The Bhagavad-gita verse that I’ve picked for this week comes from Chapter 8: Attaining the Supreme. The original Sanskrit title of this chapter is Taraka Brahma Yoga. Directly translated, it’s The Yoga of Attaining the Absolute (as translated by Tripurari Swami).
Each week, I am choosing a Bhagavad-gita verse and sharing four different Gaudia-Vaisnava translations of it. I then pick it apart and sometimes interject my own unsolicited commentary.
Chapter Eight begins with Arjuna asking Krishna some very important questions. He asks “what is the absolute truth? what is karma?” Krishna then teaches him that whatever one remembers at the time of death is what he attains in his next life. Those who remember the Supreme Lord, attain Him.
Bhagavad-gita 8.16 sums up the first part of the chapter and of Krishna’s teachings.
punar avartino ‘rjuna
mamupetya tu kaunteya
punar janma na vidyate
From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kunti, never takes birth again.
O Arjuna, all realms of existence up to and including the abode of Brahma are places from which one must again return. Only on who reaches me is never reborn.
O Arjuna, all planets in this universe up to Brahma-loka are places of repeated birth and death, but one who attains Me, O Kaunteya, never takes birth again.
-Narayana MaharajaFrom the earth up to the realm of Brahma, the worlds undergo repeated cycle, O Arjuna. Having come to me, however, O Kaunteya, one does not find repeated birth. -Garuda dasa (Graham M. Schweig)
Arjuna is not addressed by name until the end of the first stanza of the verse (‘rjuna). While Srila Prabhupada skips this entirely, both Tripurari Swami and Narayana Maharaja begin their translations with “O Arjuna.” Garuda dasa’s poetic translation stays as true as possible to the original sanskrit, placing this addressing at the end of the first stanza. While this does not add or take away from the meaning of the verse, it’s a good example in showing the different personalities of the different translations, especially Garuda dasa’s which strives to be as poetically accurate as possible.
The Sanskrit actually starts off as Srila Prabhupada and Garuda dasa have translated. Though the original text does not state that it is speaking specifically of planets “in the material world,” Srila Prabhupada adds that phrase where the others do not.
Loka, as many devotees know, is often translated as “planet.” Tripurari Swami translates it as “realms of existence,” which seems to indicate that not only is it planets in the material world, but everywhere in the material world, planetary or not.
Srila Prabhupada translates that it is the highest planet to the lowest. Tripurari Swami’s translation puts it that it is “up to and including the abode of Brahma.” Narayana Maharaja’s is roughly the same.
However, Garuda dasa’s leaves out the lower planets, stating “earth up to the realm of Brahma.” I’m not sure why this is as there is no word-for-word commentary in his edition. It can be deduced that bhuvanal, which is basically translated by the other three devotees as “all the way up to [Brahma-loka, the highest planet],” may have the starting point of the speaker. Meaning, when Krishna says bhuvanal, it means “from here on up.” Obviously the lower planets aren’t to be left out of the material world.
Continuing on, Srila Prabhupada, when compared to the others, is a little wordy. The Sanskrit phrase punah avartinah literally means “again returning.” Srila Prabhupada expands on this, describing these realms as “places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place.” He seems to be explaining the verse as he is translating it. While this might not suit some Sanskrit scholars, I personally enjoy when he does this.
Tripurari Swami and Narayana Maharaja both stick closer to a literal translation: “places form which one must again return” and “places of repeated birth and death” respectively.
Garuda dasa’s translation is a bit more vague, “the worlds undergo repeated cycles.” It’s times like this when I wish he would have also published a word-for-word. It’s true, the worlds and all of material creation undergo repeated cycles, but if punah avartinah means “again returning” with avartinah emphasizing birth and death, why translate it in such a removed fashion?
The second part of the verse clarifies any confusion. It explains that one who reaches Krishna never experiences this repeated birth and death again.
Mam upetya means “arriving unto me” or, in this case, “Attaining the Supreme.” Srila Prabhupada translates it “attains My abode.” While the other three translate it as “attains Me.”
In Krishna consciousness, we believe in a truly absolute God. There is no difference between the abode of God and God Himself.
Krishna explains this material world is one of misery. While it might seem pretty good here and there, it’s not at all comparable to God. In fact, there really is no comparison. As Tripurari Swami states in his purport, “a life of spiritual culture is infinitely better than a life motivated by materialistic values.”