Eric M. Gurevitch reviews Mani Rao's Bhagavad Gita: A Translation of the Poem

(Penguin Books India, 2011; Autumn Hill Books, 2010)

It is sometimes said (you will hear it if you are invited to boring parties) that there are two types of Sanskritists: those who translate the Bhagavad Gita, and those who do not. The comment is meant to disparage those who would spend their time translating a work that has already been translated hundreds of times. With her new rendering (Penguin Books India, 2011; Autumn Hill Books, 2010), Mani Rao has joined the ranks of those in the first category. If anyone wonders whether yet another translation of the Gita was really necessary, all you need to do is open to the first pages of the book to realize what the others have been lacking. Rao plays with the words of the Gita—not changing them, but changing the way we experience them. The text is fluid, playful, eminently readable, and yet true to the complex philosophical conceptions Krishna presents to Arjuna in the poetic dialogue that forms the heart of the poem. We see modernist hints of Walt Whitman, e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, and Aram Saroyan peeking through the veneer of the ancient text, which Rao renders both more and less familiar to Western audiences, allowing the text to dance around in the reader's head. And yet it is only because of the mass of prior translations that Rao is able to recast the Gita in such a playful manner.

Part poet, part scholar, part clown, Rao toys with language in a manner reminiscent of the South Indian folk-hero, Tenali Rama. Tenali Rama was a master storyteller; one day a prostitute (veśyā) invited him "over" to her house to tell her the story of one of the two great Indian epics, the Ramayana, "as-it-is" (yathārtha). Taking the prostitute's word "over" literally, Tenali Rama traipses around on the roof of her house for quite some time before going inside and beginning to tell the story. "Rama went to the forest..." Tenali Rama says, and then falls silent. After an awkwardly long pause, the prostitute says, "And then what?" "Wait," Tenali Rama replies, "He's still trying to get there..." The prostitute quickly grows tired of Tenali Rama's "as-it-is" rendition of the story, and asks him to skip to the end. "Just show me how Hanuman burnt Lanka!" the prostitute instructs him. "Like this," Tenali Rama replies, and burns her house to the ground.

Rao's translation of the Bhagavad Gita is written in the spirit of Tenali Rama's scrupulous act of arson. Like the clown, Rao is obsessed with language, which for her can never be exact enough. She challenges our expectations without challenging the text. We see her Sanskrit skills shine through in puns that span two languages separated by thousands of years and dozens of isoglosses. Except for the first chapter, almost every word of Rao's translation has a direct correlate in the Sanskrit text, and yet certain words stand out more than others: they leap from the page, out of their context, rendered visible by the words and spaces around them—or lack thereof. The text is taken apart; Rao does not attempt to give us full, grammatical sentences, but rather, stark fragments of speech. By breaking the rigid confines of the thirty-two syllable anuṣṭubh metre that dominates the Gita, and by isolating and repeating significant words, Rao is burning down the house in order to show what it is made of and to illuminate its surroundings.

Rao's rendering of verses 7.06-7.11 showcases her method and its force. In this section, Krishna is explaining to Arjuna his equivalence with the cosmos. Rao compresses the verses into one long section, governed by the words "I am" in large type. The phenomena with which Krishna equates himself then flow from beneath the larger heading, appearing as a constellation of qualities. Linear order is not presumed, Krishna's words are not heard in sequence; instead, Rao's translation allows the reader to experience them simultaneously. We are overpowered by this image of God—yet because the words she chooses to describe Krishna are down-to-earth and accessible, Rao does not leave the reader feeling overwhelmed.

As Rao says in her introduction, "most translations in free verse focus on line breaks; they look like poetry but do not sound like it, and do not attempt to catch the language-play of the Gita" (ix). The layout of other translations mimics the layout of the Sanskrit text but fails to capture the sound of it. (And these only look like the Gita would look if it were printed according to modern Sanskrit printing conventions, without accounting for pre-industrial, pre-printing-press Indian textual traditions.) These translations possess little lyric quality, though the Gita presents itself as a kind of song. Such shortcomings can be seen, for example, in the most widespread translation of the Gita, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada's Bhagavad-Gita As It Is. One of the most memorable moments of the Gita comes after Krishna has revealed his divine and terrifying form to Arjuna. Arjuna, having just realized that one of his oldest friends is, in fact, God, is scared into submission. Prabhupada's As It Is translation gives Arjuna's speech thus (11.41):

I have in the past addressed You as "O Kṛṣṇa," "O Yādava," "O my friend," without knowing Your glories.
Rao, in contrast, does not attempt to render this terrified cry as a coherent grammatical sentence. Arjuna simply addresses his friend, saying,

from ignorance            of your power          tipsiness                       or fondnessi've been rashsaid whatnot   'hey krishna hey yaduboy hey buddy'
thought you (just) friend
While seemingly looser than the As It Is translation, Rao's verse captures Arjuna's playful and emotional words in a more meaningful manner, both on the level of form and substance. The section Rao translates as "hey Krishna hey yaduboy hey buddy" in Sanskrit reads, "he kṛṣṇa he yādava he sakheti." Like Tenali Rama, Mani Rao confounds our usual "as-it-is" conceptions. Tenali Rama brings home the sense of the Ramayana by burning down the prostitute's house; Rao makes the Bhagavad Gita more familiar to us by using language the reader might when addressing her friends. They are both true to the original text and a provocation, forcing us to ask what it means for a translation to tell a story "as-it-is."

In her introduction, Rao emphasizes the audible aspects of the Sanskrit poem: the Bhagavad Gita was meant to be chanted and listened to; it is a song, and should be rendered as such. But despite this insistence, Rao's musical ear breaks down when her modern sensibilities get the better of her. This is most apparent in her use of the (un)pronoun "s/he" when Krishna is talking to Arjuna. While so much of the poem is written as a dialogue, as a conversation between two friends, the use of "s/he" separates us from the conversation, putting a barrier between us and the text, making it literally unreadable (aloud).

The use of "s/he" is not only problematic on the level of aesthetics, but also on the level of politics. This genderless pronoun partially obscures the masculine warrior ethos pervading the poem, which is especially obvious when it is read in its larger context of the Indian epic it is found in, the Mahabharata. One of the few verses that Rao chose not to translate is 2.3. (She writes, "I omit the first ten verses in the second chapter because it recapitulates the first chapter and retards the pace.") In this verse, Krishna scolds Arjuna, who is unwilling to fight, by saying, "klaibyaṁ mā sma gamaḥ!" or, "Don't be such a pussy!" (Depending on the rhetorical flair desired, we could say "Man up!" or "Don't be such a limp-dick!" or "Don't be a bitch!") This gendered invective is insightful; it is a play on the fact that Arjuna has spent the past year disguised as a eunuch named Brihannala, teaching dance in the court of the Matsya Kingdom. Arjuna may have at one point been a "s/he," but in the Bhagavad Gita, he is forced by Krishna into the masculine paradigm in order to fight. The reader of the Gita is invited to participate along with Arjuna in these masculine warrior ideals. The Gita makes it clear that the story is, in part, allegorical, but it is an allegory that uses martial metaphors to reinforce the normative boundaries of society.

This leads us to larger questions of translation: when faced with a politically difficult text, can we translate it both "as-it-is" and "against-the-hair" (Sanskrit: viloma)? Should we? Rao chooses not to, and of course this is the prerogative of the individual translator. But I would suggest that there are productive ways to translate a text against the grain that do not damage the integrity of either the original text or the translation. The individual decisions the translator makes in word choice can cling close to a text while framing it in a more complicated light.

A sense of irony can be conveyed by emphasizing the hegemonic language used by the original text. In her translation of the very first verse, Rao glosses over the militaristic aspects of the Gita, in the process losing the powerful "yuyutsavaḥ," (a reduplicated desiderative that ends the first line of the poem on a powerful note: these are warriors who are "desiring to fight.") The warriors who merely "face-off" for Rao could also be rendered as "blood-thirsty" or "trigger-happy." They are "itching-to-fight." And fight they do: urged on by the anti-materialist philosophies of Krishna that tell us the body is unimportant, the Pandavas, our presumed heroes, go on to participate in one of the greatest massacres in all of literature. For the same line, Rao's version gives, "might  right  face-off," a dichotomy that has no basis in the original Sanskrit. This goes on to further obscure the difficult ideology presented in the Bhagavad Gita. The Mahabharata leaves us rooting uncomfortably for the Pandavas. This is less a battle of might vs. right, and more a battle between powerful and more-powerful, wrong and less-wrong. Both sides are ruling classes given to cheating in battle. In fact, the Gita itself dissolves the categories of might and right. As Rao translates (5.15):

I do not receive'bad' & 'good'
knowledge is hidden
by lack of knowledge             that's why people get confused
The Bhagavad Gita resists any materialist interpretation kicking and screaming. Rao translates (2.16):

if it isn't          it isn't                 true                  realwhat you call realityis really virtual                             reality
your reality's materiality
This is the main thrust of Krishna's philosophic arguments to Arjuna. What we experience as truth is really illusion (maya). Our body (dehi) is easily cast aside while our ātman remains (2.22). We are taught that our bodies are nothing, and therefore the bodies of others are nothing too. Their bodies can be manipulated, repressed, and destroyed by us because, after all, they will be destroyed in the end by Krishna in his most terrifying form. The philosophic musings of Krishna have real material consequences, while they downplay the material realm and obscure our view of these consequences.

Another way to problematize the ethics of the text while remaining within its bounds would be to place the Bhagavad Gita in its larger Mahabharata context. Like all other Gita translations I am aware of, Rao gives us the Gita on its own. There is justification for this: the Gita is a single unit of text set off at the beginning and end by references to itself as a single text; it was probably composed on its own and then integrated into a larger narrative, and it has been memorized, studied, and recited on its own by most subsequent readers. But the Gita does not exist in a vacuum—it presumes a knowledge of characters and situations (not to mention philosophical and social terminology and arguments) that are explained in the larger Mahabharata narrative in which it is situated. And bringing in the stories surrounding the Gita would tremendously change the ways in which one reads any translation of it. What would a translation look like if it were preceded by the episode from the Mahabharata where the Pandava heroes trick six impoverished tribal people into taking their places in a house that is about to be burned down? Would we take Krishna's words and the warrior ideology differently if we saw the Aśvatthāman's night-raid and massacre of the Pandava's children after the Gita? To surround the Gita with stories such as these would be a different project from the more philosophic one Rao engages in here, but I think it would be a worthwhile experiment in the presentation of a text that has been presented so many times before.

Rao should not be held fully at fault for not reading the Bhagavad Gita "against the hair" and deemphasizing the aspects of warrior ideology and social order present in it. She does not remove the most difficult and problematic stanzas of the poem. She is not a Gita apologist. It is a difficult text to begin with, and she presents it "as-it-is," which is a difficult thing to do. Problems will remain in any translation of the Gita, and Rao's language, which is often quite bare, deliberately refrains from dazzling the reader. She does not gloss over the most difficult concepts with large, meaningless words. Her translation retains the mystery of the Gita without mystifying it. And the Gita does not present a unified vision of the universe. It represents a moment in time and thought, and does so in an over-determined manner, at moments resisting a single interpretation. The protestations of Arjuna are preserved, along with the counter-claims of Krishna. And if the original text preserves moments of ambiguity, these ambiguities have been reinforced by years upon years of commentaries and interpretations. Both Gandhi and his assassin, both Henry David Thoreau and Robert Oppenheimer, found meaning in the Bhagavad Gita. While it may have initially served a very specific function, that function has in many ways been overridden and replaced. In the end, Rao's rendering of the closing reflective verses captures both the Gita and the best qualities of her translation perfectly. She writes (18.74),

thiswonderful dialogkrishna & arjuna'sis what i heard

so rare it makesone's hair stand on end
When our hair stands, as-it-is, on end, it is up to us to decide which way to brush it.