Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Bhagavad Gita: Best English Translation [with or w/o commentary]

The Bhagavad Gita. What is this book about?

(updated in 2022) As a devoted student of the Gita, here is my selection of the best Bhagavad Gita translations in English, with and without commentary, for beginners or serious students. 

But first, I'll give you a brief introduction explaining what is the Bhagavad Gita and what is its message. This sacred book has literally changed my life. Who knows, it might do the same for you.


Why I love the Bhagavad Gita


If I could choose only one book to read for the rest of my life it would be this, the Bhagavad Gita.  This was the very first and the best yoga philosophy book that I’ve ever read.  It has literally changed my life. 
 
I'm not a very devotional person, and I normally don't use the word ”God,“ but every time that I read The Bhagavad Gita I just feel like God himself came down to Earth and wrote this book with His own hands.   

I know, this might sound like a bit too much, but I have no better words to express the respect, gratitude, and devotion that I feel for this sacred text.  

Whenever I glance at the cover of the book I just feel like touching it with reverence to receive its blessings.  I feel an irresistible pull to open it and dive deep into the wisdom contained in its pages.

The Bhagavad Gita is a book about each person's inner battle in their journey toward Self-realization. In a beautiful and poetical way, this sacred Hindu text reminds us what is our true nature and it shows us the path to attain liberation.

I shared the story of how this text came into my life in How the Search for the Ultimate Truth Led Me to Yoga.  I still can't believe how it happened.  You'll probably agree that it was simply destined to be.  


What is the Bhagavad Gita?


The Bhagavad Gita, which translates into English as “the Song (Gita) of the Lord (Bhagavan),” is one of the holiest scriptures of Hinduism. It is considered by many as the Hindu Bible, although there is no such thing in Hinduism.

It is called “the Song of the Lord” because it is a poetic dialogue between Krishna (Bhagavan, the Lord) and Arjuna (a warrior prince).

The Bhagavad Gita itself is a pretty small text.  It is only 700 shlokas (verses) long, divided into 18 chapters.  It was composed originally in Sanskrit and written down using the Devanagari script (the same script used in Hindi).  

The Bhagavad Gita is one of the episodes of the Mahabharata, the longest epic poem ever written.  It is said to be almost 10 times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined.
The Mahabharata tells the story of the two cousin tribes, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, both descendants of the king Kuru.


What is the Bhagavad Gita about?


The Bhagavad Gita episode starts just when the two tribes gather in the field of Kurukshetra, ready to start a war over a dispute for the throne of Hastinapura.

When Arjuna (the third of the five Pandavas), the greatest warrior of all times, standing in the middle of the battlefield, sees his relatives, teachers, and friends in the opposing army he feels discouraged.

He thinks that this war is senseless. He rather let himself get killed than fight in such a horrendous war.

"If the sons of Dhritarashtra, with weapons in hand, kill me in the battle while I am unarmed and unavenging, that will be more beneficial to me." Verse 46. Chapter I

"Sanjaya said:
Having spoken thus, in the middle of the battle Arjuna sat down on the seat of the chariot, putting away the bow together with the arrows, his mind agitated with grief." Verse 47. Chapter I

Who wouldn't feel this way? Imagine having to fight against the people you love and respect! Just for a kingdom? Just for material possessions?

But this is when Krishna (Hindu deity, Arjuna's personal charioteer and adviser),  seeing Arjuna defeated before the war even begins, intervenes.

Surprisingly, Krishna encourages Arjuna to stand straight, with courage and determination, and to fulfill his duties as a warrior.  He must fight, without caring for the fruits of his actions.
"Do not lapse into impotency, Oh Son of Pritha; it does not well behoove you. Abandon this littleness and weakness of the heart and rise, Oh Scorcher of Enemies." Verse 3. Chapter II
Naturally, Arjuna is confused about his duty. His wisdom is clouded. He has lost all composure.

So at that moment, to remove all doubts from Arjuna's mind, to fill him up with confidence and certainty, Krishna teaches Arjuna the whole philosophy of Yoga.

He explains to Arjuna the different paths to reach the state of yoga, union with our divine self: Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, and Raja Yoga.

Krishna also talks about what is life and death, what is our real nature, what is karma, what is this world, what is the ultimate reality, and what is the best form of action.
"Belonging to the immeasurable, imperishable, eternal owner of the body, these bodies are said to be perishable; therefore fight, Oh Descendant of Bharata." Verse 18. Chapter II

"He is never born nor does He die, nor having been, does He ever again cease to be. Unborn, eternal, perennial, this ancient One is not killed when the body is killed." Verse 20. Chapter II

"He who knows this as imperishable, eternal, unborn, unalterable—how can that person, Oh Son of Pritha, kill, and whom can he kill or cause to be killed?" Verse 21. Chapter II

What is the message of the Bhagavad Gita?


What all the great Indian yogis tell us is that the Bhagavad Gita is mainly a symbolic spiritual text.

The war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas is the war between the positive and negative human tendencies, present within each one of us.

The dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna is the inner dialogue that we need to have with our highest spiritual Self.

So this is a book about the suffering that every human being experiences because of our lack of wisdom and because of our attachment to the material world.

To overcome our sufferings and attachments, so that we can be free from our mental slavery, Krishna, our highest Self, teaches us the different paths of yoga.

Krishna also reminds us that we are not just this mere physical body and mind. We are truly divine in nature. Nothing can really hurt us or harm us in any way.

In other words, the message included in this sacred text is meant for all humanity.  It doesn't matter what is your nationality, belief, or religion, the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita are universal.


Best English translation of the Bhagavad Gita (with commentary)


As I mentioned before, the Bhagavad Gita is a very small text, only 700 verses long, composed originally in Sanskrit and written down using the Devanagari script.

You could read an English translation in a day or two.

But to fully understand the text is important to read a commentary that explains the meaning of each shloka (verse).  The problem is that there are hundreds of commentaries.

Which one to choose?

I think the best is to choose a translation with commentary written by a teacher that you follow and that you have respect for.  Then you can have some trust in the translation and the interpretation that is given.

But if you would like some recommendations here are my favorite English translations with commentary that I personally use.  They've been written by well-known yoga masters and Vedanta teachers. 

Some of these books are good for those who are just discovering this text and want to read a brief and easy-to-understand English translation.  

Some others are for serious students who want to dive deep into the teaching of the Gita, and who are also interested in learning Sanskrit.


1. God Talks with Arjuna, The Bhagavad Gita, Paramahansa Yogananda



God Talks with Arjuna by Paramahansa Yogananda is by far my favorite commentary on the Bhagavad Gita.

I can definitely recommend this book to anybody who is interested in yoga meditation and pranayama, and especially to those who follow Paramahansa Yogananda's teachings.

If you've read Autobiography of a Yogi and you've felt inspired by Yogananda's stories then you will love his commentary on the Gita.

This is a magnificent book (1633 pages) where Yogananda gives in-depth explanations of the exoteric and esoteric meanings of each of the stanzas.

I find very impressive the interpretation of each of the characters of the Mahabharata, based on the Sanskrit root of the words used for their names.

For instance, according to Yogananda, Arjuna represents Divine Self Control; Pandavas, the discriminative forces; Drona, the samskaras or habits; Dhritarashtra, the blind sense mind.

This commentary is very metaphysical and tantric.

Yogananda also compares the five Pandavas to the five chakras, starting from Muladhara until Vishudha, and their common wife Draupadi to the kundalini energy residing in muladhara chakra.

Paramahansa Yogananda also includes in his commentary a comparative analysis between the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

So this is an excellent study book for those who are students of yoga because it includes in-depth explanations of the different aspects of the yoga science.

Throughout its pages, it covers subjects such as:
  • The yoga sutras of Patanjali
  • The eight essential steps of Raja Yoga
  • The science of Kriya Yoga
  • Pranayama
  • The five koshas or bodies that cover the soul
  • The yugas or ages

And I think in December 2018, Self Realization Fellowship finally released the Kindle version of God Talks with Arjuna.

I had been waiting for it for years!  Those who live a nomadic lifestyle will understand.

And they've done an amazing job. The formatting is beautiful, including the gorgeous illustrations that are normally included only in the hardcover version of the book.


2. Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita, Swami Rama


Swami Rama of the Himalayas, author of Living with the Himalayan Masters, wrote a more concise (443 pages) and easy-to-read version called "Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita."

Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita


This is also an excellent book for those who are interested in yoga meditation. Swami Rama, who founded the Sadhana Mandir Ashram in Rishikesh, which I visited in 2012, is a well-known meditation master.  

He talks numerous times and in-depth about meditation throughout his commentary.  You can find the word meditation more than 190 times in his text!

"In meditation, stillness, even breathing, withdrawal of the senses, calming down the conscious mind, going beyond the unconscious, and finally attaining the state of tranquility or samadhi are the systematic steps one has to follow."
"Meditation is a discipline that must be resolutely practiced if one is to be transported from the physical to the subtlest aspect of his being and finally to that fountainhead of life and light where the purest consciousness perennially resides in all its glory."

Swami Rama's commentary is a bit more down-to-earth compared to Yogananda's.  Although Swami Rama also talks about the symbolism of the Gita, Yogananda's commentary is far more esoteric and mystical.  Swami Rama's approach is more practical and accessible to all.

"Having a tranquil mind, the man of equanimity sits in a calm, still posture. He walks with full confidence, without any fear or uncertainty. He speaks with clarity of mind in a straightforward way."


3. Bhagavad Gita Home Study Course, Swami Dayananda Saraswati


If you are a serious student of the Bhagavad Gita and you are interested in learning from one of the greatest Vedanta teachers of modern times, then Swami Dayananda's Home Study Course is for you.


Bhagavad Gita Home Study Course


As the name indicates, this is not just a commentary but a very extensive course on the Bhagavad Gita, and an excellent one for that matter.  It for sure is worth its weight in gold.  

And it is very heavy, believe me.  It's more than 4000 pages long, divided into 9 volumes!

I remember with joy my days studying the Gita at the Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama ashram in Rishikesh, during a three years residential program (which I never completed).  

I was using this Home Study Course there for the first time to study the Gita on my own.  And it is still today my number one resource when I study the Gita.  

The text is based on edited transcripts of a three-month Bhagavad Gita course given by Swami Dayananda Saraswati himself, at his ashram in Coimbatore, which I visited in 2012.

The course used to be taught in a traditional way, in an ashram setting, with the disciples gathered around their teacher Puja Swamiji, as they call him affectionally.

So this is a rare opportunity.  When you study this text, it's as if you were there, sitting in front of a teacher, learning the ancient scriptures.

This is not an esoteric or mystical commentary like Yogananda's. Still, it's very profound and in-depth.  It is ideal if you are interested in Vedanta philosophy and Sanskrit, which you'll be learning little by little as you continue studying this text.  

The text includes the Gita shlokas in Devanagari, the roman transliteration, the English translation, and the word-by-word translation.  And of course, a very extensive commentary for each of the 700 shlokas (verses)!  

At the moment is not available on Kindle, and I'm not sure it ever will. I believe in 2020 they made the course available on Kindle. Here is the link: Bhagavad Gita Home Study Course, Volume 1.  You need to buy each volume separately though.

If you ever travel to India and visit Rishikesh I suggest you visit Swami Dayananda's ashram. There you can buy the 9 volumes of the home study course, but you can also visit Arsha Vidya Research and Publication Trust website and order a UBS drive with the mp3 lectures.  


4. The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi


If you are looking for something not so extensive, simpler and from a source that you can trust then I would recommend the one written by Mahatma Gandhi, "The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi".

The Bhagavad Gita according to Gandhi

It is just about 220 pages long. I actually haven’t read this one, but just looking at Amazon’s extracts you can get a good feeling of it.
"The battle described here is a struggle between dharma [Duty, right conduct] and adharma [its opposite]."(page 3)

"The Kauravas represent the forces of Evil, the Pandavas the forces of Good."(page 3)


5. The Holy Geeta, Commentary by Swami Chinmayananda Saraswati


Here is another highly regarded commentary by one of India's most recognized Vedanta teachers, Swami Chinmayanada.

The Holy Geeta by Swami Chinmayananda


Swami Chinmayananda, the founder of the Chinmaya mission, was an eminence in the field of Vedanta.  He was actually initiated into the sannyasa order by Swami Sivananda Saraswati at his ashram in Rishikesh (the Divine Life Society). He further studied Vedanta under the guidance of Swami Tapovan of Uttarkashi.

Swami Dayananda Saraswati, who I mentioned before, was actually initiated into the sannyasa order by Swami Chinmayananda.

Swami Chinmayanda takes a psychological stance on his commentary, deciphering the meaning behind the dialogues of its characters from the view of human mental conflicts and personality disorders.  There is nothing mystical about his commentary.  It is very much down to earth.

When commenting on the shlokas of the first chapter he likes to expand the story for the comprehension of the readers who are not familiar with the Mahabharata.

Although I have just started reading his commentary, I can say that so far I do enjoy reading it and find it difficult to stop.  But his use of English is sometimes a bit too poetic or intellectual. 

For a non-native English speaker like me, this might be a bit challenging.  Sometimes I have to read several times a passage to understand what he is trying to convey.  But maybe that's just because of my distracted mind.  Lol.

One thing that I should mention is that, in a couple of shlokas on the second chapter, his commentary can sound a bit out of time, and offensive perhaps.

“Emotionally therefore, Arjuna is behaving now as a contradiction; effeminately - manly and masculinely-effeminate; just like an eunuch of the Indian royal courts who looks like a man but dresses as a woman, talks like a man but feels like a woman, physically strong but mentally weak !”  Verse 3 chapter 2

I know this can be easily misinterpreted and will probably put off many people from reading this text.  But this is also a particular shloka where Krishna uses the word klaibyam, unmanliness, to encourage Arjuna to fight.    

The book of 1254 pages includes the shlokas in Sanskrit, the roman transliteration, and the English translation.  

The kindle book is perfectly formatted and is very easy to read.  The table of contents includes each verse number per chapter so you can easily find any verse you are looking for. This is something that almost every Gita book lacks.


6. The Living Gita by Swami Satchidananda


This is another commentary by a highly regarded teacher, Swami Satchidananda, founder of the Integral Yoga system, and also a disciple of Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh. 



Similarly to his commentary on Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, Swami Satchidananda's commentary on the Bhagavad Gita is brief, down-to-earth, and to the point.  You could read this 356-pages-book in just a few days.  It doesn't include any Sanskrit at all, only the shlokas in English and the brief commentary.

To give the context for the dialogue that is about to start, in his introduction Swamiji summarizes the most important stories of the Mahabharata, that leads to the inevitable battle.

And as many other great teachers, Swami Satchidananda reminds us of the symbolism behind the story and the characters:

“So this Kurukshetra battle didn’t happen just once some thousands of years ago. It’s constantly happening. It’s within each of us. If the good tendencies will allow their conscience to guide them, they can have the grace and friendship of God, and they can win the battle of life.”


7. The Gudhartha Dipika by Madhusudana Saraswati


When I asked one of my dear teachers, Siddhartha Krishna, which commentary of the Bhagavad Gita he would recommend for serious students of Indian philosophy and Vedanta, he simply showed me the book he had in his hands: The Gudhartha Dipika by Madhusudana Saraswati, a 1038 pages book.

Madhusudana Saraswati Bhagavad Gita


This is a classic commentary that many compare in importance to that of Sri Śankaracarya.  It is considered one of the most authoritative commentaries available.

Not only Siddhartha Krishna but also my teacher Swami Veda Bharati, founder of the Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama ashram in Rishikesh, used to consult this book along with Swami Śankaracarya's, in his Bhagavad Gita lectures.    

The commentary includes the shlokas in Devanagari and the English translation but no roman transliteration.  Usually, the translation word by word is intermingled within the commentary.  So this would be a text more appropriate for those who have some knowledge of the Sanskrit language.  


8. The Bhagavad Gita - As it is


The most popular and well-known Bhagavad Gita book worldwide is "The Bhagavad Gita - As it is," by Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. This is the text used by the famous religious group, the Hare Krishna Movement (ISKCON).

Bhagavad Gita as it is


What I like about this book is that it's very easy to read. The English translation is easy to understand, even for a non-native English speaker like me.

It is also especially useful if you are interested in learning Sanskrit.

Similar to Swami Dayananda's Gita course, each Gita stanza comes in Sanskrit, with the Roman transliteration, the translation word by word, and the translation of the whole shloka in English.

However, I must say that my teachers such as Swami Veda Bharati, Siddhartha Krishna, and Swami Dayananda Saraswati do not recommend this book.  The reason is that this interpretation of the Gita can be a bit fundamentalist and sectarian.

I don't want to offend anyone but I totally agree with my teachers.  That's why the main reason I use this text, is for the translation word by word.

But of course, if this is the text you feel inclined to read please feel free to do so.  You can make your own conclusions.


Best English translation of the Bhagavad Gita (without commentary)


In my opinion, it is also important, perhaps even more important, to read the Gita without any commentary.  

This is how I actually started reading the Gita. 

For many years I read only the Gita shlokas, meditating on their message, without the aid of a commentary.  This has been invaluable for my own personal growth and spiritual development.  

The easiest way to do this is to have a book that includes only the verses of the Gita translated into English, or into whatever your native language might be.  Back then I used to read a beautiful Spanish version by Editorial Sirio.

So here are some Bhagavad Gita books in English, without commentary, that I can recommend.


1. Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Swami Dayananda Saraswati


Srimad Bhagavad Gita

Swami Dayananda Saraswati, besides his home-study course, also published a beautiful easy-to-read version of the Gita, without commentary: Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Swami Dayananda Saraswati.

It doesn't even have an introduction. It simply includes the verses in Sanskrit, the Roman transliteration, and the English translation.

I think this version of the Gita is ideal if you simply want to read the shlokas in English and if you have some interest in the Sanskrit language.


2. Srimad Bhagavad-Gita by Swami Chinmayananda


Bhagavad Gita Swami Chinmayananda


Similar to Swami Dayananda's book, this Srimad Bhagavad Gita contains only the Gita shlokas in Devanagari, the roman transliteration, and the English translation.  

There is no introduction and commentaries but only a brief preface.  And the Kindle version of this book is perfectly formatted.  It is very easy to read, scroll through the pages and navigate the different chapters.

So this book is ideal if you want to easily read the Gita verses in English or in Sanskrit if you wish.  


3. The Bhagavad Gita by Winthrop Sargeant


The last time I was in Mysore, taking advantage of the pandemic (2020-2021) to study yoga philosophy, a friend suggested a book she had just come across; The Bhagavad Gita by Winthrop Sargeant. It almost immediately became one of my most used resources when I study the Gita.

The Bhagavad Gita by Winthrop Sargeant


It is not a commentary.  Each page is dedicated to only one shloka, including the shlokas in Devanagari, the roman transliteration, and the English translation.  

But the most important feature of this book is that it also includes a word-by-word translation with Sanskrit grammar abbreviations, indicating the noun declensions, participles, conjugated verbs, and so on.

So this text is not only good for those who want to read the Gita in English, without commentary, but also for serious students who are also learning the Sanskrit language and want to understand the text in its original form.
  

4. The Bhagavad Gita by Eknath Easwaran


The Bhagavad Gita by Eknath Easwaran

The Bhagavad Gita by Eknath Easwaran is one of the most popular translations of the Gita you can find. If you are new to the Gita then this is probably the best version you can buy.

The introduction given by Eknath Easwaran is clear and in-depth.

It is an introduction to the Hindu tradition. He explains several different concepts such as the Upanishads, Vedanta, Brahman, Maya, and so on, which are helpful to understand the Gita.

Eknath also makes it clear that the battle fought in Kurukshetra is the inner battle that we go through on our way to liberation.

Each chapter also includes a brief introduction, explaining what the chapter is about, and clarifying any additional new concepts or technical terms that you might find.

Then each verse is translated into a clear and easy-to-understand English.

There is no Sanskrit or Roman transliteration, only the English translation. So you can easily read the text continuously, without any interruptions.


Reading the Mahabharata


Moreover, if you have the interest, I would also recommend you to read the Mahabharata by Krishna Dharma. That would give you some context to the episode of the Bhagavad Gita.

Mahabharata


If you like reading fantasy epic novels like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter then you will love the Mahabharata.

It is full of very imaginative and inspiring stories, although many times difficult to understand.

But of course, the Mahabharata is not just a fantasy novel. Its stories are very deep, profound, and also symbolic like the Gita.

I haven't read the book itself, it's quite a large text for me. The best solution that I found was to purchase the Audiobook version of the Mahabharata. I loved it!

It is very easy to listen to it. You can do it whenever you are doing your chores, commuting, or going for a walk. It is 40 hours long!


Which is your favorite version of the Bhagavad Gita?


Have you already read the Gita? Which is your favorite English translation and commentary? Please feel free to share your recommendations in the comment section below.

If you haven't read it yet then I hope this blog post has inspired you to start reading this beautiful and sacred scripture. For all those of you who practice yoga, reading this text is a must.

If you would like some recommendations of other truly inspiring yoga books like this one, then you can visit 10 Yoga Books That Can Free Your Mind and Change Your Life.

This is a selection of some of the books that have made the biggest impact on my spiritual path.

4 comments:

  1. thank you for your work

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  2. I have been trying to understand Gita for so long but was majorly referring to ISCON version. I could never digest it. Now you have opened a treasure of books which I was unaware of. In my search to understand Gita, I read MY GITA by Devdutt Ji but I would love to read the interpretation by an enlightened master. Thanks for your Work 🙏

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks to you. I'm happy to know that you see this as a “treasure of books.” It is indeed exactly that. And I just updated it with a few more gems.

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