This book provides a seamless fusion of translation, interpretation, and commentary on the Gita in the words of Sri Aurobindo. Nearly all of the 700 shlokas or verses of the Gita have been translated or freely rendered by Sri Aurobindo, mostly in Essays on the Gita but also in The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga, and in essays and articles published in Essays Divine and Human and Essays in Philosophy and Yoga. The editor, following the order of the Gita's Sanskrit shlokas, has woven together these various translations and added explanatory passages, an introduction, and a conclusion, all compiled from Essays on the Gita. A distinctive feature of this scholarly work is the use of boldface type to indicate those portions of the text that are renderings of the Sanskrit verses, thus incorporating translation and commentary in an unbroken continuity.
Very often devotees of Sri Aurobindo ask, "Has Sri Aurobindo not translated the Bhagavad Gita?" The answer is yes and no. He has not translated every shloka
, one by one in chronological order—no! But if one went through all of his works then one would find ninety percent of the Gita's shlokas
translated or freely rendered into English. A translation from one language to another is always a difficult task and especially when the two languages have totally different cultural backgrounds. Therefore, normally a word for word translation of the Gita from Sanskrit to English would be a clumsy effort. On the other hand, an elaborate explanation of every shloka
would lose the charm of reading the Gita in English. And yet look at Sri Aurobindo's renderings of the verses from the Gita. They are precise, concise, and at the same time one does not feel one has entered into a foreign language. He has been able to preserve the intense atmosphere and the sanctity of the Sanskrit language. He expresses and expounds the ideas most aptly as only he can. The supreme advantage that Sri Aurobindo's translation has over others is four-fold: he is a master in English; he is also a master in Sanskrit, with an in-depth knowledge of the language; he has studied the Indian scriptures (Gita, Upanishads, Vedas, etc.) deeply and widely; and last and most important, he has a vast spiritual knowledge and experience as a base. When one considers this then one is not satisfied with any other translation, however close it might be to the original.
For those who love Sri Aurobindo single-mindedly and would like to have the meaning, both the external and the inner significance, of every shloka
, in his words, then there is nothing like The Gita in the Vision and the Words of Sri Aurobindo
. Every word here is from the original writings of the Master. Essays on the Gita
does not give us translations or renderings of the Gita shloka
. But here one has that and more. The commentaries, blended so skilfully with the translations, offer the reader an elaborate yet very much to-the-point description and meaning of nearly every shloka
. As the editor Galeran d'Esterno mentions in his postscript:
The length of the translated shlokas varies considerably, because Sri Aurobindo elaborated some of his renderings in order to better bring out their significance. The deeper truth of the shlokas is here revealed, and with all their implications, suggestions and allusions brought to light, they become more penetrating, more vibrant and alive in us.
Perhaps the best way to understand the wonder of Sri Aurobindo's renderings is to make a few comparisons. Several books have been published offering translations of the Gita's shlokas
based on Sri Aurobindo's words and in some cases using the translations of others. Look first at Chapter 1, shlokas
21-23 from one such book, The Bhagavad Gita
(ed. Khetan, 1992):
Arjuna said: O Achyuta (the faultless, the immovable), station my chariot between the two armies so that I may view all these standing here, desirous of battle, with whom I have to fight in this holiday of fight.
I should have a look upon those who have come here and who would engage in fighting, to champion the cause of the evil-minded son of Dhritarashtra.
And now compare the words of Sri Aurobindo as we find them in The Gita in the Vision and the Words of Sri Aurobindo
Arjuna — Right in the midst between either host set thou my car, O Unfallen. — Let me scan these who stand arrayed and greedy for battle; let me know who must wage war with me in this great holiday of fight. — Fain would I see who are these that are here for combat to do in battle the will of Dhritarashtra's witless son.
A bit further on in the same chapter of that 1992 translation we have the shlokas
describing Arjuna's reaction before the battle:
28-29. Arjuna said: Seeing these my own people, O Krishna, thus eager for battle, my limbs fail and my mouth is parched, my body is quivering and my hair stands on end.
30. Gandiva (Arjuna's bow) slips from my hand and my skin seems to be burning. I am not even able to stand and my mind seems to be whirling.
31. I see, O Keshava (Sri Krishna), adverse omens and do not see any good in slaying my own people in the battle.
Turning to the same verses in The Gita in the Vision and the Words of Sri Aurobindo
we are met with language of an unsurpassed beauty and power of expression:
Arjuna — O Krishna, I behold these kinsmen and friends arrayed in hostile armies — and my limbs sink beneath me and my face grows dry, and there are shudderings in my body and my hair stand on end, — Gandiva falls from my hand and my very skin is on fire. Yea, I cannot stand and my brain whirls, — and evil omens, O Keshava, meet mine eyes. I can see no blessing for me, having slain my kin in fight.
And finally, in The Message of the Gita
, first published in 1938, Chapter 3, shloka
6 is translated as:
Who controls the organs of action, but continues in his mind to remember and dwell upon the objects of sense, such a man has bewildered himself with false notions of self-discipline.
But in Galeran's book we find the translation of the same verse, embedded (in bold text) in the commentary for this shloka
The objects of sense are only an occasion for our bondage, the mind's insistence on them is the means, the instrumental cause. A man may control, sa ṁ yamya, his organs of action and refuse to give them their natural play, but he has gained nothing if his mind continues to remember and dwell upon the objects of sense. Such a man has bewildered himself with false notions of self-discipline, a false and self-deceiving line of action, mithyācāra; he has not understood its object or its truth, nor the first principles of his subjective existence; therefore all his methods of self-discipline are false and null.
Aside from the power of the language and the nearness to the spirit of Sanskrit, I found two additional outstanding features while comparing this book with previous translations and commentaries. For nearly every shloka
there is some rendering from Sri Aurobindo, which is not the case with the other books. And there is a beautiful blending of translation and commentary which is missing in previous books. Here are some examples of how this blending of translation and commentary adds to the experience, enhancing our understanding (words corresponding most closely to the Sanskrit text are in bold typeface):
Chapter 2, verse 5:
Better the life of the mendicant living upon alms than this dharma of the Kshatriya, this battle and action culminating in undiscriminating massacre, this principle of mastery and glory and power which can only be won by destruction and bloodshed, this conquest of blood-stained enjoyments, this vindication of justice and right by a means which contradicts all righteousness and this affirmation of the social law by a war which destroys in its process and result all that constitutes society.
Chapter 9, verse 30:
The equal Divine Presence in all of us makes no other preliminary condition, if once this integral self-giving has been made in faith and in sincerity and with a fundamental completeness. All have access to this gate, all can enter into this temple: our mundane distinctions disappear in the mansion of the All-lover. There the virtuous man is not preferred, nor the sinner shut out from the Presence; together by this road the Brahmin pure of life and exact in the observance of the law and the outcaste born from a womb of sin and sorrow and rejected of men can travel and find an equal and open access to the supreme liberation and the highest dwelling in the Eternal. Man and woman find their equal right before God; for the divine Spirit is no respecter of persons or of social distinctions and restrictions: all can go straight to him without intermediary or shackling condition. If, says the divine Teacher, even a man of very evil conduct turns to me with a sole and entire love, he must be regarded as a saint, for the settled will of endeavour in him is a right and complete will.
The other books follow the traditional format of presenting first the Sanskrit verse with the English translation below it, and set below that is the commentary. That format, both visually and intellectually, lacks the sense of spontaneity and completeness that one feels with the presentation followed here.
The object of this book is to make the reader understand deeply and truly the essence and the fundamental truth of the Gita, shloka
, in Sri Aurobindo's words. Reading it is compulsive, educating, and highly satisfying. The translation touches the marrow of the seeker's sensibility. An understanding of the Gita becomes so clear that the inward journey begins at once, very naturally and effortlessly. This book is a must for all who love the Gita, all who love Sri Aurobindo and India, and all who love spirituality: the Sanātana Dharma
The value of this book cannot be described or explained in a mere 1600-word book review. One must study it to be able to experience the grandeur and the beauty of the Gita's teaching in English. It is poetry in prose; it is philosophy at its highest; it is spiritual thought materialised. It will remain your companion for the rest of your life, and perhaps even thereafter.
Bharat has been a teacher at SAICE since December 1981. He teaches mathematics and Sanskrit at the school and the Gita and the Upanishads in the Higher Course.