A Review of The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation by Gavin Flood and Charles Martin
A Review of The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation
by Gavin Flood and Charles Martin
W.W. Norton Co. New York, 2012. 208 pp.
ISBN 978-0-393-08165-7 (Hardcover), USA $25.95
I have always been a fan of the shave-headed, bright-robed Hare Krishnas wherever I have found them camped out. It’s hard to feel anything but warmth for such passive proselytizers, chanting, in a state of rapture, the names of Krishna and Rama. The more bliss shared with the world, the better. Given their tranquility and pacifism, however, it is easy to forget that one of their core scriptures, The Bhagavad Gita (“Song of the Lord”), happens to be an excerpt from a military epic, The Mahabharata.
As Flood and Martin explain in the concise but thorough introduction to their new translation of The Gita, the narrative circumstances are as follows: Prince Arjuna is about to lead troops into battle against an army led by his cousins. The imminent kin-killing quite reasonably gives Arjuna pause: does his duty to country outweigh his duty to family? The conflict is worthy of Greek tragedy. Krishna calms Arjuna’s worries by simultaneously preaching detachment from the vagaries of human life and acceptance of one’s duty.
Before digging in to the translation itself, I should give a bit of background on Sanskrit epic poetry. Since Sanskrit meters are quantitative (length-based), like Classical poetry, rather than qualitative (stress-based), like English meters, The Gita is eminently chantable—witness the Hare Krishnas. Furthermore, Sanskrit epic poetry is syllabic, that is, the meters depend on syllable count. Derived from older Vedic forms, this style is found in the epics The Mahabharata and The Ramayana. The thirty-two syllables that make up a shloka (verse) of The Gita are usually presented as two lines of sixteen syllables. These lines are further metrically subdivided into two octosyllabic padas standing on either side of a caesura. Thus, a shloka consists of four padas which are themselves “modular” units that can be easily quoted and contemplated outside their surrounding context. Flood and Martin present the shlokas as four-line stanzas with each line translating a pada. Both because of its incantatory quality and its “modular” consistency, Sanskrit epic is highly mnemonic, that is, meant to be learned by hearing an oral recitation. Flood and Martin preserve the syllable-count in each pada and use some flexibility in the distribution of light and heavy syllables. They thus prudently avoid trochaic tetrameter and the bludgeoning effect of Longfellow’s Hiawatha.
Their translation is remarkable in that it replicates the pada-structure with apparent effortlessness. Quite a feat, given the difficulty of their task. As a highly inflected language fond of compounds, Sanskrit is much denser than English. There are few articles (“the”/“a”/“an”) and prepositions. It consists primarily of nouns, adjectives and verbs. Flood and Martin managed, through great verbal efficiency, to get this chunky language over, stylistic elements and all, into English.
Their translation effectively evokes the military setting of the work in the narrative introductory to Krishna’s disquisitions. For a taste, here is chapter 1, verse 4, first with the Sanskrit and my own crude literal translation:
atra sura mahesv-asa / bhimarjuna-sama yudhi /
In this troop of warriors, bowmen equal in battle to Bhima and Arjuna,
yuyudhano viratas ca / drupadas ca maha-rathah //
Yuyudhana and Virata and the mighty-charioteer Drupada.
Flood and Martin’s translation:
Here are heroes, mighty archers,
Bhima’s equal, Arjuna’s, too,
Yuyudhana and Virata,
with mighty Drupada himself;
The translators here preserve not only the octosyllabic pada-structure but even the content that belongs to each pada. Furthermore, the “here are” construction works well to call the scene up before the reader’s eyes. Their rendering of the pre-battle sceneshows the narrative strengths of the epic of which The Gita is a part, and I would love to see Flood and Martin tackle the whole Mahabharata.
We soon move into Krishna’s lessons for Arjuna, and the rest of The Gita is didactic rather than military epic. Flood and Martin conscientiously replicate rhetorical structures that contribute to the shlokas’ mnemonic power (again, in reading The Gita it is helpful to imagine a guru chanting them to pupils). Chapter 2, Verses 62 and 63, for example, exhibit the rhetorical structure called gradatio (Latin for “ladder”) in the Classical tradition. With gradatio, the last word of one clause becomes the first of the next, through three or more clauses. Thus, the reader climbs through the passage as feet climb the rungs of a ladder. This arrangement is ideal for instruction. Sir Philip Sidney’s first sonnet from Astrophel and Stella, contains a good example:
“. . . Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win and pity grace obtain.” (Sonnet I, lines 3—4)
Let’s now turn to the elaborate gradatio in The Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 62—63.
Original with literal translation:
dhyaayato vishayaanh pumsah / sangasteshhupajaayate |
When a person contemplates the objects of the senses, attachment develops,
sangaath samjaayate kaamah / kaamaath krodho abhijaayate ||
from attachment desire, from desire anger
krodhād bhavati sammohah / sammohāt smrti-vibhramah |
from anger illusion, from illusion confusion of memory,
smrti-bhramśād buddhi-nāśo / buddhi-nāśāt pranaśyati ||
from confusion of memory loss of intelligence, from loss of intelligence a man perishes.
Flood and Martin’s translation:
Attachment to sense-objects comes
to one who meditates on them;
from attachment comes desire,
and from desire, anger comes.
Delusion rises out of anger,
loss of mindfulness from delusion
with mindfulness gone, higher mind
perishes and the man is lost.
Sounds like Krishna has everything all figured out. An entire philosophy of life is squeezed into this shloka, and the gradatio underscores, even symbolizes, the stepwise descent from sensory attachment to the destruction of a person. Furthermore, as this passage shows, the philosophical vocabulary of The Gita is highly technical. Translation often requires repetition for precision. Flood and Martin do an expert job balancing philosophy and poetry
For example, in Chapter 3, Verses 4 and 5, Krishna explains to Arjuna his obligation to act (by fighting in the battle):
na karmanam anarambhan / naiskarmyam puruso ‘snute /
Not by non-performance of duties does a man obtain freedom from reaction
na ca sannyasanad eva siddhim samadhigacchati
nor simply by renunciation / does he achieve success. //
na hi kascit ksanam api / jatu tisthaty akarma-krt /
nor also does anyone for a moment ever remain inactive;
karyate hy avasah karma / sarvah prakrti-jair gunaih. //
surely he is forced to act, even against his will, by all the modes born of his material nature.
Flood and Martin’s translation:
Not by not acting in this world
does one become free from action,
nor does one approach perfection
by renunciation only.
Not even for a moment does
someone exist without acting.
Even against one’s will, one acts
by the nature-born qualities.
As I see it, Flood and Martin capture the tone perfectly—the verses are soothing not only for their sound but because they lay out the “rules” for living with such authority. Though not a religious person (and perhaps because I am not a religious person), I find reading The Gita a sonorous and relaxing vacation in certainty.
I am grateful to Flood and Martin for bringing me back to the days when I was an aspiring yogi. The phase did not last long, but what remains with me is the sense of heightened consciousness inspired by incantatory poetry, and their translation masterfully brings that magic over into English.