Bhagavad Gita cover2

Written by Keith Hill while he was living on an ashram in Rajasthan in 1991, and extensively revised for this publication, this translation makes the Bhagavad Gita accessible to Westerners approaching one of the world's greatest spiritual texts for the first time - or for those who have read it previously, but struggled to comprehend its complexity.

This version is written in easily read blank verse. Of all recent versions - over 200 versions have been published in English to date - this achieves the rare balance of being poetically and philosophically true to the original text, to far greater degree than other translations, while remaining readable for today's readers.

In order to increase the poem's accessibility for those readers who are unfamiliar with Indian culture or spirituality, a brief essay presents the principle concepts behind the poem's philosophy. This is backed up with notes on the poem’s various characters, mythological references and principal concepts. Finally, a glossary provides a reference for Indian words, places and names that are repeated throughout the text.


Soft cover paperback
168 pages
8.5 x 5.5 inches
ISBN: 978-0-473-14861-4

KEITH HILL ON WRITING THE BOOK - FROM THE PREFACE

This version of the Bhagavad Gita was written in 1991, at the instigation of Shri Muniji Maharaj, during a period I spent on his ashram in Merta City, Rajasthan. I must admit that when Shri Muniji first suggested I write a poetic version of the Gita I was unconvinced there was any need for it because there already existed innumerable versions in English, with more added yearly, and I couldn’t see the purpose in adding yet another.

However, Shri Muniji was adamant that there was a need for a new poetic version, there being, at that time, only Sir Matthew Arnold’s translation into Victorian verse and the combined prose and verse version by Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda. An immediate difficulty was that I am neither a Sanskrit scholar, nor sufficiently steeped in Indian mythology, philosophy and spiritual practices to provide an authoritative translation. To compensate for my lack of Sanskrit, Shri Muniji suggested I use the literal word-for-word English translation provided by the staff of Kalyama-Kalpataru for Jayadayal Goyandka’s Srimad Bhagavadgita, published by Gita Press.

To complement the Sirmad Bhagavadgita, and to provide knowledge of the Gita’s background, Shri Muniji also gave me a copy of The Gospel of Selfless Action, The Gita According to Ghandhi. This is a translation into English of Mahatma Gandhi’s Gujarati translation of the Bhagavadgita. It was translated from Gujarati by Gandhi’s secretary, Mahadev Desai. Desai’s notes provide background information, draw attention to key philosophic and spiritual concepts, and offer an ethical and philosophic context for readers approaching the poem from a twentieth century context.

As I worked slowly through the word-for-word translation, reinterpreting the literal text into English poetry, Shri Muniji suggested alternative English words wherever he considered a word I selected was inconsistent with his experiences, knowledge or understanding as a yogic practitioner.

The reader will notice that a significant number of Sanskrit words have been left untranslated; i.e. gunas, Brahman, sankhya, jnanayoga, maya, prakriti, purusha. This was done for two reasons.

The first was in the interests of intellectual precision. These Sanskrit words have very precise meanings in Indian philosophy and spiritual practice. They are technical words that derive their meaning from several thousand years of Vedic and yogic thought. Western thought, largely originating in Greek philosophy, has its roots in a different view of the world and of human experience. Therefore, there are no words in English that accurately reflect these Sanskrit technical terms.

The second reason is that it is useful for readers to be reminded that much in this poem is foreign and unfamiliar, not only because it is twenty-five hundred years old, but because its conceptual outlook is very different from that produced by the contemporary Western mind. So if there are words, concepts, or statements in the poem that on first reading make little or no sense – that is fine. All great poetry challenges us in this way.

Yet, despite the difficulties it presents, the Gita continues to fascinate and speak to, huge numbers of readers today in both the East and West. Happily, despite the poem’s undoubted challenges, there are some clear ways into it. In particular, much clarity is gained when the poem’s mythological references, cultural context and key philosophic and yogic concepts are understood.


EXCERPTS

FROM DISCOURSE ONE:

Arjuna said:
I look upon my kinsmen gathered here for war,

and my mouth dries; Krishna, my limbs quail,
my body shudders, hair bristles on my skull.
The great bow, Gandiva, slips from my hand;
my skin burns; my mind reels so I cannot stand.
I feel such evil forebodings, Krishna,
for I see no good in slaying my kin.
I seek no victory, nor a kingdom’s crown,
nor even earthly pleasures; for, Govinda,
what use are power, pleasures, or life itself,
when those for whom we crave that crown, pleasure,

luxury, have themselves renounced both life
and wealth, and are arrayed here now to die?
Teachers, nephews, uncles, fathers-in-law,
brothers-in-law, and all my kinsmen else,
I cannot kill, Krishna, though they would kill me,
not even to mount the three world’s throne,
much less to claim a paltry earthly crown.
What pleasure could derive from slaughtering
these sons of Dhritarastra, o Krishna?
Sin surely will grip us, usurpers though they be.


FROM DISCOURSE TWO:

Sanjaya said:
Thus spoke Arjuna to Shri Krishna, o King,
and with a last, “I will not fight!” fell silent.
Then, great Dhritarastra, between both armies,
as if to mock the anguished Arjuna,
Shri Krishna spoke the following words.

The Lord said:
You grieve for those who require no grief,
confusing yourself with words of false wisdom;
wise men mourn neither living nor dead.
For there was never a time when I was not,
nor when you and these kings did not exist,
nor, hereafter, when we will cease to be.
The embodied passes from infancy to death,
just so it enters another body;
the wise are not deceived over this.
Heat and cold, pleasure and pain, each arise
when the senses and their objects meet.
But they are transitory. Transcend them, therefore.
That man to whom pain and pleasure are the same,
who, Arjuna, by these remains undisturbed,
becomes a candidate for immortality.
Nothing can come to be from non-being,
nor can what has existence cease to be;
this reality is perceived by those who know.
Understand, that which extends throughout
the entire cosmos is imperishable;
indestructible, none can destroy it.
The embodied is immeasurable,
eternal, imperishable; its bodies
finite only. Therefore, Arjuna, fight!


FROM DISCOURSE SIX:


When the disciplined mind rests in atman alone,

and desire for objects no longer exists,
it is said that one is settled in yoga.
As a light does not flicker in a windless place,
so the mind is likened to be of that yogi
who practises unity with atman.
When his thought, stilled by yoga, wholly ceases,
and the self exults in atman perceiving Atman;
when, beyond the senses, his purified
intellect apprehends endless bliss
and, fixed in this state, doesn’t move from it;

when, experiencing this, he considers
there exists no greater to be experienced,
and he knows that established in it,
no sorrow could unseat him from it –
this state is called yoga, which severs
all union with sorrow; know it should be
practised serenely, but with staunch intent.
Renouncing desires born of worldly thinking,
restraining his senses which would grab all around,

mind controlled by the power of his will,
by degrees he resolutely quietens within.
Mind fixed on atman, he then doesn’t think at all.
When the impulsive mind chases
random objects of thought, it should
be pulled back and refocused on atman.
Supreme bliss arrives for that stainless yogi
whose mind is tranquil and passions subdued,
for he becomes one with Brahman.


FROM DISCOURSE NINE:

The Lord said:
To you who lacks malice, I shall further unfold
the secret knowledge of the manifest and unmanifest,

knowing which you will be freed from all sorrow.
This knowledge is king of all sciences,
king of all secrets; easy to practice,
it is the premium purifier, the essence of dharma;
learned by direct experience, it is immutable.
Arjuna, those who lack faith in this teaching
do not reach me, but retread this path of death.
The world is pervaded by my unmanifest Being;
all beings are in me, I am not in them.
And yet, all beings are not in me.
Behold my divine power; though creator
and sustainer of all, my self dwells in none.
As strong winds, blowing everywhere,
are yet contained in the subtle ether,
know all beings are contained within me.
When a kalpa ends, all beings merge with my prakriti;

when the next begins, I project them out again.
Using my prakriti, again and again
I manifest this multitude of beings,
each subject to its own prakriti.
Yet these actions, Arjuna, do not bind me,
standing separate and non-attached.
With me as presiding witness, prakriti manifests
all beings, whether moving or unmoving –
thus the wheel of the world is kept turning.
Not knowing my transcendent being
is born within the human form, fools spurn me,
the sovereign Lord of all beings.

FROM THE NOTES FOR DISCOURSE NINE:

Discourses Nine, Ten, Eleven and Twelve focus on Krishna as a manifestation of the Absolute, and on the worship of Krishna in both his unmanifest Reality and his manifest form. The sequence starts with this discourse, titled The Yoga of the King of Sciences and the King of Secrets. The science and secret referred to is worship of Krishna.

However, the Krishna to be worshipped is not a personal god, but the supreme God, the creator, sustainer and destroyer of all that is. As verses 4 and 5 state, this supreme God pervades the cosmos and contains all beings, but is neither contained in nor bound by any being. Much in this discourse reiterates what has been in stated earlier ones, in particular, points made in Discourse Seven. The view of Vasudeva as the object of worship is repeated and expanded on here.

The point is made in verse 7 that the process by which Krishna, as the Absolute, emanates and re-absorbs the cosmos, is via prakriti. This could be read as a response to what is proposed in verse 20 of the preceding discourse, that says the cosmos emanates from and is reabsorbed into purusha; this discourse states that everything in the manifest cosmos emanates from, and returns to, prakriti, a process which Krishna, as the Absolute, initiates:
When a kalpa ends, all beings merge with my prakriti; when the next begins, I project them out again. This question as to whether the cosmos resolves back into prakriti or purusha is taken up again in verse 3 of Discourse Fourteen.

A kalpa is the period of Brahma’s cosmic day, i.e. the duration the cosmos exists between its manifestation and its reabsorption.


FROM DISCOURSE THIRTEEN:

Sanjaya said:
O King! Shri Krishna, master of yoga,
to Arjuna then revealed his supreme form.

Many-mouthed and multi-eyed, of manifold
wondrous attributes, hung with innumerable
celestial ornaments, and wielding
countless uplifted weapons of death,
draped in limitless garlands and vibrant cloths,
wafting intoxicating perfumes,
wholly marvellous, it was the Lord’s form,
infinite and cosmic, facing everywhere.
The brilliance of a thousand suns exploding
in the heavens together would still not equal
the splendour of that all-pervading Soul!
Arjuna perceived the entire cosmos,
wholly diverse, yet concentrated
in one form – the body of the God of gods.
Elated and awe-struck, hair on his skin bristling,
Arjuna bowed his head low to the Lord,
and with joined palms addressed him thus:

Arjuna said:
Lord, within your body all gods and hosts
of unique and wondrous beings I see:
crowds of rishis, Brahma on his lotus throne,
and writhing coils of celestial serpents.
I perceive numberless arms, bellies, faces,
and eyes in endless forms surrounding me.
You are so great, cosmic Lord, that I see
neither your end, middle nor beginning.
Crowned, armed with massive discuses and clubs,

you flame like a blazing, effulgent sun,
so brilliant my sight is dazed, uncomprehending.
You are supreme and imperishable,
the goal of knowledge, the ultimate end of all.
You are the guardian of ageless dharma;
you are, I now understand, eternal Being.
You have neither beginning, middle nor end.
Your strength is unlimited; your arms countless;
your eyes the sun and moon; your mouth a fire
so radiant it scorches the universe.


FROM THE APPENDIX:

THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE BHAGAVAD GITA

In order to fully appreciate the Bhagavad Gita’s spiritual philosophy, the reader requires some knowledge of the Sankhya system which forms a conceptual framework upon which poem’s author built.

The Sankhya system was the most influential metaphysical explanation of the cosmos in its day. Its founding is traditionally ascribed to Kapila, an ascetic about whom nothing otherwise is known. Interestingly, he, or whoever thought out the system, has no place for God. Instead, he began by positing two principles: spirit and matter, termed purusha and prakriti respectively. Both purusha and prakriti are eternal and unmanifest. Prakriti contains three constituent parts called gunas. In the beginning these three gunas were in equilibrium, and prakriti remained unmanifest. But, on being disturbed by the presence of purusha, disequilibrium came about and prakriti, through the gunas, manifested the universe.

First came prakriti’s will (buddhi) to manifest itself. Then, as a result of this will, came individuation (ahamkara) whereby prakriti broke up into various separate entities. These entities were divided into two worlds, organic and inorganic. The organic world consists of mind (manas), the five senses of perception (hearing, sight, touch, taste and smell) and the five organs of action (the hands, the feet, the tongue and the two organs of excretion). The inorganic world consists of the five subtle elements (sound, form, touch, savour and smell), and the five gross elements (ether, wind, fire, water and earth).

This is the Sankhya system in its cosmological form. But the system also explains how human beings function in the world. Perceptions pass via the senses to the mind. The mind then organises those perceptions into information which is passed through the ego to the intellect. The intellect, on the basis of this information, decides what is to be done, and by its will that decision is relayed via the ego back to the mind, which subsequently has the decision executed by the organs of action. Thus, the cosmic macrocosm is reflected in the human microcosm.

BHAGAVAD GITA’S DIVERGENCE FROM THE SANKHYA SYSTEM

The Gita accepts all the demarcations of manifest prakriti indicated above. What it does not accept is the Sankhya system’s concept of the relationship between purusha and prakriti. For the Sankhya philosopher, prakriti manifests the universe and all its multiple forms, and purusha divides itself to give each particular form an individual spirit. The two principles are thus equal but separate, working harmoniously, but intrinsically independent.


The Gita’s concept is that purusha is identical with Brahman (God), and that unmanifest prakriti is a part of Brahman, being the cosmic seed which Brahman manifests as the universe. Thus the purusha existing within each form is a particle of Brahman itself. The universe, and all the creatures in it, are therefore absolutely dependent on Brahman, being manifestations of Brahman, sustained by Brahman, and returning to Brahman when the cycle of cosmic manifestation is complete. Hence, nothing exists but Brahman, which simultaneously transcends, pervades and manifests as the universe.

The purusha in each form is termed atman (self). Just as Brahman transcends the universe, so atman transcends the body it dwells within, existing before that body was born, and continuing to exist after that body dies. It is by knowing atman that human beings may know Brahman. The reason atman knows neither Brahman nor itself is that it becomes attached to and identified first with the body and then, through the body’s senses, with various sense-objects existing in the world.

Another name for the universe is maya (illusion). Maya is Brahman revealed as manifest prakriti. But maya at the same time hides Brahman in its unmanifest, transcendent aspect. This is because human beings, attached to the body and sense-objects, become lost in the vast variety of manifest maya and remain ignorant of the unmanifest within and behind that manifestation.

The atman which is attached to maya, and therefore exists in a state of ignorance regarding itself, does not pass on to Brahman at the death of the body in which it dwells, but instead is reborn in another body. Thus is perpetrated the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. What keeps atman bound to this cycle is karma resulting from the activities of the three gunas.