A collection of 700 Sanskrit verses dating back thousands of years, the Bhagavad Gita has had an outsized impression on thinkers across the ages. Like everything else in modern society, one is spoiled for choice when it comes to picking up translations, interpretations, or commentaries on the Gita. It has been translated countless times, and free online and print versions are widely available. Some are literal translations, while others have commentaries added to the translations, while yet others have interpretations by leading thinkers. Most currently available versions are formulaic variations on the same theme—they have the original Sanskrit verses side-by-side with the translation. They may also have brief or detailed commentaries, depending on the intended audience and the author’s intent. They may have personal reflections opening up each chapter.
This new paperback translation is a teaser of a book—meant to draw the reader into the message of the Gita with little prior philosophical background. It is, in that sense, a walkthrough for Westerners—not a detailed commentary, and not directed at people who may be familiar with the precepts of Hindu religion.
Original Sanskrit verses are done away with, and instead the writer helpfully mentions key Sanskrit phrases/concepts and states them again in a simpler form for the Western audience. The concept of the atman, for example, is explained as “the soul, the life force,” while dana is explained in context as “charity or alms giving.” The writer uses modern English, which makes it much easier to read than the archaic “thou-” and “shalt”-heavy style followed in earlier translations. Additionally, the writer has deftly woven his own commentary into the translation itself, removing the need for a translation/commentary combo. That makes this book an easier read than most of the versions that are available out there. Coming in at less than 200 pages, this is also an easier book to travel around with than some of the weightier tomes that have been written on the Gita.
For the modern desi, this book is a tantalizing confection that pleases the intellect but does not satisfy completely. All translations compete on accuracy and context, and this version is certainly one of the better modern translations out there.
The biggest issue for me was the loss of the original Sanskrit verses, which are likely to bring with them an understanding that is hard to match even with the best translations. This book may not be right for people who want only a literal translation in order to meditate on their own, unbiased by the traditional interpretations out there. To them, I would recommend the excellent Srimad Bhagavad Gita, a Modern Translation, by Ramesh Menon (published in India by Rupa & Co), or the online version by the International Gita Society (based in the SF Bay Area). Still others may crave for a spiritual guru’s musings and reflections on each chapter. To them I recommend Mahatma Gandhi’s translation, as also the book by Eknath Easwaran (Nilgiri Press), which happens to be my personal favorite.
If you’re looking for something that’s a good introductory book for the modern reader, Hawley’s Gita walkthrough merits space on your bookshelf. It won’t be your last Gita translation, though.
Gaurav Rastogi is an SF Bay Area-based business executive, writer, and blogger.