, Radhakrishnan believes that the world’s pressing need is for the “reconciliation of mankind.” The Gita, he holds, is particularly well suited to this purpose.


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.

“As an Indologist, Van Buitenen is committed to a contextual and historical reading of the Gita. He argues persuasively in his introduction that the Gita was “a creation of the Mahabharata itself,” rather than an independent work that somehow “wandered into” the epic at some later date. To make his case, he summarizes the plot to highlight Arjuna’s dilemma, which he sees as a tension fundamental to the Mahabharata as a whole. He also includes eight chapters preceding the usual eighteen of the Bhagavad Gita proper as well as the chapter after it to demonstrate the “subtle narrative weaving” that binds the Gita into the Mahabharata.”

In his introduction, Van Buitenen also locates the Gita as part of the social and religious discourse of classical India. In its own historical time of composition, he argues, the Gita addressed vital contemporary ethical, theological, and metaphysical issues. The work adapted concepts from other Indic schools of thought such as Mimamsa, Vedanta, Samkhya, Yoga, and Buddhism, and it put forward innovative new ideas carefully disguised as old ones. Van Buitenen uses his introduction to sketch the historical background necessary for the reader to view the Gita in its classical milieu. While he is certainly aware that the Gita has led a rich continuing life since that time, Van Buitenen’s emphasis is decidedly on the Gita in the time of its Indian composition.

“In his historian’s approach, Van Buitenen continues a venerable lineage in Western Indological scholarship devoted to the Bhagavad Gita. Appearing first with Wilkins and other British Orientalists of late eighteenth-century Calcutta, and taking institutional form in nineteenth-century Germany with philologists and scholars like the brothers Schlegel, the Gita has been maintained in many university settings in India, Europe, and North America by professors of Sanskrit like Van Buitenen. Their central task is to reconstruct the history and culture of ancient and classical India, especially as it was transmitted in Sanskrit texts. From Wilkins’s time on, the Gita has provided a particularly valuable and challenging window into that historical world, resulting in a steady stream of erudite translations and scholarly studies. Other noteworthy translations in the Indological lineage prior to Van Buitenen include those of Telang (1882) and Edgerton (1944). For a persistent reader, Van Buitenen’s translation and introduction offers the closest available approximation of the Bhagavad Gita in its original context.” (Source: Erenow)

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.


Stephen Mitchell’s Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation (2000). “The Gita is usually thought of as a great philosophical poem,” he writes in his introduction

The main problem, he says, lies in finding a suitable verse form in English to render the Sanskrit shloka. He seeks a form that has the “dignity of formal verse,” yet is also “free and supple enough to sound like natural speech.” His choice is a loose trimeter quatrain. Each shloka is treated as a separate unit of four lines, three stressed syllables per line. By isolating individual shlokas (as most translators do) each verse can stand on its own, like pearls in a necklace, as a potential starting point for reflection and meditation. Respecting the integrity of the poem, Mitchell does not impose any of his own commentary, nor does he include annotations to the translation.

Mitchell’s translation is not the first poetic Gita in English. The legacy of literary translations began with Arnold’s charming 1885 blank-verse rendering, which made such an impact a few years later on the young Gandhi. Another distinguished literary rendering is the translation coauthored by California-based Vedanta Society teacher Swami Prabhavananda and British novelist Christopher Isherwood, published in 1944. Seeking to avoid the pitfalls of Indological translations with their “obscurity and archaic un-English locutions,” Isherwood tried to match the different types of discourse he found in the Gita with a mixture of English styles, both prose and verse, instead of sticking with a single verse form. Others have attempted to combine a scholarly attention to the Sanskrit original with a poetic rendering in English, including the recent versions by Barbara S. Miller (1986) and Laurie Patton (2006).– (Source :Erenow)


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.

[ For a detailed and very learned writing on Modern Gita :Translations , please check here.]


As Erenow writes :

What is the best English-language translation of the Bhagavad Gita? That will of course depend on the reader. In the Gita, Krishna commends all those who share his teachings with others. Yet we see how this sharing of the Gita can take myriad forms. Just as different translators bring different backgrounds and agendas to their task of rendering Krishna’s message, so readers will themselves bring their own differing aims to the work. Among the great plurality of translations, embodying diverse approaches to the Gita, the reader also is called on to select a path. If Krishna is correct, all those various translational paths will indeed lead the reader to him and his words.


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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