India Today - - STATE OF THE STATES - —Ar­shia Sat­tar

TTHE BHA­GAVAD GITA nes­tles com­fort­ably in the Bhishma Parva of the Ma­hab­harata, just as the frat­ri­ci­dal war is about to be­gin. De­spite the fact that schol­ars be­lieve that the Gita was al­ways a part of the great epic, it stands out not only for the phi­los­o­phy of be­ing and do­ing that it ex­plores but also be­cause it has al­ways re­ceived at­ten­tion as an in­de­pen­dent text, over and above any sig­nif­i­cance that it may have within the Ma­hab­harata’s larger story.

Over the cen­turies, In­dian thinkers, from the clas­si­cal philoso­phers Shankara, Ra­manuja to Bhakti po­ets as Dnyanesh­war, have cho­sen to write com­men­taries on the Gita’s 18 chapters. The idea that the Gita was cru­cial to the un­der­stand­ing of Hin­duism car­ried into the colo­nial and mod­ern pe­ri­ods, and trans­la­tions and com­men­taries on the Gita have con­tin­ued to blos­som. Both Ma­hatma Gandhi and S. Rad­hakr­ish­nan have seen their re­spec­tive philoso­phies re­flected in the text. Even B.R. Ambed­kar, who so fiercely re­jected Hin­duism, was com­pelled to ad­dress the Gita. And so it is that Amit Ma­jum­dar’s new trans­la­tion, God­song, stands within a long tra­di­tion of the Gita be­ing pre­sented to English-read­ing and speak­ing au­di­ences with greater and lesser knowl­edge of the re­li­gion in which it is so firmly em­bed­ded. Each trans­la­tion is ac­com­pa­nied by some kind of com­men­tary. There is ei­ther an ex­pla­na­tion of the many philo­soph­i­cal po­si­tions and re­la­tion­ships to the di­vine that the Gita sug­gests, a state­ment of the trans­la­tor’s take on those po­si­tions or a de­scrip­tion of what the trans­la­tor is at­tempt­ing to do with the well-known and well-loved text. Of course, each trans­la­tion re­flects the time and place in which it was made. They re­spond, as they must, to the zeit­geist.

Ma­jum­dar is a ra­di­ol­o­gist and a poet. That’s sig­nif­i­cant, as his trans­la­tion of the Gita reaches for the text’s po­etry as well as its spir­i­tual mean­ing. Typ­i­cally, only po­ets choose to ac­knowl­edge that the Gita, as its very name at­tests, is a song.

Ma­jum­dar trans­lates not only as a poet but also as a Hindu and a mem­ber of the In­dian di­as­pora in the US—all th­ese iden­ti­ties are heav­ily un­der­scored in his in­tro­duc­tion and the crit­i­cal ma­te­rial with which he sur­rounds his trans­la­tion.

The com­men­tary Ma­jum­dar pro­vides has an in­ter­est­ing and very con­tem­po­rary form—he sum­marises each chap­ter of the Gita, which he calls a ‘ses­sion’, be­fore giv­ing us his trans­la­tion of the text. The summaries are suc­cinct, pointed and use­ful. Each ses­sion also comes with a ‘lis­tener’s guide’ at the back of the book where Ma­jum­dar ex­pli­cates what he him­self has re­ceived and un­der­stood from each chap­ter. Since the Gita has long lent it­self to dif­fer­ent and var­ied in­ter­pre­ta­tions, one can­not dis­count Ma­jum­dar’s in­sights.

So, too, I am sure there are many con­tem­po­rary read­ers and be­liev­ers who will agree with him, though (or per­haps be­cause) he finds it nec­es­sary to take sideswipes at how other re­li­gions think about god and an in­di­vid­ual’s re­la­tion­ship to the di­vine.

“Only Hin­duism had ar­mour, and that ar­mour (sic) was the Gita (p.xxii),” he writes, be­cause it is a text of ‘mul­ti­plic­i­ties’, en­com­pass­ing many be­lief sys­tems and many ideas of the di­vine.

Ma­jum­dar’s claim for Hin­duism is that it is fun­da­men­tally ‘one in the many’. This is hardly a new ar­gu­ment, but he makes it per­sua­sively, us­ing the Gita as a ba­sis for the claim and plac­ing it firmly in the genre of the Upan­ishad, a teach­ing given by a spir­i­tual mas­ter to a stu­dent.

Ma­jum­dar’s trans­la­tion is easy to read. It res­onates with much that has come be­fore him, ab­sorb­ing and re­flect­ing (if not ac­knowl­edg­ing) the long and rich tra­di­tion of Gita trans­la­tions. Ma­jum­dar re­jects what he calls the ‘mythis­tory’ of the Gita and seems to come at it al­most as a naif, let­ting the sa­cred poem speak to him and hear­ing it as he wills.

This makes for some in­ter­est­ing mo­ments. For ex­am­ple, he hears Ar­juna’s ques­tion as “what do you do when the other fel­low wants to kill you?” rather than the more con­ven­tional (and chal­leng­ing) for­mu­la­tion of “how do I jus­tify killing my teach­ers, my el­ders and my fam­ily?”

What­ever quib­bles I might have with this new trans­la­tion (and there are many), I will re­mem­ber God­song be­cause Ma­jum­dar has poignantly re­minded me that what lies at the heart of this poem about god is the idea of friend­ship. The di­a­logue be­gins and ends as it does be­cause Ar­juna be­lieves he is talk­ing to his friend, an older and wiser friend who can help him through the most des­per­ate moral cri­sis of his life. How mag­nif­i­cent it is that his friend, Kr­ishna, says, ‘trust me, be­cause I am god’. And when Ar­juna doubts him, Kr­ishna shows him that he is, in­deed, god. In all of world lit­er­a­ture, there is no more glo­ri­ous epiphany or demon­stra­tion of friend­ship than the one that Ar­juna ex­pe­ri­ences in Chap­ter 11 of the Bha­gavad Gita.

GOD­SONG: A VERSE TRANS­LA­TION OF THE BHA­GAVAD GITA by Amit Ma­jum­dar Pen­guin `599; 208 pages

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