How to read the Gita (6)

  1. READ COMPARATIVELY, ANALYTICALLY:

In the case of the Gita, you do not need to only rely on translations, there are numerous dictionaries and guidebooks, in print and online. Take a verse that you really want to grasp deeply, and go through it, word by word. Then compare a handful of translations, and you begin to understand the range of error and accuracy, as well as get to know the verse very well. Here is one example of textual analysis.

2.11.

śrībhagavān uvāca

aśocyān anvaśocas tva prajñāvādāś ca bhāase


            gatāsūn agatāsūś ca nānuśocanti paṇḍitā 

śrībhagavān uvāca—Sri Bhagavan said; aśocyān—not to be mourned; anvaśocas—have mourned; tvaṃ—you; prajñāvādāṃś—wisdom words; ca—and; bhāṣase—you speak; gatā—gone; āsūn—breath; agatā—not gone; āsūṃś–breath; ca—and; na—not; anuśocanti—they mourn; paṇḍitāḥ—the wise (masc).

The Sanskrit repeats the word for “mourn” in different forms, and pairs the “dead” and the living relative to breath that has gone and not gone—“gatāsūn” and  “agatāsūn.”  The living and the dead are similar, the presence of the prefix “a” makes all the difference. The tone is somewhat mocking. Literally, the words mean: “those in whom breath/life has gone,” and “those in whom breath/life has not gone.” The person is unaffected, immortal.

 

Prabhavanda/Isherwood

SRI KRISHNA

Your words are wise, Arjuna, but your sorrow is for nothing. The truly wise mourn neither for the living nor for the dead.

Punditah has been translated as “the truly wise,” this brings out the contrast to Arjuna, who is only apparently wise. The prose has a rhythm to it, and includes the neither-nor pairing of living-dead. Literalisms are avoided, and “those who cannot be lamented” is summed up as its outcome, “for nothing.” In the original, the word for “living” is the opposite of “dead,” or “gone,” and this play or juxtaposition is missing in the translation. Prabhavanda/Isherwood’s nouns “living” and “dead” have a finality to them which is not how it is in the Sanskrit Gita.

 

Mascaro

Thy tears are for those beyond tears; and are thy words of wisdom? The wise grieve not for those who live; and they grieve not for those who die – for life and death shall pass away.

Although Mascaro tries to convey the idea that there is no need to feel sorry for “those beyond tears” because they do not need the tears, the combination of words makes no sense—it is as if the objects of Arjuna’s sympathy have transcended their own tears, rather than them not needing Arjuna’s tears. Mascaro achieves some rhythm by repeating “not for,” instead of translating as “do not grieve for,” and this double-negative is not in the original—but it is a shift that helps the meaning. It is towards the end of the verse that Mascaro nails the content, that the person does not ‘pass’, it is life and death that are transient.

 

Bhaktivedanta

The Blessed Lord said: While speaking learned words, you are mourning for what is not worthy of grief. Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor the dead.

“Blessed” and “Lord” are ways of conveying “Sri Bhagavan” – but blessedness is an obvious addition. “Not worthy of grief” overly reduces the status of those who should not be grieved for, it is as if the people who must not be grieved for deserve to be treated indifferently, rather than that the grief itself is irrelevant. Bhaktivedanta’s purport attached to the translation discusses the jibe in Krishna’s words, but the translation itself does not capture it. “While speaking” suggests simultaneity, as if Arjuna was half-lamenting and half-speaking; the accurate construction would have been “you speak…but.” This translation does not convey the idea of the passage of life and death.

 

Schweig

The Beloved Lord said :


You have grieved for that
     

which is not worthy of grief
     

and yet you speak words
     

of profound knowledge.


 

The learned grieve
     

neither for those
     

who have passed on,
     

nor for those
     

who have not departed.

How does one summarise such a comparison? If the passage of life and death is considered the invariant core of the meaning, Prabhavanda / Isherwood and Bhaktivedanta miss it, Mascaro catches it. All three interpret “punditah” (priest, scholar) as “wise” (rather than learned). This kind of comparative analysis not only helps us understand the interpretive lenses of the translators, but also our own. Reflecting over how others have understood the meanings of words, we begin to think about how we understand them for ourselves.

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Mani Rao is the author of eight poetry books, and two books in translation — The Bhagavad Gita, and Kalidasa for the 21st Century Reader. Her poems and essays are published in journals including Tinfish, Wasafiri, Meanjin, Washington Square, Fulcrum, West Coast Line, and Interim, and in various anthologies.