Translating the Gita

The first translation of a Hindu sacred text into a European language — Charles Wilkins’ English version of the Gita, 1785 — marks the beginning of the inter-religious dialogue in its modern sense. Hindus as well as Christians and, of course, secular scholars, made the reading of this and other translated texts the basis for understanding both the differences among religions and their possible points of convergence.

Of great importance in the American context was the profound influence of the translated Gita on the New England Transcendentalists: Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, together with Walt Whitman. This history of the Gita in the West is especially important in our meeting with religious/spiritual persons from India or grounded in the vast, spiritual culture of India, ancient and contemporary. We are also challenged to understand the motives of those who speak of themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (motives for which I have the deepest respect). Keep in mind that Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of his own inner life in almost the same terms as our spiritual-not-religious contemporaries.

Charles Wilkins was a printer and a designer of type fonts for Asian languages (Persian, Bengali etc.); he also resided for a time in India and exercised his considerable linguistic skills in a one-year study of Sanskrit. This apprenticeship to the Hindu sacred language was enough to make him attempt a translation of the Mahabharata, the massive epic of which the Gita traditionally forms a part. Wilkins never completed his Mahabharata project, and consequently the appearance of the Bhagavad-Gita as a single volume made it a sort of Hindu Gospel, and so it is called to this day.

Wilkins’ translation is flawed, and the text is sometimes incomprehensible, but enough of the original came through to deeply move and influence its readers. It is our purpose in this course to offer the students a chance to experience this intellectual and spiritual influence of the Gita. Our advantage, of course, is the embarrassment of riches in choosing a current translation, and each student is free to choose the one (or more) that you find most appealing. Personally, I am a bit partial to the Juan Mascaró translation, fruit of the translator’s vast linguistic learning (born in Spain, he was a professor of English Literature at Cambridge University); I am fascinated by his intentional echoing of the solemn tone of the Authorized Version of the Bible. Western readers will inevitably want to compare the Gita to the Bible, and Mascaró’s dynamic-equivalence method speaks effectively to us.

If one is put off by Mascaró’s imitative archaisms, we now have the Stephen Mitchell translation (available as a Kindle eBook). Mitchell, a poet in his own right, has won deserved praise for his translations of Rilke, Buddhist sutras, and Bible texts. The translations given by Gandhi, Yogananda, and Prabhupada are slanted toward the interpretations they propose. Bede Griffiths uses Mascaró, while frequently offering alternative readings from R. C. Zaehner and other translators.

The commentaries of Mahatma Gandhi, Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Prabhupada: who were these men, and which of the many “Hinduisms” do they represent? How did Bede Griffiths contribute to the advent or incorporation of India in the Church and vice-versa? Read the respective introduction/preface of the four commentators.

About ashramdiary

Thomas Matus, who blogs this Ashram Diary, was born 1940 in Hollywood, California. Academics: A.B. in music from Occidental College (Los Angeles); S.T.L. in ecumenical theology from Athenaeum Anselmianum (Rome, Italy); Ph.D. in comparative mysticism from Fordham University (New York). Initiated into Kriya Yoga (by direct disciples of Paramahansa Yogananda) in 1958. Became a Catholic in 1960 and entered New Camaldoli Hermitage (Big Sur, California) as a novice monk in 1962. Lived for more than 30 years at the Monastery of Camaldoli in Italy. Traveled to India some 20 times; made frequent retreats at Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanam) in southern India. Was in Brazil, off and on, from 1999 to 2006. Now back in California, he lives at the Hermitage in Big Sur and Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley, California. See:
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