Wednesday, April 7, 2010

What is the Bhagavad Gita About: Best English Translation [Book Review]

The Bhagavad Gita. What is this book about?

(Updated 2019) The Bhagavad Gita is a book about each person's inner battle in their journey towards 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.

The Bhagavad Gita was the very first and the best yoga philosophy book that I’ve ever read. It has literally changed my life and I hold it very dear to my heart.

I'm not a very devotional person, and I normally don't talk about 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.

Whenever I glance the cover of the book I just feel like touching it with reverence to receive its blessings, and to drink from the wisdom nectar contained in its pages.

I know this might sound like a bit too much, but I promise you, I'm not exaggerating.

What is the Bhagavad Gita?

The Bhagavad Gita 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.

The title Bhagavad Gita is translated into English as the Song (Gita) of the Lord (Bhagavan).

It is called this way because it is a poetic dialogue between Krishna (the Lord) and Arjuna (a warrior prince) in the middle of the battlefield.

The Bhagavad Gita is one of the episodes of the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata is an epic poem that tells the story of the two cousin tribes, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, both descendants from 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 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 commentaries)

The Bhagavad Gita itself is a very small text. It is 700 verses long divided into 18 chapters, written originally in Sanskrit. You could read an English translation in a day or two.

But the commentaries on it can be quite extensive, and the problem is that there are hundreds of commentaries.

Which one to choose?

I think the best is to choose a commentary written by a master that you follow and that you have respect for so you will have some trust in the interpretation that is given.

But if you would like some recommendations here are some of the most popular commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita that I personally use.

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 Yogananda's teachings.

If you've read before Autobiography of a Yogi and you felt inspired by Yogananda's stories then I would definitely recommend this commentary on the Gita.

This is a magnificent book where Yogananda gives in-depth explanations of the exoteric and esoteric meaning of each of the stanzas.

I find it very impressive the interpretation of the meaning 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, habits; Dhritarashtra, the blind sense mind.

This commentary is very metaphysical and tantric.

Yogananda 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 aspect 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

By the way, I have great news to share.

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

God Talks with Arjuna by Yogananda

I've 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 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 talks multiple times about meditation throughout his commentary.

"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

Bhagavad Gita Home Study Course

This is a very different commentary compared to Yogananda's and Swami Rama.

Like the name indicates it is not just a commentary but an extensive course on the Bhagavad Gita, and an excellent one for that matter.

It is based on edited transcripts of a three-months Bhagavad Gita course given by Swami Dayananda Saraswati himself.

The course is 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. By studying this text it is as if you were there, sitting in front of a teacher, learning the ancient scriptures.

The Bhagavad Gita Home Study Course 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.

I remember with joy my days while I was using this course to study the Gita. I haven't completed it yet. Far from it, but every page I read was priceless.

It is not an esoteric or mystical commentary like Yogananda's. Still, it's very profound and in-depth.

Unfortunately, this is not an easy course to find.

At the moment is not available on Amazon, and I'm not sure it ever will. But here is the link just in case: Bhagavad Gita Home Study Course, Volumes 1 to 9

If you ever travel to India and visit Rishikesh I suggest you visit Swami Dayananda's ashram. There you can even buy the whole home study course, which is 9 volumes long.

You can also get a soft copy of the book on a CD, with the audio course!

The easiest option is to buy the course via their smartphone app "Teachings of Swami Dayananda." But the app is not very user-friendly. I wish there was a Kindle version of that course.

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 the 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 Bhagavad Gita - As it is

Another famous commentary is called "The Bhagavad Gita - As it is," written by Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. This is the text used by the famous religious group, the Hare Krishnas.

Bhagavad Gita as it is

What I like about this commentary is that it is 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, translation word by word and the translation of the whole shloka.

Swami Prabhupada's commentaries are usually supported by comparative analysis with other ancient scriptures.

However, as some of my teachers would also advise, you have to be mindful while reading the commentary. This interpretation of the Gita can be a bit fundamentalist.

That is why the main reason I sometimes use this text, is for the English translation and for the transliteration word by word.

From my point of view, the main difference between this interpretation and Yogananda's is that according to Swami Prabhupada the best practice for this age of Kali Yuga (the dark or material age) is Bhakti Yoga, the devotional path.

This is reflected in the way of living of the Hare Krishnas.

On the other side, Paramahansa Yogananda's emphasis is on yoga meditation and kriya yoga, probably also because according to his guru we are no longer in the age of Kali Yuga but in the Dwapara Age (the electric or atomic age).

Best English translation of the Bhagavad Gita (without commentaries)

In my opinion, I think it is also important to read the Gita without any commentaries but rather just read it verse by verse, and taking your time to contemplate on their meaning.

This is how I actually started reading the Gita. For many years, before I touched any commentary, I read only the Gita shlokas, meditating on their message.

The easiest way to do that is to have a book that includes only the verses of the Gita translated into English.

So here are some Bhagavad Gita translations 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. 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.


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 it 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.

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