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