Classic Texts in Translation: David Buchta on the Bhagavad Gītā

It’s the fact that it’s been this vibrant text for millennia that makes it such an important text for us to read today.

Today’s post is the first installment in our new blog series, “Classic Texts in Translation,” in which we speak with scholars and experts about the challenges of translating canonical texts from around the world. In today’s interview, Assistant Blog Editor Nina Perrotta talks with Professor David Buchta of Brown University about the Bhagavad Gītā, an ancient Sanskrit text that forms part of the larger epic poem known as the Mahābhārata. Their conversation touches on the specific difficulties of translating complex philosophical and theological terms from Sanskrit into English, the questions around authorship that make interpreting classical Sanskrit texts particularly challenging, and the reasons that the Bhagavad Gītā has been such an influential text, both within India and around the world, for millennia.

Nina Perrotta (NP): I want to start off by asking you, in a general way, about some of the biggest challenges of translating Sanskrit into English.

David Buchta (DB): Sure. In some ways, it’s a hard question to answer in a general way, just because you’re talking about this language that has such an enormously long history, such a huge library of literature, and such a wide range. This would be the same for Latin or Greek—the kinds of challenges you face in one genre versus another are going to be radically different.

On the one hand, you’ve got these poems that have two meanings simultaneously, and that obviously is going to introduce one whole set of translation challenges. I often say this about Sanskrit: it’s such a highly cultivated language. In other words, the people who used the language cared about it, thought about it, put their time and energy into developing its toolbox. As a result, if you’re a skilled writer, you can, if you want to, be extremely precise and unambiguous, or you can be extremely ambiguous. There are these poems where you can tell seven stories all at once. It just depends on how the words are interpreted, whether the same sequence of syllables is broken into two words or three words, for example. You have these different ways that you can go if you’re skilled enough at using the language.

If you’re dealing with philosophical or theological literature, you’re typically going to be dealing with authors who are trying to be very precise, and in those cases, one of the biggest challenges is: “How do you find words in the target language that actually have a good enough overlap with the words from the source language in terms of their range of meaning?” And especially when you’re getting into philosophical and theological literature, you’re dealing with these super conceptually rich ideas that were developed within this one linguistically connected intellectual world, and not in these other linguistically connected intellectual worlds.

NP: Could you talk a little about the Sanskrit-to-English translation challenges of the Gītā in particular?

DB: A big question I’ve seen with translations of the Gītā is “What do you do with the word yoga?” There’s a recent translation by Gavin Flood, where he focuses on how this word, particularly as it comes up in the Gītā, pairs up with another word, sāṅkhya. He translates sāṅkhya as “theory” and yoga as “practice.” I think there’s something insightful in this. Now, there’s obviously something really simplistic about those translations, but I’ve been studying this stuff for years, and seeing it that way, I thought, “That’s a nice way of thinking about it!” Of course, you need to go and explain what you mean by it.

A lot of translators would leave the word yoga untranslated, because if you think about what yoga means and how it’s used in the Gītā, and the range of meanings of various things that were called yoga in that intellectual and philosophical context, there isn’t anything similar that you could really point to in English. But there’s a problem with leaving the word untranslated, because it’s now an English loanword. It means something totally different as an English loanword than what it meant in the Bhagavad Gītā.

A third approach is to use an etymologically based translation of the word yoga. It’s related to this verb meaning “to connect” or “to yoke” in English, so some people will bring in this notion of joining or connecting. They’ll come up with a translation based on the etymology of the word. But there’s a big problem with that that I can turn back to in a bit.

NP: What are some of the things that yoga meant in the Gītā?

DB: Typically, in a context like the Gītā, the word yoga meant something like a spiritual practice (which is why “practice” isn’t a particularly bad translation for it), a path that led to the goal of some level of self-awareness, self-realization, enlightenment. In the Gītā, one of the main ways in which yoga is presented is more specifically called karma-yoga, which is essentially the practice of “detached action.” Totally different from doing “hot yoga” (I’m using scare quotes) and twisting your body into pretzels.

NP: You mentioned that another significant challenge of translating the Gītā relates to issues of authorship and historical context. Could you talk a bit about that?

DB: Part of the challenge, when you’re dealing with such conceptually rich terms, is how to get those across. There’s also a second problem: “How confident am I, as a scholar, that I know what this word meant?” You can do philological research, and you can have evidence about what this word meant when the text was written. But there’s an added issue in terms of Sanskrit, which is that we tend to have relatively little information about the historical context surrounding the writing of the text. A lot of that comes down to the fact that if you’re talking about some ancient Latin or Greek text, you can typically identify the author. That is significantly less often the case here, and part of it is a very conscious idea of the notion of authorless texts.

In Sanskrit, the word puruṣa means “person” and pauruṣeya means “derived from a person.” Compound that with a negative particle to form apauruṣeya, meaning “not derived from a person.” So there was this notion that a certain body of what came to be understood as sacred texts were apauruṣeya. And that very concept was understood in different ways by different thinkers. The starkest version of it, though, is that if you have some sacred scriptural text, it wasn’t authored by God. God is a person, in some sense—one of the words you see for god in Sanskrit is parama-puruṣa, the supreme person. So the idea was that there was no god who created this; this literature has no starting point, no historical origin. At least that’s the traditional claim made in the Mīmāṃsā school of thought.

There’s a fun little argument for this in texts of this school, which is specifically for a body of literature called the Veda. How do you learn the Veda? You learn it by hearing it recited to you by your teacher. How did your teacher learn it? They heard it recited to them by their teacher, and so on. That’s the process of learning the Veda: for any person Pn who knows the Veda, there must be a person Pn-1 who knew the Veda before them, and a person Pn-2, and you get into an infinite regress. And instead of saying: “Oh no, this is problematic, our theory of how the Veda is learned leads to this infinite regress, we must be wrong,” they said, “Ah, yes, there’s an infinite regress, there must be no beginning to this text.” And since the text exists within the world, there must be no beginning to the world. It’s a tradition that gets associated with a notion of a lack of any historical change. And so you don’t end up preserving lots of information about the historical context along with the literature; there’s a kind of intentional downplaying of historical context.

Large chunks of the traditions of interpreting these texts were informed by this worldview, meaning that a lot of historical information was not preserved. You’ve also got really divergent interpretations of these texts, and if I’m translating something like the Bhagavad Gītā, part of the issue is the Gītā could mean various things, and it did mean various things to various people. Which of those am I trying to get across? You could try to get a sense of what was probably meant by the person or people who wrote it at the time it was written, which textual historians typically say was likely the second century CE. So what did it mean then? That’s a really hard thing to know with a high degree of confidence, especially in certain spots where there’s some ambiguity.

If you want to ask what it meant at the time it was composed, that’s an important question to ask, but if all that happened was that someone wrote something in the second century CE and meant something by it, and that was it, I wouldn’t be teaching a course on the Gītā. It’s the fact that it’s been this vibrant text for millennia that makes it such an important text for us to read today. It’s important that it has been subject to all these varying interpretations. So how to convey all of that in a translation? Those are the kinds of issues you’re running into with the translation of a text like the Gītā.

NP: Can we circle back to the pitfalls of taking an etymological approach to translating the Gītā?

DB: The same school of thought that developed the idea that the Veda has no author—and I should note that the Gītā is not universally recognized in that category of literature, though there were claims that came close to seeing it in those terms—, authors from this school of thought also had this fundamental interpretative principle that the conventional meaning of a word supersedes or overrides the etymological meaning of a word.

One of my favorite things to give to students is this this old scholarly paper by Franklin Edgerton, “Etymology and Interpretation,” that explains this idea in just ten pages. It opens with how one loses patience when one encounters stereotypes of the “impractical and illogical Hindu mind” (he uses scare quotes) because one finds some of the most hard-nosed, logical, rigorous, thoughtful writing in Sanskrit. There’s this great line at the end where he says, “Since everyone uses language, unfortunately almost everyone thinks he [or she] knows what it is.” I love it.

The examples I always give are these words that, etymologically, should be synonyms, but they’re antonyms. Awesome and awful. Terrific and terrible. It’s important to understand etymologies, but you can’t act as if that’s the key to understanding what something means. It’s as if you were a non-native speaker of English and you fast-forwarded a thousand years into the future and found an English book  and said “Look, these two words mean the same thing.” It’s ludicrous. It’s one of the reasons why I think the etymological approach does not make sense.

There’s a translation of the Gītā that translates any word connected to the verb root kr̥, meaning to do, to make, or to act, as some word in English that’s related to the word “act.” And this translator was not able to maintain consistency, and there were times that their attempts at keeping consistency were to the detriment of their translation. I don’t think that approach is particularly productive. I do love the insight of this simplistic translation of “theory” versus “practice,” but I kind of think you need to leave the word yoga untranslated and have a footnote telling you, “By the way, this has nothing to do with lululemon pants or anything.”

NP: Which translations do you use in your class on the Bhagavad Gītā? Are there any you would recommend to someone interested in reading it for the first time?

DB: This is a question that comes up year after year. I have this same conversation with the same group of colleagues over and over again. “I’m teaching the Gītā, what translation should I use?” It’s my job as a scholar to have spent a lot of time studying the Gītā, so therefore I’m particularly sensitive to what I would see as less-than-ideal aspects of this or that translation. I’m fussy and nitpicky, so there’s always some sense of dissatisfaction.

There is a translation by Barbara Stoler Miller . . . it’s got its pros and cons. It’s this simple, cheap little Bantam paperback, pretty no-frills, and in some ways it gives you the sense that you’re getting a simple translation of the Gītā. The Gītā is written in verse, a metrically structured but non-rhyming verse (the verses are in halves, but in recitation they’re recited in quarters), so this translates four lines per verse. I think it errs on the side of simplicity, which is nice because then you can say, “Read this and use it as a foundation to build a more and more nuanced understanding of the Gītā from.”

There’s another translation that has lots of footnotes which provide plenty of interpretation, and this causes the translator’s voice and view of the Gītā to come in too much. But it’s tricky. Do you just do something totally opaque, and then your audience feels like, “I read the Gītā, but I’m not really sure what it means”? There’s that balancing act of how interpretively robust you want to be in presenting a text like the Gītā. Especially for teaching, I like the not particularly interpretively robust translation because it opens up more room for discussion.

NP: Could you tell me about some of the books you use to supplement the Gītā and help students understand it better?

DB: The way I teach the course, the first week your homework is to read the entire Bhagavad Gītā. Some have already read it, but the idea is to get a first impression of what the text is talking about. Then we go through it over the course of the semester and read it more slowly. There are eighteen chapters, so on Tuesdays we go through a chapter or two and delve deeper into the ideas being presented. On Thursdays, we look at the history of the text. We start out by looking at the background: how does this text fit into the epic [the Mahābhārata]? What were these earlier Upanishads that were kind of the intellectual milieu in which the Gītā was written? Then we look at some later texts that are clearly inspired by the Gītā, that imitate it, and then we start to look at interpretations of it: the earliest commentaries on it, debates within the classical period, and then medieval interpretations down to the colonial period. What was Gandhi saying about the Gītā, what was Thoreau saying about the Gītā? And we end with this question of how the Gītā looks within the academy. So there’s a lot of articles and excerpts and things like that.

NP: Do you have any final thoughts on teaching the Gītā?

 DB: In some ways, it’s nice teaching a course on the Gītā as opposed to translating. Because when you’re a translator, maybe you put out a little translation of the Gītā, and maybe you put some footnotes in the back, and maybe you add an introduction with an explanation of some things, but that’s it, you have this many pages to try to get across what the Gītā is saying. Teaching a course is great because I’ve got a few hours a week, I can assign readings, I can have students read more than one translation, we can sit together and go through and try to clarify: when you read this, how do you understand it? And we can look at the reception of the text over the course of history and how the interpretation of it has changed across time. But with translating, you have no chance to clarify: you just have one chance to say what the thing means, and that’s it.

Photo credit: Sarah Welch

David Buchta is a Lecturer in Classics at Brown University. His primary area of specialization is Sanskrit poetry and theology of bhakti, particularly in the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition associated with Caitanya (1486-1533). His approach to this body of literature highlights the interdisciplinarity of the Sanskritic intellectual world; he has thus developed secondary specializations in traditions of Sanskrit poetics (alaṅkāra), linguistics and grammar (vyākaraṇa), philosophical literature (darśana), and technical literature (śāstra) more generally. David is also interested in the reception of Sanskrit literature in Bengali and Hindi sources.

Nina Perrotta is an Assistant Blog Editor at Asymptote. Since graduating from Brown University with a degree in literary translation, she has worked as an English teacher in Spain and a Spanish tutor in the US. She recently completed a Fulbright scholarship in Curitiba, Brazil. Her translation work has been published on the Asymptote blog and is forthcoming from The Iowa Review.


Read more interviews on the Asymptote Blog: