Each week I select a verse from the Bhagavad-gita and compare/contrast four different translations. These translators all subscribe to the Gaudia-Vaisnava philosophy. This examination isn’t to prove one more superior to another, but to highlight the similarities and learn from the differences in ideologies.
The four Gitas are:
-Bhagavad-gita: As It Is by Srila Prabhupada (1972 edition)
-Bhagavad-gita: It’s Feeling and Philosophy by Tripurari Swami
-Srimad Bhagavad-gita by Narayana Maharaja
-Bhagavad-gita: The Beloved Lord’s Secret Love Song by Garuda dasa (Graham Schweig)
More on this can be found here.
I’ve not dipped into the fifth chapter so far, so I thought I’d lead off with one of my favorite verses. So far in Chapter Five, Arjuna has asked Krishna to explain which is more beneficial: the renunciation of work/action (karma-sannyasa) or work/action for God (niskama-karma-yoga). Krishna explains that while both are good, action for God is better.
In fact, it seems that renunciation of action without God as for center does not make one happy. It is difficult and brings distress.
Bhagavad-gita, Chapter 5, Verse 6
sannyasas tu maha-baho
duhkham aptum ayogatah
yoga-yukto munir brahma
Unless on is engaged in the devotional service of the Lord, mere renunciation of activities cannot make one happy. The sages, purified by works of devotion, achieve the Supreme without delay.
However, renunciation of action without yoga, O Arjuna, is difficult. The sage who is practiced in yoga, however, quickly attains the Absolute.
O Maha-baho, practicing karma-sannyasa without niskama-karma-yoga brings distress, but one who performs niskama-karma-yoga becomes a jnani and very quickly attains brahma.
-Narayana MaharajaHowever, renunciation, O Mighty-Armed, is difficult to attain without yoga. The sage absorbed in yoga reaches Brahman without delay. -Garuda dasa (Graham M. Schweig)
I don’t believe I have ever seen such differences in these four translations before now. What’s nice is that these differences are simply different aspects of the same truth.
The first half of the verse, sanyasas tu maha-baho / duhkham aptum ayogatah, is translated very similarly by Tripurari Swami, Narayana Maharaja and Garuda dasa. “However [indicating Krishna is building upon the last verse], renunciation without yoga is difficult.”
Narayana Maharaja claims that it “brings distress.” The word here, duhkham, is glossed as “distress” by he and Srila Prabhupada. Tripurari Swami and Garuda dasa define it as “difficult.” Either way, it is clear.
Srila Prabhupada takes the long way around and, while commenting more than translating, explains the meaning of the verse. Here, he adds, “Unless one is engaged in the devotional service of the Lord…” before beginning the translation, where he writes, “mere renunciation of activities cannot make one happy.”
He has taken the word ayogatah, which he has glossed as “without devotional service” and is literally, “without yoga,” and expanded it while making it more specific. He is concluding what Krishna Himself concludes: bhakti-yoga, devotional service to God, is the culmination of all yogas.
And speaking of specific, it must be noted that Narayana Maharaja throws around quite a lot of Sanskrit in this translated verse. Nearly one half of it isn’t English. His audience, of course, isn’t someone just cutting their teeth on Krishna consciousness, but I still tend to question this practice.
Firstly, while Srila Prabhupada makes no mention of Arjuna and Tripurari Swami refers to him simply as “Arjuna,” Narayana Maharaja uses the name from the verse: Maha-baho – literally, as Garuda dasa also translated, “Mighty-armed.” Arjuna was a warrior and Krishna was addressing him as such.
Also, he uses karma-sannyasa and niskama-karma-yoga rather than “renunciation” and “without yoga.” He does not explain what either are in this purport, though they are both referenced several times.
Neither Srila Prabhupada nor Tripurari Swami use these phrases in their purports, though both describe the concepts very well.
Srila Prabhupada, keeping with the explanation of yoga as devotional service translates: The sages [munir], purified by works of devotions [yoga-yukto]….”
Again, while three of our translators defined yoga-yukto as purified/practiced/absorbed, Narayana Maharaja glosses it as “one who is engaged in niskama-karma-yoga.” In his verse, he also uses the Sanskrit phrase, saying that one who performs niskama-karma-yoga becomes a jnani….”
In his glossary, he defines niskama-karma-yoga as “worship of the Supreme Lord performed by working without attachment to the fruits of one’s prescribed duties.” He defines jnani as “one in search of knowledge, impersonal or transcendental,” referencing Bhagavad-gita 7.16, where he defines jnani as “the man in knowledge.”
Concluding this verse, Krishna tells Arjuna reward for the sages who are absorbed in bhakti-yoga: brahma na cirenadhigacchati. All translators agree, with minor differences, “quickly attains the Absolute/Supreme.” Narayana Maharaja uses brahma from the verse itself, defining it in his word for word as “the stage of transcendence.”
Tripurari Swami defines brahma as “Brahman,” which is also the word that Garuda dasa uses.
It’s tempting for me to criticize Narayana Maharaja’s abundant use of Sanskrit terms in an English translation of the Gita. Seldom will you see other translators do this. However, if you’re serious about studying his edition, these words are easily looked up in his glossary. More importantly, these words add to the definition of the verse itself, explain how it is specifically applied to our Gaudiya-Vaisnava philosophy. Of course, his purports also accomplish this, as do the purports of Srila Prabhupada and Tripurari Swami. Even the poetical translations of Garuda dasa extend our understanding of the application of Bhagavad-gita.
Someone recently commented that my “little Bhagavad-gita comparison project is a good way to end up a so-called “Vaishnava” scholar without any real understanding of Krishna.” This, in my opinion is a very dangerous and cult-like mentality to have. Even saying that the Bible, Torah or Qur’an cannot give and understanding of God is ridiculous, let alone saying this of other editions of the Gita translated by devotees in our line.
I say that it’s the opposite. Studying other teachers who are also upon our same path (and even those that are not) is instrumental in our understanding of God. We may not agree with every word written, but we should know our own place enough to learn from that which we do find agreeable.
The mentality of one specific way is the only way is poisonous and has no place in our philosophy.