Pure Poetry

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Since 1900, the Bhagavad Gita has been translated from its original Sanskrit into English more than 100 times. This fact reflects both the text's enduring hold on the imagination as well as yoga's growing popularity. Still, how many different ways can a poem of a mere 700 verses be rendered? An inspiring new read can be found in the lyrical Bhagavad Gita: The Beloved Lord's Secret Love Song, by Sanskrit scholar Graham Schweig.

The Gita's story, a brief episode in what's reputed to be the world's longest poem, the Mahabharata, is fairly well known. In a nutshell: On the eve of a bloody battle, the warrior Arjuna and his charioteer, Krishna, have come to survey the battlefield. Arjuna is thrown into a dither when he spies many beloved relatives, friends, and mentors who have, for various reasons, signed on with the enemy. Faced with the unappealing prospect of having to kill them, he has an "I shall not fight" meltdown. This is bad news for his army and a serious dereliction of his sacred caste duty as a warrior, a sort of karmic felony. Krishna—who's later revealed as the incarnation of the god Vishnu—takes center stage and delivers an influential pep talk. At first, he urges Arjuna to fulfill his social and moral obligation to fight; then he segues into a spirited disquisition about obtaining self-realization through the combined yogas of discriminating jnana (wisdom), karma (selfless works), and bhakti (godly devotion).

Schweig's most obvious innovation is his determination to capture the poetry of the Sanskrit, which other translations inadequately relay. Schweig—a religious studies professor and yogi—concludes that the inflected Sanskrit "requires more breathing room when reincarnated in English."

In his translation, Schweig acknowledges the need for clarity, while following (as closely as possible) the structure and meter of the original for a taste of the poem's mantralike cadences. Just as important as the translation is the translator's commentary, which should help reveal and explain the subtleties of the teaching. Now, there are some excellent commentaries out there—such as R. C. Zaehner's, which Schweig himself lists in his selected bibliography.

Though not as extensive or detailed as Zaehner's, Schweig's commentary has an interesting twist, periodically taking you behind the scenes into the mind of a Sanskrit translator. It's no easy job, because the translator is continually faced with tough word choices. Schweig shares these dilemmas and explains the rationale behind his decisions. For example, he tells why he translated papa, which is typically rendered as "sin," as "misfortune" instead, that word "indicating both the unfortunate things that can befall a person as well as something unfortunate that a person has caused."

These anecdotal asides give the translation a human touch, which is generally lacking in the more academic efforts. This is all around a nicely realized piece of work and extremely reader friendly, particularly if you have little or no prior exposure to the Gita. Schweig's four introductory essays set the stage for the poem, and five concluding essays of "textual illuminations" examine in depth the Gita's style of yoga, its main characters, and the ultimate meaning of its message.